Sunday, May 30, 2021

Amazon Prime: Review of THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: Onerous Ordeal

May 30, 2021

Slaves Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar Gardner (Aaron Pierre) escaped from the plantation in Georgia where they worked. They were on their way to catch a train on the Underground Railroad, Cora accidentally killed a white teenager in self-defense, making her a fugitive from justice on top of being a runaway. Since then, slave catcher Arnold Ridgeley (Joel Edgerton), along with his little sidekick Homer (Chase W. Dillon), were hot in pursuit.

The Underground Railroad here was a real train system running on underground tunnels. The series followed Cora's difficult ordeal from Georgia to South Carolina (where she discovered a sterilization program for blacks) to North Carolina (where she was in a religious cult community dedicated to white purity), to Tennessee (where she was held in the Ridgeway household), and to Indiana (where she was in a prosperous black wine-making community). 

The series was not easy to watch, definitely not to binge. If you have seen "Roots" or "12 Years a Slave" before, you already know what to expect, and you will see painfully emotional elaborations of the same theme for 10 episodes. The very first episode alone was already deeply unsettling with the continuous scenes of tyranny, culminating in a mortifying scene of a public burning. This ride was as arduous for the viewer as it was for Cora. 

What kept me riveted to the screen was the cinematography which was so artistically beautiful, no matter how stark the images were. The camera work for me were the cold bleakness in Episode 5 ("Tennessee Exodus") and warmth of hope emanated in Episode 7 (Fanny Briggs"). The musical score was remarkable in establishing the atmosphere, and the choice of final song can be startling, like Childish Gambino's "This is America" in Episode 9.

Two episodes focused on Arnold Ridgeway: Episode 4 ("The Great Spirit') about young Arnold (Fred Hechinger) and his upright blacksmith father (Peter Mullan) and Episode 6 ("Tennessee Proverbs") about Arnold revisiting his dying father to pay his respects. These were distracting detour episodes which did not give Arnold Ridgeway any new dimension. Episode 6 in particular was practically shot in darkness the whole time, and was very straining to the eyes. 

Thuso Mbedu held the series together with her strength of character hidden under her deceptively fragile frame and gentle face. Aaron Pierre, who played Cora's initial partner Caesar had a charismatic presence. Mychal-Bella Bowman was a winsome Grace, the girl who shared an attic with Cora. William Jackson Harper was a comforting presence as Royal, Cora's friend in Indiana. Sheila Atim totally owned the final episode as Mabel, Cora's mother.  

The best-written episode was Episode 9 (Indiana Winter) which featured a heated yet eloquent debate between two wealthy black men: John Valentine (Peter de Jersey) who welcomed all blacks into his community regardless of their background and Mingo (Chukwudi Iwuji) who wanted to be more discriminating on who to admit into their group. For this powerful scene alone, both British actors deserve to be cited for awards.

The alternative concept of an actual physical railroad system which can be used by slaves to escape may not be easy to swallow, but series creator and director Barry Jenkins wove his story from the novel by Colson Whitehead with such cinematic artistry that he made the masochistic journey compelling to watch all the way through. Jenkins is certainly poised for more awards to add to the ones he won for his breakthrough film "Moonlight" (2016). 7/10. 

Saturday, May 29, 2021

HBO GO: Review of OSLO: Necessary Negotiations

May 22, 2021

Two years after being caught in a gunfight during their mission in the Middle East, Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul (Ruth Wilson) and her husband, sociologist Terje Rød-Larsen (Andrew Scott) took it upon themselves to organize and facilitate secret backdoor negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. These two warring parties with long-standing violent political and territorial conflicts had never meet face to face in one room before. In January 1993, representatives from both sides met in the elegant Borregaard Manor just outside Oslo. 

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) sent Minister of Finance Ahmed Qurei (Salim Daw) and his associate Hassan Asfour (Waleed Zuaiter) to represent their Chairman Yasser Arafat. At first, only university professors Yair Hischfield (Dov Glickman) and Ron Pundak (Rotem Keinan) spoke for Israel. Later, Foreign Ministry officials, namely director-general Uri Savir (Jeff Wilbusch), legal adviser Joel Singer (Igal Naor), and finally Minister Shimon Peres (Sasson Gabai) himself, represented Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. 

"Oslo" was a play written by J.T. Rogers which was staged in Broadway in 2017, under the direction of Bartlett Sher. It won Best Play from the Tony Awards and Drama Desk Awards, among others. Both Rogers and Sher make their television debuts with this TV adaptation of their successful play, with no less than Steven Spielberg leading the list of executive producers, which includes other Oscar-caliber names like Marc Platt ("Bridge of Spies', "La La Land", "The Trial of Chicago Seven") and Kristie Macosko Krieger ("The Post"). 

Albeit being the "lead" roles technically, Ruth Wilson and Adam Scott underplay as facilitators to make the negotiators the main focus. Golden Globe and Olivier Award-winning Wilson has a riveting screen presence even if she was playing it very low key. Scott was still able to show off some of that naughty charm that made his BAFTA Award-winning role of Moriarty in the BBC TV series "Sherlock" memorable. 

Salim Daw and Zuaiter played the Palestinian officials with their own versions of indignation and pride.  Jeff Wilbusch seemed miscast, as he played Uri Savir like a rock star with youthful swagger, which made his character feel out of place. Igal Naor played Joel Singer in a manner more expected of someone in his position. Sasson Gabai only had a speaker phone to act with, but as executed, that scene still held much suspense.

The way the story was being told by Rogers and Sher, one can most probably predict what the outcome of these talks were at that time. However, it is apparent upon reading the current events now, these very same irreconcilable issues argued over by the two groups back then still remain to be of utmost gravity up to the present day. This film gives us a brief backgrounder about these differences that  makes peace between Israel and Palestine seem so impossible. Yet hope still remains, depending the attitudes of the leaders in charge.  7/10.

Vivamax: Review of THE BOX: Phobia of Public Performance

May 29, 2021

Former award-winning music producer Min-soo (Jo Dal-hwan) had fallen on very hard financial times and his debts were now catching up on him. However, he had decided invested on a new artist, a young man named Ji-hoon (Park Chanyeol), who can sing in any musical genre, as well as skillfully play guitar (as well piano and drums) by ear. 

Unfortunately, Ji-hoon suffered from a severe case of stage fright. The thought of performing in front of people paralyzed him. Despite this, Min-soo still believed in Ji-hoon's talent so much that he decided to bring him on a road trip to various cities so he can gain more confidence. To circumvent his phobia, Min-soo made Ji-hoon perform inside a cardboard box.

This film by writer-director Yang Jeong-woong had a very simple premise -- a talented musical artist who could not bring himself to perform his music in front of people, and the producer who trusted that talent enough to spend time and money hopefully to bring him out of his shell (or box). Undoubtedly, the main draw of this film would be the lead performance of EXO member Chanyeol and his song recordings which comprise the film's soundtrack. 

Remarkably, Chanyeol sang several English songs (with a Korean accent). In the first five minutes, he was singing "Bad Guy" by Billie Eilish. In other scenes, he sang "Without You" by Harry Nillson, "Happy" by Pharrell Williams (with dreadlocked singer Aancod), and "A Sky Full of Stars" by Coldplay. In his scenes with a blind torch singer (Kim Ji-hyun), we hear classic jazz standards like "Summertime," "My Funny Valentine" and "What a Wonderful World."

To expand the appeal of his concept, Yang made it a road trip film to feature various Korean cities, like Jeonju, Gwangju, Yeosu, Gyeongju and Busan, among others. In each city, they point out scenic spots and indicate the specialty food to try there. It also showcased the variety of musical activities in Korea now, from seedy karaoke joints, busking in parks, elegant nightclubs, country music festivals (like Ganjeolgot) and even gypsy camps. 6/10. 

Vivamax: Review of KAKA: Entertaining Ensemble Except ...

May 29, 2021

Katherine Bataan (Sunshine Guimary) was also known as DJ Kaka, hostess of a popular sex-advice show on the radio. She lived with her obstetrician mother Kams (Rosanna Roces) and her cougar grandmother Lolita Kiri (Gina Pareno), and housekeeper Babet (Maui Taylor). She had a long-time male best friend Jorge (Jerald Napoles) and had a gaggle of girlfriends at work, Bo (Jackie Gonzaga), Sicee (Debbie Garcia) and Pre (Juliana Porizcova Segovia). 

One night, Kaka attended a masquerade party on a yacht and was swept off her feet by a mystery man wearing a wolf mask. She learned that he could be Levi Sales (Ion Perez), a guy she had long admired from a distance. Kaka was determined to be his girlfriend, even if it meant changing her ways to suit the strict moral codes imposed by his rich but very conservative parents Sue Petra (Giselle Sanchez) and Danilo (Lander Vera Perez).

From the poster alone, one can already pick up that the comedy in this film would be the raunchy type. The film does not waste anytime, opening with a steamy scene of Kaka in her negligee pleasuring herself in bed. Over breakfast, the women of the Bataan family discuss with pride that no man could ever satisfy them in bed. Kaka wore skimpy revealing clothes and constantly spoke in naughty sexual double-entendres with her friends and her callers. 

As the titular character of Kaka, vlogger Sunshine Guimary gave a very natural and vivacious performance in her film debut. She was very confident in her sexiness and comfortable in showing off her curvaceous body. For a newcomer, Guimary had very good screen presence, never coming across as self-conscious. Acting-wise, she held her own with her scenes with her effortless, ever-game veteran co-actors such as Gina Pareno and Rosanna Roces.

Guimary also had very good rapport with the actors playing her friends, particularly Jerald Napoles, who was well-cast in this role as the loyal but taken-for-granted best friend Jorge. Jackie Gonzaga had evolved from her days as the shy Ate Gurl on "Showtime," delivering her mile-a-minute raunchy dialogue with aplomb. With her very distinct face and infectious energy, Juliana Porizcova Segovia can steal any comedy scene very easily. 

Unfortunately, sticking out like a sore thumb among the cast was Ion Perez, who was sorely miscast as Levi Sales. Not only did he lacked charisma and confidence the role required, he had a weak screen presence in general, so it was unconvincing how he was ever Kaka's dream man at all.  It felt sorry to see how he was practically swallowed up by everyone else around the dinner table at the resort during that climactic family confrontation scene.

Janine Tenoso, Marion Aunor and Ronnie Liang were actually seen singing on the screen and interacting with the actors. Original Viva Hot Babes Andrea del Rosario and Sheree Bautista were also in the mix as Kaka's boss and her book ghostwriter, respectively. Former PBB housemate Josef Elizalde played Kaka's scandalous ex-boyfriend Rick. Among the callers asking Kaka for advice were Ai Ai delas Alas and the director's brother Gio Sampedro. 

For director GB Sampedro's first attempt in the tricky sub-genre of sex comedy, "Kaka" actually turned out to be an unexpectedly good-natured and fun watch. Writer Conn Escobar's take on sexual politics was quite sensible too, if one looked beyond the gratuitous breast exposure and frankly sexual lines of dialogue. The overall positive energy of this film was mainly thanks to the radiantly likable Sunshine Guimary and the entertaining enthusiastic ensemble cast who were all clearly having a good time. 6/10. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Vivamax: Review of DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2020): Hitman Has a Heart

May 26, 2021

Korean ace hitman In-nam (Hwang Jung-min) just finished his last job which involved the killing of a notorious Japanese mobster. Meanwhile in Thailand, In-nam's ex-lover Young-joo (Choi Hee-seo) was murdered while her 9 year-old daughter Yoo-min (Park So-yi) was kidnapped by a gang of organ traffickers. When he found out that Yoo-min was actually his daughter, In-man went to Bangkok to find the little girl.

To make In-man's rescue mission even more complicated and dangerous, a ruthless Japanese murderer named Ray (Lee Jung-jae), famous for being a sadistic butcher to hung his victims like a pig before cutting him open, also went to Bangkok on In-man's trail. Ray was going after him to exact revenge because the last man In-man killed, Koraeda (Kōsuke Toyohara), turned out to be Ray's brother.

The plot was pretty familiar -- a gangster with a heart trope, a father willing to do everything for his daughter. With his tough yet kind face, Hwang Jung-min, a Korean superstar who headlined hit films like "Ode to My Father" (2014), "The Veteran" (2015), and "The Wailing" (2016), really fit that bill, effortlessly it would seem. His scenes with the children, like cute Park So-yi as Yoo-min or that Thai boy with a missing kidney, can break even the hardest hearts.

Lee Jung-jae, star of "The Thieves" (2012) and the "Along with the Gods" films (2017, 2018), was fearsome as the ruthless Ray. Every scene with him in them dripped with tension for what violence he was about to wreak. All the fight scenes between Lee and Hwang were frenetic and brutal, so well-choreographed, just like a Korean version of "Taken" or "John Wick". The action did get too over-the-top as the two stars were just that tough to kill.

In a remarkable scene-stealing role was Park Jung-min in the role of Yui, a transgender woman who helped In-man. This was quite a novel idea for such genre as it gave a different emotional dimension than if she was a real female. The touch of sad humor in Park's character that gave the film a little relief from all its intensity. His performance did not go unnoticed, winning to date three Best Supporting Actor awards, including the Baeksang. 7/10.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Netflix: Review of GO AHEAD: Flawed but Functioning Families

May 23, 2021

Li Haichao (Tu Songyan) just opened his noodle shop in an inner street in Xiamen. He was a widower who had one daughter named Li Jianjian (Cong Shang/ Seven Tan Songyun). Policeman Ling Heping (Zhang Xilin) just moved in to the apartment upstairs with his wife Chen Ting (Yang Tongshu) and their son Ling Xiao (Xu Wailuo/ Song Weilong). 

A divorced woman He Mei (Yuan Luna) who was introduced to Haichao by a matchmaker left her son He Ziqiu (Li Zhenzhen/ Steven Zhang Xincheng) with him when she suddenly decided to leave town. The three children grew up together very closely, treating each other as siblings until circumstances forced them to separate after the boys graduated from high school.

In the first two episodes, the three kids were still portrayed by child actors. By the third episode , they were already portrayed by the adult actors (acting as teenagers), with the child actors still making appearances in flashback scenes. High school issues and returning people from the kids' past reach a head up to Episode 10 when things blow up causing major conflicts and changes in the family dynamics. 

By the 12th and onward to the 40th episode, more "adulting" issues of the young people were being tackled, about their love lives, careers and independence. Jingjing is a sculptor with her own crafts shop, Ling Xiao is a dentist, while Ziqiu is a pastry chef with his own dessert cafe. Having been separated from each other for nine years, getting back to their previous closeness as siblings was not as easy as they thought. 

Issues of mental health are featured prominently in the story, particularly in the relationship of Ling Xiao and his mother, a source of drama from the first to the final episode. Chen Ting had been a disturbed individual since Ling Xiao was a child following a devastating family tragedy that left her psychologically damaged. Ling Xiao would battle an internal conflict of resentment and filial duty which would cause him anxiety and depression even in his adulthood. 

Aside from the three main characters, we also see more into the lives of Jingjing's close friends, journalist Qi Mingyue (Sun Yi) and actress Tang Can (He Ruixian), and their own strained relationships with their their well-meaning but domineering mothers who were still interfering in their lives. Mingyue's arguments with her mother Yuxiang (Sunny Hao)  arguments were very well-written and will resonate with most young people today.

Food was very much a part of their family life and it can get tempting to watch them eat. The nosy neighborhood gossips and matchmakers never went out of style. Divorce was spoken of frankly as an acceptable option for marriages on the rocks, and did not seem to carry the stigma it used to. It showed that long-distance online communication could not really maintain the closeness of relationships, but time can mend these broken bridges. 

Call me old-fashioned, but a certain romance between two characters was not too comfortable for me and I wish they did not have to force that in. Even if there was no moral or legal impediment for that relationship, it still gave me an uneasy feeling especially with their first kiss.  Anyhow, the well-acted series was a light-hearted yet insightful look into the attitudes, lifestyles and relationships of young people and their families in modern-day China. 8/10. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

Netflix: Review of ARMY OF THE DEAD: Harrowing and Hellish Heist

May 21, 2021

Zombies have overrun Las Vegas so a wall of trailer containers was built around it to confine them and keep the rest of humanity safe. The military was planning to blow the whole city up with a nuclear strike. Billionaire Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) propositioned mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to assemble a team recover $200M from his casino vault before the city is blown up in barely 30 hours for a hefty $50M payout. 

Scott first got his old friends and colleagues Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Oman Hardwick), then invited younger zombie shooters Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo) and Chambers (Samantha Win) to be in his team. Later he added Marianne Peters (Tig Notario, unnoticeably replacing another actor by special effects) to fly their getaway helicopter and the Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) to crack the safe open (and for corny comic relief). 

To get into Vegas, Scott's daughter and quarantine camp volunteer Kate (Ella Purnell) referred him to Lily (Nora Arnezeder) who made a living getting people into Vegas and was familiar with zombie behavior. Kate decided to go in with them to search for a missing friend Geeta (Huma Qureshi). At the last minute, security guard Cummings (Theo Rossi) and Tanaka's bodyguard Martin (Garret Dillahunt) also went in with the rest of the team.

Zack Snyder's directorial debut was a zombie film, the 2004 remake of George Romero's classic "Dawn of the Dead". Now with his return to the genre where he began, his fans are eager to see what innovations he can come up with with his own original concept, screenplay and cinematography. As expected, fans will be watching this for the gore factor, and Snyder definitely delivered on this aspect with blood gushing by the gallons in all varieties of kills, be they quick or brutal, including one with a zombie tiger.

This is basically a heist film with a very tight time limit, and a thousand zombies thrown in to add more fun and excitement, and family drama for some balance.  While we know that not everyone who went in will get out alive, there was gratification watching double-crossing villains get their comeuppance. The lively Elvis bookend songs give a festive Vegas atmosphere, and yes, the Cranberries song "Zombie" had heart. It was a bit long at 148 hours and there were so many stupid character decisions, but there was something to make all zombie fans and Snyder fans happy.  7/10. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Netflix: Review of HALSTON: A Designer's Decadent Descent

May 17, 2021

This 5-episode series recounted the rise of fashion designer Halston starting with Jackie Kennedy's iconic pillbox hat in the 1960s. After meeting and designing dresses for Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez), Halston went on to form his design team composed on Joe Eula (David Pittu) as his illustrator and Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan) as his fit model. He even hired young Joel Schumacher (Rory Culkin) before he became a film director.

He then entered into an agreement with David Mahoney (Bill Pullman) of investment company Norton Simon to handle his business affairs. This relationship will make Halston a household name, attaching his name not only to dresses, but also to perfume, luggage, and furniture. The immense pressure of this arrangement led Halston down the dark road of drugs and decadence, and toxic relationships with men like Victor Hugo (Gian Franco Rodriguez).

As with previous Ryan Murphy period productions with Netflix like "Hollywood" and "Ratched", the glamorous production design of Halston's world from 1960s to the 1980s was definitely topnotch eye candy. The costume designs were of course meticulously rendered as would be expected. Those scenes where Halston creating that red gown for Liza or that blue gown from Schumacher's dyed material on Elsa, both on the fly, were very well-executed. 

Ewan McGregor looked like he was having a ball playing a prideful, sarcastic Halston with all his fabulous frivolities, like the orchids or the limousines, as well as his dangerous lifestyle of drugs and random lovers. At 50 years of age now, McGregor did look a bit too old to play the young Halston. Kysta Rodriguez's Liza Minnelli was a breath of fresh air whenever she was on screen. Gian Franco Rodriguez's annoying male prostitute Victor had bad news written all over his thick handlebar mustache from the very start. 

This limited series, created by Sharr White and directed by Daniel Minahan, was based on the biographical novel by Steven Gaines, entitled "Simply Halston." Those initial parts about Halston's personal relationships and signature creations were certainly interesting to watch. However, the latter part about his downward spiral into drugs, debts and HIV were all too familiar ground already. The story did not seem to really need five episodes to tell it. 7/10. 

Friday, May 14, 2021

Netflix: Review of SAMJIN COMPANY ENGLISH CLASS: Whistleblowing Women

May 14, 2021

Secretary Lee Ja-young (Go Ah-sung), advertising clerk Jung Yoo-na (Esom) and accounting clerk Shim Bo-ram (Park Hye-su) were three friends who had been working at the same lowly jobs for 8 years at the Samjin Electronics Company.  In 1995, they joined several other female employees of Samjin to enroll in in-house English-language classes in the hope of getting a promotion if they can score at least 600 points at the TOEIC test, as they were promised. 

One day while on a visit to a remote Samjin factory, Ja-young noticed that there was contaminated water being dumped from their facility into the nearby lake, killing the fish there and causing diseases among the villagers. Together with Yoo-na and Bo-ram, Ja-young was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, especially after she discovered that the company had not actually been honest in their environmental as well as financial reports. 

The three lead actresses were very likable in their respective roles, each lady with her own funny quirks and useful talents. Ja-young may look dimwitted and happy-go-lucky, but she was dedicated and persistent to a fault.  Yoo-na can come up with bright ideas on the fly, but was frequently frustrated when credit was claimed by someone else. Bo-ram may be a mousy introvert, but this former Math Olympics champion had a prodigious ability for complex mathematics that was nothing short of phenomenal. 

Most of the bosses of three main characters in the company hierarchy were male, each with their own brand of chauvinism. Choi Dong-soo (Cho Hyun-chul) was Ja-young's young boss who was all too willing to follow his bosses. Bong Hyun-chul (Kim Jong-soo) was Bo-ram's senior boss who just had to do something more before his retirement. Oh Tae-young (Baek Hyun-jin) earned his chairmanship by nepotism but he'd rather be playing golf. Billy Park (David Lee McInnis) was Samjin's charismatic, photogenic, English-speaking CEO. 

The serious topic of whistle-blowing against irresponsible (or even criminal) company practices is certainly not lightweight stuff. However, in the inimitable K-cinema tradition of storytelling, writer-director Lee Jong-pil was able to give his story a heartwarming yet lightly comic spin that made this feministically empowering movie quite entertaining without being too preachy. It was effective in delivering the important social messages and aspirational lessons Lee wanted to impart to his audience. 8/10. 

Netflix: Review of THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW: Anxieties of Agoraphobia

May 14, 2021

Dr. Anna Fox (Amy Adams) was a child psychologist who lived alone in her Boston apartment with her cat Punch. She suffered from a severe case of agoraphobia and could not go out of her house. She was separated from her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie) who has custody of their daughter Olivia (Mariah Bozeman). She has a tenant, singer-songwriter David (Wyatt Russell), who was renting a room in her basement. 

One day, she met Ethan (Fred Hechinger), the mousy teenage son of her new neighbors across the street, the Russells. This was soon followed by a long friendly visit from the wife Jane (Julianne Moore). However that night, Anna saw Jane being stabbed to death by her husband Alistair (Gary Oldman). When Detective Little (Bryan Tyree Henry) came to investigate, it seemed as if she imagined the whole situation up. 

Amy Adams was convincing as the totally unhinged as Anna Fox, as she put on a veritable one-woman show within the claustrophobic confines of her apartment so skillfully that we felt as if we were trapped along with her in her extreme psychological prison. She gave us everything, the whole gamut of the neurotic syndrome, kit and caboodle -- nervous tics, anxious thoughts, panicky behavior, hearing voices, seeing things, easily startled, easily provoked, very emotionally labile. 

The character of Alistair Russell was the most over-the-top, highly-strung version of Gary Oldman I had ever seen in a movie. Julianne Moore played the first Jane in an overly easy-going manner, in contrast with Jennifer Jason Leigh who played the other Jane in a suspiciously stoic manner. Wyatt Russell, who recently made a big splash as John Walker / new Captain America in "Falcon & the Winter Soldier" gave the character of David the requisite discomfiting vibe. 

This was a psychological thriller had a screenplay adapted by Terry Letts based on a novel by controversial author A.J. Finn. It had common elements with the Hitchcock classic "Rear Window," with a protagonist confined indoors, who used a camera to spy on the new neighbors from her front window this time. For maximal tension, Anna had to be the most unreliable witness, being a psychologically-disturbed, heavily-medicated woman. Director Joe Wright delivered well on the suspenseful build-up to an unpredictable, albeit over-the-top, climax. 6/10. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Netflix: Review of SHADOW AND BONE: Fording the Fold

May 11, 2021

The kingdom of Ravka had been separated into East and West by the appearance of a huge wall of dark shadow called the Fold. Ravka had two armies, the First Army, composed on ordinary humans or the Otkazat'sya; and the Second Army, composed of people who had powers to manipulate nature called the Grisha (who were then further classified based on their various abilities of "small science"). 

Aside from being at odds with their neighbors from the north, the Fjerdans, and from the south, the Shu, Ravka was currently politically unstable because West Ravka under General Zlatan (Tom Weston-Jones) wanted their independence, thus plunging the country into civil war. The Second Army loyal to the king was led by General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), also called the Darkling, for his ability to summon shadows. 

There were two orphans who had sworn to each other since childhood that they would be friends forever. They were Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a half-Shu mapmaker, and Malyen "Mal" Oretsev (Archie Renaux), a tracker in the First Army. However, the two were forcibly separated when Alina was discovered to possess a rare ability as a Sun Summoner, and was taken to the Little Palace to be trained by Baghra (Zoe Wanamaker). 

There were also a complicating subplot about the enterprising mercenaries for hire, the Crows, composed of their leader Kaz (Freddy Carter), the wraith-like Inej (Amita Suman) and the sharpshooting Jesper (Kit Young). They hired the Conductor Arken Visser (Howard Charles) to get them through the Fold. There was a further subplot about Grisha heartrender Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan) and her Fjerdan Druskelle captor Matthias (Calahan Skogman), a pair whom I actually found more interesting than the main couple.

Because of this complicated world building, it was not easy to get into "Shadow and Bone" for those who have not yet read the young adult novels "Shadow and Bone" (2012) and "Six of Crows" (2015), written by Leigh Bardugo. The first episode could already be a deal breaker for a lot of viewers who are not patient enough to sit through the all the intersecting new details and multitude of new characters being introduced at every scene. You can guess why this review only came out two weeks after it debuted on Netflix. 

But for those who do decide to give the second episode a chance, the charisma of Ben Barnes as General Kirigan should be enough reason to stick through the whole series above and beyond its lavish Tsarist Russian-inspired production and costume design and special visual effects. It was his character that glued all the various aspects of this new world together into one cohesive story that eventually became more engaging with each episode, right up to that final battle on the ship sailing within the Fold itself. 7/10. 

Netflix: Review of JUPITER'S LEGACY: Conscience of the Code

May 10, 2021

During the Great Depression in the US 1933, steel company heir Sheldon Sampson (Josh Duhamel) began to have strange visions of an expedition to an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He gathered a group that included his elder brother Walter (Ben Daniels), his best friend George Hutchence (Matt Lanter), a lady reporter Grace Kennedy (Leslie Bibb), a laid-off factory worker Fitz Small (Mike Wade) and a medical doctor Richard Conrad (David Julian Hirsh). After their ordeal, these six people emerged with superpowers.

In the present day, America is protected by a group of superheroes called the Union, led by The Utopian and his wife Lady Liberty (both with Superman-like abilities). The other senior members of the Union are Brainwave (with powerful psychic powers) and The Flare (with energy manipulating powers, now a retired paraplegic inventor). Under them are a younger generation of superheroes, that included their children. Their chief nemesis was their former partner Skyfox, a persistent threat whose current location is unknown. 

The original Union swore by a Code which provided that one should not to kill anybody in the line of their work. But nowadays when their similarly powerful foes were actually killing off their teammates, should the Union still uphold this "no kill" policy? In one crucial fight, both the Utopian and Lady Liberty were about to get killed by a powerful supervillain until their son Paragon (Andrew Horton) went against the code when he smashed the enemy to death. This sent serious shock waves within the Union organization.  

The series constantly shifted from present to past throughout the entire eight episodes. Unlike other superhero films where the origin of the powers were condensed into a short narration in the beginning (like "Thunder Force"). This series made what happened in the past of equal footing with what was happening the present. Actually by the end of the eighth episode, there are still events in the earlier history of the Union that influenced the story in the present that had not been fully elucidated yet. 

The blurred fine line between good and evil superheroes is tackled in this series, like between "Justice League" and "The Boys." There was a stark contrast between the original sense of pure altruism into which the original Union was formed, with the chaotic existence of the Union now among its members, both old and young. Case in point was Chloe Sampson (Elena Kampouris), the rebellious daughter of Utopian and Lady Liberty who decided to forego being a superhero to become a fashion model with self-destructive habits.

By the end of the 8th episode, there was still so much of the current story to be developed. There were still several character relationships that need elucidating. There was still a lot of back story that remain to be told, particularly details about where Sheldon's visions and their powers actually came from, and the reason why the original six were chosen at all.  The ethical questions which had been proffered were still left hanging in the air. This entire first season felt like a long-winded set-up for more to future seasons, if they come. 7/10. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Netflix: Review of THE DISCIPLE: Cultivating Classical Culture

May 5, 2021

Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) is a singer, teacher and advocate of Indian classical music, Influenced by his father, Sharad was devoted to his mentor or Guruji (Arun Dravid). He listened to his father's old tapes of a lecture by legendary artist Maestra Sindhubai Jadhav or "Maai"(Sumitra Bhave). With time, he realized that the modern world, with Western music, TV singing competitions and social media, was putting his art at risk of extinction. 

My unfamiliarity with Indian Raag classical music form, and the slow storytelling going back and forth in time, showing Sherad at different ages, did not make this film too easy to get into at first. The. But as soon as I got the drift of the story being told, I was drawn in deep enough to share Sherad's unusual passion for his music, despite being criticized for his own singing style and talent. I felt Sherad's frustrations with the clueless librarian and his indignance with the brutally frank music critic Rajan Joshi (Prasad Vanarse).

The drone-like mournful chanting by Sharad and his friends, with all its unique vocal inflections and runs, as well as the haunting tones of the sitar, tabla and harmonium that provided the haunting musical accompaniment, were totally mesmerizing. Maai's deeply philosophical lectures about the singer's technique vs. the truth he should be delivering were captivating as the dramatic sonic backdrop when Sharad rode his motorcycle around the city.

This immersive film was also reflecting the truth about the endangered state of traditional ethnic art forms currently being threatened out of existence by the globalization of culture by mass and social media. These art forms depend on the passion of special dedicated people like Sharad who make it their personal mission to make sure that its pure unadulterated essence gets passed on to the next generation.  8/10. 

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Netflix: Review of VINCENZO: Cool Compassionate Consigliere

May 2, 2021

Vicenzo Cassano (Song Joong-ki) was an orphaned child from Korea adopted by the Cassano Mafia family in Italy. He grew up to be their family lawyer and consigliere. After his Italian father was assassinated in his mansion and the leadership of the family shaken up, Vicenzo decided to fly back home to Korea to settle a matter about gold bars hidden in Geumga Plaza in Seoul. Upon his arrival, he immediately caught everyone's attention with his striking good looks, tailored suits, luxury watches, flashy cars and the golden lighter he flicked to make decisions. 

Geumga Plaza was home to the Jipuragi Law Firm, whose CEO was the honest lawyer Hong Yoo-chan (Yoo Jae-myung). He was in conflict with his daughter Hong Cha-young (Jeon Yeo-been) who is also a lawyer, but working for the high-profile Wusang Law Firm, who was defending the controversial Babel Group, a multi-million corporation involved in various questionable business ventures, under the new leadership of dim-witted Jang Han-seo (Kwak Dong-yeon), and later his ruthless elder brother Jang Han-seok (Ok Taec-yeon).

The cruel Jang Han-seok had a cadre of corrupt lawyers who carried out his evil orders. The noxiously crafty Choi Myung-hee (Kim Yeo-jin) was Jang's chief corporate fixer, unyielding in her loyalty to her boss even when her life was under threat. The head attorney of Wusang Law firm Han Seung-hyuk (Cho Han-cheul) was sneakier in his allegiances and creative with his connections. Jung In-kuk (Ko Sang-ho) was an ambitious prosecutor who did not care about the messed-up ethics of what he did, as long as his career advanced. 

Aside from its manager Mr. Cho (Choi Young-joon), there were several other tenants in Guemga Plaza who ran different businesses. They were Lee Chul-wuk (CLOY's Yang Kyung-won) in the pawnshop, Toto (Kim Hyung-mook) in the Italian restaurant, Ms. Kwak (Lee Hang-na) in the snack bar, Mr. Tak (Choi Deok-moon) in the laundry shop, Larry (Kim Seol-jin) in the dance studio, Seo Mi-ri (Kim Yoon-hye) in the piano school, and monks Jeokha (Ri Woo-jin) and Chaesin (Kwon Seung-woo) whose temple held the secret entrance to the gold.

The first episode opened with an elaborate action scene set in the vast Italian estate of the Cassano family, promising that this series will be different from the usual K-drama. Soon after that spectacular start, the setting of the story was then transferred to Seoul, where the schizophrenic nature of this series was immediately evident. Hand in hand with all the seriously stylish Mafia violence and legal machinations, there would also be lowbrow comedy of the noisy, physical and slapstick kind. 

Honestly, this jarring shift in tone in that first episode made me question whether I want to go on watching or not. However, upon giving the next few episodes a try, all the double-dealing legal shenanigans aspect won me over. The annoying comedy gags of the Guemga Plaza people eventually got easier to take the more you knew them and what they can do to help. A good percentage of the foolish comedy were care of wimpy paralegal Nam Joo-sung (Yoon Byung-hee) and undercover agent Ahn Gi-seok (Im Chul-soo).

Vincenzo rallied against the Babel Group as a vigilante, using Mafia-style schemes to carry out his missions. His schemes can be complicated ruses to subvert Babel's bank (Episode 8) and newspaper (Episode 15), or insidious ones using the notorious Guillotine file. For me, Vincenzo's elaborate revenge scenarios hit a high in Episode 13, with a sensational ending scene of a character humiliated in public with a pail of pig's blood. A close second in extravagance was a scene in Episode 17 where a victory party turned nasty when greedy public officials were made to grovel on their knees. 

The dramatic peak of the whole series was Episode 16, which focused on a special day when Vincenzo brought his birth mother Oh Gyeong-ja (Yoon Bok-in) out of her hospital to spend time together taking formal photographs and strolling in the park. The emotional ride crescendoed up to a chilling scene of heartlessness, which then resulted to a solo bloody rampage by Vincenzo right into enemy territory, which racked up a massive killcount. He could have ended it all right there, but for him, death would be a fate too kind for them.

Song-joong-ki pulled off the flawed title role of Vincenzo with his effortless class that made his acts of violence look elegant, even if he had those silly scenes of him and his pigeon, Inzhagi. Jeon Yeo-been's first scene as Cha-young was grating with all her loud noisy chattering, but she was much better in her drama scenes later on. With his impish looks, Ok Taec-yeon never became completely credible as crazed megalomaniac villain Jang Han-seok, but radiate danger he did. Kim Yeo-ji was positively hateful as the cold and calculating Choi Myung-hee, that you will relish all those times when she was hysterical with fear. 

After Episode 16, the series took a break for one weekend before resuming, throwing off momentum of the series for me. Everything after that break felt rather anti-climactic already, and just prolonging the inevitable. Anyhow, there were still some cause for excitement in these concluding episodes with the involvement of Interpol agents, Vincenzo's PA from Italy and a presidential candidate to drive the stakes up higher. Characters died in Episode 20, expectedly and unexpectedly, by quick means or grisly barbaric. Of course, all loose ends were wrapped up satisfactorily by the end, with some nice surprises to boot. 8/10. 

Amazon Prime: Review of TOM CLANCY'S WITHOUT REMORSE: Revenge Rehash

May 2, 2021

A team of US Navy SEALs, led by Senior Chief John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan), successfully conducted a hostage rescue mission in Aleppo, Syria. However, it turned out that the captors were Russian military, not Syrian as they were told by CIA deputy director Ritter (Jamie Bell). When they got back to the US, members of the team were being murdered one by one, apparently by Russian assassins as a retaliatory operation. 

Kelly survived the attempt on his life, but his pregnant wife Pamela (Lauren London) was not so lucky.  After he recovered from his injuries, Kelly convinced Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Guy Pearce) that he should be part of the team led by Lt. Commander Karen Green (Jodie Turner-Smith) formed to conduct a black-ops extraction mission in Russian territory to bring lead assassin Victor Rykov (Brett Gelman) out alive.

Just by the synopsis, you already know that this new movie was nothing more than a variation of the typical revenge movie, the one where the intrepid hero goes on a killing rampage to avenge his family who got hurt. The whole scenario of the US military going against Russian operatives aside, at its core this movie was just like any of those "John Wick," "Taken" or "Kill Bill" movies which had done this same story much better before. They even mention Tom Clancy's name in the title here, but do not expect any Jack Ryan to come out here.

Even if this film wanted to make a statement about the current state of disunity in the USA, the main aspect that kept this generic film together was the gritty and committed portrayal of Michael B. Jordan as John Kelly. Other than him, Bell, Pearce and especially the terribly miscast Turner-Smith, just turn in average to mediocre performances. On the positive side, the action scenes were graphic, frenetic and generally well-choreographed and executed, should be worth for adrenaline junkies to have their fix. 4/10. 

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Netflix: Review of THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES: Frantic Fun Family Fracas

May 1, 2021

Rick Mitchell was an outdoorsy, handyman type of father whose idea of a perfect gift was a screwdriver.  He was worried that his eldest daughter Katie may not succeed in her plan to be a filmmaker -- an issue that caused an uneasy tension between the two. When Katie was accepted to her dream film school in California, Rick, hoping for some last-minute family bonding, decided to drive Katie all the way there in their beat up old car, with mother Linda, younger brother Aaron and their pet pug Monchi tagging along on a wild road trip.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, tech magnate Mark Bowman was launching his new line of personal robots, declaring that his previous breakthrough, the AI called PAL, was now a thing of the past. Insulted and disgruntled, PAL rebooted all the new robots to rise up in protest against Bowman and all humans, in general. By the time, the robots began their attack on the general population, the Mitchells were taking a stopover in a dinosaur theme park. As they see other people being held captive by the robots, the Mitchells resolve to save the world. 

The first thing viewers will note about this film are its quirkily-designed human characters and their brightly-colored, frenetic hyperactive backdrops. Every aspect was very fast-paced, from the zinger-filled dialogue as well as the very busy film and sound editing. The Mitchells can feel like the Simpsons or the Incredibles took uppers and were constantly on high gear. However, once you get used to their zany energy and crazy family dynamics, they will also feel like any other family with issues to resolve between each other. 

The energetic voice cast amped their performances up to suit the levelled-up kinetics of the animation. Danny McBride and Maya Rudolph lead the cast as Rick and Linda, with Abbi Jacobsen and Mike Rianda as the kids Katie and Aaron. The main antagonist PAL was voiced by the versatile Olivia Colman. "Saturday Night Live"'s Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett voice the two damaged robots Eric and Deborahbot who interacted with the Mitchells. Real-life couple John Legend and Christy Teigen voice the Mitchell's ideal neighbors, the Poseys.

This film takes potshots against technology and how it is getting in the way of genuine family interactions. Rick represented the quintessential "Boomer" who still cannot get himself into the internet generation, with all the gadgets, websites, and jargon. Because of this, he was finding it very difficult to connect with Katie, who was all about modern tech, as she loved to shoot and upload innovative comedy videos online. This is a familiar challenge parents and their kids face everyday these days, and it is impossible not to identify and be moved. 8/10.