Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Netflix: Review of BRITNEY VS. SPEARS: Conservator Controversy

September 29, 2021

Britney Spears hit it big in 1999 with her number one album and single, both entitled "Baby...One More Time," and she had been sending hits into the Billboard Charts and headlining sold out concerts consistently since then. Pretty and charismatic, this former Mouseketeer had always been in the public eye, hounded by paparazzi, with tabloids and magazines documenting her every move in her private life, good and bad. 

In 2008, Spears had a very public breakdown after she lost custody of her two sons Sean and Jayden to her ex-husband Kevin Federline. She spent time in a UCLA psychiatric facility and placed under medications. This led to a court ruling favoring that her person and estate be placed under a conservatorship under her father Jamie Spears, which was unusual as conservatorships are usually granted for dementia patients who cannot decide on their own. 

Earlier this year in February, there had already been one documentary film about Spears that came out called "Framing Britney Spears." Directed by Samantha Stark, this was a sympathetic account of the rise and fall of Britney Spears' career, and how her controversial conservatorship under her father came about. Justin Timberlake was memorably painted in a very bad light here, worse than either Jamie Spears or her then boyfriend Sam Lutfi.

This new documentary "Britney vs. Spears" focused more about Britney's tight legal trap of a conservatorship. It was basically a conversation between the director Erin Lee Carr and Rolling Stones journalist Jenny Eliscu as they looked through and commented on various documents that came out about the case. It featured interviews with Spears' rumored ex-boyfriends paparazzi Adnan Ghalid and former manager Sam Lutfi, as well as her former personal assistant Felicia Culotta (who was very clear who she did not want to talk about). 

"Britney vs. Spears" is a considerably more sober affair than the more colorful "Framing". Aside from the "toxic" Jamie Spears, shade was cast against  former manager Larry Rudolf, her business manager Louise Taylor and another ex-boyfriend Jason Trawick. Meanwhile, the controversial role of Lutfi was essentially diminished. Carr saved the best for last, as we hear Britney's own impassioned speech appealing for her freedom in court last June 2021. The final cards update the progress of the case up to September 7, 2021. 6/10. 

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Netflix: Review of THE STARLING: Grieving and Giving

September 25, 2021

Supermarket assistant manager Lily Maynard (Melissa McCarthy) tried her best to cope with life at home and at work while her husband, elementary art teacher Jack (Chris O'Dowd), is confined in a mental health facility. While tending to her plants one day, Lily got attacked by a starling which had built its family's nest in a tree in her garden. In her daily altercations with the territorial bird, Lily was able to free the frustrations she had bottled up inside her. 

Being a film about mental health, this film can be very depressing as we witness both Jack and Lily trying in their own ways to face a major tragedy that deeply affected them both one year ago. While Lily eventually made her way back to work in the supermarket (albeit not in her usual temperament and efficiency), it was Jack that found it more difficult to accept his great loss, resorting to a drastic act of desperation that later landed him in the institution. 

Melissa McCarthy had already been recognized for her work in drama, even getting an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for the film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" (Marielle Heller, 2018). It was not a surprise anymore that she can do serious roles like Lily, and she did very well indeed. However, she was still given much room for situations which require very physical comedy with her stressful interactions with the aggressive starling. 

I am not very familiar with Chris O'Dowd before this film, but his impressive work here certainly made me pay attention. He was able to project the deep-seated guilt gnawing at Jack's very soul which made him feel that his life had no more value. The confessional group therapy session with his therapist Regina (Kim Quinn) and his farewell session with his psychiatrist (Ravi Kapoor) were subtle and powerful soul-bearing scenes for O'Dowd. 

One of the delightful supporting characters was Dr. Larry Fine, played by a much-missed Kevin Kline. He was a top-level psychologist and therapist turned veterinarian, who tried to help Lily face her situations with more honesty. There was so much more about this doctor's story that was not yet told. With that 180-degree career shift and his compassion for animals and their owners, this is a great idea for a solo comeback movie for Kline. 

With the serious theme of this film about dealing with grief, McCarthy and O'Dowd are both in (melo)dramatic mode for the most part. However, director Theodore Melfi ("Hidden Figures") still allowed their sense of humor to shine through, making their characters more endearing and empathetic to watch. It was not difficult to root for Jack and Lily to get through this tough patch in their lives and be moved by their efforts to reconnect with each other. 7/10. 

Friday, September 24, 2021

Vivamax: Review of PARALUMAN: Listless Lost Lass

September 24, 2021

After their father died, 18-year old Mia (Rhen Escano) had to go live with her elder brother Joonie (Melvin Lee) who had long been estranged from the family because of his homosexuality. A middle-aged neighbor Peter (Jao Mapa) helped carry Mia's luggage, and Mia was immediately smitten with his good looks. One day, Peter's common law wife, barangay captain Giselle (Gwen Garci), hired Mia to teach the tech illiterate Peter about the computer. There was sown the seeds of an illicit affair.

The title of the film "Paraluman" means "muse" and it referred to the pretty Mia being the muse of Peter, who was the town photographer. He still used an old film camera and developed his prints himself at home. With Giselle and Joonie very busy with their work, there was a lot of opportunity for the idle Peter and the lovestruck Mia to fall into a forbidden love. There was nothing much else to keep the affair from happening except Peter's conscience and self-control, which he unfortunately lacked.

Director Yam Laranas took his time to bring us along on those secret photo sessions after their nominal computer "tutorials". These repetitive scenes between Mia and Peter, which were supposed to convince us they were falling in love (or lust) with each other, were very lazily composed and executed, with no artistic efforts at all. Everyone was just phoning in their acting as well. Rhen Escano may be a beautiful actress with an expressive face and effortlessly sexy aura, but she cannot carry this thing on her own. 

One of the problems here is miscasting of leading man Jao Mapa, who seemed to have lost whatever charm he had in the past. His portrayal of Peter, with his unkempt hair, hefty dad bod and smirk on his face, came across as creepy and predatorial. Mia cannot convince us that she had fallen in love with this guy at first sight, even if she said so in her voice-over narration. Mapa had no chemistry with Escano nor Garci. None of his sex scenes (and he was in all of them) worked for their intended purpose, all were flat and lifeless.

Vivamax had been churning one "quickie" film after the other practically weekly this year, and it had proved that they can be good, despite a limited budget and short production time. But this one seemed to have served no purpose at all for being made, even at its most basic prurient aim to titillate. It was a waste of Rhen Escano's beauty and acting talent which she had already proven before in previous films like "Adan" or "Untrue." She deserves a much better solo vehicle than this lackadaisical slog. 2/10. 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Netflix: Review of SQUID GAME: Competitors in Crisis

September 23, 2021

The games started with 456 players. All of them were financially desperate owing millions of won to their creditors. They have all signed an agreement that they will be joining the games to win an unspecified cash prize.  They were made to play grand versions of traditional children's games. However, they soon found out that each game had violent twists where the losers literally get eliminated. Fear loomed over the contestants, but the grand prize of 45.6B Won was just too tempting to resist. 

We follow the stories of a few of these players. #456 was a compulsive gambler who was about to lose custody of his daughter. #218 was a graduate from a prestigious business school only to be involved in large scale financial fraud. #067 was a defector from North Korea who lost her money trying to get her family together. #001 was an elderly man with a brain tumor. #199 was an illegal migrant from Pakistan victimized by an unscrupulous employer. #101 was a vicious gangster who dared to defraud his boss. 

As we have seen in similarly-themed films like the "The Hunger Games," series like "Alice in Borderland, "or reality TV shows like "Survivor," these competitive activities bring out the best and the worst in the contestants. At first, they form alliances and help their teammates go forward like in the tug-of-war game. However in the later stages, self-preservation takes over and its each man for himself. Some people are inherently more ruthless than others and this was best seen Game 4 with the marbles, and Game 5 on the glass bridge.

Lee Jung-jae is a big movie star of famous films like "Il Mare" (2000), "The Housemaid" (2010), "New World" (2013) and more recently, the "Along With the Gods" films (2017 and 2018). He completely deglamorized himself here for the role of the chronic down-and-out loser Gi-hun, contestant #456. He is a flawed character for sure, but you knew he had a good heart. Of course, since he was the main character, you sort of knew that he should make it all the way to end despite all the tough luck he had during the games. 

The elaborate playing arenas, costumes, masks, various set pieces and props they built for the games in this series were quite memorable, especially with hot pink dominating the color scheme. That giant doll in the first game of "red light, green light" is already an iconic meme on social media. The waltz lilt of "The Blue Danube" was a haunting aural backdrop. The guest appearance of Gong Yu as the recruiter was quite a pleasant surprise, but the revelation of the actor behind the mask of the ice cold Front Man was outright flabbergasting. 

With so many characters (mostly unlikable) involved, there were too many stories to weave together. Some of them were not as interesting as others so the pace bogged down many times. There was grisly subplot of organ trafficking, which provided more scenes of gratuitous gore, was confusing, and not entirely necessary. How the policeman Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon) infiltrated and moved around the game complex undetected was not too convincing. The ending sequence had a good last minute twist, but went on a bit too long. 

This series certainly upped the level of violence seen in Korean drama series that I had seen so far. I had seen the zombie gore of "Kingdom," the teenage bullying in "Extracurricular," and the gangster shootouts of "Vincenzo," but this one was on another level. This violence in this show felt far more brutal and senseless, because the killings here were only done on the poor downtrodden people for the sake of bloody entertainment for perverse rich foreigners, like enslaved gladiators were for the sadistic Roman emperors. 7/10. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

HBO Go: Review of SCENES OF A MARRIAGE (2021): A Couple's Challenging Conversations

September 21, 2021

Married couple Jonathan and Mira were both around 40 years old. They had a six year old daughter named Ava whom they dote on. He was Jewish, worked in the academe and took care of the house and child. She was a successful I.T. executive who was being assigned big projects at work, so only had her nights and weekends to spend at home. This series recounts five separate days, each several months apart, recounting five critical situations in the evolution of their relationship as a couple. 

Based on a 1973 Swedish mini-series by Ingmar Bergman, this new series was about intimate conversations between Jonathan and Mira in their big house in the suburbs. Writers Hagai Levi and Amy Herzog wrote these conversations in a way they think couples would probably say them in real life if they were in these touching circumstances. In this show, we witness how arguments between a married couple can be so insensitive, self-centered, manipulative, bitter, hostile to downright cruel. It could feel contrived occasionally, unpleasant mostly. 

The episodes had titles which you will think were probably revelatory of how the story was going to go, particularly Episode 1 ("Innocence and Panic"), 3 ("Vale of Tears") and 5 ("In the Middle of the Night, in a Dark House, Somewhere in the World"). However, it was Episode 2 ("Poli") and especially Episode 4 ("The Illiterates") which had the most explosive confrontations, and proved to be the most difficult, most harrowing episodes to sit through.  I have to admit, this was a very tough watch for me as a husband. 

What transpired in Episode 1 was so upsetting to me, I could not accept that it even happened. Episode 2 was just so devastating that I could not watch it straight through as I needed a break to breathe. Episode 3 and 4 further solidified my opinions about these characters as the story twisted and turned, only to be challenged again by Episode 5. Everything can feel too real, so director Levi had to remind us that this was just a movie after all by showing the actors off the set behind the scenes.

The totally committed performances of Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain make this couple worth watching. Even if we do not see exactly agree with what they were talking about, this show will affect you. We are intruding in their most private, most vulnerable moments, hearing issues from both sides, deciding for ourselves who was right and who was wrong. We are pitting our moral compass against theirs, our definition of love against theirs. This is thought-, emotion- and conscience-provoking TV, not really entertainment.  8/10.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Amazon Prime: Review of EVERYBODY'S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE: Queenly Quest

September 20, 2021

When gay high school senior Jamie New (Max Harwood) turned 16 years old, he made the bold decision that he will be going to their prom in full drag. To prepare himself of his flashy debut, Jaime sought the mentorship of drag store proprietor Hugo Battersby (Richard E. Grant), who was a flamboyant star drag performer named Loco Chanelle. 

His mother Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) and his best friend Pritti Pasha (Lauren Patel) were supportive of Jamie's plan. However, class bullies led by the cruel Dean Paxton (Samuel Bottomley), strict teacher Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan) and his frustrated estranged father Wayne (Ralph Ineson) would hear nothing more of it. 

This film was based on a 2017 stage musical of the same title. featuring music by Dan Gillespie Sells and book and lyrics by Tom MacRae. This story was based on a documentary film entitled "Jamie: Drag Queen at 16" directed by Jeanne Popplewell, about a real incident involving a gay teenager who wanted to wear a dress to his prom. The stage origins of the film can be clearly felt in the production style of the song and dance numbers.

The group songs sung by the lead characters and their classmates, like the "Spotlight," "Everybody's Talking About Jamie" and the closing song "Out of the Darkness" have a very "High School Musical" quality about them. However, the best song for me was "My Man, Your Boy," an emotional duet sung by Jamie and his mother when they profess their love and loyalty to each other. This beautiful mother-son duet can transcend its context in the film.

Making his auspicious film debut here is 23-year old Max Harwood in the lead role of Jamie New. As a confused teenager, the character of Jamie could be irrational, annoying and may not always be likable, but Haywood made us all feel Jamie's plea for acceptance. Veteran British actress Sarah Lancashire was moving as Jamie's supportive mum. 2018 Academy Award nominee Richard E. Grant surprised in his brave performance as a faded drag queen. 

The topic it tackles is very controversial and still may not be easily accepted by conservative audiences. It is one thing for a boy to come out as gay, but quite another thing for a gay boy to further come out as a drag queen. Even if this was in the form of a musical, it was not all fun and games. The filmmakers did show the cruelty, pain and violence involved. After everything though, somehow you knew how things would all turn out at the prom. 7/10. 

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Netflix: Review of HOSPITAL PLAYLIST: Medical Musical Mashup

September 19, 2021

HOSPITAL PLAYLIST is a 2020 K-drama series about five doctors in their early 40s who had been best of friends since their med school. Their bond was strengthened further by the band they formed together to play their own versions of their favorite songs. There would a song number performed by them before each episode ended, covering older Korean hits. Surprisingly, there would be a cover of a Bon Jovi song in S2E10. 

The five friends were: liver surgeon Lee Ik-jun (Jo Jung-suk), heart surgeon Kim Jun-wan (Jung Kyung-ho), pediatric surgeon Ahn Jung-won (Yoo Yeon-seok), obstetric surgeon Yang Seok-hyeong (Kim Dae-Myung) and the only rose among the thorns neurosurgeon Chae Song-hwa (Jeon Mi-do). Cases in these specialties have the most emotional heft for TV. I guess a specialty ENT did not really have much potential for melodrama.

We did not watch this series when it premiered on Netflix in June of 2020. We only began watching Season 1 one episode a night this summer when we learned that Season 2 will be starting June 2021. This was not really an easy series to binge because the episodes were more than 1-1/2 hours long each. Watching one episode a week as released was just right for all of us. Each season had 12 episodes each.

Each episode tackled not their close friendship with each other, but also their families and their relationships, professional or romantic, with other consultants, fellows, residents and med students. Romances between male consultants and younger female residents seemed so casual and acceptable, which is rather surprising in the local context. All these multiple love stories will have been sorted out by S2E11. 

Interspersed in between these threads were various challenging cases in each of their specialty, involving tough decision-making for doctor, patient and family. They had their most critical cases of the season in S2E12 -- emergency liver transplant with bleeding varices, heart surgery in a boy with Marfan's, small bowel transplant, a premie delivery for a woman with breast cancer post-chemo, and an evacuation of a medullary bleed. 

This was a generally feel-good series with no antagonists. Most of the "ships" you were rooting for eventually wind up together. The comedy can be corny (like the "delightful" singing of Song-hwa) or even slapstick (like those silly "fights" between Ik-jun and Jun-wan), but always lighthearted and good-natured. By the end of the series, you feel like you saying goodbye to your real friends and you'd want to see them back. 8/10.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Vivamax: Review of BEKIS ON THE RUN: Amalgam of Advocacies

September 18, 2021

Andres (Diego Loyzaga) and his gay brother Donald (Christian Bables) staged a hold-up a construction site office to get money for the kidney transplant operation of Donald's adoptive mother, Nanay Pacing (Lou Veloso). When their plans went awry, they had to go on the run. They took the pretty secretary Adriana (Kylie Versoza) with them in tow, and hid out in the house of Donald's on-and-off boyfriend Martin (Sean de Guzman). 

It seemed effortless for Christian Bables to play the swishy Donald, a young gay guy with angst, like his breakthrough character Barbs in "Die Beautiful" (2016).  He did not wear dresses here, but engaged in torrid kissing scenes with film stud of the year, Sean de Guzman. In contrast, Diego Loyzaga did a lot of macho posturing to emphasize that Andres is not gay. While Kylie Versoza nailed her drama scenes, she seemed nervous doing comedy. 

The character of Nanay Pacing was an honest and compassionate transgender woman who made it her mission in life to take bullied gay boys off the street and care for them in her home. Lou Veloso went all out drag -- wig, make-up, dresses -- for this role that had him to go through an entire spectrum of emotions with his tongue fully in-cheek, as he dealt with his wards of all ages from the oldest (Jim Pebanco) to the youngest (Kenken Nuyad).

A standout supporting character was the widowed cashier of the construction company, Upeng, played by indie actress Tabs Sumulong.  She stole her scenes with her sharp-witted tongue and boldness with physical comedy. She also shared some heartwarming scenes with Veloso's Pacing. Johnny Revilla and Lander Vera Perez were nothing more than one-dimensional bad guys as Adriana's abusive father and brother respectively. 

Despite the silly title, director Joel Lamangan and writer Ricky Lee actually tackled LGBT solidarity and activism here. The whole film was an uneven mixed-up roller-coaster of genres. There was a little crime action at the start, a lot of family melodrama in the middle, with a generous helping of slapstick comedy all around, with sex scenes in the middle for a drastic change of pace, while throwing shade at toxic masculinity and gays in the military. 4/10. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

HBO Go: Review of IN THE HEIGHTS: Immigrant Inspirations

September 16, 2021

Washington Heights was a poor section of New York City populated by immigrants from various Central and South American countries and Caribbean islands. A young man named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) owned a little bodega selling coffee, drinks and lottery tickets. But he thought he had not made much in his life so far, and longed to follow his dream to return back to his homeland, the Dominican Republic. The story of how Usnavi got his unique name will have a scene of its own, as he tells the story to a group of little kids.

Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) worked on nails at Daniela's (Daphne Rubin-Vega) beauty salon, but her dream was to open up her own fashion boutique. Nina (Leslie Grace) was the first in the Heights pass Stanford, but she could not cope with the pressure and prejudice she faced there. Benny (Corey Hawkins) worked as dispatcher for Nina's father Kevin Rosario's (Jimmy Smits) taxi company, which supported her tuition demands. The heart of their community was Consuelo, whom everyone had adopted as their Abuela (Olga Merediz).

This film directed by Jon M. Cho ("Crazy Rich Asians") was based on the hit 2008 Broadway show that made its composer/lyricist Lin Manuel Miranda a household name. Miranda took the tough decisions that young people living in poverty in New York had to make in their lives, and brought them to life in vibrant songs of Latin flavor, many of them employing his distinct rapid rapping style, which will be developed further in his next hit show "Hamilton." Miranda had a featured role in the film as the piragua man selling shaved ice. 

The best songs were those awesome dancing that involved the whole community. The opening song "In the Heights" introduced us to the neighborhood and its people. Set in a public swimming pool, "96000" was about the prize money of a winning lottery ticket. "Carnaval del Barrio" was Daniela's pickup speech to cheer up everyone depressed by the prolonged electrical blackout. Special effects were employed to liven up songs, like "When the Sun Goes Down" had Nina and Benny dancing on the side of a building. 

I had seen a local stage production of "In the Heights" back in 2011, and there were plot differences in this film adaptation. (MY FULL REVIEW). Lacking the infectious energy of a live performance, the pace of the film could feel slow in certain parts, and the storytelling may not gel together too well in other parts. However, the heartwarming emotion of the words in the screenplay, as adapted by Quiara Alegría Hudes from her original book, still radiated strongly to touch the hearts of viewers, even if they don't share exactly the same challenges. 8/10.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

HBO GO: Review of FREAKY: Virginal Vince Vaughn

September 14, 2021

The night before homecoming night, mousy high school student Millie Kessler was attacked by the Butcher on the football field after the game. But when the Butcher stabbed her with his mystical ceremonial dagger, a flash of lightning caused him and Millie to magically switch bodies at the strike of midnight. Based on the inscriptions on the dagger, she only has 24 hours to get her body back, or else she will be in Butcher's body forever.

The title "Freaky" was a nod to "Freaky Friday," a 1972 children's book by Mary Rodgers which had already been previously adapted into a number of films. The most notable ones would be in 1976, with Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster; and then again in 2003, with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan. In the book and in these movies, it was a mother and her daughter who mystically switched bodies after a major disagreement between them. 

This new version was produced by Jason Blum of Blumhouse, so it is no surprise that it is in the horror genre -- in the slasher subgenre to be specific. The director Christopher Landon had just recently directed two other successful slasher-comedies for Blum -- "Happy Death Day" (2017) and its sequel (2019), so he was right in the zone for this project as well. The kills in this film were quite ghastly, especially the very first one with the wine bottle. The opposite personality- and gender-switching in this version lent itself to even more comic situations.

It was quite a stretch to accept the very pretty Kathryn Newton to be shy nerdy Millie, the unfortunate girl inside the beaver mascot of their school. She was quite in the zone after the body switching, and went to school as foxy Millie dressed in skin-tight jeans and a sexy red leather jacket. Of course, you'd wonder how the Butcher knew anything about makeup and fashion. Newton was totally fierce in those gory scenes where "Millie" turned the tables on her bully classmates and carpentry teacher.

The most entertaining aspect of this film was the stellar performance of Vince Vaughn as Millie inside the body of Butcher. He was very meticulous in his transformation into a teenage girl -- her girly gestures, mannerisms, speaking inflection, style of running, screaming. Everything was so on point, it was quite a blast and a total joy to see. The scene where he was convincing Millie's best friends, Nyla (Celeste O'Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich), and that one with Millie's big crush Booker (Uriah Shelton) were a lot of fun. 7/10

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Amazon Prime: Review of THE VOYEURS: Visual Vexation

September 12, 2021

Pippa and Thomas move into an apartment with a great view. It did not take them long to notice the exhibitionistic couple across the street who were not shy to make love with no curtains and with all the lights on. This secret activity sparked up their own sex life at first. However as they knew their neighbors better, they felt there was something amiss with them. By then, despite Thomas objections, Pippa was already too obsessed with them to let go.

From the outset, this immediately gave the vibes of Hitchcock classic "Rear Window" (1954) and more recently Amy Adams' "The Woman in the Window" (2021). These were all movies that dealt with protagonists spying on the people who lived next door and consequently getting involved in something a lot more than they bargained for. Writer-director Michael Mohan gave "The Voyeurs" an erotic thriller spin to make it provocative for jaded viewers. 

Mohan certainly had a very attractive and daring cast to bring his sexy tale to life. With her innocent face, ample curves and the vulnerable air about her, Sydney Sweeney was perfectly cast as the naive, curious and susceptible Pippa. Justice Smith ventured outside his comfort zone of wholesome films like "Jurassic World" and "Detective Pikachu" to play Thomas. He felt he needed to obviously deepen his voice to convey maturity, which sounded awkward.

The mysterious but eye-catching couple across the street were really named Julia, a model, and Seb, an artist with a camera, but at first Pippa gave them preppy code names Margo and Brent.Australian-Italian-Chinese beauty Natasha Liu Bordizzo played the alluring but subservient martyr, Julia. Meanwhile, British actor Ben Hardy played the narcissistic Seb who beleived that he was God's gift to women. He was practically nude the whole time to prove it. 

Since it was about voyeurism, the film had an "eye" theme with Pippa's job as an optometrist, and Seb's job as a photographer. Those scene transitions from eyes to eggs were an unsettling idea. I would not call the story totally predictable as the grand reveal did surprise me, with a cruel but not totally undeserved lesson. However, it did not stop there and went on some more for it to drop another ending, which I felt was too over-the-top already. 6/10. 

Netflix: Review of KATE: Deadly but Dying

September 12, 2021

Kate is an assassin for hire under the mentorship of her trainer and handler Varrick (Woody Harrelson), whom she lovingly called V. In her last case in Osaka, she was able to complete her job to kill a Yakuza man, but was disturbed by the fact that she had to shoot the man dead in the unexpected presence of a teenage girl. 

10 months later in Tokyo, a temporary moment of carnal carelessness led Kate to contract acute radiation syndrome and was only given 24 hours to live by her doctors. She only had that much time to find the mob boss Kijima (Jun Kunimura) who was responsible for the dire condition she was dying from, and settle the scores accordingly. 

Name an action film recently, there is invariably an assassin as the primary character, either a man or a woman. Films about female assassins had starred the most glamorous actresses to play the ruthless main character, from Natalie Portman ("La Femme Nikita"), Angelina Jolie ("Wanted"), Scarlett Johannsen ("Lucy") and Charlize Theron ("Atomic Blonde"), to the more unlikely ones like Geena Davis ("The Long Kiss Goodnight"), Saoirse Ronan ("Hanna"), Jessica Chastain ("Ava") or Cristine Reyes ("Maria").

I would add "Kate" lead actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead to the list of the more unlikely ones. She had been in films since 2005 but was mostly relegated as the damsel in distress in various horror films. She had been lately been getting more high-profile roles on TV like "Fargo" (2017) and in films like "Birds of Prey" (2020). With her lean frame and brunette hair, her look was reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver in "Alien," strong and no-nonsense. Her fight scenes were realistically brutal, as were her symptoms she was suffering from.

The whole revenge scenario was admittedly very familiar, but "Kate" stands out from the other similar-themed films with its Japanese pop theme with the pink neon lights and the girl punk music soundtrack. The continuous deterioration of Kate's health while she was fighting off the entire cabal of Yakuza goons within her 24-hour time limit gives it an additional sense of immediacy. The presence of pretty and feisty 17-year old Miku Martineau as Kate's accidental sidekick Ani was also a big plus. 6/10. 

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Vivamax: Review of THE HOUSEMAID: Vulnerable Victim

September 9, 2021

Tall and pretty Daisy (Kylie Versoza) was recruited by housekeeper Madam Martha (Jaclyn Jose) to be the maid in the household of millionaire couple William (Albert Martinez) and Roxanne (Louise delos Reyes) Romero, and be the nanny of their daughter Nami (Elia Ilano). Roxanne was then on her 9th month of pregnancy and was expected to deliver twins, so William was left frustrated as he could not satisfy his sexual needs. The naive Daisy just so happened to be available as a vulnerable outlet for his tension release.

This film by Roman Perez, Jr. is an adaptation of the 2010 Korean film of the same title by Im Sang-soo, which in turn was a loose adaptation of a 1960 Korean film of the same title by Kim Ki-young. The critically-acclaimed 2010 film was in competition for the Palm D'Or at Cannes that year, starring Cannes 2007 Best Actress (for Lee Chang-dong's "Secret Sunshine") Jeon Do-yeon in the title role. It also won several awards for its director and supporting actress Youn Yuh-jung (who just won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar earlier this year for "Minari"). 

This Filipino adaptation was practically a word-for-word translation of the Korean script, as well as scene for scene transposition of the 2010 Korean film. Even the grim prologue about a girl who jumped off a building, and the bizarre epilogue about a child's birthday party was there, even though these scenes seemed more like afterthoughts here than in the original. Director Perez had to vary some things to make the proceedings more Filipino in context, like making do without the chilly winter scenes or the Korean herbal health drink. 

Even with her maid's uniform or simple hair and make-up, Kylie Versoza still looked so much classier and prettier than Louise delos Reyes who played the wife Roxanne, or even Jeon Do-yeon who originated the role. With her doe eyes, shapely curves and long legs, Versoza was effortlessly sexy, even without overtly revealing everything. Albert Martinez can play the rich handsome master William blindfolded, but electricity felt lacking between him and Versoza during their seduction and sex scenes. This was in contrast with much rawer, more animalistic sex scenes between maid Eun-yi (Jeon) and her master Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) in the original. 

Jaclyn Jose made the most of her supporting role as the formidable Madam Martha, in a performance that felt stronger than that of Youn Yuh-jung before. In true Pinoy melodrama fashion, Perez even extended Martha's soliloquy of frustration over her station in life. Jose went all out in that acting showcase scene, with all the profane language she can muster. With her signature tongue-in-cheek humor in her line delivery, Alma Moreno felt less sinister in her role as Roxanne's intrusive mother Ester, than Park Ji-young in the original. Child actress Elia Ilano showed much promise and had good screen presence as little Nami. 

Director Perez did well in the choice of the Romero's fancy mansion, with the staircase, piano bathtub and imposing chandelier which would play major roles in the story. The pace of the storytelling was deliberately slow in keeping with the original, but the second act here felt rather lagging. The yawning gap between rich and poor that pervaded the original was not that pronounced here, perhaps due to casting choices.  Perez's recreation of the both the notoriously disturbing bathtub scene and shocking climax in the living room were very well done, quite matching the impact of the original (especially for those who have not seen it). 7/10. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Upstream: Review of NOBODY: Nondescript but Noxious

September 7, 2021

Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk) was a nondescript middle-aged man who lived a humdrum suburban life with his wife Becca (Connie Nielsen) and two kids. One night, two thieves entered their house to steal money. That one-off petty crime would later escalate into a full-blown complicated web of violence that involved the Russian mob led by their flamboyantly bloodthirsty leader Yulian Kuznetskov (Aleksei Serebryakov).

This was an action film cut from the same cloth as the John Wick series, both retired hitmen trying to live normal lives who soon were drawn back into the killing business. The themes of the films felt uncannily similar, and no wonder they were both from the creative mind of writer Derek Kolstad. That said, "Nobody" is still its own special animal -- mainly because of Hutch Mansell's unique personality, thanks to a potent star turn by lead actor Bob Odenkirk.

From his start as a writer on "Saturday Night Live" in the late 1980s, Odenkirk had certainly gone a long way. He wrote, co-starred or guested in several hit comedy television series since then, from "The Larry Sanders Show" to "How I Met Your Mother". His TV career went full blast with his stint as Saul Goodman on "Breaking Bad" (2009–2013), which then led to a still ongoing prequel spin-off Netflix series "Better Call Saul" (since 2015).

As far as films are concerned, Odenkirk's debut was in "Wayne's World 2" (1993) and co-starred in several comedies since then. It was only in the past 10 years, that he had been films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, namely "Nebraska" (2013), "The Post" (2017) and "Little Women" (2019), all as part of the ensemble.  It was a long time coming, but with the success of "Nobody," Odenkirk finally emerged as a full-fledged film star at age 58. 

Russian director Ilya Naishuller had a stylish vision of mixing violence with tongue-in-cheek humor. All those fiery gun battles with various forms of exploding booby traps were choreographed and executed meticulously, and accompanied by classic inspirational songs like "What a Wonderful World," "The Impossible Dream" and "You'll Never Walk Alone." There was also a scene-stealing supporting turn by Christopher Lloyd, who played Hutch's elderly father David, who wasn't as invalid as he looked. 8/10. 

Monday, September 6, 2021

Netflix: Review of AFTERLIFE OF THE PARTY: Almost an Angel

September 6, 2021

Cassie (Victoria Justice) was a vivacious young woman who worked as an events planner, She had always been the fashion plate, the life of every party she organized. On the day of her 25th birthday, she painted the town red with her friends, clubbing wildly and drinking a lot. When she came home very drunk, Cassie had a bad slip, fell and died. 

Her soul ended up in an in-between holding area between heaven and hell, Cassie was met by an angel guide named Val (Robyn Scott). Val told Cassie that she was there because she had unresolved conflicts.  Her final destination will depend on her ability to settle her issues with three people: her best friend Lisa (Midori Francis), her father Howie (Adam Garcia) and her estranged mother Sofia (Gloria Garcia).

Victoria Justice was being her energetic self, as we knew her since her breakthrough role Tori Vega in the TV series "Victorious" (2010-2013). Midori Francis was also known for being high-spirited from her more recent holiday series "Dash & Lily" (2020). The two hit if off very naturally as best friends, with animated rapport. It was surprising to see "Coyote Ugly" (2000) Adam Garcia in a father a 25 year old. 

With the word "afterlife" right there in the title, it was no surprise that a main character will die. Despite the somber subject matter, the mood of the film was light and comic from the very start, with perky chatter between two best friends who were stark opposites. While Cassie was the loud extrovert who loved to party, Lisa was the shy introvert who worked as a research assistant for paleontology. Their close connection proved strong even after Cassie's death.

Once the story got going, it was easily clear how the whole film was going to end. However, contrived some plot points were developed and the middle section tended to lag, it was surprising that it was still able connect emotionally when it came to fixing relationships that did not end well when one of the parties passes on before any closure was achieved. This story did remind us that the life can be very unexpectedly short and we should cherish the people we love while we can. 7/10. 

HBO Go: Review of ON THE JOB (2021 Series): Journalists in Jeopardy

 August 29, 2021

Erik Matti's "On the Job" (2013) was one of the best Filipino films in the last decade, if not of all time. The timely topic tackled was straight off the news headlines about convicts hired to do politically-motivated murders, well before the acronym EJK became a household word. It had an array of big name movie stars, with leading men Piolo Pascual and Gerald Anderson, and reliable veterans like Joel Torre and Joey Marquez. The suspense was heart-pounding, the pace frenetic, definitely not predictable at all. (MY FULL REVIEW)

Director Erik Matti and writer Michiko Yamamoto recently decided to make a Part 2 for "On the Job". It is now an HBO Asia Original Series with 6 episodes, each named after one of the main characters. Episode 1 "Tatang" (Joel Torre's character) and Episode 2 "Acosta" (Joey Marquez's character), were actually derived from the original 2013 film itself, edited to fit two hour-long episodes, with some added new footage. While this may be disappointing for those expecting new material right from the start, these two served as a refresher to the world we are about to reenter. 

Episode 3 "Arnel" is the official first episode of the new sequel series. The only character we see held over from the original film at first was General Rene Pacheco (Leo Martinez) who was facing a Senate inquiry for his involvement in murders. Another major character will make a surprise guest appearance in Episode 5 "Roman" (the best episode for me). The main arena of action of this sequel is in the fictional city of La Paz, said to be the most progressive city in the country under the leadership of its powerful mayor Pedring Eusebio (Dante Rivero). 

As the elections drew close and Eusebio planned to run for Vice President, the lives of two local journalists in La Paz are about to face a major change anew. They used to be close friends, co-founders of the La Paz Newspaper, but were now on opposite sides of the political fence. They are the pro-Eusebio radio personality Sisoy Salas (John Arcilla) and the anti-Eusebio newspaper publisher Arnel Pangan (Christopher de Leon). 

Like the original "On the Job", there was also a syndicate of convict assassins at work in the La Paz Penitentiary, operated by policeman Obet Pamintuan (Soliman Cruz). Among his men were Roman Rubio (Dennis Trillo). What was supposed to have been a hit on one person went terribly wrong when their target had seven more people in his van with him. These victims were later dubbed "The Missing 8" by the press.

Mayor Pedring Eusebio of La Paz were very suggestive of one specific high-profile mayor and his city. With a backhoe prominently seen digging a big hole in an empty field, the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre immediately comes to mind for Filipino viewers. Foreign viewers may be shocked to know that heinous event actually happened in real life. While looking back to the past at the desaparecidos during Martial Law, the filmmakers advocated for all those who had died or disappeared for political reasons since then, media practitioners in particular.

Sisoy was the only character with a full arc and of course as expected, John Arcilla went the full nine yards with him. The other main characters (on which the episodes were named) were not as well-developed. Dante Rivero's Pedring was painted as a stereotypical one-dimensional corrupt traditional politician. Dennis Trillo's Roman was given a crooked nose and atrocious hair, but not enough of a story for us to care for him. Christopher de Leon's Arnel's backstory as a journalist could have had more details to flesh him out more.

Lotlot de Leon's Weng was a fearless and dedicated journalist, fiercely loyal to truth and justice. Andrea Brillantes was Sisoy's feisty and techie younger daughter. Eric Fructuoso and Vandolph Quizon played fellow assassins. Wendell Ramos played Eusebio's ambitious son Bernie with a trophy wife (Megan Young). Jenny Jamora was practically silent as Vicky Eusebio, Pabling's first lady. Dolly de Leon's Inday was remarkable as Eusebio's heartless master of black propaganda. Carlos Siguion-Reyna played Eusebio's political rival Vicente. 

These last 4 episodes were well-made and well-intentioned, indignant and earnest in its angry message and its sensational exposé on the buried issues behind the news headlines. Its very familiar tragic scenarios may lessen its shock factor a bit for Filipino viewers, but nevertheless remains a very potent viewing experience Its just that the original 2013 film set the bar so high in terms of its complex skillfully-plotted original story and flawless technical execution, it was difficult for this follow-up to reach that level of excellence in comparison. 8/10. 


Postscript: The last four episodes of this series were edited together and screened as a single feature film in the main competition of this year's 78th Venice International Film Festival, as "On the Job: The Missing 8." As the only Asian film in that category, it is proud proof that the Philippine movie industry remains alive and well in the face of the worldwide pandemic. 

Update: John Arcilla has just won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 78th Venice Film Festival in awarding ceremonies earlier today. 

Poster of the feature film "OTJ: The Missing 8"

Sunday, September 5, 2021

KTX: Review of TAO PO: Melancholic and Mindful Monologues

September 4, 2021

In September 2017, there was a one-woman show entitled "Tao Po" debuted at the CCP. It was a series of monologues performed by actress and activist Mae Paner (also known as Juana Change). The script was written by playwright Maynard Manansala based on interviews he and Paner had conducted. It aimed to "provide a human face to the issue of extra-judicial killings (EJK)." Since then, it had been staged in various local universities, and also abroad to Europe in 2019. This 2021 film preserves the show for posterity, directed by Paner herself.

In the first monologue, Paner took on the persona of a veteran photojournalist Raffy Lerma, who had been assigned the EJK beat. His most photograph dubbed "Pieta," with a woman slumped on the sidewalk cradling the bloodied body of her dead husband in her arms, famous not only in local but international news. This was the only monologue which was delivered in English, while a slideshow of haunting photographs flashed in the background. 

The second monologue was about Rosing, a Zumba instructor whose husband Marcelo and son Jojo had both been gunned down as drug addicts. In alternating settings indicated by the changes in lighting, Rosing shifted back and forth from her lively Zumba spiels to the somber story of the night of their death, This was probably the most exhausting of the monologues, as Paner was doing calisthenics to music practically the whole time. 

The third monologue may be the grimmest one of all. Paner assumed the character of a nameless policeman assigned to conduct EJKs. He was nervous about blood as a child. But with his first kill and the ones that followed in quick succession, he told about how he developed into the cold-blooded murderer that he was now. He did wonder out loud about why it seemed that all the people whom he killed were poor, no big rich fish among them. 

The fourth monologue was about Vanessa, a teenage girl who wanted to light candles for them at the gravesite of her parents. They were buried together in one cramped vault in one wall in the cemetery after they were shot and killed by policemen in their home, in her presence. As it turned out, she knew practically everyone buried on that wall, all of them victims of EJK. By the end of her reminiscences, the wall was full of candles.

Each monologue was only about 15 minutes or so, but the substance and drama in each one is not limited. They were written by Manansala with gritty realism, covering all the pertinent details and issues for each character.  Mae Paner gave respectful and nuanced portrayals of each of her four distinct characters. There were no hardsell political grandstanding here, just sad stories of real people who saw the horrors of EJK up close. 


The filmed version of "TAO PO" premiered as one of the featured films in this year's Cinemalaya film festival. It will be shown on the KTX platform September 3-5, 2021. 

Saturday, September 4, 2021

HBO Go: Review of SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY: Looney LeBron

September 4, 2021 

One of the biggest movies of 1996 was "Space Jam," a live-action/animated science fiction sports comedy film directed by Joe Pytka starring basketball superstar Michael Jordan being recruited by the Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest of the Looney Tunes crew to help them win a basketball match against a nasty bunch of aliens. The film's technical innovations mixing live-action and animation were its most remarkable achievement. 

This second edition of "Space Jam" features current basketball superstar LeBron James interacting with the Looney Tunes characters. This time, the story involves LeBron in conflict with his techie younger son Dom over the new Warner Bros. AI called Al-G Rhythm. Upon Al-G Rhythm evil machinations, LeBron and his Looney Tunes teammates were forced to play against Dom and his Goon Squad, superpowered CG renditions of real basketball stars.

Alas, skillful as he was on the basketball court, LeBron James was not really a good actor. He was awkward and self-conscious the whole time, it was uncomfortable to watch. However, one could maintain positivity and also find his "acting" to be part of the film's comedy. It was very unwieldy to see Don Cheadle in a cartoonish villain role like his embodiment of Al-G Rhythm here, so it needed some getting used to at first. 

The main entertaining factor of this film remains to be the shenanigans of the Looney Tunes characters. Their looks have remained basically the same since the 1930s, but they get to be upgraded into 3D forms this time around. Their amusing jokes and foolish gags still can tickle the funny bone after all these years. Its brand of silly humor still works especially in the final half of the ball game. They were the saving grace of this film, 

There were a myriad of Warner Bros characters all around (Scooby Doo, Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Gremlins, King Kong, Iron Giant, the Mask etc) which made it an enjoyable game of "spot and name" for the audience.  There were several references to various past Warner Bros films and TV shows -- "Game of Thrones" to the Justice League, "Matrix" to "Mad Max: Fury Road", "Casablanca" to Austin Powers. Little kids probably would not even recognize them, but for adults, it will be fun to see them Looney Tune'd. 5/10.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Amazon Prime: Review of CINDERELLA (2021): Empowered and Entrepreneurial

September 3. 2021

As the 1950 Disney animated film told us, she was a kind orphan girl who was made a servant by her wicked stepmother and cruel stepsisters. She was able to attend a ball at the palace with the magical ballgown from her fairy godmother and attracted the Prince. Even if Cinderella had to run off by midnight when the magic wore off, the Prince was able to find her using the glass slipper she left behind, and they lived happily ever after. Yes, this one is another film about Cinderella, another musical version but with a very modern twist. 

The Hot 100 pop hits from the 70s, 80s, 90s, to more recent years, used in this musical soundtrack were an enjoyable mix. Right off the bat, there was a energetic Janet Jackson hit to open the whole film. Later on, there will be songs originally sung by acts as eclectic as Des'ree, Salt-N-Pepa, White Stripes, Earth, Wind and Fire, Queen, Jennifer Lopez and Madonna. Who would have predicted that an Ed Sheeran song would be perfect for that first dance of the Prince and Ella at the ball?

Pop star, Fifth Harmony girl group alumna Camilla Cabello was quite winsome in the lead role as Ella. As this was her first lead role, admittedly her neophyte nerves were quite apparent in certain scenes. She had that distinct breathy pop singing voice that still manages to be heard clearly in the group songs.  Her Prince Robert was played by British actor Nicholas Galitzine, who also did his own singing quite creditably here. He and Cabello looked quite good together as a romantic pair, especially during the ball scenes. 

Idina Menzel is a Broadway icon whose belting prowess was legendary.  In the tradition of Maleficent and Cruella, Cannon also gave the stepmother Vivian a little sympathetic backstory. Pierce Brosnan and Minnie Driver played Robert's parents, the imperious King Rowan and his Queen Beatrice. Brosnan made fun of his own notorious singing voice in one particularly cringy scene. The surprising (and controversial) piece of casting was that of Billy Porter as the Fairy Godmother, a role he imbued with his fabulous drag queen flamboyance.

In this new musical version of the fairy tale written and directed by Kay Cannon (noted for writing "Pitch Perfect"), the timeless story made more sprightly and more contemporary twist by its underlying theme of female empowerment. The classic Cinderella had been criticized to be a meek, very passive character who had no active hand whatsoever in her fate. However, Cannon's iteration of her heroine Ella was anything but passive. She did not fold with the poor hand life dealt her, and instead resolved to make her own fortune on her own talents. 7/10. 

Vivamax: Review of 69+1: Polyamorous Predicaments

September 3, 2021

Atty. Ivy (Maui Taylor) and hair stylist Patricia (Rose Van Ginkel) have been girlfriends for 7 years. In order to prevent the dreaded "7-year itch," they decided to add spark in their relationship by going polyamorous. They decided to invite a common acquaintance who once had a crush on both of them -- Apolinario "Apol" Trillo (Janno Gibb), 39, noted professional photographer with strabismus, to be their "+1" for their one-year "throuple" experiment.

This is already writer-director Darryl Yap's 7th feature film, his 6th for 2021 alone. Being a Darryl Yap film, it was not anymore surprising that a controversial topic will be tackled, like how his previous films talked about porn stars, mental illness, midlife crisis. His films invariably poked fun about certain physical features, like dark skin or harelip speech. This time around, it was about a three-way relationship between two sexy lesbians and a cross-eyed straight guy. 

His works had always been frank when it came to sex from his very first film "#Jowable", and this latest one is definitely not an exception. It's very title alone is already a sexual reference. Taylor and Van Ginkel had one serious sexy scene in a steamy shower, but otherwise all the raunchy scenes with Gibb are all more on the comic side. The language is specially spicy as the script was peppered with sexual terms and double-entendres from beginning to end.

The production quality of a Darryl Yap film is not exactly its strong suit from the start, and this one felt the most disorderly. There was not really much intelligent content, so he had to resort to prolonged unnecessary dance numbers in the bridal shower, at the JS prom and at the beach wedding, just to pad the running time. In fact, the two girls only proposed to Apol with thirty minutes to go, so you can imagine how much filler there was in the first hour.

Reliable actress Dexter Doria was there as the girls' housekeeper Manang Goods, and Cai Cortez as their best friend Wanda, but their roles were a waste of their acting talent and vibrant screen presence. "69+1" was the shallowest one of all the Darryl Yap films this year. It had very little substance, if any at all. Everything about it felt rushed and slapdash, from the empty unfunny script, messy storytelling, to the lackadaisical acting of the three lead actors. 1/10.