Tuesday, November 30, 2021

QCinema 2021: Ranking the 6 #QCSHORTS IN COMPETITION

November 30, 2021

1. City of Flowers 

Directed by Xeph Suarez. 
Written by Cenon Obispo Palomares. 

It was 2013, Zamboanga City was about to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. Tausug man Nasser (Ramli T. Abdurahim) and his pregnant wife Elena (award-deserving Czarina Yecla) were flower farmers living in a small farm outside the city. When he came home after selling their flowers in the city, Nasser told Elena that he had accepted an offer to attend a peace rally the next day which promised a pay of P10,000 just to go and join. 

Even before you hear Nasser talking about that job offer, you just knew something bad was going to happen. There was so much foreshadowing before the climactic revelation -- a destructive drought, the swarming ants, the blood sacrifice done to save the soil. This was the best of the lot for me -- thematically (tackling sensitive Muslim Mindanao issues) and technically (cinematography by Carlos Mauricio and lighting by Joey Castillo). 9/10.


2. Skylab 

Written and directed by Chuck Escasa

It was 1979. Two high school boys, Tonton de Leon (Dylan Ray Taleon) and Martin Encarnacion (Alexis Prins Negrite), could not concentrate in their classes because of a new report that the American satellite Skylab was falling to the earth that day causing the world to end, much to the irritation and  consternation of their teachers, Mrs. Perez (Lotlot Bustamante), Miss Fonacier (Antonette Go) and Mr. Perez (Jonathan Tadioan). 

This was presented in nostalgic black and white with humorous anecdotes about high school life in the 1970s, with narration by Joel Saracho. At first, this seemed to be a whimsical short film about shenanigans by naughty students. However, the mood would gradually turn darker as the boys realized that the dark forces that threatened their existence were much closer to home than they feared. 7/10.


3. Ampangabagat Nin Talakba Ha Likol 
(It's Raining Frogs Outside)

Written and directed by Maria Estela Paiso

Maya (Alyana Cabral) felt trapped inside their house in Zambales as frogs fall like rain outside. Sitting at the window wearing her maroon Two Brothers Bakery t-shirt, she expressed her depressing thoughts about the world around her. Beside photos and videos of her childhood, Maya imagined disturbing images of herself with a cockroach entering her eye, getting entangled in long clumps of hair underwater or her whole body turning into melting wax. 

This short dark fantasy film had a very unsettling overall atmosphere, up to its closing credits. The sounds and music were distorted, the images and graphics were distorted. It felt like a very highly personal project by writer-director Maria Estela Paiso, as she shares her innermost thoughts in a deep guttural voice barely above a whisper, describing what she called her "personal state of emergency." It felt like a cry for help, with a sense of urgency and desperation all through out. 7/10. 


4. MIGHTY ROBO V 

Written and directed by Miko Livelo and Mihk Vergara

The Earth's robot defender Mighty Robo V had suffered a humiliating defeat from its rival robot, amidst accusations of corruption in the operations of the Phil. Giant Monster Defense Institute. This prompted its embattled director of operations Dr. Benhur "Rody" Rodriguez (GB Labrador) and his assistant Lani "Laser" Panganiban (Aryn Cristobal) to assemble an all-new crew for their new robot whose every weapon was sponsored. 

Compared to the other five shorts in this set, this one stood out because of its high energy, vibrant colors and absurdist sense of humor, as it took on a mockumentary approach to telling its story. Obviously based on the 70s robot anime Voltes V, this over-the-top farce / satire poked fun at incompetent personnel in key positions of national importance, whose image and influence on social media were deemed more important than their ability to serve and fight. Fun but messy. 6/10. 


5. i get so sad sometimes 

Written and directed by Trishtan Perez

Jake (JC Santiago) is a discreetly gay teenager who was engaged in an anonymous online relationship with an older man he only knew as lonely_prince68 (Russ Ligtas). In their virtual encounters of a sexual nature, the other guy's camera only showed his torso and mouth.  Jake's secret frustration has made him distant from his mother (Janice Suganob) and best friend Marco (Karl Louie Caminade). 

This short film depicts a darker aspect of the internet when people can anonymously live out fantasies that they are not ready to face in real life. Presented in a unusual square aspect ratio, this short film quietly captured the inner turmoil of a teenager with a secret life he could not share with anyone. The sordid subject matter is very disturbing and uncomfortable to watch, but the direction of Trishtan Perez and cinematography of Steven Paul Evangelio were commendable. 6/10. 


6. Henry 

Written and directed by Kaj Palanca

Ian (Io Balanon) fell from a scaffolding at the house where he worked, rendering him invalid. While their ailing mother Marita (Wenah Nagales) was forced to go find work, his younger brother Henry (Carlos Dala) went over to the construction site where Ian got injured to collect the compensation for his older brother’s work injury. There Henry met Ian's co-worker Danilo (Tommy Alejandrino) who attended to him while he waited for the employer.

This one had a simple slice of life concept behind it. No specific issues were really expressly mentioned, just regular daily activities were being shown. There was subtle commentary about labor issues, even if the central character Henry was still an unemployed teenager. There was a suggestion that Henry wanted more in his life than being a laborer like his brother and mother. Ultimately, it may just be saying how acts of kindness can go a long way. 4/10. 


Monday, November 29, 2021

Review of MALIGNANT: Terrorizing Tumor

November 29, 2021



Madison (Annabelle Wallis) was pregnant again after a series of miscarriages. One day, her abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel) strongly shoved her, hitting her head on the wall. While she was sleeping to rest from this injury, Derek was attacked by an unseen entity who broke his neck, instantly killing him. When Madison woke up from a dream about Derek dying, she saw his dead body in their living room. Then the entity began to chase and attack her. 

Madison was a woman who can see a murder happening as if she was in the same place but she wasn't. The police detectives on the case, Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White), were so puzzled, they thought it was Maddie herself who did the brutal murders of two senior doctors Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline Mackenzie) and Dr. Victor Fields (Christian Clemenson), even as she blamed an unseen entity named Gabriel. 

Director James Wan is best known for his horror classics "Saw," "Insidious" and of course "The Conjuring," which had all spun off into their own franchises.  This time he, along with his wife Romanian actress Ingrid Bisu, developed this murder mystery story caused by a seemingly supernatural being, and delegated the screenplay duties to up and coming writer, Akela Cooper, who worked on TV series like "Grimm," "The 100" and "Luke Cage." 

Annabelle Wallis gained mainstream recognition when she played the lead character Mia in another film connected with James Wan, "Annabelle" (2014). George Young, a fully-qualified London-based solicitor with Malaysian-Chinese and Greek-Cypriot blood, gets the highest-profile role in his career so far as Detective Shaw, who had an interesting first name Kekoa (Hawaiian, meaning "courageous").

The acting of everyone in the cast was high-strung and over-the-top, which can grate on the viewers' nerves after a while. The reveal of the actual relationship between Madison and her presumed childhood invisible friend Gabriel was a totally crazy medical impossibility of course, but it was oddly fun and entertaining to watch unfold. The ending was a bit too sudden, which was rather disappointing given the complicated twisty build-up and climax. 7/10. 


Saturday, November 27, 2021

QCinema 2021: Mini-Reviews of MEMORIA and THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD

November 26, 2021

Cinemas just began to open this month of November, and QCinema International Film Festival jump cuts the challenges and proceeds again with a hybrid festival. Last year in 2020, the festival pivoted to the new normal with a festival that featured socially distanced and by-invitation-only physical screenings coupled with online streaming. This year, from November 26 to December 5, 2021, QCinema has physical screenings at Gateway Cineplex 10 at the Araneta Center, Cubao, and online screening in cooperation with KTX. 

These two films reviewed below are the submissions of Colombia and Norway (respectively) to the Oscars for the Best International Feature Film. Aside from these two, you can also catch the Oscar submissions of Austria ("Great Freedom"), Iceland ("Lamb"), Indonesia ("Yumi") and Japan ("Drive My Car") as part of the collection of films that QCinema had lined up for screening in Gateway cinemas this year. 

*****

MEMORIA

Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is a Scottish woman from Medellin who was in Bogota to buy a refrigerator for her flower business as well as to visit her ill sister. One early morning before dawn, she was awakened by one loud booming sound, which apparently only she could hear. She would hear this same sound over and over again at random times of the day, and in random places around the city. With the help of a young sound engineer (Juan Pablo Urrego) and an old fisherman (Elkin Diaz), she sought for the origin of this sound.

I have not seen any feature length films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul before this one. I did see a short film of his entitled "Blue," 12-minute long with not a single line of dialogue. There were a lot of such silent moments in "Memoria" as well. The opening sequence was one such long stretch of silence in a dark room which was suddenly broken by the boom sound. I felt several similarities in pace, style and vibe with Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, so I was able to get into his groove up to that head-scratching third act and climax. Tilda Swinton felt right at home with the oddness of this mysterious artistic film.

The most interesting sequence happened early in the film when Jessica was trying to describe the sound she heard to a sound engineer while he was trying to recreate it on his machine. This sequence lasted for probably 10-minutes of constant little adjustments until the right sound was reached, but it was truly fascinating. Among the several "what was that all about?" scenes, the most puzzling should be that of the old fisherman lying down to sleep on the grass beside a small creek, while the camera just hovered over his still, seemingly dead body for more than five static minutes.  8/10.


THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD

Directed by: Joachim Trier

Written by: Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt

Julie (Renate Reinsve) was a young woman had been indecisive all her life. First about her career choice, as she began with the plan to become a doctor only to dither from one alternative to another. She was already living in with a famous comic book author Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) for some time already. One night while walking back to town, Julie gatecrashed a random wedding party and met coffee shop employee Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). That was when her status quo began to change. 

This two hour film had a prologue, 12 chapters (!) and an epilogue. The major turning point was in the end of Chapter 5 "Bad Timing" when serious decisions had to be made. There was a whimsical time-freeze special effect in the first part of this chapter, but it ended with a conversation that provoked the most thoughts and emotions. Some episodes do not feel like they were entirely integral to the main story, like the one about Julie's essay, or that one about Julie's family or that one about Eivind's girlfriend. 

This was basically a rom-com which would later take serious twists and turns. With the slow pace and episodic style of storytelling, there were times when the movie can feel long and rambling. The characters all had disturbing habits and flaws, so they were all not always likable or relatable. This is a very good film, but I think it's Cannes pedigree, including Renate Reinsve's Best Actress award, could have hyped this film up a bit too much that the expectations may be too high and difficult to meet. 7/10. 


Friday, November 26, 2021

Vivamax: Review of MY HUSBAND, MY LOVER: Quadrilateral Quandary

November 26, 2021



Advertising man Noel (Marco Gumabao) and aspiring novelist Alice (Kylie Versoza) were college sweethearts and were now married. Alice got into a love affair with mango farmer Dennis (Adrian Alandy). When Noel found out, he split up with Alice and got into an affair with litigation lawyer Loida (Cindy Miranda). During their time apart, Noel and Alice realized they missed each other and began to meet again on the sly.

This new film proudly carries the name of its illustrious writer, Ricky Lee, above its very literal, plot-revealing title. Director McArthur Alejandre took this lurid potboiler plot and conjured this glossy steamy feature film from it, taking full advantage of his attractive quartet of actors. The story is about adultery and its various permutations, so there will be quite a number of sex scenes, even in parts when you do not exactly expect one. 

The two beautiful actresses here have been in several other sexy films this year alone. Each had just come from their respective star-making vehicles where they played the title character. 29-year old Kylie Versoza starred in Roman Perez, Jr.'s "The Housemaid," while 31-year old Cindy Miranda starred in Law Fajardo's "Nerisa," both films also on the Vivamax lineup. Both of them exuded sexiness effortlessly, even if they were fully clothed. 

After being Anne Curtis's object of desire in Jason Paul Laxamana's "Just A Stranger" (2019), and Lovi Poe's in Joel Lamangan's "Hindi Tayo Puwede" (2020), 27-year old Marco Gumabao became Sharon Cuneta's dreamboat in Darryl Yap's "Revirginized" this year. Adrian Alandy was more known as a dramatic actor in the past when he was known as Luis Alandy. His present age of 41 did not deter him from daring to bare with his much younger co-stars here. 

With a story this convoluted and ultimately melodramatic, this film mainly rode on the chemistry of the actors with each other to keep matters engaging. There is nudity, but prudently done. Director Alejandre tried to keep things classy, making conscious efforts to keep certain body parts hidden or obscured. Given the elaborate build-up of their intertwined relationships, the final resolution was not entirely satisfactory as it took a turn towards vagueness. 4/10.


Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Netflix: Review of HELLBOUND: Damning Decrees and Demonstrations

November 23, 2021




An "angel" would appear before a person to "decree" the exact date and time of his death, and that he was going straight to Hell. On the designated time, three giant hulking supernatural creatures would suddenly appear to kill the person. A religious cult called The New Truth, founded by Jeong Jin-su (Yoo Ah-in), had gained virality when it broadcast one such "demonstration," explaining these to be God-ordained punishment for sinners.

Meanwhile, a lawyer named Min Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo) had formed her own group called Sodo to protect those who have received their decrees, but would like to keep their demonstrations secret. They believed that these decrees and demonstrations were a random mystical event that had nothing to do with any sin. The case of one particularly controversial decree recipient had both groups mobilizing their ranks to gain control of it.

The concept of this 6-episode mini-series by "Train to Busan" director Yeon Sang-ho was quite novel and interesting -- one that mixed morbid supernatural events with fanatical human behavior to create very dramatic situations. The misguided religious fanaticism and warped philosophy here were very disturbing to watch. Its origins may have been simple and sincere. However, with increased popularity comes pride and greed, so violence soon became inevitable.

The amount and degree of physical violence here was excessive. Those giant executioner demons could have simply vaporized the intended victim and be done with it. But no, they had to hurl them against walls to spray blood all over, before killing them with the bright light they emitted. There were also the goons of The New Truth, called the Arrowhead, who did extra-decree killings of people who wronged them, using anything from bats to incinerators. 

The first three episodes dealt with Jeong Jin-su, played with so much charisma by acclaimed actor Yoo Ah-in in yet another riveting performance. The last three episodes tackle events four years after Episode 3, with all new characters by less enigmatic actors, except for two rivals who now assumed positions of leadership. The final episode climaxed with so much emotional drama, but head-scratching logic. A chilling epilogue promises a possible season 2. 6/10.


Sunday, November 21, 2021

Review of SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS: Affirmatively Asian

November 24, 2021



Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) was a warrior from a thousand years ago who had come to possess the legendary ten rings, which made him a powerful immortal. He founded the Ten Rings organization which had been involved in violence through the years, all over the world. In 1976, he met his true love Ying Li (Fala Chen) in the village of Ta Lo. They had two children, Shang-chi and Xialing, with whom Wenwu had been estranged since they were teens. 

At present, Shang-chi (Simu Liu) made a living parking cars with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) in San Francisco. One day, Shang-chi was confronted by bad guys on a bus, who wanted to get the pendant his late mother gave him. Suspecting his father was behind this ambush, this led Shang-chi to go to Macau to warn his sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), who was running a underground fight club there. The shell-shocked Katy insisted to tag along.

What impotance "Black Panther" was for the African-American community, "Shang-Chi" would be for the Asian community. All the principal roles are portrayed by Asian actors, with only a few Caucasian actors in more minor roles. Shang-Chi is the first Asian title character in the MCU so it is a big deal that this project saw the light of day. This is probably the first time that most people had heard his name or that of the actor playing him.  

Simu Liu may not be a big name and familiar face compared, but he certainly proved his worth here in his feature film debut as a lead actor. He looked very good in all his fight scenes. That fight scene on the San Francisco bus, which introduced Liu to the general public in the first teaser, is still probably the best fight scene in the whole movie. His easygoing and humorous rapport with his co-star Awkwafina and her trademark awkward slacker character Katy is another big plus.

Tony Leung of course is a legendary name among Asian actors. He played Wenwu more relaxed that would be expected for such an intense anti-hero role, but he cannot be faulted for his acting choices as he still made it work. Michelle Yeoh revisits her role as the graceful yet powerful fighter in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to play Shang-Chi's aunt Ying-nan. Meng'er Zhang's training in MMA and rope darts showed in her fight scenes as Xialing.

To remind us that Shang-Chi will eventually be part of the MCU pantheon, Dr. Strange ally and Master of Mystic Arts Wong (Benedict Wong) makes an appearance in this film, more than once. The first one seemed to be whimsical, in a caged fight with the Abomination (voiced by Tim Roth). But the second one and the one after that (that featured two more unexpected hero cameos), were truly very exciting developments indeed. 

An interesting character is ham actor Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), whom we last saw as the Mandarin in "Iron Man 3" (2013). At first glance, the only reason he was even in Shang-Chi was because he was able to communicate with this faceless "chicken pig" creature which gave them directions to Ta Lo. But this also gave Trevor a chance to explain what really happened before,and show what he is reduced to now under Wenwu, the real "Mandarin."

Before this, director Destin Daniel Cretton's biggest project was "Just Mercy" (2019) (MY REVIEW), which got good reviews. His work in "Shang-Chi" catapults him into the major leagues. It was quite a lengthy film because it had to tell the history of how a new superhero got his powers, but with the well-choreographed fight scenes, over-the-top battles of CGI mythical creatures and the well-timed comic relief, this was one very entertaining movie. 8/10. 


Saturday, November 20, 2021

Mini-Reviews of A QUIET PLACE 2 and DON'T BREATHE 2: Second-rate Sequels

November 20, 2021

A Quiet Place 2

Directed by: John Krasinski

Written by: John Krasinski

This sequel picked up from where the first film (MY REVIEW) left off. The remaining members of the Abbott family (Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe), plus their newborn baby, try to survive the deadly hearing-sensitive alien monsters that laid the world to waste. They encounter an old friend Elliot (Cillian Murphy), who later helped Regan track down other survivors in the islands. 

Just more of the same suspense gimmicks like from the first film, but this time these tense situations did not feel enough to sustain the whole running time. The two kids, in particular, were making really bold foolhardy decisions, like going out on investigations on their own. While these reckless actions created tense situations, but they did not seem logical at all. 

This sequel began with a flashback scene of the actual day the aliens arrived, not only to have a John Krasinski cameo, but also to introduce the character of Elliot who would essentially replace John's character in the action. At one point, when Elliot randomly asked Regan what the sign for "dive" was, so of course, I expected him to use that sign later. He did. 5/10


Don't Breathe 2

Directed by: Rodo Sayagues

Written by: Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues

8 years after the events of the first film (MY REVIEW), the Blind Man (Stephen Lang) was living with a young girl Pheonix (Madelyn Grace), whom he called his daughter. When she was kidnapped by a man (Brendan Sexton III) who claimed to be her real father for nefarious reasons, the Blind Man tracked them down to stage a bold rescue.

Unlike the first film which was totally unpredictable where the story was going to go since everything was limited in one house, this sequel was a bit more clear cut as to how the story will end. It was also a lot more improbable given that the Blind Man was able to venture out of his house, go to a totally new place yet still able to put up a strong fight. 

The gore level of this sequel went much higher way with all sorts of gruesome, grotesque injuries being inflicted on various characters. However, by the second half, the claustrophobia that defined the first film was not there anymore as it devolved into frank slasher territory. The organ trafficking angle added a further level of heinousness to the proceedings. 5/10. 


Netflix: Review of TICK, TICK... BOOM!: Tension on Turning Thirty

November 20, 2021



New York City,1990. Jonathan Larson is turning 30 years old in a few days but he is still waiting tables at a diner. He had been writing his musical "Superbia" for eight years, and was about to present his songs in a workshop, but he still lacked a key song in the second act. His girlfriend Susan, a frustrated dancer, had serious intentions of accepting a teaching job in the Berkshires. His best friend since childhood Michael had given up his acting dreams and had become a successful advertising executive. 

The original musical was written by the creator of "Rent" Jonathan Larson. It was semi-autobiographical in the sense that Larson himself experienced the frustration that came with trying to make it on Broadway. It originated as a one-man show, a "rock monologue" performed by Jonathan Larson himself, and evolved from there. It was first staged June 2001 off Broadway with no less than Raul Esparza in the lead role. It had been re-staged and toured many times over since then. 

In the play version I saw back in 2016 (MY REVIEW), there were only three actors on the stage. There was one lead actor playing Jon. Two other actors, one male and one female, played his friends Michael and Susan, who would also take all the other more minor supporting characters. Of course in this film version, there was no need for the actors to take multiple roles. Each of the minor characters had a different actor to portray them. There were even a few other new characters who were written into the story. 

Andrew Garfield was an amazing ball of kinetic energy as Jon. I recalled how exhausting this role was for the actor onstage, and Garfield definitely projected that anxious stress and frenetic intensity of his character burning right through the screen. His singing voice soared with a vital jumble of passion and emotions, in songs like "30/90," "Swimming" and "Louder Than Words". He had always been an excellent actor, but this demanding role expanded his range even more. He deserves award recognition for this.

Alexandra Shipp played Susan, whose conflict with Jon was tough to call. Robin de Jesus played Michael, who made pragmatic decisions in place of his dreams. Vanessa Hudgens played Jon's singer Karessa, who sang two of the show's best songs "Therapy" (with Garfield) and "Come to Your Senses" (with Shipp). Judith Light played Jon's agent Rosa Stevens, while Bradley Whitford played theater legend Stephen Sondheim. MJ Rodriguez and Ben Levi Ross played Jon's co-workers at the diner, Carolyn and Freddy, new characters for the film.

Director Lin Manuel Miranda used his clout to invite a number of theater luminaries to make cameo appearances in the song "Sunday," from his "Hamilton" ladies, the "Rent" bohemians to Broadway grand dames Chita Rivera and Bernadette Peters, and many more.  This is theater wunderkind Miranda's debut as a feature film director, and it was an auspicious one. He was able to capture all the fantasies and turmoil going on in Jon's mind and effectively interpret them for us in cinematic images. 9/10. 


Friday, November 19, 2021

Review of BLACK WIDOW: Rebels of the Red Room

November 19, 2021


In 1995, Natasha (Ever Anderson) was an 11-year old girl with green hair living with her "parents" Russian undercover agents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weiss), with younger "sister" Yelena (Violet McGraw) in suburban Ohio. One day, they suddenly had to up and escape to Cuba with SHIELD intel, where the girls were both sent to the Red Room to train to become deadly mind-controlled female assassins known as "Black Widows". 

21 years later, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) was a fugitive of the law following the events of "Captain America: Civil War." Circumstances led her to Hungary to get her together with Yelena (Florence Pugh), who had been freed from her mind-control with an antidote. The two girls break Alexei out of jail, who then brought them to Melina. The reunited "family" execute a plot to infiltrate and destroy the Red Room and Gen. Draykov (Ray Winstone) for good.

This was a stand-alone movie for Natasha Romanoff, released after we know what happened to her in "Avengers: Endgame." Past and parallel events she was involved in were fit right in with known events of the MCU timeline. Fans of the MCU will enjoy the various references inserted as Easter Eggs within the story. One main antagonist, the Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), mimicked other superhero powers, so her fights were a lot of fun to watch. 

We all know how seriously Scarlett Johanssen performs as Black Widow, this is after all the 9th film she's been Natasha. It was good to see her interact with new characters in this film, people whom she considered as family in her past before her Red Room days. As I knew her from "Midsommar" and "Little Women," I did not expect Florence Pugh to also be convincing as an action star, but here she was going toe to toe with Johanssen. 

David Harbour may be providing comic relief as Alexei Shostakov a.k.a. Red Guardian, but this guy is a very powerful super soldier himself. It is very welcome to see Rachel Weiss in any role and her portrayal of the ambiguous Melina Vostokoff was on point as always. A very cool and casual O-T Fagbenle played ex-SHIELD operative Rick Mason, who now helped Natasha acquire the necessary hardware for her missions. 

The action scenes were all over-the-top CGI spectaculars, with the most incredible being that long sequence of Natasha and Yelena breaking their father out of a high-security Russian prison as an avalanche was rampaging down on it. Those scenes of Yelena ribbing Natasha about her classic fighting pose were hilarious. That amazing post-credits scene with Yelena and a mysterious woman we first met in the "Falcon and Winter Soldier" Disney+ series actually chucked my rating up a full point! 8/10. 

Vivamax: Review of MORE THAN BLUE: Sacrifices and Sentiments

November 19, 2021



Orphans Charles Keith  or "K" (JC Santos) and Sue Anne or "Cream" (Yassi Pressman) had been living together in a platonic arrangement since high school, and eventually became songwriting partners for pop singers. To try to get K to propose to her, Cream began to go out with a dentist John Luis (Diego Loyzaga). To assure himself that Cream had a good man who can take care of her when he is not in her life anymore, K even asked John's girlfriend Cathy (Ariella Arida) to help him get the two together. 

The story of this romantic drama was based on a 2009 Korean film with the same title which was a big box-office hit despite its low budget. It had already been remade in Taiwan in 2018, which also became a big box-office hit there and earning a more than $120M worldwide. There is even a 10-episode 2021 Taiwanese series based on the same story on Netflix now. I had not been able to watch these other versions yet, so I would not be able to compare the directorial vision and acting quality in each. 

After week after week of raunchy comedies or sexually-explicit fare, this was a very refreshing change in the programming of Vivamax to have an old-fashioned tear-jerking romantic drama like this. This had the glossy look classic Viva movies had been known for when they started in the film production business in the 1980s. If not for the odd inclusion of a gratuitous buttocks exposure scene by one character, this was something that millennial can comfortably watch together with their boomer parents. 

Before this film, I only knew Yassi Pressman as Cardo Dalisay's long-suffering wife Alyanna. Watching her here in action here as the typical manic pixie girl Cream was quite a departure made me appreciate her range as an actress. Like how this trope character usually works, Pressman definitely had the required beauty and energy to snap K out of his severe doldrums. When the arc of her story turned more serious, she readily switched to waterworks mode so well, pulling us all along with her pain and her tears. 

JC Santos is already very familiar with sad characters like K from all the indie films he had done before this. It was a bit of a stretch to accept him as a high school student at first, but when it came to heavy drama, this actor can surely deliver. After all the sexy roles Diego Loyzaga had this year, it was very good to see him give a solid performance in a straight dramatic role. As photographer Cindy, Ariella Arida can now wash her palate clean from how badly she was treated in her film debut a few weeks back.

Director Nuel Crisostomo Naval did very well with his camera angles here, with so many imaginative uses of mirrored images to make the scenes look elegant. The locations he chose all looked beautiful on the screen, especially the wedding studio and its spiral staircase encased by a tower with clear glass walls, the stylish photography studio of Cindy, and the dramatically-lit Jones bridge with its ornate lamp posts. Even with the inherent melodrama in the story, the high production value gave this film a lot of class. 8/10. 


Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Review of SPENCER: Cornered and Claustrophobic

November 17, 2021



Just when you think you've seen everything about the life story of Diana, Princess of Wales had been told and retold in countless media, here comes another feature film that is about her. During this pandemic alone, she had been the subject of a television series ("The Crown" Season 4 in 2020) and a filmed play / Broadway musical ("Diana: The Musical" in 2021). Certainly, the world is still held rapt about everything about her short but tragic life, even if it had already been 24 years after her death by now. 

It was 1991. The royal family were gathered in Queen's Sandringham Estate in Norfolk to spend the Christmas holidays. Because her marriage to Charles had already been long strained at that point, Diana was not in a hurry to be with everybody else. Because of a book she saw in her room, she began to see her current condition as being similar to that of Anne Boleyn. She also bothered that her sons were going to be taught how to shoot down pheasants. How will this stressful weekend turn out for the distressed princess?

This is practically a one-woman show by Kristen Stewart, centering on Diana point of view and her extreme mental anguish. People find it hard to accept Stewart as Diana, as their initial impression never moved from her maligned breakthrough role as Bella Swan in the "Twilight" films. However, she is now far and away the early favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actress and deservedly so. Accurate accent and mannerisms aside, Stewart's subtly nuanced take on Diana's fragile state of mind, practically on the brink of insanity at times, was absolutely riveting and heart-breaking.

Her two boys William and Harry were the only ones happy to see her. The Queen (Stella Gonet), Charles (Jack Farthing) and even Camilla (Emma Darwall-Smith) were in there, but they did not really have too much good to say to Diana. Diana actually shared longer conversations with certain members of the household staff. These were: Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall),the Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady (Sean Harris) and the Royal Dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins), whom Diana felt was her only friend there. 

This biopic did not deal about the typical highlights of her eventful life, just this one Christmas in 1991. Director Pedro Larrain ("Jackie") knew we already knew the context of Diana's situation at that time well enough and did not need much preliminary exposition anymore. He concentrated mainly on Diana and her inner demons and he made sure we felt as cornered and helpless as she did. The cinematography by Clair Mathon ("Portrait of a Lady on Fire") and the costumes by Jacqueline Durran ("Little Women" 2019) both deserve citation. That Mike and the Mechanics song at the end was so perfectly chosen. 8/10. 


Upstream: Review of BENEDETTA: Sisterly Scandal

November 15, 2021




In the 17th century in the city of Pescia, a girl from a well-to-do merchant family was offered by her parents to the Convent of the Theatines to be nun. For the next 18 years, Sister Benedetta would frequently have vivid visions of Jesus Christ talking to her or fighting for her. One day, a peasant girl named Bartolomea was put under her guidance.  When Benedetta later manifested stigmata, she promoted in position, as her relationship with her postulant became more scandalous. Meanwhile, the Black Plague ravaged the rest of Italy. 

During his heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven was notorious for the salaciousness of films such as "Basic Instinct" (1992) and "Showgirls" (1995). This year, at a ripe old age of 83, Verhoeven is back with another sexually-charged feature film which will be added to this infamous list. This new film courts even more controversy because it dared to tackle a story of sapphic sexuality happening within the consecrated confines of a Catholic convent, and this was supposed to be based on a real-life person. 

When it premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival in competition for the Palme d'Or, this film raised a major ruckus because of several provocative scenes which can easily be labelled as sacrilegious or blasphemous. Of course, the sexuality of nuns alone was already taboo topic in itself. Showing two nude nuns engaging in carnal pleasures with each other took this to a whole new level. Showing Bartolomea use a little statue of the Virgin Mary to bring Benedetta to ecstasy simply blasted everything through the roof. 

That short controversial scene of Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene on the lips that doomed Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) was nothing next to what Jesus was doing here in Benedetta's visions. He was a swashbuckling swordsman on horseback chopping off the head of Benedetta's rapist. He was hanging on the cross, and asked Benedetta to remove his loincloth, and then some. These disturbing scenes were very difficult to sit through for Christians, but I suspect may actually be quite humorous for atheists. 

This was an elegantly-shot film by cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, with an evocative musical score by Anne Dudley. It felt like Pasolini's "The Decameron" (1971) and Annaud's "The Name of the Rose" (1986). As he criticized organized religion, Verhoeven kept us guessing to the end about the authenticity of Benedetta's divinity. The lead actresses Virginie Efira and Daphne Patakia were beautiful and fearless, as veteran actors Charlotte Rampling (as the old Abbess Felicita) and (Lambert Wilson) as the Nuncio gave impactful support.


Saturday, November 13, 2021

Netflix: Review of RED NOTICE: Extravagant Egghunt

November 13, 2021



An Egyptian billionaire was willing to pay $300 million to whoever could bring him three golden eggs from Cleopatra's tomb which were now located in three different places. Notorious art thieves Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds) and his main competitor the Bishop (Gal Gadot) are both aiming to get all three together. However, FBI special agent and criminal profiler John Hartley was also hot on their heels, as well as Interpol Inspector Das (Rity Arya).   

This had all the ingredients for a great adventure film. The budget seemed to be all out, as the story globetrotted to different locations, with all the fancy stunts with helicopters and vintage cars. It combined the Nazi archeological aspects of the "Indiana Jones" films with the elegant heist plots of the "Oceans" films. The three main stars were definitely A-list, all at the top of their game as headliners of their respective box-office hits. 

These three stars had roles right in their comfort zones. Dwayne Johnson is always the correct choice for the alpha male, swashbuckling action hero. Ryan Reynolds is right at home being the wiseass, wise-cracking funny-man, with pop culture joke in practically every other line. Gal Gadot was practically Diana Prince here, a glamorous, skilled and intelligent Amazon -- only she was working on the wrong side of the law this time around. 

As is expected in most heist films involving competing criminals, there would definitely be dangerous alliances and double-crossing schemes. This one had these aspects in spades, with surprising twists and turns all the way to the very end. The easy chemistry of the three stars together made these twists land properly. There were very funny jokes peppered all throughout, mostly hits than misses (for me, anyway). 

There were plenty of contrivances in the incredible plot, too many strokes of luck for the three main characters to be believable. Their plans just so happen to fall into place too perfectly, you just did not exactly whose plan was working and whose was not. There was a silly cameo where the guest star referred to his previous higher-profile cameo in another TV series. Overall, this was one likable, thoroughly entertaining popcorn film. 6/10. 


Upstream: Review of RABID: Eerie, Entertaining Episodes

November 13, 2021


This new project is director Erik Matti's third film this year after "A Girl and a Guy" and his prestigious Venice Filmfest entry "OTJ: The Missing 8." It is an anthology of four short films with scripts written (or co-written) by Michiko Yamamoto. According to Matti, the stories were inspired by the feelings of madness brought about by the Covid pandemic. 

The excellent technicals for this production deserve mention: cinematography by Neil Derrick Bion, film editing by Mica Roca, production design by Shiel Calde and sound by Lamberto Casas Jr. and Pietro Marco Javier. Unlike the "Shake, Rattle and Roll" films of the past, there were no big name actors in the cast, but these were still entertaining nonetheless.

Kami Lang Ba Pwede Malasin

Mayette (Chesca Diaz) was the mom of a well-to-do family who took in a homeless old woman (Jay Glorioso) offered her food and shelter. As a result of this act of charity, her life and those of her husband Carlo (Jake Macapagal) and daughter Lizzie (Ammera Johara) all turned upside down. Can Lizzie's boyfriend Dexter (Kent Gonzales) help? 

This first episode instantly set the creepy mood for the whole film with its gloomy atmosphere and unsettling story. There is subtle dark comedy that underlies the dialogues and situations, which will resurface in the other episodes. Veteran theater actress Jay Glorioso dominated this episode with her campy portrayal of the Lola. 7/10

Iba Pa Rin ang Karne

Jane (Pam Gonzales) had contracted a condition which caused her behavior to turn into that of a wild animal, so she had to be chained up to be restrained. Her husband Melvin (Vance Larena) patiently took care of her, trying to force feed her with a concoction her vegetables which was supposed to help her get well.

This two-hander episode had the most simple story line among the four, but it had the most complicated set design. There was only one setting in this one, an underground cave which looked like a basement storage facility with various junk. Unlike the other episodes, this one had more sentimental drama, than horror or humor. 5/10

Shit Happens

Slacker young nurse Becky (Ayeesha Cervantes) took on a job as unit nurse in a small hospital while waiting for her visa to arrive. However, Luzviminda (Ube Lola) the comatose patient in Rm 207, had other plans for her. Meanwhile, her fellow nurse Reggie (Ricci Rivero) and her boyfriend Walter (Brace Arquiza) try to get her out of trouble. 

As a true horror comedy, this episode had to be the most over-the-top of the four. It took its time to build up steam at first, but once the main action between Becky and Luzviminda kicked in, the absurdity of the situation was a lot of fun to follow, all the way to that LOL shock ending. I did not know Ube Lola before this but she will be hard to forget. 8/10

HM?

Single mom Princess (Donna Cariaga) was laid off from work during the pandemic. In order to make money to raise her son Nico (Ynigo Delen), she tried selling her home-cooked viands online, but her cooking was not any good. However, when she used a secret ingredient she learned from a pop-up ad, her kare-kare turned into an instant sensation among foodies. 

With her self-deprecating sense of humor, Donna Cariaga was perfectly cast as the problematic woebegone Princess. Child actor Ynigo Delen excelled with an intense performance that certainly made this episode most harrowing. This had the eeriest "Twilight Zone"-feels for me with that stressful build-up to that absolutely terrifying climax. 8/10. 


Friday, November 12, 2021

Netflix: Review of PASSING: Pretense and Prejudice

November 12, 2021



Irene (Tessa Thompson) was a light-skinned black woman who could pass as white, but she married a black man Brian Redfield (Andre Holland). With her blonde hair and even lighter skin, Clare (Ruth Negga) had actually been passing as white for some time, and even married an unsuspecting white man John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgard).

Clare admitted to Irene that she missed being a black woman and envied Irene's family life in Harlem. Meanwhile, Irene was very insecure about Clare's beauty and was even jealous about Clare's rapport with Brian. Irene's psychological breakdown eventually led their friendship to eventually become very strained.  

This film depicted a race issue I had not been aware of till now -- that of light-skinned black folk being able to pass as white in order to avoid the discriminatory practices American society subjected to blacks. The time setting of this film was in the 1920s when the prejudice against African-American folks was still very strong, so this makes Clare's boldness to pretend to be white all the more seem foolhardy, yet remarkably impressive. 

Despite being mixed race, Tessa Thompson still had some decidedly black features, which made her passing white not too convincing. While she was not entirely white-looking as well, Ruth Negga looked very comfortable as Clare. Even if it seems incredulous how a bigoted white man can unknowingly marry and stay married with Clare for a significant time, Negga's confident performance sold the illusion. 

I was surprised to learn after watching the film that writer-director Rebecca Hall is actually also half-black, even if she looked totally white. As an actress, Hall was always cast as a white character as well. Knowing about this interesting intersection of her real life situation and her fictional story makes this film more meaningful to watch. Maybe Hall should have gone further and cast herself as Clare since she could definitely pass as white without much makeup. 

The whole look of the film was very elegant, with the black and white grading seeming to reflect the underlying theme of racial fluidity. The beautiful costumes, hair styling and make-up also contribute to the credibility of the contrasting characters of Thompson and Negga. The pace of the storytelling was deliberately slow and the acting was very restrained, which may try the patience of some viewers. The ending is jarring and certainly unpredictable. 6/10.


Vivamax: Review of MAHJONG NIGHTS: Guileless Gambling

November 12, 2021



After a long break owing to pandemic restrictions, Esther (Mickey Ferriols) invited her very good friends Wylo (Arnell Ignacio), Ason (Liz Alindogan) and Amparo (Jamilla Obispo) to get-together and play their usual rounds of mahjong at her house. Occasionally, Esther's pretty chef daughter Alexa (Angeli Khang), her problematic common-law husband Leo (Jay Manalo) or Amparo's driver Gaspar (Sean de Guzman) would take turns to play. 

Sex, not mahjong, was the priority of the film, and it was all just out there, with no effort for subtlety or artistry. Most of the action in Alexa's bedroom (who never locked her doors) or in Amparo's spacious mini-van. There was even one daring scene literally on the mahjong table. These encounters just happened totally randomly, with no build-up whatsoever to make sense why the hook-up had to happen. This lack of logical motivation would hound the film up to its over-the-top ending.

Ingenue Angeli Khang gave it her all for her feature film debut in a lead role. While her delivery of lines and acting skills were obviously still quite raw, she had no qualms about baring her ample bodily assets and  the camera was really showing everything up close. Bold as she was, her innocent face still looked so vulnerable, certain sensual scenes (especially the gratuitous shower scene and those squeamish molestation scenes) felt very uncomfortable to watch. 

Despite the dad bod, Jay Manalo still exudes lasciviousness as effortlessly as he did back in his heyday. Jamilla Obispo shows that she still had the allure she had when she made her debut in director Law Fajardo's first skin flick "Ex-Deal" (2011). Sean de Guzman does what's expected of him as the lusty stud du jour of 2021. It seems theater actor Tad Tadioan just reprised his role as a strong simpleton in TP's play "Katsuri" for his role here as Big Boy. Mickey Ferriols, Arnel Ignacio and Liz Alindogan barely even mattered in the main story at all. 

With the names of Law Fajardo as director and Byron Bryant as screenwriter, I expected more from this project than this poor final product. Despite the mention of mahjong in the title, the games did not really matter. There was disappointingly nothing much that happened when the games were ongoing. We hardly even see the action of the tiles on the table while the boring characters were humorlessly chatting away about their mundane lives. So much potential for provocative conversation or exciting strategizing here, as it was in "Crazy Rich Asians," but this did not materialize. 1/10.



Thursday, November 11, 2021

Review of DUNE (2021 vs. 1984): Spectacular Space Saga about Spice

November 11, 2021



"Dune" was a best-selling, award-winning 1965 science fiction novel written by Frank Herbert. The title was from its setting, the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of the precious spice central to its plot.  This was the first book of a saga, followed by "Dune Messiah" (1969), "Children of Dune" (1976), "God Emperor of Dune" (1981), "Heretics of Dune" (1984) and "Chapterhouse: Dune" (1985). After Herbert's death in 1986, his son Bryan Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson continued the book franchise up to the present.

"Dune" had also influenced several games, music, comic books, television series, and of course, films. The complexity of the novel did not make the transition to film easy, evidenced by a number of failed attempts. The first film version was finally completed in 1984 by co-written and directed by David Lynch. It had bad reviews from the critics and performed poorly at the box office, with Lynch even disowning the final cut of the film. This pandemic year of 2021, director Denis Villeneuve decided to release his remake to theaters only. 

Disclosure: I watched the 2021 version first before I got to watch the 1984 version. I did try to watch the 1984 version on videotape decades ago, but I did not get it, so I could not get myself to get to finish it. This time around, because the complex story was much clearer thanks to the 2021 version, I was finally able to watch the 1984 version in toto. Of course, it was unavoidable to compare the colorful, campy 1984 version to the controlled, cerebral 2021 version while I was watching it. 

It was the year 10191. The Emperor of the known universe had assigned Duke Leto of House Atreides of the planet Caladan to administer the important desert planet of Arrakis, in place of the House Harkonnen. Arrakis was the only source of the spice melange, which was very crucial for space travel. However lately, the native people of Arrakis, the blue-eyed Fremen, were beginning to assert their rights, so the first thing the Duke had to do was to reach out to their leader Stilgar in order to establish a peaceful bond with them. 

The central character is Paul, son of Duke Leto and his Bene Gesserit concubine, Lady Jessica. The Bene Gesserit are an exclusive sisterhood of women who developed an ability to compel anyone to obey their will with the use of their special voice. Because he was being trained by his mother in the Bene Gesserit ways, Paul had been having visions of Arrakis, the bloody conflicts they will face, and the Freman girl he will meet. When Paul was settling in in Arrakis, there was an attempt made on his life that disturbed the shaky peace.

Right off the bat, one can readily see that Denis Villeneuve had imbued his vision of "Dune" with gorgeous-looking camera work and spectacular computer-generated effects. The pace of his storytelling was deliberately slow (as he is wont to do), but the momentum did not sag. The multi-dimensional story was surprisingly easy to follow and understand, despite the inherently complicated plot with multiple planets and peoples. The acting was generally subdued across the board, in consonance with the solemn mood of the film. This is not an action film.

Timothee Chalamet (as Paul) and Oscar Isaac (as Duke Leto) both exuded a distinguished noble air with their restrained performances. Rebecca Ferguson looked too young and nervous here to be the powerful Lady Jessica. Jason Momoa looked effortlessly heroic in his fight scenes as the dashing warrior Duncan Idaho. Zendaya was enigmatic as the Fremen girl Chani in Paul's dreams. Stellan Skarsgaard and Dave Bautista were particularly less garish than how the Harkonnens were portrayed before, but not any less sinister.


Beside the elegance of Villeneuve film, the 1984 original film by David Lynch, with its outlandish sets, props,costumes, hairstyles and make-up, all the atrociously over-the-top acting of the cast and clunky special effects. Lynch did emphasize one essential characteristic of that future world as per Herbert, which was the banning of computers and artificial intelligence. It also had a scene which showed how the "brainy" Guild Navigator "folding space" under the influence of melange, which was not shown at all in the sequel. 

Kyle McLachlan made his feature film debut as Paul, with European actors Francesca Annis and Jurgen Prochnow as his parents. Richard Jordan played Duncan Idaho who barely did anything in this version, but we see more of Patrick Stewart as the Artrides's lieutenant Gurney Halleck (played by Josh Brolin in the current version). The revered Max Van Sydow played the Imperial Ecologist Doctor Kynes, a role which was gender- and race-reversed and expanded in the person of actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster. 

We saw so much more of the villainous Harkonnens in the 1984 version, played with caricaturish glee by Kenneth McMillan (as the Baron), Paul Smith (as the crazy Beast Rabban) and a scene-stealing Sting (as Feyd-Rautha, a character not seen in the 2021 version). McMillan's portrayal of the Baron in 1984 was far-more memorable as it was visually disgusting, with the right side of his face full of grotesque blebs and pustules, and his extremely obese body floating around the room like a balloon. 

This new film covered only the story of the first hour and a half of the 1984 original film. This means that whole 45 minutes final act will have to wait for Villeneuve's sequel (if it will come). That is the part where we see more of the Fremens, like Stilgar (Everett McGill in 1984, Javier Bardem in 2021) and Chani (Sean Young in 1984, Zendaya in 2021); as well as meet Paul's precocious younger sister Alia (Alicia Witt in 1984). The sequel should also get to show the giant sandworms in battle action, surely to be executed much better than it was in 1984. 

Dune (2021): 9/10

Dune (1984): 6/10. 




Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Netflix: Review of LOVE HARD: A Catfishing Conundrum

November 9, 2021



Natalie Bauer was a writer who wrote a successful regular column about her dating misadventures. However, she felt different about this latest guy whom she met in a dating app -- Josh Lin from Lake Placid, New York. They seem to hit it off so well in their regular chats, such that Natalie impulsively decided to fly cross-country to give Josh a big surprise that Christmas. Upon arriving at Josh's house, Natalie also received a big surprise of her own. 

Catfishing means misrepresenting oneself by creating a different persona on social media. This darkly delightful film tackles this phenomenon at various levels. Josh (Jimmy O. Yang) catfished Natalie (Nina Dobrev) by posting photos of his more handsome friend Tag (Darren Barnet) instead of his own. Natalie in turn resorted to telling lies about herself in order to gain Tag's favor, which illustrated that catfishing can also be done in real life, not only online. 

All the lying in this film was only made more tolerable by the likability of the two lead actors. Nina Dobrev played Natalie with typical millennial pretentiousness, yet she was still quite charming so we do not totally dislike her for it. Jimmy O. Yang played Josh with dry wit and self-effacement, making it tough to fault him for deceiving Natalie with fake photos. Whether they actually had romantic chemistry between each other, now that is the harder sell.

The best parts of this Christmas movie are the parts involving Josh's loving parents, Bob (James Saito) and Barb (Rebecca Staab) and grandmother June (Althea Kaye). Their happiness and affection for Josh felt very genuine, such their scenes did feel quite emotional. I liked their great Christmas spirit with the fancy house decorations and their caroling tradition. Harry Shum Jr. went a tad over with his competitive older brother Owen bit. 

Even if this was handled in a light comical way by Costa Rican director Hernan Cortez, the underlying theme of this film about lying in relationships was very disturbing. While watching, we witness how Josh and Natalie's lies just kept on piling up one over the other, affecting them and everyone around them. We all felt how these falsehoods reached that inevitable tipping point when there was already no easy way of extricating themselves out.   6/10. 


Netflix: Review of THE HARDER THEY FALL: Ornery Outlaws

November 9, 2021



10-year old Nat Love witnessed his parents murdered in front of him. A cross was carved into his forehead by their killer. Years later, Nat was a notorious outlaw riding with his partners-in-crime Bill Pickett and Jim Beckwourth. He was trying to reconnect with his ex-lover, Mary Fields, who was running a chain of saloons with her right-hand man Cuffee. In his last caper, Nat stole money that belonged to a rival outlaw boss Rufus Buck, who had just been sprung from captivity by his gang led by Trudy Smith and Cherokee Bill. 

This was an auspicious debut feature for British musician Jeymes Samuel, who goes by the stage name The Bullitt. He goes for Tarantino-esque techniques of stylized violence, marked with a dark sense of humor, set to the beat of hiphop and reggae flavored musical soundtrack, anachronistic to the period being portrayed onscreen. The dry expansive American frontier vistas, the contrasting colors of Redwood City and Marysville, the locomotive on the train tracks, were all captured in eye-catching images by cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr.

While he did creditably well in the central role of Nat Love, I felt Jonathan Majors was constantly being upstaged by his other flashier co-stars in supporting roles who had more powerful screen presences than him. Zazie Beetz positively sizzled as Stagecoach Mary, a bigger leap forward from her breakthrough as Domino in "Deadpool 2" (2018). Danielle Deadwyler stole all her comical scenes as androgynous tough guy Cuffee. Veteran Delroy Lindo exuded respectable dignity as legendary lawman Bass Reeves.

Ironically, the actors portraying the antagonists were the higher profile actors. From "Concrete Cowboy" (2020), we knew Idris Elba was a realistic cowboy. With his piercing light-blue eyes, he commands all his scenes as evil Rufus Buck even with the minimum of dialogue. Regina King, an Academy Award winning actress for "If Beale Street Could Talk" (2018), came off very strong as the ruthlessly intimidating Trudy Smith. LaKeith Stanfield, Oscar nominee for "Judas and the Black Messiah" (2020), was charismatic and actually likable as Cherokee Bill. 

This film is remarkable because it is a true-blue Western which had a principal cast of black actors. Even if the story by director-writer Jeymes Samuel is totally fictional, the names he used for most of the main characters -- Nat Love, Rufus Buck, Cherokee Bill, Stagecoach Mary, Cathay Williams, Bass Reeves -- were all real people who existed in Wild West history. Watching this film will make you want to read up not only about the existence of black cowboys, but also on the real stories of these people behind the names. 7/10. 


Saturday, November 6, 2021

HBO GO: Review of THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021): Shooting Starfish

November 6, 2021



The Suicide Squad is a ragtag group of super-criminals assembled by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) for the US government to take on deadly black-ops missions in exchange for shorter hail time. This time around, the new team of criminals from the Belle Reve prison were sent the island nation of Corto Maltese to infiltrate and destroy a Nazi laboratory called Jotunheim which was conducting mysterious experiments called "Project Starfish," involving an alien creature that can kill and take over mass groups of people.  

The first attempt to introduce this DC Comics group of super-villains in a film in by David Ayer in 2016 (MY REVIEW).  While Margot Robbie stood out as Harley Quinn and Will Smith looked cool as Deadshot, the rest of the squad felt miscast, from Jai Courtenay as Capt. Boomerang to Jared Leto as the Joker. The rated PG-13 treatment of the violent material did not go over well with critics who shot it down early with negative reviews. However, audiences still lapped it up at the box office. It surprisingly even won an Oscar for Hairstyling and Make-up, the first DCEU film to do so. 

This new reboot still had Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, but the rest of the cast is new. The team was led by a reluctant Bloodsport (Idris Elba), and was composed of ruthless killer Peacemaker (John Cena at his most obnoxious best), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) with her ability to make rats obey her will, Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) with his serious mommy-issues, and a man-eating hybrid King Shark (Sylvester Stallone, in a most memorable role). 

Despite being a very violent film, director James Gunn did not shy from using bright colors. Harley Quinn had a exhilarating escape from a building full of goons dressed in a blood-red gown. Polka-Dot Man produced pastel polka dots, but these cute innocuous disks had great destructive power in them. The pink and powder blue giant Starro the Conqueror rampaging through the Corte Maltese town like a giant kaiju Patrick Starr, while shooting out multitude miniatures of itself from its axillae, was quite a sight to behold. 

Gunn, brought in from the rival Marvel company, where he directed "Guardians of the Galaxy" (2014) and its sequel (2017), both massive box-office hits, has certainly proven that he can manage films about motley crews of lesser-known super-beings and make them into a cohesive team. This new Suicide Squad film had more graphic scenes of blood-splattering gore, but its tongue-in-cheek humor kept all the team members, ruthless killers as they were, quite likable, even endearing. 8/10.


Friday, November 5, 2021

Vivamax: Review of BARUMBADINGS: Grilling Gay Gangsters

November 5, 2021




Even as young orphan kids from the local DSWD center, Jopay (Lance Obero), Izzy (Janrey Torres) and Rochelle (Carlo Mendoza) always got involved in fights against bullies who teased them about their being cross-dressing gays. One day, they met a fashion designer Mother Joy (Joel Torre) who tried to get them into the glamor of gay beauty pageants instead. The three young ones gave it a try but ultimately decided that pageant life is not for them.

As grown men, the three (now played by Mark Anthony Fernandez, Jeric Raval and Baron Geisler respectively) joined a gang of gay assassins led by Queenpin (John "Sweet" Lapus) who targeted men who treated gays badly. One day, there was a series of murders against prominent gay people being perpetrated by an anti-gay group called the Butchers led by Buchi (Cecil Paz). Seeing Mother Joy on the list of targets, they immediately jumped into action.

The age gaps of three child actors looked too big, so that their transition into the three adult actors was not smooth. Jeric Raval looked too much older to be the middle child Izzy. Mark Anthony Fernandez underplayed Jopay, as Baron Geisler overplayed Rochelle. Joel Torre must have welcomed this flamboyant role as Mother Joy so much, he gave it his award-winning all. John Sweet Lapus chewed his scenes as Queenpin for all their worth. Character actress Cecil Paz gets a meaty role to sink her teeth into as Buchi. 

With a comical title like "Barumbadings," this film may give an initial impression of being a senseless silly comedy about gay men. However, it actually raised a lot of serious questions about gays. Should gay men just remain quiet and accept society's taunts against them, or should they actively fight back against their tormentors? Are gays indeed the balancing force in the world, providing the softness and gentility in the steely cold world these days? 

It would also touch about the trauma a number of gays inflict on women whom they marry to save face and hide their gayness. There was also a significant time talking about how lesbians and how their problems do not get as much public attention than what gays get. Are the gays getting too noisy with their self-interests, or are they still as deprived as they think? Writer-director Darryl Yap provokes more thoughts again on his 10th project this year alone. 5/10. 


Monday, November 1, 2021

Netflix: Review of ARMY OF THIEVES: A Safecracker's Story

November 1, 2021



Nerdy German clerk Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert  had been posting videos about his talent in safe-cracking but no one was watching. Until one day, he received a comment on his latest video inviting him to join a safecracking competition. Upon winning, he was offered to join an elite group of thieves who needed a safecracker on their next target -- to crack three legendary safes (namely the Rhinegold in Paris, the Valkyrie in Prague and the Siegfried in St. Moritz) before they were decommissioned by their new owner.  

We first saw the nervous safecracker played by German actor Matthias Schweighöfer earlier this year in Zack Snyder's "Army of the Dead" about zombies overrunning Las Vegas. His name in the first movie was Ludwig Dieter, and in this prequel we see how poor flustered Sebastian gained his reputation in safecracking and how he made it to the US to join Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and company. Since we know he will make it out of Europe in the end, there was actually no suspense how this movie will end.

The bulk of this film was how Sebastian settled into the notorious criminal gang (not really an "army" as the title states) that got him. His main contact was the elegant master thief Gwendolyn Starr (Nathalie Emmanuel), with whom Sebastian instantly developed a big crush. However, Gwendolyn seemed to be romantically involved with their jealous alpha-male leader Brad Cage (Stuart Martin). The other members of the team were ace tech expert Korina Dominguez (Ruby O. Fee) and their getaway driver Rolf (Guz Khan). 

The names of the safes were based on the operatic works of classical musician Richard Wagner and his Ring Cycle based on Norse mythology. The Rheingold was about the greedy Neibelung dwarf Alberich who crafted powerful ring out of gold. The Valkyrie was Brunhilde, a valkyrie ordered to kill her half-brother, Sigmund.  Siegfried is about its title character, the son of Sigmund who slayed a dragon and married a former valkyrie. While interesting, these tales were merely soundbytes to fill the dead air while Sebastian was cracking each safe.

To make things a little less predictable than it really was, there was an obsessed Interpol cop Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen) who was hot on their heels. The close calls somehow give the capers a bit of suspense about the fates of other members of the gang, but the safecracking scenes can feel repetitive and too lengthy. Beforehand, we already knew Sebastian will crack all the safes and make it out safely, yet star-director Matthias Schweighöfer was able to tell his story with the essential thrill of the heist somehow still remaining intact. 6/10. 



Netflix: Review of MAYA AND THE THREE: Mesoamerican Memorialization

November 1, 2021



Princess Maya (Zoe Saldana) is the spirited and adventurous daughter of the King (Jorge R. Gutierrez) and Queen (Sandra Equihua) of the fictional Mesoamerican kingdom of Teca. On the occasion of her 15th birthday, she unexpectedly learned some vital information about her real origins. This put her in directly in conflict with the powerful God of War Lord Mictlan (Alfred Molina) and the fulfillment of an ancient prophesy that an Eagle will lead a select group of three warriors to save the whole world from total destruction. 

Jorge R. Gutierrez is a Mexican animator famous for his work in films and TV series that proudly promote Mexican culture, like the Annie-winning "El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera" (2007) on Nickelodeon and the Golden Globe-winning animated film "The Book of Life" (2014). In this latest project with Netflix, Gutierrez pulled out all the stops in celebrating the myths not only in Mexico, but in the entire historical cultural area of Mesoamerica, which spanned from Central Mexico to El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras.

The 3D designs Gutierrez employed for the entire 9-episode series were derived from Mesoamerican folklore, mythology and art. There are various gods and goddesses that Maya and her friends encounter along their quest, aside from the God of War and his wife Lady Micte (Kate del Castillo), the Goddess of Death, there were other deities under Mictlan's beck and call -- the God of Earthquakes (Danny Trejo) and his wife the Goddess of Alligators (Rosie Perez), the twin gods of Wind and Storms (Cheech Marin), among many others. 

The main protagonist Maya is female, only one of the several strong women characters, as Gutierrez's tribute to the women in his life and in Latin history. The Rooster Warrior is the peasant wizard Rico (Allen Maldonado), raised by the Gran Brujo (Wyclef Jean).  The Skull Warrior is archer Chimi (Stephanie Beatriz) raised from infancy by forest animals. The Puma Warrior is the strongman Picchu (Gabriel Iglesias) of the Barbarians. Like Maya, all her three warriors were battling personal demons of guilt they needed to resolve.

If you are familiar with Gutierrez's former works, the artwork of "Maya and the Three" are very colorful and vibrant. The visual style of the battle scenes was very frenetic and fast, frequently with warnings against photosensitive epilepsy because of its use of strobe lights. The story may have started out familiar, a headstrong princess rebelling against her strict mother, a quest involving the collection of three warriors vital for victory. But the climactic showdown and its unexpected aftermath is surprisingly glorious with romance and inspiration. 8/10.