Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Review of EASTER SUNDAY: Filipino Family Frenzy

 August 31, 2022

Fil-Am actor Joe Valencia (Jo Koy) was auditioning for a role in a sitcom which caused him to miss an important meeting with the teachers of his son Junior (Brandon Wardell). To make up for this, he brought Junior along with him on a road trip to Daly City to attend their yearly family reunion on Easter Sunday. Hosting the dinner was Joe's domineering mother Susan (Lydia Gaston), who still had a long-running feud with her sister Theresa (Tia Carrere).

Joe's cousin Eugene (Eugene Cordero) got mixed up with a ruthless loan shark Dev Deluxe (Asif Ali) to finance the "hype truck" he invested in. Dev threatened Eugene (along with his famous cousin Joe) to pay the $40,000 he owed him that same night or else. However, that same night, Joe's manager Nick (Joe Chandrasekhar, also this film's director) got him a ticket to fly back to LA to argue his case in front of studio executives of the sitcom. 

As Joe Valencia, Fil-Am stand-up comedian Jo Koy practically played a less successful version of himself, one still struggling to get jobs as a comedian on TV. Jo Koy was not exactly a film comedian, so his performance can sort of feel tentative and forced, trying harder than usual to be "funny." This was especially apparent with his scenes side by side with Eugene Cordero, who was more relaxed in his portrayal of the rascal Eugene. 

As Susan, Lydia Gaston is the personification of the Filipino mother whom Jo Koy always brought up in all his comedy spiels. Her Susan can go too far sometimes, but it was fun hearing her excitable Tagalog lines in several scenes.  Because of her role as Susan's nemesis, 90s Fil-Am bombshell Tia Carrere was limited only in playing her character Theresa as being obsessively competitive. Too bad we do not see more range from her. 

For me, the best performer in this film was Eva Noblezada, who had a positively radiant screen presence and an easy natural feel about her acting. She is a 2-time Tony Award nominated young Fil-Am actress for her roles in the 2017 revival of "Miss Saigon" and the 2019 original run of "Hadestown." She had good chemistry going with 29 year-old actor Brandon Wardell who was still playing a high school senior here.  

Admittedly, not all the gags fly here, even for Filipino viewers. I don't know why the writers would think jokes about the Sto. Nino statue would be funny, particularly Ken Cheng who grew up in the Philippines before migrating to the US in the 80s. In the story, Joe Valencia was resistant to accepting a role because the producers wanted him to use a Filipino accent. So it is quite ironic that everyone in this film spoke in exaggerated Filipino accents! 

However, it was heartening to watch Filipino family dynamics in a mainstream Hollywood movie. This may be the first film where Daly City (whose population is 35% Filipino) is the main setting. There were amusing mentions of favorite Filipino topics like Manny Pacquiao (and his birthday), balisong, halo-halo, balikbayan box, etc. Seeing Lou Diamond Phillips play himself in a surprise guest role was a big plus.  6/10. 

Review of THE INVITATION: Relative Revelation

August 31, 2022

After sending in a DNA sample, New York City waitress Evie Jackson (Nathalie Emmanuel) discovered that she is related to a family in England. Soon after, a charming young Englishman Oliver Alexander (Hugh Skinner) met with her, claiming she was his long-lost cousin, from a line stemming from a scandalous affair. He invited her to fly back with him to England to attend an upcoming wedding and meet the rest of the family at the same time.

They were welcomed into the stately mansion of Walter DeVille (Thomas Doherty), who is hosting the grand event. In the pre-wedding events, Oliver introduced Evie to the members of the Alexander family who were all very welcoming to her. At another event, she met the two maids-of-honor, the snooty Viktoria (Stephanie Corneliussen) and the friendly Lucy (Alana Boden), Before long, Evie found herself falling for her handsome host Walter.

Nathalie Emmanuel's striking beauty was first seen when she played Missandre, the Khaleesi's lady-in-waiting in "Game of Thrones." She is a British actress, but her Evie was an American, and a woke one at that. She actually had a good chemistry with Thomas Doherty, who smoldered as the mesmerizing English aristocrat Walter. The revelations in the last thirty minutes will further explain why Doherty had to play him that way.

This movie was only a little over 1-1/2 hours long, yet the first hour played like a gothic romance only. Aside from the creepy haunted house atmosphere and maids encountering shadowy attackers in the night, there was not much horror happening yet. There were just a series of scenes of Evie meeting various people at parties. If you had not seen the trailer or read the reviews, you may have no idea about what's coming up next.

In contrast with the languidly-paced first hour, the last thirty minutes rushed things up to reveal what the whole film was really all about. The shocking announcement Walter made at the masquerade dinner will come as a big surprise to those as unsuspecting as Evie was. The real reason Evie was there was actually an interesting twist, but nothing in the first hour prepared us for the fiery Grand-Guignol style climactic fight scenes. 5/10.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Amazon Prime: Review of SAMARITAN: Super Senior

August 29, 2022

Long ago, there were two superhuman brothers who lived in Granite City. Samaritan was the good brother, and Nemesis was the bad brother. According to the legend, both of them perished in a big fire at the power station while they were fighting each other. There were still people who believed that Samaritan survived the fire and was still alive up to the present.

One of Samaritan's most faithful fans who believed he was still alive was 13-year old Sam Cleary (Javon "Wanna" Walton). One day, when got into trouble with some gang boys, his old neighbor Joe Smith (Sylvester Stallone) came to his rescue. Sam witnessed Joe doing some superhuman fight moves, which made him suspect that Joe was actually Samaritan. 

Writer Bragi F. Schut adapted his own graphic novels published by Mythos Comics, which he wrote with Marc Olivent and Renzo Podesta. Director Julius Avery wisely did not take his material too seriously and kept things light and rated PG, which may disappoint some viewers who are used to more blood in their Stallone movies. A lot of the violence (and they were a lot) looked graphic, but had no actual gory details. 

The kid Javon "Wanna" Walton played the spirited Sam with just the right amount of sass but not too overboard so as not to make him annoying. I first noted him as Diego and Lila's son Stan in Netflix's "The Umbrella Academy" where he already displayed much confidence and promise. Here, he had very good acting chemistry with Stallone, as well as with Dascha Polanco, who played his financially-challenged mother Tiffany. 

Of course, the main draw of this film still remains to be Sylvester Stallone, still very much in possession of his action hero mode. At 76 years of age, Stallone still looked very good and solid here, and was still quite agile and graceful with his fighting and other action scenes. At no point did we doubt that Stallone's Joe could defeat the entire horde of bad guys led by Nemesis fan Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk),even as he needed to be cooled down by ice cream after each fight. 

Save for an interesting last minute twist, the story was pretty straightforward. There were some preposterous situations that little Sam gets into and survives, particularly in that burning building towards the end, which needed liberal suspension of disbelief. However, Avery's film was quite entertaining and engaging, not boring. It won't earn any awards, but it definitely achieves its primary goal of providing an adrenaline rush. 6/10. 

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Review of EMERGENCY DECLARATION: Aviation Anarchy

August 28, 2022

Detective In-ho (Song Kang-ho) was investigating a viral video online about a man who declared that he wanted to kill people on an airplane. In-ho knew his wife Hye-yoon (Woo Mi-hwa) was flying off that day with her friends, and became worried.  The police were able to trace the man's apartment and upon entering it, they discovered a dead body and a cache of video tapes showing an experiment with dying mice.

A passenger airplane just left Seoul, South Korea for Honolulu, Hawaii. Among the passengers was a disgruntled young scientist Jin-seok (Yim Si-wan) who was plotting to kill everyone onboard. A little girl Soo-min (Kim Bo-min) and her father Jae-hyuk (Lee Byung-hun) noticed his strange behavior and reported it to the head stewardess Hee-jin (Kim So-jin). However, they were too late in thwarting Jin-Seok's nefarious plan.

This film boasts of a powerhouse cast led by superstars Song Kang-ho (from "Parasite" and "Memories of Murder") taking charge on land, and Lee Byung-hun (from "I Saw the Devil" and "Master") taking charge in the air. The story was reminiscent of classic American disaster film "Airport" (1970), where a man with a death wish boarded a plane and authorities scramble to figure out how and where to land the airplane safely.  

We need to credit Korean filmmakers for being able to squeeze all they can from a stressful situation to sustain suspense throughout its running time. Jin-seok was already able to carry out his plans within the first 30 minutes, and there were 2 hours more of exciting stuff to go. The complications (medical, mechanical, personal, political, etc) kept on coming from all sides one after the other, such that the final resolution was still uncertain until the final five minutes.

This airplane really went through everything and anything during that flight. Aside from an unknown disease spreading and causing death and panic on board, the plane lost power and plummeted down into the sea, and was also shot at by security jets for unauthorized entry into foreign air space. On land, there was one particularly involving scene where the audience was placed virtual-reality-style inside a police car chasing a motorcycle in high speed.

A Korean film is not complete without a big heartfelt scene of tear-jerking melodrama, especially in this scenario where there are sick passengers trapped on a plane, while all their relatives were all waiting on the ground for a safe landing which was not forthcoming. I felt that there could have been a more memorable ending for one moment there, but then writer-director Han Jae-rim decided to take a safer route. 7/10. 

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Vivamax: Review of SITIO DIABLO: Grim Gangland Games

August 26, 2022

In the beginning there was only one gang who ruled Sitio Salvador -- the Diablos. Before long, it was already called Sitio Diablo. When their leader Tonix (Benz Sangalang) got arrested a couple of years ago by corrupt cop Aplaon (Joko Diaz), Bullet (Kiko Estrada), along with his girlfriend, Tonix's sister Aina (AJ Raval), broke away from the Diablos and formed their own gang called the Illustrados. 

One day, a couple of younger Illustrados Garong (Because) and 17 year-old Askal (Ace Raval) were caught by members of another rival gang the Aztecs encroaching on their turf. Bullet decided to deal with Aztec leader Pons (Just Hush) diplomatically, much to the disappointment of war-freak fellow Illustrado Andi (Pio Balbuena). Meanwhile, Aplaon had Tonix released to wreak more havoc.

Prolific Vivamax director Roman Perez, Jr. ups his game with his stylized version of a local gangster's playground. The color schemes and the costume design may not be totally realistic, but they gave Perez's Sitio Diablo a distinctively slick look and dangerous energy. To orient us in whose area of the Sitio we are in, Perez would precede each scene change with a overhead view of the place with the gang's name incorporated within. 

AJ Raval worked hard on her knife-wielding skills here to make her Aina a fighter, not a mere damsel-in-distress. In his very first Vivamax movie, a mustachioed Kiko Estrada cut a striking leading man figure as the sensible Bullet. Unrecognizable from his first Vivamax film "Secrets," Benz Sangalang matched Estrada's screen presence as ruthless kingpin Tonix. As always, Indie Queen Ruby Ruiz stole her scenes as Tonix and Aina's trash-talking mother. 

One of the notable aspects of this movie was the musical soundtrack which captured the raw confusion of today's youth. Likewise notable is the casting of up-and-coming musical artists in key roles, like singer-songwriters Cean Jr. (as Andi's married elder brother Benny), Because (as the impetuous young gang member Garong) and Just Hush (as the rival gangleader Pons). All three did very well as actors in their feature film debuts.

Comparison to the story of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' "West Side Story" is inevitable with the girl Aina caught between love for her boyfriend Bullet and loyalty to her brother Tonix, both men leaders of two rival gangs. Among scenes of initiation of gang members, Perez recreated a memorable queasy scene from Mike de Leon's "Batch '81" where the boys took turns drinking from a glass of beer after everyone else had spit into it. 

The signature Vivamax sex scenes were there, with AJ Raval and Azi Acosta (as Tonix's girl Hi-C) leading the bevy of gangland molls. However, the film definitely felt like it could have done just as well without any of them. The violence was stylishly graphic and grisly, with a lot of rapid-fire knife stabbing which will make viewers flinch. With the subplot about Askal and his Lola Edna (Angie Castrence), a message of hope for wayward youth was delivered. 6/10. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Review of BEAST: Avenging Alpha

August 23, 2022

In order to bond and heal with his daughters, Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) went on a trip his two spirited teenage daughters, Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries). He chose to take them to the Mopani Game Reserve in South Africa, located near the village where his late wife (the girls' mother) grew up. Their personal guide was their old family friend Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), the manager of Mopani. 

The night before, a gang of poachers have just killed a whole pride of lions except for its alpha male, which had since gone on a rampage, killing almost all the residents of a local tribe. The next morning, as Martin was driving the Samuels into a remote area of the reserve, they were attacked by this lion. Martin was seriously hurt and their vehicle crashed into a tree. With no phone, internet or radio to call out for help, can the Samuels escape a grisly fate?

The trailer alone practically already told us the whole story. There was a family lost in the wilderness where an enraged predator was on a murderous prowl, and they must rely on their wits to get out of the situation alive. There was a sort of "Jurassic Park" vibe to it, with a rogue lion replacing the T-Rex (probably a reason why one of the girls was seen wearing a "Jurassic Park" t-shirt in one scene, as a sly wink to the inspiration). 

With such a slim plot to build a film around, a major part of this 93-minute film was filler. The entire part where the Samuels girls arrived at the reserve grumbling, about the heat, yet still wearing all those layers of clothes was very annoying. In fact, the elder girl Meredith (call her Mare) was just being one disobedient and disrespectful brat practically the whole time, bringing up old grievances in the most inopportune moments of mortal danger. 

There was no denying though that Idris Elba has a powerful screen presence, and this film did not deserve him. That said, he is probably the only A-list movie star nowadays who would be believable to survive a fistfight with an angry lion. Those crazy scenes of him trying to evade the lion in the dark of night by hiding on a tree branch above it or submerged in water under it (while keeping his radio dry) only worked because it is Elba doing it. 4/10.  

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Netflix: Mini-Reviews of PURPLE HEARTS and LOOK BOTH WAYS: A Woman's Way

 August 21, 2022


Director: Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum

Cassie Salazar (Sofia Carson) was the lead singer of her band The Loyal, who was working as a waitress to pay the bills while waiting for their big break. However, her diabetes medications were about to run out and she had no cash nor insurance. She overheard that wives of soldiers had great health care benefits, so she asked US Marine Lance Corporal Luke Morrow (Nicolas Galitzine) if she could marry him before he left for his tour of duty to Iraq. Luke had a huge debt to pay, so he agreed to her proposal to get extra income.

In the guise of a romance-drama, this film tackles a pretty serious topic about defrauding government funds for personal gain by taking advantage of loopholes in the system. The act they had to do to keep their sham marriage believable was uncomfortable to watch, as their feelings for each other seem to shift radically from one extreme to the other. The ending was typical Netflix, not really realistic given their widely-differing world-views. Cassie's songs were not bad, actually catchy, but not sure if these songs can really bring her all the way to a Rose Bowl gig. 5/10.  


Director: Wanuri Kahiu

Natalie Bennett (Lili Reinhart) had her life all planned out. After her college graduation, she was all set to go to Los Angeles with her friend Cara (Aisha Dee) to pursue her dream job to be an animator. However, she had a one-night stand with her supposedly platonic male best friend Gabe (Danny Ramirez) just on a whim. A week later, Nat began having episodes of nausea and vomiting, so she took a pregnancy test. The film then diverges into two paths, showing what happens to Nat's life if the test was positive or when it was negative. 

Film director Wanuri Kahiu from Kenya put together a well-crafted and beautifully resonant film about the two possible ways the life of a young woman can go whether or not she gets pregnant. Kahui seamlessly shifted scenes from pregnant Nat in Texas and not pregnant Nat in LA, showing both the good and the bad in both alternative timelines. This type of story had been done before in films like "Sliding Doors" (1998) and the ending was typical of Netflix love stories, but Kahiu's insightful direction and Reinhart's nuanced performance elevates it. 7/10. 

Review of FALL: Harrowing Heights

August 20, 2022

Becky (Grace Fulton) saw her husband Dan fall to his death while they were rock climbing. One year later, her best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardener) invited Becky to go on another climbing adventure up the 2000+ foot high old abandoned radio tower called the B67. Hunter hoped this extreme activity could somehow help Becky snap out of her severe depression, as well as a potentially viral crazy stunt to post on her YouTube channel. 

The two girls successfully reached the small platform near top of the tower, they had fun taking death-defying photos to document their achievement. However, when they decided to start back down the tower, the age of the tower caused the screws of the ladders begin to loosen and fall apart, leaving the two girls stranded. With no phone or internet signal up there, they had to keep their wits about them to figure out how to get back down.

There were so many illogical aspects of this film that happened even before they began their perilous climb. The dangerous climb was not exactly the best idea on how you help a friend move on from a trauma caused by an accident that was a result of another dangerous climb. Furthermore, embarking on a high-risk adventure like this without informing anybody or bringing adequate provisions was totally irresponsible. 

When the girls realized that they were trapped up there with no form of outgoing communication, they needed to rely on their resourcefulness in order to survive. Then, as if the vertiginous height, the lack of food, water and sleep, bodily injuries and the circling vultures were not enough to deal with, the script amped the emotional stress and psychological anxiety up some more with a couple of critical twists. 

However, logic was not really why we watched this movie at all, isn't it? We want the virtual experience of being brought up to a height twice that of the Eiffel Tower and get stuck up there. This film completely works to provide that breathless illusion with the effective editing of dizzying camera work and computer-generated imagery. Director Scott Mann certainly delivered on the tension and the adrenaline-rush, and that's all that matters. 6/10. 

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Netflix: Mini-Reviews of DAY SHIFT and CARTER: Fighting Fathers

 August 18, 2022


Director: J.J. Perry

Bud Jablonski (Jamie Foxx) was known to be a pool cleaner, but he is actually a vampire hunter. He made money by selling the fangs of the vampires he killed. He had been violating a lot of rules with the way he worked which led to him being kicked out of the union. He desperately needed money so that his ex-wife Joss (Meagan Good) will not bring their daughter Paige to Florida. However, union boss Seeger only agreed to let Bud work if he went with a union rep Seth (Dave Franco) to make sure he stuck to the rules. 

This film began on high gear with Bud called on an old woman in a granny dressing gown who was then revealed to be a vampire. That opening scene would set up the rest of the film's dark humor and bloody violence which involved slashing heads off and pulling out fangs as proof of kill. Foxx's Bud was a believable hero figure, with Franco's nerdy Seth providing effective odd-couple contrast. Snoop Dogg can really do these cool dudes like Big John Elliot very well, but Karen Souza tried too hard to be campy as main villain Audrey but still came up short. 6/10.


Director: Jung Byung-gil

Carter (Joo Won) is an agent who had willingly lost his memory in order to fulfill a mission which could heal his daughter sick of a virus who turned its victims into violent zombies. His mission involved going to South Korea to bring back Hana, an infected girl who had been cured of this viral affliction by her father Dr. Jung Byung-ho, back to North Korea. Carter is guided by the voice of Han Jung-hee, a female agent of the North Korea's Labor Party, which was working on a vaccine for the virus with Dr. Jung.

This film used excessively stylized camera techniques to bring its audience into the middle of the action. This can be quite a dizzying viewing experience, as the camera rapidly panned in different directions to approximate the frenetic action. Aside from Carter, the little girl Hana also got involved in some pretty hair-raising stunts on a wooden bridge, on a speeding train, and while floating in mid-air. Everything was so over-the-top and actually quite entertaining for the most part, if you are not the easily nauseous, prone to motion-sickness type. 6/10

Friday, August 19, 2022

Vivamax: Review of LAMPAS LANGIT: Worked-up Writers

August 19, 2022

Pulp writer Jake de Vera (Baron Geisler) and his wife, swimsuit designer Mylene (Chloe Jenna) just moved into a new apartment. Their neighbor was famous novelist Arman Fuentes-Diaz (Ricky Davao) and his daughter Belle (Christine Bermas). Jake and Belle immediately felt a sexual electricity between them. While Jake began writing a novel about their obsessive affair on his laptop, Arman was also banging out a novel about them on his old typewriter.

This film directed by Jeffrey Hidalgo was about two writers. Veteran screenwriter Racquel Villavicencio filled it up with pithy lines about writing as a career. After an argument about women and duck eggs, Arman gave Jake tips about novel writing. When he saw a distraught Mylene, Arman talked about monogamy being the cause of sexual malaise, and advised her to pardon her husband because writers "breathe, eat, drink and sh*t words."

Arman Fuentes-Diaz is easily the most interesting character in this film, and Ricky Davao certainly squeezed the most out of his role, and even brought the best out of his co-stars Geisler, Jenna and Bermas. Jenna was generally so hammy, but with Davao, she was more nuanced and subtle, actually quite good. Compared to her previous films, Bermas was rather stiff here overall, but in her final scene with Davao, she was relaxed and natural.

Baron Geisler also gave it his best shot for his character Jake, especially in the last fifteen minutes, when reality began to dawn on him. He is really at home in playing these obsessive-compulsive guys who could not handle the stress and slowly lose their mind. You just know that if there's a Baron Geisler in a potboiler film like this, he is bound to be the one who will go crazy. Geisler reacting to Davao taunting him and his dead-drunk wife was his best scene.

To add a bit more spice, there was a party scene where we meet Mylene's friends were a mix of sexually-fluid individuals. They were transwoman-lesbian Karl/Greta (Vitex Paguirigan) and her partner Trisha (Quinn Carillo), foursome-seeking Ross (Ivan Padilla) and his permissive partner Ginny (Milana Ikimoto). However, their supposed orgy was dry and unstimulating. This sequence went nowhere and was never referred to again.  6/10. 

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Review of NOPE: Alien Alimentation

 August 18, 2022

OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em (Keke Parker) Haywood had inherited the sprawling ranch of their father, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), who was killed in a freak accident involving a coin that fell down from the sky. As they encountered financial woes at the ranch, OJ grudgingly sold their trained horses to nearby Jupiter's Claim, a small cowboy-themed amusement park owned by Korean-American ex-child actor Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steven Yeun). 

One night, while OJ was out patrolling the ranch, he encountered a strange object moving in the sky. Its presence would cause horses to react wildly and the power in various electrical and other devices around to fluctuate and turn off. To document the phenomenon, the siblings go to the local Frye's Electronic store the next day to invest in camera equipment, which the friendly salesman Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) helped set up. 

The two previous films by Jordan Peele, "Get Out" (2017) and "Us" (2019) both had deeper messages of race and societal behavior in them. In comparison, "Nope" told a pretty straightforward story of an alien being in the sky terrorizing the people below. Race did not seem to be an issue here. The Haywoods just so happened to be African-American folk, but this story could have happened to anyone in that area under which the alien lurked. 

The characters were interesting and the actors playing them made them very likable. OJ and Em have totally contrasting personalities -- Daniel Kaluuya's OJ was glum and tight-lipped, Keke Parker's Em was effusive and gregarious. Kaluuya's unique facial features, especially his piercing eyes, looked perfect for the eerie and mysterious atmosphere of this film. Parker's energy kept the mood always up especially in the slow-burn, talky first act.

Steven Yeun's Jupe Park had a traumatic backstory that was only tangential to the alien story, yet prominently featured, as he used this old experience of his to keep himself relevant and profitable. A scene-stealing role was that of Angel Torres, played by up and coming Filipino-American actor Brandon Perea. He had a strong screen presence, winsome charisma and sense of humor which should earn him more high-profile roles in the future. 

The technical aspects of this film was its best draw. The cinematography by the acclaimed Hoyte Van Hoytema ("Interstellar," "Dunkirk," "Tenet") was beautiful and breathtaking capturing the vast cloudy skies.  The film editing by Nicolas Monsour ("Us") worked with the music of Michael Abels ("Get Out," "Us")) effectively evoked a sense of danger, dread and excitement during the scenes with the alien. 

Jordan Peele strangely began the whole film with an unsettling incident of a chimpanzee gone amuck in a film set, returning to give more details about it only by the second act. This issue of animal actors was also tackled in an incident when one of OJ's horses acted up in a commercial set involving cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) and actress Bonnie Clayton (81-year old "Knot's Landing actress Donna Mills). 

Peele paid tribute to the art of film-making itself here. He cited Eadweard Muybridge's 1884-85 photographic study of animal movements called "Animal Locomotion," a progenitor of motion pictures, when Em claimed that the jockey on the galloping horse in "Plate 626" was their ancestor. He put Holst's old, bulky, hand-cranked film camera side by side with Torres' new sleek digital camera. Just too bad we did not see the movies they captured. 7/10. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

CINEMALAYA 2022: Review of THE BASEBALL PLAYER: Denied Dreams

August 16, 2022

After his family was killed by soldiers, little Khalid (JM Bautista) was brought by Fajad (Don Melvin Boongaling) to live with his parents' relatives in a neighboring town. Almera (Tess Antonio) and her teenage son Amir (Tommy Alejandrino) welcomed Khalid into their home. Amir brought Khalid to the same school where he studied. Being the new boy, Khalid was quiet and aloof, but he was not afraid to defend himself from bullies. 

Because of his skills in baseball, Amir was being encouraged by their teacher Sir Jonas (Pongs Leonardo) to try out for varsity in Sultan Kudarat, and this was what Amir wanted to do with his life. However, Amir had also been recruited by his Uncle Nhor (Joel Saracho) to do combat training with his group. As the Armed Forces of the Philippines escalated their drive against the Moro Freedom Movement, troops soon reached their town. 

Those expecting this film to be a sports drama because of the seemingly straightforward title will likely be disappointed. There was not even a full game of baseball here where the title character will play a critical role in his team's victory. It was not that kind of baseball movie with kids -- not like "Rookie of the Year" or "Little Big League." Baseball here was the dream which apparently was denied Amir because of the turbulent place where he lived.

The two boys who were co-leads both deserved commendation for their performances. Tommy Alejandrino played Amir as the willing elder brother to Khalid, even if he had also lost his own father in the war. His character was torn between what he wanted and what he needed to do, and Alejandrino kept his emotions reined in control. Young JM Bautista held his own against his more mature co-stars. Whenever his Khalid cried, we cry along with him.

Writer-director Carlo Obispo told an affecting story of Muslim children growing up in the traumatic shadow cast by a civil war of indefinite duration. The scene juxtaposing a child's cries with gunfire was so powerful, you'd wish that the credits did not roll up yet at that time. It's best not to expect too much given the Best Film and other awards it won, lest you overthink it and miss its point. There is indeed a beating heart in its simple but solid narrative. 8/10. 

Monday, August 15, 2022

Amazon Prime: Review of THIRTEEN LIVES: Diving Delivery

August 15, 2022

On June 23, 2018, twelve boys of a Chiang Rai junior football team and their assistant coach decided to go explore inside the Tham Luang caves after their practice. While they were still inside, it began to rain torrentially outside, causing flooding inside the cave. When the boys failed to show up at a planned birthday party that night, their parents realized that they were still trapped inside the flooded caves. A rescue mission was promptly organized. 

Because of the complexity of the passages inside the caves, local authorities decide to seek help from the British Cave Rescue Council, who sent veteran cave divers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell). After a long wait for the rains to stop and the water drained, they were finally allowed to enter the cave on Day 10. They found the boys all alive 4km into the cave. How will they bring them out safely?

This story of the boys trapped in the cave for three weeks was a real-life rescue drama that played out on the news everyday in the summer of 2018, so the outcome was well-known to those who followed the proceedings back then. That was the challenge of director Ron Howard -- how could you make an adventure film like this exciting and interesting if it already had a ending that almost everybody knew? 

When you begin to stream the film, you see that it lasts almost 2-1/2 hours long. Amazingly, Howard set up the situation all within the first 10 minutes, the rest of the film was only about the efforts of everyone involved with the rescue mission. As this was an international rescue effort, the concern for rescuer safety was more heightened. This resulted in protracted delays, causing a lot of frustration among the divers and worry among the families.

With an all-white group of divers finding the boys first and thinking of the risky innovative way to save them care of Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), it may have a feel of a white-savior film. However, Howard also made sure we see the culture and heroism of the Thai people. A Thai Navy Seal lost his life in the mission. Draining the water out of the cave, an idea of a water engineer from Bangkok, involved a major sacrifice of neighboring farms and crops.

Howard brought us along each of the long treacherous dives with the excellent underwater cinematography, with the danger and tension enhanced with editing, an ominous musical score and eerie sound effects. As could be expected, the feeling of claustrophobia Howard created could be overwhelming. Watching this stressful story unfold in the comfort of our homes amplified the bravery of everyone involved in the harrowing rescue. 8/10. 

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Vivamax: Review of THE INFLUENCER: Alarming Attraction

August 14, 2022

Yexel Santos (Sean de Guzman) is a very popular personality on social media. He posted videos of himself featuring various products, and they would invariably go viral. He frequently hung around a group of vlogger friends that included rich kids, Anna (Quinn Carillo) and Andrew (Karl Aquino). Yexel was very popular among his lady fans, but he was notorious for shunning commitments and collecting one-night-stands.

One night, Yexel met Nina (Cloe Barreto) in a bar, and, as was his usual style, took her home to a condo which he loaned from a friend for a night of wild sex, and asking them to leave right away. Feeling Nina was different from other girls, Yexel called her for a second date. Since then, Nina began to follow Yexel around, even confronting other girls he would pick up. When Yexel told her to leave him alone, Nina would not be ignored.

After a very prolific debut year last 2021, Sean de Guzman tries to make up lost ground with this, only his second lead star credit for 2022 after "Hugas" earlier this year. However, the drab-looking de Guzman felt miscast as a charismatic online influencer. His video blogs were plain and bland, do not look impressive, engaging nor even attractive enough to go viral. The way he delivered his spiels was boring, colorless and lacked eloquence.

Cloe Barreto rose from anonymity to immediately headline two Vivamax movies this year alone - - "Silab" and "Tahan" - - both times playing crazy violent women. Co-lead and crazy again this time around, she boldly took on a character inspired by Glenn Close and Kathy Bates. However, Barreto still lacked the acting maturity to elevate her role of Nina above that of a run-of-the-mill psychotically-obsessed sexpot.

Quinn Carillo now has her third credit as a screen writer after two other Vivamax offerings "Biyak" and "Tahan". Like before, Carillo also gets to play the character who delivers the final line. Her plot followed that of Adrian Lynne's "Fatal Attraction" (1988) in the first half, then mixed in some of Rob Reiner's "Misery" (1990) in the second. Yexel's playboy status made way for this film to accommodate Vivamax's requirement for sex scenes.

What made Carillo's story different from the films which inspired it was how she wove the local social media influencer culture into its plot. There were bits of it scattered in various parts of the film, but it would have been better if it could have tackled this fascinating phenomenon deeper. Carillo saved the best for the final scene, which gave disturbing insight into the warped character of these supposed "model" netizens. 4/10. 

CINEMALAYA 2022: Review of 12 WEEKS: Aborted Aims

 August 13, 2022

When the Marawi siege broke out, Alice (Max Eigenmann) was the lead project head of a humanitarian mission of her NGO to help the evacuees in Iligan City. During that time, she suddenly had vomiting episodes in the morning. It dawned on her that, despite being a case of polycystic ovaries, a chain smoker and already 40 years old, she was actually pregnant. 

The father of Alice's child was a musician Ben (Vance Larena), much younger than her, a drunkard and prone to be abusive, but who wanted to be involved despite having broken off. While her mother Grace (Bing Pimentel) was very excited about her coming grandchild, it was to her close friend at work, Lorna (Claudia Enriquez), that Alice confided that she was planning to abort the fetus she was carrying.

Max Eigenmann's Alice was a strong woman who knew how to fend for herself. She grew up without her mother. She had a leadership position at work. She was fearless for her advocacies. She was in control of her relationships. However,  pregnancy in her middle age shook this fortitude, making her unsure for the first time in her life. Eigenmann's approach to her character was strong but restrained, never histrionic. 

Alice had three women who had her back: Ben's cheerful younger sister Jen (Mikee Lim), her mother Grace (her real-life mother, the elegant Bing Pimentel) and her best friend Lorna (Claudia Enriquez in a scene-stealing turn). These interactions, on top of Alice's turbulent relationship with opportunistic jerk Ben (rascal-mode Vance Larena), made Eigenmann's performance richer and well-rounded. Best Actress nominations and awards are inevitable. 

This is the full-length film debut of director Anna Isabelle “Shine” Matutina, and she aimed to tell modern Filipinas that they and they alone should decide about their bodies, certainly not the men in their lives. Matutina told her unsettling story with gritty camera work and raw down-to-earth honesty. The initial abortion clinic interview scene may have been reminiscent of "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" (2020), but Matutina's story went well beyond that. 8/10. 

Saturday, August 13, 2022

CINEMALAYA 2022: Review of KALUSKOS: Double Dealing

August 12, 2022

Rebekah (Coleen Garcia) was very busy in her corporate career, while her husband Jay (Karl Medina) stayed home to take care of their daughter Amaya (Queenzy Calma). When their marriage broke down, Jay went to live with his mistress Azel (Cara Gonzales) as he and Rebekah battled for custody over Amaya. To complicate things further, Rebekah was offered a promotion to work in Norway. 

Amaya was not particularly close to her mother, and this made her difficult for Rebekah to handle at home and in school. Amaya was fond of wearing a strange mask with a beak and constantly whined about wanting to stay with her dad. One night, after Rebekah tucked Amaya to sleep in bed, she saw yet another Amaya under the bed, who said she was hiding from monsters. 

From the very beginning, there was a prominently ominous theme about water - - a boat, pouring rain, a bathtub - - but these did not actually lead anywhere. The plot of the film did not have anything even remotely to do with water at all - - no boat sank, no one drowned. Therefore, all of these scenes were only there to establish an atmosphere of dread, nothing more. 

There were incredulous scenes where a character was able to do incredible feats of strength, like single-handedly carry a wooden bed frame up from the cellar, break the fall of an overweight child who stumbled off a roof or stuff a dead adult body into an upright drum. These details, while probably minor, can distract from the vision and logic of the film as a whole. 

On the other hand, there were also scenes which were beautifully-executed by director Roman Perez Jr. One such scene is that where there were two Amayas seen simultaneously at one time, a most startling and critical scene that set the plot in motion. The library scene where Jay was trying to appeal to Rebekah's better senses was well-written as it was well-shot, the best scene for Karl Medina here. 

I wished that this mother-child story did not have to end in yet another Grand Guignol blood bath as was the frequent ending of several Vivamax films. In my opinion, there was an earlier scene of Rebekah and Amaya happily cuddling together for the first time that could've already been a perfect ending. The decision could've been to favor a more gentle, subtle ending, but then again the flashier, gorier option won. 

Like it or hate it, this film proves that Coleen Garcia is a good actress and she can carry a whole film on her shoulders. The role of Rebekah was practically a one-woman show for her to showcase her whole range of dramatic chops. This could even have been a best actress vehicle if she did not need to go all over-the-top running around wearing bloody lingerie at the climax. 5/10. 

Friday, August 12, 2022

CINEMALAYA 2022: Review of BLUE ROOM: Angst, Authority, Animosity

August 11, 2022

Troy Rodriguez (Elijah Canlas) is the front man of an up-and-coming indie rock band called Rebel Rebel. His band mates include smart sensible Rocky Montinola (Nourijune) on bass guitar, working student Christian Lagdameo (Leoni Jin) on lead guitar and bitter 18-year old Chigz Montero (Harvey Bautista) on drums. 

One fateful night, they were joined by one former band member Anton Lorenzana (juan karlos), who just came back home from a long vacation. Things were not particularly going well for them that night, but things were about to take even darker turn when their drive home was interrupted by policemen manning a checkpoint.

The lead ensemble was a young and impressive ensemble of raw natural talent. Elijah Canlas is already an acclaimed actor. Juan Karlos Labajo, now stylized as juan karlos, is more known as the singer of hit song "Buwan." Harvey Bautista was a child actor, now transitioning into mature roles. Making their screen debuts are Nourijune (a.k.a. UP theater actress Nour Hooshmand) and Keoni Jin (member of alt-rock band the Revisors).

Playing the policemen who made that night a veritable nightmare for the young people were: Bombi Plata (as the hot-headed PO2 Santiago), Jericho Arceo (as the rogue PO1 Toledo) and the ubiquitous Soliman Cruz (as the perversely dirty station chief SPO3 Delgado). These three actors were so good at being bad cops, they inspire fear, indignation and anger. At the same time, they also provide some moments of uneasy black humor. 

In a remarkably auspicious directorial debut, Ma-an Asuncion-Dagñalan developed her story with an escalating sense of unsettling suspense and simmering Gen Z angst. The climax was met with loud spontaneous applause in the screening I caught. The screenplay, co-written by Dagñalan with Siege Ledesma, was well-plotted, tautly streamlined, with pointed, pertinent social commentary. She made us feel the liberating spirit of the indie music scene, as well as stuffy claustrophobia of corruption. 9/10

Tuesday, August 9, 2022


August 9, 2022

Soldier Wesley Villanueva (Gio Gahol) has just come home from his tour of duty in Marawi battling terrorists in a bloody armed conflict there that claimed a lot of lives. He first went to call on his girlfriend, motel receptionist Ritz (Kate Alejandrino). They then rode a bus to Calamba City to pay a surprise visit to his unsuspecting parents (Soliman Cruz and Sharmaine Centerera-Buencamino) who still expected him to arrive next week.

As it was town fiesta the next day, so Wesley and Ritz went to enjoy the various rides and games at the carnival. However, when Wesley tried to win Ritz a big teddy bear at the shooting gallery, he suddenly had flashbacks of a certain violent encounter in Marawi, and unexpectedly exploded in anger at the bystanders, thinking they were laughing at him. He would be haunted with more memories in the following days.

Ever since "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) first dealt the topic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD) in soldiers coming home from the battlegrounds, since then it was tackled in films from "The Deer Hunter" (1978) to "The Hurt Locker" (2008). It is also a familiar topic in a number of Filipino films. As recent as Cinemalaya 2019, there was a short film "Gatilyo" about a soldier who survived an ambush and his tough transition to civilian life.

Both Gio Gahol and Kate Alejandrino gave remarkably restrained, nuanced and convincing lead performances. Easy Ferrer had strong impact in her single scene as anti-yellow, FB fake-news believer Tita Chona. When Wesley answered back to her claim about soldier's salaries, the audience erupted in applause. A new actor who goes by the single name AIR, who played Wesley's injured fellow soldier Gerry, showed dramatic promise. 

"Bula sa Langit" is also about PTSD in soldiers, but with a different style of storytelling by writer Andrian Legaspi and director Sheenly Gener. The difficult ethical calls made by the soldiers on the ground, the collateral damage incurred during their missions, the reasons why soldiers choose to become soldiers, the irony of family members feeling pride vs. their fears, the constant lure of working abroad vs. patriotic service -- were all touched on in the film. 

Gener frequently intercut scenes from the present with scenes in Marawi to let us see what was going in Wesley's mind. She channeled Wong Kar Wai in that scene of Ritz resting her head on Wesley's back while riding a motorcycle, reminiscent of "Fallen Angels" (1995). Just when you thought you knew how this film will end, Gener gave us an unconventional ending which viewers are bound to ponder on and talk about on their way out. 7/10. 

Monday, August 8, 2022


 August 7, 2022

Atty. Bobby Chan heads a non-governmental organization in Palawan province called the Palawan NGO Network Incorporated (PNNI). It is a group of individuals who have volunteered to be para-enforcers to protect the environment of Palawan. His efforts are supported by some mayors, like Nieves Rosento of El Nido. As para-enforcers, they cannot arrest people, but they confiscate the gear. In fact, they already have a museum full of confiscated chainsaws.

As altruistic as the endeavors of Atty. Chan and Mayor Rosento may be, they clashing with very powerful enemies. There were multiple threats on their lives. There were insinuations that they were involved in illegal drugs. There were successful efforts to thwart their current positions. There were actual killings of their loyal men, like Kap Ruben Arzaga of Villa Libertad, who was shot to death while investigating a report of trees being illegally cut down.

One of the para-enforcers in focus was Tata Balladaras, who recounted his shock as a young soldier when he was made to cut down trees in the Palawan forests supposedly in the name of "progress". Since then, he had pledged his life to protect this environment so that his grandchildren can still see and enjoy the lush rainforests he knew and loved. However, the constant danger he faced when he and his men was very discouraging.

Karl Malakunas, an Australian journalist from Agence-France Presse was the writer and director of this documentary. He did not flinch in naming names of the politicians who cancel the valiant efforts of these intrepid para-enforcers to the point of threatening their lives. Cinematographer Tom Bannigan captured the natural beauty of Palawan which made it famous, as well as the tough lives of the brave people who fight to keep it that way.

The passion of Malakunas started in 2011 when he was supposed to make an ecotourism feature, but his contact was gunned down. This led him to dig further and document the violence against environmental activists in this paradise island. As the ominous title promised, the escalation of tension within the film will disturb audiences with the palpable danger they vicariously experience while watching this eye-opening and infuriating documentary.

"Delikado" is co-produced by Karl Malakunas, together with Marty Syjuco and Michael Collins (the team behind the incisive 2011 exposé about the 1997 Chiong sisters murder "Give Up Tomorrow") and Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala.

Sunday, August 7, 2022


 August 6, 2022

Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) used to write screenplays for action movies in her heyday. Now retired, she was separated from her husband Valentin (Allan Bautista) who was running as a local politician. She now lived with her son Rudie (Bong Cabrera) who was helping his father's electoral campaign while planning to work abroad. Her other son Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon) tragically died as a young man in his prime, and visited his family as a ghost. 

When Leonor saw an ad for a scriptwriting contest in the paper, she started working on one of her old unfinished scripts, "Ang Pagbabalik ng Kuwago." It was about a brawny hero also named Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) who rescued damsel in distress Isabella (Rea Molina) from her gangster boyfriend Ricardo (Ryan Eigenmann). One day, a freak accident rendered Leonor comatose, then she began seeing herself in the movie she was writing.

Despite the rather depressing synopsis, this film by Martika Ramirez Escobar (her debut feature) was actually one delightful, wistful and very entertaining Filipino film. From a melodramatic start, it became a film within a film right at the opening credits, and that's where the fun began.  We knew the parallel contents were bound to intersect at some point, but when that absurd moment came, it was totally out-of-the-box (in a manner of speaking).

Fans of the Philippine theater scene will definitely enjoy this film. Lead actress Sheila Francisco is a veteran triple threat, best known now as Tiya Dely in the hit musical "Ang Huling El Bimbo" (2019). Kind and motherly, her Leonor is easy to empathize with as she entered her own dual-verse (like Michelle Yeoh did in her multiverse). Left to her own devices, Leonor creatively charted her own course like she rewrote her scripts, and we root her on.   

The actors playing Leonor's sons Bong Cabrera and Anthony Falcon are also stage actors (notably in several Virgin Labfest plays) aside from being indie film actors. Cabrera's Rudie may be annoying at first, but he eventually proved how much he cared for his mother. Stage actresses Madeleine Nicolas (as a Chinoy producer), Roselyn Perez (as a screen mother) and Tami Monsod (as a scene-stealing doctor) also make unexpected appearances.

Model-turned-actor Rocky Salumbides went all out as the buff blue-collar movie hero Ronwaldo. This film waxed nostalgic for a once-popular movie genre of Filipino films -- the action film. Salumbides did all the classic hero moves -- the exaggerated tumbling, the rapid-fire punching, even the cheesy passes on his leading lady. Meanwhile, Ryan Eigenmann and Dido de la Paz did all the classic villain shoot-up or torture moves against him.

This film premiered at the World Cinema Dramatic Competition of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, even winning the Special Jury Prize for Innovative Spirit. This was actually a pleasant surprise because its humor was based on uniquely Pinoy pop culture of the over-the-top Fernando Poe Jr-style action movies, the context of which foreigners might not get at all. Thankfully they did, proving that Filipino humor can also have international appeal. 8/10. 


Friday, August 5, 2022

Vivamax: Review of PURIFICACION: Priestly Purging

August 5, 2022

Inspector Gabriela Isidro (Cara Gonzales) is currently heading the investigation of a series of grisly murders targeting women who were known sinners in the town of Sta. Monica. The victims were found hanging from a tree, with stigmata-like wounds on their hands and feet. Her beat partner Paeng Banez (Kier Legaspi) and the new parish priest, Fr. Ricardo Baltazar (Josef Elizalde) helped her probe for evidence. 

Gabriela was under a lot of pressure from her superior (Lander Vera Perez) to solve the crimes. Was it Aling Mira (Raquel Monteza) a miserable old widow who mourned the suicide of her son when he found out his wife was a prostitute? Was it Bryan (Andrew Muhlach), the altar boy who had an affair with the wife of Julio (Jao Mapa)? Or could it be Victor Isidro (Fabio Ide), Gabriela's abusive husband who had affairs with several women? 

Cara Gonzales has the co-lead role here as the main police investigator, but she was not given a chance to shine. Granted her character is a battered wife at home, and accused to have only gotten her position by being the daughter-in-law of the Congressman, she should have carried herself with more confidence at work to prove her worth. Instead, she was seen to be simpering, indecisive and fantasizing after the handsome young parish priest. 

Because of his fair patrician looks, Josef Elizalde fit very well in roles of good boys whose innocent looks belie the sins that boiled inside him. His Fr. Ricardo had a tendency to be nosy, inquisitive and given to citing entire Biblical verses anywhere from Joshua to Galatians in English as his advice. Since his Vivamax debut, Elizalde had not been shy in baring his body, but it was this time playing a priest that he got to cavort with six ladies.

Aside from Gonzales, a whole bevy of Vivamax sexy beauties played the roles of the sinful victims. The list included Ava Mendez as the avaricious land grabber Ms. Jade, Rob Guinto as the adulterous Jasmine, Quinn Carillo as the prostitute Kriselda, Stephanie Raz as the talented church singer forced to become a mistress, and Kat Dovey as the drug addict Teresita, Gabriela's own sister. Needless to say, those after the pulchritude will get their fill.

Aside from Raquel Monteza, it was also interesting to see a number of former screen sirens who make their comeback here in mother roles, like Isadora (as the mother of Kriselda), Shirley Fuentes (as the mother of Emily) and former Ms. World Philippines Aurora Sevilla (as the mother of Fr. Baltazar). After a series of very small roles in earlier Vivamax films, good to see Kier Legaspi finally get more screen time here. 

Even if the resolution was not exactly unpredictable, director GB Sampedro did well in throwing in a series of red herrings to confuse armchair detectives. In revelatory flashbacks, he also gave the killer an adequate backstory to explain the motives and the modus operandi. The acting and special effects could have been better, but Sampedro's effort to deliver a complex murder mystery with disturbing religious overtones is commendable. 5/10. 

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Review of BAKAS NI YAMASHITA: Anemic Adventure

 August 4, 2022

Newly-certified security officer Rick Bravo (Ahron Villena) drove to Pangasinan with his younger brother Johnnyboy (Joshua de Guzman) to visit their grandparents Lake Berto (Lou Veloso) and Bae Hilda (Dexter Doria). I this was also the first time he would be seeing his cousin Tom Vince Cruz (Alfred Montero), with whom he has been estranged for five years after Tom's parents died in a car accident.

Tom is now a history professor assisting Dean Pikoy Martinez (Archie Adamos) in his intensive research about the whereabouts of the legendary Yamashita Gold. One day, the Dean was accosted by goons led by a Japanese gangster Niigata (Yoshihiko Hara), forcing him to reveal where the missing maps to the treasure were. Soon, even Niigita also sought out Tom for further info, and Rick got involved in the resulting ruckus.

It was apparent that the vision of director Danni Ugali for this film was very ambitious. It was an action-adventure film involving two young men hunting for so-called "living maps" for a fabled trove of treasure, with a ruthless samurai-wielding bad guy hot on their heels. It was just very unfortunate that it was painfully obvious that his limited budget could not finance this vision as fully as he would have liked it to be.

Because of this, he could not get bigger name stars as his leads. Ahron Villena did have a good screen presence and more prior acting experience to be an adequate lead here. However, his co-lead Alfred Montero still had awkward facial expressions, body language and delivery of lines which require more workshops to refine. Joshua de Guzman fared better, being more natural in his portrayal of Johnnyboy. 

Christa Jocson was supposed to have a substantial role as grad student Ayami however her role was not written very well. Hers was a character with multiple layers who deserved more respect, and could have been developed better perhaps even with her own back story. Instead, everything about Ayami was rushed and unintentionally comical, which was very unfortunate - - a waste of an interesting character.

I liked the use of archival footage to tell Ugali's version of the history of Yamashita's gold, the stories sound more authentic presented this way. The involvement of Cordillera tribal women in the tale was very good, but could've been executed better. Too bad the climactic scene in the cave was so rushed, what should have been a moment of wondrous awe just wound up an anemic misfire instead. 4/10

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Review of BULLET TRAIN: Calculated Chaos

 August 2, 2022

A seasoned mercenary assassin code-named Ladybug was sent on an "easy" mission to retrieve a briefcase of money on a bullet train running from Tokyo to Kyoto. However, there turned out to more killers on the train also after the same briefcase: British twins Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry) who were escorting The Son (Logan Lehrman) back to his gang lord father The White Death (Michael Shannon).

Meanwhile, school-girl-like British assassin The Prince (Joey King) had coerced Japanese assassin Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji) to come with her for a kill. Kimura's father The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada) had also come on board, looking for his son. Also along for the ride were a Mexican assassin The Wolf (Benito A Martínez Ocasio a.k.a. current Billboard chart king Bad Bunny) and an American assassin Hornet (Zazie Beetz) with their own agenda.

Brad Pitt as Ladybug
(Photo care of Columbia Pictures)

The big name cast was so fun to watch, all playing ruthless killers whose paths all intersect on this bullet train. Brad Pitt looked harried here as the existentially-challenged Ladybug who can't seem to get a lucky break in his life. Everyone had a charm of their own -- dashing Aaron Taylor-Johnson and comical Bryan Tyree Henry doing an unlikely tag team, innocent-looking Joey King playing against type, Andrew Koji channeling a broody Robert Pattinson. 

Bryan Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Lemon and Tangerine
(Photo care of Columbia Pictures)

For me, the true star in this ensemble is none other than veteran Japanese actor and martial artist Hiroyuki Sanada. His screen presence and star charisma matched that of Brad Pitt himself, if not even surpassed it. Every time his character The Elder appears onscreen with that kick-ass scar on his cheek, your attention simply gravitated towards him. His fight scenes with his samurai sword were easily the most awesome out there. 

Hiroyuki Sanada as The Elder
(Photo care of Columbia Pictures)

Practically the whole film was set inside the titular bullet train, but the production designer made sure each car had its own unique personality.  The lively, colorful and idiosyncratic Japanese cultural landscape played a major role in the vibrancy of the film's total vibe. The final thirty minutes or so was a spectacular show of CGI effects of everything and anything that could happen to a speeding train, inside and out. 

Joey King as The Prince
(Photo care of Columbia Pictures)

Director David Leitch (who had been Pitt's stunt double in films like "Fight Club" and "Troy") was responsible for the Rated R action-comedy "Deadpool 2" (where Pitt had a cameo). He brought in the same energy and humor here, with more characters to play around with and more blood to splatter around.  This Tarantino-esque film had so much chaos in it, yet all this was skillfully calculated so precisely. A poisonous snake and number of A-list guest stars making surprise appearances added a lot more fun amidst the mayhem. 9/10.