MOVIE REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017) proves that its predecessor’s critical and commercial success was not a fluke. Grander, funnier, wilder – Vol. 2 is an extreme level-up in all ways it could.

The movie boasts everything you could ever hope for in a comic book adaptation: non-stop action, unprecedented humor, a committed group of actors who equally stand out in their own rights, dazzling visual effects, and above all, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 plays its own strength: it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. Its ridiculous imperfections, cheeky tone and cheap thrills that work so well, it’s a rollercoaster ride straight from a comic book. The creators’ specific vision of a grungy-looking production, low-key CGI, hues of pink and blue, steam punk atmosphere translates impeccable on-screen, it almost creates its own genre. It lies somewhere between a campy yet soulful 80’s B-movie and a grandiose superhero feature that is so rare in cinemas nowadays. Its intentional imperfections are key towards an action-comedy flick that’s a high-kick close to perfect.

The cast is unstoppable; flawless comic timing to the tee, and none felt irrelevant. Every character is well-conceptualized, wisely thought, and hilariously played by an ensemble of true talents.

The production design has to be the film’s star power. Its style is so distinct, it seems that it has created its own brand. Visually cartoonish, but overall stunning – the movie is the epitome of a comic book brought to life, almost literally, and as colorful as the luminous stars and queer planets of its own universe. I would not be surprised if this movie would finally be rewarded with its overdue Visual and Special Effects, Hair and Make Up, and Art Direction accolades by the end of the year.

A few casualties, however, are quite detectable from the film’s narrative, coming off quite conventional and formulaic filled with cheesy dialogues and preachy sentiments, and ultimately predictable as the film reaches its second half. Not to mention, a Razzie-worthy performance from Kurt Russell who awkwardly plays a pivotal role, clearly carried by his costumes and the film’s CGI, but that is more of a dress-up play than a cinematic portrayal. My money for Worst Supporting Actor is on him. But at this point, it’s almost impossible to care for the film’s flaws, as the high is already explosive enough to compensate.

Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II is a gigantic leap from Vol. 1’s already-monumental achievement. The film’s generosity on its visual splendor and entertainment value will simply live up, or even exceed everybody’s expectations. So far, the best film of 2017.

4.75 out of 5 stars


MOVIE REVIEW: Noah (2014)

In spite of being in the hands of a capable artist, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) proves to be a misfire in terms of its purpose, creating a miscalculated conversation between the uncalled-for tension of faith and intellect.

It’s hard to put a rationale in a tale that’s based on a parable driven by fantasy and myth. The fiction element of the bible is the reason why it has been preserved with universal moral value, without questioning its integrity and believability, earning the faith from the believers and the respect from the skeptics. The biggest issue with Noah is that it tries so hard to give a rationale to a story that isn’t supposed to be rationalized. That being said, it gave unnecessary conflict, almost as if it’s a faith vs. common sense game. Ultimately, it unintentionally pictures religion as a form of madness instead of a respectable spiritual concept. Thus, Noah’s actions have been oftentimes portrayed as villainous instead of heroic, as all other characters start to question his intentions and sanity. It highlights so much on how the silence of God’s message to mankind becomes lost in translation, and ultimately blurry, leaving everyone with their own version of subjective judgment. Thus, the divide of opinion becomes a series of tumultuous miscommunication between the chosen one and his subordinates. For a parable, the least you can offer is a tale of incomprehension of one’s faith.

On a technical perspective, the film is generous of its CGI effects. Perhaps, too abundant, that oftentimes it seems that it’s a video game than a biblical story. The overblown special effects overshadow the film’s merit in almost the first half of the film.

Aronofsky’s vanity to his project spews so much in so many sequences where he tried to use his Requiem for a Dream technique of rapid succession of images, giving that avant garde vibe — something that I find unnecessary for this material. Occasionally an existentialist thriller, sometimes Transformers, minimally The Bible, oftentimes The Tree of Life — this proves to be Aronofsky’s weakest and most inconsistent direction in his career.

The cast is good, particularly Emma Watson and Jennifer Connelly, but even their OK performances aren’t enough to lift these derailed characters out of the film’s confused narrative.

Overall, Noah isn’t the best from Aronofsky, and perhaps is one of the weaker biblical adaptations to be done on screen. Maybe, the best way to tell a story directly from an iconic biblical tale is to tell it as is — no more rock monsters, no more incestuous creation-of-life twists, no more evil images from a supposed faithful and renowned hero. Tell it as it is.

2 out of 5 stars

MOVIE REVIEW: Miracles from Heaven (2016)

Miracles from Heaven (Riggen, 2016) suffers from overwhelming melodrama, one dimensional characters, a preachy screenplay and tonal inconsistencies – yet, you’d find yourself grabbing a box of tissues and sobbing your eyes out, endlessly relating to a universal story about faith, despair, tragedy and hope. Now, how does a predictable, average film do that? Quite a miracle.

The narrative itself is a hybrid of the emotional arc from My Sister’s Keeper; the screenplay written in the same archetypal neighborhood to that of Mitch Albom’s novels; visually borrows some of Peter Jackson’s heavenly ideas in The Lovely Bones — these concepts are all hemmed in one rope tied in an arrow, aimed to pierce the heart of the audience – and it did, successfully. However, the biggest issue is that its goal seems to be a lot bolder than the execution itself. The story works because it’s an easy sell – but it could have been a great opportunity to get past the clichés and cheesy dialogues rampant all throughout the film and simply focus on the rawness of a story that has a very humane approach to the concept of faith and miracle. It talks too much, yet hardly shows anything other than the predictable – and it doesn’t know when to stop the sermon.

The characters are nothing but foil. It’s hard to go deep into their emotional and psychological journey when they’re written as thinly as a paper, with nothing but a very aggressive and stereotypical characterization of a sick daughter, a supportive family, and sympathetic neighbors. Something that, I believe, we’ve all seen before. It leaves us craving for something deeper other than the obvious circumstances.

Let me give an example: a particular scene where Abbie (the eldest daughter) missed the opportunity of going to a soccer tryout because her dad (played by Martin Henderson) forgot to take her there, as he was already so consumed with the crisis they were going through. Abbie, of course, was left devastated and hurt as everybody’s else’s attention was on Annabel, the sick daughter. She felt left out, yet she has to stay strong and mature being the eldest one. She wants to be selfless but it’s hard to find the balance of finding your own happiness while your little sister is dying. Deep inside her, she was torn whether to feel guilty for her sister, or to feel bad for herself. Her mind wanders in the deep of the night until she found the courage to face the situation like a young adult by the next day. And oh, that’s just me explaining solely based on my assumptions. That wasn’t shown in the film. It’s hard for me to connect what she felt in that scene, because there wasn’t anything written for her. It was just a monochromatic scene of her being forgotten by her father. There was no back story as to her lifelong interest with soccer; there wasn’t anything that could build up to the father’s deteriorating relationship to her other children – nothing. And that is just a single example.

The film, however, is all about Jennifer Garner’s tour de force performance – perhaps, the best she has ever done in her career. As Christy Beam, she plays a mother juggling risks to save the life of her daughter, while keeping her sanity and faith in check. Her subtle moments are lovely; the way her eyes speak a thousand words of despair, hopelessness while masking it with the façade of strength and stern . Her big emotional scenes were played exactly right – she has managed to be precisely what the tone of the film calls for (despite the inconsistencies of the direction). She commands every scene, and it’s enough to forgive the other flaws of present.

At the end of the day, the film has its good intentions – to bring faith and religion on the foreground by using the unfortunate circumstances of a family suffering from a tragedy. Ultimately, it speaks universally despite the specificity of the trials of the Beam family. And amidst the errors and faults of the film, ultimately it reaches to its target at a bull’s eye – it won’t disappoint when you’re looking for a faith-driven, tear jerker flick.

It works. It’s flawed, but it works.

3 out of 5 stars

MOVIE REVIEW: Silence (2016)

After The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), Silence (2016) is a glorious ending to Martin Scorsese’s religious trilogy of epic and biblical proportions, provoking thoughts on the conflict of faith and flesh, leaving one contemplative and reflective to the power of spirituality.

Silence is an enigmatic discussion about a man’s unprecedented hold onto faith amidst the ironies and propositions that come along with it. Martin Scorsese uses a lot of allegorical techniques, making the narrative rely so much on quietness and stillness, making it parallel towards the protagonist’s psyche, of hearing what the Lord has to say amidst all the silence of his faith. It gives a lot of room for the audience to reflect. That being said, this film is more than just about being studied or examined – it’ll make you go deep inside your spiritual self and open up your senses to live and experience the voyage of the lost and the hopeful, despite not having any promises or certainties. Silence is the epitome of a film about faith – for all of what it is. There are several moments where it felt like Scorsese has revolutionized a new genre of filmmaking solely based on spirituality, as if watching the film is almost a meditation, making one seize the mind and soul; question your beliefs and challenge your faith.

On a technical perspective, Scorsese gave us such fine photography all throughout. The film has such refined cinematography, making it a visually striking piece, it’s almost a contemporary painting full of cold hues and chilly undertones.

Andrew Garfield has once again proven his worth of playing characters subdued in belief with ripped vulnerability amidst the dilemmas of one’s faith and religion – something that he has already accomplished in Hacksaw Ridge. Garfield has that luminous trait of fragility and innocence that juggles the burning fire of passion and the weakness of the unknowing, making almost all of his portrayals so well-balanced, and far from overdoing or underdoing it. His portrayal as Padre Sebastiao Rodriguez is no exception.

Overall, Silence gives us what faith does – it provokes our beliefs; questions our logic; tests our resilience; and most importantly, it makes us contemplate on holding onto the unknown and hoping for an answer, despite the silent responses we get from our prayers. It gives the argument of are we heard? If yes, why the silence? Where is the voice of God? Is He actually speaking to me, or am I just convincing myself of hearing a bleak of whisper amidst the dead silence after I pray? Is the role of faith and religion a mere tool to give hope, or is it as real as the air we breathe?

This film has to be one of Martin Scorsese’s finest works to date. Clearly, the most underrated film of 2016.

5 out of 5 stars

MOVIE REVIEW: Lion (2017)

Lion is a reminder of what storytelling is all about: capturing a man’s soul, and letting the audience experience his journey first-hand, as narrated in Garth Davis’ film about loss, hope and survival.

In a nutshell, Lion isn’t necessarily a monumental achievement in terms of cinematic technicalities, but what this film has is a genuine and heartfelt purpose that not all celebrated artsy films have. Lion has emotional depth as deep as the ocean; moving, like its waves; it’ll sway you, but it won’t drown you. The tide of this film’s journey will take you someplace else, making it an experience rather than just another movie to watch. That is more than enough for a film to stand tall.

Director Garth Davis’ biggest achievement is perhaps giving the film a soul as the actors give it a heart. Also, an honorable mention to its sublime cinematography for a visually stunning picture — alluring yet gritty, colorful yet dark — a manifestation of a lost child’s journey towards finding his home: eventful, oftentimes dangerous, but ultimately hopeful.

Remember those days when simple, clean, thoughtful narratives like Forrest Gump (Zemeckis, 1994) are well-renowned? They fully rely on iconic characters and inspiring storylines about a journey of a person — more so a character study of a man’s heart and soul, tackling every emptiness and every joy. Lion gives such nostalgia to that era of filmmaking that contemporary cinema is often prejudiced of. It is a reminder that the most important element of cinema as art is how it affects and transcends emotions across the screen. Lion does just that without the clichés of a conventional melodrama.

This is Nicole Kidman’s best since her role as grieving Becca in Rabbit Hole (2016). Kidman’s performance is universal; she epitomizes maternal instinct and unconditional love that radiates even with such limited screentime. Dev Patel’s performance as adult Saroo is the core of this film. You will root and hope for him, until you find yourself clinging to his search for life. Again, another universal performance that isn’t difficult to sympathize with.

On a side note: Dev Patel has bagged (deservingly so) Best Supporting Actor nominations, including a BAFTA win. There’s one problem: he is not a supporting character. He is the Lion of this film.

Another note: some parts of the film, particularly its weaker second half, do come across as a very lengthy (but very good) Google Earth Ad. Despite playing a major part of the film’s premise, the whole Google concept could’ve been done a lot smoother without making it a total product placement commercial. Perhaps, it might’ve worked if Google Earth wasn’t endorsed or talked about every 5 minutes or so.

Overall, despite its flaws, Lion proves that a film’s genuine purpose and intentions could go a long way, and that sometimes, it is about the soul more than anything else.

You must see this movie.

4 out of 5 stars

Now showing in the Philippines exclusively at Robinsons Movieworld, Lion is distributed by Viva International Pictures.

MOVIE REVIEW: Life (2017)

Life (Daniel Espinosa, 2017) ends the brilliant streak of epic space-extra-terrestrial conversations that Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian and Arrival have stirred from the last 4 years.

A group of multinational scientists tests a sample soil from Mars, successfully proving that it contains the first proof of extraterrestrial life through single cell extraction. This leads to a series of unprecedented events of attack as the new-found species turns into a predator for its own survival.

The film has every potential to be a solid space epic, in-your-face extra-terrestrial tale: a very exciting premise, above par visual effects, and a committed ensemble; however, an uninspired screenplay and indecisive direction drag the film down to deep space.

In all fairness, Life boasts thrills but the good part stops there. The film majorly suffers from lack of context and insufficient substance other than the obvious artifice of man vs. alien. Filled with underwritten and one dimensional characters, the screenplay is short of the charm and definitive intelligence as it boxes itself in a textbook-ish narrative filled with jargons and scientific propaganda, making the entire film very emotionally distant for the audience to even care or sympathize for the characters. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to root for the characters as there is almost nothing to hold onto them. They make hasty and irrational decisions from start to finish, solely building to the shock value of the film, completely empty of any human depth.

The entire film feels as if it were a mere elimination game than a genuine survival story as director Daniel Espinosa evidently showcases shock after shock; indecisive whether to go the Cuaron’s Gravity or Aliens vs Predator; or perhaps the cardinal sin of marrying both through its mise en scènes, leading to a messy, incoherent storyline. The atmosphere of the first hour felt so minimalistic, and it leads you feeling that this is going to be one of those art-house space features full of silent moments and engaging characters. However, the director decides to go completely the opposite, as everything startlingly transforms into a monstrous battle story. Juggling the two themes perhaps is ambitious, and will always have the ability to soar high once done with finesse and intellect, but at the same time, will always be bound to a miserable failure if polar elements won’t be hemmed flawlessly – for this occasion, the latter.

The film has respectable performances from Rebecca Ferguson and Jake Gyllenhaal. They are two of the better aspects of the film, but aren’t just enough to truly engage into their journey of nothingness. You can tell from the actors’ commitment that they are boldly determined to nail the film, but having their tour de force talents surrounded by confusion just dilute the power they give.

Overall, Life suffers from the inescapable misfortune of being released in an era fresh from Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian and Arrival, where intelligence and emotional engagement matter more than the surface of excitement and thrills. It showcases nothing new and doesn’t really give much of what we’ve already gotten before.

Now showing across Philippine cinemas, Life is distributed by Columbia Pictures, local office of Sony Pictures Releasing International.

MOVIE REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty and the Beast is far from perfection but still proves to hit the right spot in our hearts, the same way the animated feature did way back in 1991.

Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast had huge shoes to fill as it’ll be marking a pinnacle in bringing the beloved animated Disney film faithfully to life as live-action on screen after so many years of loose adaptation releases.

Let me begin by saying that the production had the biggest efforts in respecting the craft by staying true to the original material, almost verbatim, in transforming it to reality, whilst adding flavor by introducing a couple more music to an already-gorgeous lineup of classic songs. The film dazzles with colourful characters, extravagant musical sequences as Condon doesn’t hold back in bringing bold textures and hues of a classic musical production, very reminiscent to Baz Luhrmann’s elaborate style of magic realism on film.

There has been a revamp to the depiction of several characters, most notably to Belle, played by the commendable efforts of Emma Watson. Perhaps, for the first time, a Disney princess is human (and a feminist, if I may add) – the layers of reality that Watson brought to Belle completely eradicated the wide-eyed damsel-in-distress impression of a princess archetype. Belle is portrayed as a real woman: assertive, less romanticized, more organic, and overall ambitious whose destiny doesn’t rely on quintessential prince charming prototypes. This characterization is a rather bold move from screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopolous in showing a three-dimensional Disney leading lady by eliminating the nuances of a dated impression of the feminine persona.

Another revamp is to that of LaFou, whose homosexual undertones are finally embraced, which completely gave sense to what used to be an illogical fixation and fascination towards Gaston as what has been portrayed in the animated version. It goes to show that the film has supported the characters’ intellect by giving rationale to their decision making. It is a very brave move from Disney by finally adding an LGBT character (two of them, actually) to a classic child-friendly film. This revamp shows that Beauty and the Beast, or probably Disney in general, is finally speaking to a new era.

Despite the film’s greatest intentions, inevitably, it suffers from a fair share of casualties here and there. Being an iconic musical, it is just expected that the singing part will be, a no-brainer, above par. However, we have to admit: Watson’s vocal ability wasn’t the best, which didn’t come as a surprise, prematurely conceived from the film’s early marketing and promotional clips. Ultimately, there’s a strange and awkward atmosphere one just cannot ignore that a random laundry woman in the neighbourhood, or a nameless old fish vendor, can sing stronger and has more solid vocal register than the leading lady herself. Vocally, the neighbourhood chorus completely swallows Watson, especially in the opening number, which is crucial, as it sets the mood and expectations of the film. It’s the white elephant in the movie. It all seems like a big ball of ‘showbiz’ agenda that Watson’s casting primarily falls down on how divine she looks in that iconic yellow ball gown, as if a living replica of the animated version – no more, no less. If this wasn’t a musical, Watson would fit perfectly like a glove; but at the end of the day, one of the primary reasons why a musical’s narrative continues to move fluidly is the vocal strength of the cast, especially the lead, and autotune can only get her so far.

The cast and the music felt overly congested. Stanley Tucci’s casting was completely unnecessary, as if merely dragging a big name to pile up an A-list ensemble; again, too much showbiz stunt agenda that is overwhelming to the film’s overall essence. His character has nothing to do with the film’s narrative other than a filler, and he could be taken out easily for a cleaner and much more concise plot. There are a couple of songs that felt better if they were released in an extended DVD version; Beast’s solo act felt redundant, as it was anti-climactic to the film’s pacing.

Speaking of pacing, the build-up of the characters, particularly to that of Belle and Beast, is rather perfunctory, especially in the second act. Their transition from master-prisoner to lovebirds is very, very abrupt, it’s just so hard to buy, which consequently contradicts Belle’s newly overhauled persona as a less idealized, more grounded woman. How the ‘courtship’ was portrayed was too by-the-book from the original source; it felt too forced, and ultimately seems inconsistent from their premise of modernizing the definition of love and relationship. It didn’t have enough establishing moments to justify a love that felt and seem so impossible (bestiality, anyone?), whereas it was the best opportunity to humanize a fairytale, since that has always been the apparent objective of this live action adaptation.

Moreover, the rest of the cast was just stunning. From the impeccable chemistry between Lumiere and Cogsworth, played by Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen respectively, to the hilarious Emma Thompson, whose golden nightingale voice is a revelation on-screen, to the heartwarming performance of Kevin Kline as Maurice – you can never go wrong with seasoned actors playing classic and iconic roles.

The best part of the film, to my surprise, is Luke Evans as Gaston. I have always been skeptical about him as I find his voice too high and raspy for an uber masculine brute. Evans added so much flavor and pizzazz to the character, he stole every scene he’s in, and at the moments he’s not on screen, you’d find yourself longing for his presence. He’s gritty but vain; extremely annoying but very lovable; he has sold the character so well, you’d easily want a spin-off for his own movie.

Overall, Beauty and the Beast turns out to be exactly what you think it would be – strengths and weaknesses combined; thus, it won’t disappoint. Ultimately, the premise of the film has been lived up, though far from perfection, it still hits the right spot in our hearts. This film is a beautiful nostalgia, and you will find yourself in goosebumps witnessing how the animated film from 1991 has finally unraveled to life.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Now showing across the Philippines in 2D, 3D, IMAX and 4D screens, Beauty and the Beast is distributed by Walt Disney Studios Philippines.