MOVIE REVIEWS: Cinemalaya Film Festival 2019 (Part 1)

Here’s the first part of our festival report on Cinemalaya 2019, in which we cover Belle Douleur, Edward, John Denver TrendingMalamaya, Tabon and Shorts A. The 15th edition of Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival runs from August 7 to 15, 2019 in select Ayala Malls Cinemas and Vista Cinemas nationwide.


BELLE DOULEUR (BEAUTIFUL PAIN)

Kit Thompson (Josh) and Mylene Dizon (Liz) in Belle Douleur.

The first of the two entries dealing on the burgeoning subject matter of May-December love affairs features a palpable and electric chemistry between Mylene Dizon and Kit Thompson. Like the recent Glorious, it’s filled to the brim with wish fulfillment – gratuitous and torrid love scenes that’s otherwise substantiated with better screenplay and direction. By the way its characters are constructed, it perfectly makes sense for both to latch onto each other. Liz (Mylene Dizon) is a child psychologist in her 40’s who struggles dealing with the passing of her mother, as seen through her heavy attachment to her mom’s antique items. Enter an attractive Josh in his late 20’s who shows an odd fascination for the same stuff. Upon the suggestion of her friends, Liz does something “reckless and irresponsible.” You can tell where the story goes from here. 

Make no mistake, this is not a case of Oedipal complex for Josh. He genuinely wants to have a committed relationship with Liz, the latter even insisting to be the nurturer. Naturally, Liz wants to do her mutual end in the relationship as well, but she’s taken aback each time he accuses her of being too much of a mother figure. Liz might have escaped the stigma of being a single, middle-aged woman but she finds herself trapped into a new one.

The narrative unfolds and more relationship cracks are revealed – there are some things that Liz simply can’t provide. Generational conflict arises and compromises must be made. At which point, Belle Douleur slugs at its pacing with its prolonged honeymoon and frustration phases, none of which are really new and ground-breaking per se. The film could have sacrificed some of its sequences – particularly a subplot involving a friend’s infidelity issue – to reserve time for its rushed ending that should hold up the titular theme “beautiful pain.” 

The conclusion is up for a different discussion – somehow the female empowerment message feels an odd fit to Liz’s actions towards the end. Belle Douleur is a sentimental and heartfelt love affair that can either get too saccharine or exasperating for some viewer’s tastes. Regardless, the film hooks your attention, much owing to Dizon’s impeccable and subdued performance.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Directed by Joji V. Alonso and written by Therese Cayaba, ‘Belle Douleur’ stars Mylene Dizon, Kit Thompson, Marlon Rivera, Jenny Jamora and Hannah Ledesma. 98 minutes. R-13.

EDWARD

Ella Cruz and Louise Abuel in Edward.

Edward opens with an impressive one-shot sequence that lays out the chaotic workings of a public hospital – the understaffed crew, the lack of sufficient equipment and facilities, the depressing resuscitation performed in hallway, etc. Such hyper-realism foreshadows the harsh awakening that this sullen place holds store for the titular young lad, charmingly played by Louise Abuel. Left by his half-brother, he is tasked with taking care of his ill father – actor Dido De La Paz whose labored breathing and violent coughs alone warrant a supporting actor nomination. Edward quickly accustoms himself to the environment – when not tending to his father or serving as an errand boy, he would goof around with his best friend Renz (Elijah Canlas) as they use wheelchairs for thrill rides and bet on critically-ill patients. 

I actually came here expecting more of the father and son dynamic to be fleshed out – as what director Thop Nazareno deftly did in Kiko Boksingero. Halfway through, however, the film’s romcom aspects become more prominent as Edward befriends and falls for a girl patient named Agnes (Ella Cruz). Personally, the film could have enriched its coming of age arc more had the focus is on the paternal relationship. But in here, Edward often neglects his duties to his estranged father. Perhaps it speaks to the general immaturity of youth, of how sometimes teens prioritize romantic endeavors over family emergencies. Hence, the film lacks a better resolution for Edward and his father – or maybe that’s just how life is, sometimes you don’t get it. 

The film mostly plays on a comical tone largely helped by the bleak humor generated by its supporting cast and cheery musical scoring. But never underestimate the darker tones beneath, because once they kick in, the effect is poignant and heartbreaking. As the blow by blow tragic events happen, poor Edward finds himself worn out from the roller-coaster of emotions he experienced within his short stay in the hospital. Edward is a liberation from the cusp of innocence.

With its documentary-like sensibilities, the film also serves as a somber commentary where patients die because of the inept healthcare system. It can be a helpless and maddening experience to know that we’re living in that type of reality. After all, there’s an ‘Edward’ in all of us.

4 out of 5 stars

Directed by Thop Nazareno and written by John Paul Bedia and Thop Nazareno, ‘Edward’ stars Louise Abuel, Dido dela Paz, Elijah Canlas, Manuel Chua and Ella Cruz. 90 minutes. R-13.

JOHN DENVER TRENDING

Meryll Soriano and Jansen Magpusao in John Denver Trending.

If there’s an entry here that speaks to the heart of a social media driven generation today, it’s definitely John Denver Trending. From cyber-bullying, proliferation of fake news, bandwagon mentality, uprise of keyboard warriors and a self-righteous society mostly motivated by emotions and not reasons – the film bares it all. Juxtaposed with meaningful symbolism of superstitions and rituals, director/writer Arden Rod Condez makes an effort not to deliver heavy handed commentaries.

In it, John Denver Cabungcal (a promising debut by Jansen Magpusao) gets caught on video beating up a classmate. The latter’s friend uploads the said clip on Facebook with claims that John stole his iPad and acted hostile upon confrontation. What the netizens don’t see is that he’s innocent and he actually just fought back to get his bag. The film also mines much empathy in Meryll Soriano’s effective portrayal of John’s strong-willed mother who does her best to acquit his son from the accusations.

There might be some reservations towards the film’s nihilistic conclusion but I personally think that the screenplay’s build up satisfies the film’s bold choices. Overall, John Denver Trending is a very powerful and humbling film that I can wholeheartedly champion for everyone to see.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Directed and written by Arden Rod Condez, ‘John Denver Trending’ stars Jansen Magpusao, Meryll Soriano, Glenn Mas, Sammy Rubido, Vince Philip Alegre, Jofranz Ambubuyog and Christian Alarcon. 96 minutes. PG.

MALAMAYA (THE COLOR OF ASH)

Enzo Pineda and Sunshine Cruz in Malamaya.

Effectively works as a double feature with Belle Douleur, Malamaya leaves you pondering with its themes on solitary, generational gap beliefs, artistic schools of thought and many other things. Directors Danica Sta. Lucia and Leilani Chavez leaves plenty of room for dissection. In a way, it’s like looking at an art exhibit. You can look at the film in multiple angles, some might find it a pretentious feminist film while some may say it’s worthy of viewing. I fall into a latter category, with few reservations.

Much of my fascination falls on a temperemental and unaplogetic painter Nora who refuses to take crap from anyone. This girl can detect BS from a mile away. She may not be always right but she makes sure that she stands firm with her opinion. She takes an arrogant young photography hobbyist named Migs (Enzo Pineda) under her wing and having the same passion for art, steamy love scenes are bound to fly. It feels rote and familar by now but given that we are in for a modest level of crazy character introspection, Malamaya takes an orthodox and more artful approach than Belle Douleur. Just to be clear, Nora does not need men saving her. She can use them for her benefit but she never bows down to their whims.

It feels refreshing to see Sunshine Cruz act again as this film reminds us of her capabilities as an actress. Malamaya can be burdened by characterization flaws to fully deliver a concrete message but perhaps this is just a reflection of the captivating and erratic emotional and mental state of artists. Elsewhere, the film’s aesthetic visuals and production values are pleasing to the eye. It never hurts for a second viewing.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Directed by Danica Sta. Lucia and Leilani Chavez, written by Leilani Chavez and Liberty Trinidad, ‘Malamaya’ stars Enzo Pineda, Sunshine Cruz, Raymond Bagatsing and Bernadette Allyson. 80 minutes. R-13.

TABON

Christopher Roxas in Tabon.

While Tabon‘s story clearly has the potential for a mystery/crime thriller, the film is completely let down by its misguided direction, dry screenplay and bland production design. Christopher Roxas (I even forgot his character’s name) plays a thinly-written protagonist that runs around the narrative asking the same questions over and over again, wearing the exact same face of confusion that the viewers bear.

The problem is that Xian Lim, in his directorial debut, seals his lips from the film’s mystery for so long. Not enough breadcrumbs are offered to lead the way or let alone create a proper misdirection. The result is a horror mystery that feels uneventful, dragging and bewildering. Not to mention, a drastic tonal shift involving the use of animation occurs halfway – by then, it’s hard to take what happens next seriously. Plot points are just lost in translation, just like how I can’t fathom the relevance of the film’s title.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Directed by Xian Lim and written by Xian Lim and Eseng Cruz, ‘Tabon’ stars Christopher Roxas, Ynna Asistio, Dexter Doria, Bapbap Reyes, Menggie Cobarrubias, Leon Miguel, Benjie Felipe, Lao Rodriguez and Richard Manabat. 90 minutes. PG.

SHORTS A

GATILYO (Trigger) has sincere intentions to shed light on PTSD and the lasting effects of war but unfortunately, it plays more as a PSA with nothing really original to latch onto your heartstrings. 2.5/5

Directed by and co-written by Harold Lance Pialda, ‘Gatilyo’ stars Rocky Salumbides, Liya Sarmiento, Bon Andrew Lentejas and Ruby “Ube Lola” Daleon. 19 minutes. PG.

HEIST SCHOOL is an easy crowd-pleaser that garners the biggest laughs in the bunch. The clever screenplay and comedic beats are well-executed. I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to this. 4/5

Directed and co-written by Julius Renomeron Jr., ‘Heist School’ stars Jemuel Cedrick Satumba, Bryan Bacalso, Ella Mae Libre, Son De Vera, Teri Lacayanga, Brylle Parzuelo and Kevin Ramos. 17 minutes. PG.

SA GABING TANGING LIWANAG AY PANINIWALA (Belief as the Light in Darkness) is another mystery horror that leaves you confused with its incoherent sequencing rather than investing at a solid character development that should bring out the profound horror underneath. 2/5

Directed and written by Francis Guillermo, ‘Sa Gabing Tanging Liwanag ay Paniniwala’ stars Soliman Cruz, Dylan Ray Talon, Sheryll Ceasico and Stefanoni Nunag. 15 minutes. PG.

DISCONNECTION NOTICE is a heartwarming mundane tale of brothers living under the same roof. It’s sensational cinematography really does help in fleshing out the disposition of its characters. 4.5/5

Directed and written by Glenn Lowell Averia, ‘Disconnection Notice’ stars Jude Matthew Servilla and John Vincent Servilla. 19 minutes. PG.

‘WAG MO ‘KONG KAUSAPIN (Please Stop Talking) feels deeply personal and haunting to begin with. It’s a unique and harrowing manifestation of depression and suppressed ghosts from past. 5/5

Directed and written by Josef Gacutan, ‘Wag Mo ‘Kong Kausapin’ stars Rener Concepcion, Junjun Quintana, Karen Romualdez and Vincent Pajara. 14 minutes. GA.

Stay tuned for the second part of our coverage!

‘Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw’ review: Audacious and ridiculous

Part-car-chase-action, part-buddy-comedy, and arguably part-superhero film, ‘Hobbs and Shaw’ serviceably assembles the requisites for a popcorn blockbuster.

The plot of the Fast & Furious films truly came a long way from illegal street-racing and high speed heists. Its newest spin-off, Hobbs & Shaw, ratchets up the stakes by involving a deadly virus that can wipe out half of the population. Apparently, it boils down to averting a Thanos phenomenon. I’m not sure if screenwriters Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce originally intended their script as a pitch for a Marvel or a Mission: Impossible film, but do we really care? The latest chapter may feature less cars and more formulaic blockbuster elements, yet one thing has always been consistent – the franchise’s over-the-top ambition to wreck your suspension of disbelief. Hobbs & Shaw knows that its explosive stunt choreography is the main reason why we’re along for the ride. It’s outrageously fun and ridiculous.

There are at least two more reasons for this spin-off: 1. Vin Diesel and The Rock reportedly had some beef, so both are not exactly thrilled to work together anytime soon; and 2. This actually serves as a way to extend the franchise without the need of having all the A-listers. Hobbs & Shaw capitalizes on two previous anti-heroes and puts them in a buddy action-comedy: a federal law enforcement officer Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and a world class thief/mercenary Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). Both are epitome of toxic masculinity, but these bald, muscle-bound alpha males are different in many ways and they hate each other’s guts. Soon, they have to work together. For Hobbs it’s another job of saving the world, while for Shaw, it’s a personal quest to save his estranged sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby).

Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham) attempt to infiltrate the bad guys’ lair.

Director David Leitch (Deadpool 2 and John Wick) mostly assembles Hobbs & Shaw with spare parts from previous action films – you will be reminded of M:I – Fallout, Mad Max: Fury Road, Skyscraper and even Kingsman at some point. The resulting model feels less like a F&F film and more like the standard flicks that The Rock and Statham have starred in. The film also tries to occupy the comedic lane with its brand of lowbrow banter. And in case it’s not clear, Leitch drops a couple of big star cameos doing gags along the way (they will remain unnamed for your surprise). Or you can just wait for the part where Hobbs and Shaw funnily engage in slow-mo punches. Or the part where Hobbs and his brothers perform a Samoan chant before throwing themselves into battle. Yes, that really happened. Sure enough, the film gets away with its absurd setups with the help of the winning charisma of its leads.

Elsewhere, I saw the order of the epic stunts coming from a mile away – no thanks to the trailers that spilled too much of the set pieces. There’s supposed to be a grave sense of danger – moments where butts should be lifted from seats – but since almost everything here defies physics and common logic, you might as well get a good laugh at its audacity and willingness to lunacy. In one scene, Hobbs fearlessly jumps out of a skyscraper to catch a henchman who’s rappelling down below. Twenty seconds later, he jumps again in pursuit of a different henchman, effortlessly changing the trajectory of his freefall.  And lest we forget the portion where Hobbs holds down a helicopter using his terrific biceps. Captain America would be proud.

Bad guy. Idris Elba plays genetically enhanced MI6 agent Brixton Lore.

And since we’re almost dealing with superheroic stuff now, it’s only fitting that Hobbs & Shaw introduces the franchise’s most formidable villain yet – the Winter Soldier, er, Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), a bionic MI6 agent who calls himself as the “Black Superman.” Given his skillset and abilities, he can also be a terminator and a transformer for all we know. Elba knocks his role out of the park, however, the biggest revelation here is neither him or the two leads. Vanessa Kirby’s Hattie steals the show with her exquisite balance of classiness and feistiness. Her character does not succumb as a damsel in distress – she can beat up guys on her own, all while remaining to be the film’s source of emotional friction. Someone please give Kirby a solo action feature.

Vanessa Kirby plays Hattie Shaw, Deckard’s estranged sister.

You can accuse Hobbs & Shaw as a mindless form of entertainment but it’s never soulless. No matter how bonkers the action sequences can get, the film abides by the franchise’s hallmark of putting the family first above anything else. Such a theme can be a contractual obligation by now – both leads here are in need of a family reconciliation. Their respective subplots could’ve been done better as they’re a bit overplayed and underdeveloped. But it’s the sentiment that counts, I guess. 

Overall, this spin-off manages to have fun without having the burden of tying much of its ends to the F&F universe. Leitch keeps the action and comedy running at full speed, even if the pacing starts to drag at times. The outcome is something you’ve seen before – more or less, but it’s still highly enjoyable. And sometimes, that brand of ridiculous and fun is just enough to keep the action aficionados happy.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by David Leitch, written by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw stars Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby, Eiza González, Eddie Marsan, Cliff Curtis and Helen Mirren. 135 minutes. PG-13.

‘Midsommar’ review: Welcome to the sunny side of hell

Helmed by Ari Aster’s fearless direction, ‘Midsommar’ effectively elevates the dread and horror – even if there’s no discernible purpose other than shock value.

Note: This review contains mild spoilers, though you might have already deduced some of them in the trailer.

An unspeakable tragedy occurs in the opening sequence of Midsommar that should warn you to the amount of disturbing content this film has. Such outcome puts an anxiety-afflicted Dani (Florence Pugh) at her lowest low – a gut-wrenching moment when life strips everything away from her. Writer/director Ari Aster then continues her harrowing grieving process to Hårga, Sweden as her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is left with no option but to tag her along with his friends’ bro-getaway. Together, they participate in an ancestral, midsummer event that only happens every 90 years. How prestigious and exciting, right? The warning signs are abound, this most definitely looks like a cult trap. Yet for the crew who’s been intoxicated with psychedelic drugs the moment they stepped on the said village, they remain oblivious to that suggestion. For Dani, what awaits could be a shot at metamorphosis – even if the film’s execution evokes more confusion than catharsis.

Strangers in Sweden. William Jackson Harper (Josh), Will Poulter (Mark), Florence Pugh (Dani) and Jack Reynor (Christian) in ‘Midsommar.’

To his credit, Aster crafts a more comprehensible and straightforward film this time than his debut work in Hereditary. He foreshadows the horrors ahead of time with the aid of abundant symbolism incorporated in the film’s stylistic production design. Some are self-explanatory, hand-painted illustrations while some are iconography that won’t make sense unless you’ve read books about pagan rituals. Nevertheless, there’s a strange satisfaction once you see the bits and pieces fall into place – every character plays a part in this unsettling pagan tale. By then, things start to get sickening: grotesque rituals, body desecration, graphic nudity and religious hysteria – Midsommar has all of those things and more. Aster proves that he’s the type of filmmaker who pulls no punches.

But I’ve done my research and I found out that most, if not all, of the creepy traditions here don’t occur in Sweden. Maybe in other European countries during the medieval times but never in the Swedish present context. (The maypole dance does not count as creepy, by the way.) It appears that Aster is just using the midsummer festival as a backdrop for his handpicked Scandinavian pagan rituals. Sure, it’s a work of fiction after all. Yet why does Midsommar seem like a deliberate cultural misrepresentation? Not only is it a false depiction of beliefs and religion, it’s further amplified by the over-sensationalized R-18 elements simply presented for shock value. It even has a warped sense of humor to break the tension. Sometimes it works, but in one rape scene where the film elicits laughs from the audience, it feels very wrong and malicious. This is where the film’s sincerity looks questionable to me. Midsommar can feel indulgent on both narrative and aesthetic level.

Camaraderie in Swedish community. Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) comforts Dani in ‘Midsommar.’

Indeed, Midsommar is a film about many things. For one, Aster said himself that this is a “breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a horror folk film” and he does a great job in revealing the relationship cracks of the central couple. Dani’s traumatic experience prohibits an emotionally checked out Christian from breaking up with her. The latter can be a coward and an inept boyfriend but you really can’t blame the guy. Why would you stay in a codependent relationship that’s requiring more than you can give? In the same way, Dani can’t be faulted for all the unfortunate things that happened to her. Neither of them are inherently bad partners, both are just unhealthy for each other. But here we are, Aster drops their fragile relationship into the most extreme circumstances. In the process, some sort of spiritual awakening is gifted in the film’s final moments yet you can’t help but to frown on it. The message on empowerment and liberation does not exactly hold up since there’s not much autonomy involved. Diabolical external forces – not freewill – led the film’s biggest decision.

Christian and Dani reacts to a horrifying ritual in ‘Midsommar.’

That is not to say that Midsommar is a bad film. Suffice to say, it’s a fearless arthouse horror that won’t suit everyone’s taste. Aster’s phenomenal filmmaking alone warrants a 5 star rating for me. There’s an allure to his style – the way he plays with blocking, space, symmetry and even mirrors. Also noteworthy are his well-thought transitions, the most remarkable one being an overhead shot of Dani rushing to the bathroom only to end up in an airplane that’s headed to Europe. In some scenes, he intentionally makes you feel trippy and disoriented to bring out a visceral experience, while you gladly offer your patience in return. Teaming up once again with Hereditary cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, Aster concocts a nightmare set in the blistering broad daylight.

And lest we forget the excellent performances across the board, including Reynor’s character that calls a lot of courage to play. His deer in the headlights act gets a lot of mileage as it serves as a reflection of the viewer’s bewilderment to all the sinister stuff involved. But make no mistake, this is Florence Pugh’s show. She shows staggering control in an emotionally demanding role that requires complexity and manic endurance. From her widening pupils to her body tremors, she summons a huge deal of anguish and manages to deliver it in a relatable manner.

Florence Pugh delivers a Toni Collete performance in ‘Midsommar.’

Much of my fascination for Midsommar boils down to the craftsmanship involved and not necessarily the controversial subject matter presented. It demands a lot of energy to sit through and process. Like any significant heartbreak, it offers no easy answers. But whether you like it or not, one thing’s for sure, this film does not look like anything you’ve seen before. I just wish Aster will make use of his talents and skills to something that’s less hedonistic and more substantial in the long run.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed and written by Ari Aster, ‘Midsommar’ stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe, Henrik Norlén, Gunnel Fred and Isabelle Grill. 147 minutes. R-18.

‘Yesterday’ review: A world without The Beatles

As a charming offbeat romcom that highlights the music of The Beatles, ‘Yesterday’ is easy to let into your heart.

As a Beatles fan myself, I’m inclined to say that any film that features their music is automatically worthy of the admission price. The band rightfully deserves their pedestal in rock n’ roll history – not only because of their cross-generational appeal, but also because of their seminal work that continues to be the musical influence of several artists to date. In many ways, John, Paul, George and Ringo shaped the music industry and its booming celebrity culture. Who knows, maybe without them, Ed Sheeran might be off singing metal tunes instead.

In the alternate reality created by Yesterday – where Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) finds himself as the only person who remembers their songs after a freak accident – nothing much has really changed in the music landscape. Ed Sheeran still has the same hits like “Shape of You” and Coldplay is still best known for their song “Fix You.” To think that The Beatles are way beyond influential, the erasure of their legacy will surely affect the world in more ways than one can imagine. But no, like their song “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” la la la la life (apparently) goes on.

Ticket to fame. Himesh Patel plays an accidental superstar in ‘Yesterday.’

Truth is, the film dodges the thought-provoking questions brought by its plot. It’s more committed in delivering its fun and sentimental themes, rather than serving a cause and effect commentary in pop culture history. Well, that’s fine by me. I mainly came here for the sing along, plus it’s not like the film is a dystopian sci-fi anyway – leave it to Black Mirror in figuring out the nitty gritty repercussions of a Beatles-less world. Yesterday turns out to be half the film it’s premise promises to be, but that should not deter you from enjoying it.

And so in his eureka moment – where the camera accelerates to his face with such excitement – struggling musician Jack suddenly realizes the opportunity to build a career for himself. He quickly lists down all the Beatles’ songs to his best recollection and passes them as his own in a local radio shack. Next thing he knows, a captivated Ed Sheeran shows in his doorstep to invite him as his opening act. He also catches the eye of a label executive Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon) who offers him the “poisoned chalice of fame,” as she would call it. He signs a record contract and boom, instant superstardom follows. Cue in the fans – from adolescent girls to grown up men – who scream his name in adulation. 

Ed Sheeran challenges Jack to a song-writing duel in ‘Yesterday.’

With his stack of ready made hits, Jack is going places. But the question of morality begs as he’s basically a fraud: how long can he “carry that weight?” Yesterday serves as a peek into the life of stardom – the costs of fame and wishful thinking. A sudden chill goes through my body when Jack performs “Help!” with such punkish intensity. I realize that the Beatles has always written this song as a subconscious cry for help.

Yesterday works best as a hilarious piece of entertainment, bolstered by a perpetually confused yet charismatic and musically talented Himesh Patel in his movie debut. All of his performances here are impressively done live and he interprets these classic songs with much sincerity and soul. He shows good comic timing too in the fun sequences like Jack struggling to remember the lyrics for “Eleanor Rigby” and the occasional Google searches as he realizes that the music of The Beatles is not the only thing that’s vanished from the face of the earth.

Himesh Patel performs “Help!” to a sea of adulating fans.

The film also pokes fun in the ails of music industry, best embodied by McKinnon’s obnoxious and opportunistic character. She delivers her ruthless lines with perfect deadpan humor. Sheeran, on the other hand, plays a fictionalized, semi-egotistical version of himself who mines a good laugh from his suggestion to ruin the lyrics of “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.”

Yesterday is ultimately a high concept romantic comedy at heart. As Jack rises to fame, he must weigh in the things that really matter to him. That includes his best friend/road manager/ardent cheerleader Ellie (played by the bubbly and ever-radiant Lily James), the girl who believes in him way back when he’s still unpopular. Writer Richard Curtis (Love Actually, About Time) easily spins the story into a feel good movie filled with profound messages on the different forms of love and success. The only thing that’s unconvincing here is Lily James being stuck on the friend zone – I mean, really?  Otherwise, Patel and James have a palpable chemistry to keep the love angle going despite the minor plot lapses.

Lily James and Himesh Patel sings “I Want to Hold Your Hand.

Yesterday is a musical fantasy that’s not bothered by the silly nature of its phenomenon. Yet it proves to be largely fun not just because of the goodwill of its soundtrack but also due to the sympathetic rags to riches story that Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) capably directs. Binding its viewers with the universal healing power of music, it makes a touching case about preserving art and that’s something always worth singing about. Oh, I believe in Yesterday.

4 out of 5 stars
Directed by Danny Boyle, ‘Yesterday’ stars Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran, Joel Fry, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, Alexander Arnold, Sophai Di Martino, Harry Michell, Lamorne Morris and Robert Carlyle. 116 minutes. PG-13.

‘The Lion King’ (2019) review: Photorealistic Disney remake means no worries

Jon Favreau’s remake of ‘The Lion King’ does not liberate itself from the shackles of the Disney classic but the nostalgia it brings should be enough to make this an easy crowd-pleaser.

On a strict technical level, Disney’s 2019 version of The Lion King counts more as a retelling than a reimagination: the story and dialogues are roughly the same, the well-loved songs are all present, and the iconic scenes are masterfully replicated through cutting edge technology (making the 1994 classic look like a giant storyboard). James Earl Jones even reprises the role of Mufasa, “King of the Pride Rock” (pictured above). Had you seen the original film a day before the screening (yes, I have), the beat per beat similarities will be more evident and you’ll find yourself guessing the next lines.

This sounds good news for those who like to be comforted by the same blanket of emotions, all while revelling in the filmmakers’ technical prowess. Anyway, the classic has already a solid story to begin with, and this remake’s faithful adherence to it does not take away whatever entertainment value The Lion King brings. I can’t blame Disney for not fixing what’s not broken as multi-millions of dollars are at stake here. Jungle Book director Jon Favreau’s first and foremost duty is to not mess it up… even if it’s at the cost of storytelling ambition.

Adventurous souls. Zazu (John Oliver) warns a young Simba (J.D. McCrary) and a young Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) not to stray away from the Pride Lands.

That being said, those who couldn’t tolerate watching a practically the same film, will be greatly disappointed. The question of necessity immediately pops into one’s head and terms like “cash-grab” and “blatant rehash” will be thrown around by cynical viewers. Personally, I would rather reserve those terms for films which are lazily done and TLK 2.0 definitely doesn’t look like one. With its photorealistic and painstakingly rendered imagery, the film looks like a high-end feature of Disneynature. For someone who enjoys watching NatGeo documentaries, I am digging this. If anything, audiences will be baffled to know that none of it is actually real—everything is created in digital space. (The term “live action” seems to be a misnomer by now.) The main attraction here is to gawk at the visual wizardry and there’s no shame in that.

Wisdom and tribe loyalty. John Kani plays Rafiki, a wise mandrill who serves as the shaman of the Pride Lands and a close adviser of Mufasa.

Putting realism to the context of animation, however, creates dissonance at some parts and that’s where this remake fails to completely replicate the magic of the original. To be specific, Favreau & Co. sticks to realistic animal expressions: which means that a lion’s sad/angry/confused face won’t be as expressive as their animated counterparts. Hence, even if the vocal performances are all incredible, the emotional range and depth is not fully captured. In a way, 2.0 serves as a reminder why traditional animation is important. The exaggerated facial expressions and the surrealist sequences are used to convey larger than life emotions. The Lion King thrives more in that territory. It can never entirely sell the idea of realism in the first place, as there’s no way in the world that animals talk or sing like people.

But everything else is mostly forgiven when TLK 2.0 starts hitting the nostalgia button via its amusing, sing-along songs, and the sweeping musical score once again provided by the great Hans Zimmer. This remake retains most of the melodies but there are welcome additions too like Beyoncé’s original song “Spirit” which is played during Simba’s eventual return to the Pride Lands. Her character Nala is given more dimension this time and I wish we’re given more time for Donald Glover’s adult Simba to fully grow on us. Nevertheless, the coming-of-age push and pull themes of ‘putting your past behind’ vs. ‘remembering who you are’ are well emphasized in his character building moments. 

The heir of the Pride Lands, Simba (Donald Glover) and his childhood best friend Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) reunites after several years of separation.

While the opening song “Circle of Life” is a frame by frame recreation of the original, Simba and Nala’s performance of Elton John’s rousing hit “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” is wonderfully set in the warm glow of sunset this time. There’s also a fresh take in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance of “Be Prepared” which is delivered as a mix of spoken word/song. Combined with Scar’s scruffy features, the character looks more devious and menacing. 

Usurpers to the throne. Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), along with his hyena henchmen Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key), and Azizi (Eric Andre), are onto something evil.

But TLK 2.0 starts to earn its big laughs upon the introduction of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen’s Timon and Pumbaa. The duo steal the thunder with their nihilistic philosophy of living a worry-free lifestyle and the actors’ seemingly improvisational freedom. Their acapella performance of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” really lights up the mood of the film. Also bringing levity is John Oliver’s pompous and diplomatic bird Zazu.

Hakuna Matata. A young Simba (J.D. McCrary), meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa sing away their problems in ‘The Lion King.’

The Lion King (2019) does not reinvent nor reimagine the story and it does not have to. There’s a reason why the 1994 film is a timeless classic and it’s because of the relevant themes of responsibility, pride and courage. The main goal here is to reintroduce the story to a younger generation who don’t share the same level of enthusiasm towards the old-school Disney animation. In that note, this film succeeds.

The 2019 remake honors what came before. It may lack the surprise factor—the emotional punches and musical cues come as expected—but there’s great pleasure in seeing this classic brought into life. It won’t overthrow my love for the original anytime soon but think of this as a good old, hand-me-down present that’s beautifully wrapped for every generation to keep.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Jon Favreau, ‘The Lion King’ features the voices of Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric Andre and James Earl Jones. Based on the 1994 Disney classic by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton. 118 minutes. Rated G.

‘Spider-Man: Far from Home’ review: Greater upgrade, greater responsibility

Spider-Man: Far From Home’ keeps the comic book lore fresh with its picturesque locations, strong performances and overall light-hearted fun.

Note: The following review contains spoilers from Avengers: Endgame.

I admire MCU’s Spider-Man films for managing to impart uncle Ben’s infamous words (“With great power, comes great responsibility”) without the need of explicitly mentioning it. Homecoming stands out in the superhero genre with its scaled-down coming-of-age themes that nevertheless delivers action, humor and heart. At its center is a teenager who wants to be a superhero, yet hasn’t quite figured out how. In Far From Home, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is once again wrestling with that responsibility but the stakes here are much larger than saving the neighborhood. Much of the pressure comes from filling the metal boots of the late Tony Stark/Iron Man as he bequeathed Peter a pair of techie glasses which has access to Stark Industries’ database and orbital weapons. It’s a cool legacy to inherit (not to mention the spectacular spidey suits later), but can Peter have at least a week off to enjoy his high school field trip to Europe – a perfect setting to profess his romantic feelings for his classmate MJ (Zendaya)? Well, you know the drill: With great power…

Against his wishes, Peter is pulled out by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to team up with Quentin Beck a.k.a. Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) – a superhero from an alternate earth who emits green gas and wears a fishbowl on his head. The mystery guy quickly buddies up with a confused Peter (who’s in need of a father figure since Tony’s death) and empathizes with his struggle to moonlight a superhero job. Gyllenhaal fits wonderfully into this environment as he carries the charisma and gravitas needed to act as a mentor to a young Holland. But of course, anyone who’s familiar with his character in the comics should know early on that there’s more to him that meets the eye.

A new ally? Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) explains the existence of a multiverse to Peter Parker (Tom Holland).

Together, they try to stop various destructive “Elementals” across the globe. This mission is clearly an Avengers-level type of threat but when Peter asks Fury as to the whereabouts of the other Avengers, he simply says that they’re all either busy or unavailable. Hmmm… how convenient. Thankfully, a must-watch post-credit scene alludes to a bigger inter-dimensional threat that supports this plot convenience and fixes a huge character plothole found in the narrative. Hence, I’m letting this one off the hook.

Set several months after the events of Avengers: Endgame, this installment also has the task of addressing the ramifications of Dr. Hulk’s snap that restored half of humanity wiped by Thanos. The five-year absence, referred to as “the blip,” is amusingly explained through the perspective of high school milieu. Those who are spared by Thanos continue to grow five years older, while those who are previously “snapped” went back with their original ages. Again, for convenience sake, the significant class members of Peter are still of the same age.

An unforgettable European field trip: Betty (Angourie Rice), Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya) are caught in the crossfire against the Elementals.

With all the globe-trotting and action extravaganza involved, reprising director Jon Watts finds a way to maintain a light tone that keeps the sequel intact with its predecessor, yet at the same time, fit it with the ever-expanding world of MCU. The script, penned by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, remains to be a character-based, high-school comedy just so happened to be set in multiple geographical locations – New York, Venice, Berlin, Prague, London and the Netherlands. One of the film’s twists traces back to Captain America: Civil War and another one back to Captain Marvel. It’s a testament how well-written and well-thought of this film is. I have to emphasize that with Kevin Feige and the rest of Marvel’s vision, the future of MCU is in safe hands.

New continent, new suit. Spider-Man dons the Stealth Suit.

More than the standard saving-the-world scenario, the coming-of-age sensibilities once again makes Far From Home a breezy and charming addition to the franchise. There are plenty of relevant adolescent themes like young adult anxiety and insecurity, competing love interests, class bullies, Gen Z’s indulgence to social media and the general immaturity of youth. Through it all, the story not only propels Peter’s individual story but also manages to give the supporting players their moments to shine. Nerdy Ned (Jacob Batalon) steals scenes through his unlikely romance with the prim Betty (Angourie Rice). Tony’s right hand man, Happy (Jon Favreau) strikes a spark with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). While we get a more layered character in MJ this time, with Zendaya keeping the mutual attraction to her onscreen partner under a sarcastic and awkward facade. On the other hand, Holland continues to thrive on the iconic role for this generation. His edge over Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s portrayals is that he exudes with a sincere, boyish enthusiasm that appeals to a wide audience.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) takes a greater responsibility in ‘Far From Home.’

Spider-Man: Far From Home pays homage to Tony Stark’s legacy as viewers are constantly reminded of the fallen industrialist’s presence. Sometimes it’s done literally through his mural images painted on buildings or his life story featured as a documentary in an airline, almost like he’s a religious figure. Other times, it feels symbolical through the growing paternal bond between Happy and Peter. The big question that keeps getting thrown around here is who should be the next de-facto leader of The Avengers. I stand by my opinion that Peter is way too young and inexperienced to play a leadership role. (I’m personally rooting for you, Dr. Strange). However, as the front face for the next phases in MCU, I think we might just found a worthy successor.

4.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Jon Watts, ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ stars Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, J. B. Smoove, Jacob Batalon, Martin Starr, Marisa Tomei, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, Remy Hii and Jake Gyllenhaal. 129 minutes. PG-13.

‘Rocketman’ review: The glamorous and heartbreaking life of Elton John

With its highly imaginative direction and Taron Egerton’s magnetic performance, ‘Rocketman’ finishes on a high note.

It’s impossible not to think of Bohemian Rhapsody while watching Rocketman. Not to mention the fact that Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher himself assumed directing duties after Bryan Singer’s untimely exit while shooting Bohemian Rhapsody, both musical biopics feature flamboyant, gay pop-rock icons who reinvented themselves amidst adversity.

Rocketman, however, has a surefire edge over the other as Taron Egerton here does his own singing. We first heard him spectacularly perform an Elton John classic in Dreamworks’ Sing, and that credential alone suggests that he might have the vocal chops to do the rest of his jukebox. And he does not disappoint. Egerton may not exactly look or sound like Elton, but he channels the superstar’s flair and vibe with such authenticity that goes beyond an impersonation. Donned with signature over-the-top costumes, he successfully puts on a fearless and electrifying show. If Rami Malek can win an Academy Award for his work in Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s only righteous to start the Oscar hype as early as now for Taron Egerton.

“…how wonderful life is when you’re in the world.”
Taron Egerton as Elton John performs ‘Your Song.’

Both movies pretty much follow a standard template for musical biopics – a calculated yet effective retelling of the rise, the fall and the rebirth of an icon, accompanied by a wheelhouse of greatest hits. In Rocketman, piano prodigy Reginald Kenneth Dwight (Elton’s birth name) meets an aspiring lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and together, they produce a number of hits that skyrockets Elton’s hollywood career to superstardom. The costs of fame soon catches up and he falls into an abyss of depression and various addictions – shopping, alcohol, painkillers and even sex. Whereas Bohemian Rhapsody is on a disadvantage for being confined to a PG-13 setting, Rocketman greatly benefits from its R-rating as it avoids sugarcoating the edgy chapters in Elton’s extravagant and promiscuous lifestyle.

But what makes Rocketman truly soar is Fletcher’s assured and adventurous direction that deftly weaves fantasy elements into Elton’s trajectory. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, the film disregards the chronological release of his songs and goes for a full-blown musical: the characters break out in songs and dances whenever the narrative calls for it. Given the eccentric nature of its protagonist, it’s quite easy to suspend disbelief and allow the film to take us to wherever it wants to go.

Jamie Bell (Bernie Taupin) and Taron Egerton bring warmth and sincerity to their friendship in ‘Rocketman.’

Musical scorer Matthew Margeson brings new arrangements to some of Elton’s songs and in doing so, the film produces multiple music genres that bear wide range of emotions. An energetic “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” marks Elton’s rebellious transition from childhood to young adult. The “Crocodile Rock” performance – where gravity cease to exist for a moment and the crowd starts floating – represents an insurmountable joy during Elton’s music career. “Bennie and the Jets” is played with an increasingly aggressive tempo to portray his psychedelic descent to rock bottom. The highly imaginative sequence of “Rocketman” is presented as an accompaniment to Elton’s suicide attempt and desire to leave the spotlight.

The film also shines with its slow ballads like the iconic “Tiny Dancer” being reinterpreted as a song about longing and unrequited love; an intimate “Your Song” that brings earnestness to the film’s core friendship; and an emotional duet of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” that reflects Elton and Bernie’s anger and disappointment at each other. It’s an epic celebration of the superstar’s enduring legacy and Elton’s spirit is very much alive throughout.

A rising star. Elton John performs “The Crocodile” in Troubadour, London.

At times, Rocketman feels like a Broadway production, where its pompous musical numbers occasionally outweigh the introspective drama involved. But thankfully, Fletcher takes us back to a third act where film’s cliché narrative setup – a frustrated Elton recounts his life during a therapy session – finally pays off as he confronts his inner demons. It’s in this moment when the pieces fall together and we understand the complexities of the character. Here is a son who poses a peculiar persona in a subconscious attempt to gain the affections of his uncaring father (Steven Mackintosh) and promiscuous mother (Bryce Dallas Howard). A performer who took risks in the music industry because his dashing yet devious manager/lover (Richard Madden) urges him to leave a mark in the world. A gay man whose told to be choosing a life of loneliness because of his decision to embrace his sexuality. A star who succumbs to self-destruction after failing to earn the validation of the people who mattered to him. And finally, a flawed human who decides to turn his life around with the help of his loyal best friend.

Livin’ the high life? Taron Egerton, Bryce Dallas Howard (Sheila) and Richard Madden (John Reid) in ‘Rocketman.’

With all the entertainment that Rocketman offers in its great performances and splendid production design, there lies an incredibly relatable tale of unconditional friendship, atonement, freedom and self-actualization. It’s only fitting that the film ends with the song “I’m Still Standing” to cap off Elton John’s moment of redemption. This can be your song too, and you can tell everybody.

4.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Dexter Fletcher, ‘Rocketman’ stars Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Gemma Jones, Jason Pennycooke, Kit Connor, Matthew Illesley, Charlie Rowe, Steven Mackintosh, and Tom Bennett. 121 minutes. R-13.

‘Toy Story 4’ review: Schooling adults on existentialism

With its weighty themes on existential crisis and self-actualization, Toy Story 4 has strong and valid reasons to bring back our beloved characters for one more adventure.

The announcement of Toy Story 4 is met with a lot of apprehension from fans and I totally get what they’re feeling. Toy Story trilogy wrapped up on such a perfect note that it almost feels sacrilegious to extend the story of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and Co. for the sake of a shameless cash grab. Toy Story 3 marks the pinnacle of the franchise and anything less than ‘perfect’ will smear its reputation. Despite this, I went to the screening with prejudices set aside. After all, if there’s a Hollywood studio that can match their timeless classics, it’s probably the combination of Disney and Pixar.

And boy, I am pleased to see this surprisingly, much-needed epilogue. To say the least, I walked out of this movie with a big smile and an enriched perspective in life. If TS3 tackles separation anxiety and the lifelong impact of toys to kids, TS4 poses deeper existential questions. In here, the successor of Andy’s toys, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) literally makes a new friend, Forky (Tony Hale), out of a spork. He soon becomes a conscious and sentient toy who believes that he’s not meant to be a plaything. This leads to a hilarious gag of Forky throwing himself to a trash bin, and Woody repeatedly intercepting his suicide attempts.

Forky insists, “I’m trash!” and we all know what he’s talking about. It’s something that we must have said to ourselves at some point in our lives. But what makes a toy, a toy? How do you measure someone’s worth? Is it by looking at what they’re made of, or is it about them finding and fulfilling their purpose? Four movies in and this franchise continues to depict its characters the way that a kid would have imagined them: as toys imbued with real human depth and emotions.

Forky grapples at the confusing reality of his existence while Woody teaches him the essence of “toyhood.

The rescue adventure kicks into gear as sheriff Woody goes after Forky who sneaks out during a family trip. Along the way, he unexpectedly reunites with his old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the shepherdess who has now turned into a free-spirited, self-sufficient “lost toy,” since her last appearance in Toy Story 2. For this installment, Bo Peep has a much more significant role than being just Woody’s love interest. Aside from being an empowered heroine, she’s there to challenge his existing ideals.

Over time, we’ve seen how Woody developed into a parental figure to his owner. He believes that the most noble thing a toy can do is to be there for a child. But does the principle still apply now that Bonnie is no longer fond of playing him? Would he be content on spending most of his days gathering “dust bunnies” inside a closet, or is it time to boldly venture to the unknown yet exciting possibilities in life? At what point should personal happiness be prioritized over the selfless advocacy? TS4 breaks the mold of what a toy should do. It gives it’s characters autonomy over their fates. Woody’s path to self realization imposes a lot of conflict which brings the character’s journey into a much fuller circle than what we thought before.

“Who needs a kid’s room, when you can have all this?” Bo Peep is back… and she’s a badass.

It’s also a film about breaking misperceptions, the things that we once fear – in Woody’s case, becoming a lost toy – might not be as horrendous as we once thought. There’s a wonderful subplot too about second chances and self-acceptance present in the film’s de facto villain, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a vintage doll who believes that the only way she can be loved is if she gets a replacement for her defective voicebox… just like the one that’s sewn into Woody’s back.

Creepy baby doll Gabby Gabby controls a gang of ventriloquist dummies in ‘Toy Story 4.’

Emotionally, TS4 does not surpass the amount of damage that TS3 did to our tear ducts, yet it knows wisely not to. TS4 makes up with a lot of laughs. It’s situational humor is consistently clever, like Buzz’s complete misunderstanding of conscience/inner voice for his pre-programmed recordings and also the humor mined from our old-time favorites like Jessie (Joan Cussack), Rex (Wallace Shawn), the Potato Heads (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), etc. Most of them might be relegated to minor status to further advance the theme and plot, but this sequel introduces equally memorable scene-stealers like disaster-prone daredevil Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), and a pair of hysterical conjoined carnival toys Ducky (Keegan Michael-Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele).

Back from the retirement shelf (L-R): Trixie, Buttercup, Mr. Pricklepants, Dolly, Hamm, Buzz Lightyear, Rex, Aliens, Jessie, Slinky Dog, Bullseye, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head reprise their roles in ‘Toy Story 4.’

Some may take TS4’s level of animation and production design for granted but Pixar has always been spectacular in their game. TS4 is easily the best-looking entry in the franchise. Likewise, the same can be said to the whole voice cast, especially Tom Hanks in particular who still sounds as youthful and as energetic as he did two decades ago.

Toy Story 4 never loses sight of what makes the franchise appeal to multiple generations. It can have all the fun that it wants but the viewing experience never falls short of meaningful and inspirational, as the franchise has shown steadfast commitment to deliver mature yet kid-friendly themes. If you’re planning to skip this because you believe that the trilogy already ended so perfectly, believe me when I say that you’ll be missing a great deal.

5 out of 5 stars
Directed and co-written by Josh Cooley, ‘Toy Story 4’ stars Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Jay Hernandez, Lori Alan, Joan Cusack, Bonnie Hunt and Kristen Schaal. 100 minutes. Rated G.

‘Men in Black: International’ review: Enjoy the fun while it lasts

Like its title suggests, Men In Black: International offers plenty of globe-trotting and standard action set pieces to distract you from its bland and confusing plot.

Thanks to Thor: Ragnarok, MIB: International already has one asset under its belt: the charming chemistry of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. In here, Hemsworth continues to win you over with his dashing looks and silly antics, while Thompson balances their dynamic with her poised and confident composure. While the new leads don’t necessarily match the perfect combination of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, they’re sufficient to carry the weight of this film, even if the material lets them down. The script bears some moments of breezy humor and satire (which Taika Waititi so generously offers in Ragnarok), but more often than not, the dialogue comes out generic and forced that it would only elicit pity laughs from the kindest viewers.

The one move that MIB: International does to revamp the franchise for this feminist era is introducing its first female lead. As a young girl, Molly (Thompson) wasn’t “neuralyzed” (i.e. have someone’s short-term memory be erased) by the MIB after witnessing a supernatural sighting. Since then, she makes it her life mission to be a part of the clandestine organization, and twenty years later, she finally tracks down their headquarters and gets recruited in the process. What becomes the running joke here is rookie agent M (Molly) continually upstaging his senior, Agent H (Hemsworth). There’s much discussion of how Agent H is no longer the skilled agent he once was, but not much history is shown on screen to actually see the difference. As far as we’re concerned, H mostly uses his charm to wriggle his way out of a sticky situation, while M is the more level headed one with reliable methods. Each has their own way of getting the job done.

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) test drive an overpowered blaster.

The two take on a high stakes mission to prevent alien malevolent forces from getting their hands on an intergalactic weapon. By doing so, the film detours from the crowded markets and remote desert of Morocco, to the exotic castles in Italy. With all the globe-trotting involved, the plot starts to feel like it’s a rip-off from the James Bond franchise, except the film fails to mine the maximum tension needed. For one, this spin-off features a personality-free villain called The Twins (played by dancers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois) – a shape-shifting celestial duo that pretty much resembles the invasive space dust in Dark Phoenix. In one scene, M and H bring out various big guns to shoot these creatures to no avail. For a blockbuster director, F. Gary Gray has shown more creative sequences in his previous work in The Fate of the Furious or The Italian Job. MIB: International, on the other hand, is filled with loud laser shootouts and mandatory car chases, all of which go against the idea of the MIB remaining anonymous to the public.

It goes without saying that the true appeal of this secret organization works best when the story is focused within a single environment, to show how extraterrestrial activities (and the covering of such) hide in plain sight. This world-building is demonstrated when H and M make their way down to an alien night club via a hidden tunnel located inside a taxi. Or that part where the film introduces its funnier creation – an anthropomorphic chess piece named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) who happens to be a pocketful of sunshine and sarcasm. These small moments, not the uninspired action sequences, is what brings the magic of the original. Only if the film sustains them throughout.

Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani) pledges allegiance to Agent M.

MIB: International really should have worked as a simple plot but its strange narrative decisions make it look unnecessarily confusing. The ending feels rushed as not much time is given to build the emotional core found in the supposed father-son relationship of Agent H and his mentor, High T (Liam Neeson). The thing is, this film is under the false pretense that ‘bigger equals better’ hence its priority to showcase bland spectacles and its apparent lack of a much more ambitious goal, say injecting an insight or two about the current political or environmental landscape.

The basic ingredients for your summer blockbuster are found here but what really leaves the impression is Hemsworth and Thompson’s charismatic buddy comedy act that reminds us of the franchise’s infinite (yet squandered) potential. You can enjoy the fun while it lasts for I can guarantee you that it’s quite forgettable. No neuralyzers needed.

3 out of 5 stars
Directed by F. Gary Gray, written by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, ‘Men in Black: International‘ stars Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Liam Neeson, Rafe Spall, Rebecca Ferguson, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson and Tim Blaney. 115 minutes. PG-13.

‘Quezon’s Game’ review: Untold accounts of empathy and nationalism

Quezon’s Game a.k.a. the Philippines’ version of ‘Schindler’s List’ occasionally strains in execution but it’s definitely profoundly moving when needed.

Prior to this film, I humbly confess that I only know two facts about the late president Manuel L. Quezon: 1.) He secured the Philippine Independence law from the United States; and 2.) His face is printed on the face of the twenty peso bill, so I practically see his face almost everyday of my life. To learn here that MLQ is responsible for the freedom of 1,200 jews from Adolf Hitler’s holocaust – not a spoiler, it’s history – brings a renewed sense of Filipino pride to my veins. Quezon’s Game has flaws in its execution but it’s probably the most politically and socially relevant local film you’ll see this year. It reminds us how noble the Filipinos are – a nation that is willing to lend a helping hand when no one even bothers to lift a finger. It reminds us of the type of leaders that we need to progress, especially today when our government is riddled by greed, bigotry, discrimination and violence.

The film chronicles an obscure chapter in MLQ’s administration which is mostly based on the theses and dissertations made by Americans, as well as correspondences from the descendants of German tobacco industrialists Alex and Herbert Frieder (who brought the Jews’ impending fate to MLQ’s attention). I’m no historian but suffice to say, it’s best to digest this film with a grain of salt.

There’s more to here than historical accuracy, though. Whereas Schindler’s List is about a German who turns his back against the Nazi regime, Quezon’s Game plays on the perspective of a benevolent outsider, which makes it more admirable. It puts into spotlight MLQ’s humanitarian work while he tries to navigate the conflicting interests of America and his Filipino colleagues. To do so, he needs to convince a lot of people to align with his way of thinking. Factor in the relapse of his tuberculosis, MLQ is on a borrowed time to fulfill his legacy.

Colonel Dwight Eisenhower (David Bianco) and Manuel L. Quezon (Raymond Bagatsing) plans on rescuing the Jews in ‘Quezon’s Game.’

Sure, Quezon’s Game occasionally feels like a glorification of its titular hero with minimal flaws (including his lapses in logic and hints at adultery) but the film makes sure that it earns the pedestal that he’s placed on. Much of it falls into Raymond Bagatsing’s masterful performance. The actor fully captures the soul of MLQ – his charismatic personality, his dignified stature, his self-righteous yet fragile ego, his unwavering morals and his compassionate heart. He injects subtlety in his accents and mannerisms in such a way that he’s never reduced to a shallow impersonation. Not to mention his striking resemblance, the result is a surreal personification of the man that we’re used to see in old clips and pictures.

Serving as an anchor to MLQ’s idealism, thespian Rachel Alejandro never disappoints as the patient and enduring wife Aurora. Her moments with Bagatsing highlight the lovely parts of the script that features back and forth code-switching (Filipino, Spanish and English). Billy Ray Gallion delivers a strong performance as Alex Frieder who has the most heartbreaking character arc. With only a limited number of visas that can be issued, he carries the horrible task of choosing which among his countrymen will be spared from the upcoming genocide.

MLQ lures Lt. Ebner for a negotiation with Colonel Dwight Eisenhower and Alex Frieder.

Other key players to this political game includes would-be US President Dwight Eisenhower (David Bianco) and Philippine high commissioner Paul McNutt (James Paoleli) who defied the US State Department in support with MLQ; Nacionalista party members/ future Philippine presidents Sergio Osmeña (Audie Gemora) and Manuel Roxas (Nor Domingo) who question MLQ’s risky decision due to the misgivings that it will give to their administration; and Nazi officer Lt. Alan Ebner (Kevin Kraemer) as the film’s unwelcoming secondary villain – America’s imperialist government and its silly immigration policy is the main hurdle here.

For a film that’s filled with intellectual banters mostly set at close quarters, Quezon’s Game strains to consistently hold your attention. With the exception of some inspired shots, the abundance of tight shots makes the film smaller than it actually is. It’s nice to see Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar being utilized again for another historical film but the overall vibe of the place actually goes for a Spanish colonial era look. There are minor anachronistic details too like sinks, mirrors and doors that don’t belong in the 1930’s – these are dismissible nitpicks of course.

American diplomat and Philippine commissioner Paul V. McNutt (James Paoleli) in ‘Quezon’s Game.’

The desaturated cinematography is fine but when heavily infused with white costume designs, the film starts to yearn for more vibrant hues. On the other hand, the musical scoring could have been more emotionally stirring. I know that we’re going very technical here but direction and production values are very crucial elements in any film, especially for a period piece. With a limited budget, the film could only do so much. Director Matthew Rosen nevertheless understands well the plight of the Jews that he’s able to bring a palpable sense of fear and despair to Malacañang, even if the mass killings are happening from the other side of the world.

MLQ and Aurora (Rachel Alejandro) watch the atrocities of the Nazi regime via a newsreel.

It is easy to bypass at these flaws because the greatness of this film actually lies in its honorable intention which is to celebrate an outstanding tale of humanity that should never be forgotten nor downplayed in history. It’s not the most efficient political thriller but it’s contemplative and eye-opening enough to be recommend for everyone. Quezon’s Game inspires and moves a generation to action. I will never look at the 20 peso bill ever the same way again.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Matthew E. Rosen, written by Janice Y. Perez and Dean Rosen, ‘Quezon’s Game’ stars Raymond Bagatsing, Rachel Alejandro, Kate Alejandrino, Billy Ray Gallion, David Bianco, James Paoleli, Kevin Kraemer, Jennifer Blair-Bianco, Audie Gemora, Tony Ahn and Miguel Faustman. 125 minutes. PG-13.