‘Family History’ review: Bitoy’s dramedy triumphs as GMA’s comeback film

Laughs aside, Michael V’s ‘Family History’ is a heartwarming film filled with strong core values on family, life, and marriage.

Michael V. (“Bitoy”) outdoes himself as he takes on the job of producing, writing, directing and starring in his own film. In Family History, Bitoy plays Alex Dela Cruz, a happily married family man who finds himself at a crossroads when a terminal disease challenges his marriage to his wife, May (portrayed by returning “Kapuso” Ms. Dawn Zulueta). At its center, Family History tackles hardships and temptations of a husband in maintaining a relationship with his sick wife. These challenges bears much pragmatic life lessons and viewers can really feel the dedication that Bitoy poured in his work.

Family History has a great story to tell and a satisfactory execution to justify it. Yes, it does have plot holes and some sequences that are best left on the editing floor to achieve better pacing, but the film is able to deliver its message when it mattered the most. It’s a lesson about loving beyond imposed limitations, dealing with heartaches, getting in control of your emotions when things go sour, atoning for your mistakes and consequently, learning to forgive those who have wronged you. Those core themes alone are worthy takeaways that other films nowadays take for granted. Not to mention, the film’s heartwarming moments mesh well will Bitoy’s signature brand of comedy. 

Michael V. in ‘Family History’

Family History also remarkably depicts how cancer affects a person’s outlook as well as the people around him/her. After revealing the May’s illness in the first act, audiences are thrown aback as she also confesses her issues in her marriage. This part of the story truly changes the phase for the whole film. It can be emotional yet it’s positively infused with funny moments that make us realize that enduring love triumphs over pain and sickness. 

The film is also boosted by its strong performances. In here, Bitoy solidifies himself as – in my opinion – the best comedian ever. The film is written to play on Bitoy’s strengths when it comes to injecting funny moments. He’s really good at playing with our emotions, balancing every moment where audiences are supposed to cry but he makes them laugh instead. Though there are some scenes that demand more seriousness and the actor tends to tip the situation to a lighter mood. Dawn, who’s bedridden for more than half of the film, is still in her prime as an excellent dramatic scenes. Both actors are able to deliver an endearing chemistry that balances the heavy and light themes of the script.

Dawn Zulueta in ‘Family History’

Bitoy’s character Alex is also a supportive dad to his son Malix (Miguel Tanfelix) who’s in a relationship with his schoolmate Jenna (Bianca Umali). Dubbed as ‘BiDawn,’ the rising pair’s first team up adds an interesting layer of drama and requisite “kilig” scenes for their fans. Adding support to the main cast is Kakai Bautista as Dawn’s best friend; Paolo Contis as Bitoy’s office buddy; and Nonie Buencamino as his effeminate boss who earns a chunk of big laughs.

Miguel Tanfelix and Bianca Umali in ‘Family History’

Michael V. does a remarkable job in telling a powerful story with such awareness towards sickness and mental health. Notwithstanding some cinematography lapses (the stiff camerawork and off-putting transitions), the film does not stop at shallow entertainment brought by fun sitcom reel material. Overall, Family History is a great and successful directorial debut for Michael V, a noteworthy comeback for GMA Pictures. It’s a pleasure to watch, not just once but ’46’ times.

4 out of 5 stars
Produced by GMA Pictures and Mic Test Entertainment. Directed by Michael V, ‘Family History’ stars Michael V, Dawn Zulueta, Bianca Umali, Miguel Tanfelix, John Estrada, Paolo Contis, Nonie Buencamino, Kakai Bautista, Ina Feleo, Mikoy Morales, Nikki Co, Jemwell Ventenilla and Vince Gamad with special participation of Dingdong Dantes and Eugene Domingo. 125 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.

‘My Letters to Happy’ review: Exquisitely handles a touchy subject

‘My Letters to Happy’ tells a relevant and heartwarming story of lovers trying to overcome their personal flaws outside the relationship.

If you think that My Letters to Happy is just another local love story, brace yourself because it’s not. The romcom theme in it is actually just a facade to a much deeper subject matter. The film mostly veers towards self-discovery in the face of depression and other mental health issues. It poses a question that some people might have asked at their lowest points, “When all is lost and everything just seems hopeless, how do you find the strength to carry on?” It’s a sensitive topic that some directors would not dare mix with romcom elements, as a poor and an offensive execution will surely be met with a heavy backlash. Thankfully, director Pertee Briñas knows how to handle the touchy subject with exquisite sympathy.

My Letters to Happy centers around Albert (TJ Trinidad), a brilliant and passionate man who suddenly loses his drive for work after a series of unfortunate events. His luck changes when he meets Happy (Glaiza De Castro), a random girl that he has been chatting online. Little did he know, meeting her will unexpectedly change his life forever.

The film wonderfully depicts how mental illness affects a person and the people around him/her. The illness is shockingly revealed in the middle part of the film and it throws almost every audience on the edge of their seats after realizing that Happy’s sudden bursts of happiness are all momentary. This part of the story truly changes the phase for the whole film. It’s a bit heavy in emotions yet it’s positively infused with hope to make us realize that love, after all, consists of equal parts of joy and pain.

Glaiza and TJ’s chemistry is relatable, sweet and delightful. Glaiza’s portrayal of her character is really amazing as she’s on the top of her game.  She’s convincing in every spectrum – you can feel her struggles emotionally and physically. TJ on the other hand, fits the role well enough to make us believe that he is a ruthless corporate boss who gradually becomes vulnerable and open to changes in his lifestyle dynamic, including the possibility of loving someone.

Director Pertee Briñas does a remarkable job in telling a powerful story with such awareness towards the sensitive topics of mental health. Despite its cinematography lapses (the distracting camera angles moves a lot), the film does not stop at shallow entertainment brought by a roller coaster ride of emotions. It gives a heartwarming lesson all while juggling an engaging love story.

In effect, My Letters to Happy serves as an uplifting letter to anyone who feels lost and aimlessly wandering for their mark in the world. It also reminds each of us that all struggles eventually come to an end. The film is indeed an honest reflection of our lives. It is daring, unique, and deserving to be seen.

4 out of 5 stars
Directed by Pertee Briñas, ‘My Letters to Happy’ stars Glaiza De Castro, TJ Trinidad, and Alyssa Valdez. 100 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.

‘Clarita’ review: Overwhelmingly spooky yet yearning for complexity

Clarita scares enough to make an impression but lacks layers of complexity to be truly memorable.

Black Sheep’s first horror movie, Clarita, goes beyond targeting the millennial market by adapting the real-life demonic possession story of Clarita Villanueva. This infamous urban legend that harkens back in 1953 should appeal to the older generation at the very least. During that time, the titular young prostitute was reportedly arrested for vagrancy in Malate, Manila. Inside the jail, she eventually displays a wild and disturbing behavior, claiming that she’s being hounded by unseen demons. Mayor Arsenio Lacson (Nonie Buencamino) witnesses the paranormal activity first hand as mysterious bite marks suddenly appear in her body. Soon, the uncanny deaths of the doctors assigned to her case necessitates the services of a pair of exorcist priests – Fr. Salvador (Ricky Davao) and Fr. Benedicto (Arron Villaflor) to help her flush out the rabid evil infesting inside her.

With the slew of horror flicks in 2019 so far, Clarita marks the third local film to feature the subject matter of exorcism (Mark Meily’s Maledicto and Erik Matti’s Kuwaresma are the first two released earlier this year). This subgenre of demonic possession may be something that we have grown familiar with, yet Clarita’s execution definitely overwhelms with spookiness and grotesque horror through its excellent technical execution and most importantly, a chilling and inspired performance by Jodi Sta. Maria that should keep you on the edge of your seat.

Fr. Salvador (Ricky Davao) and Fr. Benedicto (Arron Villaflor) have their faith tested in ‘Clarita.’

Likewise, the supporting cast delivers. Davao bears a world-weary wisdom to his padre role; while Villaflor’s mild-mannered demeanor very much reminds us of his character Joven in Heneral Luna and Goyo. Here, he plays an inherently good yet blinded priest who thinks he’s on the good side all along. On the other hand, Alyssa Muhlach holds her own as a photojournalist who carries a personal baggage during her crusade to cover Clarita’s case.

With the exception of some minor anachronistic details, the production values, from locations to costumes, contribute a lot to set a sinister mood. The play of shadow and light works well in dimly-lit scenes to build a sense of weariness for something frightful to happen. Also employed are visually aesthetic transitions as the present timeline is infused with flashbacks, and distinct camera angles to make Clarita’s demonic antics scarier, even if she’s used as a peripheral image at some point. The prosthetics and visual effects are commendable too for a locally produced horror. The film’s indulgence for violence forces the casual viewer to cover their eyes, yet at the same time, guiltily take a peek at the bloody fascination in display.

An emaciated Jodi Sta. Maria gives an all out performance in ‘Clarita.’

While the performances and productions are fine, the ambiance of the film is still stilted by some lapses in story and characterization. Clarita’s narrative feels clunky and rushed because it neglects the precious humanity that this film is supposed to be set upon. At times, it feels inept in establishing a deeper connection with Clarita – that there’s more to her than her diabolic inclinations. It’s just pure exorcism, like she’s just a random soul that unfortunately gets picked by the devil. Further, the film is too crowded with characters bearing various issues that it ultimately fails to solidly focus on anything, including the main character’s origin.

Clarita can be commended for injecting spiritual and moral values in faith and forgiveness, on emphasizing the power and salvation of God’s love amidst sinister forces. It begs to have a more personal connection – that it’s a relevant viewing for people who have experienced being spiritually challenged at some point in their lives. The film, however, doesn’t fully earn the commendation, as most of the time, it’s true intention is to terrorize its audience in the most shameless methods. If that’s what you’re really after, feel free to knock yourself out.

3 out of 5 stars
Directed by Derick Cabrido, ‘Clarita’ stars Jodi Sta. Maria, Ricky Davao, Arron Villaflor, Romnick Sarmenta, and Alyssa Muhlach .  It is produced by Black Sheep Productions and distributed by Star Cinema. 85 minutes. R-13.

‘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.