Sunday, July 13, 2014

DELIVER US FROM EVIL (Scott Derickson, 2014)

You know there's something seriously wrong with a horror film, if a flashback scene without any elements of the supernatural proves to be the film's spine-tingling moment.

And such was my disappointment at Scott Derickson, who has made two of the most atmospheric and narrative rich horror films in recent memory, in the forms of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE and SINISTER. His latest feature, DELIVER US FROM EVIL is based on true accounts by NYPD sergeant Ralph Sarchie, played onscreen by Eric Bana. The concept itself brings tons of potential, but sadly Derrickson focuses on cheap thrills instead of mood setting and story development, qualities that made his previously mentioned films work. 

The film's pacing moves like a usual mainstream production would- there is an insatiable need to cram up everything within two hours, and before we know it, Eric Bana has assumed the role of Jack Bauer, and DELIVER US FROM EVIL has become 24. 

Also, the film isn't quite set on what it wants to be. It is marketed as a horror film, and there are elements of a police procedural, but the film gets unintentionally funny at times, especially when a bladed fight scene reminds us of THE RAID 2 (yes, that Indonesian film) but does not lift our spirits up. And why is there a fight scene in a horror film, you say? Exactly.

Eric Bana gives his best shot with the material, but as what you will find out in the climactic exorcism scene where we get a crash course on the "stages" of exorcism, his character doesn't really have much to work with. There's a strong moment earlier in the film where Sarchie (Bana) gets mad at his young daughter for being overly joyous (and he's just witnessed three gruesome acts that week), and for a moment we get a peek into what ticks him off, but that's basically it.

Even Edgar Ramirez who plays the Jesuit priest Mendoza is as emotionally lifeless as a corpse, so that when he tells Sarchie about his sins and about how overcoming them will empower him against "primary evil", we feel no connection. 

Olivia Munn, whom you probably best remember as Sloan Sabbith in HBO's THE NEWSROOM is an accessory here playing wife to Eric Bana. Her character doesn't really develop, or at least get enough screen time. Instead we get fake moments of terror when a dog lunges onscreen, and the gullible members of the audience in the cinema thinking it was the devil already.

DELIVER US FROM EVIL feels like a bad mash-up of elements from popular and more reliable horror films in the past. The exorcism sequence brings to mind THE CONJURING; the use of music from The Doors as recipe for dread smells of 1408 and The Carpenters, and; the whole movie reeks of SE7EN. Even the owl plush toy isn't scary anymore after you've already seen it in the trailer. 

By the film's third act, there seems to be a promise at the end of the rainbow, or blood trail if you prefer that. The slow motion shot as Sarchie brings in the culprit for questioning at police HQ immediately had me thinking, "if only they used that kind of cinematography at the start of the movie!" My imagination was far from reality, and the reality was that the movie made us feel that it was just a movie, which would be contrary to its objective of adhering to its source material. 

And please, get a moratorium on flickering lights. I know it is a popular horror device, but there ought to be a limitation on its usage. 


Saturday, July 5, 2014

CHEF (Jon Favreau, 2014)


Few films that incorporate food in its core have achieved visual recall in history, like when Lumi Cavazos was baking that cake filled with her tears in LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE,  or when Remy the rat makes magic in the kitchen in RATATOUILLE. To add to that list is the new film by Jon Favreau that makes a bold statement on how to follow your dream, and when to actually do it. 

"CHEF" maybe filled with too much passion for the culinary craft for its own good, and Favreau can sometimes border on being a tad preachy, but expect a frame-by-frame sumptuous distraction from start to finish. Sure, the film wants you to tell everybody who never supported your artistry and individuality to go F--- themselves, but it also reminds us when to say enough is enough. 

Oh, and the film also tells us about the responsible use of Twitter, which Favreau's character Carl Casper learns the hard way.

The images of food sizzle onscreen. A garlic-filled pasta ends up on the hungry mouth of Scarlett Johansson; we learn how to make a devilish butter toast, and; although we've never tasted it, we know we want a Cuban sandwich right after the movie. CHEF's power derives from our connection with food on a socio-cultural level, and the film is able to manifest that connection by showing how food "touches people's lives". Food became indelible landmarks for places and cultures.  Food made that fateful encounter between Carl and food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt).  And guess what strengthened Carl's relationship with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony)? Twitter (no, food!)

What is admirable about Chef Carl Casper, Favreau's protagonist and alter-ego in the film  is that he is a flawed human being. He is flawed as a husband (hence the divorce), he is flawed as a father (mistaking movie dates with his son as responsible parenthood) and he is flawed as a chef. Yes, he cooks almost excellently, but his ego is bigger than his heart. This is what caused his ultimate downfall, both in the culinary world and in the eyes of his son.

But the film does not dwell much on the past. Soon enough, Carl realizes his mistake and opens a food truck business, a concept that his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) has long since offered him. He also notices how he treats his son like a stranger in favor of his wretched devotion to food. 

CHEF is that feel good movie that does not betray its subject or its character. It has a big heart, it has countless food offerings for the weary eye, it has a great father-son dynamic, and the humor is delightfully light, like a dessert that slowly works its way into your palate.

One of my few qualms about the film though is the abrupt ending, because the film had us craving for food for two hours, and it just ends like that, without warning. Still, I liked that the film focused on food on so many aspects (entrepreneurial,  artistic, personal) and that it made us consider food as an art form, not just a basic human need. 


Friday, July 4, 2014

THIRD PERSON (Paul Haggis, 2014)

THIRD PERSON, the new film from writer-director Paul Haggis although not as grand a scale as his previous film CRASH which won him an Oscar, demands our attention. Gianfilippo Corticelli's dreamlike cinematography and Dario Marianelli's seductive musical score invite us into the story. 

Michael (Liam Neeson), a writer is in Paris trying to finish his new book. His gorgeous inamorata Anna (Olivia Wilde) visits her, and an emotional S&M follows. Meanwhile, Michael's wife Elaine (Kim Basinger) calls to check up on him, and appears to have awareness of his indiscretions. 

In Rome, Sean (Adrien Brody) is on a business trip ripping off expensive designer suits so he can mass produce them in sweatshops.  He meets a mysterious woman, Monika (Moran Atias) whose daughter is held captive by ruthless human smugglers.

In New York, failed soap opera actress Julia's (Mila Kunis) life is crumbling by the minute. She is losing a custody battle for her son, and the boy's father Rick (James Franco) denies her visitation rights. Meanwhile, Julia's lawyer Theresa (Maria Bello) is about to give up on her.

The three stories converge, diverge, and in latter parts of the film co-exist within a certain geographical location and time frame that at first, Haggis' storytelling becomes somewhat confusing. Julia applies as a chambermaid in a New York hotel, but later appears in the Parisian hotel where Michael and Anna are staying. Haggis's gimmickry of course, adds an element of curiosity to the recipe, but for those who wandered blissfully into the movie, such metaphors may prove obscure.

One scene during the mid-part of the film may hold key to the film's elaborate puzzle, where Michael meets his publisher, and is told that his current book is pretentious and loaded with excuses for his life mistakes. 

The film's payoff does not deliver until the very end, where Haggis makes his big reveal, and this is my biggest issue with THIRD PERSON: Haggis has constructed a very ambitious charade that in the end, he fumbles for ways to tie up all loose ends. 

Also, not all fragments of the film are interesting to follow. Haggis elicits a very passionate performance from Moran Atias, yet the story involving her character seems like a waste of ink and paper. The Rome story arc, sadly is not at par with the New York and Paris segments. Brody and Atias en route to rescue the latter's daughter proves an exercise in patience.

Mila Kunis shines, giving Julia just the right amount of empathy it needs for us to root for her even as we are uncertain of her mental stability. Olivia Wilde's character makes for an intriguing follow, and Wilde with her physical looks and seductive eyes approaches Anna with the level of playfulness that can make or break a man as troubled and fragile as Liam Neeson's Michael. 

But in respect to Haggis, THIRD PERSON has moments of wonder, such as the culminating scene of the New York segment where Julia seems to have kidnapped her son. The third person narrative in literature, herein allows for the main character Michael to project various facets of his life into different versions of truths and half-truths. Michael calls himself "HE" while referring to Anna as "SHE" in their casual conversations. The publisher character has vividly criticized this scapegoating (as mentioned earlier), but Michael although having overcome a major fear by the end of the film, remains an exploiter of human beings, and as a result he too, like Haggis struggles to chase his creation. 

Beautifully shot, scored and edited, THIRD PERSON could have used less indulgence in complex narrative. Some may feel cheated after watching the film. For me, at least it has Olivia Wilde in it, a woman who grows more and more beautiful with every film she stars in.   


Thursday, June 19, 2014

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (Josh Boone, 2014)

However strong your emotional threshold may be, it's hard not to fall in love with the story of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, where two youngsters, both afflicted with cancer find solace in one another.  I, for one was not ashamed to have sat through the 313-page young adult novel because I felt there was something brutally honest in the premise, and thank God we can have a YA sensation that does not include vampires, or absurdly supernatural love triangles (I'm looking at you, MORTAL INSTRUMENTS!).

Enter the film adaptation, which I anticipated mostly because of the film's female lead and narrator Hazel Grace Lancaster being played by talented young actress Shailene Woodley. Woodley proved herself a capable actress ever since she starred as George Clooney's daughter in THE DESCENDANTS, and as Hazel Grace, a role which will be her career- defining moment, Woodley is utterly perfect. One could not have wished a prettier, and more capable young actress. 

The same could not be said about Woodley's onscreen partner Ansel Elgort, who plays the beautiful madness that is Augustus Waters. Elgort is handsome and charming, but when captured by the camera side by side with Woodley, the acting just doesn't quite match up. The big revelation by Elgort to Woodley in that bench scene in Amsterdam was particularly bland, and Woodley's magnanimous presence just eats him all up.

One more great casting choice is Laura Dern as mother to Woodley's character. Dern easily navigates her character's humor and pathos that we empathize with her struggles as a mother faced with the fact that her only child can be taken from her any minute. And so she spends every waking minute all smiles and charm, but behind them you notice the anxiety.

Josh Boone's onscreen adaptation of the book may actually be what the book's legions of fans want: a straight-cut visual translation where even some of the memorable lines from the source material is spoken in the film. Almost all of the elements of the book are present, from Isaac and his experience with heartbreak, to the writer Peter Van Houten, and even the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

In fact, the scene in the Anne Frank House was the film's very powerful moment. Hazel Grace risking certain death just so she can test her limitations, and in the process be able to have a fuller understanding of what it means to be alive demands our attention. I felt every tormenting climb for Hazel Grace, as every foot up the ladder worsens her breathing.

I liked the film. It was faithful to the book, it has a nice soundtrack and Shailene Woodley is impossible to resist. But the film is not without "faults". 

First objection- the shift of the Amsterdam dinner scene from outdoor to indoor. Logistical problems, perhaps? Granted that, the detail change robs the film a visual metaphor to the film's title. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS= dinner under the stars? Get it?

Shakespeare was also taken out of the equation (in reference to the book's title). 

Second objection- Willem Dafoe as Peter Van Houten. Dafoe is an actor of the highest caliber, but as Van Houten, his acting seems way off, perhaps too conscious for its own good. Philip Seymour Hoffman would have been a better casting choice (God rest his soul), as a friend of mine suggested.

Last but not the least- I think the film lacked emotional depth during the third act, as opposed to the gravitational pull of the book during said part. The scenes where all things spiral out of control were filmed and edited in a rush, leaving reduced room for empathy.

Also, Augustus' look and makeup in the third act did not look like he was a boy about to die. 

In summation, I think there really are elements from a book you cannot translate onscreen. Words, when strategically placed, punctuated, and emphasized have specific rifle effects. The book benefits from John Green's sharp wit and capable command of satire, but he also knows when and where to hurt. The film is beautiful to look at, its leads are charming, and you want to follow an audiovisual version of a story you just identified with, and TFIOS the movie is a good enough movie adaptation. However, it could also use a more relaxed pacing to explore the source material's many layers of death and dying, and yes, living. 


Sunday, May 25, 2014

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (Bryan Singer, 2014)

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is the ultimate throwback movie of the year not only because of all the time-traveling back and forth, but also of the return of some of our beloved X-MEN characters, such as the good old Professor X (Patrick Stewart, whom we haven't seen since Jean Grey cut him up in tiny little pieces in 2006's X-MEN: THE LAST STAND) and his nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen, who is tailored to the role). Storm (Halle Berry) is back, but there's really not much here for her to do, except conjure Mother Nature's wrath.  

A very welcome returning character is Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat (Ellen Page), who was one of the major players in THE LAST STAND. Here, she sends Wolverine's consciousness back in time to convince a major character to deviate from an assassination attempt. 

Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) is back as well, and also Iceman (Shawn Ashmore). But where the hell is Rogue (Anna Paquin)? Did she finally rid herself of her mutant powers? And why does Kitty suddenly have telepathic powers? And why does Wolverine have adamantium again?

Plot holes are as abundant in XMEN:DOFP as there are scales in Mystique's body. This prevented me from immediately hailing the movie as the electrifying surprise I thought it would be.

Also, having watched almost all the trailers for DOFP prior to its release ruined half of the film's surprise for me. Bad decision.

Nevertheless, DOFP is still a fun summer popcorn flick that puts closure to the X-MEN storyline, for now (because we all know there's another sequel coming out in 2016). DOFP is unmistakably Mystique's (Jennifer Lawrence) movie, with the fate of the mutants resting on her hands. And Lawrence successfully carries the enormous weight on her shoulders by showing Mystique's emotional vulnerability, torn between vengeance and reason.

Michael Fassbender is as always, magnetic as the younger Magneto (excuse the pun) while James McAvoy, who looks like a hobo when we first see him here delivers his downtrodden Charles with enough tenderness.

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is pretty much in every single X-MEN movie that it may prove tiresome to just look at him, but Jackman is such a fine actor that he disappears into Wolverine completely, and he always brings a unique amount of emotional gravity vis a vis ferocity to his character in every movie. 

Nicholas Hoult also reprises his role as Beast from X-MEN FIRST CLASS, and it is wonderful to see him become Charles' defender slash muscle. In that gorgeously shot Parisian action sequence, where Mystique leaps out of a window followed by Beast and Magneto squaring off in the fountain, Beast captures the screen in all unrestrained glory.

Many other names pop up as the film goes on, and unless you're a fanboy (which I'm not by the way, although I have read a few X-MEN comic books back in the day and was old enough to have seen the animated TV series) you'd need a pen to keep track of who's who. There's Bishop, Sunspot, Havok, Warpath, and Ink. but the coolest of them all would probably be Blink (played by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing) who creates portals like it was a daily routine, say taking a bath or eating breakfast. 

Then there's Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and him breaking out Magneto from the Pentagon is probably one of the action sequences you'll remember from the film. But wait, there's a back story to that, and you would have to be a keen observer in order to unlock the subtle hint about Quicksilver's origins (presumably). 

William Stryker is also here, played by Josh Helman (the film is so much a throwback, Deathstrike and Nightcrawler and Deadpool and Sabretooth ought to pop out, too!) but when such character has been previously played by Danny Huston, and more importantly, Brian Cox, the shoes to fill become considerably big. Stryker is here, but we don't mind him so much. 

Last but not the least, I believe a slow clap is due Peter Dinklage for his amazing turn as Bolivar Trask, the mind behind the Sentinel Program which will ultimately wipe out the mutants in the future. Dinklage, who is best known for playing Tyrion Lannister in HBO's GAME OF THRONES noticeably avoids the biting sarcasm and the make faces that made his Tyrion so iconic, thus making Trask completely his own and completely unique- a dangerous man to be feared not by his looks, but by his capability.

In summation, DOFP could have used more action sequences, provided more room for logic, and have given more respect for Storm, dammit (afterall, she is one of the founding characters in the X-MEN movies), but still it was a nice enough time at the movies. It's like seeing friends you haven't seen in quite a while, and no matter the changes they have undergone, you still miss them so much.     


Monday, April 21, 2014

SHORT TERM 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)

At a foster care facility for troubled teens, Grace (Brie Larson) works as a line staff, maintaining order and making sure the youths under her watch do not escape the premises, or worse, slit their wrists with sharp objects, say scissors or a shard of glass.

The job is anything but ordinary. You will find yourself sprinting after a runaway every once in a while, or get spat in the face, or worse, get too awfully attached to these kids. 

Such is the bittersweet tale that forms the core of writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton's SHORT TERM 12, which is based on his earlier short film with the same title. The film begins as the facility's staff engage in a breaktime banter where Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) recounts to newbie Nate (Rami Malek) a story of how he once chased a mean runaway kid and ended up in an embarrassing ordeal. Soon after, a young boy named Sammy (Alex Calloway) tries to flee the facility, which prompts Grace and Mason in pursuit.

We see the routine inside the facility: the kids draw, play, watch TV, engage in roundtable discussions, and tell each other how their day is going so far. We meet the soon-to-be 18 years old Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a teen with so much angst in his body, that the thought of him leaving the facility (as is the rule for those who will be turning 18) doesn't necessarily excite him.

Then there's Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a talented but volatile young girl to whom Grace surprisingly identifies with. Grace finds herself drawn to her, eager to understand what haunts her.

With equal amounts charm and pathos, SHORT TERM 12 paints us a very vivid portrait of a social system all in ruins, and what's amazing is that we find out soon enough that the very persons tasked to oversee the welfare of these abused youngsters are victims themselves. In seeing how emotionally fragile Grace, for example really is, the film achieves a perfect ironic paradigm, where the teacher becomes the student and the student becomes the teacher in this subject called life.

There's moments of serenity in the movie where we are left to observe the teenagers in their safe zones, or Grace when she's alone with her thoughts. Occasionally there are bursts of joy even from simple gestures like when a guardian tries to listen to whatever a kid is listening to in her headset, and yet the film also offers the nail-biting suspense of anticipation, where the characters make drastic decisions, and you don't want them to do it because you have been so attached with their plight. As the film progresses, one may find himself or herself drawn to the kids' welfare like Grace. The film has that power to make you actually care.

One thing is for sure, every anecdote in the movie is worth listening to, and more often than not, they will break your heart. But the movie will not leave you in despair, as it tells us that whatever our burden, we can always get back up and start over.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

POLICE STORY 2013 (Ding Sheng, 2014)

We love Jackie Chan. He has been an indelible part of our childhood that we are willing to forgive him for mishaps such as "THE SPY NEXT DOOR" and "CHINESE ZODIAC". Imagine my excitement upon learning of a new POLICE STORY movie, which is also darker than the previous one (which co-starred Daniel Wu). 

In POLICE STORY 2013, Chan is Mainland Police Detective Zhong Wen, who is set to meet her estranged daughter Miao (Jing Tian) at Wu Bar, owned by Wu Jiang (Liu Ye). A hostage taking situation ensues, and both Zhong and Miao are caught in the crossfire. But not everything is as it seems.

An elaborate plan of revenge is revealed to be the objective of the hostage taking. But for what? The film uses flashbacks and hints, yet the muddled storytelling gets in the way of an entertaining presentation. There is not much action as we'd like there to be, and Chan's age is undeniable especially during close up shots. He seems to be functioning at 20% his regular self here, when we were expecting he will beat bad guys silly. 

There was my fear early on in that Chan will spend the entire running time of the film tied to a chair. That did not happen, fortunately. But there wasn't enough action going on either. 

In the end, what the film amounts to is a morality confrontation where responsibility must be upheld and so on and so forth. For more than an hour of dragging storytelling, the film (almost) redeems itself by its final scene at the subway, which shows us that Chan has mastered the art of heavy drama as well. But this film is far from great compared to another heavy drama Chan-starrer entitled SHINJUKU INCIDENT. 

Nevertheless, we still forgive Chan. But please, if he wants to make another sequel, do RUSH HOUR 4 already.