Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What Was Before): Movie Review

Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon poster(1)Critics have raved about Lav Diaz’s Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What was Before) which recently won the Pardo d’ Oro (Golden Leopard) at the Festival del Film Locarno 2014, the singular highest honor achieved by a Filipino film in its nearly 100 year history. During the award ceremonies, it also bagged the International Critics’ prize, the Don Quixote Prize, Environment is quality of life prize, and the Independent Critics Award for newcomer Hazel Orencio as Best Actress. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the press screening of the film at the SM Mall of Asia, an event sponsored by SM Cinema together with the Film Development Council of the Philippines and Sine Olivia Philippines on the anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law, which many Filipinos believe heralded the darkest days in Philippine history.

MMSKAAN is the story of life in a remote barrio in the years leading up to Martial Law. Itang, a devoted sister to her disabled sister Joselina; Tony the winemaker who harbors a dark secret, Mang Sito, one of the respected elders of the barrio and his “nephew” Hakob, who longs to flee the village to see his parents in Culion, Palawan. The story details their hopes and dreams, their sins, their regrets, their poverty — but as their connections unravel, they are faced with an ominous new threat and are introduced to fear that drives them away from their homes and their native land.

While some other filmmakers who tackled the subject matter of Martial Law have chosen to depict the brutality in the human rights violations perpetrated by those in power during the Marcos regime, indie director Lav Diaz was the first to focus on the lives of regular folk in a remote barrio in the main premise of the movie,  making it a unique take on the the same premise. Instead of the rallyists and the activists, the movie trained its lens on those who were in the periphery but were equally touched by the controversial chapter in the nation’s past.

A masterful storyteller, Diaz uses no shortcuts to achieve his means. He takes his time to tell the story sequentially, focusing on every small detail. On the one hand, audiences will appreciate his effort and passion in creating cinematic masterpieces with every frame. It was obvious with each scene that Diaz and his crew took great care to come up with the perfect angle and capture the perfect shot as each frame of this movie could be entered into a photo contest. Each second is composed perfectly with every element (even the animals) seeming to know where there should be. Diaz made sure the each second of this the 5 hour and 38 minute-long film was beautiful to behold. On the other hand, this strength may also be a turnoff for some mainstream moviegoers as Diaz’s penchant to lengthy scenes accented by only by the natural noise of the environment becomes tedious for the less than patient audience. Personally, I thought that the length of the scenes, while calculated to give audiences a chance to process the events, could have benefited from a little more editing to expedite the storytelling. Cutting out some of the scenes could have helped too as it could have shaved off a couple of minutes or even an hour from the film, which would not entirely be a bad thing. I’m all for a cinematic experience and all but of course, it should always be balanced with the audience experience.

The script was beautifully written, the words seeming like poetry in the general scheme of things –words uttered by regular folk with a depth of underlying meaning. A subtle social commentary about corruption and evil, of sacrifice and solidarity, of secrets and shame, of courage and fear. It was filled with meaning, fueled by emotion of characters who experience different types of pain and suffering.

The tone changes significantly when the Armed Forces entered the scene and started outlining their operational orders against the communists. The air in the cinema changed. People sat up much straighter and paid more attention to what was going to happen, but if they are expecting brutality and violence, they will be disappointment because MMSKAN’s approach is much more subtle. It leaves audiences with the task of filling in the blanks and drawing their conclusions.

All in all, watching MMSKAN is an investment of sorts– an investment of time, emotion and thought. It haunts audiences with questions long after the movie is over, and as such, succeeded in getting audiences to think about the message behind the story. It holds audiences captive, forcing them to come to terms with the characters and their stories and gives them ample time to process each scene before it jumps to the next exquisitely framed sequence. Its  fraught with food for thought, that challenges moviegoers to appreciate anything different from the mainstream. It’s a really really  long journey. I’m not kidding. This is one of the longest movies I’ve sat through, and I felt every second of it.

Take Me Home Tonight: Movie Review

Take_Me_Home_Tonight_PosterMatt (Topher Grace) has had a crush on Tori Frederking (Teresa Palmer) since high school but he never had the guts to ask her out. The opportunity presents itself years later when he bumps into her at the video shop he works at. He pretends that he’s a successful banker to impress her but in truth, he’s an engineering graduate who is still figuring things out (thus the video store job). At a party attended by all his high school friends, where he gets the elusive “in” that he has been dreaming of since adolescence, Matt must weigh whether honesty is more important than a shot at winning Tori.

At first glance, a film about a bunch of freshly minted college grads reliving high school in a party thrown by the high school douchebag (played by Chris Pratt) doesn’t seem very interesting. But if TMHT has anything going for it, its high school nerd getting together with the popular girl angle, plus a lot of funky music from the 80s. While attending a raucous throwback to high school party never appealed to me, there is something to be said for wanting to catch up with high school friends and seeing how they’ve been since you last met. I’m not sure that Matt and his best bud Barry (Dan Fogler) had a lot in their teens but it was quite funny to see a lot of cringeworthy awkwardness on screen as they try to appear cool in front of their peers.

I don’t know if it was me learning that Teresa Palmer is Australian that had me detecting a faint accent in her speech in this movie but it wasn’t bothersome. What was bothersome was that the character of Matt, who was supposed to be a smart, charming goofball, didn’t deliver on the goods. For one, for a smart guy, he made a lot of bad choices. His vulnerability in not wanting to take a risk at anything should have made him endearing, but instead, it achieved the opposite. I never once felt a connection with Matt because he was pathetic. It was just sad.

It was a shame that Anna Farris’ comedy was not better utilized in this film. It was nice to see her paired with real life husband Chris Pratt in this movie though. Dan Fogler did his best to salvage the movie with his antics but it was obvious that the main star was Topher Grace and his character was a dud. It was just obviously trying too hard to be a cool 80s throwback movie but with characters who are so much willing to be boxed into stereotypes, it never really clicked for me.

All in all, Take Me Home Tonight felt like a watered down high school movie. The main difference is that its fun when you see teenagers goofing around and doing stupid things but when adults try to relive their glory days in high school, thinking that coolness is the end all and be all of everything, its kind of sad,  and kind of shallow, especially when they are at a point in their lives to be celebrating the future, instead of the past.

The Giver: Movie Review

The_Giver_posterBefore the dystopian genre became all the rage for Hollywood, there was a children’s book released in 1993, written by Newberry Medal winner Lois Lowry called The Giver. Its about a world that dealt with the aftermath of war by eliminating every element that may cause conflict in the lives of the new world. I read the book a couple of years ago and thought it was shocking, haunting and brilliant, especially for a book targeted at middle schoolers. Now that it merited its own movie, I was curious how the book would translate to the big screen.

Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is a teenager on the cusp of leaving his childhood in a community living peacefully in Sameness — where rules are effected to avoid conflict. Rules like never lie, precision of language, number of children allowed per family unit, taking a dose of daily injections, with all of their actions monitored by the Elders at all times. It is also a world devoid of color and strong emotions, where people go about their business like automatons. During the ceremony where the teens graduate to be members of the community, Jonas is chosen to be the Receiver of Memories, a distinguished and difficult position that only ten years prior, pushed a trainee to ask for “release.” When the Giver (Jeff Bridges) starts Jonas’s training, he encourages him to forego the rules that he grew up with, and instead embrace the joy and pain that comes with receiving all of the memories of the world before them. But as he discovers the wealth of information, his education pushes him to do more to free the people from the Sameness borne from fear of uncertainty.

A lot of anticipation came with The Giver movie, mainly because it was such a well loved book. This came before The Hunger Games, Divergent, Delirium, Matched, Enders Game, Partials, and the whole host of  dystopian novels targeted at young adults. One of the noticeable differences of the book from the movie was the age of its main characters. While movie Jonas was well in his teens, book Jonas was only 12, and of course, the “stirrings” he felt with his friend Fiona, who was also a 12 in the book, was hyped up in the movie version. A lot of people did not like the change but it was completely understandable for the film to age the the characters a little bit because they were going for The Hungers Game market (teens) and they had to have a charismatic cute boy and a love interest to do that. Even Game of Thrones made their characters a bit older because it would be weird to see 13 year old Robb Stark and Jon Snow wielding swords or 12 year old Sansa getting married on cable television.

But messing with the original material comes with pros and cons. And while the movie succeeded in getting its target market engaged in the story because of the teen romance angle, what was lost was the originality of the premise of children being weaned on the illusion of safety in Sameness, which was more shocking and sad.  The part that really spoke to me about the book was Jonas’s youth and the responsibility that he had to bear in wanting to save his community from ignorance of the truth. It was what made The Giver so different from the others in its genre. It was the gradual loss of innocence and call to courage.

I didn’t hate The Giver, or thought it was substandard to the book. I thought it did the material enough justice, but because it came after a parade of other films with the same genre and the same audience, it felt too familiar. Because audiences were already used to kids and teens killing each other to stay alive, or being used for war, the message of the Giver seemed a bit on the mild side and Jonas’ adventure or mission seemed staid compared to the competition. Even the set designs seemed too familiar. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter that it was written first, because it was adapted later than the others, and truthfully, since its the trend in Tinseltown, these YA adaptations have been trying to outdo each other with a vengeance because they’re battling for the same audience.

The Giver had a lot going for it though and its best weapon was Academy Award Jeff Bridges who portrayed the titular role with a vengeance. The contrast of the depths of his emotions to the stoicism of the rest of the community was a master class in acting and his torment at the loss of his daughter was heartbreaking. The best moments of the movie were always with him in the scene. Thwaites was not bad as Jonas but he needs to polish up his acting if he wants to be more than just a pretty face in Hollywood. With the type of roles he’s landing, he shouldn’t waste the opportunity and step up his game. Of the supporting cast, Alexander Skaarsgard really stood out as Jonas’ father. Despite not knowing the gravity of what he was doing, there was a quiet battle raging in him that he struggles against and the subtlety in his acting was great. I loved the slight change in his look when he was forced to bend the rules.

All in all, The Giver was a good adaptation by director Philip Noyce. Sure, it took some liberties with the original material but not enough to destroy the essence of the literature. It took upon itself to expand on some of the events to add to the drama and the suspense and it was a good call to add some spice to the movie for people who read the book so it didn’t become too predictable.

Brick Mansions:Movie Review

paul-walkers-action-film-brick-mansions-has-a-2nd-trailerIn yet another movie featuring Paul Walker shown after his death, Brick Mansions is a remake of the French action film District 13 (Banlieue 13 or B13) released in 2004 starring actor/stunt choreographer/founder of Parkour David Belle. The film, written and produced by Luc Besson enjoyed great success in Europe so it was natural for Hollywood to want a piece of the action.

The year is 2018 and Detroit has become the most crime-ridden city in the world. With violence running rampant, the mayor has ordered the erection of a wall that will serve as a divide for the city’s slum area (Brick Mansions) and business district. After years of leaving the residents of Brick Mansions to oppression, poverty and a general lack of social services, the mayor asks for support from the city’s elite to build a high end commercial district in place of the slums, with the promise that he will take care of all the members of his constituents. Meanwhile, he and his men send out undercover cop Damian Collier (Walker) beyond the wall to disarm a bomb hijacked by crime lord Tremaine Alexander (RZA) which threatens to wipe out the slums. Belle reprises his role in the original movie as Lino (he was Leito in the French version), the vigilante who helps Damian get to Tremaine and find justice for  his father, who he believes was killed by Alexander.

I must say that Brick Mansions was a film that had a lot of energy. A lot of running, a lot of action, a lot of cool stunts, a lot of great cars and a lot of explosions. Its the type of movie that does not allow audiences to blink during an action sequence because the choreography is so interesting and so tight that one must really give credit to the stunt choreographers who worked on the innovative moves. David Belle had no problem executing his stunts and the guy is such a joy to watch because from the first glance, audiences know that he’s the real thing. Paul Walker’s scenes were also good but audiences could tell that he’s not as learned in the execution as Belle was. Because there was such fluidity and speed in Belle’s movements, the very slight delays in Paul’s punches seem more pronounced in comparison. But still, credit to Paul (or his stunt double) for the well executed synchronized moves which were great to see.

While the action was great, the same thing could not be said with the rest of the movie. RZA, though oozing with coolness outside of this movie (he’s the frickin founder of the Wu Tang Clan for Pete’s sake!), seemed unable to strike the perfect balance between menacing villain and consciencious do-gooder. As a result, no matter which team he played for, he was not a great presence because there was no conviction in his portrayal. The rest of the goons seemed like cardboard cutouts of goons before them and it was just sad because the environment truly called for more brutal and graphic representation. Belle and Walker might have made a great team in terms of action but there was no real connection between the two stars, and no pivotal moment that would solidify their bromance. There was no rapport between the characters at all. And the mayor! If a person was going to be cast as a main villain in a movie, shouldn’t it follow that some effort would be required to pull off the role? Should’nt said villain be compelling enough to bring enemies together for a common cause? Sadly, Bruce Ramsay may not have gotten the memo because his chief of staff seemed more in tune with his dark side than the evil mayor.

The narrative was all over the place and seemed more concerned about  moving the action sequences along to give audiences the illusion that they are being entertained, no matter that there is no genuine substance behind the plot and no big set up for the final reveal. It was very predictable, as expected from the beginning. The ending was super cheesy (not the good kind) that it made me want to hide under the desk because of embarrassment for Paul Walker. If you give this film the time of day, you would understand what I’m getting at.

All in all, my main problem with the movie was its reliance on the stunts to sell the movie. For a supposed film that talks of oppression of people, it should have connected with audience at some point because evidently, the residents of Brick Mansions were the ultimate underdogs, shunned by the government that was supposed to protect them. Its frustrating because how can viewers sympathize with the characters when they themselves couldn’t care less about their plight? Nobody supported Lino’s lone crusade from the beginning and its hard to cheer for people who are that lazy to fight for what they deserve. Still, the characters are not entirely to blame. This lack of connection owes mainly to the film’s lack of heart, which is evident in the haphazard editing and cardboard characters. It was such a waste of talent. Good effort from David Belle though. At the end of the day, I’m glad that this is not Walker’s swan song. (Because no matter what movies claim, its gonna be the final Fast and Furious). He deserves to be remembered for more.

Blended: Movie Review

blended-movie-logo-y4taiyutWhile I admit that Adam Sandler’s recent movies were subpar (Grown Ups 2, That’s My Boy, Jack and Jill), the decision to team up with Hollywood sweetheart Drew Barrymore for the third time for this family comedy was a great way to get back to the fans’ good graces. While hugely massacred by critics, Blended brought me a lot of laughs and I thought it was really cute. Incidentally, the movie is also a reunion of sorts with director Frank Coraci, who directed their first movie (The Wedding Singer).

Jim (Sandler) is a widower trying to do right with raising his three daughters Hilary aka Larry (Bella Thorne), Espn, named after sports network ESPN (Emma Fuhrmann) and Lou (Alyvia Lind’s) while Lauren (Barrymore) is a divorcee who juggles managing her business with dealing with her two energetic boys — Brendan (Braxton Beckham) and Tyler (Kyle Silverstein) . The two don’t necessarily hit it off during their blind date but fate has a surprise in store for them as they find out that Jim’s boss and Laura’s friend Jen, who are dating, will not be using their familymoon tickets to Africa. Sensing an opportunity, Jim buys his boss’s tickets while Laura does the same for Jen. While on the trip, the two families discover that they may be blending together better than they think.

Adam and Drew may have worked together before on The Wedding Singer (which I have seen about 10 times) and 50 First Dates (which I saw roughly four or five), but Blended offers something different from the first two movies because they are now playing characters with kids. The semi-serious widower role may be a bit of a change for Adam at first, and so is the harried mother of two character for Drew but these two know how to seize opportunity when they see it. At first, their scenes seem a bit awkward and forced, but as the movie chugged along, they found their rapport and gained momentum, reminding audiences why they are such a powerhouse together.

I liked that Adam dialed down the juvenile and crass humor for this family flick. I think that its even more wholesome than Just Go With It, and that’s a good thing. I liked that more than Adam and Drew, the kids are given great moments to shine because each one has their own appeal that endears them to the audience. I was laughing so hard at tomboy Larry  trying to catch the eye of her crush Jake (Zak Henri) by busting out her dance moves in the hard court. Also, little Lou’s  change of heart in the girl’s bathroom when she saw that her dad made her up like a Walking Dead, and her subsequent Linda Blair moments were so adorable. The movie certainly highlighted the difficulties of solo parenting and dealing with kids of certain age.

There were a lot of great moments with the kids in all, and the supporting characters were also nothing to scoff at — kudos to Shaquille O’Neill who played Jim’s work buddy and Terry Crews who played the lead vocalist of the tattoos, the official lounge/pool/gym singers of the Sun City Luxury Hotel. But I was really charmed by the resort’s incompetent security director and well meaning activities director. They were both hilarious in varying degrees.

The film had a lot going for it and while the idea or the outcome may be a mass of cliches and cheesiness, there is a certain sweetness to the idea of finding family and friendship (Eddy and Ginger) in people you don’t expect. While some of the characters were outrageous, they were more likeable than annoying. While they pushed the idea of being blended too hard, it became funny rather than tedious. While the dramatic ideas in the film were not new, they became more endearing than played out, because there was a strong cast behind the production. The film showcasing the beauty of Africa in a fun and wholesome way was also a great inspiration to travelers like myself and a fitting tribute the majesty of the place.

All in all, kudos to the Blended team for a strongly blended outcome. It was clear on its target market so it did not border on buddy comedy territory. It created characters, both young and not so young who were fun to watch — and very relatable to a variety of viewers to boot. While the film was not entirely perfect,  it had a few missteps (something stupid is always a staple in an Adam Sandler movie after all) along the way but negligible enough not to ruin the audience’s good time. It was bordered on stereotype, but at the end of the day, it still had a little something for everybody. It set out to be a feel good movie and for the most part, it turned out that way. Despite not being the best of the Sandler/Barrymore trilogy, and far from being Adam or Drew’s best performances, it certainly is far from the worst. The Sandler-Barrymore team is still 3 for 3 in my book. What a great partnership.

Aftershock (2010): Movie Review

AftershockIn 1976, a major earthquake devastated the Tangshan district in China, killing thousands, including the husband of Li Yuan (Xu Fan) after protecting her from danger. The film revolves around Li Yuan’s heartbreaking decision to save one of her twins Fang Da (Li Chen) and Fang Deng (Zhang Jingchu) and how her decision dictated their lives for the next 32 years.

Dealing with a disaster movie is pretty tall order, so much so when the disaster in question actually took place in real life. There are a lot of emotions involved for a nation that has suffered great loss. This must be the feeling of the Chinese when watching the film, reliving that fateful day in 1976, cringing at the devastation, yet at the same time, inspired by the unity of its people in the wake of disaster.

When this film was shown at the opening of the Chinese Film Festival in Manila, I felt that it was the right movie to kickstart the festival because Filipinos too, recently suffered a great loss from supertyphoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) which struck the Visayas area and leveled major cities in the region. As viewers witnessed the breakdown of the buildings and the screams of terror, audiences can’t help but be pulled into the scene, recalling what it was like to see the news of their own people suffering in the wake of the calamity, and the feeling of pulling together as a nation to respond to the need of those who were affected by the disaster. Even people who have not been touched by loss would surely relate to the raw emotions being conveyed by a mother on the verge of losing her family, the neighbors pitching in to save whom they could, the recovery of the bodies and lining them up en masse on the streets. It was one of the many dramatic moments of the film, the first of many.

Technically, the effects were not as flawless as they should be. The CGI did not seem very realistic in some parts, but then again, it was not really the selling point of the movie. In terms of storytelling, I felt at times, that the movie was too detailed in some parts, but too vague with the others, so the wait for the final resolution to the story was kind of a long journey.

The best part of the movie was the story and the acting. I especially loved Xu Fan who played the lead role of Li Yuan, the mother. The way she was punishing herself for the 32 years for her choice was heartbreaking and would thaw even the stoniest of hearts. On the other hand, I understood what it was like for Fang Deng, the daughter who felt rejected and left for dead, suffering an emotional trauma on top of the psychological trauma from the earthquake. But my favorite character was really Wang Dequing (Chen Daoming) who played Fang Deng’s adoptive father. He was not selfish and it was clear that her love for his adopted daughter was unconditional. He won Best Performance by an actor in the Asia Pacific Screen Awards for his portrayal. With such great characters, one could not help but be involved with the movie.

As could be expected, there were a lot of crying (because, it was, after all, a drama) but other than that, there were a lot of other dimensions to the movie as well. There was the matter of dealing with the aftershock of the disaster — guilt, love, loss, betrayal, and forgiveness and the characters’ evolution with their emotions. I for one, thought that the approach was very Asian and depicts the Asian culture very well — unity in the face of adversity, a love for family, and a generosity of spirit that allows for understanding in the worst transgressions (sometimes, this is not a very good trait, but for the movie, it is). Surely, an appropriate film to be shown in a festival that showcases a common culture among different people, it is a film that calls for reflection about one’s own humanity and imperfections and understanding the possibility that everything can be lost in one fell swoop.

Chinese Film Festival @ SM Cinema from Sept. 5-9

Chinese Film Festival PosterWant to catch a culturally enriching film for free? Look no further than the SM Cinemas to avail of this experience!

In time with the celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese Moon Festival, SM Cinema is hosting the Chinese Film Festival in select branches from September 5 to September 9. This partnership between the Chinese Embassy of the Philippines and SM Cinema aims to promote cultural understanding between China and the Philippines.

The free screenings showcase innovative Chinese films of high artistic value that gears towards Filipinos’ understanding of Chinese cultural diversity and heritage. The Chinese Film Festival will be showcased in SM Megamall, SM North Edsa, SM San Lazaro and SM Manila.

The premiere, attended by representatives from the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines and SM Lifestyle Entertainment Inc. was highlighted by a presentation of the Angeles University Concert Chorus, who flawlessly performed traditional and contemporary Chinese songs.

Among the award winning films to be shown are:

Back to 1942 (winner, International Rome Film Festival, HK Awards): A deadly drought in 1942 takes its toll on central China’s Henan province during the war against Japan. ( synopsis from imdb)

Caught in the Web: A young woman is victimized by a massive viral internet campaign.

The Grandmaster (winner, 50th Golden Horse Awards, 33rd HK Film Awards: The story of martial arts master Ip Man, who trained Bruce Lee. The film stars Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung. (synopsis from imdb)

Say Yes: A romance fantasy based on the Japanese drama 101st Marriage Proposal.

Full Circle: Lao Ge prepares to enter a retirement home with a suitcase, a picture of his wife and a potted plant. He’s had a difficult 20 years with his estranged son, who has recently married. Lao Ge leaves his son with 200,000 yuan to pay the downpayment on an apartment. At the retirement home, Lao Ge’s friend Lao Chou, who has bladder cancer, prepares for a concert in Tienjin.(asianwiki)

Little Big Soldier: Written, starred and produced by Jackie Chan, about an old soldier kidnaps a young general of an enemy state and takes him on a long journey to collect the reward. The film also stars Taiwanese superstar Wang Leehom. (imdb)

Aftershock: A mother’s choice shapes the lives of her children after the Great Tangshan Earthquake that struck China in 1976.

To know more about SM Cinema, you may visit www.e-PLUS.ph and www.smcinema.com.