Movie Review: Begin Again, John Wick

BEGIN AGAIN

Seven years since captivating indie lovers and Oscar voters of the modern classic ‘Once’, writer-director John Carney returns with bigger stars jamming to more mainstream records in BEGIN AGAIN. His second musical have the more star power (attracting musically-inclined Oscar nominees and The Voice coaches) and more accessible music (with a shinier New York guitar case than the dilapidated one in Dublin) yet its appealing spark doesn’t quite match the soulful glow of its predecessor. Begin Again may have undergone a mainstream treatment on its music, atmosphere and characters, but it still plays consistently on Carney’s coursework of endearing platonic musicals.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

 

JOHN WICK

With a wicked atmosphere, sleek action sequences, and an intriguing character to elevate itself from bland assassin innuendo, JOHN WICK is a stylish, welcome return to kinetic form by Keanu Reeves, resulting to an agreeable consensus that his retired hit man days are far from over.

Rating: 3.0/5.0

TV Review: Homeland S04E05 “About a Boy”

There’s a hidden gem of having to re-watch this new season of Homeland, which I haven’t done for its past three seasons. Partly because it was an era I don’t want to revisit (particularly the second half of S02 and the whole S03) chronicling Carrie in her wrenching crusade to keep the love of her life alive, only to thrust him to the front line for the greater good. For sure, the tragedy of Carrie’s character is TV’s least enjoyable entertainment but who would deprive sympathy from her? That, and the fascinating ways her oscillating familiarity still manages to shock, keeps me hooked. Specifically for this episode, a second watch granted an insightful precedent to what looks like a fierce follow-up. Contrary to its title, last night’s episode is still about Carrie, with three scenes of her as the subject of conversation and intelligence gathering. But About a Boy is not just about her, nor the eponymous Aayan; but the emergence of new complications magnifying the stakes of its next episodes.

 

Transpiring the one-day turn of furtive events, About a Boy seemed to kindle S04’s frustrating, slow-burner feel. But looking closely at the calendar, the past five episodes happened swiftly in less than two weeks, with the characters already ripe of their respective high-stakes drama. The most threatening run-in is Saul’s kidnapping at the airport, orchestrated by ISI agent Tasneem Qureshi. Echoing ISI general Aasar Khan from “Iron in the Fire”, it’s neither Saul as Carrie’s mentor nor Saul the private citizen that would simmer the ongoing geo-political spy game. Abducting the former CIA director en route to the mountainous Taliban territory should raise the American alarm, thus prompting its incumbent to land in Pakistan. Triggered by Sandy Bachman’s death, the convoluted domino effect further snarls the CIA and ISI, although the Pakistani intelligence has the upper-hand this week. Desperate to return in the game, Saul unsuspectingly took the obvious bait. Judging S04E06’s promo, Carrie possibly knowing Saul as hostage will flare up the situation room. There’s a comparison on her ill-conceived capture by Abu Nazir in “Two Hats” but Saul’s situation (and how it lead to that) is more believable than the dissenting S02 scheme.

 

More of Carrie’s emotional cracks surface the day after her tryst with Aayan as she lies her way to get his sympathy, with only two more days before her cover blows. The happenings in the safe house looked like homage to “The Weekend” but with the “Redux” episode still coming up, it convinced me that Carrie and Aayan won’t be spending S04E07 together. Carrie’s half-truths about her baby’s father successfully got Aayan’s attention but to see Carrie use the personal strife she has yet to confront is another miserable occasion of how much she sacrifices herself for the greater good. Carrie’s moments of genuine emotions is questioned than believed by others, and her mid-coital breakdown is categorized as a manipulative ploy along with the blurted ballad, “I f***ing love you, Quinn. You know that, don’t you?” Carrie’s justification of her controversial means becomes Quinn’s matchstick of searing into her work ethics. Their arm-braced, heated conversation materializes the ‘push-and-pull’ dynamic Rupert Friend has twice commented. Clearly Quinn is reacting not out of jealousy but as an agitated subordinate who lost track of their target and a non-practitioner of the ‘Mathison Method’. But instead of retorting “Mind you own f***ing business”, Carrie tersely explains herself and the scene ends with a classic Carrie-Quinn OC bout that only keeps the tension between them burning.

 

Speaking of business, grumpy Quinn is paired up with Fara as they check out Haissam Haqqani’s hiding place. Quinn, ever the cheerer (remember “I’m not. You’re good.”), keeps Fara focused despite her qualms and fills her in on the spy handbook. There’s a subtle moment when Fara asks Quinn on his acquaintance with Carrie and he swallows his curt replies; the silence in between were more telling. But for a second episode in a row, Fara shows how far she’s gone from the reluctant analyst in S03. Their attempt to track the cleric’s car failed (Quinn will be more infuriated to know who’s gagged in the compartment) but in Fara, patience to a novice spy is a virtue. Curious, brave and learning, she’s fast turning into the next female spy to root for. Although Fara’s still in the middle of the ‘Mathison Method’ crash course, it’s enlivening to see her stand up for herself, especially against her teacher (a face-off I’m very much looking forward to).

 

Back in the embassy, Dennis becomes Martha’s unknowingly biggest problem as he digs dirt on Carrie’s apartment (on ISI’s orders), only to see a picture with her daughter and her supply of medicine (how the wily Tasneem will use them against Carrie, we don’t know). The Boyds are becoming the Berensons 2.0 and I do hope that Martha could finally show how fierce she is as a woman in power (having been introduced as Carrie’s equally tough counterpart) and I can’t wait to see her find out the more unforgivable crime her husband has committed.

 

Just two weeks of operations in its five episodes, Homeland takes calculated strides to unwind its season-long mystery caught between international espionage and the personal lives of its characters. About a Boy felt like a breather before the intense first-half season capper but in some ways, it wasn’t. Saul’s kidnapping will add fuel to the fire and Carrie’s vulnerability is becoming more evident… And who said the new season is a slow-burner?

 

NEXT EPISODE: “From A to B and Back Again”

Movie Review: “The Trial”

The Trial is an intimate and judicious family-legal drama that successfully knots its bigger themes of love, trust and forgiveness, despite a safe treatment of its delicate subject matter.

Read at your own risk.

 

Movie Poster

In Star Cinema’s annual cinematic slate which is often dominated by the cross pollination of romance, comedy, horror and melodrama, a wildflower is sporadically plucked from the production company’s creative garden. It may not yield the same as the commercial returns of its honeyed genres but Star Cinema’s venture to mature, more thought-provoking films is a much-awaited reward to its patient and more sensible viewers. Last year it got into serious business in ‘On The Job’, a rare action-thriller that was timely of the current political landscape and compelling on the intertwined narratives of its mentor-mentee relationships. This year, audience takes the witness stand as the legitimacy of the story of a mentally challenged man accused of rape is scrutinized in Chito S. Roño’s “The Trial”.

 

Bessy (Jessy Mendiola) is John Lloyd Cruz’s (Ronald) teacher in ‘The Trial’.

As the film slowly unravels, The Trial does not only become a showcase for John Lloyd Cruz’s sympathetic portrayal of the man on the pit of controversy but it opens to a wider perspective of how relationships are tested through the intersected story line of Richard Gomez and Gretchen Barretto. Theirs maybe the more familiar between the two stories but Julian and Amanda’s marital breakdown (and eventual reconciliation) were the more powerful, especially during the devastating memories of their lost son who bridges them to the faulty Ronald. Prickly as I am on how myopic the characters are tied to the conflict (especially in an ensemble cast), The Trial takes time in establishing everyone’s story and glides to scenes that are anchored on their motivations revealed by flashbacks. For instance, rather than immediately presenting Amanda as Ronald’s ally, she is first seen as the friend of Bessy’s (Jessy Mendiola) aunt who persuaded Amanda to observe Ronald and make him admit his crime through her profession as a developmental psychologist. The scene segues to Ronald telling his parents that he saw Amanda prior to their first meeting, until he successfully retrieved a memorabilia that unlocks the deeper connection between them.

 

Slow burning but revealing, The Trial stirs to a straight-forward narrative, occasional curbing on salient sentimentality that doesn’t reduce the material to melodrama. The tropes of marriage on the rocks and a withdrawn mother are stale ingredients on other dramas but The Trial makes them purposeful as it explores the interconnectedness of its characters under the umbrella of its bigger theme. Similar on how the court room aims to dissect the two sides of truths, the films slices the many layers of its characters, enabling viewers to discern their respective decisions. Ricardo Lee’s screenplay does not lose its translation on Chito S. Roño’s placid direction (as opposed to Joel Lamangan’s visual disconnect of “Hustisya”). The director doesn’t overplay the most dramatic crescendos, except a bungled attempt on the parallel sequences between Amanda and Ronald; and Julian and Ronald’s parents. Nevertheless, the film’s tranquil atmosphere is consistent from start to finish, along with sprinkled pints of humor that somehow became inherent to the story.

 

Gretchen Barretto as Amanda who becomes Ronald’s pseudo-psychologist in ‘The Trial’.

The Trial is most buzzed on Cruz’s portrayal of a mentally challenged character which is more high-functioning than Gerald Anderson’s ‘Budoy’. Cruz deftly blends Ronald’s docility, comprehension and confusion but what I found more interesting was his subjugation to violence. Gomez draws from his commanding physicality the armor of Attorney Julian but Barretto bears the more emotional gravitas, employing grace and regret as a mother who wants to amend her shortcomings. Reunited with their ‘Maria Mercedez’ director, Mendiola and Vivian Velez are restrained as their characters’ moral intentions are also in question. Enrique Gil once again becomes the forbearer of the Generation Y as Julian and Amanda’s departed son, using technology to preserve (heart-breaking) memories, similar to his lead role in ‘She’s The One’. Capping the ensemble cast are Sylvia Sanchez and Vince De Jesus as Ronald’s dysfunctional parents whose reversed gender roles find the film’s light moments but also the earnest ones.

 

But is the controversial theme legitimately addressed?

With a wholesome cast in a controversial subject matter, The Trial becomes a litmus test on how a mainstream film can deliver a mature theme and if the critical and commercial responses would be favorable. Despite the slights of violence, raw language, and sexual references, the film is a wholly family drama that doesn’t shy away from the taboo. Unlike the other dramas that would rather capture the provocativeness of carnal and adulterous desires, The Trial aims to crack the fragility of human relationships and how it can be strengthened again. An after-thought, however, is how the film neutrally addressed its criminal case of rape; that it felt too safe mainly because its wholesome cast is already a takeaway that The Trial would not trudge to darker waters. But there’s nothing wrong in being safe and the film did not apprehensively treat its subject matter. The Trial knows its boundaries as a family drama, not a criminal drama. I admit that despite my satisfaction, I would have wanted the film to explore the grim consequences of the alleged crime (since it’s already in the unchartered territory), but disputably, an addition of violence, sex or vulgarity could not make its values any better.

 

There’s another unspoken theme that The Trial teases in its opening and closing scene that fortifies its hold as family drama: the importance of parenting. Ronald moonlights as a Grade 7 student but he is one of the school’s gardeners. His monologue of how he tends to his plants foreshadows the relationship of the sons and daughter to their respective parents and guardian in the film. Like a delicate flower, Ronald’s needs are special that is arguably not met by his parents. Bessy is merely treated as an ornament by her selfish aunt. And Martin, despite having a perfect life, is overlooked by his parents, just like a pretty flower drowned in the vast greenness amidst his frequent call of attention.

 

It’s underwhelming that we have to wait until next year to see Star Cinema’s next wildflower. Through ‘On The Job’ and ‘The Trial’, mainstream films are slowly warming up on exploring the grayness of morality rather than being soaked in red (be it love or blood, depending on the perennial genres). The Trial is a satisfactory return to form of modern family drama that still has a lot to improve on, particularly crossing unconventional narratives and more resonant topics. The film may not dared to challenge itself more on the theme but it knows its boundaries. I do look forward to more mature subject matters that don’t necessarily book shock value to make it controversial and is conscious enough to know the message it wants to send without the expense of its narrative. Until then, see you in court.

 

Quotable lines:

Hindi moving on ‘yun. Nililibing mo lang ang puso mo ng buhay.” – Amanda

Ronald, ang mundong ito ay hindi para sa atin. Para sa matatalino, sa malalakas. Hindi para sa atin.” – Bessy

 

The Trial

Produced by: Star Cinema

Release date: October 25, 2014

Review: 3.5/5.0

Photos grabbed from Rappler, The Daily Pedia, The Trial FB page

TV Review: Homeland S04E04 “Iron in the Fire”

New intelligence unraveled as Carrie and co. went further down the rabbit hole in IRON IN THE FIRE, an episode fully geared on the thrills of espionage not only wheeled on the CIA operations, but also torqued on its Pakistani counterpart. Finally emerging as part of the chess game than a plot device, the ISI sheds stealth-mode from tailing surveillance to a more tangible presence that further escalates the conspiracy that befell on the season four premiere. It’s the savory spy stuff that substantiates the progressive episode spawning more questions which reveals the bigger motive behind Sandy Bachman’s murder. The fear of the unknown is crippling but HOMELAND’s ability to play the con game of the unpredictable makes the show so compelling and a-rousing (coughs to Aayan). Ready the blankets and take a seat beside your new-found asset; let the recap begin!

 

New Girl

Working on foreign territory, it made sense that HOMELAND booked new characters who’ll wear the shoes of the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s largest intelligence service agency. The show’s depiction of its overseas settings is often criticized but admirably, HOMELAND has been grounded by the stark reality and remained neutral on tackling the political aspects of its omnipotent theme. I wonder how the portrayal of the ISI could add to the complex set-up but the idea of two agencies battling each other is intriguing, all the more that the face we see on the ground is a woman. Nimrat Kaur’s casting as ISI agent Tasneem Qureshi has been interesting and I can’t wait how involved her character will be in the season-long conflict. The thought of her going head-to-head with Carrie is even more exciting. Already proving herself in the misogynistic world of intelligence, S04 sees Carrie engaging on a new dynamic, ironically with the same gender. She’s got Fara to mentor, Martha to be her proxy-mentor/ally, and now Tasneem as a potential enemy (although Carrie doesn’t know her yet). Would it be that the new girl will push Carrie to the limit? We’ll see on the next episodes.

 

Mole 2.0

Speaking of Tasneem, she apprehended a certain professor who was revealed to be Sandy’s inside man on the drone strike’s coordinates… who turned out to be the Martha Boyd’s husband, Dennis. The Boyds scuffle on committing to their careers and marriage (Martha’s disheveled look and unaware treason of her husband got me anxious about her). Sandy forged a two-way street of intel exchange through Dennis and a Pakistani source whom he was supposed to meet before he died. But the question is, why did Dennis connive with Sandy to get those classified intel? What’s in it for him? Was he not aware that the ISI, as Tasneem said, is benefiting from? There are so many questions that lead to a dead-end. But has anyone noticed the parallel on Saul and Martha’s significant others? Mira was unknowingly sleeping with Andrew Lockhart’s hired agent in last season, but for Dennis, it’s a deep rabbit hole he’s drained himself into.

 

Most Valuable Player

Another big reveal last night (aside from the source of Sandy’s intel) is that Haissam Haqqani, the target of Carrie’s botched drone strike, is alive, thanks to Fara’s determined pursuit of Aayan. It’s an immense compensation for her gone-wrong meeting with him in “Shalwar Kameez”. The transition from meek to daring Fara was a welcome boost to Nazanin Boniadi’s character, now that she’s more expected to be seen on the ground while Carrie’s juggling being station chief and a handler (more to that later). She’s still learning the spy craft that teams her up with Max and they somehow make a more composed pair than the tension-filled Carrie and Quinn. Before Fara left the car, Max cautioned her to not do anything stupid, but don’t expect that dialogue to work out for the other two. I do like how their scenes (Fara and Max following Aayan while Carrie and Quinn argue a stake-out over another ISI agent) interplay thrillingly. The show is meatier if it treats viewers with well-executed covert operations and fastening them together in the end. It’s a tense and gripping entertainment that HOMELAND best delivers.

 

Bad Guy

Remember Carrie and Quinn’s snarky conversation during their surveillance in “New Car Smell”? They’re back behind the camera watching Farhad Ghazi’s footage but this time their talk becomes personal, which further attest on how much their working-personal relationship deepened for the past two seasons. Carrie once again asked Quinn why he didn’t go with her in Kabul and Quinn answers that covert operation was over for him after killing a child in Caracas. For a moment, Carrie’s voice breaks when she shouted ‘No’ upon Quinn’s sullen statement that he’s a bad guy. But instead she wants him focused on the job that he ultimately accepted despite his reservations. I was waiting for the concrete proof on how Quinn would be Carrie’s moral conscience (an actual dialogue, not just cursing) and this scene clicked to it. Many times in the episode did Quinn got into Carrie’s skin and her retaliation was enough to confirm it. I’m not exactly sure on how Carrie is ‘bad news’ to Quinn since she needed him for the mission. Is it considered bad if Quinn continues to prod her enmity in order to humanize her? But the notion of being the bad guy got me curious. Carrie and Quinn have their different methods in performing their job for the greater good. Her needing to hear “I’m a bad guy” seemed like Quinn’s strategy of having Carrie think about her job and what she has let it done to her. It’s not a question of who’s meaner and more culpable. It’s a thought-provoking move; especially when a viewer continues to digest the great lengths Carrie do for her job, which leads us to the final moment of the episode…

 

Mirror, Mirror

Carrie examines herself at the mirror, and pauses before she proceeds with her play on Aayan. To be honest, I wasn’t shocked on the culmination of Carrie’s seduction although at first I was peeved by the thought of it. What changed my mind? Maybe on how the first 45 minutes of the episode built to it and how well Claire Danes and Suraj Sharma calculatedly eased up on Aayan’s consensual permission to Carrie’s initiation. Carrie had used sex before to accomplish her operations but the necessity of doing it with Aayan comes to question. When did she realize that she has to seduce him, to make him emotionally (and physically, forgive the pun) attached to her? And her more professional job description as a station chief also raises an eyebrow to her latest act. I’m not an expert on Carrie’s psyche but based on the past three seasons, Carrie is more comfortable when she’s hands-on to her assets. (Related, but digressing) I think her being station chief comes with her brilliance and not her leadership skills (she’s more of an individual performer). But the more important thing is, Carrie knows what she is doing. She’s planned it all along and readied herself when the moment is ripe. She’s not as reckless like she was with a certain terrorist in “The Good Soldier”. Sex is part of her play but the tricky thing would be not letting herself be emotionally attached because that could just snap a band, if something awry goes off.

 

Oh, Saul also got two important dates in IRON IN THE FIRE, first is with an old friend (called Bunny) from the Pakistan army and second was from a younger official in the ISI. Turns out that Sandy is the sole target of the mob and why the ISI orchestrated the murder is still unknown. Saul is so desperate to be back in the game (I thought he’ll be leaving Pakistan soon?) But seeing Mandy Patinkin course his way through international politics with the Pakistani officials makes me reminiscent of the S01 Saul. I miss the bear.

The opening credits first hears the line “It’s Alice in f***ing wonderland” from Martha. Wait ‘till she knows what her husband’s done aside from plagiarizing. IRON IN THE FIRE got me convinced that the new season will see Carrie in her most dangerous fairy-tale yet. I’m all in the rabbit hole. Are you?

 

NEXT EPISODE: “About a Boy”

Previously… on Homeland (S04E01-E03)

Nearly three weeks since its Season 4 premiere, it really felt good to be back home. Showtime’s critically acclaimed spy drama HOMELAND has never felt so reinvigorated as compared to its past two seasons. Dropping its Brody baggage (for now), the new season engrosses itself not just to a single portrait of a terrorist but to a bigger canvas of the war on terror: the grayness of collateral damage and red herrings on international relations. But for the show’s protagonist, the war on terror will always be personal. Four seasons (and counting), the show would not be as compelling as it is if not for the mercury that is Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). With a new mission and untapped dynamic(s) ready to engage, HOMELAND continues to ripple layers on Carrie’s prodigious yet vulnerable character, while it remains relevant on the conversation of terrorism, feminism, and the ugliness of reality.

 

Episode One: THE DRONE QUEEN

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Ending with a horrifying aftertaste of Sandy Bachman’s (Corey Stoll) murder, THE DRONE QUEEN is an intense first-hour that sets up the season-long conflict on the professional and political consequences of ‘checking names of the kill list’. More foreign than the new ground operations is the Kabul CIA Station chief Carrie’s rigidity and relentlessness, dejecting herself from motherhood and remorse that were conceived in Season Three. Now employed in the private sector, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) offers unsolicited remarks on war in front of his company’s potential contractors: the U.S. Department of Defense while Islamabad-based Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) reunites with Carrie, only to be guilt-driven and tormented by Sandy’s shocking demise. Brought to the core of the drone strike’s collateral damage is the new character of Aayan Ibrahim (Suraj Sharma). THE DRONE QUEEN follows the beguiling “Pilot” in HOMELAND’s adrenaline-pumped season premiere. Leaving viewers gripping on the edge of their seats, THE DRONE QUEEN holds a renewed promise of intrigue as it successfully steps out from the shadows of its former lead character and finally becomes the show that it should have been.

 

Episode Two: TRYLON AND PERISPHERE

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Supplementing the action-packed heights of “The Drone Queen”, TRYLON AND PERISPHERE is an emotional whirlpool that follows Carrie and Quinn’s return to the U.S. after the murder of the Islamabad CIA Station Chief. Forced to trespass her duty as a mother, Carrie hatched her imminent return overseas by blackmailing CIA Director Andrew Lockhart (Tracy Letts) on treason (because of Sandy’s possible exchange of intelligence). Meanwhile, Quinn tries to drown the grave reemergence of his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) through whiskey and turned his mundane hotel room into a love nest. Carrie and Quinn’s contrasting reactions to Sandy’s death are nuanced and emphatic; and the parallels between them grew starker in Carrie’s suspenseful bath tub scene with her daughter and Quinn’s havoc at the diner. Between accountability on her misguided mission and responsibility to her daughter, Carrie chose the former while Quinn refuses to return just yet. As Carrie flies back to Pakistan as the new Islamabad Station Chief, she stares at the window (a scene similar to her car ride at the beginning of “The Drone Queen”) but she’s not as hardened as she was with her shaky “I’m fine”. Yet she suppresses it harder.

 

Episode Three: SHALWAR KAMEEZ

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HOMELAND hasn’t halted yet the tango of parallels between Carrie and Quinn as their story-lines in SHALWAR KAMEEZ becomes the yin and yang of each other. Carrie, back in Pakistan, is highly efficient in her best element: successfully convincing Martha Boyd (Laila Robins), the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, to lift the embassy lock down; winning the ram against John Redmond (Michael O’Keefe), the Islamabad Deputy Station Chief; setting up a second station with Fara Sherazi (Nazanin Boniadi) and Max (Maury Sterling); and most importantly, getting in contact with Aayan (a charged scene that titillated Carrie’s state of play). Back in the U.S., Quinn copes through his binge-drinking and obsessive viewing of the uploaded video on Sandy’s murder after the thrice occasions of heckling the ‘Carrie card’ against him. But a crucial evidence pulls him back to Carrie and despite his finite It’s not about you in “Trylon and Perisphere”, Quinn is drawn back to her team. His final shot after the phone call perfectly captured his internal dilemma that he can’t simply escape.

Too blunt in pressuring its character, SHALWAR KAMEEZ could have downplayed in confronting Quinn about his feelings for Carrie. But contrast to reviewers who called the episode as a foundation on a possible romantic relationship, it worked for me as Quinn’s introspection in his clash of interest between preserving his humanity and helping the hardest person to say no to (the mutually exclusivity between the two is not yet proven but the succeeding episodes would). A man of few words and many of action, Quinn is made more intriguing by the choices he made (as provoked by the CIA interviewer, he chose Carrie; while in “The Choice” he told David Estes that he didn’t kill Brody because of her). But the question of whether Quinn is in love or bears genuine affection towards her as a respected co-worker still hangs and how altogether it will affect his return to Pakistan further fleshes out Quinn as one of the important individuals in Carrie’s life. However, I do hope Quinn will not just be a romantic buffer for Carrie because regardless of his true feelings, he is an interesting character: his transformation from a black-and-white assassin to a gray moral compass was cultivated well; and that will surely make HOMELAND more humane not just in Carrie’s perspective.

 

NEXT EPISODE: the spy craft sizzles on “IRON IN THE FIRE”

Movie Review: Starred Up, Non-stop

STARRED UP

Violent and unforgiving as it maybe, it’s hard to look away from director David Mackenzie’s unflinching story of a juvenile’s descent to the gratuitous cage of older convicts. Brilliantly filmed and one of the finest in its genre, STARRED UP is a no holds barred prison drama anchored heavily on the revelatory Jack O’Connell as Eric Love who unleashes his inner animal, more savage and scarred, yet most importantly, raw of the potential to redeem himself from the society who doesn’t believe it possible. Eric’s erstwhile guardians are also haunted of their own personal demons; Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend fills complicated layers of humanity in their troubled characters. STARRED UP does not take pleasure in its brutality, nor preaches of the consequences of serving in prison. Rather, it powerfully delivers a sore reality not often seen onscreen.

Rating: 4.5/5.0

 

NON-STOP

Hot on the heels of Liam Neeson‘s late resurgence as an action star, NON-STOP takes off in a tense premise that takes claustrophobia to the highest, inescapable altitude. A (surprising) ensemble cast had a promise of a sophisticated thriller but were surprisingly miserably written and confined as plot devices. The narrative turbulence happens at the end of the film and NON-STOP lands preposterously because of its final reveal. At least the cast looked like they enjoyed the ride and the movie was entertaining despite its misgivings. But the viewing seat belt is still fastened on what the hijacking film could have been for the better.

Rating: 2.5/.5.0

Movie Review: “The Gifted”

Better Late than Never.

(Here’s my take on why the post-credit scene mattered than the post-surgical procedure but how it also distorted how good-looking genius can be.)

Movie Poster.

Beauty and beast and brains in between. Chris Martinez’s newest film THE GIFTED has its own way of tickling the funny bone, albeit flirting with it until it reveals its surprisingly good intentions. A comedy about two genius ugly-ducklings and their metamorphosis to skin-grafted swans, The Gifted isn’t made smarter by its erudite leads who are caught in a cat-fight of insecurities and engrossed in the overly onscreen search for a paramour. Script-wise, it misses to integrate witty puns in the dialogue (other than bragging Calculus) and doesn’t really delve into the cerebral psyche of its characters. Without the genius DNAs of Aica (Cristine Reyes) and Zoe (Anne Curtis), the film will just be a worn-out romantic comedy that will only be made memorable by Curtis’ ultra-revealing gown (or not). But in the end, The Gifted proves that it’s smarter than viewers’ prejudice by flipping entirely what everyone knew for the past two hours. Genius and gorgeousness are not, after all, the perfect equation to become gifted. But rather, having someone to accept the ‘real’ you and (which I think is more important) wholeheartedly accepting one’s self.

Unexpectedly serving more EQ than IQ, The Gifted is a surprisingly well-meaning comedy that goes deeper than the perfectly sculpted bodies of its leads. Despite some complaints on characterization and depiction of the two geniuses (which I’ll touch into later), it somehow made sense to the film’s ‘origin story’. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Other than being Zoe’s pet snake to become Aica’s apple of the eye, Sam Milby (in a dual role) put on his nerdy self as the unreliable narrator who immortalizes his insecurities through his penned book entitled, “The Gifted”. The post-credit confrontation scene was not just a satisfying answer to his fictional revenge. The referred book is written by a man who has his own flawed ideals of a woman but the society’s expectations of ‘beauty, brains, and beast’ come into play, and having comedy as the genre made the theme more realistic. It may not have been self-aware, but the film criticizes how people overshadow good-looking to genius and how they isolate one from the other. People would rather guffaw at an ugly person but not laugh to an intelligent pun. They would rather take notice of a woman wearing sexy clothes than listen to another with a sexy mind. And as seen in the film, a smart but physically unremarkable woman will only be revered if she goes under the needle (because if you’re smart, you wouldn’t want to stay ugly for the rest of your life).

But Joe (the real Zoe) and Maica (the real Aica) need not to submit to society’s notion of beauty and the consolation of brains for the lack of it. The Gifted gets a high mark on its moral story – these girls need not to alter themselves to be accepted by society. Unlike their fictitious counterparts, Joe and Maica are treasured by their classmates, except for Milby’s insecure, perennial third placer. Someone may have been born with the superlatives in the physical and mental aspects but attitude makes and breaks likability. Goodness still stand-out from good looks and genius. As for the two leads, growing up comfortably in their own skin is an honest message for accepting one’s flaws. Joe and Maica are each other’s gift, just like the many girls and women who would not let insecurity bring them down.

Before and After.

The Gifted may have been a more meaningful comedy but its good-naturedness doesn’t absolve how it handled the physiology of its female characters. The conscious nitpicking of attractive actress for a homely and clever role, and have her stripped off of prosthetics and fat suits to wear her own celebrated face and figure post-surgical procedure, is a defective depiction of a smart female protagonist whose platform only propagates the stereotype instead of fighting it. My real question is, ‘Why can’t we have an intellectual female who is more conscious of making change in her society than changing her look or bodyWhy can’t we have an intellectual female who doesn’t have to be encumbered by prosthetics and instead act in her true form? Why are physical traits more fleshed out than focusing in the moral and intellectual identity of its female character?’ I was actually disappointed when Curtis and Reyes have to wear an exaggeration of their geeky roles (one whose body weight is as heavy as her mind while the other is facial fiasco). A usual comedic approach is to make fun of what is seen outside without bothering what is inside. The Gifted can still be comedy if it is more invested as a character study (it could have addressed the battle between the head and the heart, or how their geniuses level in awkward and clichéd situations). But instead of shrewd characterizations, the film relied on been-there done-that costumes to make the lead characters ‘look’ smart but don’t really act like one. And that’s not actually smart at all.

It could have been a riotous showdown of Athenas but The Gifted pitted Aphrodites who are caught up in fashion-feud and cosmetic-clash, thus meandering its creative potential. Although the post-credit scene was a pleasant surprise, it willingly stumbles on mainstream treatment that tends to be more conscious of its message at the expense of a sensible and logical narrative. Dubbing itself as a dark comedy, The Gifted doesn’t even have a firm grasp of the sub-genre (there are other ways it can be dark or daring but the plot device of gun possession is as unnecessary as the film stepping into dark comedy) and nor understand the humor of it; similar to the miscalculations on the writing and portrayal of its genius characters. The movie’s most resonant and only saving grace is the post-credit scene which some viewers may have even missed but without it, what is the point of the film?

To argue between what The Gifted is to what it is not is tricky (I tried to lay the line between the moral story and the blind spot, but it’s for you to decide which is more impactful) but I wished the film was smart enough to consider the many themes it can address given its playful premise. A female lead whose intelligence is her identifying trait is rarely seen onscreen but instead of exploring how and what makes her smart, they are treated as clichéd characters that completely sidelined their mental prowess. The Gifted ends with a sincere toast to a strengthened friendship and cultivated self-esteem but it fails to empower the true image of a good-looking woman in its many aspects. Because being beautiful is not always about how one appears, but on how she thinks, speaks, and acts; and how gracious she is in accepting and conquering criticisms, like this film review.

The Gifted

Produced by: Viva Films

Release date: September 3, 2014

Review: 2.5/5.0