Sid & Aya (not a love story)


My blue heaven.

(2018) Romance (Viva) Dingdong Dantes, Anne Curtis, Gabby Elgenmann, Cholo Barretto, Bubbles Paraiso, Josef Elizalde, Pio Balbuena, Gab Lagman, Joey Marquez, Jobelle Salvador, Johnny Revilla. Directed by Irene Villamor

Some movie titles tell you exactly what the movie is about. Others are a little more sly. Occasionally, a title lies outright about what the movie is. This is one of those.

Sid (Dantes) is a Manila-based stockbroker with insomnia. He works for a corporation full of sharks – and is a shark himself – on the fast track to become partners in a company where the only partners are part of the same family. But at night, he wanders the streets, hangs out in bars and clubs until they close and then in coffee shops until he heads back to his swanky apartment for a couple hours of rest before he goes back into the salt mines. Sid’s girlfriend (Paraiso) is out of town for an extended people so he’s a bit lonely.

At one of the coffee shops he meets Aya (Curtis), an outgoing, pretty and fearless young woman. The two get to talking and eventually hit it off. The insomniac Sid enjoys hanging out with her – and is willing to pay for the privilege. Aya, who works three jobs to support her ailing father and her siblings who are looking to get a higher education, is at first skeptical but eventually agrees.

The two are from diametrically different social classes but they see something in each other that draws them closer together. The two end up headed in the direction you might expect – but the destination turns out to be a lot different than whatever expectation you might have.

This is not your typical romance, although it might seem to be developing in that direction at first. Villamor, who also wrote the film, shows a sharp mind and a good sense of changing things up when you least expect them. She also cast the leads just about perfectly; Aya comes off a little bit like a Filipina Zooey Deschanel. She’s absolutely delightful and it’s not hard to see why Sid was attracted to her.

And that’s not as easy a matter as you might think Sid is the sort of guy who pushes people away from him – unless he needs something from them. He is as self-absorbed as any human could imaginably be, and yet Dantes still infuses him with a certain amount of likability that as the film goes on we end up rooting for him. It takes a great deal of screen charm to do that and Dantes has that in abundance. I’m not sure his first name will play well in the States but with the right management he has the presence and the looks to go far.

The movie seems to have a fixation on wealth and on the trappings of it. I wondered for awhile if there was some wealth worshiping going on – although the end message is that money can’t buy the important things in life there and that it corrupts, it almost feels rote. There’s too much focus on the beautiful apartment, the fast cars, the ability to go and do anything, anytime you want. I found it a bit off-putting to be honest but that may be an overreaction on my part so take it with a grain of salt.

What you can take to the bank with more certainty is that there are a few rom-com clichés particularly in the last 30 minutes of the movie and what had once been a delightfully unpredictable movie settled into a typical rut. That’s a shame because if the last third of the movie had been as good as the first two thirds, this could have been a worldwide hit. Even so, it’s one of the strongest romantic dramas to come out of the Philippines in quite awhile.

REASONS TO GO: Aya is a Filipina version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Dantes has a ton of presence.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many rom-com clichés. There is some wealth worship going on here as well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, drug use and more than some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this is the first time Dantes and Curtis have aappeared together in a feature film, they have worked on several projects together going back to their student days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pretty Woman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls

 

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La La Land


Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

(2016) Musical (Summit) Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Tom Everett Scott, Meagen Fay, Valerie Rae Miller, Zoë Hall, Damon Gupton, Marius de Vries, Terry Walters, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Claudine Claudio, Aimée Conn, Thom Shelton, Olivia Hamilton. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

Once upon a time the Hollywood landscape was ruled by two genres: Westerns and Musicals. Sure, there were thrillers, horror movies, comedies, dramas and even a little bit of sci-fi but those two aforementioned genres dominated both the box office and the release schedule. Both gradually fell out of favor and have been relegated to occasional appearances but have little relevance to executives eager to greenlight the latest potential tentpole franchise.

Damien Chazelle, who wowed critics with his Oscar-nominated indie hit Whiplash, now tackles the musical genre with a film that is both a modernist take on the musical and a reverent homage to the genre. Sebastian (Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who yearns to open up a nightclub of his own, one where he can do things his way. He even has the perfect location for it – the site of a former legendary jazz club, now a tapas and salsa club (it’s heresy, I tell you). Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who like many of her peers works as a barista – in this case, on the Warner Brothers lot. She attends audition after audition always hopeful only to have those hopes dashed by an indifferent casting agent or a surfeit of competition.

The two meet under trying circumstances and at first take a bit of a dislike to each other, but they keep bumping into one another and soon they fall in love – it’s a Hollywood musical, after all. Eventually, Sebastian gets a break as a musician – he joins Keith’s (Legend) band which combines jazz with pop and finds success. However, on a constant grind of touring and recording makes him put his own dream on the back burner. Mia notes that this is exactly the kind of music that he hates and Sebastian argues that there comes time that one has to grow up and turn your back on your dreams for the sake of building a life. Sebastian has urged Mia to write a part for herself – it turns out she’s a talented writer – but when the one-woman show turns out disastrously and with Sebastian unable to attend because of a photo shoot, Mia turns her back on her dream and on Sebastian as well. That’s of course when things are about to change.

You are served notice that this is going to be a musical that would do Busby Berkeley proud with the very first scene, a lavish musical number set in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a freeway overpass. It’s preposterous and lavish but done with much love. It is both retro in feel and modern in execution and that theme continues throughout.

Stone and Gosling are two of the most attractive people in the world and they make a fascinating couple. Both of them are consummate actors and won Golden Globes for their performances here; whether or not that will translate to Oscars is anyone’s guess but they are almost certain to garner nominations at least. In fact, La La Land is considered the frontrunner for Best Picture and after winning the Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, it certainly has a good chance to duplicate that at the Academy Awards.

Chazelle gives us some really beautiful, transcendent moments – a dance sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory in which gravity loses its meaning, for example – and shows that he has a sense of style that marks him as a gifted director with enormous potential to become one of the greatest of his generation if he continues to make movies like this one.

I have mixed feelings about the various nods to classic musicals. On the one hand, I respect Chazelle’s knowledge of movie history and his clear love of the classics but it is this very thing that turns out to be a double edged sword. Certainly I love old musicals as most movie buffs do. The issue is that this is a very different era. Stars back in the golden age of movie musicals were also trained singers and dancers. They moved with a grace that is largely absent today. Dancers are trained not so much for classical dancing but for jazz and hip-hop. The moves and feel for those forms are very different. Even on Broadway, much of the choreography favors those forms. Dancing today is largely more athletic than it was back then. Those who made musicals great – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Debby Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers to name a few – were of a different appeal, one that bespoke elegance and grace. Not that Ms. Stone or Mr. Gosling aren’t elegant or graceful, but again, it was a different era.

Another disappointment for me was the songs. Other than two – “City of Stars,” which was the representative of the movie at the Globes, and “Audition (Here’s to the Fools)” – not a single song will remain with you after the movie’s over. Those two will and for a long while too, particularly the latter with its aching, yearning and bittersweet tone. Stone’s delivery of that song reminded me a good deal of Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping performance in Les Miserables – which not uncoincidentally won Hathaway an Oscar. Other than the aforementioned the songs feel like generic showtunes without any sort of hook; soft, mushy songs that kill time before one of the two really good songs are presented.

I have to say that I admired the movie more than I liked it. Many of my friends and fellow movie buffs have put this movie at the top of their best movies of the year lists, or at least very near it. I can’t say that I don’t understand their love for this film. It is one of the best musicals to come along the pike this century and may eventually be considered one of the all-time classics and I might even by that time feel that kind of acclaim justified – just not now. When you hold this up to the light next to actual all-time classics, it’s just plain to see that there’s no comparison. This is a very good musical and a very good film, but a great one? I’m really not sold on that.

REASONS TO GO: Chazelle has a good visual sense. The movie is innovative and different. The performances by Gosling, Stone and Legend are fine. The movie has a throwback feel.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t really hold up next to classic musicals. The songs with a couple of exceptions have a Broadway sound to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gosling spent two hours a day, seven days a week learning the piano parts that he played live without CGI or hand doubles. His first scene in which he plays piano was completed in a single take. John Legend, a classically trained pianist (who himself learned to play guitar for the movie) proclaimed himself jealous.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Catch 22: based on the unwritten story by seanie sugrue

Hall Pass


Hall Pass

Life's a party when you have a Hall Pass.

(2011) Sex Comedy (New Line) Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, Richard Jenkins, Christina Applegate, Alexandra Daddario, Stephen Merchant, Nicky Whelan, Larry Joe Campbell, Tyler Hoechlin, Joy Behar, J.B. Smoove, Alyssa Milano, Kathy Griffin. Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly

 

Hollywood has made a good profit off of the immaturity of men who are really adolescent boys in grown-up bodies. It plays into a female stereotype of men as being more or less lost and helpless without them, not to mention oversexed and a little bit ridiculous. Not that there isn’t any truth to this, mind you – where there’s smoke there’s fire – but definitely it’s a stereotype the movies have helped perpetuate.

Rick (Wilson) and Fred (Sudeikis) are best buddies, and their wives Maggie (Fischer) and Grace (Applegate) are likewise. Rick and Fred have a lot of things in common, not the least of which is possessing the names of the “I Love Lucy” husbands, but also they both possess a case of the Wandering Eye. You know; whenever a pretty girl walks by the two of them are compelled to stare. Fred is a little bit more subtle about it than Rick is but nonetheless both are caught out by their wives who are none too pleased by their propensity to girl-watch.

Finally fed up with their spouses behavior, the two women determine to give their fellas a hall pass. They agree to leave for a week on a Cape Cod vacation and whatever happens during that week is a freebie – they can do whatever they want without repercussion. The boys accept eagerly.

Of course, these guys – who have been married 15 years or more – have absolutely no game. They are as rusty as Newt Gingrich’s exercise equipment. They flounder around trying to pick up hot chicks – at Applebee’s. Meanwhile, their wives – far better looking physical specimens – are discovering that they have a Hall Pass of their own and are far more likely to cash in with the minor league baseball team whose manager is friends with Maggie’s dad (Jenkins).

Of course each member of this foursome will have their moment of truth and they may find out just what is important to them and who they are. At least, that’s the idea.

The Farrelly Brothers had the blessing/curse to make an iconic movie early on. Everything they’ve made since has been compared to There’s Something About Mary and let’s face it folks, not many movies are going to turn out that good. Hall Pass is nowhere near that level, which is disappointing but inevitable in some ways. There are some moments that are laugh out loud funny but the movie, like many comedies, is uneven to say the least.

Owen Wilson has made a career out of playing affable young men who have a good deal of charm, and he does it very well. Still, there are occasions when he breaks out of the mold a little bit and those tend to be his best movies. This won’t be remembered as one of those, however; that doesn’t mean he is any less capable in it. He pulls off his part with charm.

Sudeikis has shown some flashes of brilliance over his career and has been impressive in a number of films as of late. He plays the everyman with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, and that again serves him well here although the part is not written as well as I might have liked. I get the sense that Sudeikis didn’t really get a handle on the character, although I may be wrong on that score – I certainly didn’t and that did make the movie less successful for me.

I enjoyed the parts with the wives more and not just because Applegate and Fischer are far easier on the eyes. It just seemed more realistic to me and less of a goof. I mean, yeah make the guys a little awkward in terms of their game but don’t turn them from horndogs into eunuchs. That seemed a little stereotypical – guys talking a good game but falling short when it came time to man up.

I’ll admit the male ego is easily bruised and has a tendency to overcompensate for our insecurities. I am also willing to admit that this is a legitimate source for humor and entire movies have been made – successfully – about this fact and this one could have been successful as well. It could have used less juvenile humor and a little more wit. I have nothing against dumb jokes but maybe my fragile male ego could have used a little less smacking around. I’d rather laugh with this movie than be laughed at by this movie in other words.

WHY RENT THIS: The girls are very hot. Jenkins, Smoove and Merchant are veteran scene-stealers.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dumb and dumber. Too many gags fall flat. Too much sophomoric humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Well, there’s quite a bit of crude sexual humor, a little bit of drug use, some graphic nudity and its share of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Maggie’s father is played by longtime Boston Red Sox outfielder Dwight Evans. The Farrelly Brothers are both sports fans, particularly of Boston-area sports teams and often have sports personality from that region cameo in their films.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.2M on a $36M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Encounters at the End of the World

Dark Matter


Dark Matter

Ye Liu examines Meryl Streep's face for unsightly blemishes.

(2007) Drama (First Independent) Meryl Streep, Ye Liu, Peng Chi, Aidan Quinn, Blair Brown, Yonggui Wang, Lei Tsao, Jing Shan, He Yu, Bo Yi, Boris McGiver, Bill Irwin, Taylor Schilling. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng

We struggle to understand the complex workings of the universe. Mostly the discoveries we make serve to illustrate that we are painfully ignorant and that the universe is a far more wondrous place than we could ever imagine. However, there is a dark side to the universe, one that resides in the matter that not only binds the universe together but touches the dark places in the human heart.

Liu Xeng (Liu) is a Chinese student studying for his doctorate at an unnamed Southwestern U.S. university. He is admonished by his family as he leaves for the great unknown that is America to make his family proud and bring no disgrace to the family name. No pressure, right?

He is brought into a world of academic politics, woefully unprepared. Brilliant in the science of cosmology (the study of the workings and origins of the universe), he is interned to Dr. Reiser (Quinn), one of the most respected scientists in the United States. At first, they get along very well – Xeng is brilliant which reflects positively on Dr. Reiser.

Xeng joins a number of other Chinese students sharing a house in the university community. Mostly, they like to hang out, drink beer, talk about chicks – and particle physics. Those wacky college students! Xeng even develops a crush on a comely barista (Schilling), although that turns out to be unrequited. He’s living the American dream, college nerd style.

The Chinese students stay in America is being facilitated by Joanna Silver (Streep), a wealthy patron with a keen interest in Chinese culture. She takes a special liking to the young Xeng, whose brilliance and shy sweetness intrigue her. Then one day, Xeng has a breakthrough – a theory about dark matter that might change the way we see the universe.

But the wheels start to fall off. His theory comes into direct conflict with Dr. Reiser’s own – which the arrogant and egocentric Reiser can’t allow. Reiser works behind the scenes to discredit Xeng, who loses an important prize to one of his roommates who has been making a point of kissing Dr. Reiser’s ass. Xeng is unable to land a job following his graduation and is forced to sell skin care products door to door to make ends meet. His mental state fractures and shatters, leading to tragedy.

This is loosely based on events at the University of Iowa in 1991 when a graduate student named Gang Lu opened fire on several professors and students, killing five before turning his gun on himself. The academic world depicted here is not necessarily the one that was encountered by Lu in his downward spiral, but it is pretty accurate as to some of the down side – dark side – of modern American universities. It is sadly true that politics usually trump performance when it comes to human endeavor.

The culture clash between the Chinese students and their American hosts is one of the most compelling things about the movie. The students are astonished to discover that Americans send their elderly to separate facilities; in China, caring for the elderly is part of a family’s responsibility and to not do so would be a serious loss of honor.

There are a lot of scientific ideas that are put across here that are necessary for the advancement of the plot. They could easily be dry and confusing to the audience, but Shi-Zheng manages to make them at least reasonably understandable with a liberal use of computer graphics to aid him.

Getting Streep was amazing; I don’t know how they convinced her to do this movie but she is typically wonderful, performing in a way that is effortless and authentic. She doesn’t exactly steal the movie but she is the most prominent reason to see the film. Liu as Xeng does a credible job, but his mental deterioration doesn’t feel authentic; he goes from frustrated to homicidal almost without any sort of transition. It’s a little bit jarring, even if you do know it’s coming.

The middle third drags a little bit, but the first and last parts of the movie are exceptionally paced. The feeling of impending tragedy hangs throughout the movie. Shi-Zheng has divided the film into five chapters, each pertaining to a specific element. He utilizes a Chinese children’s chorus singing standard American songs as a kind of linking device that foreshadows and forebodes.

I like many of the elements of the movie; it just doesn’t generate a movie that is a cohesive whole. The conceit of Dark Matter as an allegory for petty human emotions under the surface is a nice one, but a bit obscure. That may wind up losing some audience; still, anything with Meryl Streep is going to be worth a look.

WHY RENT THIS: Meryl Streep elevates the movie with yet another unforced performance. Shi-Zheng manages to present complex scientific ideas without sailing completely over the heads of the audience. The cultural clash between the students and their hosts are the best element of the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle third drags a bit and Liu Xeng’s mental breakdown doesn’t feel authentic.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of intense violence, some sexual content and a modicum of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Chen Shi-Zheng is best known in China for directing Chinese opera productions; this is his feature film directing debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $66,375 on an unreported production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With