Movie: The Greatest Showman

"The Greatest Showman"

“The Greatest Showman” is a bold and original musical that celebrates the birth of show business and the sense of wonder we feel when dreams come to life. Inspired by the ambition and imagination of P.T. Barnum, “The Greatest Showman” tells the story of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a mesmerizing spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.

Ever since I saw the teaser for The Greatest Showman, I knew I wanted to watch the film. I love musicals, and it has been so long since a proper movie musical was made, so I knew this was a film I’m going to want to watch in a theater.

And I was not disappointed.

I guess it helped that my expectations were managed. The film came out last year in the United States, and the reviews were less than phenomenal. People didn’t like the fact that The Greatest Showman glossed over the less-than-desirable characteristics of P.T. Barnum. Some thought the film was shoddily edited, and certain story threads were dropped and picked up willy-nilly. And a lot people said it just wasn’t that good. They were all correct.

The Greatest Showman wasn’t good, because it was something else. It was… transcendent.

Don’t get me wrong; the film could use a lot more fixing. Especially when it comes to how the story is told.

The film suffers from having to follow two separate threads from the moment Zac Efron’s character is introduced. Suddenly, on top of the P.T. Barnum main storyline that wanted to deal with inclusivity, acceptance, humility, and contentment–you also had to follow an interracial romance that was completely separate from the already-full Barnum plate.

The characters’ emotions don’t have a linear development; they provide what the script wants to happen, rather than the script following what the characters are feeling. And as such, there are a lot of character development that are waylaid because the film would rather barrel through the plot lines it wants to hit.

There are a thousand and one things you can point out where the film was lacking. Mostly in the storyline, in the character progression, and even in the directing. But there are just as many things to love about the film–mostly because of the cast and their passion for the film they made.

Hugh Jackman, Zendaya, and Keala Settle are truly exceptional in The Greatest Showman. The life they bring to the characters fill out what is lacking in their characters’ emotional development. Zac Efron and Michelle Williams complement their respective partners exceptionally, providing grace and elegance to the turmoil that is the conflict of the film.

The characters breathe because the actors behind them are giving them life. And because of their portrayals, you don’t notice until after the film has ended that said characters aren’t really fully-formed. The cast–all of them, not just the ones I enumerated–are the ones informing the audience of who their characters are; Not the story, nor their decisions in the story, but their acting.

I would also say it’s the cast that brings the songs to life. They inject their vulnerabilities into the songs, making them something more than just the words that accompany the melody. Listen to the dozens of “This Is Me” covers on YouTube, and then listen to Keala Settle’s version. The mix of fear, of uncertainty, and of strength she imbues the song elevates it into an anthem. So much so that you don’t notice how the emotional reprise within the song is abruptly cut short just so the song could go back to being a call to arms.

And then there’s Zac Efron and Zendaya’s “Rewrite the Stars.” There is restraint in the way the sing the song, a restraint that becomes heartbreaking when you see how it is directed on screen. And I mean that in a good way.

If you watch the film, you can see how director Michael Gracey pours love into his staging of the musical numbers. His direction heightens the emotions of the songs that pepper the movie musical. If only he had done the same for the transition scenes, the ones in between the singing.

But there’s not point in focusing on what might have been. The film is made. It is out in theaters. And if you’re looking for a reason to watch The Greatest Showman, watch it for the passion–of the cast, of the director, the choreographers, the costume designers, the production designers, and everyone else involved in the project.

Let their passion inspire you to dream, to accept, and to come alive.

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Movie: Murder on the Orient Express

"Murder on the Orient Express"

What starts out as a lavish train ride through Europe quickly unfolds into one of the most stylish, suspenseful and thrilling mysteries ever told. From the novel by best-selling author Agatha Christie, “Murder on the Orient Express” tells the tale of thirteen strangers stranded on a train, where everyone’s a suspect. One man must race against time to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

First of all, I would like to thank my friend Chris (and 20th Century Fox Philippine) for bringing me along to an advanced screening of Murder on the Orient Express. That said, I was not paid to say good things about the film. Which I feel like I should say, because I will be saying a lot of good things about the film.

Sir Kenneth Branagh is, in my humble opinion, the most entertaining Hercule Poirot I’ve had the pleasure of watching. (Although, I haven’t seen that many.) He is, from the moment he enters the screen, a commanding presence. And I think that’s half of the battle won for this latest adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, having a likeable and funny protagonist.

Another thing I liked about the film is that it didn’t feel the need to add to or update the material to make it harder for viewers to solve. There were a couple of changes to the source material, if I’m not mistaken, but it only makes for a tighter story-telling.

I liked how the film establishes Poirot’s aptitude at solving mysteries quickly in the beginning, wisely introducing the main character to viewers who are not as familiar to the character and his history. And I liked how the film establishes possibilities in who the culprit could be.

I don’t remember how it went in the novel, but in the film, the suspects are introduced and fleshed out one by one. And I love how there is a vulnerability to each character, even as they are shown to be despicable. Dame Judi Dench is most exemplary here, as she bosses her maid around while still showing so much contained emotion.

I also have to commend the writing of the screenplay, as all the clues are spread out in the dialogue and the characters’ actions. Nothing feels planted, even though most of the clues really were planted. The hints dropped fell naturally, and seemingly without thought, that it gives viewers a sense of euphoria when the mystery slowly unravels with callbacks to the clues.

And then there’s the cinematography. Murder on the Orient Express is beautiful. It feels like a film from a different era with the way each character was framed, with the way light is used and infused into certain scenes. It was awe-inspiring.

Don’t get me wrong, there were faults to be found too. It was comically funny that whenever the camera would pan through the train, all the characters seem to be looking out the window. And certain scenes (and lines) seemed to have been included just to make the film funnier. But they’re small nitpicks in comparison to what the film was able to accomplish: which was to present a straightforward murder mystery that didn’t need to twist every which way just to make sure the viewers doesn’t solve the case too quickly.

Murder on the Orient Express opens here, in the Philippines, today.

Movie: Captain America, Civil War

"Captain America: Civil War"

Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” finds Steve Rogers leading the newly formed team of Avengers in their continued efforts to safeguard humanity. But after another incident involving the Avengers results in collateral damage, political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability, headed by a governing body to oversee and direct the team. The new status quo fractures the Avengers, resulting in two camps-one led by Steve Rogers and his desire for the Avengers to remain free to defend humanity without government interference, and the other following Tony Stark’s surprising decision to support government oversight and accountability.

When I watched The Avengers: Age of Ultron, I was a little underwhelmed. Although I did enjoy watching the film, I had notes throughout on what I would’ve have done (storytelling-wise) that could have made the film better. But, now that I’ve had a few months to have some perspective on how I felt about the film, I understand that I was coming from a place of high expectations. The first Avengers film struck me speechless, and I was expecting the same for Age of Ultron. That was unfair. So when I first saw the trailer for Captain America: Civil War, I told myself to manage my expectations.

The Captain America films has been my favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The First Avenger was an amazing film that perfectly told the story of the classic Captain America and made it palatable to modern viewers. The Winter Soldier topped that by twisting expectations, and delivering the most non-superhero film that starred a superhero. In both films, the cast of characters had been manageable. There were only a handful, and each one of them played an integral part in telling the story. And then here comes Civil War with the problem that truly plagued the second Avengers film: an overly large cast with rich stories that remain untapped. Each one bursting to tell their own journey.

Civil War served them all well, without forgetting the fact that this is a Captain America film. That this closes his trilogy.

And what a closer it is. (Seriously. The film’s last shot? Not counting the after credits? It gave me goosebumps.)

I don’t know how many times my jaw dropped watching this film. The fears and questions I had while watching the trailer were all explained away, and most of the stuff that internet people have been concerned about made a lot of sense for me. As the credits rolled, all I could think of was this: I didn’t have to manage my expectations at all. Because while Civil War is no Winter Soldier, the film is still a solid Captain America film. And that is what’s important, right?

Civil War has more superheroes than either one of the Avengers films, but each one plays out their part and stays in their lane. A few breakout as scene-stealers, but none of them steals the movie from Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan. Not even Robert Downey Jr., who tones down his Tony Stark to give his most somber portrayal of the character since he was first handed the iron helmet. And it works.

Everything works.

There have been a lot of reports that it’s Spider-Man who people will remember from watching this film, but I disagree. Spider-Man is set-up wonderfully, yes. Tom Holland does give a nuanced take that balances the drama of Tobey Maguire’s version with the levity of Andrew Garfield’s take on the hero. But this is not his film to steal. He serves a purpose, and one of his scenes actually underlines the movie’s theme without being blatant about it. His scenes still pushes the Captain America story forward, while providing a break from the film’s serious tone. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely still leaves Spider-Man’s story to whoever will be writing the webslinger’s own film.

As they do for the Blank Panther who makes quite the splashy entrance, and yet doesn’t overpower the strengths of the other characters.

The writers and directors Anthony and Joe Russo must be commended on using characters that haven’t been established yet to further the plot, without making the plot about them. They serve their purpose, but their own stories are purposely left out for their own films, without making moviegoers feel like they were shortchanged with these characters.

And I love how they use the absence of certain characters to push the story even further, to make the characters more three-dimensional.

But the best part of the film is how the number of superheroes isn’t overwhelming. Which… If these are the people working on the next two Avengers films? I think we can all rest easy, because we’re in good hands.

Captain America opens today in the Philippines. And I would like to thank my friend Chris Cantada for inviting me to the premiere of the film last Monday, April 25.

And, obviously, I didn’t get into the nitty gritty details of the film. I keep having to check myself that I’m not dropping spoilers by accident. But, if you’ve already seen the film and want to discuss it with me, hit me up in the comments. (This also serves as a warning to other readers to not read the comments section, if you don’t want to be spoiled.)

Movie: Honor Thy Father

"Honor Thy Father"

After years of financial struggle, Kaye and Edgar are finally on a roll. Kaye has made millions promoting her father’s investment scheme to her friends and fellow Pentecostal parishioners at the Church of Yeshua. But their world unravels instantaneously one day when Edgar swings by his father-in-law’s house to find the place ransacked and the old man gone. It doesn’t take long for Kaye’s friends to turn on the couple, who go to the fiery bishop for help. But he’s not exactly generous, preoccupied as he is with raising money for a new temple (and with the promise of extravagant kickbacks). The parishioners continue to demand their money back, and Kaye and Edgar start receiving death threats. When the tension erupts in violence, Edgar decides to seek the aid of his criminally inclined family.

What is there to say about Honor Thy Father other than the fact that it was beautifully made? Director Erik Matti and Cinematographer Ber Cruz made even the tightest and dirtiest look cinematic. The first thought in my head coming out of the cinema was that this is the film that will become part of film class curriculum.

Meryll Soriano and Krystal Brimner were the standouts when it came to acting, delivering nuanced performances that made their characters feel strikingly real. Perla Bautista and Boom Labrusca both delivered solid support as well, making their presence felt without taking away the focus from the lead actors.

And then there’s John Lloyd Cruz.

I’m not a fan of John Lloyd, to be honest, but there’s something about his ticking-time-bomb performance that I felt really captured the essence of the film. That said, I like him better in the scenes where he doesn’t have lines, the ones where he lets his actions and reactions speak for him.

If you have seen and enjoyed Heneral Luna, you have to watch this film. It has the core of an independently-produced film with the budget of a mainstream movie–so we get the best of both worlds. And all I have left to say is that, I think Honor Thy Father is the best film off the past year’s Metro Manila Film Festival. So watch it.

Show the mainstream media that there is room for films like this. For stories that aren’t cookie-cutter romances, and aren’t trope-filled horrors, and aren’t slapstick comedies. We’re always lamenting the dying movie industry because it’s inundated with movies that cater to the escapist nature of the Filipinos, and yet most of those complaining don’t even bother watching films like this when they come out.

The movie industry will stay in its deathbed unless we support the films we want more of. If we want more quality films, it’s time to put money where our mouths are.

Movie: Walang Forever

"Walang Forever"

Mia, a celebrated writer of romantic-comedy films, is at a turning point in her life which makes it difficult for her to believe that love could last. Everything comes to a head when Ethan returns, only for her to find out that he has become a cynic of lasting love because she broke his heart.

Walang Forever wears its heart on its sleeve, and that’s a good thing. Because out of the four movies I’ve seen this Metro Manila Film Festival season, this is the only one I actually enjoyed watching. One, because it didn’t try to be too clever for its own good. And two, because it didn’t capitalize on any popular love team. Story was king.

It also helped that Jennylyn Mercado is proving herself to be the romcom lead to beat.

I only have four gripes with the movie: the splicing together of scenes in the exposition-heavy beginning that could’ve done with a bit more cutting, the climactic confrontation between the two leads which I felt could’ve used some tweaking in dialogue, the too-vague planting of the main conflict and its reveal, and the acting decisions of the guy who played Aldus–

But, at the end of the day, I think the movie was well made. My gripes are just nit-pickings at things that I felt could have been improved more, but in no way detracts from one’s enjoyment of the movie. Walang Forever proves that Filipinos are just as capable at making romantic movies that tug at hearts and tear ducts both.

I also have to commend Kim Molina for her acting in this film. Out of the four films I’ve seen, she was most deserving to win the Best Supporting Actress Award– And I’ll leave it at that.

If you enjoyed English Only, Please last year– you’re bound to enjoy this one as well. So if you haven’t seen Walang Forever yet, do check the film out while it’s still in theaters. Support quality films!

Movie: Haunted Mansion

"Haunted Mansion"

Ella is a girl who can see dead people–a fact that does not go unnoticed by the ghosts of a retreat house where Ella and her classmates have to spend a weekend reflecting on their lives. When her schoolmates try to discover if the horror stories about the retreat house are true, they unwittingly awaken an evil being bent on keeping an old family scandal a secret. And it us to Ella to stop the evil from killing her schoolmates one by one.

First, I want to get something straight: I’m a fan of Jun Lana’s independently-produced films. They’re smart, heart-tugging, and inspiring for a storyteller like me. Which brings me to the reason why I need a disclaimer in the first place: I don’t understand how a brilliant mind like Jun Lana (in directing and writing) can produce something like Haunted Mansion.

Of course, I know that this is a Regal film. I know I shouldn’t expect something earth-shattering. But Regal Films is the production outfit that produces the Shake, Rattle, and Roll franchise! At the very least, they should know how to do horror right. But, alas–

I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. Let’s start with the main reason why I don’t think Haunted Mansion is a good horror movie: the story is too complicated. Every single thing has to have an explanation. Why is this ghost doing this? Why is that ghost going there? The flashbacks, the segues, the expositions–instead of feeling like natural progressions for the story, they feel like sandbags that weigh the movie down. And the characters don’t even work for these information–they’re all handed to them by peripheral characters!

And then there’s the disconnect with the main character. Ella is supposed to be the person that the viewers will root for–but her muddled characterization makes it hard to even understand what she wants. She has issues with the way her father died. She can see dead people. She has a crush on a popular guy. Her best friend just told her that he likes her– So many things are happening, and the only important thing here should be her father issues. Which I feel was sidelined by the love triangle that feels forced anyway.

It doesn’t help that Ella’s actress, Janella Salvador, only shines when she’s fighting back against her oppressors. Well, the fighting back scenes and the ones she share with Jerome Ponce. It’s obvious that the actress has a preference as to which love interest she wants to end up with.

Then there’s the casting of Ingrid dela Paz as the rival. I don’t know if this was a given, but they should have picked someone else to play the popular girl who has it in for the underdog. Mostly because Janella is prettier than her and has better fashion sense. Also, she’s nice. Anyone who has gone through high school knows that those three things will instantly make you more popular than the bitch no one wants to cross. They should have gotten someone who was prettier. Or, at the very least, not used the very tired trope of the popular mean girl.

Now, if they were bound by the casting of Ingrid, the film’s wardrobe department should have intervened. What was so difficult about making Janella more dowdy, and putting Ingrid in more fashion-forward clothing? The characters keep saying that Janella’s character is a weirdo no one wants to hang out with, but nothing about her bearing and clothing reflects that.

A horror film works when it is grounded in reality. When it feels like it can actually happen. Seeing as the casting already made the film unrealistic, you would hope that at the very least, the logic behind the haunting would be sound. But, no.

The great evil of the house is supposedly a ghost but they suddenly becomes corporeal. And then, just to add the implausibility of it all, they are revealed to be a practitioner of the dark arts. Nothing leading to that reveal will prepare you for it, and it feels like it was only included to make it logical for said evil to be as powerful as they are.

Oh, and let’s not forget the opening scene that has no connection at all to the rest of the film: a kid and his mother finds themselves stranded by the retreat house, only to be killed by dark forces. And it is never mentioned in the film again!

Don’t even get me started on the out-of-the-blue scare that was supposed to establish Ella’s ability to see dead people. Because it’s such a perfect set-up to actually head into the scares, but is wasted when the movie goes back to setting up the unnecessary love triangle.

Nothing in this movie makes sense.

Haunted Mansion offers nothing more than cheap scares and shock factor. If you’re looking for something with more substance… Look elsewhere.

Movie: Buy Now, Die Later

"Buy Now, Die Later"

BUY NOW, DIE LATER is a compendium of five interconnected stories, each one representing one of the five senses. The stories featuring ODIE, ATO, CHLOE, PIPPA and MAITA will remind us that every bargain comes with a price.

I really wanted to like this film. Especially because out of the three films I’ve seen so far off this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival entries, this has been the best. But being better than My Bebe Love or Haunted Mansion isn’t really something to be proud of.

Buy Now, Die Later suffers from putting style over substance. The film is, for the most part, beautifully lit and shot. There was obvious thought put into lighting the scenes, in the camera’s movements, and in blocking the scenes. But the same thought wasn’t given into casting two of the main leads, because I completely do not understand why the producers of this film thought Alex Gonzaga and Vhong Navarro were right for the roles they played here.

Let’s start with Vhong. The actor’s swagger did not fit the underdog character he was meant to portray here. Based completely off the events and the dialogue, you’re supposed to feel that the character is meant to be looking to escape the shadow cast by a too famous father. Unfortunately, Vhong’s portrayal only made him out to be a fame-hungry bottom-feeder who wants the easiest way to get into the spotlight. Which would’ve been a fine character on its own, if it weren’t for the fact that this doesn’t fit his character’s actions and dialogue in the second half of the film.

And then there’s Alex. I don’t know if it was a conscious effort on her part to emulate the speaking and movement of certain local celebrities, but it was a little too over the top for me. It certainly didn’t help that she would jump from one emotion to the next without any nuance, making her character feel like she’s suffering from a psychological disorder.

Which makes me feel bad for the rest of the cast, Lotlot de Leon and TJ Trinidad most notably. You can see that these two made an effort to make their characters breathe and be real. I actually feel especially sorry for TJ Trinidad because the director or the producer subjected him to wearing an awful mask that was completely unnecessary. It’s like they didn’t trust that he could bring the malevolence needed to make his character work, when his character was actually already scary enough–until the mask appeared and made his character look like a joke.

Story-wise, I must commend the film for trying a different kind of story-telling from what the masses are used to. Especially during the Metro Manila Film Festival season. But I think they bit off more than they can chew with this one. Especially when it comes to logic and continuity. The biggest flaw in the story-telling comes near the end of the story when Lotlot’s character is seduced by the promise of youth–during the time when she’s worried about her daughter’s safety. It should make sense, but the dialogue given her does not–and neither do the scenes that follow after she succumbs to the devil’s bargain.

Then there’s the foreshadowing of how the devil’s items work; they used three characters to underline the fact that the magic of the items don’t affect those who have been cursed. Except one of the three characters hasn’t even been cursed yet. That’s a problem someone in editing, or the writer himself, should have been on the look out for.

And speaking of editing– I don’t know who was in charge of trimming down the movie, but the latter half of Buy Now, Die Later suffered from a lot of cuts that didn’t make sense–leaving characters finishing lines of dialogue that viewers never saw start in the first place.

Don’t even get me started on the garish music video that jolts viewers into the second story.

So would I recommend this movie to anyone? I want to say yes, if only for Lotlot de Leon and TJ Trinidad–but Buy Now, Die Later is really only entertaining two-fifths of the time, so I would say no. If you want to support Quantum Films so they could make more films, watch Walang Forever instead.