Saturday, April 19, 2014

Son of God

Director: Christopher Spencer Producers: Roma Downey and Mark Burnett Screenplay: Richard Bedser, Christopher Spencer, Colin Swash, Nic Young based on New Testament Narration: Keith David Cast:  Diego Morgado, Roma Downey, Darwin Shaw Music: Lorne Balfe  Cinematography: Rob Goldie Editing: Robert Hall Studio Lightworkers Media Distributor: 20th Century Fox  Location: United States  Running time: 138 minutes

Technical assessment:  3
Moral assessment:  3
CINEMA rating:  PG 13

A condensation of the 10-hour mini series “The Bible” in 2013, Son of God opens with a narrative, with the exiled, salt-and-pepper haired St. John the Evangelist (Sebastian Knapp) telling the story from the island of Patmos (Greece).  Son of God hops from Adam and Eve to Noah to Abraham apparently in preparation for the birth of Jesus, but the story finally begins as Jesus (Diogo Morgado) launches his ministry, asking Peter (Darwin Shaw) to be a fisher of men after giving the fisherman a miraculously bountiful catch of fish.  The rest is history familiar to believers.
Coming into a territory where superior films of the same genre have trod, Son of God may find it difficult to impress sophisticated viewers with its episodic treatment of the life of Christ.  Technically it will suffer by comparison to the likes of Franco Zeffirelli’s television miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth”  (1977), and Mel Gibson’s all-time blockbuster The Passion of the Christ (2004).  
While the miracles of Jesus almost take center stage here, somehow their portrayal lacks the jaw-dropping magnificence of the divine and the supernatural combined.  The rising of Lazarus from the dead doesn’t grip the heart—instead it just looks like… well, like over-aged students acting at a high school drama.  Jesus walking on the water?  So cheesy it mocks the real thing.  The multiplication of the bread and fish—aw, enough!  There’s something amiss in these and in many other scenes so that most of the movie feels like a movie, period.  Does the cinematography lack imagination?  Are mere trainees in charge of CGI?  Is the dialogue, the delivery of the lines, the director, or the music at fault?  Is the culprit the viewer-friendly Jesus, the Portuguese model-turned-actor Morgado?  Maybe he smiles too much or reminds the viewer of Marlon Brando and Brad Pitt so that he fails as a worthy communicator of divine action—but to young viewers he will most likely come across as a cool Jesus.  So cool one couldn’t warm up to his agony on the cross.
There are also little things that tend to unsettle a discriminating viewer, like that first appearance of Jesus to the apostles after the resurrection.  We are told that the disciples, out of fear, locked themselves inside a room with doors shut, and that Jesus appeared in their midst.  In Son of God, this episode shows Jesus walking through an open door, smiling, and showing them the CGI hole in his hand.  Another one: Jesus was buried in a new tomb in a garden, right?  Here his grave is something like a cave in the middle of a desert.  Et cetera, et cetera.
This is not to say that Son of God has absolutely nothing worth seeing about it.   Despite its disappointing (technical) flaws, it is still a good introduction to the life of Jesus Christ.  It is an earnest production, for one.  The lead cast—Greg Hicks as Pontius Pilate, Adrian Schiller as Caiphas, Joe Wredden as Judas, Roma Downey as Mary, Amber Rose Revah as Mary Magdalene—carry out their roles with sincerity and passion.  Even the extras appear dead serious about their bit parts.  The apparent conviction behind the performance of the cast is Son of God’s saving grace—the actors all seem to believe they are engaged in a laudable project, and that is enough to make believing viewers feel it’s a worthy reminder to have in an increasingly irreligious world.
An added surprise is the prominence given to Mary from beginning to end in this supposedly non-Catholic production.  That it highlighted the mystery of the incarnation, focused all throughout on the closeness between Mary and her son Jesus, and featured CeeLo Green’s moving song “Mary Did You Know” as the credits rolled in the end speaks volumes about the quiet work the Mother of God does in the hearts of her children.   
While CINEMA gives Son of God a PG 13, parents are advised to shield younger children from the possibly frightening effects of the violence in this movie.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire

Direction: Noam Murro; Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey. Hans Matheson, Rodrigo Santoro: Story: based on Xerxes by Frank Miller; Screenplay: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad; Cinematography: Simon Duggan; Editing: Wyatt Smith, David Brenner; Music: Junkie XL; Producers: Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton, Zack Snyder, Deborah Snyder, Bernie Goldmann; Genre: Fantasy-Adventure-Action:  Location: Greece /Persia; Distributor: Warner Bros; Running Time:102 minutes.

Technical Assessment:  3
Moral Assessment:  2
CINEMA Rating: V18

After witnessing General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) of Greece murder his father, King Darius, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) through the malicious prodding of his adoptive sister Artemisia (Eva Green) journeys through the desert and becomes transformed as a golden God-King. Xerxes returns to Persia and declares war on Greece with Artemisia leading the naval fleet.  Artemisia’s reasons for fighting for Persia despite being Greek are self-serving. Apparently, her family was raped and murdered by Greek hoplites when she was a young girl while herself made into a sex slave before being left for dead. Fortunately, she was rescued and trained by the Persians until King Darius, recognizing her sword fighting skills, promoted her as naval commander. Meanwhile, Themistocles gathers his Spartan fighters and delivers his most soulful speeches to unite the Athenians to fight for Greece.  Lena Heady (who provides a voice over narrative) plays Leonidas' wife who advocates the superiority of Sparta and in time leads her fleet to the action. 

300: Rise of an Empire reeks with male testosterone as it narrates events before, during and after the 2007 film 300 and deliberately fills the screen with blood and body parts at every opportunity. Sans the waves of blood every 10 seconds, the movie is a visual feast with ambitious computer-generated effects blended evenly with live action footages. The cast was authentically graphic and caricature-like with lust for violence, aggression and more blood. The scoring is suitable and paces the movie well. The narrative is complicated as it tries hard to hold on to history and recreate imaginary characters in events leading to the Battle of Salamis but again with all the blood so pointlessly gushing, splattering and spurting here and there, one’s senses are numb before they can try to comprehend the gist of the story. But is it any good? Depends on one’s preference for gore over a solid and creative story telling. Needless to say, the movie will only be remembered for the amount of carnage on screen.

While people suffer injustice and abuse—sadly from people they trust and rely on—they also experience healing and love, surprisingly from strangers. Artemisia learned both—betrayal from her countrymen and care from the enemy country. She could have taken the higher road and practised forgiveness for her abusers and gratitude for her rescuers but instead she let vengeance consume her soul and turn her into a monster. Christ did otherwise. He forgave those who hurt Him. So did most of our Church heroes and heroines who embraced those who persecuted them and returned love and forgiveness for every violent action received. And at the end, the fruit is peace and reconciliation. Something Artemisia never experienced but unwittingly longed for. She had everything laid down at her feet yet she was never complete and never happy. The movie showed glimpses of the ill-effects of harboring revenge but did so in the most brutal and graphic manner.  Technically and visually 300: Rise of an Empire is an artistic, well-crafted film, but the carnage and the amount of blood shed in so many scenes deduct from the film’s aesthetic value, and overshadows whatever morals the story could have portrayed.

Monday, March 24, 2014


DIRECTOR:  Jaume Collet-Serra  LEAD CAST: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Jason Butler Harner, Anson Mount Lupita Nyong’o  SCREENWRITER:  John W. Richarson, Chris Roach, Ryan Engle   PRODUCER:  Joel Silver, Alex Heineman, Steve Richards, Andrew Rona   EDITOR:  Jim May    MUSICAL DIRECTOR:  John Ottman   GENRE:  Mystery & Suspense, Action & Adventure CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Flavio Martinez Labiano   DISTRIBUTOR:  Universal Pictures  LOCATION:  United States, France  RUNNING TIME:  106 minutes

Technical assessment: 3.5  
Moral assessment:  3

US federal air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is on board a non-stop flight from New York to London when he receives a strange message on his secured phone that demands $150 million transfer to a bank account or someone dies every 20 minutes.  He consults his fellow air marshal on board, Jack Hammond, (Anson Mount) about the message only to discover that Hammond has smuggled cocaine in his briefcase on this flight. This discovery leads to an argument that ends in Marks killing Hammond in the lavatory—the first death in 20 minutes. Mark manages to get Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) to cooperate with him in tracing the texter but while doing so, another death in 20 minutes happens, this time involving the captain, apparently poisoned.  While they are trying to uncover the identity of the texter, a plane passenger uploads a video footage of the chaos, making Mark appear as the culprit.  The video becomes viral worldwide, convincing the public that he is a hijacker and a suicide terrorist.
The movie Non-Stop has commendable technical qualities thrilling the viewing public. The story is good despite poor development of the plot. It is a known fact that use of any electronic gadgets on a flight is strictly prohibited because it interferes with the communication signals between the pilot and the air traffic transmitter and may pose danger especially for a commercial flight.  But the film disregards this fact and instead the entire movie shows constant exchanges by use of mobile phone and even uploads on the internet. However, this loophole is hardly noticed in view of exemplary treatment of the director especially in the presentation of details and their relevance to arising conflicts and resolutions of the story.  The director has successfully highlighted the central character which is given justice by excellent acting of Neeson as well as the supporting characters.  The editing work meets the required fast pace and effectively maintains the combined fears, tensions and excitement in every scene. The cinematography captures the heightened emotions, complemented by of music scoring, lights and sounds. Overall, the film is engaging because of its good technical attribution.
In a life-threatening situation some people may think only of saving themselves but not for William Mark of the film Non-Stop.  As an air marshal it is more than a call of duty for him, he does not think twice in breaking protocol when time is of the essence and precious life is at stake. The entire run of the film projects his heroic act as an instinct to protect life more than self-interest to be recognized.  In the end, his sacrifices pay off, lives are saved and rightfully, he is regarded as a hero. The film likewise imparts the message to the viewer to be responsible in the use of social media particularly in the use of crucial images that can be taken or interpreted out of context. A passenger who uploads the video footages misinforms the public of what is really happening, could have implicated an innocent person and diverted the investigation.  Also, keeping a grudge is like a poison in the dart that kills innocent people.  Non-Stop injects positive values of choosing to protect life, focusing on accomplishing a mission, having presence of mind in stressful situations, and being  responsible in the use of social media.  But the entire run of the film is stressful for children below 14 years old.

12 years a slave

DIRECTOR:  Steve McQueen  LEAD CAST: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard  SCREENWRITER:  John Ridley   PRODUCER:   Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas  EDITOR:  Joe Walker  MUSICAL DIRECTOR:  Hans Zimmer  GENRE:  Drama, Special Interest  CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Sean Bobbitt  DISTRIBUTOR:  Fox Searchlight Pictures (US), Entertainment (UK)  LOCATION:  US, UK RUNNING TIME:  134 minutes

Technical assessment:  4
Moral assessment:  3
MTRCB rating:  R 13
CINEMA rating:  V 14

Based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup in 1853, 12 Years A Slave the movie shows the suffering of black slaves sold to white masters in America.  In 1841, Northup (Chewetel Ejiofor), a well-educated violin player, leaves his wife Anne and two children in Saratoga, New York, for a performance at a circus in Washington, D.C. that was supposed to last two weeks.  He is met by two men who pay him, and then wine and dine him.  He wakes up in shackles; he realizes he has been drugged.  He receives a beating and is dumped into a paddleboat headed south.  It dawns upon him—he is now a slave, no more freedom, no more family, no more dignity.  And will remain one, for 12 long years.  The movie portrays the subhuman existence of the slaves who are regarded as animals by their white masters.
            A few critics note that director McQueen and screenwriter Ridley have taken liberties in inserting episodes that are not in the book, but this should hardly matter—the movie is essentially the same as the original autobio.  McQueen chose the cast well in this searing portrayal of a painful episode in American history.  Backed by extensive research for a historically accurate depiction, 12 years a slave also boasts of production sets showing attention to minute details that effect an authentic looking setting, from costumes to colors used in the plantations.  Lupita Nyong’o as Patsy certainly deserves her Best Supporting Actress Award, and leads the other actors in engaging the viewer to gripping empathy.  Cinematography captures the essence of the film well, and dialect coach Michael Buster certainly did excellently in altering the speech of the actors of various origins. For a movie with a $20-million budget, 12 years a slave is able to etch a name for itself in a moviedom brimming with superheroes and computer generated heroism.
            How would people who are strangers to slavery—or even to realities of man’s cruelty to man—react upon seeing this movie?  Those with queasy stomachs would probably close their eyes or turn away, but even the blasé could cringe at the almost unbearable brutality done to slaves here.  Senior citizens who have witnessed the tortures during war would be reminded by the scenes of injustice and cruelty here, but naive audiences may honestly wonder if it is at all possible for humans to treat fellow humans worse than animals. (Whatever, for Filipinos this should be an introduction to the truth some of our overseas workers experience in the hands of their masters abroad.)  The saving grace of 12 years a slave remains to be the spirit of hope mirrored in the attitudes of most of the slaves, particularly of Northup, subtly expressed in the dialogue and the songs they sing: the human longing to be free, to be with their families, to live in a just society, to be regarded as human beings.  Caution should be applied when explaining the treatment of Christianity in the movie, as the Christians presented in the movie may not be the best examples there are. 

Need for speed

DIRECTOR: Scott Waugh; LEAD CAST: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Ramon Rodriguez, Michael Keaton SCREENWRITER: George Gatins PRODUCER: John Gatins, Patrick O’Brien, Mark Sourian EDITOR: Paul Rubell, Scott Waugh MUSICAL DIRECTOR: Nathan Furst CINEMATOGRAPHER: Shane Hurlbut; GENRE: Action and Adventure; DISTRIBUTOR: Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture; Running Time: 130 mins

Technical Assessment:  2
Moral Assessment:  2.5
CINEMA Rating: V18

Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a mechanic by day and an underground street racer by night. The basic plot has Marshall traveling cross country from New York to California to take part in an underground race set up by a guy named Monarch (Michael Keaton).  Marshall has forty-something hours to get to California in order to participate in the race. He manages Marshall Motors Garage, a sinking business his father put up.  One day, Dino, (Dominic Cooper) an old acquaintance, asks Tobey to assemble an unfinished Ford Mustang originally designed by legendary car customizer Carroll Shelby and offers him 25% of the selling price. Being deep in debts, Tobey agrees despite his crew’s hesitation.  However during the post-auction race, Dino runs Tobey’s best friend, Little Pete (Gilberston) off the road to his death and frames Tobey for the crime.  After serving two years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Tobey decides to avenge his fate and his friend’s death through an underground winner take all race wherein only selected drivers are invited. Tobey gets together his old Marshall Motors crew and Julia (Poots) to condition another Mustang and give Dino a taste of his own medicine.  Their cross-country adventure from New York to California and their actual participation takes up most of the running time of the movie.
Let’s talk about the more tolerable part of the film first. The performances are blandly boring and there is just no chemistry between the male and female romantic leads. While Cooper’s Dino delivers some texture, it does so in a clichéd villainy fashion. As an action film it does deliver enough to reach the classification but barely keeps the audience awake and sane with its ever so slow pacing and ridiculous stunts. Cinematography, and car race sequence choreography, despite being on point fails to bring home a maximum impact because of the very thin storyline. Now for the killer: Need for Speed made lame attempts to anchor characters and scenes from other successful movies (e.i Smokey and the Bandit, Speed Racer, Fast and the Furious) but nowhere did it come close in chemistry, wisdom or sensuality to sell the plot. The story is poorly constructed and the script even more pathetic. For a franchise off a popular high-adrenalin video game with a sure following, Need for Speed is a very big disappointment.
How many people have met their untimely demise because of irresponsible egoistic drivers who care not for anyone’s safety? Other race movies try to justify its existence with a good soul of a hero who is just so talented at racing and may have been forced to ignore safety rules for the greater good. But Need for Speed, perhaps because it is based on a video game with no responsibility to deliver a rational storyline, neglects every rule of story telling and just throws in an identifiable hero, a lot of expensive cars and even more crashes and speed. It is simply offensive to see how it puts bystanders at risk—and such carelessness is glorified. More disturbing is the fact that the offenders were merely given a slap on the wrist by the police when they were arrested. Impressionable teenagers, who are more likely also supporters of the video game, will get the wrong message about safety, concern for others and getting away with it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Devil's knot

DIRECTOR:  Atomm Egoyan  LEAD CAST:  Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Amy Ryan, Stephen Moyer, Dane DeHaan, Mireille Enos  SCREENWRITER:  Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Derrickson  PRODUCER:  Paul Harris Boardman, Elizabeth Fowler, Clark Petrson, Richard Saperstein, Christopher Woodrow  EDITOR:  Susan Shipton  MUSICAL DIRECTOR:  Mychael Danna  GENRE:  Biography, Drama, Thriller, Crime  CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Paul Sarossy  DISTRIBUTOR:  Icon Film Distribution, Senator Film  LOCATION: United States  RUNNING TIME:  114 minutes

Technical assessment:  3.5
Moral assessment:  3
CINEMA rating:  V 14

The savage murders of three young children sparks a controversial trial of three teenagers accused of killing the kids as part of a satanic ritual. The police investigators and prosecutors seem to be affected by the local community’s fear of Satanic cult in the neighborhood. The youth are sentence to death and life imprisonment, released after evidential hearing, but they already spent 18 years in prison. (Full review to follow)

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Book Thief

DIRECTOR:  Brian Percival  LEAD CAST:  Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Nico Liersch, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer, Joachim Paul Assbock  SCREENWRITER:  Michael Petroni PRODUCER:  Ken Blancato, Karen Rosenfelt EDITOR:  John Wilson  MUSICAL DIRECTOR:  John Williams  GENRE:  Drama  CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Florian Ballhaus  DISTRIBUTOR:  20th Century Fox  LOCATION:  United States, Germany  RUNNING TIME:  131 minutes
Technical assessment:  4
Moral assessment:  3.5
CINEMA rating:  V 14
Although narrated by Death (voiced by Roger Allam), The Book Thief is a life-affirming coming-of-age tale about an adolescent, Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse).  Orphaned Liesel’s foster parents, house painter Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his wife Rosa (Emily Watson) live a frugal life in an obscure German village during the Third Reich.  In school Liesel is discovered to be illiterate; she learns to read only through the patience of her benevolent foster father Hans who turns the basement of their house into a veritable dictionary, with Liesel writing down every new word learned from reading a “The Gravedigger’s Handbook” which she grabbed when it fell from a workman’s coat at her brother’s funeral. 
The Book Thief, adapted from Markus Zusak’s lyrical 2006 best-seller by screenwriter Michael Petroni and director Brian Percival, is a tender story given life by sensitive performances, particularly of Rush and Watson as the forster parents.  Tension is provided by the war setting but it is balanced by the care the director gives to ensure authentic characterization—even in the supporting cast (Auer as Frau Hermann; Lierrsch as Rudy Steiner; and Schnetzer as Jewish fugitive Max Vanderburg).  The horror of the holocaust seems deliberately played down, and the air raid scenes are not as emotionally compelling as they may have been in real life.  Williams’ score is evocative, however, matching Balhaus’ engaging cinematography. 

Hardnosed film critics tend to view The Book Thief as a “Disneyfied” war movie that sanitizes history in order to elevate the better side of humans.  That cannot be all bad.  The movie maintains that even in the worst of times, one can find good people who selflessly help their fellowmen.  The Hubermanns are such people, even if at first they take in Liesel for a government allowance, Hans immediately turns into a compassionate foster father to the orphaned Liesel, and in due time the gruff-mannered Rosa reveals her tender maternal side to the girl.  Frau Hermann, who spots Liesel snatching a book from a book-burning Nazi rally, secretly entertains Liesel in her library when she delivers laundry.  Not all war movies are meant to talk about man’s inhumanity to man.  Don’t go to see The Book Thief for your history lessons, but see it for the hope it brings as it shamelessly portrays faith in the human soul.

The Monuments Men

DIRECTOR:  George Clooney  LEAD CAST:  George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett SCREENWRITER:  George Clooney & Grant Heslov  PRODUCER:  George Clooney & Grant Heslov  EDITOR:  Stephen Mirrione  MUSICAL DIRECTOR:  Alexandre Desplat  GENRE: Action, Drama & Adventure  CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Phedon Papamichael  DISTRIBUTOR:  Columbia Picture & 20th Century Fox  LOCATION:  United States, Germany  RUNNING TIME:  118 minutes

Technical assessment:  3.5
Moral assessment:  3
CINEMA rating:  V 14

Based on  the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter published in 2009 and entitled Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, The Monuments Men opens with Adolf Hitler building the grand Fuhrer Museum to be filled with great art works stolen from all over Europe by the Nazi soldiers.  Hitler has, however, issued orders to destroy everything should the Reich fall and he die.  To find and retrieve the stolen art works and return them to their rightful owners, Harvard professor Frank Stokes (George Clooney) recruits a team of seven men, most of whom are past their prime with hardly any preparation for a mission that will them expose to real war.  His team includes medievalist James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jewish art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), British scholar Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and a young German-speaking recruit, Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas).  A woman, Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), helps out the team, since as a former secretary of a high ranking Nazi officer, it was her job to log the whereabouts of the stolen artworks. 
The title The Monuments Men is the pet name of Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program, a group of art historians and experts formed in 1943 to trace and rescue the cultural treasures stolen and stashed away by the Nazis during their occupation of most of Europe.  It is said that in reality there were 350 “monuments men”.  The film’s main attraction is naturally its visual contents, and it must be said that in this department, The Monuments Men has redeemed itself with the exquisite reproductions of great art.  They appear so real that it won’t be a surprise to hear the audience gasp in horror as the paintings are torched by Hitler’s troops.  While the art works look real, the story lacks dramatic momentum due to its episodic treatment which prevents the narrative from cohering and the characters from growing into the flesh and blood men who in reality had great pride in their mission.
The Monuments Men is refreshing in that, at the end of the day the viewer realizes it is a war film that is not focused on blood and violence, not on destruction of human lives, but on the preservation of the life of a civilization.  The moral question may be, Is it worth risking your life to save art works?  The film takes the viewer by the hand and poses another equally important question:  Why are art works so important?  Works of art not only reflect the artists’ perception of their reality but also mirror an entire civilization’s state of soul.  Paintings and sculptures are in themselves teachers of history.  Towards the end of the film children of the current generation are shown viewing the artworks restored to their rightful places in the museum.  CINEMA asks, on the side, if the film’s focus on two works of art—a multi-paneled painting carted away from a Belgian cathedral (which majestically opens the movie), and a Michelangelo sculpture of Mary and the child Jesus (which would demand the life of one of the monuments men protecting it)—is actually a veiled statement about the value and indelible presence of Christianity in the development of civilization in Europe?  It will be remembered that some years back there began a move to erase Christianity from history books, to which Blessed Pope John Paul II remarked that if Christianity were removed from European civilization, then nothing would remain.