Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review of LIFE: Acute Alien Agitation

March 24, 2017

Sci-fi horror is a genre of its own, with plenty of good examples, topped by "Alien" (1979) and its sequel "Aliens" (1986), "Event Horizon" (1997), "Solaris" (2002) and "Moon" (2009). Just earlier this year, there was "Passengers" also about being abandoned in space, but was more of drama than horror. I was attracted to watch this new film solely because of its stellar cast, not knowing what it was exactly all about. Now that I had seen "Life", I think it fully deserves to join the aforementioned list.

The film is set in an International Space Station which had in its possession a living organism from Mars -- a small, innocent-looking gelatinous organism they called Calvin. One day, Calvin revealed its true nature by crushing a crew member's hand and devouring a laboratory rat. Alarmed at the creature's display of violence, the staff of the space station spring into action to contain it. However, will they be able to arrest its growth and aggressiveness before it kills everyone on board?

The story began very slowly, I was starting to think this may not be worth the watch. However from the moment I saw Calvin in action, he did not allow my eyes to look away from the screen again. The first human death scene by Calvin was ghastly and graphic, involving a most unexpected victim. The suspense was so intense within that claustrophobic spaceship as Calvin seemed unperturbed by anything the humans tried on him.

Jake Gyllenhaal (as Dr. David Jordan) can really tackle these gripping roles with realistic conviction. Ryan Reynolds (as Rory Adams) had his characteristic sense of humor about him, but of course. Russian actress Olga Dihovichnaya (as Katerina Golovkina) had a memorably nightmarish spacewalking scene. British actors Rebecca Ferguson (as Dr. Miranda North) and Ariyon Bakare (as Hugh Derry) play other ill-fated crew members.

Hiroyuki Sanada really impressed me as senior astronaut Sho Kendo. This Japanese actor evoked the spirit of Toshiro Mifune in his look and attitude. We had seen him before in the iconic film "Ringu" (1998) and in several English-language films like "The Last Samurai" (2003), "The Wolverine", "47 Ronin", and "The Railway Man" (all in 2013).  He actually had a similar role as the captain in the space horror film "Sunshine" (2007).

The technical aspects of the film were top-notch. Cinematography, film editing, sound editing and mixing, production design, visual effects and especially that amazing musical score were all so effective in capturing and holding on to the attention of the viewers. Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (only on his second US film after "Safe House" in 2012) had me mesmerized in suspense from then up to the final frame. 9/10.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Review of POWER RANGERS: Campy Champions

March 23, 2017

The Power Rangers is a television series for young kids featuring a group of five teenagers with superpowers working as a team to fight the forces of evil. Beginning in 1993 as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to the present, there would be 24 seasons with different titles. There had also been two feature films in 1995 and 1997. 

I only got to know them when my sons became hooked on the series entitled Dino Thunder and Ninja Force, despite the shallow plots, bad acting and lousy monster effects. It is with a sense of expectant nostalgia that my sons and I watched this new feature film, maybe 10 years since the last episode of the series we had seen.

A group of five juvenile delinquents from Angel Grove find themselves together at a gold mine just when an explosion caused a rock slide revealing five coins with different colors, one for each of them. Since then, the five teenagers inexplicably escaped death from a train crash and actually developed super strength and abilities. It was later revealed to them that they have been chosen to be the new Power Rangers tasked to save the earth from the destruction wreaked by an evil ex-ranger Rita Repulsa and her giant minion Goldar.

I was so ready not to like this film when we entered the theater. The introduction and set-up of the characters took a bit too long at the first. But as the movie went on, I found myself actually smiling a lot and liking this one. OK, the acting of the supposedly teenage (but actually 20 something) lead stars were not exactly stellar, but much better than those I recall seeing on TV years back. Of course, we expect the technical aspects and visual effects to improve over the years, and to be fair, they did.

RJ Cyler, who previously made a good impression in the film "Me, Earl and the Dying Girl" (MY REVIEW) as high-functioning autistic nerd Billy Cranston (Blue Ranger). Latina pop star Becky G, who hit #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with her song "Shower" (2014), plays the troubled Trini (Yellow Ranger). She was supposedly lesbian according to promo articles, but this was just mentioned in passing in the film. 

Australian actor Dacre Montgomery (as rebellious star quarterback Jason Scott - Red Ranger), British-Indian actress Naomi Scott (as cynical cheerleader Kimberly Hart - Pink Ranger) and Chinese-Canadian Ludi Lin (as filially devoted Zack - Black Ranger) complete the attractive inter-racial cast of rangers.

From a 2-D floating head in a tube before, Zordon's face now inhabits a multi-pixelated 3D wall, played by no less than Bryan Cranston. Whereas before Alpha 5 looked like it had a real actor inside wearing a disc-like head, the new Alpha 5 is now all slick and sleek robot, with the voice of comedian Bill Hader for his cheery personality.

The main villainess Rita Repulsa now looks very different from before. Previously she had a gigantic clunky headdress and long flowing gown. Now, as played by Elizabeth Banks in full camp mode, this new Rita is sporting a more fight-action-ready emerald body-hugging suit, carrying her powerful golden staff. Goldar is now a more fluid fighting machine made of molten gold, unlike the heavy bulky golden robot in the previous film.

I liked that they chose the dinosaur zords for the rangers to morph with in this one. I liked the rapid-fire references to some Marvel and Transformers characters. I wonder how much doughnut franchise Krispie Kreme paid for their massive product placement here? There were scenes that needed better lighting and some camera angles were bizarre, like the first sequence with the cow. Rita's stone warriors were a bit on the lame side. The scene when we heard the original "Go, go Power Rangers" theme song being played was too short! 

I am not sure how devoted fans of the original series would accept the various changes made my this new version to their favorite TV show. But for a casual viewer who only had a cursory knowledge about the origin of the rangers, I unexpectedly liked this reboot and I think it could revive interest and gain new young fans for this franchise. 7/10.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review of CHIPS: Obnoxious Officers

March 23, 2017

There had been a lot of buddy cop movies involving one serious level-headed cop forced to work with a crazy wild cannon partner. In the 80s, they had a balance of drama and comedy like 48 Hrs. (1984), "Lethal Weapon" (1987) and "Tango and Cash" (1989). Later on, the comedy dominated, as with "Rush Hour" (1998), "The Other Guys" (2010), and "The Heat" (2013). This new one "CHIPS" now joins that long list. 

"CHiPs" was a hit TV series which ran for 6 seasons in the late 70s to the early 80s. This was a generally very wholesome, light comedy-drama series that made stars out of Larry Wilcox (as Officer Jon Baker) and specially Eric Estrada (as Officer Frank Poncherello). As with other buddy cop TV series that became films like "Starsky and Hutch" (2004), and "21 Jump Street" (2012), this new film incarnation of "CHIPS" is considerably edgier and raunchier than its venerable, vanilla-flavored predecessor. 

Jon Baker is an injury-laden ex-motorcycle riding champ who wants to save his sinking marriage by becoming a policeman, barely making it under probation as the oldest rookie on the force. His partner goes by the name of Frank Poncherello, an undercover agent sent to investigate a violent big-time heist suspected to have been perpetrated by a gang of policemen. Both of them have their own hangups and eccentricities which put them at odds with each other at first. Later though, they end up saving each other's lives and eventually forge an strong yet unconventional partnership between them. 

The action in this film is violent and graphic (decapitation alert!). The adrenaline mainly comes from all the breathtaking motorcycle riding stunts weaving in and out of traffic, which I hope will not encourage the already unruly motorcycle riders on the streets now. Those custom Ducati bikes they rode looked very fine and powerful. There are also car stunts, gunfights and big fiery explosions galore to keep the energy on the constant up. 

Another aspect that keeps the energy up is the very raunchy comedy as written by the same guy who directed and acted as its lead character Jon Baker, Dax Shepard. This comedian is mainly known for his work on TV series like "Punk'd" and "Parenthood". "CHIPS" is his biggest film to date. The comedy style is very shallow and juvenile, with a lot of sexual references, with a lot of naughty closeups to further amp up the raunch factor visually. Shepard's brand of comedy is very physical and over-the-top, not always funny. 

Michael Pena is usually seen in serious good-guy roles, like "Crash," "World Trade Center" and "Collateral Beauty". I have never seen him in such a vulgar role like this one before. He looked mighty awkward doing this role, and maybe come across as miscast. However, because of this discomfort, I felt he actually funny in the role of a guy that had a lusty deviant sex drive lay beneath a calm and professional surface. 

Their chemistry together was really iffy, but actually gels better towards the end. If you have been reading my previous reviews on films like "Hangover" (MY REVIEW) or "Sausage Party" (MY REVIEW), raunchy comedies are not really my cup of tea. But this one had its occasional laugh out loud moments, mainly due to the naughty guy banter of the two lead actors.  The obnoxious gross-out factor does go overboard though. As an extra bonus, a paunchy Erik Estrada had a cameo before the movie ended, not too flattering, but it was good to see him again. 4/10.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Review of THE SHACK: Guided by God

March 21, 2017

If you did not know about the 2007 bestselling novel written by Canadian writer William P. Young, there is nothing attractive about the title of this film at all. "The Shack" as a title was so plain and nondescript, I thought it would B-horror movie, like "The Cabin in the Woods" or "The Last House on the Left." Of all things, I did not expect that this would be a religious film, and quite an enlightening one at that.

Mackenzie Phillips recovered well from his abused childhood to have a picture-perfect family of his own. However, one day, his youngest daughter Missy goes missing during a camping trip and was presumed dead. This tragedy filled Mack with such extreme despondence and fury, he struggled with his daily life.  Mack meets three mysterious strangers living in a shack in the forest who endeavor to help him cope and move on.

Earlier this year, "Collateral Beauty" tackled the same story, but had a more secular fantasy approach to it. "The Shack" had a religious approach to the same problem and knowing this beforehand prepares you for the messages it delivers. Expect the acting from the cast to be effusively positive. Expect this to be sentimental and melodramatic. Expect beautiful profound words of wisdom and counsel. It is easy to label the script by John Fusco as schmaltz. However, when you view this with the proper attitude, you will hear words of inspiration and illumination, as this film was intended to be appreciated.

While Sam Worthington did well in the lead role of Mack, he does not really do anything to make a distinguishable mark in his performance. Worthington is an actor who remains to be unremarkable for me despite his many starring roles in big films before such as "Avatar" (2009) and more recently "Everest" (2015).  In other rather fine but rather unexceptional performances, Radha Mitchell plays Mack's supportive wife Nan, and Tim McGraw plays Mack's best friend Willie. 

The ubiquitous Octavia Spencer plays Papa, or God the Father, in a radical casting choice since Alanis Morrisette's played God in "Dogma" (1999). If Worthington has an indistinct face, Spencer in contrast, is very distinct. She plays Papa in a relaxed yet authoritative manner, motherly actually. She is good as always, but this is much like how she acts in her other films, like "Hidden Figures" and "Allegiant." I preferred the way Graham Greene played Papa in another incarnation within the film, to guide Mack through a more difficult challenge he had to face.

Aviv Alush, in his Hollywood debut, is the first Israeli actor to play Jesus in an English-language film. He played him to be a friendly guy-next-door, someone you can run on water with. In her first feature film, Japanese model-actress Sumire was absolutely sublime as the Holy Spirit. I liked the way she delivered her lines with gentle grace, and how she was made to shimmer when she moved. Brazilian actress and Sonia's niece Alice Braga (who first got noticed for her role in "City of God" back in 2002) had strong screen presence as God's Wisdom who put Mack through his first wringer.

In the treatment by director Stuart Hazeldine, the Christian concepts took on a New Age feel. The Persons of God had a hippie vibe in their clothes, words and actions, like a throwback to colorful flower power in the 1970s. Appreciation of this film will be based on the viewer's faith, specifically Christian faith. Atheists, agnostics and strict biblical fundamentalists may consider its ideas to be ridiculous and this film boring or absurd, yes. However, I personally believe that most faithful Christians will be able to connect and fully embrace the healing spirit of forgiveness and surrender to the Lord that this film espouses. 7/10. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Review of GET OUT: Suspense in Social Satire

March 19, 2017

Locally this film was shown on a week together with the monster blockbuster remake of "Beauty and the Beast" which was being shown in practically 90% of the cinemas.  Furthermore, it had a new director and unknown actors, so it had its odds against being noticed at all. This is unfortunate because this little film is actually one of the best reviewed films this year in the US. The excellent word of mouth that precedes this made this a must-see film for me.

Pretty white girl Rose Armitage brings Chris Washington, her black boyfriend of four months, to visit her parents, neurosurgeon Dean and psychotherapist Missy, in their mansion for the weekend. While he was received very well initially, the longer Chris stayed in the Armitage estate, interacted with their mysterious black servants, and met their overly friendly white guests, the more he feels there was something seriously amiss in this awkward situation.

From the moment Chris and Rose arrived at the Armitage house, writer-director Jordan Peele had us in the palm of his hands in his uniquely suspenseful yet engaging manner of discussing the sensitive subject of race. The horror in this film is not supernatural or ghostly. Instead, this is a social horror story built upon very real stereotypes of what whites in the US thought about blacks. 

I had never heard of Daniel Kaluuya before even if he had been an actor for over 10 years. Most of his career was in British TV and film. His starring role in "Get Out" as Chris is his breakthrough into mainstream recognition. His big round eyes had lives of their own as they reflected helplessness and fear. It was amazing how his tears roll out with unspoken eloquence in scenes of stark terror.

Allison Williams is very charming and disarming as Rose. Bradley Whitford is talkative and amiable as Dean. Catherine Keener, the only actress I recognized by face in the cast, exudes a convincing and unsettling aura as a masterful hypnotherapist Missy. Caleb Landry Jones, a Baron Geisler clone, appropriately plays Rose's crazy younger brother Jeremy. 

The black supporting actors in the cast made the most memorable impressions. Betty Gabriel may have a kind-looking face, but the way Peele executed her scenes, the creepy vibes she radiated as the strange maid Georgina are absolutely chilling. Also notable was comedian Lil Rel Howery whose profanity-spiked rapid fire lines as airport security guard Rod, Chris's best friend, single-handedly takes care of the humor department, an aspect just as important in this film as the horror.

There are admittedly also some plot problems, particularly about the iffy neurosurgical techniques and the self-explanatory giveaway clues so conveniently found in a carelessly hidden box. However, these could easily be overlooked as the film made some really bold and strong social statements, albeit bitterly satirical, while maintaining tight suspense with a sense of humor. 

"Get Out" took the theme of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967) about interracial relationships and brought it to the present day in the most unexpected directions. Back then as it is now, race issues in the USA will always be a rich source of movie material. It does not always have to be about slavery or the civil rights movement. It just needs innovative writers, directors and artists to tell the stories in original ways, like this one did. 7/10.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Review of 2 COOL 2 BE 4GOTTEN: Confessions from the Closet

March 17, 2017

"2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten" is the winner of the 2016 CinemaOne Originals film festival last November. I was not able to catch back then, but fortunately it had its commercial run this week, not too long after. The MTRCB rated it a forbidding R-18 citing it to be "psychologically disturbing" with "no redeeming social value." It was admittedly not easy to catch a screening, but it became too interesting to see why this was so.

Set in Angeles City in the 1990s, this film was about aloof and bookish teenager Felix Salazar, who was the top student of their graduating high school class. His life in his so-called "forlorn school" became more colorful when new Fil-Am transferees Magnus and Maxim Snyder began to invite him over to their house to help with their schoolwork. Their friendship would later take a very dark turn from which the three boys could not recover.

Khalil Ramos is excellent as Felix. When he reads his journal, we are entranced by his voice as he narrates his thoughts about his day in amusing rhetoric English. When he is silent and in thought, his soulful eyes simply say so much. As for the Snyder brothers, Ethan Salvador plays good boy Magnus, while Jameson Blake plays the bad boy Maxim. Of course, being the bold bad boy gets more acting points, and Blake was rewarded with the award for Best Supporting Actor during the filmfest. 

Ana Capri is comically effective as Demetria, the permissive and promiscuous mother of the Snyders. Peewee O'Hara is Ms. Salvacion, the strict English teacher who had an audible H with her vowels. Joe Saracho was the swishy Mr. Pangan, the Geometry teacher who wishes his good students could go abroad like him. Meann Espinosa was the naughty Ms. Echeverri, the Filipino teacher who makes inappropriate moves on her hunky students. 

For his debut as feature film director, Petersen Vargas showed a good eye for great camera angles when telling his story. He made good use of the natural environment -- like the sky, the sun, the lahar, the beach -- to evoke various emotional connections with the story. The Best Cinematography award won by Carlos Mauricio was well-deserved, especially for those great-looking outdoor scenes.

For at least the first two thirds of this film, the script by Jason Paul Laxamana was very eloquently written. The words he wrote were rich in emotions and meaning, but with a treatment so subtle such that the gay angle of the plot did not come across as so hard-sell nor awkward for mature mainstream viewers to appreciate. 

However, when the story turned to the dark side, the progression of the plot becomes more testy and more difficult to accept. The shift in Felix's character was just too sudden and unexpected in that tense scene with Maxim in the abandoned building, the scene for which this film is probably going to be best remembered for. There was totally no warning that it would happen. It was quite a jarring shock. 

From that scene on, the last third felt like a totally different movie. Could disgruntled teenagers really think and act in such sick, violent ways? As a parent of teenagers myself, I could see why the Gen X members of the MTRCB would be struck negatively with its provocative turn of events. It impossible for any audience not to react either way, depending on their age or inclination. Its challenge was its thorn, but perhaps that is also its merit. 6/10.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Review of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017): Enchanting Evermore

March 16, 2017

Disney's first version of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) was an animated classic. It was the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Three of its songs were nominated for Best Original Song, with the title song winning the Oscar. In April 1994, it was also the first Disney animated film to be adapted into a Broadway musical. 

When it was announced that there would be a live version of this beloved film, I had my apprehensions. However the hype was so strong and unavoidable. Each trailer that came out was immediately viral, especially when we started to hear the stars like Emma Watson and Luke Evans singing. I was excited, but I did not want to get my expectations too high.

An arrogant and selfish prince was punished by an enchantress, turning him in to a horned and frightful Beast, the people in his castle as living furniture and the weather around it in constant gloom of wintertime. Only if he learns to love and be loved in return before all the petals of an enchanted rose fell off can the spell be broken.  

Meanwhile, in the village, pretty but bookish country lass Belle has caught the fancy of the hunky but haughty hunter Gaston. However, when her eccentric father Maurice was taken prisoner by the Beast in his castle, Belle offers to take his place. All of the cursed prince's staff hoped she will be the one to finally break the spell.

While the main plot points and several scenes are very similar, this live action film is not exactly a scene-for-scene remake of the animated version. Old favorites like"Belle," "Be Our Guest," "Something There," and "Beauty and the Beast" are all still there for us to reminisce fondly about as they came alive. There are now new songs written by Alan Menken with lyrics by Tim Rice to highlight the drama of scenes not even in the original like Maurice yearning for his wife or the Prince in his childhood, and best of all, a grand moving solo song for the Beast to fully express his sincere love for Belle. 

This is not exactly a rated G film, as the sense of violence, danger and dread is magnified when using real actors and realistic computer-generated effects than animated drawings. Gaston had an additional unexpected scene of particular cruelty against Maurice that was quite disturbing. His inflammatory "Mob Song" and fatal shooting of the Beast with a rifle are already known from the previous film, but these felt scarier in this live-action version. 

I was most concerned about Emma Watson being not the right choice for the role of Belle. In that teaser for the song "Belle," she sang very well, but her acting felt bored and unenergetic when compared to how I remembered the cartoon Belle before. However, in the full film, Watson really grew into the role very well beyond that first song. She gave her Belle a distinctly stronger and more independent personality than ever before.

The new Beast had brown fur, larger horns and ugly fangs thanks to computer-aided facial and movement capture technology, but I thought the absence of a huge snout allowed him look more gentle in the romantic scenes. I did not know Dan Stevens before his role here, but he was certainly able to convey torment, desperation and love on that Beast face. The incredible modulation of his Beast voice was hypnotizing in its depth.

Luke Evans may be smaller in heft than we would expect from Gaston who was supposed to be "roughly the size of a barge," but he played his comically evil role with glee and his singing was unexpectedly solid. As played by the ever-scene-stealing Josh Gad, the role of Le Fou was expanded and developed than just Gaston's blind fanatic. The gay controversy around this character was needless. Kevin Kline gives Maurice a tenderness and dignity not felt as much in the cartoonish version of this character in the older film.

For Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Audra McDonald and Stanley Tucci, we may or may not catch a glimpse of them at the party scene in the beginning. They definitely gave the enchanted palace staff Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, Madame de Garderobe and Maestro Cadenza their colorful personalities by their voices alone. There were some unexpected reunions of certain characters with their families towards the end which was a very nice touch. 

This film is now the most expensive movie musical ever made at $160M, and it was obvious where the money went. The cinematography was breathtaking, especially those gorgeous winter scenes. The opulent production design worked seamlessly with the astounding visual effects, I could not distinguish where reality and CGI began and ended. The costumes were expectedly lavish and splendid to look at. As early as now, I am already predicting Oscar nominations in these categories, as well as for at least two new songs "Evermore" (with versions by Dan Stevens and by Josh Groban) and "How Does a Moment Last Forever" (sung by Celine Dion over the closing credits).

So overall, despite my initial fear that this film may disappoint the loyal die-hard fans of the original movie, I think they won't be. Comparisons are inevitable, but the original film had its own charm, and so did this one. This new film by director Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls" director, "Chicago" writer) will be an enduring classic in its own right. 9/10.