Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review of BOSS BABY: Arrogant and Adorable

April 18, 2017

When I first saw the trailers of this new Dreamworks animated film, and saw this arrogant baby wearing a suit, I did not think it was something I would like. The initial reviews that came out were not too good as well. However, upon learning of the great box-office it did in the US -- ousting "Beauty and the Beast" from the #1 spot on its first week, and hanging on to #1 for a second week -- I thought I'd like to see what this film had in store.

7-year old Tim had a fun life as an only child of his parents Ted and Janice Templeton. However, on the arrival of his new bossy baby brother, Tim's ideal life turned upside down. Calling himself the Boss Baby, the new arrival wears a suit, talks like an adult and conducts meetings with other babies in the neighborhood. He connives with Tim to help him achieve a mission which will give him a promotion in Baby Corp. where he came from, and he will be gone from Tim's life for good. Tim was only too willing to help.

The artwork by the Dreamworks artists was really cuteness overload. The adorable combination of babies and puppies was hard to resist, and the drawings capitalized on this. Every funny baby and puppy tic and behavior were played up to great comic effect. Those scenes showing Tim and Boss Baby sucking pacifiers together, wearing sailor outfits together, reading a story book together, among others, were really quite precious and heartwarming to see. 

Alec Baldwin of course had a very authoritative tone as the Boss Baby as could be expected. You can hear a lot of the irony of his character in his voice. I was impressed with the lively vocal work of Miles Christopher Bakshi (grandson of animation legend Ralph Bakshi) as Tim Templeton, matching Baldwin's energy for the whole film. 

I thought Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow had too little to say as Tim's parents to make a distinct vocal impression. Steve Buscemi was appropriately menacing as Francis E. Francis, the vindictive CEO of Puppy Co., the main target of Boss Baby's mission. We get to hear the voice of Tobey Maguire as the adult Timothy, the narrator of the film. 

I thought the first scenes of Tim vs. Boss Baby can be very disturbing for young kids, showing sibling rivalry to the extreme. I felt it was sending a negative message for children watching that it was cool to be bossy or rude or bullying others. It took time for me to warm up to this concept, which I feel a lot of the young viewers do not get or might take the wrong way. Parental guidance is a must for these scenes.

Later though, I confess that I did get caught up in all the cute foolishness of it all. Despite the plot holes (like the erratic process of the magic baby formula wearing off) and juvenile violence (there were several scenes showing babies in mortal danger), brotherly love still prevailed in the end, and that was one very important message that families and the world need to take to heart. 6/10. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Review of FAST AND FURIOUS 8: Boosted by a Baby

April 16, 2017

This energetic action series had already reached its eighth installment with this film, and it still shows no signs of fatigue or slowing down. If we are going to base it on the trailer alone, it promises to be as explosive as ever, including a most incredible scene on a frozen wasteland with a submarine! It was pretty clear that "Fast & Furious 8" (elsewhere also called "The Fate of the Furious") by director F. Gary Gray is the one most moviegoers will be spending their Easter weekend with this year.

Dom Toretto was honeymooning with Letty in Havana when he was accosted by cyberterrorist Cipher to work for her. After Dom and his team (Letty, Roman, Tej and Ramsey) along with agent Luke Hobbs successfully hijacks an electromagnetic pulse device in Berlin, Dom suddenly turns on his team, steals the device and delivers it to Cipher. Secret agent Frank Petty (aka Mr. Nobody) recruits the whole team along with rogue assassin Deckard Shaw to foil Cipher's nefarious plans of world domination. 

Vin Diesel's acting as Dom is as stony and stoic as ever, even more so in this installment. Michele Rodriguez's Letty is really one spunky lady. Tyrese Gibson is really playing up Roman's loud loverboy character for laughs in this one. The lovely Nathalie Emmanuelle is still not gelling that well with the close-knit team, but her Ramsey gets to show off more hacking skills here given the plot. As Hobbs, Dwayne Johnson is as macho as he could be, we actually believe he could do all his stunts for real.

Jason Statham gets to figure in a lot of great scenes here as Deckard Shaw. His talents in comedy (previously seen in "Spy") are really coming in handy for him to stand out. I do not think Vin Diesel could do Statham's scenes here. I enjoyed the scenes of Luke Evans and Helen Mirren in their surprise cameos as Deckard's brother and mother. While their scenes may be short, they really packed a unexpected punch. 

Charlize Theron can really pull off the sexy villainess role very well as the Cipher, although it seemed she could not keep up the menace all the way to the end. Her right hand man Rhodes though really had crazy vicious eyes on him, easily recognizable as those of actor Kristofer Hivju who played the wildling Tormund on "Game of Thrones". Kurt Russell can easily play these secret agent roles like Petty effortlessly. Scott Eastwood gets to be the comic relief as Reisner, Petty's upstart associate.

As can be deduced from the trailer alone, the whole story about Dom turning rogue against his family is a rather sketchy plot with a predictable ending. But of course, this unbelievable story line is just a basic framework upon which the most outlandishly-conceived street racing (in Havana!), car chase (in New York!), prison riot, heist getaway, and gunfight scenes were threaded on for best effects. That super-elaborate chase on the ice with armored cars, tanks, trucks, a bright orange Lamborghini and a nuclear submarine made for a most thrilling climax.

However, if you ask me and my sons, our most favorite action scene in this film would definitely be the heart-stopping yet hilarious sequence of Deckard Shaw fighting against all of Cipher's minions on a flying airplane, all the while carrying a basket with an actual baby inside it.  The adorable cuteness of the baby in this film is a real delightful scene-stealer every time. While hardcore F&F fans may feel that the series jumped the shark with these baby scenes, I thought these were refreshing angle for this 16-year old franchise. 8/10. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review of THE CASE FOR CHRIST: Enlightened by Evidence

April 12, 2017

It is Holy Week. Long before, it used to be that there would be Bible-themed movies in the theaters for the faithful to meditate upon. However, with the passing years, these films about Jesus Christ have become really rare. This year, there is only one such film out there in malls, quietly opening  in cinemas with no fanfare just a day before Palm Sunday. Fortunately I still got to catch it today.

It is 1980 in Chicago. Lee Strobel is a celebrated, award-winning journalist who wrote for the Chicago Tribune. He also had a happy family life with his wife Leslie and daughter Alison. However, one day, a tragedy in his family was narrowly averted just in the nick of time. This caused Leslie to seek her own spiritual renewal, defying Lee's staunch atheism. Lee goes on his own in-depth research about the historical and medical accuracy of Jesus' resurrection. Could he prove his wife wrong?

The actors act with earnestness as is usually expected from a religious film. Mike Vogel did very well in the lead role as Lee Strobel. He had the whole 80s look down pat, hair-sprayed mane and all. For the whole film, he was infuriatingly adamant in his atheism as he was overconfident in his skill as an investigative journalist. Despite his apparent love for his family, he was made to say such cruel and hurtful words to his wife as a result of his cynicism. However, he did have one effectively moving and tearful scene going through an album of his old articles. 

Erika Christensen was a loyal and steadfast Leslie Strobel. L. Scott Caldwell played the good Samaritan nurse Alfie Davis, who provided the spark for conversion in the Strobel household. In much smaller but key roles are Oscar-caliber actors Robert Forster as Lee's estranged father Walter and Faye Dunaway (whom I just saw in "The Bye Bye Man" before this) as psychologist Dr. Roberta Walters. I liked the portrayal of Tom Nowicki as medical expert Dr. Metherell for his authoritative discussion of Jesus' mortality.

Directed by Jon Gunn from a script by Brian Bird, "The Case for Christ" presents its story methodically as a lawyer would present his case in court. It was very refreshing to watch a religious film with an intellectual point of view, as a result of various expert interviews that Strobel conducted. This practical, logical approach will probably appeal to male audiences more than the melodramatic, emotional approach seen in "The Shack," which had more feminine sensibilities. However, this also means that "Case" had more verbose dialogue than special effects, which can also define the audience it can attract. 7/10.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Review of THE BYE BYE MAN: Hellish Hallucinations

April 6, 2017

The local newspaper ads for this film boldly declared it to be "America's highest grossing horror movie with gross of over 20M USD." Oddly though in spite of such a claim, I had never heard of this title before. There also appears to be no known actors in it as well so I guessed this is one of those low-budget horror film. Anyhow, the name of the title character sounded original, so I thought I'd give it a go.

It was 1969. A man named Larry went on a shooting rampage in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Using a shotgun, he killed a number of people who had been told a certain name which they should not think nor say to anyone else. 

Fast forward to the present, when three friends Elliot, his girlfriend Sasha and his best friend John rent a house near their university. Elliot finds a mysterious coin under an old bedside table. On the paper that lined the inside the drawer of this table was written repeated warnings of "Don't think it. Don't say it." On the wood under the lining was carved the name "Bye Bye Man." When Elliot blurted out this name to his friends one night, they began seeing progressively confusing and increasingly dangerous hallucinations.

Granted the acting of the three lead actors (Douglas Smith as Elliot, Lucien Laviscount as John and Cressida Bonas as Sasha) were not too stellar, however the horror premise of this film was not as bad as I initially thought. The confusion experienced by the young people due to their misleading visions were very well translated on screen by director Stacy Title. 

As far as the Bye Bye Man is concerned, I wish they did not have to show him too clearly as they did as this creepy bald ugly man in an hooded overcoat. This made him lose some sense of menace and mystique. I felt he was some sort of Freddie Kruger wannabe (without a razor glove) who causes people to kill for him if they thought or said his name -- but how? and why? I wish they told us something about his background and origin. The actor behind BBM is Doug Jones, an actor known for acting under prosthetics as he did as the Faun in "Pan's Labyrinth" and as Silver Surfer in "Fantastic Four."

The cast is not composed of all relatively unknown new actors though. I was surprised to recognize Carrie-Anne Moss in there as Detective Shaw who was in charge of Elliot's case. Even more surprising was the appearance of no less than Faye Dunaway in the key role of the Widow Redmon who survived the 1969 massacre. Despite Dunaway's notorious gaffe in the announcement of the Oscar Best Picture result earlier this year, it was actually welcome to see her on the big screen once again after a long absence.

The most disturbing scenes in this film were those frank pointblank shooting spree scenes in the beginning and revisited in the second half. These scenes were hard to watch without flinching. They reminded me of how I felt watching the similarly stark murder scenes in "In Cold Blood". The scenes with the nightmarish narrowed corridors with old-fashioned floral wallpaper on the walls reminded me of "The Shining." 

Even though its backstory was absent, dialogue cheesy and the acting occasionally funny (be it inadvertent or not), I still thought this film was able to create an effective suspenseful atmosphere. It was not really as awful as other reviews would have you think. 5/10. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review of LION: Longing of the Lost

February 2017

Australian commercial and TV director Garth Davis made an auspicious feature film debut last year with "Lion", a film which has now earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Dev Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Luke Davies, based on the autobiographical book "A Long Way Home" by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose). It had already won for Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay at the BAFTAs.

Little Indian boy Saroo was looking for his brother Guddu at a busy train station. Unexpectedly, the empty train he boarded began to move and he was not able to get off until it stopped on the other side of the country in Calcutta. Unfortunately, Saroo cannot name his hometown properly; so he was taken in by an orphanage.

Eventually, Saroo was adopted by Australian couple John and Sue Bierly. Twenty years later at the university in Melbourne, Saroo was inspired to undertake a search for his roots. Using his vague memories and the almighty internet, particularly Google Earth, he embarks on a long-distance quest for the family he had left behind in India. 

I would think that Dev Patel should really have been considered for Best Actor instead of Supporting. He is the title character! (You will learn why at the end of the film.) Of course, one can argue that youngster Sunny Pawar could have been the lead actor since he carried the more challenging first half of the story. I personally think that Pawar should have been cited instead of Patel when we are only going to base this on difficulty of the role.

Nicole Kidman is fortunate to have been cited for a rather small role as Saroo's adoptive mother Sue. The Bierlys adopted another Indian child after Saroo who was considerably more of a handful and a troublemaker, and this expanded her role a little more. However Sue makes a revelation of such nobility and humanity that was the highlight of that remarkable woman, as well Kidman's. 

The first part of this movie was sweeping and epic, taking us on a train trip across India. The performance of the little child actor Sunny Pawar as young Saroo was so affecting. With his innocent face and imploring eyes, we all wanted to reach out across the screen to help him out. The second half of the movie with Dev Patel as adult Saroo was more confined and sedate, since most of the action happened while he was surfing the net. The conclusion, while expected, was built up very well for full emotional effect. 7/10.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Review of PUSIT: Advocating for AIDS Awareness

April 4, 2017

I chanced upon the premiere showing of this indie film at the Fisher Mall cinema this afternoon. The ticket was rather expensive at P300. Aside from Jay Manalo playing a cross-dresser in the poster, I did not see who else is in it nor who directed it. But as the girl at the table explained this film's advocacy for AIDS awareness, I decided to buy a ticket to help in their worthy campaign. 

The title "Pusit" is gay lingo for "positive", specifically "HIV positive." Throughout the 2-hour course of the film, we will be meeting six HIV-positive patients who now had AIDS and how they cope with their dire illness. We will also meet the family and friends around them and the different ways these people react to the difficulty of caring for AIDS patients, as well as how they deal with the social stigma around it.

Samuel (Rolando Innocencio) is an OFW who came home afflicted with AIDS. Despite her disgust, his wife Lerma (Angelina Kanapi) still goes with him to the doctor. Alfred (Kristofer King) is a young gay guy with AIDS who reconnects with his old flame, an older gay executive Greg (Ronnie Quizon). Sonia (Tere Gonzales) is a millennial from a broken home who contracted AIDS from her recreational drug habit and the sexual orgies that go with it. 

Mark (Mike Liwag) is the gay son of a well-to-do lawyer Mrs. Romero (Rina Reyes). When he got full-blown AIDS, he was confined in his own room taken care of by a private yaya while his mother went to work. Victor (Lehner Mendoza) is the gay eldest son of Aling Naty (Elizabeth Oropesa) who eventually contracted AIDS because of his promiscuous gallivanting, much to the shame of his younger siblings. 

Mama Josie (Jay Manalo) is a glamorous transwoman, owner of her own beauty salon ably managed by his close friend Cheska (Joel Saracho). However, when she contracted AIDS, she became depressed and withdrawn. She temporarily gets a new lease on life when she meets the young DOTA addict Ian (JM Santos), but the psychological burden of her illness may still be too heavy for her to bear.

The MTRCB classification of this film was confusing. Outside the theater, the sign says R-13. In the announcement right before the film, it said PG! The subject matter of this film is definitely R-16 or higher. There were scenes of gratuitous nudity in bed scenes, irresponsible sexual behavior, drug use, suicide, profanities in the DOTA playing scenes -- topics which were definitely for more appropriate for mature audiences only. 

I liked how this film explored varied psychological issues experienced by AIDS patients and their loved ones. These were not too preachy, heard in conversations between doctor and patient, and between two nurses. I did not mind didactic scenes where they were discussing medical issues about HIV and AIDS. I thought it was an important overview about CD4 levels in the blood and the effect and side effects of ARV (anti-retrovirus) drugs. I noted also how all the eating scenes would cite vegetable dishes, like sayote, ampalaya or alugbati. I liked that subtle promotion for eating vegetables.

However, because of the many threads writer-director Arlyn de la Cruz had to weave together, the story-telling meandered aimlessly at times. It tended to stay too long in a number of talky, repetitive, seemingly ad-libbed scenes, such as that Naty and Victor's argument at the sink or Josie and Ian's lunch date scene. Sometimes it goes completely off-tangent to give significant screen time to a needless side episode, such as that encounter of Samuel with the callow youngish prostitute Nancy (Majalyn Fuentes). 

There were some lengthy scenes that worked though, both noisy and quiet. My favorite noisy scene was that scene where Mark was having hallucinations of spiders and snakes and his mother was desperately trying to calm him down. This scene was over-the-top, but I have to give props to Ms. Rina Reyes for such a genuine performance there. My favorite quiet scene was that of Samuel and Lerma lying side by side on the bed, with Lerma eventually turning to her side, giving a sign that she is welcoming back her husband again. Angelina Kanapi was very eloquent in her silence.

My biggest disappointment about this film involved its longest scene -- a twenty-minute long monologue of Mama Josie recording her thoughts about her illness for posterity. To be fair, it started out well-enough. However, it just droned on and on and on, one cannot help but doze off or drift off. What is worse, this scene ends in the most negative way, which I thought was very ironic since Mama Josie is the poster girl of this film -- a film which was supposed to promote positivity among AIDS patients. I realize that her fate does happen in real life. However for the purposes of this film and its advocacy, I wish it could have happened to one of the minor characters instead, not Josie. 4/10. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Review of SMURFS: THE LOST VILLAGE: Soul-Searching Smurfette

March 31, 2017

The first two feature films about the Smurfs (in 2011 with its sequel in 2013) had been combination live action and animation films. Hank Azaria and Neil Patrick Harris did live action roles, while Anton Yelchin and Katy Perry provided the voices of certain featured animated Smurfs. They were both clunky, corny and over-the-top, really not so good. Feedback had been so bad the planned third film was scrapped. 

This year, I was surprised that this franchise actually makes a comeback. It is a reboot of sorts in an totally animated form. Due to what came before, I had my doubts about watching this one, but my kids wanted to go give it a try, so off we went.

Smurfette is feeling depressed that she does not know her exact role within the Smurf community. Her dubious origins came back to focus when she inadvertently leads their nemesis Gargamel to a new village of Smurfs in the Forbidden Forest beyond their walls. Together with her friends, Hefty, Brainy and Clumsy, Smurfette rushes against time and the evil wizard to warn the new Smurfs about the great danger that is about to befall them.

Demi Lovato as Smurfette was good, but not really distinct. Honestly I could not tell it apart from Katy Perry's voice in the first Smurfs film, or even Anna Kendrick's as Poppy in Trolls. Rainn Wilson was Gargamel in another manic comic performance of this hateful character. Joe Manganiello gave Hefty Smurf voice realistic machismo despite its squeak. Mandy Patinkin gives Papa Smurf his venerable voice this time. From the new community of Smurfs, notable voices belong to Michelle Rodriguez as the intrepid amazon warrior Smurf Storm, and Julia Roberts as the wise and motherly Smurf Willow.

Because the Trolls just had their film recently a few months back, it is difficult not to compare these two films. The 3D animation and the pop music soundtrack give both of them a very similar vibe at the start. As the film goes on though, you will note that the visuals were just a little less dynamic and the songs were just a little less catchy in this new "Smurfs" vis a vis the incredibly crazy colors and infectiously danceable tunes in "Trolls". The quality of this Sony Pictures Animation fell a tad short of the Dreamworks standard. 

There is an underlying message of woman empowerment here as Smurfette figures out her true calling. Being a children's film, the ending is oh-so-predictable for adults. It is quite reminiscent of the ending of the recent "Kung Fu Panda 3" (2016), and almost identical to the ending of "Pokemon:The First Movie" (1998). However I think it could still be moving enough to get tears flowing from susceptible audiences. Ultimately, it was wise to not bring the Smurfs into the real world like the first two films did. Keeping the cute Smurfs in their own world and exploring new parts of it will gave this franchise a new lease on life. 6/10.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review of GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017): Adeptly Actualized Anime

March 30, 2017

"Ghost in the Shell" started as manga series written by Masamune Shirow in 1989 which told the story of a mid-21st century fictional counter-cyberterrorist organization in Japan called Public Security Section 9, led by protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi. A 1995 animated film version from the Production I.G studio directed by Mamoru Oshii is now considered to be one of the greatest anime films of all time. Now Hollywood gets to produce its own version of this future world.

Cyborg field commander code-named The Major is the first of her kind. Her body is all state-of-the-art robot, but her living brain had been transplanted from a real human -- a orphan refugee whose body had been severely injured. This was thanks to the advanced artificial intelligence technology of Hanka Robotics. When the Major investigates the murder of Hanka scientists by cyber-terrorist Kuze, only then would she finally get to know the ghost that existed inside her shell.

I watched the film without any prior knowledge of the manga nor the anime. The initial sequence showing the creation of The Major was so beautifully-rendered and visually-arresting and this would set the pace and standard for the spectacles to come for the rest of the film. There are explosive action scenes involving cars, trucks, helicopters, and big guns. Of course, there are also elegant parkour and gracefully violent hand-to-hand combat in "Blade-Runner"-like settings, from high-tech laboratories to sleazy nightclubs.

Scarlett Johansson's experience as Black Widow in the Avengers films and as "Lucy" made her a credible action heroine as The Major. She also gets to do very well in her introspective dramatic scenes, some of which evoke her role in yet another sci-fi film "Under the Skin." I confess that I did wonder why they cast a Caucasian actress in a role with a Japanese name set in a Japanese metropolis. Nevertheless, Johansson does pull off a good lead performance to give the film its emotional core. 

It was good to see Juliette Binoche again on the big screen as the Major's creator, Dr. Ouélet. She was the only character of genuine human warmth in this steely cold film. 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano was truly an imposing and impressive Section 9 Chief Daisuke Aramaki, Major's immediate superior. Pilou Asbæk is a likable brute as Major's dog-loving loyal right-hand man with the goggle-like cybernetic eyes, Batou. Michael Carmen Pitt (whom I knew from his earlier film "The Dreamers" as simply Michael Pitt) was barely recognizable as master-hacker Kuze, but his pale blue eyes can still express deep thoughts. 

I only watched the 1995 anime AFTER I had seen this live action film. I have to say this hardcore anime is really ahead of its time. The new film is not a direct live action translation of the classic anime, as the recent "Beauty and the Beast" was.  The plot is not the same at all, though the basic elements were retained. Major's "nude" silicone suit of invisibility was rendered without her nipples for a PG rating, a triumph in costume design by Kurt and Bart.

It turns out that most of the memorable scenes were directly lifted from the anime, such as that awesome fight scene on the shallow pool of water, as well as that fight with the ugly giant spider-like robot, but these were not exactly in the same story contexts. On a minor side note, it was too bad they did not choose to stick with the San Miguel Pale Pilsen beer Major and Batou drank in the anime.

I recognize that loyal fans of the anime may complain how this present story was not told with more philosophical depth, or how the new musical score could not hold a candle to the previous haunting Kenji Kawai score. 

However, for those like me who had not seen the anime before, this current reboot version by Rupert Sanders (whose only prior film was "Snow White and the Huntsman" five years ago) actually told a very good story with excellent special visual and action effects. The filmmakers respected the original material enough not to bring the whole story out of Japan, even if they could have story wise. Scarlett Johansson was able to capture the personality of The Major from the anime (who also did not look Japanese anyway), this time enhanced by the added focus on her own self-discovery. 8/10. 


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.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

SINAG MANILA 2017: Review of KRISTO: A Cockpit Chronicle

March 14, 2017

In Filipino, the title word "Kristo" means two very different things. The meaning familiar to more people is "Christ," meaning savior or redeemer, as in Jesus Christ. The second is more colloquial usage of the word to refer to "bet-takers" in the sport of cockfighting. It was supposed to have been given because these bet-takers always had their arms raised and outstretched when taking in bets from various gamblers.

In the opening scene of this indie drama, we see the first meaning of the title.  We were brought inside the carnival-like Good Friday rites in Pampanga, After a few minutes of seeing the bloody flagellation and crucifixion there, the rest of the film would be set in Northern Metro Manila, with most scenes shot in the Sta. Quiteria Cockpit Arena in Caloocan City, where the second meaning of title held sway. 

Boy Saging has four children with his hardworking and practical wife Annette. The couple run a stall in the Balintawak Clover selling bananas. His main occupation though was as a cockpit kristo. The whole film was set on one fateful day when his eldest daughter Jemjem is graduating salutatorian from elementary school. However, that day, his boss, the wealthy but cranky cockfight enthusiast Tonyo is also demanding Boy's time and services.

This film had many hallmarks of an indie film. The pace was very slow, with a dizzying shaky camera to shake up a sense of action where there was barely any. The cockpit dynamics among the kristos and bettors did not pulsate with excitement. The most mundane scenes were played out so lengthily without any apparent purpose in forwarding the plot. If not for the interminable graduation rites scenes (where we even got to hear the Philippine National Anthem sung almost in full), or those long and repetitive cockfighting scenes (some even in slow-motion), this would be a much shorter film with its simple plot. 

We witnessed quite a number of fighting cocks die during their fights. We even see the process by which these dead loser were dressed ready to be cooked for dinner. There was even a scene about one of those poor chicks we see with dyed feathers being sold to gullible and careless children. An ominous gloomy pall was cast over the whole film by these scenes even if they were happening to animals.

Lead actor Kristofer King was really raw and natural as Boy Saging, as if he were not acting at all. There were actually no big dramatic moments in his role. Everything was so matter-of-fact and straightforward, that was why it was so remarkable, a very real portrayal. King had been acting in indie films since "Babae sa Breakwater" back in 2003 (which merited a Best Actor nomination from the Gawad Urian no less). It was clear why he won Best Actor for this Sinag Manila film fest (in a tie with RS Francisco in the film "Bhoy Instik").

It looked as if veteran actor Julio Diaz was lazily acting in the role of the self-centered Boss Tonyo, almost like he was merely phoning it in. Yet even so, his effortless performance impressed the jury enough to give him the Best Supporting Performance award (this is overall, no distinction between male and female actors). Angela Cortez had a winning screen presence as Boy's wife Annette. It is just that she looked too young and svelte to be a mom with four kids.

Aside from the two acting awards, "Kristo" also won for Best Production Design, Best Editing and Best Sound, making it the second most awarded film in this festival. 

Director HF Yambao had more polish in his previous film, "Best Partee Ever," which coincidentally also won its lead actor JC de Vera the Best Actor award in the QCinema Filmfest 2016. However, "Kristo" is really not supposed to look polished. It had to look and feel raw and unstaged, like reality as it was unfolding in front of our eyes, grit, sweat, stench, rough corners and all. It had its merits, but I just wish the film as a whole, like good fried chicken, had more tasty meat in it than starchy extenders. 5/10.

*** Postscript: 

It was interesting to find out from an old blog post by director Jason Paul Laxamana (LINK) that there was already an older indie film also entitled "Kristo" which also tackled the worlds of cockfighting and Holy Week rituals of Cutud in Pampanga. This was a 2008 film by Jerwin Espiritu starring Jay Manalo. I have not seen that older one, but with its tagline "Life is a cockfight," I am guessing that the themes are probably similar. I am not sure if that first "Kristo" film was ever completed or released.