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. 5/10.

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.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Review of KONG: SKULL ISLAND: Awesome Ape Action

March 13, 2017

I literally groaned when I first saw the trailer of "Kong: Skull Island." Really? Yet another Kong movie, barely 10 years or so after Peter Jackson's "King Kong" (2005). Then the trailer goes on to show huge lizards and spiders, another groan. I was not really too interested to watch it at first. Surprisingly though, I was hearing positive reviews about this nth remake, I had to go see it for myself.

The film starts with a prologue set in 1944 on a South Pacific island showing two enemy pilots (one American, on Japanese) who had a close encounter with a gigantic ape, the Kong. Then, the action jumps to 1973, Bill Randa (from a secret government organization called Monarch) organizes a team to explore Skull Island, a mysterious uncharted island located in the South Pacific perpetually surrounded by storm clouds. 

Randa's group included his geologist Houston Brooks and biologist San Lin (as geologist). Lt. Col. Preston Packard and his helicopter squadron were assigned as their military escort. An ex-British special forces man James Conrad was hired as tracker. A female anti-war photographer named Mason Weaver was also onboard. They begin their expedition by dropping bombs on the island supposedly to survey the geology of the ground. However, the loud multiple fiery explosions caused an angry Kong to come out and attack them.

As expected, this whole film was indeed a visual effects extravaganza. Young indie director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose only film prior to this was a small quiet 2013 Sundance drama called "The Kings of Summer," came out blasting full force with every computer-generated trick in the monster book. He not only had the formidable motion-capture Kong (Terry Notary as the actor behind the ape), but likewise a number of other giant creatures (those ugly reptilian Skullcrawlers, that giant daddy-long-legs spider, that Pokemon-like tree creature, those vicious flying dinosaurs and gentle water buffaloes) to play with.

The actors were very aware they were not really the main focus of this film, playing their characters with hammy delight. Samuel L. Jackson was at his over-acting best as the unstable warfreak Packard. John Goodman had another go as a crazy eccentric old man as Randa. Tom Hiddleston was in full hero-mode, expertly striking model-like poses in his tight t-shirt, even when an explosion already threw him on the ground. Brie Larson had her Oscar Best Actress-like close-up encounters with a trapped water buffalo and of course, Kong himself. John C. Reilly appears midway in the film with an oddly offbeat humorous role.

If you are patient enough to wait after all the end credits have rolled up, you will be rewarded with an extra scene suggesting a sequel/s with Godzilla, Mothra and other giant monsters. There is already a Kong vs. Godzilla being developed for a 2020 showing. 

This film is so formulaic and so over-the-top, yet for some strange reason it was actually quite entertaining. The monster fighting and action sequences were so huge, graphic, crazy and illogical, yet fun to watch. The whole film felt like an exhilarating 4D ride in a theme park, and that was even if we only watched it in 2D. 7/10.