Birdshot


What better time to hunt with your dog than dawn?

(2016) Thriller (CJ Entertainment) Mary Joy Apostol, Manuel Aquino, John Arcilla, Arnold Reyes. Directed by Mikhail Red

The world is a hard and often cruel place. Sometimes it feels like the powers that be are far more interested in symbols than in people. For those who live on the fringes of society, eking out an existence as best they can, getting caught in the machinations of the powerful is a daily struggle to survive.

Maya (Apostol) is a young teenage girl whose father Diego (Aquino) is the caretaker for a nature preserve in the rural Philippines. He is trying to teach her how to hunt so that she can one day fend for herself if something happens to him. She has difficulties with pulling the trigger and killing a helpless animal, much to the frustration of her dad.

Mendoza (Arcilla) is a cop and relatively new to the force. He has been partnered with Domingo (Reyes), a cynical veteran who doesn’t mind bending the rules every so often. The big news around that part of the Philippines is a bus full of farmers that disappeared on their way to Manila. Domingo interrogates a low-level criminal who might know something about the missing bus. The interrogation is a bit too brutal for Mendoza but he backs his partner, especially when the information he gets leads to the discovery of the bus in the wildlife preserve that Diego takes care of. Of the passengers there is no sign except for a piece of cloth from a shirt near the edge of the jungle.

Maya goes into the preserve to prove herself to her dad and she finally finds success, shooting a large bird. The bird turns out to be a Philippine eagle which is on the endangered species list; the preserve’s rangers keep careful count of the number of them left in the preserve. Diego is understandably upset. He makes Maya bury the bird and the gun that it was shot with and awaits the arrival of the police.

The investigation into the disappearance of the bus has met with official resistance, much to Mendoza’s surprise. The two cops are ordered to discontinue their efforts to find the missing passengers and instead look into a missing Philippine eagle from the wildlife preserve. Domingo urges Mendoza to give up on the case having seen what happens to cops who disobey their superior officers but Mendoza can’t give up the case, having spoken with the wife of one of the missing who beseeches him to find out what happened to her husband. The two cops go out to interview Diego about the missing eagle; Mendoza notices that Maya is wearing an eagle claw on a makeshift necklace. Domingo resolves to bring in Diego for questioning.

Diego knows he is about to be taken in and assumes that he’ll be back by the end of the evening; he urges his daughter to stay out of sight until he comes home. Mendoza receives a threat to his family that changes his outlook. The interrogation of Diego becomes more brutal and suddenly Diego is locked up overnight with hardened criminals who are plotting an escape. When the escape is successful but the criminals commit a horrific act in getting away, Diego is forced to flee. He makes his way home with the cops hot on his trail; a reckoning is bound to occur.

Red is an emerging talent in Filipino filmmaking. He has only made two films in his nascent career but both have been highly acclaimed and won film festival awards. His latest is a genre mash-up that starts out with two seemingly disparate stories – one a police procedural, the other a rural coming-of-age tale – that are slowly weaved into a single tale. Red who also co-wrote the film skillfully merges the two stories into one, a feat that is attempted pretty regularly in indie cinema these days but rarely as successfully as seen here.

There is a good deal of social commentary to be had here. Red makes clear that he feels that society values the lives of the rural residents less than the life of a bird. There is also a look at the corruption that is rampant in the law enforcement of the Philippines; considering that the war on drugs undertaken by the dictatorial president of the Philippines has led to the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Filipinos, the film is timely indeed.

The vistas of the rural Philippines are beautifully shot and make an excellent background to the ugliness of the souls of those who are in power. Red makes good use of the landscapes in the Philippine backwaters and crafts an extraordinarily beautiful movie. Unfortunately, the movie does move at a somewhat elephantine pace and is probably a good 15 minutes too long; some of the action here is redundant and unnecessary. The shocking ending is quite depressing as well.

Still, there is a lot going for the film for more patient viewers. Red is definitely a voice who has something valid to say and a talent we’re very likely to hear a lot more from in the future. If he keeps on making films like this, you might just be seeing his name on big Hollywood features in the not-too-distant future.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is gorgeous. It’s a very interesting view on corruption in the Philippines in an era in which they are being run by a dictator.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow and the movie is a bit on the long side. The ending is a bit of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity and a scene of dog peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at last year’s Tokyo Film festival where it won Best Asian Futures Film, an award given to directors who have the most potential to shape filmmaking in Asia in the coming decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell or High Water
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Jane

The A-Team


The A-Team

Here's another plan coming together.

(20th Century Fox)  Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Jessica Biel, Patrick Wilson, Gerald McRaney, Henry Czerny, Brian Bloom, Omari Hardwick, Yul Vazquez, Maury Sterling, Terry Chen. Directed by Joe Carnahan

Adapting a beloved television show into a major motion picture carries its own pitfalls as well as a built-in audience. That makes it something of a double-edged sword for the filmmakers; how to keep fans of the original show satisfied while delivering something that stands apart from the original.

Colonel Hannibal Smith (Neeson) heads up a team of Army Rangers who specialize in tackling jobs that most covert teams would run away from screaming like little girls. They never fail because of their specialized skills; Cpl. Faceman “Face” Beck (Cooper) is a smooth lady’s man who is second in command on the team; Cpl. B.A. Baracus (Jackson) is as strong as an ox and is the team’s driver while Capt. H.M. Murdock (Copley) is just on this side of insane (and maybe on the other side) and is the team’s pilot.

They are in the process of leaving Iraq when they receive a visit from two separate people; one is Captain Charissa Sosa (Biel) who has a past with Face, but has come to warn the team to stay out of Baghdad. The other is a smarmy slimy CIA Agent named Lynch (Wilson) – one of many, apparently, with that name – who has a mission for the “Alpha” team; to retrieve plates from the U.S. mint that renegade Iraqis have stolen to print their own U.S. currency. While Hannibal’s superior officer, General Morrison (McRaney) has some reservations, ultimately he decides to allow Hannibal to go, even though it violates direct orders so this mission is strictly “off the books.”

It also pisses off a mercenary from the Black Forest Corporation by the name of Brock Pike (Bloom) whose team was originally set to retrieve the plates but is now being moved aside for Hannibal’s cast of characters. It’s a very tough job involving getting aboard a moving semi while avoiding a convoy of heavily armed trucks escorting the semi, but the A-Team pulls it off.

Unfortunately, when they return to base General Morrison is killed when his jeep explodes and the Black Forest team absconds with the plates. Despite their protests of innocence, the A-Team is accused – and convicted – of colluding with the mercenaries and get sent to prison.

Of course, no prison will hold them for long and with the help of Lynch – who wants to retrieve the plates – the A-Team escape from the four separate penitentiaries that are incarcerating them and go about the business of retrieving the stolen plates, find out who set them up and clear their names in the process. How? Hannibal has always got a plan in mind…

Director Joe Carnahan has a history of quirky movies like Smokin’ Aces to his credit. This is his biggest assignment to date, and he doesn’t do a bad job at all, considering the limitations he has to work with and they are the ones that came with the property.

One of the problems with any television series is that they have a tendency to have a very similar modus operandi for each episode; the details may be different but they tend to follow the same plot outline. When a big budget movie remakes a TV show, generally the film wants to retain many of the same elements of the show in order to establish continuity between the show and the movie; this is to attract the original audience to the movie. However, this can lead to the movie feeling more like a retread than a re-imagining.

To be honest, there is some of that here; however, enough of the movie is fresh and new enough to distance it from the show and make it a little more 21st century, a little different.

Part of the reason for that is the cast. There was some criticism of the casting in online circles which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Neeson is one of the finest actors in the world and while this is a role he doesn’t usually tackle, he is excellent in creating a Hannibal Smith that recalls George Peppard’s character but is completely Neeson.

He’s solid but Copley, so tremendous in District 9, makes Murdock fascinating; you want to see more of him every time he’s onscreen. Like the Dwight Schultz Murdock, he’s crazy like a fox; just sane enough to make you wonder how crazy he really is. Copley plays the character as a cross between Scott Bakula and Robin Williams. Cooper further cements his standing as a rising star; Face is not only a lady’s man but also a brilliant military strategist. Cooper makes both sides of the character believable and does it with leading man charisma.

Patrick Wilson, impressive as a middle-aged hero in Watchmen, plays a very different character here and he’s quite good. He’s shown some real versatility in his performances and is moving into the territory of actors I look forward to seeing in whatever role he might be cast in. He makes for a terrific villain, almost to the level of my favorite bad guys Alan Rickman and Sean Bean.

As summer movies go, The A-Team is a perfect fit. It’s frenetically paced, light-hearted, well-acted and above all, fun. When I go into a theater on a hot summer day (or even a warm summer evening), I want to forget my cares and be taken on a delightful ride. Here’s a movie that fits that bill to a Mister T.

REASONS TO GO: This new A-Team does surprisingly well. The action sequences are seriously fun and the pacing is fast enough to keep us off-balance. Wilson makes a great villain.

REASONS TO STAY: The same problems the TV show the movie is based on haunt the adaptation.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of big bang explosions which may frighten the tykes; there is some bad language as well as a good deal of sexual innuendo and Hannibal smokes cigars throughout. In other words, probably mature pre-teens and above for this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The head judge at the court martial of the team is named Carnahan after the director; also an actor credited for “The Greater Escape” movie shown during the Murdock escape sequence is Reginald Barclay, the name of a character played by Dwight Schultz who played Murdock in the original television show.  

HOME OR THEATER: Big action movies deserve big screens; see it in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Killers

The Last House on the Left (2009)


The Last House on the Left

Not a pleasant family reunion.

(Rogue) Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Sara Paxton, Garret Dilahunt, Rhys Coiro, Martha MacIsaac, Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul, Spencer Treat Clark. Directed by Dennis Iliadis

Vengeance is mine sayeth the lord, but if someone brutalized your daughter and fell into your hands, would you trust in the Almighty for justice or might you take your own pound of flesh?

John Collingwood (Goldwyn) is a successful doctor with a summer home on a lake in the middle of nowhere. After the untimely death of their son, he and his wife Emma (Potter) have taken their younger daughter Mari (Paxton) to the lake house for some much needed R&R.

Of course, as is the way with teenagers she is far more interested in spending her first night in the country with her local friend Paige (MacIsaac). Mom is not so keen on the idea – their daughter, a champion swimmer and solid student tends to be swayed by the more party-oriented Paige –  but easygoing Dad says okay. He has to fix a balky microwave in any case and relishes the idea of an evening alone with his wife. There’s a storm on the way in any case and Mari would probably be heading back to the house about the time the storm hit.

Paige and Mari are bopping around town with nothing in particular to do. They hang out at the local convenience store where they meet a young boy named Justin (Clark) who’s trying to score some cigarettes. They head over to Justin’s hotel room to score some weed or at least Paige does.

Right about then Justin’s folks arrive; Dad Krug (Dilahunt), Dad’s girlfriend Sadie (Lindhome) and Dad’s ADHD brother Frank (Paul). Unfortunately for the girls, Dad was just busted out of prison in a particularly violent and bloody fashion by Sadie and Frank. With the law on their tails, this is no time to bring two young girls who might be able to identify them into the mix. The criminals kidnap the girls and steal their SUV.

An attempted escape by the plucky Mari leads to the SUV being totaled. The predictably unhinged Krug rapes her and shoots her, murdering Paige in the process. However, the long-promised storm arrives and the dysfunctional family finds refuge in the only house around…and I’m sure you can guess who lives there by now.

This is based on a 1972 movie of the same name by Wes Craven, which was in turn based on a 13th century Swedish folk tale which was also made into a movie by Ingmar Bergman called The Virgin Spring back in 1960. The Bergman movie is the best of the lot but the new 2009 version compares quite favorably in some ways with the original Wes Craven version.

First of all, the Craven version was very much a product of its era, with a kind of hippie loss of innocence theme. The violence was much more sadistic in that version, with Paige and Mari forced to have lesbian sex and one of the girls forced to urinate in her pants, not a particularly pleasant scene.

Here the violence is mostly directed in the rape sequence, which is quite brutal and realistic. There’s nothing sexual about it and quite frankly, that’s as it should be.

The vengeance factor was more prevalent in the first film, in which the father discovers that the brutalizers of his daughter are being harbored under his own roof. In the most recent version, the violence is less a matter of vengeance than of protecting Mari, who has shown up on her doorstep barely alive. In that sense I think the initial movie was more thought-provoking; who wouldn’t want to protect their daughter but how far would you go to avenge her? That’s the crucial difference between the two movies and the biggest misstep the remake takes.

Goldwyn, Dilahunt and Potter are all solid actors with dozens of good performances behind them, and this occasion is no different, particularly for the first two. Potter is okay as well but she really doesn’t have as much to do except in one scene, where she is trying to keep Frank’s attention away from the living room where her daughter is and does it by coming on to him, despite her revulsion at the idea. It’s one of the few scenes that really explores the idea of “how far would a parent go for their child” and it is one of the more effective sequences in the movie.

Most horror movies in the 21st century tend to rely on violence and gore; sexuality has been removed from the equation. The sad truth is that horror movies are much blander today than they were twenty and thirty years ago, despite improvements in filmmaking technology. We can make better monsters but have failed to make better human ones.

The violence here is more brutal than most modern audiences are used to and you should be prepared for that. This is actually a pretty well-made horror thriller and it might have been a little bit better if they had followed the original a bit better. Not so much in the degrading of the two victims but in the motivations of the parents. That’s where the real horror lies.

WHY RENT THIS: Horror should be disturbing and this certainly is that. Dilahunt and Goldwyn are pros and carry out their tasks well.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too brutal for those used to the whitebread, colorless horror films of the 21st century. The most thought-provoking element of the original is excised from the new one making it less interesting.

FAMILY VALUES: Sadistic violence, a somewhat brutal rape scene, drug use, disturbing images, foul language, and yes, nudity – satisfactory family viewing if your family is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Jonathan Craven is the son of the director of the 1972 version Wes Craven. He appeared in the original version as a young boy whose balloon is popped by the vicious Krug.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The director’s cut is featured on the Blu-Ray and unrated DVD versions. It is only a few minutes longer with most of the additional footage taking place during the rape sequence.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Mozart and the Whale