Friday, May 31, 2013

EPIC: Epic Artwork, But Not Epic Movie

May 31, 2013

"Epic" is such a big title that you would expect an "epic" film to own it. Unfortunately for this "Epic", only the artwork was epic, but the story was hardly of epic proportions. 

"Epic" is about MK, a teenage girl whose father is some sort of mad natural scientist who clings to the belief that there are tiny men living in the forest. He has devoted his whole life to this belief to the detriment of his relationship with his daughter. One day, MK (Amanda Seyfried) witnesses the assassination of the fairy Queen Tara (elegantly voiced by Beyonce Knowles) by the dark forces of death in the forest, led by the evil Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), symbolizing . Before the Queen died, she endorses a magic pod to MK, shrinking MK to fairy size herself. This pod had to be brought to the glowworm keeper of scrolls Nim Galu (delightfully voice by Steven Tyler) at a certain time, in order for the forest to continue its cycle of life with a new queen. So we follow MK quest along with her new-found friend friends, a senior leaf-knight leader Ronin (Colin Farell) and his renegade teen soldier Nod (Josh Hutcherson), a snail and a slug.

The star of this film is the animation style which was very elegant in details. That scene alone when the Queen (looking as exotic as her Beyonce voice) was being carried on her leaf carriage landing on a pond with water lilies, and the lily pads converging so the Queen can walk on the water was sheer beauty. The action sequences were also very exciting and well-executed. You can see the difficulty of the artwork when it comes to small details in the vines, the water, the bird feathers, truly awesome. While they spend so much efforts on the forest characters, the human characters though were not well done in my opinion.

However, the story itself was very generic. It seemed like we have seen all of this before in various films that had the environment as its focal point. Of course there was also a romance side plot that seems to be part of the formula in these films. There were also the funny sidekicks, in this case the snail and slug. These two were rather hit and miss, I cannot even recall their names. I was only truly laughing during that scene when these two were crawling on the ceiling as MK and Nod were hanging from their eyes. I liked that father and daughter connection part, quite touching. Good to see this theme again so soon after it was also tackled in "The Croods."

So overall, this movie is just average. This high quality of artwork deserved a better, more mature story to showcase it. The story here was so simple and childish in tone, yet there were very scary images of the evil characters and the Queen dying from an arrow which would scare very young kids. This film is not bad, don't get me wrong. But unfortunately for me, this was not memorable at all. 5/10.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Hangover Part III: Saved Only by the Extra End Credits Scene

May 30, 2013

The first Hangover film was a irreverently funny film that unexpectedly made a lot of money in 2009. Strike while the iron is hot, so a Part II came 2011, with practically the same story set in another city. Despite that bad sequel, there is now this Part III another two years later. I still say it should have ended with the first movie.

The Wolfpack, namely Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha), decides to help Alan deal with his mental problems by bringing him to an institution. However, on the way there, their car was attacked by a gang led by Marshall (John Goodman). Marshall told them that since Chow had been in communication with Alan, he wants the Wolfpack to get back the gold bars Chow had stolen from him before. So the boys track Chow to Tijuana and then back to Vegas for another crazy misadventure after the other.

The movie went by so fast that when the ending comes, you will wonder where the time went. The plot here was so thin, you felt you watched nothing. Part III was more about Alan (Zach Galifiniakis) and Chow (Ken Jeong), two side characters in the first two films who end up with the biggest roles in this final installment. The Wolfpack guys were just supporting here. Bradley Cooper hardly did anything substantial to deserve his top billing. I do not know what the producers were thinking to make that disgusting Mr. Chow practically a lead in this film. He was okay as a minor comic relief in the first film, but his role here is just too much. Seeing Chow suffocating a chicken is simply too annoying for words.

The humor is pretty dark. An animal loses its head in a cartoonish fashion in the very first sequence. Then, someone's dad died. There was NO wedding with a disastrous day-after hangover to recover from at the beginning, so at least they tried to change things. Unfortunately, this new formula was hit or miss, with very few hits. The guest appearance of Melissa McCarthy as Cassie from the Vegas pawn shop is quite delightful though, despite her brief screen time. It was good to see Heather Graham there again, as well as the baby in the first movie now a big boy.

Ironically the biggest laughs were reserved for an extra scene in the middle of the ending credits, and no, it was not only a funny photo album this time. So stay seated for that one final scene in order to make up for the feeling that you got ripped off watching the rest of this shallow film.  This is NOT the epic finale that they claim.  4/10.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Apartment 143 (Emergo): "Real" Ghostbusters in Action

May 26, 2013

This is another film in the tradition of "Paranormal Activity" where a widowed father with two kids hire the services of ghost hunters to document and get rid of what seemed to be a ghost who had followed them from their home to their new apartment.

There are no known actors, so they have the "reality" part down, and they were not bad. This was especially true about the ghost hunters who looked very professional. The father Alan White (Kai Lennox) was very distressed about the ghostly presence as well as his strained family dynamics. The daughter Caitlin (Gia Mantegna) was portrayed as a rebellious teenager who did not care about showing her disdain for her dad despite the presence of visitors (human or not) in their apartment. The best parts were when the lead ghost hunter Dr. Helzer (Michael O'Keefe) was able to extract from Mr. White his secret or repressed details about his family, particularly about his late wife. 

The horror tricks were not bad (some images were disturbing and scary), but very predictable. Mostly though, there was nothing really unexpected because the lighting and the sound effects make it known that something was going to show up. They try to issue a scientific explanation for the phenomena which was good, but it seemed that there were events shown that were not explainable by their reasoning. While the film could have ended on a (relatively) high note on its cacophonous climax, the director still added an unnecessary, annoying, very unoriginal epilogue scene.

This film is sufficiently creepy and jumpy for a horror movie night, but unlimately there was nothing really memorable about it afterwards. 5/10.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Fast and Furious 6: Finally, My First F&F Film!

May 25, 2013

I have not seen a single installment of the "Fast and Furious" franchise, one of only a few, I'm sure. I never got around to watching the first one at all, consequently I never did get to watch the second, nor any of the five, not even the last one "Fast Five," despite positive buzz. Now, this time, since Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez made the effort to come over to our country and grace this film's premiere here last week (the first Hollywood premiere in Manila, I believe). I made it a point to watch "F&F 6", and I'm glad I did.

Now I see what the fuss was all about, and why this franchise has lasted this long and still going strong. The car chase scenes (this franchise's main claim to fame) were amazingly planned, executed, shot and edited. There was that chase scene on the freeway with a tank, ending with a superhuman midair rescue you simply have got to see to believe (or not believe). As if that is not enough, the entire last sequence was about cars trying to get a Russian cargo plane from taking off, all the while fighting off the enemies mostly mano a mano. I commend director Justin Lin for these ace pieces of imaginative and energetic action direction.

In between these big action sequences, there are the scenes of the team led by Dom (Vin Diesel) and Brian (Paul Walker) talk about about being a family and never leaving anybody out. Among the members of the gang, the loquacious Roman (Tyrese Gibson) stood out, being the film's main source of comic relief. His funny one-liners also came fast and furiously hilarious. I will have to watch the other films to get to know the other guys and gals more.  These in-between scenes may have taken more time than they should as this film clocked at two hours, when it could have been less than that.

Matching big and beefy Vin Diesel is big and beefy Dwayne Johnson. The Rock plays a cop, Agent Hobbs, who sought help from Dom and his team in apprehending another team of mercenary drivers doing terrorist errands led by Owen Shaw (played by Luke Evans). In return for their help, they asked Hobbs to work for their amnesty so they can all go back to the States, instead of hiding in countries without extradition as they are now. The unexpected return of their former colleague Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who was apparently thought to have been killed in a previous episode but now was working with the enemy, provides dramatic focus for the characters, particularly Dom. 

Overall this is one very entertaining and exhilarating film, which I understood and appreciated well even if I have not seen any of the previous films. Well, I am sure fans who have seen all the movies will love it even more since they have known and loved all these characters already from the previous five films. The top-notch explosive action sequences left nothing to be desired, really breath-taking. These heart-stopping car stunts are all admittedly impossible and maybe downright ridiculous, but that was why they were all so awesome to watch! 7/10.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Call: Crime from 911's Point of View

May 23, 2013

"The Call" is a pulsating crime thriller told from the point of view of a 911 operator. Jordan (Halle Berry) takes a distress call from Casey (Abigail Breslin), a young girl abducted from a mall. From there, we are taken on this chilling, nerve-wracking ride of a film along with Casey in the trunk of that red Toyota Camry, as Jordan desperately tries to locate her and help her over her cell phone.

I have not seen Halle Berry star in a film for a long time, and this was a good one for her. The pacing and editing under the reins of director Brad Anderson are tight and exciting. I was at the edge of my seat the whole time in the first hour or so. OK, you will recognize several familiar scenes adapted from various crime films in the past. I notably felt a lot of "Silence of the Lambs" in the secret lair of the kidnapper (a disgusting and heartless role owned by Michael Eklund).

The ending sequence though turns a bit corny and uncharacteristic for an even-keeled sensible 911 operator like Jordan. I thought it could have been done in a less contrived way, but this was the "playing for the general audience" way. But hey, I'll take that. If not for that head- scratching denouement (which I bet you actually would expect to happen anyway), this would have been another run of the mill television crime flick.

It may not be anything too memorable afterwards, but I would recommend this film for the heart-racing hour and a half it brings us. This film is a bit of a throwback to old-fashioned crime thrillers when computer- generated special effects were not yet in vogue. This gave "The Call" its gritty look and feel that we do not see much anymore in mainstream movies of today.  OK film. 6/10.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013): Leonardo di Caprio IS Jay Gatsby!

May 21, 2013

Two days before I watched this 2013 version of "The Great Gatsby," I read the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and watched the 1974 film for the first time.  The book was about a man named Jay Gatsby who moves heaven and earth, building his immense wealth from practically nothing, to be with Daisy, the woman he adored who married wealthy Tom Buchanan because rich girls cannot marry poor boys.

This 2013 version was directed by Baz Luhrmann.  You will really notice his touch in the lavish and opulent parties that Gatsby held in his West Egg mansion.  Luhrmann pushed the envelope again in the musical soundtrack department, as he did in "Moulin Rouge".  Imagine making use of unarguably anachronistic hiphop and even rap (by Jay-Z) on top of the scenes from the Roarin' 20s!  This is polarizing stuff, you either like it or you don't. I thought it was a brave and original by Luhrmann, but I did not really like it for the film as a whole.

Like the 1974 film, the story-telling was also very faithful to its literary source, even lifting words verbatim in the narration and the dialogues.  However, Luhrmann imagined psychological therapy situation as bookend devices, for Nick Carraway to tell and then write all he knows about Gatsby the man, his next-door neighbor for whom he becomes a close friend and confidante. The lavish set design and costumes, already done very well and award-winning in the 1974 version, were further improved and enhanced by modern visual effects.  These will definitely be contenders again come Oscar season next year.

The actors really outdid themselves in this edgier, more passionate 2013 version, when compared to the rather safe and straight-forward 1974 version.  That three-way confrontation scene that took place during that hot summer afternoon in the Plaza Hotel alone deserves award consideration for ensemble and individual performance from the three central characters.  Joel Edgerton had a more seriously haughty and brutish attitude than Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan.  Carey Mulligan had the stunning beauty and grace that would make it believable that Gatsby would obsess over someone like her.  Mia Farrow simply did not have those qualities before, and was so easy to hate.  Mulligan was able to show Daisy's struggle more than Farrow did.

And of course, there is Jay Gatsby himself.  Robert Redford played a very perfect Gatsby:  handsome, cool, unruffled, confident.  However, the Gatsby in the book is not perfect:  insecure, nervous, obsessive-compulsive and maybe even delusional.  Leonardo di Caprio, I believe, nails this book Gatsby perfectly.  Di Caprio is believable as a Gatsby who may have had unsavory means of reaching his present status. You can see the vulnerable chinks in his armor.  Redford looked and acted like he was already born rich.  My one complaint though is that I think the writers made di Caprio utter the expression "old sport" excessively, but that is the writers' fault not his.

If there was one point that makes this film a little less than perfect, it was the cheesy portrayal of Nick Carraway by Tobey Maguire.  I thought Maguire did not look right for the part, and his Nick was too weak, at least when compared to the smart portrayal of Sam Waterston in 1974.  Maybe the therapy sessions Luhrmann wrote for his character did not really do Maguire any favors in this regard.  When I was reading the book, I did not really get the sense that Nick would become an alcoholic.  

In any case, that casting mishap is only a small glitch in the whole picture.  This film was very well made and deserves to be seen by all who love the book, or even fans of the 1974 film.  It is a vast improvement over the 1974 film. The use of flashbacks in this current version to show us more about the history of Gatsby as a boy and young man was really helpful to understand where he was coming from.  The symbolism of the green light and the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg cannot be ignored this time. Too bad I was not able to see the 3D version so I could not comment on that.  I can just imagine though how Gatsby's wild parties would have looked wilder or those cool vintage cars racing down the road would have looked snazzier in 3D.  Highly recommended!  9/10.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: Excellent Sci-Fi, Excellent Action, Excellent Human Drama

May 16, 2013

I am very happy to report that "Star Trek Into Darkness" more than lives up to the excellence of the previous movie, the franchise reboot "Star Trek" (2009) (My review of that film is posted HERE.). In this their second film, the new cast portraying the crew of the Starship Enterprise all really got well and cozy into the skins of their iconic characters. Director JJ Abrams has come up with a movie that will satisfy both old and new fans of this revered franchise. 

The action and sci-fi sequences are excellent with awesome CGI whatever the setting of the scene, be it in outer space or on land in any planet. The initial sequence alone set in the background of an impending volcanic eruption on a planet with red trees was already breathtaking. And this high level of visual and visceral excellence and excitement would be repeated and maintained throughout the film. 

The human dimension of the story is also truly executed with excellence. The key scenes between Kirk and Spock were essayed so well by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. I enjoyed the interaction and the cooperation among the crew, each with their own talents. Simon Pegg (as Scotty) and Karl Urban (as Dr. Bones) particularly stand out. The antagonist is a super- soldier first known as Harrison, who turns out to be another big character in the Star Trek canon (a name who is in the title of what was arguably the best of the original Star Trek movies). Upcoming actor Benjamin Cumberbatch portrays this super-villain with amazing screen presence and convincing menace. 

This is a very entertaining, very satisfying movie I'd heartily tell everyone to watch, Star Trek nerd or not. It covers all aspects of the Star Trek that makes it the long-lasting popular favorite that it is: the teamwork, the adventure, the action, the drama, and yes, the humor, all are still definitely there. The reverence to classic "Star Trek" is intact, with cameo appearances by Klingons, Leonard Nimoy and even a Tribble. Yet, there is no stuffy feeling anywhere here, everything is fresh and jumping.  We are also re-introduced to Kirk's future (ex-)flame, Carol Marcus (played by Alice Eve).

I was very surprised that this film did not receive the huge hype that "Iron Man 3" did. This excellent film deserves and should make more than just good box office. Anyhow, I am glad that it would be steady positive word of mouth that would bring this film its immense success, and not overblown undeserved hype. Highly highly recommended, 10/10!

Dark Skies: Could Be A Very Good X-Files Episode

May 16, 2013

A typical middle-class suburban family suddenly have the strangest and eeriest of experiences happening right in their very home, to all the members of the family. These range from simple skin allergies to elaborate geometric skin markings, from photos disappearing from their frames to flocks of birds crashing into their windows. As their kids Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett) seem to be the targets of the unseen assailants, Lacy (Felicity Huffman) and Daniel (Josh Hamilton) have to race against time and the unknown to save their family. Can they?

"Dark Skies" straddles the genres of horror and science fiction. It is not bad at all. It is not overly ambitious. It achieves the goals it sets out to do effectively. Of course, there are typical horror clichés and convenient coincidences all around but the execution manages to make it work. The film is from the producers of "Paranormal Activity" and "Insidious" and you can see influences from those films. The main actors have some preposterous things to do and say, yet they still manage to pull it off somehow and make us care about them. I am not going to reveal here what exactly was going on in this film, but I can say that this could be a very good episode of the "X- Files" if Mulder and Scully were there.

Monday, May 6, 2013

One Piece Film: Z : My Intro to the One Piece Franchise

May 6, 2013

I thought the anime title was "Z", not "One Piece". Haha! I thought the lead character was the huge muscular guy with the huge mechanical right arm, not that scrawny kid with rubbery arms. That is how zilch I knew about this anime. However, the word of mouth about this film was good, so I brought my two sons with me.

That scrawny kid with rubbery arms is Monkey D. Luffy, the unlikely leader of his band of pirates called "Straw Hats" on his pirate ship called "Sunny." His crew is composed of swordsman Roronoa Zoro, sleazy chef Sanji, weird sniper Usopp, sexy voluptuous navigator Nami, sultry archaeologist Nico Robin and the other odd characters including a muscle bound cyborg named Franky, a skeleton named Brook and their pet-like doctor named Chopper. Luffy, Robin, Brook and Chopper have special powers derived from eating Devil Fruits.

In this adventure, Z, a giant of a man with a mechanical arm, sets off an explosion with Dyna Balls to destroy the so-called First End Point. It turns out that Z plans to destroy the whole world by destroying the three End Points. Luffy and his crew gets involved when they rescue Z from the sea, and when he found out they were pirates, Z's henchman Bin puts magic spells on some of the Straw Hats. Also after Z are the real Marines, from which Z rose from the ranks and once led as admiral, until tragedies made him turn to his dark side.

The beginning of this film was quite difficult to get through for someone who did not know anything about this franchise as there were so many characters I had to get familiar with. I was also somewhat annoyed with the strange artwork. It took quite some time for the story to clear up and for the action to be exciting. My kids who watch a lot of anime (not this one though) were quite antsy after the first hour and could not wait to go home. On the other hand, I got more and more interested during the second hour to see how everything would turn out at the end. 

This film made me interested to read up more about this anime. Now I know what One Piece is and who the Straw Hats were. Knowing them prior to watching would make this film more involving and easier to follow. I was surprised to learn that this is the best selling anime in Japan, but I have not even heard about it till now. 

Overall this movie is not bad at all. Those parts where the past of Z was revealed and how the whole story was resolved was very well-written. Come to think of it, this movie was really more about Z than the Straw Hats. Looking forward to another film more about Luffy and the Straw Hats next time. This is after all already the tenth One Piece full length film.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Trance: Danny Boyle's "Inception" (Without the Special Effects!)

May 5, 2013

An art auctioneer suffers amnesia when a robbery of a Goya masterpiece went wrong. A hypnotherapist was recruited to jog the memory out of him. Thus begins the multi-layered puzzle that is "Trance". I could not say more about the story as this remains for you to watch the unfolding of each scene that complicates the one before it.

Danny Boyle was very much in the news in the past few years because of his "Slumdog Millionaire" as well as his London Olympics gig. Now he returns to the big screen directing this fascinating Rubik's cube of a film, and that itself makes this film an event to witness.

James McAvoy plays Simon, the art auctioneer with a huge gambling debt caught in a bigger web, with the necessary cluelessness and helplessness. In fact, I could imagine Boyle's "trainspotting" discovery Ewan McGregor in this role had it been done ten years ago. 

Rosario Dawson lends her exotic appeal as hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb. It was her character that provides this film that complex structure which would keep the audience wondering which is reality and which is just a trance. She was credible as femme fatale, treading that delicate balance between good and bad, realistically keeping the two other male characters guessing at her real intentions. Her brave moment of frontal nudity was key to how the story turns, not gratuitous. 

Vincent Cassel plays Franck, the ruthless mastermind of the art heist. His character would have been a one-dimensional bad guy in a lesser actor's hands. Here Cassel gives Franck another level of what seems to be vulnerability, or then again, maybe not.

Fans of suspenseful film noir and of films that make you think will enjoy "Trance". I am sure many fans of this film will watch it again to try and get it the second or third time around. Boyle has given us "Inception" without the grand special effects. So good. Must-watch.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia": Not as Bad as the Title Would Suggest

May 1, 2013

First, the awful title. What kind of title is that? "Haunting in Connecticut 2", then followed by "Ghosts of Georgia". I don't think ghosts can bi-locate that far can they? Turns out it has nothing to do with Connecticut at all. They just wanted to ride on the true story theme of the first one, with the true story of this new film. Honestly, I did not think that was necessary. It just confused the audience, making people expect a totally B horror film.

That is unfortunate because the film was not bad at all. At first, this was a little run of the mill, a young family moves into a spooky looking house in the countryside. The mom Lisa, her sister Joyce, and the young daughter Heidi all can see ghosts. It turns out the house was part of the Underground Railroad during the 1800s, where someone called the Stationmaster (whose hobby was taxidermy) was supposed to have helped a good number of slaves escape. However, why are the spirits becoming increasingly violent?

The imagery of the ghosts was grotesquely good and scary. There was so skimping on disgusting crawling bugs. The taxidermy turned out to be more than just a trivial detail of the background story. One of the major scare scenes involves taxidermy needle and thread, and that was one crazy scene. OK, there were a lot of old horror flick clichés too, like sudden swells of music, people who did not want to leave despite the obvious dangers. 

The acting was not bad for badly-written characters. At least we saw what Chad Michael Murray is up to now after what seemed to be a promising start in his career. The ladies who played the sisters Lisa and Joyce played it up to par. The true star here is little Emily Alyn Lind, who played Heidi. She has the charm of "Firestarter"-age Drew Barrymore here. I hope she did not have nightmares or lifelong psych trauma while shooting this film. She looked genuinely shook up in some scenes. Very realistic acting for this talented little girl, I must say.

Overall, I felt this was a pretty good horror film, certainly not as bad as the clunky title would suggest. Creepy enough atmosphere, special effects, ghost make-up to give good scares. The historical back story also contributes to the depth of the film as a whole. I certainly do not consider this movie a waste of time as other critics would label it.