Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines: Three Films in One

June 29, 2013

"The Place Beyond the Pines" is a drama about two men and their sons, but this story was told in three distinct acts. Essentially, these are three short movies with a very tenuous connection, making one very long movie.

The first short film was about Luke, a motorcycle stuntman, who turned to robbing banks when he learned he had a son from a previous girlfriend (Eva Mendez). This segment could have been just so-so if not for the intense performance of Ryan Gosling as Luke. That scene during the baptism of his son Jason was very moving. It is just that this is basically the same Ryan Gosling we saw in "Drive" and "Blue Valentine." He is good, but he seems to be doing the same character over and over.

The second short film was about Avery, a lawyer turned cop. After being honored as a hero for killing a thief, he gets involved with some bad cops into extortion and drugs. He uses this sticky situation to his advantage to become assistant DA. I barely recognized Bradley Cooper as the young cop at first as his entrance was not too grand for a billed star. While Cooper was good as Avery, this story was simply so commonplace and undistinguished.

The third film was about the misadventures of two young men whose fathers just happened to be connected with each other, and the two previous stories. The unlikeliness of this event happening was what made this installment rather unstable. By this time, the film had already gone too long for so little to be happening. 

Overall, this could have been a better film despite the common stories had judicious editing been done to shorten the film to its essence. In this case, the length did not seem necessary to tell the simple stories. 5/10

Friday, June 28, 2013

THE HEAT: The Stars Make an Old Idea Work

June 28, 2013

The opening credits of "The Heat" bring us back to the 1970s cop shows. It was reminiscent of the credits of "Rockford Files" and "Streets of San Francisco" with fast paced scenes of the city streets with the credits in big bold letters.

We meet Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock), an overconfident, intelligent, ambitious but stuck-up FBI agent who was assigned to Boston to apprehend a big drug lord whose exact identity is unknown. Then we meet Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), who is an overweight, foul-mouthed, uncouth, but street-smart Boston detective. 

Of course, circumstances will force these two mismatched ladies to join forces despite their hatred of each other's guts. When Mullins' jailbird brother Jason gets involved with the elusive drug lord, conflicts arise between the two unlikely partners. Will Ashburn and Mullins ever get their act together and bust the notorious drug ring?

OK, this is not exactly original stuff. We've seen stories like this countless times before, both on the big and the small screens. But it is the unique combination of comic talents of Bullock and McCarthy that really make this film crackle and pop. As we know from all their previous comedies, these two ladies are not averse to putting themselves into the most awkward or most embarrassing situations to get the laughs. And they surely do that here!

Bullock basically reprises her "Miss Congeniality" character, as a law enforcer going undercover. But in this film, she is serious, straight-laced and unpopular with her peers, with a back story that gave her an uncommon drive to succeed, poor social skills, as well as her peculiar personality quirks.

McCarthy comes from a loud, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, redneck family. Shunned by her own family, she lives alone in a shabby apartment and drives a shabby car. But she is no-nonsense and fearless when it comes to apprehending criminals, not letting her considerable heft get in the way of her unconventional style of police work.

Overall, I enjoyed watching "The Heat". Seeing the strange-looking poster, I almost passed on it. But I'm such a Sandra Bullock fan, I couldn't resist to see her latest comedy film. Melissa McCarthy I didn't really like too much in her breakout film "Bridesmaids". I was prepared not to like her here. But as the film went on, I grew to like her abrasive character, and her. This film is not perfect (there was a poorly-executed choking scene that choked) nor is it wholesome (the vulgar language went overboard), but simply a lot of fun to watch. The stars make this old idea work -- big time!  7/10

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY: A Fun but Lightweight Prequel

June 26, 2013

Pixar's latest offering "Monsters University" is a prequel to their 2001 smash hit "Monsters Inc." In this installment, we are brought back in time, when our favorite monster heroes: Mike (the hyper green walking ball with one Cyclops eye, voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sully (the cool blue shaggy giant with the spotted arms, voiced by John Goodman) were just freshmen students at Monsters U, where they were enrolled in the "Scaring" program. We see how they first met, their classes, their professors, their schoolmates including Randy the lizard, their fraternity. As a bonus, we also see Monsters Inc., linking this with the first film.

Mainly, the film will showcase the "Greek Scare Games", an annual scaring competition where the Greek societies of Monsters U battle to be the "most fearsome monsters on campus". This competition will forge as well as challenge Mike and Sully's friendship, as our heroes discover more about each other and about themselves while going through the various events.

Beautiful may not really be the correct word to describe the artwork here, but let's just say that the artists were given their free hand to make the most imaginative and colorful monsters they can come up with. All the scenes in the monster world were bursting with bright colors and wacky designs, it was just lively to behold. The sprawling University campus itself looked like it was inspired by Harvard and its hallowed halls. In contrast, the scenes in the human world were drab and harsh, emphasizing the danger faced by the monsters in our world.

The story of "Monsters University" though is very reminiscent of so many other films chronicling the battle of the "losers" versus the "cool kids" in college. Oozma Kappa, their fraternity of odd geeks and outsiders, reminded me of Lambda Lambda from "Revenge of the Nerds". The two emcees of the Scare Games reminded me of "Pitch Perfect" and its a capella singing competition. Their terrifying dragon-formed Dean Hardscrabble reminded me a lot about Harry Potter's Professor Snape. However, what this film did keep intact is the heart that the original "Monsters Inc." was known for, extolling friendship, cooperation, loyalty and fair play.

Overall, this is another solid animated feature by Pixar. Like other Pixar films, this was funny, with just the right amount of emotion and moral lesson in it. The movie is very entertaining for the whole family, but maybe more for the kids and the kids at heart. However, the story line is too familiar and derivative to be really distinct, much unlike the innovative first film, which had a very original and mature story. You will definitely have a good time while watching the monsters and their shenanigans, but you may not even really remember it too well anymore after a while.

After the lackluster "Cars 2" and the disappointing "Brave," I was a bit concerned that "Monsters University" turned out to be another rather lightweight entry, relative to all the other illustrious Pixar films, that is. With reports of a "Finding Nemo" sequel in the works, I do hope Pixar can soon come up with another ground-breaking ORIGINAL story to bring back them back to their glory days. 6/10.

DISCONNECT: A Must-See Cautionary Tale for All Netizens

June 26, 2013

I have not seen a movie like “Disconnect” in a long while. It has this style of telling about the lives of various different seemingly unconnected characters working up to one common story that intertwines all of them together.  A decade ago, this style was very popular.  This was first brought to prominence by the acclaimed Mexican movie “Amores Perros”, and then we saw it in “Traffic”, “21 Grams”, culminating in the Oscar Best Picture Award given to “Crash.”  “Disconnect” brings us back to those days when complex intersecting story lines ruled the cinemas.
“Disconnect” leads us into the lives of four characters and their families.  What all of them have in common is that they all have been a victim of some sort of Internet crime and abuse.  The start of the film was very discomforting to watch.  We witness how various internet chat sites can be so dangerous.  This is true whatever the nature of this chat site is, whether this is a private pornographic live chat room or a support group chat room for bereaved families.   We will see sexual exploitation, bullying, fraud, identity theft, and various other internet crimes in action.  We will also see the adverse effects these crimes have on the victims and their loved ones. 
The actors were all very good in their roles.  I recognize a few of them.  Jason Bateman (from “Horrible Bosses”) is the busy lawyer whose introverted son was bullied at school.  Paula Patton (from “Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol”) is a lonely neglected wife who confides her problems on a chat room with someone who could have just stolen all their money.  Andrea Riseborough (from “Oblivion”) is a television journalist determined to go up in her profession even if it would cause problems to the young man who granted her the interview which would land her on CNN.  The other young actors playing the bully, the bullied, and the sex site boy toy all gave memorable performances as well.
The pace of the movie is slow, and I think this was deliberate to make us feel how insidious these crimes can be.  They can be happening to us without us ever knowing about it, until the consequences hit us squarely on the face.  The director makes us of very dramatic camera angles and apt visual effects to emphasize his points.  The editing done was very effective to create an intense feeling of dread and tension.  Despite the PG rating given this film locally, the topic of the film is very adult, as well as the treatment, with scenes of nudity, sex, drugs and violence. 
This is a very serious and very thought-provoking film for this Internet Age we are in right now.  In our obsession to remain connected to our virtual world on our favorite social media sites, are we actually being disconnected from our very own families, and other flesh and blood people around us?  A must-see cautionary tale for all netizens.  Highly recommended.  8/10.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

GAMBIT: Fun, Neat, Delightful Little Comedy Caper

June 22, 2013

I had no idea what "Gambit" would be about when I watched. It was the stellar cast of Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz and Alan Rickman that convinced me to try this low-key film release. And I am sure glad I did.

"Gambit" is a funny little comedy about art curator Harry Deane (Firth) hatching a caper to sell a forgery of a Monet painting to his own haughty boss (Rickman). Deane picks an American rodeo champion, PJ Puznowski (Diaz) as accomplice, or does she have other plans up her sleeve?

The very British comedy had been written by the very American Ethan and Joel Coen, with very wry and witty results. Surely, there is no out-of- the-box, off-the-wall "Fargo" or "Raising Arizona" Coens in this film. This is simple and straightforward, old-fashioned and delightful comedy. I do wonder why they chose not to direct it themselves.  The directorial credit goes to Michael Hoffman, who directed "One Fine Day" and "The Last Station."

Colin Firth takes a rare respite from his serious period films with this film where his sad-sack character gets into the most unfortunate and ridiculous of circumstances. His scenes on the ledge outside the windows of the Savoy Hotel, were laugh-out-loud hilarious.  That it was Colin Firth we see up there, and not Rowan Atkinson, is something special.

Alan Rickman plays a very rich, formal and ruthless CEO here, but we get to see him in a couple of the most embarrassing scenes in the film. We will forget that he was Harry Potter's Prof. Snape as we watch this. 

Cameron Diaz again plays a pretty, perky girl, seemingly lacking brain matter (but not).  This is a character she can play with a blindfold, much like Natalie in "Charlie's Angels."  However, she is nonetheless still fun to watch as PJ. 

Overall, this is one very entertaining film.  It is fun. It is neat. That it was distinguished British actor Tom Courtenay playing the very talented art forger Major, Deane's partner-in-crime, is a bonus. I enjoyed "Gambit" a lot, and I think you will too. 6/10

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"WORLD WAR Z": The Book vs. The Movie

June 20, 2013

The trailer for this film was very exciting as it was cryptic.  It did not show anything really about what the film was about, except for some big unknown event that was turning the city into sudden chaos one morning, wreaking havoc in the life of Brad Pitt and his family.  Then we see the whole world getting affected in a major way, as well.  The mystery, the scope and the title, made me look forward to catching the film when it opened.

When I found out that there was a book that inspired this film,  I sought it out to read it before I watched the movie.  I was very surprised to discover that the Z in this book's title, and I guess likewise the film's, means ZOMBIES!  The trailers (wisely, I thought) did NOT show zombies at all.  

The 2006 book by Max Brooks was a compilation of short man vs. zombie stories via interviews he had supposedly conducted all over the world from several eyewitnesses, an oral history of sorts.  The book goes into a lot of political, sociological and environmental issues as it tells its story from various points of view from various nationalities from various countries, like China, Greece, Brazil, Antarctica, Siberia, the USA (of course), and more.

More than 50% into the book, I did not read any scene at all that even remotely resembled the scenes shown in the trailer.  As I continued to read, I was thinking it would really be difficult to turn the book into a film as is, because of its various points of view, without one single unifying story line.  I was ready at that point to concede that this Brad Pitt film may have nothing to do with the book except for the main "fighting a worldwide zombie infestation" premise.  And I turned out to be right.


"World War Z", the film, is about Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former UN special operations agent and field investigator who had retired from that job to be with his family.  (This character Gerry Lane was NOT even in the book.)  We follow Gerry's adventures as it starts in his home town of Philadelphia, PA, as we saw in the trailer, when he gets his family to safety, and was then assigned to play a vital role in the zombie fight.  

The rest of the film brings Gerry to Korea, Israel, and Wales as he was able to observe and hypothesize a possible weakness in these zombies.  The latter third of the film happens in a WHO facility where Gerry was able to actually conduct the experiment he needed to prove his theory.  Can Gerry discover the key to turn the tide of the war to the human's favor or will the zombies continue to spread their plague?

The zombie scenes were NOT unnecessarily gory.  There were NO scenes of exploding heads or trailing guts or gushing body fluids commonly shown in other zombie films, even as they were very graphically described in the book.  While horror purists would call this lame, the way it was done in this film was not any less exciting, but instead makes this movie more accessible for more people to watch.  This could have been a spectacular gore fest, but obviously the filmmakers had a different vision in mind.

The scenes of the mass zombie attacks were very well-executed by the computer generated visual effects.  The Jerusalem scenes, especially those at the Wall, were especially disturbing and heart-racing.  The scenes on the Belarus Airlines jet plane were also exciting as they were unbelievable.  

The filmmakers try their best to give credible scientific approach to the problem, and I would give them props for that.  This is even if their plan of action was on the simplistic side, and shaky in the medical sense.  Opportunistic infections, anyone?  However, they did prepare us for that solution by the statement a character makes at the beginning of the mission.

Brad Pitt did well as the lead actor.  He was practically the only known name in the cast, and he dominates the screen with this star presence.  Yet, we can still empathize with his character Gerry and the difficult situations he got into, no matter how incredibly lucky or superhuman he may have become.  He had a "sort-of" commercial for a particular soft-drink brand towards the end, which was amusing, yet still well-integrated in the action of the scene.

Overall, I found this movie by Director Marc Foster, in itself, quite absorbing and intense, and ultimately quite entertaining and satisfying in terms of its action and story telling.  Maybe they should have just given the film a different title so expectations about it can be tempered.  It had almost nothing to do with the book anyway, which is why the book's fans are up in arms against it. Those who have not read the book at all will have no problems with this film.  7/10

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

MAN OF STEEL: Excellent Reboot, but Too Much Like "Superman II"

June 12, 2013

"Man of Steel" gives us a twist in the usual way the story of Superman has been told. We see a number of scenes of Clark as a bullied child struggling to cope with and control his special powers. We see young Clark as some anonymous worker, hitchhiking from odd job to odd job. We see Lois Lane meet Clark in one of his odd jobs in the Arctic, not as a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet. We do not hear Perry White say "Great Caesar's Ghost!", nor did we meet Jimmy Olsen.

It was very heartening how we get to meet more of Superman's real and adoptive parents more in this film. We see that Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) lived up to 1997, and he did not die from a heart attack. We see Martha Kent (Diane Lane) still alive when Superman begin his career as a hero. We still see Jor-el (Russell Crowe) in many other parts of the film guiding Clark (and Lois!) even as we see him die at the beginning. The relationships of Kal-el/Clark with his fathers and how these shaped him as a hero is a central theme of this film, and I liked that a lot.

The whole movie is essentially a remake of "Superman II", which was arguably the best of the Christopher Reeve series. In that film, as with this one, Superman faces General Zod and his minions, who was able to escape his fate in the Phantom Zone and found his way to Earth to create havoc here. This familiar scenario is the main reason why this film is not a perfect 10 for me.  If you have not seen the 1980 film, then it will be no problem.  General Zod in this film (Michael Shannon) had different, much deeper motivations for attacking Earth from the first one, which was simply revenge for Jor-el sending them into the Phantom Zone. 

Of course, with today's computer-generated technology, the special effects were much bigger and better than before. Gone was the simplistic shiny white spiked space pod which brought Kal-El to Earth or the flat rectangular mirror prison of Zod et al. in the Phantom Zone. The fight scenes were so much more explosive, ala Michael Bay style, since both Supes and Zod had matching superpowers crashing through practically all the buildings in the area where they were fighting. Both Smallville and Metropolis were practically demolished to ruins after the big scale martial combat of the Kryptonians. 

Henry Cavill cut a very dashing figure as the new "Man of Steel." His was a brawny, hirsute Clark. His acting style was serious and intense, but never shallow, unlike the last Routh version. Cavill was a fiercer, more macho Superman. I must admit though that it was a little funny how he suddenly became clean-shaven with neat shiny hair once he donned the new Superman costume for the first time. 

Amy Adams was a strong no-nonsense Lois Lane. Although of course she too had a scene where Superman made her knees weak, but this romance angle was gradually introduced. The dynamics of their relationship was changed quite a bit in this version. There was of course that scene where they fly together, but the situation was totally different and there was no soaring romantic music and poetry reading in the background like the Reeve-Kidder version. I am sure this relationship will be explored more in sequels to come.

Overall, this is a very satisfying reboot of the Superman series by Zach Snyder. I liked that they took this one seriously, not devoid of humor but without the slapstick that made previous versions corny. The technical aspects of the film were excellent, especially the rich cinematography, the fast-paced editing, as well as the visual and sound effects of the battle scenes. I looking forward to seeing them reinterpret the evil genius of Lex Luthor in a future installment. This film has a charm distinct enough form the Reeve version and will be a successful franchise of its own.  8/10

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Reviewing Three Films From the 18th French Film Festival in Manila

June 9, 2013

The 18th French Film Festival was held at the Greenbelt 3 Cinemas in the last three days, from June 7-9, 2013. Featured films are: "What's in a Name", "The Dandelions", "Camille Rewinds", "Cycling with Moliere", and "Rust and Bone." As before, admission is FREE!  

Here are my personal reviews of three of these films:

1)  CYCLING WITH MOLIERE (original title: "Alceste à bicyclette")

"Alceste à bicyclette" is about two actors. One is Gauthier Valance (Lambert Wilson), a handsome actor who is currently the star of a medical drama on TV. The second is Serge Tanneur (Fabrice Luchini), a retired old school actor who now lives a hermit-like life on a small resort town.

Valance planned to stage celebrated French playwright Moliere's ultimate classic play entitled "The Misanthrope." Valance wanted to play the lead role Alceste, and was coaxing Tanneur out of retirement to play the secondary role of Philinte. Tanneur could not make up his mind and convinced Valance to stay on for a week, so they can practice reading the play, each actor alternating in each role.

However, an Italian divorcée named Francesca (Maya Sansa) gets into the picture and drives the story of the two actors from its multiple scenes of rehearsals to its climax and resolution. 

I knew no French, and had to rely on English translations. I am pretty sure that a lot of the humor and drama was lost in the translation. The other problem is the fact that I did not know "The Misanthrope" nor about Moliere himself. So I am sure I am also missing out on a lot of nuances in the conversations between the two guys. 

This movie is all about passion -- the consuming passion of Tanneur about Moliere, in particular. I can try to understand it of course, but I am sure I would appreciate it more had I known more about the playwright and his works. 5/10


2)  WHAT'S IN A NAME? (original title: "Le prénom")

"Le Prenom" is about a group of five middle-aged friends who are having a Moroccan dinner get-together one night. The hosts are Pierre (a literature professor) and his dutiful wife Elisabeth (nicknamed Babou). Claude is a professional trombonist who was Elisabeth's best friend. Vincent is Elisabeth's joker of a brother, whose wife Anna is pregnant with their first child. 

It was the matter of naming Vincent and Anna's unborn baby boy that starts us off in this adventure of bitter wit and sharp barbs all within the confines of Pierre's apartment. From a heated argument about the name Vincent plans to give his son, their conversation devolves into more serious and painful matters about each other's secrets they have been keeping from each other all these thirty odd years they have known each other as close friends.

"Le Prenom," with its confined action and lengthy dialogues, felt like a play. The passionate cast, led by Vincent Bruel and Charles Berling, were also acting like stage actors with their over-the top, exaggerated (therefore not too realistic for film) reactions and exclamations. I found out afterwards that it was adapted by Mathieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patelliere, based on their 2011 stage play. 

This script of this film is reminiscent of a 2008 French play by Yasmina Reza called "Gods of Carnage", made into a film called "Carnage" by Roman Polanski. That play/film had two middle-aged couple whose arguments begin from a fight between their sons to topics totally different from what they started talking about. My previous blog entry about "Gods of Carnage" had been picked up by Rappler and published HERE.

As with other foreign language films, I felt a lot of the humor and wit is lost in translation into the English subtitles. Especially in a very wordy screenplay like this one with practical jokes and secret revelations, so much subtleties in the use of language is expected, and I surely missed. This is already very good as I watching it, but I have a feeling French-speaking people found it even better. I will definitely watch a live English language performance of this play if there was one. 6/10


3)  RUST AND BONE (original title: "De rouille et d'os")

"Rust and Bone" had Oscar buzz earlier this year, though it did not earn any nominations. This latest Jacques Audiard opus is the most familiar title there in this film festival.

Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a street fighter, a selfish brute of a guy. Ali lives largely for himself alone, treating people around him like mere objects. Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is a killer whale trainer who lost her legs in a freak accident. She is very frustrated by her unconventional relationship with Ali. Will it have to take a major catastrophic event to snap Ali out of his numbed sensibilities?

Your attention will undoubtedly be riveted to Marion Cotillard as she is the highlight of this film. This attention will be both for her passionate performance, as well the astounding special visual effect of her without two legs. Those scenes of Stephanie swimming at the beach or in the throes of passion in bed were so realistic. There was also a scene of Cotillard with a killer whale very memorable for its beauty. 

Too bad Cotillard was not on screen too much for the last quarter of the film, and we will miss her presence. But that last quarter was when Matthias Schoenaerts ups his acting card and comes up with a performance to remember before the film ends.

This is not a film for everybody. The development of the story is very slow, in typical French fashion. It took almost two hours to reach its climax, which may not sit well with viewers used to Hollywood films. There were graphic scenes of sex and violence, reflecting Ali's lifestyle, which may be too repetitive. However, those who patiently wait for the ending sequences will be satisfactorily rewarded.  6/10

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Stand Up Guys: Pacino, Walken, Arkin... Nuff' Said

June 7, 2013

This is a quiet little film out in theaters last week, but not really getting any attention. However, if you look at the names in the cast: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin. This is one powerhouse list of Oscar-winning actors! I simply had to see what this unheralded film was all about.

Val (Pacino) just got released from prison after a 25-year sentence. Doc (Walken), his best friend, picks him up. It turned out Doc had been told by their mob boss to kill Val, but he could not do it. On the contrary, Doc and Val spend one wild night on various odd spontaneous adventures and misadventures, which included visits to a brothel, stealing Viagra and cars, helping a rape victim get her vengeance, meeting and burying an old friend. But in the end, they still had one last big hit they had to do.

Overall, this is just OK. This is old-fashioned film making with old school stars. It may be hard for the new generation to sit through as Pacino and company ham it up tongue-in-cheek. The pace is slow and the story-telling took its time.

The comedy is low key, and yes, it can be corny. For me, it only picked up from the point where they met Hirsch (Alan Arkin) sometime halfway through the film, and from there, it got more interesting (a little at least) up to the end. You only watch it for the sake of seeing these senior actors show us what chops they still got in them. Like its tagline says, they sure don't make them like they used to.  4/10

Friday, June 7, 2013

Side Effects: Will Keep You Thinking Up to the End

June 7, 2013

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is very depressed woman. After a suicide attempt, she meets psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). He sincerely tries to help her out of her depression with pills. Emily commits a big crime, seemingly a side effect of her latest anti- depressant pill. The tables are turned and Dr. Banks is now the bad guy, having been the one who prescribed the pill. Can the good doctor still clear his name and get his once good life back?

Rooney Mara plays Emily believably as a fragile woman teetering on the brink of sanity. Channing Tatum plays her supportive husband Martin, who was just released from prison.  Jude Law goes from confident albeit over-worked doctor to a damaged man obsessed with getting out of the sticky situation he has been framed in. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Dr. Victoria Siebert, Emily's former psychiatrist with whom Dr. Banks collaborates. The moral ambiguity of all these characters were all captured effectively by these actors.

Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns come up with a taut, complex psychological thriller with "Side Effects". You never know what you are going get next up to the last scenes. Medical doctors, in particular, will be intrigued with the possible legal implications of the medicines they prescribe to their patients.  The ending though seems flawed, with some ethical questions, in the legal, as well as medical, standpoints. But I don't think it really mars the entire impact of the film as a whole as an effective conundrum. This film will keep you thinking up to the end. 7/10.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

After Earth: Utterly Charmless and Dull

June 6, 2013

"After Earth" was about a future where humans have left ecologically-devastated Earth to live on another planet. Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is a highly ranked, highly respected Ranger who is disappointed that his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) could not even make it to Ranger school. One time, Cypher brings Kitai along on a mission but an asteroid storm caused their craft to crash land on Earth. This accident kills their whole crew except for father and son. Cypher was crippled with severely injured legs. This leaves Kitai the only able body left to look for their distress beacon to call for help. But of course the kid has to face his worst nightmares to recover it and prove his worth to his father.

Sci-fi films are on a roll this year, with excellent films like "Oblivion" or "Star Wars Into Darkness". Unfortunately, this one did not follow suit. "After Earth" was really bad. There was so much bland pretentious talking and ugly computer-generated creatures, it did not succeed to be interesting at all. The acting of Will Smith was so uncharacteristically wooden and robotic, while that of Jaden Smith was typically whiny and annoying. With Will's character hurt and dying, the burden of carrying the film fell on Jaden, who was utterly charmless and dull. Director M Night Shyamalan has certainly added another bad film to his list.

Overall, this film is forgettable even while you are still watching it, as your mind will wander off as it flounders in its lifeless exposition. It was a generic father-son story with an unappealing futuristic setting.  On posters, "After Earth" looked like a promising sci-fi film starring Will and Jaden Smith. Even if I was not a fan of Will Smith, I was curious to see how father and son will fare acting together. Sadly, they did not fare well. I think it was because the material was not able to show any dynamic father-and-son rapport between the two. The two were not even together for majority of this film. This film was as lame as Will's appropriately-named character Cypher was. It cannot even stand up on its own. 3/10 only for me.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Now You See Me: A Fun and Intelligent Magical Ride!

June 5, 2013

This film opened as a low key movie release locally. However, I kept reading praises about it from social media, I resolved to give it a try and see it for myself. I had a lot of fun watching, and I believe, so will you.

The fascinating premise of the film begins even before the opening credits. We meet four talented magicians who had been summoned by a mysterious hooded stranger who left them each a invitation card marked by an eye design at the backs. A year later, they were the toast of Vegas, calling themselves the Four Horsemen, staging big elaborate magic shows. One performance, they picked a Frenchman "randomly" from the audience to create the illusion that he had robbed a bank in Paris. Police and Interpol get involved when money really disappeared from that bank! 

That incredibly staged heist is only the beginning of a puzzling roller coaster ride of a film that will keep you wondering to the very end. Director Louis Leterrier (whose debut was "Transporter" in 2002) has executed a very energetic, intelligent and most importantly, entertaining film. 

The actors were all so eager, smart and funny in their roles. Jesse Eisenberg is believable as an arrogant control freak street illusionist. Woody Harrelson as a down-on-his-luck mentalist is outstandingly hilarious. Isla Fisher has gone a long way from her awkward debut in that Scooby Doo film. Just when you thought Dave Franco (younger brother of James) is just a minor player in all this, he will surprise us with an exciting fight scene and car chase. 

And on the other side, Mark Ruffalo is just so right as the harassed police officer who always seemed to be two steps behind the magicians. Veterans Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman add their cool credibility to the mix, as they always do to any film they are associated with.

While it is a pity that we do not get to meet the four magicians more in depth, and some of the illusions and action stunts were too impossible (and too CG), I think we can overlook and forgive those little quibbles. Do not think too hard and over-analyze about the twists and turns this film takes you on (especially in the final minutes), just sit back and enjoy the fun ride while it lasts. It is, after all, all about magic. 8/10.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Apartment 1303: Could've Improved on Japanese Original, But Still Failed

June 4, 2013

This film should not be confused with "Apartment 143", also currently being shown in local theaters.  "Apartment 1303"  is another American production of a Japanese original horror flick. For a while, I thought that for a change, this American version could actually improve on the Japanese version, which was in itself bad. But as it ended, this was not really the case.

I have seen the Japanese version of Apartment 1303 before seeing the American version. The Japanese version was not in the league of "The Ring" or "The Grudge" at all. The story was so-so, and the quality of the film was not good. I am surprised that it was actually picked up for an American version. I guess they saw a chance to actually improve on a Japanese original and went for it.

In both versions, the story revolved around an apartment that a girl got for a good rental price. This girl falls out of her balcony and dies. Her sister comes over to investigate what happened. It turns out the apartment had a chilling history about a ghostly previous tenant who apparently did not want others to occupy her flat even long after her death. That's it. I frankly do not see anything remarkable about that generic story line.

In the Japanese version, this girl started acting strangely (like eat dog food) then jumped out of her balcony in the presence of her shocked friends right in the first ten minutes. In the American version, the girl Janet (Julianne Michelle) had about half the movie for herself, getting spooked crazy from Day 1 but staunchly staying (as most horror movie damsels do), even having a wild night of sex with her boyfriend there, before she fell off her balcony and died.

The family dynamics were also very different, particularly about the mother. In the Japanese version, the mother felt depressed out of her mind after her daughter's death, staying very quiet and withdrawn. In the American version, it could not be more different. The mother Maddie Slate was played by ex-screen vixen Rebecca de Mornay in a florid portrayal of an alcoholic ex-pop star at constant odds with her two daughters. 

The ending has been changed significantly as well. In any case the endings are both not executed very well. The Japanese had a more satisfying ending idea, but the way it was shown on screen was very awkward and corny. In the American version though, the ghost responsible for the mayhem was changed. The events and the aftermath were also very different, but far blander and boring. I felt they should have just improved how to present the original Japanese ending, but they took the safer way out. 3/10