Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review of THE INTERN: Fatherly Friendship

September 30, 2015

70 year old Ben Whitaker joins a new program for retirees and was assigned to be a senior intern for Jules Ostin, a very successful 32 year old owner of About the Fit, a fast-rising internet clothing company. His winning gentlemanly ways endear him to his co-workers, and eventually even to his difficult boss. Ben came at a time when Jules was deciding whether she needs to hire a CEO for her firm to help her keep up with the escalating demands of the business, as well as her home life with her stay-at-home husband Matt and daughter Paige.

I admit that initially with only the bare knowledge of its synopsis, I did not really plan to watch this film. Although I like Anne Hathaway, I can't say I would say the same for Robert de Niro's body of work lately. However, with all the initial positive ratings I saw praising "The Intern", I decided I should also see this film for myself. 

From playing Meryl Streep's intern in "The Devil Wears Prada," a more mature Anne Hathaway plays a boss this time. The role of Jules Ostin really fit Hathaway very well, and she was really very natural playing her. She was convincing as a successful woman struggling to keep her demanding business schedule up and balancing it with her domestic duties as wife and mother. She really imbued her character with so much relatability, we empathize fully with what she is going through. Her restraint was admirable.

I had to change my initial apprehension of Robert de Niro's present state of acting with his understated yet brilliant performance here as Ben Whitaker. The script makes his character so perfect, so ideal, too good to be true. Yet, de Niro makes him believable and real, warm and engaging. We will all want to meet someone like him to be our friend and confidante. Even if Ben had a lot of potentially awkward situations here with Jules, but the chemistry between de Niro and Hathaway keeps everything swimmingly afloat.

A lot of the comic relief came from the gang of younger interns at work whom Ben also helps out with their respective issues. These were Jason (Adam DeVine), Davis (Zack Pearlman) and Lewis (Jason Orley). The four of them had a adventure caper sequence about breaking and entering a house that on paper may have felt very out of place in the main story. But as it was executed, it was a comic highlight of the film that I really enjoyed. 

It was good to see Rene Russo again in another one of her rare movie roles. She had a comeback of sorts two years ago as a ruthless TV news producer in "Nightcrawler". While I like Russo's performance, her role was very strange -- a company masseuse. I did not realize that companies would even have a job like that. 

They cast Anders Holm, an actor more known for comedy, in the critical role of Jules' husband Matt. He did not possess the typical Hollywood leading man looks which made him feel more real. His performance in the dramatic confrontation scene with Jules was very effective, it was a pleasant surprise.

Writer-Director Nancy Meyer has an impressive list of comedies under her belt, mostly about human relationships, like "What Women Want," "Something's Gotta Give" and "It's Complicated." "The Intern" is also about problems and dilemmas modern women face, but it explores another type of friendship. The script was witty and smart as what Meyer was known for. I liked the nostalgia about lost gentlemanly habits, like shaving daily or bringing a handkerchiefs.  The characters were admittedly all so feel-good-natured to be real people. However, the acting talent and palpable chemistry of the cast injected these characters with such vitality, that we the audience can fully empathize with them. 8/10.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Review of ATTACK ON TITAN 2: END OF THE WORLD: Rushed and Raw

September 25, 2015

This sequel to last month's live-action version of the manga/anime "Attack on Titan." That was a much-anticipated film because of the popularity of the anime. However, it was uniformly met with bad reviews and fan disappointment because of the poor Titan special effects, but more because of the significant, arguably ill-advised or unnecessary changes in the storyline made to fit a live-action format.

The first episode ended with the revelation that Eren was actually the special Titan who was killing the other regular Titans. This sequel began with an inquiry conducted by a ruthless Director General who seemed to want nothing but to execute Eren. Of course, Eren's friend Armin bravely argued for his friend. The action builds up to a climactic grand three-way fight among three special Titans on the outermost wall. 

This sequel, released just a month after the original, was only about an hour and a half long. The first 20 minutes or so was just a reiteration of the event in the first film. For me, the two films could have been simply integrated into one longer film. We do not see much of the regular Titans anymore in this film. We will also see the origin of the Titans and the reason why Eren become a Titan recalled in flashbacks which I wished were treated with more details and clarity. 

Like the first film, and even more so in this sequel, we see over-the-top acting from most of the cast. The main group of young soldiers, led of course by the trio of lead characters: Eren Yeager (Haruma Miura), Mikasa Ackerman (Mizuhara Kiko), and Armin Arlert (Kanata Hongô). The Mikasa of the films was not at all like the Mikasa in the anime. We see at least one act of bravery from each of their friends as well, namely Sasha Blouse aka Potato Girl (Nanami Sakuraba), Jean Kirstein (Takahiro Miura) and Sannagi (Satoru Matsuo). 

We see more of the bespectacled,, incredibly (and hilariously) hyperactive senior female officer Hange Zoë (Satomi Ishihara).  We will get a surprising revelation about the enigmatic Shikishima (Hiroki Hasegawa), the character that replaced Levi Ackerman, "Humanity's Strongest Soldier" in the manga/anime. A similarly remarkable storyline follows the human antagonist Kubal (Jun Kunimura). Unfortunately, the film does not give us a satisfactory explanation about what happened to these last two characters.

This film just sought to close the main storyline started by the first film, direct to the point. No more side detours were included. It was all over in less than 90 minutes. Unfortunately, a major part of this sequel was just a lot of talking, with practically no action in the first hour. By the time it reached the battle-royale in the last thirty minutes, a lot of the audience may have already zoned out. It was not really much of a cinematic Armageddon as promised by its title. 4/10.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Review of HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2: Juvenile Jeopardy

September 25, 2015

According to the 2012 animated film, Count Dracula ran "Hotel Transylvania" as a resort for monsters who wanted to get away from the humans who frighten them. One day, a human boy named Jonathan stumbles upon the existence of this hotel and falls for the gothic charms of Dracula's daughter Mavis. Being the over-protective dad that he was, single-dad Dracula does everything to keep the two from falling in love.

In this sequel, Jonathan and Mavis got married and have a son Dennis. Dracula was very concerned that his grandson Dennis was already turning five, but was not showing any signs of being a vampire. So while Mavis and Jonathan fly to California to visit his parents, Dracula and his wacky gang of monsters bring Dennis to a vampire summer camp, hoping the kid's fangs come out faster.

From the poster alone, we already know that this sequel will be a cute juvenile romp with delightful "monsters". The story line is reminiscent of other films, like "Sky High" or "The Incredibles," about the distress caused by an offspring who apparently did not have the superpowers of his parents. In the first film, the laughs came from Dracula struggling with the problem of his daughter falling in love with a human. In this sequel, it was also Dracula's struggles about this grandson that make this film funny (mildly) more than anything else.

Since this is a sequel, the artwork was basically the same as the first one, with most of the characters coming back to reprise their roles. Curiously, the look of the new main character baby Dennis was not at all original. With his full head of wild curly red hair, Dennis looked almost exactly like the baby brothers of Merida in "Brave."  The design of Great Grandpa Vlad and more so his scary sidekick Bela and his army of ghoulish vampire bats could be the stuff of nightmares for very young kids. The special effect of flames looked very good.

Adam Sandler's voice was very apparent as Count Dracula. You can totally imagine him talking in that "Dracula" accent. The cast list boasts of an impressive roster of noted comedians past and present who were all able to project their comic personas through their voice work for their characters. Of course, Sandler's usual movie posse is there composed of Kevin James (as Frankenstein), Steve Buscemi (as Werewolf Wayne), and David Spade (as Invisible Man Griffin). Andy Samberg plays the goofy Jonathan opposite teen star Selena Gomez as Mavis. In smaller supporting roles are Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman (as human grandparents Linda and Mike), Dana Carvey (as Camp Counselor Dana), Fran Drescher (as Frankenstein's wife Eunice), and the most esteemed Mel Brooks (as Vlad).

This another one of those zany, hyper, and yes, predictable animated films for the juvenile set, ultimately not too memorable. Despite the illustrious cast of comics though, the big laughs in this film are only few and far between. At most, a smile or a little chuckle here and there are all you get. Despite some disturbing scenes of apparent child endangerment in this film, you know this is all done in the spirit of silly fun and nothing bad is really going to happen. 5/10.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Review of ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL: On Friendship and Films

September 18, 2015

Greg (Thomas Mann) is an awkward introverted teenager who would rather stay invisible in high-school. Together with his childhood pal Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he would rather call his "co-worker," Greg would rather create strange little videos spoofing films he watched, as influenced by his quirky stay-at-home Dad (Nick Offerman). 

One day, Greg's overeager Mom (Connie Britton) nags him to visit his schoolmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who had just been diagnosed to have Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. While Greg's first visit was coerced, he and Rachel actually hit it off very well and became very good friends. However, it was a friendship he described as "doomed" from the start.

Like all the other coming-of-age films before it, from "The Breakfast Club" to "The Perks of Being a Wallflower", "Me and Earl" also tackles friendship among teens and how these friendships develop their individual personalities. Being an independent film, "Me and Earl" does not exactly have the gloss of a big Hollywood production. However, being indie -- with unknown actors and non-mainstream musical soundtrack-- gave it a fresh and unusual vibe. 

Lead actor Thomas Mann, with his unusual sad sack facial features, was the perfect actor for a role like Greg. He might be trapped in playing socially-inept nerdy characters like this for sometime though. RJ Cyler has that cool laid back brother vibe as Earl. It would also be his character who suddenly would spout the most intuitive and profound sentiments at the most unexpected moments. Olivia Cooke was radiant as the ill-fated Rachel. Her big round eyes are very expressive of her inner thoughts.

Being a film buff, the best of parts of the movie for me are those hilarious spoofs of old classic films as ingeniously made by Greg and Earl. Breathless (1960) by Jean-Luc Godard became "Breathe Less". The Grapes of Wrath (1940) by John Ford became "The Prunes of Wrath". Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa became "Monorash". The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman became "The Seven Seals". A Clockwork Orange (1971) by Stanley Kubrick became "A Sockwork Orange".  These delightful juvenile parodies were painstakingly made combining live action with stop-action animation and puppetry. The cover designs of their DVD covers were also very witty.

This film may not be for all tastes. Just last year, the depressing topic of cancer in a teenager was tackled in the box-office hit "The Fault in Our Stars." "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" may have the same central story, but it has a remarkable difference -- this is not a love story, not exactly. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has a hip and vibrant vision of Jesse Andrews' script (adapted from his own novel). It is more of a coming of age movie, about a teenager discovering himself and the friends around him. It was more about the journey and the artistic way it was told, than its inevitable destination. 7/10.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Review of EVEREST: An Adventure Glorious and Gloomy

September 17, 2015

This film tells the true story of a group of men who dared to climb to the peak, braving a harsh environment physiologically-incompatible with human life. Bob Cotter ran Adventures Consultants, a service to guide climbers willing to shell out $75,000 up to the Everest summit. His support staff includes base camp manager Helen Wilton, medic Dr. Caroline Mackenzie, along with a number of expert climbers and native sherpas for guides. 

For the fateful climb on May 10, 1976, we follow expedition group leader Rob Hall and his group composed of doctor Beck Weathers, mailman Doug Hansen, journalist Jon Krakauer (who eventually wrote the book about this climb), female Japanese veteran climber Yasuko Namba and others. Before their big climb on May 10, they first had a month-long training camp on the lower levels of the mountain in order to acclimatize their bodies to the inhospitable conditions. While the group was up the mountain though, a deadly blizzard descends upon the mountain, placing all the men on the mountain in extreme peril.

Jason Clarke radiated a lot of warmth as compassionate New Zealander expedition group leader Rob Hall. His conversations with his pregnant wife Jan (played by Keira Knightley in a brief yet remarkable supporting performance) were touching and heartbreaking. 

Josh Brolin was loud and arrogant as the wealthy Texan climber Beck. John Hawkes was perfectly self-effacing as Doug, a poor working man whose climb was partially sponsored by school children. Despite his prominent billing, Jake Gyllenhaal plays only a small role as an unconventional surfer-type rival guide. As in his previous films, Sam Worthington was not really very memorable as Bob Cotter. Emily Watson was motherly as the distressed manager Helen. 

I am partial to mountain adventures more than the beach. Based on my limited number of hikes up mountains like Pinatubo or Diamondhead, reaching the peak gives such a victorious feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment. Knowing my limitations as a climber, I know that climbing even a segment of Everest is but an impossible pipe dream. 

That is why I liked this movie a lot. With its spectacular cinematography, this film brought me up to the summit of Everest in such a realistic, involving way. The places on the majestic mountain which I never would have even dreamed of seeing, like the Base Camp (17,000 ft), the Balcony (27,390 ft) or the Hillary Step (28,740 ft), were right there in front of my eyes! 

We see everything along their snowy way -- those elegant yaks, those serene Buddhist monks, all the way up to the legendary peak with the little flags summiteers have planted their as a sign of their successful conquest. We will also see the various faces of the human spirit when challenged by the elements -- from triumph, valor and brotherhood to despair, defeat and resignation. 

Thankfully, the very real dangers of the climb, like the wide crevasses to be crossed on rickety ladders, the icy wind burning the skin off your face, the nasty frostbite that could cost you to lose frozen body parts, or the avalanches that can rumble down on you at anytime, are to be experienced from the safety of your theater seats. 

The parts of the film when the characters were just making their way up the mountain and training for the big climb may be slow for certain audience members. You will learn a lot about the medical aspect of climbing up to an oxygen-poor altitude such as that of Everest. For me, I vicariously immersed myself in that literally breathtaking climbing experience which for certain I will never have myself. 

Man, in his quest to prove that he the master of this world, has this unquenchable desire to conquer the earth's highest peak -- Mt. Everest. However in climbing Everest, the last word, as the film tells us, always belonged to the mountain. 8/10.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Review of HENERAL LUNA: Hot-Headed and Heroic

September 15, 2015

Once in rare while, there comes a Filipino film which is uniformly celebrated by both critics and mainstream audiences alike. ""Heneral Luna" by Jerrold Tarog has been receiving rave reviews since before and during its regular run in cinemas starting last week. I was so frustrated that I had not been able to attend the press previews nor the first days of showing. I read positive things about it everyday on social media, it is hard to ignore. Fortunately I was finally able to watch it today on what may be the last day of its theater run. 

"Heneral Luna" tells us a more detailed account of the life of one of the revolutionary heroes we learn about in school, yet know practically nothing about -- Gen. Antonio Luna. Practically all we know about him is that he had a very bad temper which gained him a lot of enemies, eventually leading to his assassination. Aside from telling us specific situations where this legendary temper flared up, we also get to meet him more intimately as a leader, a soldier, as a son and as a man. 

Even from his intense penetrating gaze and formidable mustache in the poster alone, you already know John Arcilla will be excellent in this film. His comic timing was impeccable. It was a most vibrant performance of a most vivid man, making him really loom larger than life. He was over-the-top in his explosiveness, just the way Tarog wanted him to be. The way he was built up, we were ready for that climactic assassination scene, however outrageous the savagery. 

Mon Confiado was a picture of ironic calm as President Emilio Aguinaldo. The more movies we watch about the revolution certainly brings up more and more questions about the controversial Aguinaldo. Nonie Buencamino was so slimy as his treacherous surname-sake Felipe Buencamino. That nonchalant look on Lorenz Martinez face was so hateful as he essayed the role of the equally haughty Gen. Tomas Mascardo. 

It was also such a casting risk and surprise to put known comedians in such key roles, like Epy Quizon as Apolinario Mabini, Leo Martinez as Pedro Paterno and Ketchup Eusebio as the vengeful Capt. Pedro Janolino. I must admit their presence can be distracting in certain dramatic moments, particularly Eusebio. Or maybe that was their purpose -- to balance out the severe seriousness of those scenes.

You immediately upfront that the filmmakers were aiming high for this film. The initial introductory texts were written in English, signifying intentions for this film to make the rounds of foreign film festivals. (I read that there were even certain reels with English subtitles shown in some more upscale cinemas.) The presence of disclaimers stating that this is a work of fiction inspired by fact could somehow raise an uneasy question as to how much fiction was in there mixed among the facts.

This film will also grab you with its gorgeous cinematography. The images on the big screen had such vivid colors and innovative camera angles. The period production design and the costume design were meticulous in detail. During a beautifully-edited flashback sequence, there was a stylized scene about Rizal's execution that was so uniquely and hauntingly rendered. There are most gruesome and graphic special effects showing the violent brutality of warfare which will shock you. That reference to the Juan Luna's painting masterpiece "Spoliarium" towards the end was both poignant and ingenious.

The historical storytelling was very clear, exciting and engaging from beginning to end, with a fresh graphic novel feel to it. Humor was such an unexpected yet integral element of the script, from those crisp off-color expletives of Luna to those sarcastic side comments of Lt. Rusca (Archie Alemania) and many more in between of different shades. The patriotic sentiments were very poetically-written, but the way they were delivered here felt sincere. They did not sound preachy or cheesy, like when such lines were mouthed by Robin Padilla in "Bonifacio" or Jeorge E.R. Ejército in "El Presidente". 

Just like a Marvel film, there was an extra scene in the middle of the closing credits, suggesting a next film featuring Paulo Avelino as Gen. Gregorio del Pilar. There was also a brief cameo appearance of Benjamin Alves as a young Manuel L. Quezon, hinting at a possible trilogy. This is a very exciting plan indeed which we all hope will materialize given the success of "Heneral Luna".

I hear this is also under consideration of being submitted for Oscar consideration, and I support that campaign. The screening I caught today was a full-house despite being 1:30 in the afternoon on a weekday. It was really gratifying to see a quality Filipino film have commercial success even if it was not an inane comedy or "kilig" teen flick with box-office stars in the cast. 

Kudos to Artikulo Uno Productions and director-film editor-musical scorer Jerrold Tarog for coming up with what may just be the best, certainly the most audacious, Filipino film released this year to date. Like Gen. Luna, this film leads a mad charge on horseback with a raised fist against Filipinos who say they love their country yet look out for their personal interests first. Let's hope this strong message hits its targets. 9/10.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Review of SINISTER 2: Vexing Videos

September 13, 2015

"Sinister" was a critical and commercially successful horror film in 2012. Ethan Hawke starred as Ellison Oswalt, an author of true crime novels who moves his family into the very home where a gruesome family massacre had previously taken place. He discovers a box of film reels which had video footage documenting the deaths of several families. His research turns into a real life horror for him and his family. I liked the first "Sinister" film, as it was as its title states.

This sequel "Sinister 2" is connected to the first film via the character of James Ransome. He was the deputy in the first film who was helping the Oswalt family. In this new film, he had quit the police force to become a private investigator. He is, as he was before, still unnamed, only known as Ex-Deputy So-and-So.  

This time, he gets involved with a battered wife Courtney, who is in hiding from her brutish husband Clint. Unknown to her, Courtney's two young sons Zach and Dylan are being visited by ghostly children controlled by a shadowy being called the Bughuul. The twins were made to watch grisly videos of the other kids killing their family. 

The scary highlights here are those dastardly evil snuff videos of some of the creepiest and most violent ways of killing people. With ominously innocent titles, like "Fishing Trip" or "Christmas Morning," those faded films are disturbing to say the least, and had matched or even upped the gruesomeness of those in the first film. Their accompanying music soundtrack record makes the atmosphere in that basement even more sinister.

The devil children are shown in plain sight here interacting with Zach and Dylan. It is actually quite disturbing to think that these kid actors were actually exposed to and performing in such evil scenes. I am especially bothered by the diabolically violent scenes of Dartanian Sloan who portrayed the character of the naughtier twin Zach. His real life twin, Robert Daniel Sloan, plays the meeker, more vulnerable twin Dylan. 

James Ransome makes a good lead character here as he is likable and not the usual superhuman hero. He is usually clueless, clumsy and easily creeped out like the rest of us, so we can identify with him. The writers somehow sneaked in some sort of an awkward romance between the ex-deputy and the pretty Courtney (played by Shannyn Sossamon). I thought that was a bit on the cheesy side.

Originality (which is a big factor for my 9/10 rating of the first film) is not there anymore of course because this is a sequel, but we do get to meet the bad guy Bughuul better in this one. New director Ciaran Foy still employed several horror film cliches like jump scares, but again I thought they worked for the film's advantage. Overall, I thought "Sinister 2" matched the creep and scare factors of the first. It is definitely worth the watch for those in the mood for a good horror film. 8/10. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Review of MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS: Rogues, Rebels and Zombies!

September 10, 2015

Almost exactly one year ago, the first "Maze Runner" film was released in local theaters. I thought that the action sequences within the maze scenes were all quite exciting and very entertaining to watch. However, after all the excellent suspense and tension built up in the first two-thirds of the film, at the end nothing really gets explained clearly.  It felt like an incomplete film on its own. For those it gets interested though, this sequel is expected to give answers to questions raised in the first film.

While under the care of a high-security facility, Thomas becomes increasingly suspicious of Janson, the man in charge. When he overhears a sinister plot hatching, he gets his fellow Gladers out to brave the arid desert called the Scorch outside. However, it was not only the elements they have to worry about, there were still a horde of killer zombies called the Cranks out there to contend with. Thomas and his gang survive the Scorch and unite with the rebel group in the mountains in order to fight the danger foisted on humanity by the increasingly mysterious Dr. Ava Paige and her WCKD organization.

Dylan O'Brien continues his good portrayal of the ever-doubting Thomas. In this film, his character would need to make a lot of difficult decisions and O'Brien convinces us that he can make those hard choices. The other young actors in his gang do not really do too much to stand out. Aidan Gillen, the ever-slimy Littlefinger on "Game of Thrones" brings his smarmy charms in this film as the Rat-Man, Janson. One look at him and I cannot really separate him from his TV character. 

Rosa Salazar gives a strong performance as Brenda, a survivor within the city ruins whom Thomas encounters. She registers better onscreen than the main female lead Kaya Scodelario, who plays Teresa. It was good to see another "Game of Thrones" actress in there, the attractive Nathalie Emmanuel, who plays Harriet, one of the rebels. Veteran actresses Lili Taylor and Patricia Clarkson lend class to their rival scientist characters, Mary Cooper and Ava Paige, respectively.

The excitement build up strongly in the first act. However the second act in the Scorch felt a bit slow as the Cranks overstay their parts too long. Their horror scenes were effectively creepy at first but they get a bit too repetitive. A protracted hallucinatory party scene can also be quite head-scratching. The third act though hikes up the explosive climactic action and revives anticipatory audience excitement for the next installment. The production design of elaborate setup of the WCKD laboratory and the ruins of the huge city looked very good. At the end of the 130 minute running time, there are still a lot of questions about the true intentions of WCKD, or is that name alone already a giveaway clue?

There was no more maze in this movie anymore for the characters to run through. However, the maze is for the viewer who has to try to absorb this whole labyrinthine dystopian world that James Dashner hatched in his novels. Director Wes Ball does his best to make the complex plot engaging, exciting and entertaining with some pretty well-executed action scenes. Overall, when compared to the first "Maze Runner", this sequel was the more satisfying film for me. 7/10.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Review of THE LITTLE GHOST: Kicks for Kindergarteners

September 4. 2015

This charming film tells of a little white ghost who roams the halls of the castle from 12 midnight to 1 am every day with his ring of keys which can open any lock. However, he yearns to see the brightness of the daytime. Upon advice of his friend the Owl, Little Ghost needed to switch the time of a certain watch tied to him in order to set the waking time he wanted. 

Since he did not know which watch, Ghost proceeded to switch the time of all the watches in the castle. While he was switching a valuable watch, a spirited kid named Karl sees him. Ghost takes the watch with him in panic, and Karl was blamed for the watch's loss. From there, the Ghost and Karl will go through a lot of mishaps and misadventures while trying to rectify the situation

As you can see for the poster, Little Ghost looks a lot like Casper the friendly ghost, and acts a lot like him too. The special effects used looked obviously practical, a foamy sphere for a head and a white sheet as his body. This is clearly for very young children. There is nothing really scary about this ghost. Even his dubbed voice sounds like that of an adorable child -- very cute indeed. He would be singing some songs too for some additional entertainment.

The adult actors all act in a clownish, cartoonish style as is customary for kiddie movies. Notably funny was Uwe Ochsenknecht, the actor who played both the Swedish general in the portrait and the haughty town Mayor. The actors who played the obese Chief of Police and the Clockmaker was also quite silly. Jonas Holdenrieder, who played Karl, and the actors who played his friends, did well. They were neither pushy nor annoying, like some Hollywood child actors are wont to do.

This is a German children's film (original title: "Das Kleine Gespenst") dubbed in English, which was ideal for kids who could not yet read subtitles. Being a European film, you cannot really expect the fast and frenetic Hollywood style of storytelling. The story was told in a slower pace which may make older kids, who are more used to superheroes or monsters, bored. There was only one certain point in the film when the child Karl will be in a very precarious situation, but you know things will all turn out for the best. 

"The Little Ghost" will be funny and thrilling for very young kids. Older kids may give it a pass. Adults may find the film's retro vibe and simple visual effects to be hokey. Give it a chance though, and it may surprise and delight you, like it did for me. 6/10.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Review of THE TRANSPORTER REFUELED: Average Approximation

September 3, 2015

The first "Transporter" film was shown in the year 2002, followed by sequels in 2005 and 2008. The main character was Frank Martin, a mercenary "transporter" with mad driving skills whom people hire to deliver people or packages anywhere.  This series made an action star out of then unknown actor Jason Statham, whose brawny heft and martial arts abilities fit the character like a T.  

Now that a much older Statham is now doing films like "The Expendables", producer Luc Besson decided to resurrect the character of Frank Martin with a new unknown young actor. Will this reboot be a success like the original, or will this fail in comparison like many reboots of other old film series?

Frank Martin was hired by Anna and her gang of high-class prostitutes bent on revenge. They had come up with an elaborate plot to get back at Karasov, the man who made their lives a living hell for the past 15 years. After the first deal, the girls wanted Frank to help them with the next step of their scheme, but he declined. The girls abduct his father Frank Senior in order to coerce Frank Junior to do their bidding. 

New actor Ed Skrein is the new Frank Martin. "Game of Thrones" fans will recall Skrein to be the original actor cast in the role of Daario, consort of the Khaleesi. He is of the same mold Jason Statham was cut from, tall, manly and well-built. However, Skrein, with his chiseled face and glamor posturing, felt too much like a fashion model to be completely convincing. He never really came across as a genuine rough and tough action hero, like Statham did. He has got the suave and skills part down pat, but too bad he did not have the Statham charm to complete the package. 

Whatever charisma Skrein lacked in the lead role was made up for by Ray Stevenson in the role of the dad, Frank Senior. This veteran character actor owned the screen whenever he was on because of his magnetic screen presence in this secondary role. He seems miscast as a retired water salesman, but in a good way. He exuded so much confidence such that the unlikely things his character was able to do were somehow made believable. I actually wanted to see more father-son scenes between Stevenson and Skrein, as they had good chemistry together.

French model-actress Loan Chabanol played Anna. She was sexy and seductive as the role called for. Chabanol and the other three girls fulfill their roles as eye candy here. They were avenging angels one moment and damsels in distress in another. The acting may not have been remarkable, but that is not exactly why they were cast in these roles.

On its own, "The Transformer Refueled" had its moments of great action, like the brawl in the disco storeroom, or that frenetic airplane escape scene. Frank's invincible Audi sedan looks great. The film does have the Luc Besson touch, though the director here was Camille Delamarre, who has been promoted from being editor of "Transporter 3".  

The familiar story is not much to care about, and will probably be forgotten soon after you leave the theater. Nevertheless I am not totally trashing this. I think I would likely watch the sequel should there be one. Without the inevitable Jason Statham shadow it finds itself under, this was actually quite engaging albeit Grade B crime action thriller. 5/10.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review of PIXELS: Nifty and Nostalgic

September 1, 2015

Because of terrible reviews that plagued "Pixels", I did not really plan to watch this movie at all. However, my kids all wanted to watch it, so I begrudgingly went with them. While watching the film though, it would turn out that I would have the best time of us all.

In the arcade game world championships of 1982, 13-year old Sam Brenner and his fellow nerdy friends Will Cooper and Ludlow Lamonsoff battled it out in various video games. A recording of this event was included in a time capsule launched into space.

Fast forward to the present day, Brenner is working as an installer of home theater systems. His close friend Cooper is now the President of the United States! One day, unknown forces from outer space invaded a military base in Guam, reducing the place into pixel cubes. When President Cooper noted that the alien attacked with a pattern reminiscent of the old arcade game Galaga, he called in his best friend Brenner for his video game expertise.

Adam Sandler plays a underachieving nerd yet again, as he had done in many of his previous films. His was such a generic performance as we had seen from him before -- a smart-alecky loser or slacker type who inexplicably still manages to hook up with the hottest ladies (Michelle Monaghan, in this case). Ultimately, even if Sandler was the lead character here, it was his co-stars who come up with more memorable performances.

Kevin James, with his perpetual good-guy vibe, plays a bumbling but very congenial American president. I thought this was a fun and witty bit of casting. James was able to pull off that balance of portraying foolishness with restraint to somehow maintain the dignity of his presidential role. 

Josh Gad is another actor with a such a warm sense of goodwill about him. Even if his character Lamonsoff was this annoying conspiracy nut pathetically lovestruck with Lady Lisa of the video game Dojo Quest, Gad's face has such a goofy innocent charm that we cannot help but root his on. 

Maybe Sandler was a fan of "Game of Thrones" because we see two noted actors from that HBO series in this film. Peter Dinklage played Brenner's nemesis Eddie Plant as sort of a spinoff from his role as Tyrion Lannister -- smart, sinister and sneaky ladies' man.  It was good to see Ned Stark himself, Sean Bean, is a short hilarious role as a British soldier.

Classic arcade games like Centipede, Donkey Kong and Pacman (along with Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde) were very imaginatively conceptualized and depicted as larger-than-life games where human characters can interact within the playing field. I found those video clips of personalities from the '80s, notably Madonna and Daryl Hall, whom the aliens used to deliver their messages quite funny as well.

I do not really know what the serious movie critics were looking for when they panned this film with their harsh reviews. I thought "Pixels" delivered exactly what it aimed for. Yes it was shallow and silly, but that what it was supposed to be. It had me and my kids laughing out loud and yearning to play those classic video games again, so I think it totally worked. I disagree that there was any desecration done to these '80s icons. 

Director Chris Columbus really has a magical way with working with childhood memories in his movies. He made this film very enjoyable and entertaining for all ages, especially those who grew up on arcade games. Of course, there a few awkward comic misfires here and there, as Adam Sandler films generally have. However, I think many children of the 1980s would welcome this opportunity to revisit the fun childhood we miss. 7/10.