Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Iron Lady

February 22, 2012

"The Iron Lady" is the life story of the first female British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I was still not very politically-aware when Ms. Thatcher led Great Britain in the 1980s, so I only know her by reputation. I was interested to watch her growing up years and how she got into politics, as well as to learn more about the highlights of her political career.

Upon watching this film though, I was very disappointed by the fact that the film used flashbacks of a retired and depressed Margaret Thatcher to tell its story. This was a Margaret Thatcher that also had hallucinatory visions of her deceased husband. The stories told were very episodic and random. I did not see her as a child growing up with her parents, her days in school, etc. I wanted to see more of these positive influences that made her the Iron Lady that she was known for. Instead, we see a lot of a lonely old woman with senile dementia, a mere shadow of her powerful persona years back. I do not think this cinematic exposition was very respectful of the famous subject. The director of "The Iron Lady" is Phyllida Lloyd, who once directed Streep in a little confection called "Mamma Mia!"

Much had been said about Meryl Streep and her spot-on performance of Ms. Thatcher. I would expect no less form Ms. Streep in this aspect, how accurate I am not sure. I still see Meryl Streep. Though Ms. Thatcher's distinct voice can now be added to Ms. Streep's many successful cinematic accents in her career, this airy high-pitched voice was a bit reminiscent of Streep's Julia Child accent in the recent "Julie and Julia". As of now, I have seen 4 out of the 5 nominated Best Actress candidates (except Michelle Williams). Ms. Streep's Thatcher was certainly the most audacious and bombastic of them all. Let us see then if that will bring her another Oscar next week.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

February 12, 2012

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" tells the sad story of a "special" child Oscar (Thomas Horn) who lost his father (Tom Hanks) in the World Trade Center attacks on 9-11. A difficult year later, Oscar breaks a blue vase in his father's closet and finds a key. In his effort to extend his connection to his father, Oscar goes on a quest all over New York City to track down the lock which the key opens.

I admit it was not very easy to watch Oscar dealing with his father's death since they were very close with each other. The fact that Oscar had some special sort of Asperger's-like, Obsessive-Compulsive syndrome made it even more difficult. In his quest, Oscar was very methodical and precise in order to maximize his time. However in the process, he meets all of these people who all had problems of their own. You do feel that such a "quest" was highly unlikely to have happened in real life, but the story-telling of Director Stephen Daldry and the riveting performance of Thomas Horn as Oscar will draw you in up to the end. Supporting performances of Sandra Bullock (as Oscar's mother) and Max Von Sydow (as Oscar's mute neighbor) also score points for this film.

I watched this film only because it had been nominated for Best Picture in the coming Oscar Awards. It is not really my type of film. This was the last of the 9 nominees I watched. I was thinking it would probably rank last in the list of 9 because it had no other nominations, except for that of Max Von Sydow. My low expectations actually made me like this film! I thought the direction, cinematography, musical score and film editing of this movie were actually quite impressive. "Extremely Loud" is definitely NOT on the bottom of my list. (That would be the over-rated "Hugo" for me.)

The Woman in Black

February 9, 2012

I am a fan of the horror genre. However lately, American horror films have really deteriorated in quality, either they are rip-offs of Asian horror films or more of violent and gory "Saw" or "Final Destination"- type films. As the poster and stills of this film promises a return to the old fashioned Gothic horror film, I made sure I watched this.

Set in Victorian England, "The Woman in Black" is about a young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) who had been assigned to a remote village to fix the papers regarding a certain estate. However, Kipps notes that many children are dying mysterious deaths, and the people seem to blame him for it. Are the deaths of the children related to the mysterious abandoned estate he is working on or the "woman in black" he sees lurking in its shadows?

From the ominous first scenes, we know this film would be special. I am pretty sure that a word that many reviewers will use to this describe this film is "ATMOSPHERIC." The creepy atmosphere that director James Watkins successfully achieves for this film is excellent. It will completely absorb you and bring you into that haunted village and house right along with Arthur Kipps. Yes, there were the usual jump scare techniques, but they were used to great effect. You will gasp in spite of yourself. The use of porcelain-faced dolls and wind-up toys may be old, but still very effectively used to further enhance the scariness of the scenes. Daniel Radcliffe does very well here. I did have a hard time accepting him as a young father at first, as his Harry Potter persona is still very fresh in our memories. 

Overall, I liked this film very much. I thought I was already jaded after all those horror films I had seen before. This film still succeeded to give me genuine chills and jumps. The gloomy weather, desolate marshy location and antique set design were on point for creating the perfect atmosphere for dread. Okay, this is not at the level of "Sixth Sense" or "The Others", but it is definitely a step in the right direction as far as the horror genre is concerned. Despite a few illogical scenes (what ghost story film isn't without them?), I will whole-heartedly recommend this film for horror movie fans.


February 8, 2012

"Moneyball" is about the very American sport of baseball and the objective science of statistics. It recounts how in 2001, ex-ball player Billy Beane, then general manager of the bottom-dwelling and budget-strapped Oakland A's, turned the fortunes of the whole team around by hiring lower-value but talented players based solely on their game statistics. It certainly took a lot of time getting to that main part of the story, but when it got there, you will be rewarded for your patience.

Brad Pitt is admittedly too "movie-starrish" to really disappear into the role of Billy Beane. Put him in a room full of grumpy grizzled old baseball curmudgeons, and he would really stand out like, well, a movie star. While I understand why he is gaining awards recognition for this role, I feel the role may be too understated and underplayed by him. Pitt was effective, yes, but may be too low-key for the big Oscar prize. 

Beane's "side-kick" here was Peter Brand (played by pudgy comedian Jonah Hill), a nerdy Yale graduate of Economics who introduced how statistics can be of use to Beane in scouting for players under a limited budget. Hill plays it like he was always in awe of Pitt. On the other side, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays team manager Art Howe, who was disdainful of Beane's radically new scouting style. If he was supposed to be annoying, then Hoffman surely played it that way.

I watched "Moneyball" only because star Brad Pitt has been gaining awards buzz from it, and in fact had won a number of critics awards already. I had absolutely no idea what it was all about before I watched. Even as I was already watching, I had a difficult time getting into the story because it tells about something I am not very familiar with. But give this movie a chance to tell you its story like I did, and you will really get into its spirit and you will like it.

War Horse

February 6, 2012

When we watch this film, we have to keep in mind that this was based on a children's book by Michael Morpurgo, published in 1982, as well as its 2007 stage adaptation. The story is then predictably sentimental and melodramatic to appeal to its target juvenile audiences. This film was appropriately helmed by the acknowledged expert in directing films for young audiences, Steven Spielberg.

"War Horse" is about an elegant brown stallion named Joey by the teenage boy who raised him, Albert Naracott. When war broke out between Britain and Germany, Joey was sold by Albert's father to the army, as Albert tearfully promises they will see each other again one day. From there, we follow Joey's intense experiences, both bad and good, in and out of the line of battle. Will Joey and Albert ever be reunited in the end? I think you all know the answer to that.

The photography is the best feature of this film as the camera captures the dramatic vistas in both peace and war times in the British countryside. Spielberg also reminds us of his proficiency with war scenes, as he had shown us before in films like "Empire of the Sun," "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan." Joey has some spectacular scenes as he gallops through the battlefield and through the trenches. Spielberg really knows how to amaze us with technically fantastic shots, without losing the emotion and heart of the story. All in all, when appreciated in the context in which it was made, "War Horse" fully deserves its place among the nominees for the Best Picture of 2011. My kids loved it too.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

February 1, 2012

I have read the Steig Larssen book and also saw the 2009 Swedish film "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." That 2009 movie was already a very good film adaptation of the best-selling novel. That movie also featured an iconic performance by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, the titular character. I do not really know why this American version even had to be made, especially during these days of globalization. However, with big names such as director David Fincher and star Daniel Craig attached to this project, and now with its 5 Oscar nominations, I felt compelled to watch this version as well.

The story is already well-known. Journalist Mikhael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) was commissioned by industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to solve the mystery behind the 30-year disappearance of his beloved grand-daughter Harriet. Blomkvist sought the help of an unlikely investigator Lisbeth Salander, a strange-looking Goth girl with a shady past herself. Together Blomkvist and Salander unearth the dark and demented secret that had haunted the Vanger family all these years.

Granted, this American version had superior technical aspects, most probably because of its bigger production budget. It deserves the nominations it got for its breath-taking cinematography, tight film editing, and excellent sound work. Rooney Mara, whom I first saw in "The Social Network," undergoes a total change of look to portray Salander here. It must have been tough for her to create a different Salander performance distinct from that of the already acclaimed Noomi Rapace performance just two years before. Mara's Salander was quieter, more aloof, but more sexually aggressive. I cannot say though that it surpassed or was more memorable than Rapace's Salander.

Therefore, if this will be the first film of "Dragon Tattoo" that you will watch, you are in for a very stylish and exciting ride by David Fincher (whose previous works include other serial killer films like "Se7en" and "Zodiac"). However, if you had already seen the Swedish original version, you will really wonder why this version had to be done at all. There was nothing really very wrong with the first film to deserve this immediate remake.


January 31, 2012

By this time I had already watched 6 out of the 9 nominees for Oscar Best Picture announced yesterday. "Hugo" earned 11 nominations. It has also been named Best Picture of the year by several critics. Martin Scorsese won Best Director in the Golden Globe and other critics awards. 

When I saw the robot boy in the trailer, I must admit I already had a bad feeling about this film. However, how could all of these awards and critics be wrong? I should have trusted my instincts! Despite all the awards hype and the promise of "magic" by the trailer, this movie never really came alive for me. From the overlong introduction of the orphan Hugo and his life inside the clockworks of the train station to the Scrooge-like character of Ben Kingsley and the annoying station guard character of Sasha Baron Cohen, I found it all a desperate exercise in tedium disguised by "beautiful" images and "special" effects. All this "beauty" were merely of technical or mechanical nature only. For me, there was nothing really heart-warming or inspirational worth identifying with here.

When it came to the climax when the "fabulous" secret was revealed, it is of a nature that would appeal and mean something only to a very limited segment of the audience. It is not by any degree magical to me, as this whole film would build it up to be. And I would consider myself a film lover! It was simply a very big disappointment because of the big build-up it had and the expectations it came with. I do not really know how a meandering script like this could even be nominated for Best Writing. I do not think Martin Scorsese is really cut out to make films like this one. His first foray into a film for children is too long and not really interesting for children. I do not expect you to take my word for it, but I do not really recommend this film, despite the accolades it carries with it. It is the worst of the 7 Oscar Best Pic-nominated films I have seen. I would call it INDULGENT, and Simon Cowell would agree.

J. Edgar

January 29, 2012

I have heard several bad reviews about "J. Edgar". It had also been roundly snubbed at the recent Oscar nomination announcement -- no nomination for Best Picture, Director, Actor nor Screenplay. I am not exactly a fan of Clint Eastwood as a director as he tends to make overlong melodramatic movies, like "Changeling" or "Million Dollar Baby." I am though a fan of biographical films, so despite all the prior "warnings," I still went on to watch it.

You know what? It is not all that bad after all. It was actually a very good overview of who J. Edgar Hoover was, a man who led the FBI for almost 50 years. We get a glimpse of his similarly controversial private life as a old bachelor who lived with his mother (Judi Dench). Furthermore we also get to meet Hoover's constant aide and companion Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer). I thought it was pretty fair and interesting summary of this prominent man's life and career, although you know they were just skimming off the surface of a thicker brew.

Leonardo diCaprio did very well in the lead role. I admit it is not too easy to get rid of his star appearance, even behind his make-up, but I say he pulled this off. Arnie Hammer played Tolson very well as a young man. But as Tolson aged, with the ugly old man make-up, so does Hammer's performance falter. Clint Eastwood does a very good job in psychoanalyzing the driving force behind this powerful man. Dustin Lance Black (who won the Oscar for the Screenplay of "Milk") wrote this story with obvious homosexual undertones. I do think though that this film is worth the time to watch to get to know J. Edgar Hoover a little better. I think this film should have gained at least one Oscar nomination, and that is for Best Actor. Leonardo diCaprio deserves at least that.

The Help

January 27, 2012

"The Help" is about black women being employed as maids and nannies in Jackson, Mississippi back in the racially-tense early 1960s. 

Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) is an independent tomboyish young lady who could not help but notice how badly her bridge buddies were treating their black maids. This terrible racist attitude was most exemplified by the pretty but contemptible Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), who was not even shy about her nasty behavior. Skeeter then secretly interviews maids Aibilene Clark (a serious Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (a sassy Octavia Spencer), who bravely tell Skeeter their stories of oppression in white homes. How will the town react when Skeeter's book finally gets published?

The movie is another example of excellent ensemble acting. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer have the showiest roles. Spencer, in particular, figures in the most memorable scene about how her Milly character gets back at Hilly using a pie. Emma Stone is also quite good as the modern thinking Skeeter. Jessica Chastain sparkles as Celia Foote, a naive housewife from the poor side of town who was ostracized by Hilly and her friends. The more minor characters of Sissy Spacek (as Hilly's mom) and Allison Janney (as Skeeter's mom) also make their mark despite their shorter screen time. Cicely Tyson has a memorable moment in her brief and silent screen appearance as Skeeter's nanny.

The treatment of the serious story is light, with just the right amount of humor. It is a Disney production so we do not really expect this to be "Roots" or "A Color Purple." The subject matter in itself may not really appeal too much for all audiences especially in this part of the world, but the message of hope and redemption will make this movie universally meaningful.

The Artist

January 25, 2012

"The Artist" is the odds on favorite now to get the Oscar Best Picture crown, since it had just won the Producers' Guild nod. Everything about it will make you think twice before watching it. It is a SILENT film, in BLACK AND WHITE, with unknown FRENCH actors. Thanks to the awards hype it is getting though, audiences will search this out, as did I.

The story is not the biggest selling point of the film. It is silent, so there can only be so much that can be told by facial expressions, big actions and the occasional dialog card. The story line is very simple, and very familiar, and can be summarized in one sentence: It is about a silent film star who will eventually be surpassed in the industry by the girl he helped get into films, just as silents gave way to talkies in the 1930s. If this same story was told in the current way, it would have been panned. So the novelty gimmick of director/writer Michel Hazanavicius worked in this case, but I do not think it will revive a trend for black & white silent films.

The lead character George Valentin is played by Jean Dujandin. The starlet he helped launch Peppy Miller is played by Berenice Bejo. The lead actors were both very charming. They possess the facial qualities which convince us that they were indeed from that era of film. The debonair Dujardin, in particular, goes through the gamut of emotion without a word uttered until the very end. This will make him a prime candidate for Oscar's Best Actor, a prize he already won in Cannes. Much have been said about the character of Valentin's dog, played by Jack Russell terrier Uggie. He's cute alright, but to push him for Best Supporting Actor is a stretch.

Overall, do go watch "The Artist" and enjoy a different kind of movie experience! I am sure you will be entertained.

The Descendants

January 24, 2012

"The Descendants" is the latest film of Alexander Payne, who directed that excellent "dram-edy" called "Sideways" a few years back. It has won a lot of accolades in this year's awards season, biggest of which was the Best Picture Drama from the Golden Globes. Its star George Clooney is practically already a lock for Best Actor at the Oscars. All of this awards hype make you expect an exceptional film experience.

If you know "Sideways", then you should not expect "The Descendants" to be far off in terms of story telling and treatment. The story is about Matt King (Clooney), a busy real-estate lawyer, who tries to reach out and rebuild his family when his wife gets comatose because of a boating accident. His daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) have both become distant and disrespectful. A big secret of his wife gets revealed in the meantime that throws Matt's world into a bigger turmoil. This is a simple family drama Payne-style, not really "Oscar" material for a lot of people. Do not expect too much, or it may disappoint you.

As for George Clooney, he is de-glamorized here as this harassed father with sassy daughters. Here, Clooney's Matt King was a desperate and weak character, but ultimately comes into his own as the story comes along, and we bear witness to his character's growth. He will definitely be a contender for Best Actor, even simply for playing against his usual slick, well-dressed, Danny Ocean-type characters. Clooney is quiet and subtle, much like his turn in "Up in the Air", but this one has more substance for me. Do not expect grand waterworks or big melodramatic scenes as would be expected from previous Best Actors in family drama movies.

A Separation ("Jodaeiye Nader az Simin")

January 23, 2012

"A Separation" is the foreign-language film of this year's awards season. After it won the Golden Globes last week, you know it is a cinch to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film and most probably win the coveted prize for its country of origin, Iran.

"A Separation" is about a middle-class Iranian family. In the first scene, husband and wife are divorcing after 14 years of marriage because of a disagreement on migration. Wife wants a better life abroad, while husband does not want to leave his Alzheimer-stricken dad. Caught in the middle is their 12-year old daughter. When wife leaves their home, the husband hires a poor woman to be his dad's caretaker while he is at work. From there, this harrowing family and societal drama evolves into situations you will not expect. The climax and the ending were so effectively executed. You will not want to leave even while the final credits are already rolling.

It appears that director Asghar Farhadi is really a big name in Iran, and that he already has previous acclaimed films. I will want to check them out. His control of his story and his actors (who you would not even remember are acting) is amazing. You get sucked into the story, and you will not want to let go until you get to the bottom of things at the final resolution. It has an underlying allusion to the conflict between the old and the new customs. It is an interesting peek into the family dynamics, religion and criminal justice system in Iran. 

I have seen only one other nominee in the last Golden Globes list, "The Flowers of War." The scope and genre of the two films are vastly different and is hard to compare. But I could say that "A Separation" is the tighter and better-written film.

Midnight in Paris

January 17, 2012

When I first heard the lead character of "Midnight in Paris" talk, I thought it was Woody Allen talking. But when I looked at the screen, I saw Owen Wilson! I do not know if Owen was purposely doing it, but he was channeling Woody Allen perfectly in intonation and diction. Maybe it was the characteristic style Woody Allen wrote his script, I don't know but it was so uncanny and this added to my enjoyment of this film.

"Midnight in Paris" is about a movie scriptwriter and struggling novelist Gil (Owen Wilson) who was trapped in a stifling relationship with his snooty fiancée Inez (Rachel Mc Adams). This becomes more evident during their supposedly romantic vacation in Paris, when Inez spending more time with her snobbish parents and her "pseudo- intellectual pedantic" male friend Paul (Michael Sheen). To escape, Gil takes a midnight walk in the side streets of Paris, and was magically transported to the 1920s where he encounters his literary heroes like Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). He also meets and falls in love with Pablo Picasso's muse Adriana (Marion Cotillard). How Gil faces and resolves this unusual situation is the unique premise of this delightful little Woody Allen masterpiece.

"Midnight in Paris" is a very charming movie. It is about yearning for something much better than what you have now. It had me from the get- go, very interesting right away. The initial five minutes of beautiful Parisian scenes and music will put you in the proper mood right away and never let you go. People who loves literature and the arts will certainly share Gil's excitement and fascination about actually meeting these authors in the flesh. Cameos by Dali (a funny turn by Adrien Brody), Fitzgerald, Bunuel, Matisse, and even Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas and Gauguin further add to the nostalgia. I have some quibbles only about Gil finding Adriana's book, but that is minor. Only Woody Allen can make an off-the-wall movie like this and get away with it! A definite must-watch!

The Flowers of War (Jin líng shí san chai)

January 15, 2012

I am not really familiar with the details of the Rape of Nanking in the late 1930s. However, people from this side of the globe are very familiar with the suffering brought about by the brutal Japanese Imperial Army throughout Asia. In our country, many movies have shown Japanese brutality during the World War II. I thought I would be ready for this movie.

"The Flowers of War" tells the story of a roguish American mortician John Miller (Christian Bale) who was sent to a Catholic church/convent in Nanking to prepare the body of the priest for burial, who was then under siege by the Japanese. When he gets there, he found he also needed to take care of a group of convent girls led by the spirited Shu, a young caretaker boy George, and later, a gaggle of exotic prostitutes led by the classy beauty Yu Mo (Ni Ni). Everyone will go through a touching life-changing story arc that will show how even the most unlikely of people can become heroes in extreme adversity.

Director Zhang Jimou returns to form in this movie. The war action was relentless in the first half we are taken through a continuous barbaric carnage perpetrated by the Japanese soldiers. These parts are reminiscent of the frankly violent blood-spurting "Saving Private Ryan" beach scene. The terror is very palpable. While the scenes of soldiers being shot and killed were hard to watch, the several minutes of violence to children was even harder to bear! There are also touches of "Schindler's List", especially in the scenes where children were hiding.

The second half is more dramatic with a some contrived cheesy moments. The character of the kind-hearted Japanese officer Hasegawa was a nice counter-balance to their other heinous acts of atrocity. I felt the sequence when a couple of prostitutes sneaking out to retrieve trivial things in their brothel was a rather unnecessary long detour. There will even be a scene that will remind you of Gwyneth Paltrow's body wrap scene in "Shakespeare in Love." However, when the film reaches its climax, everything falls back into place and the noble message is delivered on point. This movie may be difficult to watch because of the scenes of violence, but this is worth watching because the story of heroism and redemption was very good, well-told and well-executed.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked

January 10, 2012

When we saw the trailer of the third Chipmunks movie in the movie house a few months ago, I certainly had no intentions of watching after the patiently sitting through the first two. In fact, the Squeakuel had been on constant replay on Star Movies over these holidays. I have had enough of their naughty and sassy squeaky voices! Curiously, the kids still wanted to watch this so I also did, albeit grudgingly. 

What should have been a pleasant "family" cruise with Dave and the Chipmunks and the Chippettes becomes a disaster because of Alvin's mischief with a kite (what else?) Everybody gets accidentally whisked off the ship and later marooned on a deserted island. There we see scenes rehashed off Tarzan, Castaway and even Raiders of the Lost Ark! Then, enter a volcanic eruption and a treasure hunter to provide thrills. Of course, in the end, everybody gets back to dry land safe and sound, as expected.

OK, the Chipmunks and the Chippettes are cute, but that is about it. The pop songs chosen were not too well-rendered. The comedy of the story line was lame and painfully cheesy and corny. Jason Lee is just sleepwalking though his portrayal of Dave. David Cross was in a dreadful feathery pelican costume the entire film. This is strictly for young kids. Adults who get dragged into this by their kids should just grin and bear it, and find that silver lining (family bonding probably), how ever thin it is. This should have gone directly to DVD.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

January 9, 2012

The first "Sherlock Holmes" movie was an unexpectedly great one. Before I watched that film, I did not think Robert Downey, Jr. could ever be acceptable as Sherlock Holmes. However, after watching that one, I admit that I was mistaken. Therefore, despite the unpromising trailer for this second installment of this franchise, I still went on to watch it, expecting this to exceed the action and humor of the first.

However, things did not really go very well in this sequel for me. The process of Holmes anticipating the next moves of his enemies in fights which was so innovative in the first, felt tedious in this one. I felt Guy Richie delved too much into close-ups and slow mo effects, fight scenes and explosions to hide the material deficiency of the script. This movie had more flourish than there was substance. 

For the actors, only Jude Law for me played his character Dr. Watson as I would expect. Robert Downey, Jr. was NOT Sherlock in most of his scenes! Sherlock would never go drag and almost flirt with Watson the way it was played out here. I did not like it. The gypsy character of Noomi Rapace was quite unnecessary it seemed, just an excuse to have a new female character. The eccentric character of Sherlock's brother Mycroft as played by Stephen Fry was teetering on annoying. The very laid back way Jared Harris played Holmes' arch-enemy Professor Moriarty lacked palpable passion and life opposite Downey's hyper-acting. 

Overall, except for a well-written cerebral confrontation scene between Holmes and Moriarty towards the end where they verbalized their moves as it be in a chess game, the rest of this sequel was a big disappointment for me. Hints of charm like the first movie were still evident in certain scenes, but the whole was not very satisfying, especially for traditional fans of the Sherlock Holmes books. Making Sherlock overly buffoonish is definitely NOT the way to make him click for this new generation. I think Richie and Downey have got to reassess the way they bring Sherlock to life, if they are thinking of a third installment.

Manila Kingpin

January 3, 2012

"Manila Kingpin" is a very good-looking movie. The remarkable black and white photography is very sharp and striking. The camera angles were very well-placed and dramatic in composition. The period costumes and set design were meticulously planned and paid attention to. All the supporting characters, from Asiong's policeman elder brother Doming (Phillip Salvador), his wife Fidela (Carla Abellana), his gang mates (Baron Geisler, Yul Servo, Dennis Padilla, Ketchup Eusebio, Amay Bisaya) to his arch rival Totoy Golem (John Regala), everyone looks and feels right for their respective parts. The action sequences, be they gun battles or fist fights, were quite well-choreographed and executed.

However, the main problem about this film is the lead actor himself, Jeorge 'ER' Ejercito. He did not have the right look nor charisma to pull off this lead character. He tries his best, but there seemed to be difficulty to fit. He did not project well in his scenes with Salvador, Regala, as well as those with Jay Manalo, who played his protector in prison, all of whom can dominate the screen much better than Estregan. His scenes with Abellana had an unfortunate DOM ("dirty old man") feel to them, instead of sincere marital love. These problems can be explained when it was revealed at the end that the real Asiong died at the young age of 27! Ejercito must be twice that age already by now, hence the very tight fit. At the very first scene, it did not look and sound right when Asiong was told that "may gatas ka pa sa labi" ("you still have milk on your lips") at Estregan's age!

Overall though, the hard work and sincere efforts for excellence can be felt while watching the film. Director Tikoy Aguiluz certainly seemed to have nothing to be ashamed of with this final print we saw in the theaters, so I am also very curious what these controversial re-shot and re-edited scenes were that caused him to want his name stricken off the project. My one suspicion would be the final gun battle-royale in the rain, which was very well shot, but was curiously scored with the slow version of "Mad World" of Tears for Fears. I felt this score was inappropriate and awkward to the time period and to the culture. An original Filipino sad melody would have been better. Anyway, that is only a minor quibbling observation. This nostalgic film is worth watching especially for fans who miss traditional Filipino action films. It deserved all the awards given to it during the recent MMFF awards night -- Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Sound, and Theme Song.

The 10 Best Films of 2011 for Me

December 31, 2011

According to my record, I had written 87 movie reviews this year.  From these reviews I have gleaned the cream of the crop among the films of 2011 that I have seen and written about.  (For this list, I will not include the 22 which had been released in 2010, but were only shown in local theaters in 2011. These were mostly the critically-acclaimed films released in December 2010, most of whom already earned their Oscars.)  

Now let us count down my 10 best films of 2011:

10.  SUPER 8 (full review)

"Super 8" brings us back to the summer of 1979. We follow a gang of kids who are finishing their home-made zombie film for a short film competition. 

This is not really a perfect film. The ending (which in fact I found cheesy, overly sentimental but ultimately meaningless) could really have been done better. However, it is a perfectly Spielbergian film. We see him in the precocious children who play the lead characters. We see him in the passionate hobby of the kids. We see him in the alien monster. So many elements of 80's Spielberg can be seen in "Super 8", now for a new generation of kids to identify with.

9.  SOURCE CODE (full review)

Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gylenhaal) wakes up in a Chicago train, not knowing anyone around him, even the pretty girl (Michelle Monaghan) in front of him who seems to know him. After a few minutes, we are all shocked when this train blows up into flames! From there, we the audience gets a smart, thrilling, dramatic and romantic ride all the way to the end.

The science fiction aspect about gaining access to an 8-minute memory imprint after someone's death is unbelievable, but Director Duncan Jones make it actually sound plausible. Jake Gylenhaal does it again in creating a character you will definitely root for to complete his unprecedented mission.

8.  AMIGO (full review)

"Amigo," by veteran director John Sayles, attempts to show all sides of a multi- dimensional conflict that was the Philippine-American War.  The film brings us back to the turn of the previous century, 1900, when Spain just ceded the Philippines to the USA. A group of young American soldiers under former architect Lt. Compton (Garrett Dillahunt) take control of a remote village called San Isidro. Trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy in his hostaged neighborhood was the captain del barrio Rafael Dacanay (Joel Torre). 

Joel Torre properly captures Rafael's essence and plays him with fervor and passion. Of course, with all the rather hammy acting of the unknown foreign actors behind them, the talent of Torre and the rest of the veteran Filipino cast (notably Rio Locsin as Rafael's religious wife) shone right through. This is a very good and thoughtful film about a war that had not been tackled before in Hollywood before. To his credit, American John Sayles directed this movie as if he was a true Filipino. He was successful in telling us his story from the Filipino point of view.

7.  THOR (full review)

Marvel does it again with another A-quality screen interpretation of the comic book hero The Mighty Thor. The heart-stopping action, the dark family drama and the well-placed humor were all perfectly realized on screen by Shakespearian director Kenneth Branagh.

Chris Hemsworth is perfectly cast as the cocky Nordic thunder god. Not only does he physically look the part, the way he acted out his character's arc is well-done and worthy of audience empathy. It was not forced nor corny.  The story is solid. Those of us who did not know Thor now know him and care what happens to him.  The fight scenes were very exciting. The special effects were very good for the most part. This was excellent and the first real big action blockbuster of this summer.

6.  RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (full review)

This is a movie that will give us the explanation how a race of super-intelligent apes had over-run the Earth and replaced humans as the dominant species which was the scenario in the 1968 classic film "The Planet of the Apes".  The very interesting and intelligent story line covers the origin of the super-IQ and super-abilities of the apes, as well as sows the seeds of the virus that will eventually eradicate the human race.

Watching the whole film also makes us admire the talent of one Andy Serkis even more as he was able to convey the emotion of the central ape Caesar with nary a word for majority of the film. His eyes, that stare, his body language, say it all. Caesar's final moment with Will was amazing and can send chills down anyone's spine, a real screen moment. If there is justice, Andy Serkis should at least be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar even though we do not really see his real face and body on screen.


The Phantom was played by Ramin Karimloo, while his ingenue Christine Daae was played by Sierra Boggess. Ms. Boggess was beautiful as Christine, channeling both innocence and sensuousness. Her soprano was flawless even in the most challenging and punishing notes in "Think of Me," "Phantom of the Opera," and "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again." As the Phantom, Mr. Karimloo has got that X-factor that makes the role dangerous yet riveting and sympathetic. His voice can navigate the highs and lows that makes Mr. Lloyd Webber a musical sadist. It can be strong, yet tender and also menacing. His "Music of the Night" and "Point of No Return" were fantastic!

After the three main characters made their curtain call bows, the show was not yet over. Sir Andrew himself took center stage and thanked the audience and his crew, present and past. An impromptu concert featuring the original Christine, Sarah Brightman, and four Phantoms (including Colm Wilkinson and Anthony Warlow) makes this an essential viewing for all Phantom fans.


Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team (Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner) were accused of blowing up the Kremlin, and were thus left high and dry by the US government. As they move on their own to prove their innocence, at the same time they had to avert a nuclear catastrophe that would bring about another world war. This plot took the audience from Budapest to Moscow to Dubai and to Mumbai as Hunt and his team follow the trail of mad nuclear terrorist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist). 

Director Brad Bird ("The Incredibles") was able to achieve his animated-style vision into startlingly-convincing live action. This is Bird's first live action feature, and he shows them how to do it! This MI will surely more than satisfy any action movie fan, as it did me. This time, the teamwork required to achieve their mission was clearly showcased front and center, up to the very end. That renewed my faith in the franchise and now I look forward to their next adventure.

3.  X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (full review)

This film is a very mature treatment of the close friendship that developed between the brainy privileged Charles Xavier and the troubled angry Erik Lensherr, and how they forged the beginning of the mutant organization on Earth. 

This type of movie, being a prequel, is the type where the beginning and middle are more interesting than the end, which we already know what happens beforehand. I loved how they tied everything up very neatly in the details about each character we all know very well. Director Matthew Vaughn navigates the main story and its subplots into one coherent, entertaining and exciting whole. Awesome special effects complete this overall excellent package. A must watch, most certainly!

2.  THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (full review)

The story follows intrepid young reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) when a model ship he bought for a pound from a street seller was being relentlessly pursued by a mysterious man named Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Along the way, Tintin crosses paths with the alcoholic Captain Haddock (the versatile Andy Serkis) who was apparently the heir of a huge fortune of gold lost at sea, the very fortune also being sought by Sakharine. This race for the treasure leads Tintin and the Captain in an unexpected adventure of the highest order that spans land, sea and air! 

This was simply one of the most visually stunning movies I have EVER seen. The colorful and entertaining title sequence itself already draws you in. The motion capture animation is stepped up 100% from past incarnations as "Polar Express" and "Christmas Carol." This movie is beautiful and exciting at the same time, with just the right hint of nostalgia. The artwork is flawless. The colors were vibrant. The action sequences were exhilarating. The realism of this animated film (Spielberg's first as director) was astounding. Definitely a must-watch for the big screen! 10 stars!


The action here was relentless, as it goes from one highlight scene to another. From the exciting incursion of the trio into Gringott's Bank to get into the Lestrange Vault and their exhilarating escape, the unexpectedly (for non-readers) revelatory and emotional Pensieve memory of Prof. Snape, the very intense and destructive Battle at Hogwarts, the explosively watery destruction of the Hufflepuff's cup, the fiery aftermath of finding Ravenclaw's diadem, all the way up to the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort. These scenes were all very memorably shot, with incredible visual and sound effects. 

This is the best movie of the year for me. Congratulations to David Yates and the excellent cast for perfectly recreating J.K. Rowling's incredibly intricate final book (some small details changed notwithstanding). This fantastic finale film is indeed a bittersweet victory for the creators and for the fans alike.

Segunda Mano

December 29, 2011

Being a fan of Pinoy horror films, this was the film that I was most looking forward to seeing in this year's Metro Manila Film Festival. The fact that it was rated A by the Film Ratings Board was the added push I needed to clear up some time from the busy holiday schedule to go see it. Maybe because of all of this heightened expectation, I came out of the movie house today terribly disappointed.

I am getting ahead of myself. "Segunda Mano" is about a sad antique- shop owner Mabel (Kris Aquino) who lives with her mother (Ms. Helen Gamboa) in a spooky old house. Both are still disturbed by the death of younger sister Marie in a freak beach accident twenty years ago. Her life is invigorated when she meets and falls in love with Ivan (Dingdong Dantes), a wealthy architect who seemed to have it all on the surface. Why then does a spirit inhabiting the bag and dress of Ivan's estranged wife Marielle (Angelica Panganiban) seem to stop at nothing to scare Mabel away as people around the couple get killed?

EVERYTHING in this movie is a horror movie cliché -- computer-generated spirits appearing on and off screen, seance scenes, comfort room stalls scenes, jumpy "scare" music, swimming pool scenes, cats, blackouts, all the way up to very last stupid "shock" scene at the end! The acting of the actors already telegraphed how everything was going to end, so there was practically no surprises. Kris looked very much older than Dingdong, and hardly his type based on his lifestyle, so they lack any sort of chemistry. Bangs Garcia was funny, but her "kikay" character's "friendship" with Kris' morose character was so unlikely and felt forced and unrealistic. Trying to meld the Marie and the Marielle stories was so confusingly unnecessary.

The main and probably the only good thing I can say about "Segunda Mano" is their idea that ghosts can inhabit second-hand or used merchandise. That idea is actually horror genius! However unfortunately, the originality begins and ends there. After watching a very good Pinoy horror film like "The Road" earlier this month, I expected this film to also be at that level. Unfortunately, this movie was such a letdown. "Segunda Mano" is so chockful of previously-done scare tactics such that the entire film also feels "second-hand".

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

December 16, 2011

The first Mission Impossible film disappointed me very much. I was a fan of the original MI TV series. I thought the first MI film stripped everything good about the TV series and made it a one-man show for its star, Tom Cruise. So much was my disappointment that I did not even care to watch the second and third installments. However, the trailers for this fourth episode, with its exploding Kremlin and the hi-jinx on the Dubai glass skyscraper captured my attention. Also, the presence of Jeremy Renner as a new co-star also added to my interest to see this one. I am sure glad I did.

All the action promised in the trailer were delivered in high style, and more! Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team (Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner) were accused of blowing up the Kremlin, and were thus left high and dry by the US government. As they move on their own to prove their innocence, at the same time they had to avert a nuclear catastrophe that would bring about another world war. This plot took the audience from Budapest to Moscow to Dubai and to Mumbai as Hunt and his team follow the trail of mad nuclear terrorist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist). 

Tom Cruise does show signs of age here already, but he is as invincible as ever. Pegg is entertaining as the computer nerd, and comic relief. Patton I have never seen before, but she is an exotic beauty and realistic Amazon. Jeremy Renner adds another feather to his impressive acting cap since "The Hurt Locker." With "Bourne Supremacy" and "The Avengers" ahead of him, this guy Renner has one happening career.

Aside from the Kremlin and Burj Khalifa scenes I have mentioned, there were also exciting foot and car chases throughout the film, particularly impressive were those shot in a huge sandstorm. There were also old- fashioned fist-fights thrown in to balance out the hi-tech computer stuff. Of course, I had to suspend disbelief for a lot of the stunts pulled off which seemingly defy the laws of Physics. But they looked very good and breathtaking on screen, especially those on the Burj! 

Director Brad Bird ("The Incredibles") was able to achieve his animated-style vision into startlingly-convincing live action. This is Bird's first live action feature, and he shows them how to do it! This MI will surely more than satisfy any action movie fan, as it did me. This time, the teamwork required to achieve their mission was clearly showcased front and center, up to the very end. That renewed my faith in the franchise and now I look forward to their next adventure.

The Road

December 2, 2011

"The Road" tells about a mysterious series of grisly murders that occurred on a lonely stretch of road. The story was told in three parts, spanning three decades. It starts in 2008 when three youngsters were terrorized by a driver-less red car one night when they happened to pick this particular road on which to practice driving. The story shifts to 1998, when two sisters (one of them Rhian Ramos) whose red car overheated on that same road, only to fall victims to a quiet but mentally-disturbed teenage boy (Alden Richards) who had unspeakable violent tendencies. Finally, the story shifts further back to 1988, when a child was being mentally and physically tormented by his virago of a mother (Carmina Villaroel). In the end, the story returns to 2008, when everything was tied up together. 

I must say that the opening credits alone was very effective to establish the creepy atmosphere of the whole film. The music (by Swedish composer Johan Soderqvist) was so chilling as the camera follows the spooky shadows that line the titular road. The three parts all had a different kind of horror to show. In the first one, the horror is supernatural. I found the first one the best as we can really feel how helpless the three youngsters were against the vengeful ghost. The second part was scary in a more physical manner, since we can see that the antagonist was an actual psychotic killer. While the third part is more of psychological horror as we see how a little boy's delicate psyche was slowly being corrupted by his parents. 

As with most horror flicks, there will be plot holes, some big ones, in fact. But I say, do not think too much, let the eerie atmosphere envelop you as director Yam Laranas tells you his stories with his well-placed camera angles and effects, as well at the amazing lighting of scenes. While the more senior actors like Carmina Villaroel, Marvin Agustin, TJ Trinidad and Rhian Ramos expectedly did well in their respective roles, I was most impressed with the talent of Renz Valerio, the child actor who played the boy in the third part. He was able to convey his gradual descent into madness so well, keeping that last chapter interesting. It is very good to learn that Yam Laranas has once again succeeded to gain the attention of the international market with this release, following his "Sigaw" (2004) which was given the Hollywood treatment as "The Echo" in 2008. "The Road" is a definite must-watch for horror movie fans!

The Adventures of Tintin

November 30, 2011

Ever since I was a kid, I had been aware of this series of adventure- type cartoon books featuring this pale young boy with his short red hair flipped up in front named Tintin. But unusually though, unlike many in my generation, I have to confess that I have never read even one of them. When I heard that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson had teamed up to create an animated version of Tintin, I knew this was the perfect time for me (and my family) to finally get to know this famous guy.

The story follows intrepid young reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) when a model ship he bought for a pound from a street seller was being relentlessly pursued by a mysterious man named Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Along the way, Tintin crosses paths with the alcoholic Captain Haddock (the versatile Andy Serkis) who was apparently the heir of a huge fortune of gold lost at sea, the very fortune also being sought by Sakharine. This race for the treasure leads Tintin and the Captain in an unexpected adventure of the highest order that spans land, sea and air! This action-packed contest of wills was also laced with most biting and slyly funny Continental humor, mostly care of the bumbling Inspectors Thomson and Thompson.

This was simply one of the most visually stunning movies I have EVER seen. The colorful and entertaining title sequence itself already draws you in. The motion capture animation is stepped up 100% from past incarnations as "Polar Express" and "Christmas Carol." This movie is beautiful and exciting at the same time, with just the right hint of nostalgia. The artwork is flawless. The colors were vibrant. The action sequences were exhilarating. The realism of this animated film (Spielberg's first as director) was astounding. You will be impressed by the scenes showing Snowy (Tintin's cute dog), sunsets, the ocean, galleon ships, the airplane, the desert, the falcon, the shattering glass, the battling cranes, all rendered with palpable texture. And we only watched in 2D! Definitely a must-watch for the big screen! 10 stars!


November 29, 2011

"Immortals" dealt with the Greek hero, Theseus (future Man of Steel Henry Cavill). The arrogant King Hyperion (ever-villainous Mickey Rourke) is searching for the legendary Epirus Bow in his quest to free the Titans to conquer the gods and humanity. Theseus was chosen by the gods to take on Hyperion and save humankind. I am a fan of Greek Mythology, so a movie like this I will not miss. I have even heard people comparing this to Zach Snyder's "300" (which I rated 10 stars) and this made me even more excited to watch "Immortals".

To my dismay, there were so many things wrong about this film. The story-telling was confusing and disjointed. The actors portraying humans and gods had very little charisma to make me care about the story. (It does not bode too well for the reboot of Superman if the screen presence of Henry Cavill is bland like this. Gerard Butler of "300" he is not!) I did not like their interpretation of the mythological characters, from the gaudy golden god costumes to the wire-formed head of the Minotaur. Even the narrations were bad in a cheesy way. This was a throwback to those campy and hammy sword-and-sandals "epics" of the 1950s, only this time with CG.

I think the main conceit of this film lies in the several violent computer-generated fight scenes with all the severing, slicing, cutting, stabbing, exploding body parts, complete with blood that splatter towards the audience. For people who enjoy that type of thrill, this is a movie to watch. For me though, the hyperbolic violence here is just so random. It's like the filmmakers were trying to outdo themselves in thinking of how to top the blood shed in the previous scene. While I will give them an extra star for their gory imagination, I did not feel these scenes added any significant substance to the film at all. I must say though that the Epirus Bow scenes were quite well done.

Because of my high expectations, I found this film to be very disappointingly BAD, in so many levels. Any comparison to "300" is an insult to the previous film. Not recommended at all.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

November 19, 2011

I stopped reading the Twilight books after "Eclipse." That book bored me to death and terminated any interest of reading the last book, "Breaking Dawn." We went to watch "Breaking Dawn, Part 1" just tonight because my wife really looking forward to it. I was grateful that I had not read the book, because curiosity about how the story would turn out was the only thing that kept me watching.

The entire sequence from their wedding in the woods to their honeymoon in Brazil was maybe 45 minutes too long. They could have cut and compressed all of that hilariously cheesy stuff and maybe "Breaking Dawn" could have only been one movie, instead of two parts. As with the first three books, Bella continues to row her boat between the two rivers. Yes, even after her wedding to Edward, she continues to flirt with Jacob! Yet these two guys remain incredibly and illogically loyal to her. Anyhow, that was what Stephenie Meyer wrote, so fans of the book will be expecting that.

The part about Bella's baby and how it was born was at least suspenseful. But this part only started maybe in the last 30 minutes of the whole film. The fight scenes with the wolves and vampires were too close-up to be clearly exciting. The medical aspects of the C-section were not to be taken seriously. The artificially white faces of the vampires especially on Carlisle and Emmett were awfully distracting. However, the make-up and special visual effects on Bella's look during the pregnancy were realistically eerie. Jacob's imprinting scene was also quite well-executed.

Kristin Stewart was as bland as ever as Bella. Robert Pattinson was as cheesy as ever as Edward. Taylor Lautner does a bit better as Jacob, maybe because of how "nobly" his character had been written. Most of the other supporting characters, human, vampire and werewolf get a line or two. Memorable one-liners from Billy Burke as Bella's dad Charlie, and Anna Kendrick as Bella's friend Jessica before and during the wedding, made me laugh out loud.

This movie is strictly for the entertainment of Twilight fans who will love it. It is up to par and keeps the spirit well with the rest of the other Twilight films. For non-Twilight fans who haven't read the book though, at least this installment does manage to keep your interest. I have no idea what else is left for Part 2 to tell. It felt like they could have ended the franchise with this one already since the love story seems to have been settled (if not only for financial considerations). My wife will of course see this whole film differently though. Hehe...