Friday, January 31, 2014

Review of THAT AWKWARD MOMENT: "Sex and the City" for Guys

January 31, 2014

"That Awkward Moment" is a romantic/ sex comedy about three male best friends in their twenties living in New York City. Two of them, Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller), work as book cover designers in a publishing house. The other, Mikey (Michael B. Jordan), is an emergency room doctor. 

While Jason and Daniel are happily swinging singles with their rosters of girlfriends, Mikey has just been told by his wife that she wants a divorce. All three guys promise to each other that they would all remain single together. 

Unknown to his friends though, Mikey is trying to win back his lawyer wife Vera (Jessica Lucas). On the other hand, Jason meets and is getting close to a new girl Ellie (Imogen Poots). Daniel is beginning to see his BFF- and pick-up partner Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis) in a different light. Can all three yuppies actually keep steadfast in their fraternal pledge?

Zac Efron is undeniably fit for this charming yet shallow and arrogant character. It seems though that he had a step backward from his serious portrayals in "The Paper Boy" and "Parkland" to find himself in rather embarrassing scenes in the first third of the film (they were funny though). However, in the final third, Zac was more in his element. His final monologue alone reaffirms his status as romantic lead. 

Miles Teller plays the immature, noisy, annoying friend Daniel here. He is the funniest and the most relaxed of the three main actors. He remains relatively likable despite his smart-alecky character, coming across as a young Andrew McCarthy or John Cusack. His chemistry with his partner Mackenzie Davis was the best of the three pairs in the film. 

Michael B. Jordan is fresh from his acclaimed performance last year as an ill-fated ex-con in "Fruitvale Station". His character is the most stable of the three friends, and his character does not really get too idiotic situations. He finds himself in more dramatic than comic moments here, which makes his character feel like an odd man out.  He should stick to drama as his comic timing seems off.

The comedy aspect was only occasionally hilarious when an actor makes a total fool of himself. There are two big comedy gimmicks here that will make this film memorable. One was when they show Zac and Miles try to pee while Viagra was still on full effect. The other was when Zac goes to Ellie's birthday party with his awkward sense of "dress up." Other than that, nothing really funny, more of annoying, grating and forced.

The romantic aspect fared better. It was revatively well-written, though treading on very familiar ground of male-female relationships and commitment phobia. When is "going out" just simply "going out"? The film was quite frank on scenes and language of a sexual nature though, with scenes of semi-nudity of the three actors. I was surprised to see this rated only R-13 locally. This should at least be an R-18 for me because maturity is required to properly understand this aspect of the film. This is not Zac of High School Musical anymore. 5/10.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


January 30, 2014

"Paranormal Activity" (PA) has been wielding its low-budget horror spell on movie audiences since 2007 when the first film came out. Employing mainly closed circuit TV and some hand-held camera footage, this film series had brought us the otherworldly experienced by one young Southern California woman named Katie and her immediate family members. So far, its writer Christopher Landon has spun a tale that begun simply enough with Oren Peli's original film, but later gained complexity with every episode.

This particular installment subtitled "The Marked Ones" not PA 5, which suggests that it is not exactly a sequel of the first four. It takes us into a Latino community in California, away from the main PA story line. We are introduced to totally new characters, Latino teenagers and best friends, Jesse and Hector, who just so happened to be carrying a hand-held camera which was constantly ON.

After their strange downstairs neighbor Ana dies mysteriously, Jesse began to manifest some strange superhuman abilities and irrationally violent behavior. His friend Hector and sister Mariflor try to find out what was behind these bizarre things Jesse was experiencing. This leads them to discover an evil beyond their expectations.

Aside from the new characters, "The Marked Ones" also departs from the CCTV style of the first films. This one hearkens more to the "Blair Witch Project" style with the very shaky hand-held camera work, which may cause vertigo for some viewers with all its rough bouncing and sudden spinning around. 

It actually did not feel like a PA film at all because of all of this action going on with the characters. The original PA films did not have anything but anticipative tension during the first hour as the characters go through their mundane lives on camera, with only the slightest hints of horror becoming more and more malevolent with time (actually marked on screen with a running clock). It was not like this here. There is also a lot of funny moments. It initially felt like a cheap generic "found footage" horror flick.

But by the final thirty minutes, it does become exciting. But this is only if you are a fan of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Before this film reaches its conclusion, we are brought into details which touch on PA 1, 2 and 3, actually dovetailing into the main PA mythology about Katie. I actually loved this unexpected development, which for me saved the whole film from total mediocrity. However, for people who are not aware nor care about this continuing story, there will be nothing for them to get excited about at all. 5/10.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Review of POLICE STORY 2013: Jackie Chan Gets Serious

January 25, 2014

I have watched many of Jackie Chan's films in the past. I am a fan of how he combines his awesome martial arts skills and stunt work with precise comedic timing. We see a different Jackie Chan in "Police Story 2013", he gets darkly serious here.

Sad to say, I have not seen any of the five other Police Story films of Chan before. Not even the first one, which Jackie himself considers his best in terms of the action. This Police Story is not really related to the other films, so it does not really matter if you have seen the others or not.

The film opens with a shocking scene of Jackie Chan actually pulling the trigger of a pistol to his temple. From there we will get pulled into a tale of Captain Zhong Wen, a man torn between his dedication to his duty as a policeman and his duty as a father. 

Zhong's rebellious daughter May introduces him to her boyfriend, Wu Jiang, who runs a very popular avant-garde bar. What was supposed to have been a family meeting turned out to be an elaborately-planned and violent hostage-taking drama borne out of revenge for a tragic incident that happened five years ago.

Jackie Chan is much older now, but his action skills are not diminished. He gets to fight with a champion Thai mixed martial arts fighter in one very long and brutal one-on-one fight scene. Awesome fight scene. His dramatic acting skills are wrung out here as well because of the dilemmas and tough decisions his character had to face. There was no hint of comedy in this Jackie here. (We only see the old Jackie Chan smile and laugh in the outtakes over the final credits, always fun to stay in your seats for.)

His daughter May was played by pretty young actress Tian Jing, whom I just saw in Donnie Yen's "Special ID" just last week (MY REVIEW). Too bad she did not figure in a fight scene in this film. But she was much better here in terms of her acting because of her character's arc. (Tian actually looked a lot like Filipina actress Kim Chiu in this film.)

The villain is played by award-winning Chinese actor Liu Ye. He plays his disturbed and vengeful character with much depth, with so many intense confrontation scenes with Jackie.

The direction by Sheng Ding was a little sloppy, with a lot of off-focus shots left in the final print. The story-telling and the script were quite neat in terms of the details, considering this tale went back and forth from previous events interjecting into present scenes. There were some welcome moments of comedy but they were not from Jackie.

Overall, this is a very good action film held together by an excellent dramatic story, with just the right amount of comedy to keep things interesting. Jackie Chan is really still at the top of his game, even at this age (he turns 60 in April this year). He should not be retiring soon. We still expect a lot from this talented man. 8/10.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Review of I, FRANKENSTEIN: Very Familiar Ground

January 24, 2014

"I, Frankenstein" opens in the year 1793, after Victor Frankenstein dies while going after the very monster of his creation who killed Mrs. Frankenstein in a fit of passionate rage. 

The Frankenstein monster's (Adam Eckhart) unique state of being an invincible being without a soul makes him target for the Demons and their leader Naberius, who plans to conquer the world with many more such powerful reanimated humans. 

On the other hand, the demons' nemeses, the Gargoyles, under their Queen Leonore (Miranda Otto), aim to foil this diabolical plan of world domination by protecting Frankenstein's monster, whom she has baptized with the name Adam, and Dr. Frankenstein's journal where he wrote his reanimation process in great detail. 

200 years later, in the present time, Naberius, in his human form Charles Wessex (Bill Nighy), employs renowned human electro-physiologist Dr. Terra Ward (Yvonne Strahovski), to assist him in carrying out his nefarious scheme of demonic world domination. 

So this graphic novel-turned-film is another one of those fantasies where good creatures battle with evil creatures who are out to control the world. This novel's author Kevin Grevioux also writes the script of this film. You can expect similarities with "Underworld" which was also written by Grevioux. Grevioux himself appears in an acting role, as the burly head of security of Wessex.

The Demons are obviously evil the way they looked onscreen. The Gargoyles may look attractive in their usual form. But when they are in their winged form, they turn into stone-faced, flying, well, gargoyles. It is just strange and atypical that supposedly good beings will take on an ugly sinister look. 

Aaron Eckhart and his characteristically strong cleft chin makes a good athletic yet stoic Adam. He did not have to express a whole lot of emotion except angst and rage. He was not made to look like the grotesque monster as how Robert de Niro looked in Kenneth Branagh's "Frankenstein" film based on Mary Shelley's book. Eckhart's "monster" is just one buff and brawny guy with big scars over his face and body.

Bill Nighy does not do anything spectacular as Wessex, just the typical British bad guy. His CG Demon form is unfortunately not as grandly demonic as you would expect for the head of the Demons. His minions had stronger-looking demon forms than Naberius had.

Miranda Otto plays the regal Leonore as well as she could, though her role does not really demand too much of her. The young, beautiful and svelte Yvonne Strahovski would not really be the way you'd imagine "an eminent electro-physiologist" to look like. But hey, this is a graphic novel, so fan boys need a pretty face to make them happy.

Overall, this is just one shallow, cartoonish, popcorn flick. It will be entertaining for those who do not expect too much. I did enjoy the "arnis"-inspired fight between Adam and a demon using metal "sticks". That was the best fight sequence in the whole film.

Its messages of sacred duty, higher purpose and good vs. evil, with common-looking CGI effects, may have already been seen too many times in various dark fantasy films in recent years. The way they ended this film, it seems to be hoping for a sequel. I am not sure it will get one. 5/10.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Review of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY: Ben Stiller Grows Up

January 23, 2014

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was a short story written by James Thurber way back in 1939. It was about a henpecked man who escapes into a fantasy world of danger and heroics to compensate for the depressingly dull life he led in reality.

Screen writer Steve Conrad adapts the title and the name and over-active imagination of the main character and tells his own original story. An uncharacteristically mature and contemplative Ben Stiller directs and stars in this "labour of love" of a movie project. There is nary a trace of the Ben Stiller in "There's Something About Mary", "Zoolander" or "Dodgeball" in this special film.

Walter Mitty is a timid guy who tends to "space out" and enter into a world of his own where he is able to do wondrously heroic exploits. He was so much of an introvert such that he would rather join an online dating service to meet this girl he fancies, Cheryl, who was also working in his same office.

One day, he misplaced the precious negative of the photograph meant to be the cover of the last issue of Life Magazine. As his job is on the line, Walter needs to look for Sean, the elusive globe-trotting photographer who took that missing photo. Upon deducing that Sean was in Greenland, Mitty suddenly decides to throw all caution to the wind and just go on a difficult quest to track Sean down. This will be the biggest adventure of his lifetime, a life-changing one at that.

Visually, this film is perfect with its breathtaking cinematography and unobtrusive special effects. Many scenes, particularly those showing Walter skateboarding along highways in Iceland, or climbing the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, were very memorably shot with unique camera range and angles, extolling the beauty of the world around us.

The script does fall into melodrama and sentimentality, but I did not mind this at all. Ben Stiller was very good as Walter, capturing his shyness and cluelessness so sensitively. I liked Walter's moments with his mother, played by Shirley McLaine with pleasant restraint. I also liked Walter's awkward romance with Cheryl played by Kristen Wiig. She was also very relaxed and natural here in a straight role, very much contrasting from her quirky breakout role in "Bridesmaids."

Once we reach the second half of the film when Walter actually stops having fantasies and does things for real already. I realize of course that this was the point of the film, that dreams were there to be fulfilled in real life. I just felt it somehow lost the spirit of the source short story at that point.

Despite comparisons with "Forrest Gump," "Walter Mitty" admittedly does not exactly reach those lofty heights. However, upon watching this film, you will wonder how something so beautiful-looking could have been totally shut-out from Oscar or any other award consideration.  The spectacular photography of the vibrant and exotic settings demand that you see this film on the big screen.  

This was an entertaining wholesome and feel-good film that will bring us to places we rarely see on screen, visually and emotionally. We will all identify since there is a Walter Mitty in all of us who desires to get that chance to live out our wildest dreams. 8/10.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review of SPECIAL ID: Scappy MMA Fighters

January 21, 2014

I am not really a big martial arts movie fan, but I enjoy watching a good one when I get the chance. "Special ID" is the only other Donnie Yen film I have seen after the phenomenal "Ip Man" and its lesser sequel. I was curious to watch Donnie fight in the modern setting. This film definitely confirms his excellence in martial arts choreography and execution -- from the quiet discipline of wuxia before to rough and rugged mixed martial arts this time.

The story is common and predictable, Chan Chi-lung (Donnie Yen) is an undercover Hongkong cop who gets sent to China to help corner an up-and- coming crime boss, Sunny (Andy On), with whom he was close to in his previous assignment. There were no really big surprises or twists in the story. But of course, we do not typically watch these types of films expecting a profound lessons, but it is mostly for the exhilarating action scenes. And in this aspect, I thought "Special ID" delivered big time.

It was cool to see a different Donnie Yen as a brash and reckless cop, which was totally in contrast with his elegant, subdued character in "Ip Man." His range of fighting skills were all very exciting to watch in those incredibly and impossibly choreographed fight and car chase scenes. Be they in enclosed spaces or in wide-open areas, Donnie Yen is exhilarating to watch.

Andy On plays a very convincing new debonair crime lord from the US. He figures in a very long climactic scenes of car chase with fighting (yes, while driving), followed by an intense scene of bloody hand-to-hand combat on a bridge under construction. He was able to match the grace and flow of Yen's movements yet their scenes come across as gritty and realistic.

As Yen's Chinese female police partner Fang Jing, pretty actress Tian Jing was made to mouth some pretty cheesy lines. But when it comes to her action scenes, her awkwardness disappears. She was unexpectedly awesome in her parkour scenes jumping and running across rooftops, and of course, her major fight scene set unbelievably within the confines of a moving Land Rover! 

Reviews from many die-hard martial arts film fanatics have been harsh, calling this film a miss in Donnie Yen's filmography because of its sloppiness. However, for the casual viewer who only watches martial arts films occasionally, I do not see anything wrong with the action sequences I saw here in "Special ID". While they may miss the mark for bonafide MMA connoisseurs, for an ordinary guy like me, those action scenes and stunts were quite breathtaking and very entertaining. 7/10.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Review of TARZAN: Strangely Lethargic

January 20, 2014

The story of Tarzan of the Apes written by Edgar Rice Burroughs had been interpreted in many films. We all remember those classic films from the 1930s starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane. In 1966, there was a Tarzan TV series starring Ron Ely. In 1984, there was a critically-acclaimed film version starring Christopher Lambert and Andie McDowall. In 1999, Disney gave us its own take on the story in its traditional 2D animation, with a pop musical score by Phil Collins. 

I was very surprised that this year, another film version was being announced in newspaper ads. I saw the name of Kellan Lutz, and thought this was a live action film, starring this Twilight actor who just recently took on another classic film character Hercules. It turns out this was an animated production from Constantin Films directed and written by its German producer Reinhard Klooss, using 3D motion capture technology.  Its run in local theaters were not in 3D though.

This incarnation of Tarzan gives the new generation an updated origin story. There is a comet from outer space that the Greystoke Energies company is planning to mine as an unlimited power source. Instead of the fatal shipwreck, we have a helicopter crash this time. The young JJ Greystoke here was already a talking toddler rather than a newborn baby when he was welcomed by the lonely ape Kala into her care. 

The whole first hour was rather bland and boring. There was a lot of scenes which were dedicated to the romance between Tarzan and Jane. Only later when the villain character Clayton (the new greedy CEO of Greystoke Energies) makes his appearance, it was only then that the action picked up, but not by much. The energy simply is not there for us to get involved.  Even the sight of Tarzan skiing down snowy mountain slopes with his bare feet was lacking in excitement.

The quality of animation is not at all bad, to be honest. The story though had already been told so many times, but the modern touches were too outlandish and yet also too familiarly derivative (the influences from the James Cameron film "Avatar" are too glaring to ignore) to appreciate as improvements. I must admit though, a certain modern day reference to Bob the Builder was hilarious.

This is not essential viewing, only when you have restless kids and nothing else to see at the mall on a lazy afternoon. Only an hour and half long, it will be enough to keep their interest. But afterwards, they will probably still remember the Disney version more. 4/10.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


January 19, 2014

I always wished that 1984 would happen again.  That year, ALL five songs nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscar Awards were Billboard Number One songs.  These were the title songs from Footloose, Against All Odds, Ghostbusters"Let's Hear It for the Boy" also from Footloose, and the eventual winner "I Just Called to Say I Love You" from The Woman in Red (by Stevie Wonder).

When this year's list of nominees came out, I just really know one of these songs (the ubiquitous "Let It Go" of course).  

However, having listened to all of them, I can say this is a pretty strong bunch.  Because of sheer star power of the artist and as a tribute to the recently departed world icon the song is dedicated to, the U2 song stands out to be favorite.  It already won the Golden Globe, the Oscar may not be far behind.

Listen to the Nominees for BEST ORIGINAL SONG OSCAR 2014 and judge.  Which one of them would you like to win?

"Alone Yet Not Alone" from ALONE YET NOT ALONE
Music by Bruce Broughton; Lyric by Dennis Spiegel

"Happy" from DESPICABLE ME 2
Music and Lyric by Pharrell Williams

"Let It Go" from FROZEN
Music and Lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez

"The Moon Song" from HER
Music by Karen O; Lyric by Karen O and Spike Jonze

Music by Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen; Lyric by Paul Hewson

Friday, January 17, 2014

Review of JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT: Familiar But Still Exciting

January 17, 2013

Jack Ryan was a young Marine who was injured during a mission when his helicopter crashed. Upon completing his therapy for his injury, Ryan was conscripted by Thomas Harper to be an operative of the CIA because of his keen analytic acumen specifically in economics and finance.

10 years later, while working in Wall Street, Ryan uncovers some suspicious transactions by a Russian firm which may spell economic disaster Stateside. Ryan goes to Moscow supposedly to do some auditing work. But upon his arrival, it was apparent that this mission was not only going to be about punching numbers into a computer.

Because of his previous work in "This is War", I knew Chris Pine could play a very good spy. Though Pine did not really look like he had a PhD degree, and a lot of his financial talk just flew over my head, his action sequences were very gritty and exhilarating. He also has great chemistry Keira Knightley, the actress who plays Ryan's charming fiancé Dr. Cathy Muller. Her suspicions of an affair unexpectedly gets her involved with Ryan's dangerous mission.

It was good to see Kevin Costner back on screen in a substantial role again. He was older of course, but still looking good. His character Harper may feel like any other mentor/supervisor role in other espionage films, but Costner played him very well. Too bad he was not really given any special moment which can be considered really memorable.

The villain of the film Viktor Cherevin though was another matter altogether. Kenneth Branagh creates a strong antagonist with his subtly sinister portrayal of the Russian businessman with terrorism, economic and otherwise, on his mind. He completely transformed into his role very convincingly, with no trace of British-ness.

This particular Jack Ryan did not feel like this was going to be the same man in the other older films where we knew the character Jack Ryan first, like "Hunt for Red October" (played by Alec Baldwin), "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" (played by Harrison Ford) or even "Sum of All Fears" (played by Ben Affleck). This film only has the character Jack Ryan by author Tom Clancy, but he did not write this story at all.

This film had an oddly generic feel like we have seen this story in some form before. Even if this was set several years post-9/11, it had that dated Cold War (a la classic James Bond) feel especially when the action shifted to Moscow. Fortunately though, despite those gripes, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is still a very exciting action-packed thriller. 

The director is also Kenneth Branagh, whom we usually associate with Shakespearian productions. He follows up his mainstream directorial work on the first "Thor" film with this one, with much skill. The camera work was excellent especially for the gunfights and car chases. That sequence of firm infiltration was very astutely edited with much tension, impossible as that could have been in real life. 

It was Branagh's energetic story-telling and Pine's charismatic portrayal as Ryan that turned the potentially mediocre script around and created a really effective and entertaining spy thriller, successfully rebooting the character for another possible film franchise. 7/10.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

NOMINEES of the 86th OSCARS: My Reviews

January 16, 2013

The Nominees of the 86th Academy Awards are:

Best Picture

American Hustle
Captain Phillips (My Review)
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity (My Review)
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street (My Review)

Best Director

David O. Russell, American Hustle
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actress

Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Best Actor

Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Best Adapted Screenplay

Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
Billy Ray, Captain Phillips
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, Philomena
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Original Screenplay

Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club
Spike Jonze, Her
Bob Nelson, Nebraska

Best Original Song

“Alone Yet Not Alone,” Alone Yet Not Alone; music by Bruce Broughton, lyrics by Dennis Spiegel
“Happy,” Despicable Me 2; music and lyrics by Pharrell Williams
“Let It Go,” Frozen; music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
“The Moon Song,” Her; music by Karen O., lyrics by Karen O. and Spike Jonze
“Ordinary Love,” Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; music by U2; lyrics by Paul Hewson

Best Animated Feature

The Croods (My Review)
Despicable Me 2 (My Review)
Ernest & Celestine
Frozen (My Review)
The Wind Rises

Best Documentary — Feature

The Act of Killing (My Review)
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet from Stardom

Best Foreign Language Film

The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium
The Great Beauty, Italy
The Hunt, Denmark
The Missing Picture, Cambodia
Omar, Palestine

Best Original Score

John Williams, The Book Thief
Steven Price, Gravity
William Butler and Owen Pallett, Her
Alexandre Desplat, Philomena
Thomas Newman, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Cinematography

Philippe Le Sourd, The Grandmaster
Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska
Roger A. Deakins, Prisoners (My Review)

Best Production Design

American Hustle
The Great Gatsby (My Review)
12 Years a Slave

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger (My Review)

Best Costume Design

Michael Wilkinson, American Hustle
William Chang Suk Ping, The Grandmaster
Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby
Michael O’Connor, The Invisible Woman
Patricia Norris, 12 Years a Slave

Best Film Editing

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave

Best Visual Effects

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (My Review)
Iron Man 3 (My Review)
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness (My Review)

Best Sound Mixing

Captain Phillips
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor (My Review)

Best Sound Editing

All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lone Survivor

Best Documentary — Short

Facing Fear
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Best Live Action Short

Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)
Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)
The Voorman Problem

Best Animated Short

Get a Horse!
Mr. Hublot
Room on the Broom

Review of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: Excessive Excesses

January 16, 2014

"The Wolf of Wall Street" is about the rise and fall of one Jordan Belfort, a fast-talking con man selling penny stocks to unsuspecting clients to earn that whopping 50% commission. He built up a financial empire with simply too much hot money than he know what to do with them. Jordan and his cohorts, led by the loud and obnoxious Donnie Azoff, lead a life of unbridled debauchery until the long arms of the law finally catch up with them.

While this film seemed like it was celebrating the crime Belfort was perpetrating, director Martin Scorsese told it in a very frenetic and entertaining way. The structure of the film was odd though, as the first two hours plus was about the scandalously wild lifestyle Belfort and friends had in the lap of luxury. It was fun, yes, to the point of annoyance. Only the last 40 minutes or so was about his inevitable fall and retribution, making it feel like an afterthought. 

Leonardo DiCaprio summons again his inimitable charm and charisma we saw before in "Catch Me If You Can" to higher stakes criminal activity as Belfort. Leonardo's Belfort was like his last role Jay Gatsby, but on amped up overdrive, pulling all the stops, giving everything he had with a burning passion that oozes through the screen. He has this hilarious sequence when he had a catatonic fit after taking a strong drug, never knew Leo was capable of such energetic physical comedy.  After his Golden Globe win for Best Actor in a Comedy with this role, he stands a good chance of finally scoring his first Oscar.

Jonah Hill plays Belfort's reckless partner Donnie with rabid perversity. It was like his last film, the insane "This Is The End," goes to New York high society. He has excellently outrageous comic chemistry with DiCaprio. The classy, beautiful and sexy Margot Robbie plays Naomi, the hot socialite who swept Belfort off his feet. I first noted her in a small role in last year's "About Time", and with this daring role, she is bound for the big time.

In smaller but still notable roles were Matthew McConaughey as Belfort's first Wall Street mentor, Rob Reiner as Belfort's prudent father, Jean Dujardin as Belfort's European contact and Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent who wanted to bring Belfort down at all costs.

After the first one and half hours of the over-the-top obscene lifestyle Jordan and pals live, you will feel that all of this depiction of inane debauchery is kind of getting too repetitive and long for comfort. There will be scenes of sexual orgies of all kinds to the point of misogyny. There will be multiple scenes of almost everybody taking drugs and we see all the shocking effects. Your ears will feel numbed with all the foul language in seemingly every one of their sentences. The F word was integral to their vocabulary.

However, thanks to the pedigree of the people behind this film, namely Scorsese and DiCaprio, the brilliant cinematography and opulent production design, we are reminded that this is still an A-list project, not just some raunchy blue movie drowning in kilos of cocaine, naked prostitutes and incessant profanity. I just thought it could have lost some of the excessive scenes of excess in the first two hours and still had gotten the story across. 7/10.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The TOP 10 US Box Office Hits of 2013: My Reviews

January 12, 2013

Below is the list of the Top 10 Top Grossing Films in the US Box Office for the year 2013. While "Iron Man 3" had the year’s biggest opening weekend and was tops the whole summer, "Catching Fire" caught up as it ruled the holiday season up to now as the new year rolls in. An asterisk after the title means it is still currently showing in US theaters up to now.

1. Catching Fire* ($409.4 million)

In celebration of the 75th year of the Hunger Games, previous Victors (one male and one female) from each District to fight in another games to the death called the Quarter Quell. Being the only female Victor of District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) was an automatic contestant, and the odds were stacked against her favor. How will the results of this special edition of the Hunger Games affect the revolution already catching fire outside the Capitol walls? 

This film tackles serious political topics very well, simplified for its young target audience, but not in a way that insults more mature viewers. This is a perfectly-made bridging film by director Francis Lawrence.  It stands very well on its own merits, as much as it guarantees that the next two films in the franchise will be blockbusters. 9/10. (My Full Review)

2. Iron Man 3 ($409.0 M)

The plot centers around Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his conflict with a mad scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who has developed a powerful virus called Extremis who can give fiery powers to those who can withstand its painful incubation. At the same time, the President of the United States was abducted by a mad international terrorist who calls himself "Mandarin" (Ben Kingsley). 

I thought this film was 70% Stark, only 30% Iron Man. I felt this film was too long and could be edited to tighten the suspense and streamline the storytelling more. The ending sequence was nicely ambiguous. The extra scene after the very long closing credits was funny with a surprising cameo appearance, but it was not so exciting to suggest what the next Marvel film was all about. (Or does it?) Overall, "Iron Man 3" was just alright, but not really worth all the hype given it. Temper your expectations. 6/10. (My Full Review)

3. Despicable Me 2* ($368.0 M)

This story of this sequel is about the reformed Gru (still voiced by Steve Carell) being recruited by the Anti-Villain League to be their secret agent.  His mission is to discover and apprehend an evil criminal who had developed a toxin which can turn any living being into destructive purple hairy monsters upon injection. 

But make no mistake, definitely, this is one very funny and entertaining film for the whole family.  Fans of those naughty little yellow Minions will rejoice as they have practically half of the movie running time dedicated to them, and there are so many more of them here.  Fans of good 3D effects will really find this film so cool.  I just missed some of the heart that made the first installment more than special. 7/10. (My Full Review)

4. Frozen* ($301.5 M)

This is a wholly original tale about two royal sisters. One, Elsa, had a wonderful but dangerous power to create ice and wintry weather. The other one, Anna, is normal. Several years later, at Elsa's coronation day as Queen, her powers were inadvertently revealed to the public and she had to flee. Anna goes out to search for her sister. Can Anna find her sister, mend their relationship, discover true love in time, and save their kingdom from the eternal winter that envelops it?

With incredibly-rendered visuals and sweeping music, the story line of sisterly love and devotion is also a novel approach that makes this production stand out from the other Disney classics. 8/10. (My Full Review)

5. Man of Steel ($291.1 M)

The whole movie is essentially a remake of "Superman II", which was arguably the best of the Christopher Reeve series. In that film, as with this one, Superman faces General Zod and his minions, who was able to escape his fate in the Phantom Zone and found his way to Earth to create havoc here. 

Overall, this is a very satisfying reboot of the Superman series by Zach Snyder. I liked that they took this one seriously, not devoid of humor but without the slapstick that made previous versions corny. The technical aspects of the film were excellent, especially the rich cinematography, the fast-paced editing, as well as the visual and sound effects of the battle scenes. This film has a charm distinct enough form the Reeve version and will be a successful franchise of its own.  8/10. (My Full Review)

6. Monsters University ($268.5 M)

In this installment, we are brought back in time, when our favorite monster heroes: Mike (the hyper green walking ball with one Cyclops eye, voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sully (the cool blue shaggy giant with the spotted arms, voiced by John Goodman) were just freshmen students at Monsters U, where they were enrolled in the "Scaring" program. 

The movie is very entertaining for the whole family, but maybe more for the kids and the kids at heart. However, the story line is too familiar and derivative to be really distinct, much unlike the innovative first film, which had a very original and mature story. You will definitely have a good time while watching the monsters and their shenanigans, but you may not even really remember it too well anymore after a while. 6/10. (My Full Review)

7. Gravity* ($255.8 M)

"Gravity" tells of the unenviable situation experienced by medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her astronaut mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) when an accidental disaster caused by a shower of satellite debris destroys their space station, leaving them floating in deep space.

Director Alfonso Cuaron has created a masterpiece that knows when to move for excitement and when to stop for meditation. We enjoy the breathtaking ride through the dangerous outer frontiers. We also get to look inwards to the essence of our own minuscule humanity in stark contrast to the vastness of the universe. We will feel agoraphobia and claustrophobia at the same time while Stone and Kowalski struggle to keep themselves alive. 10/10. (My Full Review)

8. Fast & Furious 6 ($238.7 M)

The car chase scenes (this franchise's main claim to fame) were amazingly planned, executed, shot and edited. There was that chase scene on the freeway with a tank, ending with a superhuman midair rescue you simply have got to see to believe (or not believe). As if that is not enough, the entire last sequence was about cars trying to get a Russian cargo plane from taking off, all the while fighting off the enemies mostly mano a mano.

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

9. Oz: The Great and Powerful ($234.9 M)

The synopsis of this film says that it follows the adventures of  a circus illusionist and con man, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), when he was blown by tornado into the magical land of witches and other fantastic beings.  Oscar would battle and defeat a great evil enemy before he becomes the all-powerful wizard and king of Oz in Emerald City.

I have not seen this film as of yet.  Review to follow.

10. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug* ($234.2 M)

"The Desolation of Smaug" picks up from the first film.  While Gandalf (Ian Mc Kellen) went looking for the Necromancer in Dor Guldur, our titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the 13 Dwarfs led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) continue on their quest to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the lost Dwarf kingdom of Erebor. Along the way, they encounter deadly Orcs, Giant Spiders and Elves who give them a harrowing time. With the help of Bard (Luke Evans), a human from Laketown, they reach their destination and encounter Smaug, the fire-breathing dragon that had taken over the Dwarfs' old realm.

Cinematography was topnotch as production design was spectacular, though the CGI can be overwhelming.  The ending comes just when you are whetted up for a big fight scene.  We will really have to catch that final film in the trilogy to see that monumental battle come to life. 8/10. (My Full Review)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Review of LONE SURVIVOR: Patriotism and Pashtunwali

January 11, 2013

The operation of Navy Seals in Taliban country in the mountains of Afghanistan goes awry. Their supposedly covert intelligence mission becomes an all-out gunfight.  The title already tells us quite obviously what the outcome will be. There is only one lone survivor. 

However, before it reaches that inevitable conclusion, we will be brought right in the heat of the blazing action where bullets were flying and bombs were exploding. You will definitely flinch as director Peter Berg does not shirk from showing in stark graphic close-ups how bullets and shrapnel hit their targets, spilling not only blood and guts, but ultimately also causing cruel deaths. 

We will also bear witness to a 2000-year old code of honor among Afghan villagers called Pashtunwali where undertake the responsibility of protecting an individual at all costs. This is something new I have never known before.  It is indeed heartening to learn about this noble tradition that reasserts our hope in humanity in the face of seemingly mindless violence of warfare.

Honor and valor comes in different forms from different people. We see a lot of it here in "Lone Survivor." The Seals (played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch) show it as they stand their ground against all odds in the name of duty for their country. The Afghan villagers (played by Ali Suliman and Rohan Chand) show it much better in their efforts to help a person in dire need, even if he was a stranger whom they were conditioned to believe to be their enemy.

Maybe the only drawback about this film is that we do not really make any personal connection if any individual Seal, even the titular lone survivor. We will not really know anything much about the person behind the soldier. We just see all of them here as generic courageous soldiers who are ready to die for country, symbolizing ALL American military men. You cannot fault the filmmakers for their desire to revel in their nationalistic pride.

You will really get into the horrific experience of being in the battle zone in this film. It will not only show tactical dilemmas but moral decision-making as well.  This film will make you admire and appreciate these brave men who do their unenviable duties out of sheer patriotism, not only Americans but soldiers of every nation. This is a brutally frank war movie, definitely not for the faint at heart. 8/10.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Review of 47 RONIN: Westernized Bushido

January 10, 2013

Loyalty and honor in Japanese culture had been very elegantly presented in many movies about the Shogunate or feudal period of their history. I had always admired the nobility of their Bushido way of Samurai life, from watching films like "Ran", to more modern interpretations of the swordsman culture, like "Ruruoni Kenshin." I think "47 Ronin" will be joining that list.

Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) is the master of the prosperous house of Ako. A rival master, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), caused Asano to commit an act of assault by inflicting him with a spell care of his personal Witch (Rinko Kikuchi). The Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) meted Asano the sentence of seppuku, rendering his band of Samurai led by the loyal Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) as Ronin.

Ronin are Samurai who have lost their master. The title "47 Ronin" refer to this group of ex-Samurai who reunite to avenge the dishonor and death of their master. Among these Ronin is an half-breed of remarkable fighting skills named Kai (Keanu Reeves). Despite being considered an outcast because of his skin, Kai's own mystical past will play an instrumental role in their plan for revenge.

This film's story is very well-told by director Carl Rinsch from a screenplay by Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini. The cinematography was absolutely impressive with its sweeping vistas as well as intimate close-ups. The production design spared no expense it seems for very elegant set pieces, from rock gardens to ceremonial grounds. The choreography of the rituals and fight scenes were very well-done as well.

The costumes by Penny Rose deserve award consideration with their elaborate designs and rich detail. Striking colors of red, gold and navy delineate the clothes worn by the three different armies in the film. Smart modern touches touch up the gowns worn by the two main female characters in the cast. 

Keanu Reeves does well in his role as Kai as far as the acting was concerned, although I would have expected a younger actor to play the role. The main brunt of the acting though was on the shoulders of Hiroyuki Sanada, who played the lead Samurai Oishi. His screen presence was very strong and his impassioned performance was imbued with dignity. 

Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi chews up her every scene as the Witch, as she gets to interact with a lot of the film's computer-generated special effects. Ko Shibasaki graces the screen with her ethereal beauty and refinement as Miko, Asano's regal daughter, who had a forbidden love complicated by an unwanted betrothal decreed by the Shogun.

Overall, I thought this was a very satisfying total movie experience, where you get transported to an exotic time in history when loyalty and honor, virtues so rare in this day and age, still ruled. The writing, technical and acting aspects all contribute to a visually vivid and emotionally moving film, albeit a Westernized (everyone speaks English here) fantasy with relatively lighter-weight treatment than the Kurosawa classics. Nevertheless, it does just fine for me. 7/10

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review of THE LEGEND OF HERCULES: Pure Popcorn

January 8, 2014

One night, Queen Alcmene was ravished by the god Zeus.  From this union, she would give birth to a boy whom his (step-)father King Amphityrion named Alcides. Later in life, the boy would develop remarkable physique and abilities, taking on the name Hercules. Other than these nominal details though, it seems the rest of this "origins" movie was not derived from the ancient myths at all. 

Case in point, mythology told us how angry the goddess Hera was with Hercules because he was a product of Zeus' infidelity, even driving Hercules mad to kill his own children. However in this film, we get a mild resigned Hera.  In an Annunciation-like scenario, Hera appears to Alcmene and tells her that Zeus will visit the queen to plant his divine seed in her. It was even Hera who told Alcmene to call the boy Hercules.

The lady love of Hercules in this film, the Princess Hebe from Crete and her entire story line, along with the love triangle with Hercules' inept half-brother Iphicles, is an original conception by the four scriptwriters, of which director Renny Harlin (who never seemed to have recovered after the unfortunate 1995 debacle "Cutthroat Island") was one of them. 

Watching "The Legend of Hercules" is like watching a compendium of all the sword-and-sandal films I have ever seen on film. The most dominant elements were from "300". This film in fact looked like a sequel of "300" because of the very similar style of computer graphics used for the sweeping scenery, the big crowds, the complex fight sequences with the stops, slow-motion and splattering liquids. Even the costumes looked like they were straight out of "300" dressing rooms.

We also pick up similarities with the movie "Troy" especially with regards to choreography of the battle scenes. The jumping attack move made classic by Brad Pitt's Achilles was multiplied so many times over in frequency and variation. 

About halfway into the film, we will remember "Ben Hur" as Hercules becomes a slave and was made to row an ocean-going sailing vessel in rough waters. Then the film morphs into "Spartacus" or "Gladiator" as Hercules becomes an arena fighter for people's entertainment and gambling.

Later on, we will be reminded of "Samson and Delilah" when Hercules was being whipped while chained to two pillars. At that moment there will be a scene of mocking and divine communication reminiscent of the crucifixion scene from any film about Jesus like "The Passion of the Christ".

It was rather disappointing that we do not get to see familiar Hercules stories such as the "12 Labors", except from a short scene where he slayed an ugly CG animal they called the Nemean Lion. But this was not in the context as the myths tell us.

Anyhow, having a B-list cast with only Kellan Lutz of "Twilight" fame as the most familiar name starring as the titular muscle-bound hero, I guess we really should not expect too much from "The Legend of Hercules," especially in the acting department.  Keep your mindset shallow, and you may even enjoy this pure popcorn flick.  5/10.