Friday, February 28, 2014

How I Would Rank This Year's Oscar Best Picture Nominees (2014)

February 28, 2014

With the Oscar Awards coming this weekend (March 2 morning Manila time), it is time to make my fearless Oscar predictions.  Here is how I would rank this year's nominees for Oscar Best Picture based on my own opinions when I first saw these films.  I note that I liked the nominees for Best Picture more this year than last year's (MY LIST LAST YEAR).

1.  GRAVITY 10/10 (Read my FULL REVIEW)
Alfonso Cuarón and David Heyman, Producers

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. I am betting this would win Best Picture with Cuaron getting Best Director. As much as I'd like Sandra Bullock to win Best Actress for her practically solo performance, I will not argue that Cate Blanchett might win for her neurotic role in "Blue Jasmine".  I also expect "Gravity" to romp off with the technical awards: Cinematography, Film Editing, Visual Effects, Sound and Musical Score.

Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison, and Jonathan Gordon, Producers

If you like great camp, this is the film to catch.  Everything about this movie is overblown and over the top. I enjoyed watching this film about con artists out- conning each other. There was so much fun watching their out-of-this-world hair and clothes. The extreme over-acting of each of the main cast was so unlike anything we have ever seen them in -- it was just so downright entertaining.  The four main actors (Bale, Adams, Cooper and Lawrence) all earn nominations.  I feel Lawrence had the best performance of all, and is in a 50-50 battle with Lupita Nyongo for the Supporting Actress crown.  She just won Best Actress last year though, so this might work against her favor. 

3.  NEBRASKA 8/10 (Read my FULL REVIEW)
Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, Producers

This film by Alexander Payne is about folks in the heartland of America, but I guess characters like this exist everywhere on earth, and we can relate to the story about a son finally getting to know his father as he slowly turns senile. We will all get touched by the time the ending comes. So well set-up, that ending! Made the whole film worth watching.  Bruce Dern gives what could be the greatest performance of his career, so fully deserving of the Oscar nomination for Best Actor. His portrayal of the deluded Woody Grant was subdued and quiet, but it was most magnetic and dignified.

4.  HER 8/10 (Read my FULL REVIEW)
Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze and Vincent Landay, Producers

With "Her," Spike Jonze succeeds to create an atmosphere of romance in what may seem to be a soulless concept on paper. This film will make you reflect and reassess your addiction to your gadgets vis a vis the people around you who love you. As writer, Jonze used words which were very poetic, even bordering on mushy. There are many quotable romantic lines here which lovers will be borrowing in days to come. I believe that its Original Screenplay should win the Oscar. Joaquin Phoenix plays lonely so heartbreakingly well. Scarlett Johanssen's voice makes the whole absurd concept of falling in love with a computer operating system miraculously work.  

Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joey McFarland and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Producers

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. Leonardo diCaprio faces strong opposition in the Best Actor race from Matthew McConaughey, but many believe this is his time to win. Jonah Hill is just lucky to be nominated.

Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, Producers

This Paul Greengrass film is a different sort of adventure drama, with a topic not too commonly tackled in a mainstream film. It brings us right in the middle of a mid-ocean piracy situation in progress. We will feel the desperation and the frustration of being trapped in the middle of the open ocean with no help immediately forthcoming. If you are up for such a realistic harrowing experience, then this film is for you.  Tom Hanks was snubbed from the Best Actor race, but the field is really very tight. Barkhad Abdi should be thankful for his Supporting Actor nod for his role as the lead Somali pirate, though his chance of winning is slim.

7.  12 YEARS A SLAVE 7/10 (Read my FULL REVIEW)
Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen and Anthony Katagas, Producers

This Steve McQueen film brings back those sordid days of suffering indignities and torture while forced to work in those cotton fields in the American South. For me, I felt the scenes depicting these horrors of slavery were not really different from what we have seen in the past. The level of violence was just amped up. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a dignified performance as Solomon Northup and Michael Fassbender is a sleazy Master Epps, but it is newcomer Lupita Nyongo who has the best chance of bringing home Oscar for her heart-rending turn as Patsey. It also has a big chance to win the Adapted Screenplay prize.

8.  PHILOMENA 7/10 (Read my FULL REVIEW)
Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan and Tracey Seaward, Producers

This film by Stephen Frears is basically a film by two actors: Dame Judi Dench (as the lady searching for her long lost son) and Stephen Coogan (as the journalist assigned to write about it). They acted off each other very well. The way the film showed the progress of their search and its eventual outcome was very riveting and very touching. The anti-religious slant at the end came on a bit too strongly for me. Ms. Dench does very well as Philomena, but for me it is not unlike the way she had played her other movie characters in the past.  It was pretty much her signature style.  It did not really stretch her acting muscles too much, I felt.

Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter, Producers

The film itself is well-made by director Jean Marc Vallee, with disturbing images of Woodroof's raunchy homophobic lifestyle contrasting with his crusading work among AIDS patients later in life. For me, it went a bit too slowly paced and seemed repetitive at points.  But this film is really all about Matthew McConaughey and his growth as an actor. His performance as Ron Woodroof is the main attraction of this film. Jared Leto is a cinch to win Best Supporting Actor in his portrayal of Rayon, a transvestite who became Woodruff's unlikely partner in his business. The Make-up and Hairstyling prize should be in the bag (though I was surprised American Hustle was not nominated in that category.)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Review of 12 YEARS A SLAVE: Too Much Oscar Hype

February 27, 2014

Slavery is indeed a heinous crime against humanity that existed in the United States in the past. I had seen this crime brought to life in numerous films from the "Roots" mini-series in my youth up to "Django Unchained" last year.

"12 Years a Slave" is yet another film that brings back those sordid days of suffering indignities and torture while forced to work in those cotton fields in the American South. Truth to tell, I felt the scenes depicting these horrific events were not really different from what we have seen in the past. Maybe, the level of violence may have been amped up by available technology, but the painful message remains the same.

The interesting details which were new to me were those that depicted the abduction of free Northern Afro-Americans to be forced into slavery in the South. It was also terrible to see the slave selling scenes featuring a sinister cameo by Paul Giamatti. But these happen within the first hour of the film. The rest of the film already felt squeamishly familiar, but harder to watch because the floggings tended to approach (though thankfully not exceed) "Passion of the Christ" levels.

The acclaim and awards-buzz that precedes the performance of lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is much-deserved. His Solomon Northup maintains his dignity even under the yoke of slavery. He deserves his Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his restrained yet effectively emotional performance.

Michael Fassbender (a favorite star of director Steve McQueen) is very effective as evil incarnated as a sadistic slave owner, the cruel Edwin Epps. But, sad to say, I felt he did not bring anything we have not seen before to this type of role.

First-time film actress Lupita Nyong'o had a heart-rending debut as Patsey, the young female slave who was the unfortunate apple of the leering eyes of Master Epps, which makes the blood of jealous Mistress Epps (an ice-cold Sarah Paulsen) boil. She is definitely a top contender for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The technical aspect of the film were all first-rate, from the cinematography, to the production design, to the costumes, to the music (by Hans Zimmer). Maybe the Oscar hype (it has 9 Oscar nominations) around this film may have given me unrealistic expectations. It was not bad by any measure, but just not as excellent as I was expecting it to be. 7/10.

POSTSCRIPT:  "12 Years a Slave" has just won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2013. I was not too happy with that win. I thought "Gravity" had it in the bag, having won six Oscars including Best Director. "12 Years" had only won for the Best Supporting Actress for the luminous Lupita Nyong'o and for Best Adapted Screenplay for John Ridley (who based it from Solomon Northup's memoirs). 

There were hints dropped during the Oscar ceremony suggesting it might win. It was the last nominee featured among the Best Picture nominees. Host Ellen Degeneres slyly joked that there is the possibility that "12 Years" will win Best Picture, or the Academy members were racist. Well, whatever the reason, "12 Years" has won, and that's that. Again, it is by no means an unworthy film, but I felt that it did not really give us anything new that had not been shown in other films about slavery before. "Gravity", on the other hand, broke cinematic frontiers in terms of its technical excellence.

Review of PHILOMENA: An Emotional Search

February 27, 2014

This appeared to be a simple drama about an elderly lady portrayed by Dame Judi Dench did not really appeal to me. I would have probably not watched it. But because of its frequent citations during awards season particularly the nomination for an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Actress for Ms. Dench, this became a must-see film for me.

"Philomena" is the true-to-life story of one Philomena Lee. As a young girl, she was impregnated by her boyfriend.  She was banished by her parents to live with the Catholic nuns, who eventually remove her child from her after she gave birth to him. For years since then, she has been searching for her missing son whom she named Anthony.

Fast forward to the 1980s, ex-journalist Martin Sixsmith was sacked from his position in government due to a political scandal. To ease himself back into writing, he reluctantly accepts to write a human interest piece, which just so happened to be Philomena's search for her son.

Their quest for Anthony brings them from Ireland to Washington DC. The story would unexpectedly tackle various loaded and controversial topics en route to its dramatic climax and conclusion.

This film by Stephen Frears is basically a film by two actors: Dame Judi Dench as Philomena Lee and Stephen Coogan as Martin Sixsmith.  They acted off each other very well. The way the film showed the progress of their search and its eventual outcome was very riveting and very touching.

I have to admit that while she was very very good, I felt Dame Judi did not really disappear into her role as Philomena. She is acting like she was in other films I have seen her in, particularly "Marigold Hotel." It seemed like she did not have to stretch too much acting muscle here.

I am not very familiar with Coogan's work before, but he was very good here as the disgraced politician who is desperately trying to get his life back on track. His atheism clashes with Philomena's Catholicism. This conflict was very well-written and acted out.

If there was any discomfort in watching this film, it would be a perceived anti-Catholic sentiment that was running through the story. The worst of this was the scene where an old nun was raving about her celibacy and condemning the girls' sins of the flesh. It was probably more "acceptable" in a theatrical production like "Doubt". But in a true-to-life drama like "Philomena," a hell-and-brimstone scene like that felt rather extreme. 

Overall though, this was a very good dramatic film, certainly worth watching.  Apart from Best Picture and Actress, it was also nominated for its musical score and for adapted screenplay.  It should be thankful for these Oscar nominations, I do not really think it would have a chance to win any because of its higher profiled competitors.  7/10.

Review of DALLAS BUYERS CLUB: McConaughey Flirts with Oscar

February 27, 2014

As a movie star, Matthew McConaughey is more known for his shirtless torso than his talent as an actor. However, in the past two years, he had been taking in roles that have been attracting Oscar talk. The association of McConaughey and Oscar was previously unthinkable. Now this year, he had snagged Oscar nomination for Best Actor.  Not only that, he is the highly tipped to win the award itself.

Set in the 1980s, "Dallas Buyers Club" is the name of a club whose membership allows patients of AIDS to acquire bootleg medications not yet approved by the FDA. This was established by the most unlikely person, the womanizing, boozing, homophobic, rodeo-loving, redneck drug- addict Ron Woodroof (McConaughey). 

When AZT was not working well for him, Woodroof sought out a maverick doctor in Mexico supplying these experimental drugs, and smuggled them back to the States. Together with Rayon (Jared Leto), a flamboyant transsexual also with HIV, as his unlikely business partner, Woodroof fought the establishment on behalf of AIDS victims and their access to medications.

Jared Leto was unrecognizable both physically and behaviorally as Rayon. This lead singer of the rock band 30 Seconds to Mars had completely transformed into a different person. Leto was very active in films from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. He was in notable films like "Requiem of a Dream" and "Fight Club." His last memorable role was in the infamous "Alexander" in 2004, which sort of presages this present role of his. He has come back to film a big way this year in this darkly comic role.  He is the best bet to win the Oscar for Supporting Actor this year.

Matthew McConaughey had been stereotyped into shallow rom-coms throughout the 2000s in films like "The Wedding Planner," "Failure to Launch," and "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past." The awards buzz started in 2012 with his roles in "Bernie," "Killer Joe," "The Paperboy," and especially "Magic Mike" all flirting with Oscar talk. For 2013, he continued his streak with "Mud," a marked cameo in "Wolf of Wall Street," and finally this one in "Dallas Buyers Club." His physical transformation from his well-known buff surfer body to that of an emaciated AIDS patient was impressive. But more importantly, it was his total commitment to this complicated role that may finally give him the big prize.

The film itself is well-made by director Jean Marc Vallee, with disturbing images of Woodroof's raunchy lifestyle contrasting with his crusading work later in life. For many, it may be a bit too slowly paced and may seem repetitive at points.  But this film is really all about Matthew McConaughey and his growth as an actor. His performance as Ron Woodroof is the main attraction of this film. 7/10.

POSTSCRIPT:  As predicted, on Oscar night, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won the awards for which they are heavily-favored to win. Yes, with this Best Actor Oscar and an acclaimed performance in HBO series "True Detective," McConaughey has finally arrived as a serious actor.

Review of THIRD EYE: Detour Into Disaster

February 27, 2014

"Third Eye" had such an eye-catching poster, I could not help but check it out.  Unfortunately, after viewing the film, this poster was probably already the most intriguing aspect about this whole film project.

Mylene is an optometrist who had an ability to see ghosts.  She suspects her husband Jimmy of infidelity. One day, she follows his car as he picked up a pregnant Janet and was bringing her to the province.  A detour on the main road caused them all to get lost in a desolate area in the mountains. There they encounter strange people who all want to kill them.

No amount of charisma of lead actress Carla Abellana (as Mylene) could save this film from the weak screenplay. I thought making Mylene an optometrist was a stroke of genius, but they did not make anything out of that.   In fact, even Mylene's ability to see ghosts hardly really mattered in the story.  They were in danger from actual killers, not ghosts. Abellana also made several unbecoming costume choices for Mylene, which was quite distracting.  The multiple scenes showing that Mylene did not ever wear a seat belt while driving in the city to the province was also distracting.

Ejay Falcon (as the philandering husband Jimmy) and Denise Laurel (as the very pregnant Janet) were unfortunately trapped in very poorly-written characters who were made to mouth vapid lines and made to do the most unbelievable scenes.  Jimmy had been mercilessly hacked by a bolo.  Denise had been slashed at the wrists to drain her blood.  Yet they were still able to get up and do so many things despite these near-fatal injuries.  

Camille Prats was miscast as the provincial woman Susan who wanted to revive her husband Cenon (Alex Medina) who had recently died.  It seems she was also influential among her neighbors, but we do not learn why.  What happened to their son Ramram? It was unfortunate that we were not given much background as to who these people were.  It would have been more interesting.

The scenes before the opening credits showing how Mylene's third eye was opened as a traumatized child were very well-done.  The creepy atmosphere was captured perfectly and the terrible images were rightfully disturbing.  The presence of Ms. Boots Anson Roa as Mylene's grandmother was a plus. They were already the best scenes in the whole running time of the film.  The rest of the film could not match the scariness and squeamishness of these first ten minutes.

The whole set-up of the scenes in the isolated barrio were very artificial.  The gray skin tone of the ghost made them obvious, not scary.  There were a few brilliantly-shot scenes such as Cenon's spirit standing separate from his zombie, and maybe a couple more.  But in general, there was a staged and fake feeling in the production that never drew us into the dread we were supposed to feel for Mylene and company. I felt quite disappointed after watching this film. 3/10.

Review of HER: Virtual Heartbreak

February 27, 2014

"Her" has a near-futuristic concept that may already be happening now. Theodore works for an online service writing beautiful made-to-order letters for people. He is currently undergoing a bitter divorce from his wife, and is very lonely. He has acquired a new operating system for his computer with whose female voice he feels an intense bond. Theo falls in love with this operating system named Samantha.

Joaquin Phoenix gives us another one of his quirky performances of Theo, a quiet sensitive man we would probably label as creepy when we meet him in real life. He makes this strange unlikely situation likely with his touching portrayal of loneliness. We feel his grief and longing.

Amy Adams shucks her glamorous "American Hustle" gowns here to play Theo's nerdy friend Amy, with whom he shares his thoughts. Her refreshing normality is a welcome relief from the deep moodiness of this film. 

Rooney Mara plays his estranged wife Catherine, who was bewildered that her husband was already that deeply withdrawn from human relationships. She looks and acts nothing here like her Lisbeth Salander character (from "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") which brought her an Oscar nomination and A-list stardom.

For me though, the performance of the film was not even visible, but only heard. Scarlett Johansson gives us one of the performances of her career as the thoroughly delightful and sensual voice of Samantha. All those cute inflections and infectious laughter brings Samantha to vivid life. That scene when Sam talks to Theo's five-year old daughter was such a precious moment. A film like this will only work if we believe that a man can actually fall in love with Samantha. The vibrant way Johansson breathes life into Samantha, we do. 

I only knew Director Spike Jonze from one other time with another bizarre film called "Being John Malkovich" which I really enjoyed. "Her" is more meditative and contemplative than that first film, but he succeeds to create an atmosphere of romance in what may seem to be a soulless concept on paper. As writer, Jonze used words which were very poetic, even bordering on mushy. There are many quotable romantic lines here which lovers will be borrowing in days to come. 

It may seem all absurd, but if you think about it, it really is not. We are now already all deeply bound to our computers and phones in one way or the other. As it is, actual personal human interaction is already being compromised by our dependence on technology. This film will make you reflect and reassess your own attachments to your gadgets vis a vis the people around you who love you. 8/10.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review of 3 DAYS TO KILL: Kevin Costner Returns!

February 25, 2014

From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Kevin Costner was a really big movie star in consistently winning films such as "The Untouchables," "No Way Out", "Field of Dreams", "JFK" and of course, "The Bodyguard." He even won an Oscar as Best Director for "Dances with Wolves." After figuring in a disaster like "Waterworld" in 1995 though, his career never really recovered fully from that unfortunate reversal of fortune.  

Early this year, Mr. Costner gave a very astute supporting performance as a spy in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit".  And now with "3 Days to Kill", he gains further momentum as he gets a chance to headline a film himself.  It is certainly good to see Kevin Costner back in a lead role again.  

Ethan Renner (Costner) is a veteran CIA operative.  He can still get the dirty executioner jobs done, but now he is stricken with a terminal illness that could render him a cripple when it attacks.  He has a sexy dominatrix-dressing boss Vivi (Amber Heard) keeps him alive by injecting him with an experimental drug when he needs it.  

His last job before he retires is to track down ruthless nuclear terrorists code-named "The Wolf" (Richard Sammel) and "The Albino" (Tomas Lemarquis).  While this was going on, Renner tries to reconnect with his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and rebellious daughter Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld).

This film is actually a mixed bag of different genres.  At its core it is an action film with explosive car chases and gun fights.  It is also a family drama where this CIA agent tries to make up for lost time at being a good father.  There are some awkward moments of comedy, which oddly works despite the situations being so strange.

Amber Heard goes really over-the-top with her most out-of-this-world character with the most outrageous outfits and hairstyles.  Now, if there are really senior CIA operatives like her, I do not believe it.  She does well, performing with tongue-in-cheek and campy sassiness.

Hailee Steinfeld had some winning moments with Costner as daughter trying to let her father into her life.  Those scenes where she learned to ride a bike or how to slow dance were actually quite sweet, not really what you'd expect from an action film.  Connie Nielsen had a more limited role as the ex-wife.  But seeing her in that small scene while Bread's "Make It With You" was playing in the background was very touching.

Costner gets to show off his debonair charm a lot here.  This felt a lot like "The Bodyguard" with those close-up scenes that lovingly lingered on his face.  Despite the fact that his character was supposed to be dying already, he never looked haggard or disheveled.  But this is how and why we liked Costner back then.  His likability has not diminished with time. Costner gets to show off much acting range here, as his character gets involved in action, drama and comedy scenes.  

Luc Besson gets bits and pieces from his body of work for his screenplay, involving espionage and assassins (like "La Femme Nikita" and "The Transporter"), infused with family issues (like "Taken") and absurd comedy (like "From Paris with Love"). Director McG gets to do his frenetic action sequences again, like he did in "Charlie's Angels" and "This Means War."  I thought he balanced things out quite well.

Overall, I sort of liked this curious mix-up of genres and themes in "3 Days to Kill".  It is entertaining and exciting.  Witnessing Kevin Costner in good fighting form on his way to his cinematic career comeback is an added stellar bonus. 7/10.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Review of HOMEFRONT: Perks of Having Jason Statham as Dad

February 24, 2014

"Homefront" is another Jason Stratham action flick. With that statement alone, you already know what you will get. Mr. Stratham does not give his fans any less. He is really THE old-fashioned action star of this day. He does not rely too much on computer-generated special effects to entertain his fans. He is all-brawn, the real stuff.

However, unlike past Jason Stratham films, "Homefront" has other big name stars on the marquee. We see names like James Franco, Kate Bosworth and even Winona Ryder! That is invitation enough to catch this film, and see what else it has to offer. It was also interesting to learn that the script was written by Sylvester Stallone for himself, but plans miscarried when Sly became too old for the lead.

Set in some small hick town in Louisiana, Phil Broker is a retired drug enforcement agent, who is a single dad to his spunky daughter Maddy. When Maddy tangled with a bully in school, they encounter the bully's combative mother Cassie. When Cassie's husband was humiliated by Phil, Cassie asks help from her brother, the local drug lord Gator Bodine. Things get nastier and more violent from there.

That was how it should have been on paper. But honestly when you watch this film, there is really no doubt that Phil Broker is a class of his own when pitted against these redneck lowlifes in this town. Gator Bodine never really posed a serious threat to Phil at all. It seemed as if Phil was on top of the situation the whole time. The rather anemic final confrontation gave proof to that.

James Franco was not able to fit well into his role of Gator. His performance was very unconvincing. It felt lazy and routine, unlike his other more intense performances. This shallow drug lord character in "Homefront" was not even a shade like his startlingly sinister gang leader character in "Spring Breakers".

Both ladies in the main cast I totally did not recognize. Kate Bosworth was totally deglamorized as this foul-mouthed virago of a housewife Cassie, whose unreasonably hot temper started this whole story rolling. I also did not see an iota of the Winona Ryder I knew. This waifish It-girl of the 1990s disappeared into her role as Sheryl, Gator's rough and unrefined girlfriend. Truth be told, I was confused as to who is who between these two ladies at one point. They practically looked similar with their "uglifying" make-up.

Of the whole cast, I liked the performance of young Izabela Vidovic best. She is the child actress who played Phil's daughter Maddy. Her acting was very natural, especially in those dramatic father-daughter scenes.

"Homefront" does not disappoint as an all-action Jason Stratham starrer. This one is okay, albeit rather unsatisfying when compared to "Transporter" and other Stratham films. Stratham's character Phil did not look like he had a hard time in this film. He always knew exactly what to do, and was able to execute his plans as he wants. If you watch this for the gritty action scenes alone though, this film and Statham definitely deliver the goods. 5/10.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Review of THE BOOK THIEF: Eruditon in War

February 20, 2014

I got to read the novel "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak because this was required reading for one of my kids in her 7th grade English class. It may not be the easiest book to start reading as the beginning chapters were rather cryptically written, and, for younger readers, the experience of any war may not be familiar. Despite this, the book eventually absorbed me in its tale of life in Germany during World War II as experienced by a young girl.

The story was innovatively narrated by Death himself. The language used by the author was poetic, rather than plain and simple prose. The author's use of descriptive metaphors was very original and evocative. This made reading the book an exercise in imagination as you picture the movie in your mind as the story unfolded with the beautiful words. When this movie version came out, we went to watch it to see if our movie in our heads matched the one envisioned by the filmmakers.

It is 1939 in Nazi Germany. Liesel Meminger loses her mother and brother, and was brought to foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann on Himmel Street. From her beloved foster father Hans, Liesel develops a life-long love affair with the printed word. This beautiful obsession with books was born as she struggled through the difficulties of war, the air raids, and the deaths; even if she had to steal the books she reads.

As directed by Brian Percival, the film is more straightforward than the book in telling the story. The horrors of war were still there, but these were shown very sensitively in full consideration of the young audience it targets.  It could have been a more harrowing film for adult viewers had the director chosen to go that way.  But Percival decided to go for sentimentality and melodrama among the characters, than focusing more on the violence of war.  The lush cinematography and meticulous period production design of this film also deserve notice.

Sophie Nelisse, the pretty child actress who played Liesel, did creditably well in her difficult central role. She had won an acting award already in her native Canada with her very first film role at age 10 in 2012. Now 12 years old, with her riveting lead performance here, it looks like she has a promising international career ahead of her as well.

Award-winning actors like Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson played Hans and Rosa Hubermann, Liesel's foster parents.  They definitely brought on the acting gravitas required for a serious piece like this. Both of them were so effective in being able to convey their emotions with only their facial expressions, even without a word being said.

Special mention has to be given to young Nico Liersch who played Liesel's best friend, Rudy Steiner. He plays his rascal role so naturally and charismatically. Fortunately, Liersch also had excellent chemistry with Nelisse, so we will also cherish the charming relationship between Rudy and Liesel.

On the other hand, Ben Schnetzer, the actor who played the Jew in the basement, Max Vandenburg, I felt was a bit lacking in his performance. Max is a heavier and more dramatically-loaded role than Rudy, yet he failed to connect with me the way Schnetzer portrayed him. The relationship of Max and Liesel is a most intriguing one in the book, but in this film, it felt shallow with little heart.

The sweeping music that accompanies this film has earned for John Williams his record breaking 44th Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. The last time Williams won an Oscar was for the haunting theme from another film set in World War II: "Schindler's List." His other wins were for "E.T.," "Star Wars," and "Jaws," classic movie music all.  

The script by Michael Petroni is actually almost a perfect adaptation of the book, literally as far as the main story is concerned. The dialogues shares the same love for words as the book does. The film touches on all the important parts of the book. For some of those who have read the book though, they may look for some deeper emotions which they felt while reading the book with all its little nuances, but is missing in this film version.

Although as in most book adaptations, due to the constraints of a reasonable running time, the film skips through many details. In particular, the ending felt rushed as it was shown as a montage of only wordless scenes and dramatic music, with the story told via a voice- over narration by Death (voice of Roger Allam). The words used were very eloquent, and can still evoke deep emotion. But those who read the book know that the missing details could have made a more dramatic impact that what was shown in the final print. 8/10.

Review of NEBRASKA: An Ode to Old Age

February 19, 2014

Truth be told, I would probably never have watched this film if only based on the little I have heard about it at first. This film is about a very old man on a road trip with his son, probably fixing their relationship along the way. Certainly nothing new about that topic, and sounded like it would be a boring ride. Thankfully it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, so I watched it. In return, I got rewarded with a most poetic and heartfelt film.

"Nebraska" is about Woody Grant, a senior citizen in Billings, Montana, already teetering in and out of senility. One day, he received one of those junk mail from a magazine company, announcing that he has won a million dollars. Despite admonitions from his family, Woody firmly believes he won, and wanted to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his prize. His son David was forced to make this long drive with his dad. As they make a stop in his dad's old hometown and gets reacquainted with their kin, David gets to know his dad more than he ever knew him before.

Reading my short synopsis alone does not do the whole film justice of course. This is an experience you need to immerse yourself into. OK, it is true that the "million dollar ticket" misunderstanding could have been explained more easily than what was shown on screen stretched out for almost two hours. But looking beyond that main flaw, the film itself turned out to be a thing of elegantly-told beauty. The crisp black-and-white cinematography and languid pace by Director Alexander Payne worked favorably in its favor.

Bruce Dern played Woody in a quiet, most touching, low key and realistic manner. He is certainly a dark horse in the Best Actor race. In contrast, June Squibb though steals her scenes as his tough, frank and cranky wife Kate. Her nomination for Best Supporting Actress is a fine recognition of this performance. Comedian Will Forte plays it straight here as David. We can identify with him as he tries his best to reconnect with his aging dad through this tough time. Stacy Keach plays as he usually plays, an effective villain in the person of an old bully neighbor.

This film is about folks in the heartland of America, but I guess characters like this exist everywhere on earth, and we can relate. We will all get touched by the time the ending comes. So well set-up, that ending! Made the whole film worth watching. I did not feel bored at all, despite my initial worry. This special film is engaging and involving, fully deserving of its Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor and Supporting Actress, and Best Cinematography. 9/10.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Review of WINTER'S TALE: Whimsically Romantic

February 14, 2014

I initially thought it would be an interpretation of one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays. However as the film unfolded, it was clear that this was not the case.

The story starts in 1895, and goes all the way up to the present time, all set in New York City. However, the main love story happens in 1916. Peter Lake is a skillful thief who running away from his former mentor in crime, the fearsome Pearly Soames. Beverly Penn is a lovely and rich young heiress with long curly red hair. However, she is dying of consumption at the tender age of 20. With Pearly in hot pursuit, Peter and Beverly meet each other and fall in love, till one's death did them part.

The story does not end there, and instead fast forwards to 2014. An amnesic man aimlessly draws a figure of a lady with long red hair everyday on the sidewalk of a park with chalk. One day, he meets Abby, a little girl who was dying of cancer. With the help of Abby's mother, he discovers who he really is, and how he can fulfill his life's miracle. But he has to contend with the forces of evil which still threaten to confound his plans.

Colin Farrell plays Peter with his well-known and well-liked Irish rogue charm. The beautiful Jessica Brown Findlay plays Beverly with so much verve and magic. We were feeling some kind of a "Titanic"-like doomed lovers vibe as we watched the two together, which made Colin look a little too old for his role. In any case, he still managed to pull it off creditably well somehow. This is despite me noting that his modern-looking haircut distractingly kept on changing its style even as the camera shifts within the same scene.

As the devilish brute Pearly, Russell Crowe again shows off his acting mettle, this time as the main ruthless antagonist. His violent anger would sometimes get some Interesting yet subtle CG help to make it more demonically explosive. He would also have a couple of well-written scenes featuring a surprise appearance by Will Smith, who makes an uncredited cameo as Judge Lucifer himself.

Like Crowe and Smith, other Oscar-winning or nominated actors make notable supporting turns. William Hurt plays Beverly's protective father Isaac Penn. Graham Greene plays Peter's sage adviser on the streets. Jennifer Connely plays Virginia, Abby's distraught mother. And the ever- glamorous Ms. Eva Marie Saint plays a centenarian who knew of Peter and Beverly's love affair. Even with her few short scenes, Ms. Saint gives a most memorable, touching and dignified performance.

The performances by two child actresses, Mckayla Twiggs (as Beverly's spunky sister Willa) and Ripley Sobo (as the cancer-stricken Abby), were also remarkably good.

Since we went in without knowing anything about the story, we were very surprised about the fantasy aspect of this film. When we saw that white horse for the first time, we thought it was odd. But when we witnessed the wondrous things this horse could do, we were fascinated. The CG rendering of these special effects with the horse were mesmerizing, very well-done.

The way the story was told back and forth in time can get a little confusing at first. The plot is a little too convoluted for a regular love story. But of course, this is far from a regular love story. Akiva Goldsman (who won an Oscar for writing "A Beautiful Mind") adapts a novel by Mark Helprin. This is also his directorial debut for a feature film. I have not read the book so I cannot comment on how faithful he was in his adaptation. He did well though to tell a complicated tale that spans more than a century and with supernatural elements, in such a confident yet charming manner, without making everything look absurd. 

Most audiences would be enchanted by its bittersweet magic as my wife and I were so enthralled.  We are happy we had this film as our Valentine movie date this year. 8/10.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review of THE MONUMENTS MEN: Art as Legacy

February 12, 2014

"The Monuments Men" gathers together such a stellar cast, it was definitely hard to ignore. George Clooney directs, writes and plays the lead role in a film that somehow echoes his Danny Ocean films. It was also about gathering a bunch of experts together for a common mission. But this time the mission was not a criminal heist, but something altogether noble and altruistic.

In the heat of World War 2, Frank Stokes (George Clooney) wanted to save the precious artwork that the Nazis are spiriting away from various European cities they are attacking. When his mission was approved, he gathered a group of seven experts in the arts together to help him locate and recover these treasures from the clutches of Hitler. 

George Clooney basically plays himself here, a charming man with a sense of humor and a noble mission in life. It is difficult to disengage him with this Danny Ocean persona, especially since Matt Damon is also on board the team here as James Granger, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The chemistry between these two guys was undeniably effortless. The relationship of Damon's Granger with that of Cate Blanchett's Claire (who was the curator of a French museum) though, was rather awkwardly portrayed.

Bill Murray plays his usual deadpan droll self as architect Richard Campbell. His mission partner was theater director Preston Savitz, played by Bob Balaban. John Goodman was his usual good guy self as sculpture expert Walter Garfield. His mission partner was French painter Jean Claude Clermont, played by Jean Dujardin. Too bad that we do not really know much more about each of their individual backgrounds and expertise. It would have made us care about them more.

For a movie that deals with such an importantly serious topic, George Clooney decides to treat his material with a sense of humor. There would be plenty of funny little one-liners peppered throughout the script, many times diffusing the tension in very intense scenes. I could not help but imagine how it would have been if they had played this film in complete seriousness. This material had the potential to be another war classic and Oscar winner if treated as a drama. That said, the light comedic treatment makes the issue more accessible for younger viewers, quite entertaining. There is however still pathos that still succeeded to shine through in many scenes.

There were several scenes that may feel extraneous, like Goodman and Dujardin's encounter with an unseen sniper, Damon's unfortunate dilemma when he accidentally stepped on a landmine, or even Murray's scene in the shower while a recording of his daughter singing a Christmas carol was played. These were not necessarily about saving art from the war. But they do complete the picture that these people, despite being there for a special non-military mission, were really still in the thick of the dangers and isolation of the whole.war experience.

The message of the film is important. Are works of art worth the cost of human life to preserve them? People who believe that the cultural achievements of humanity should be protected from the destruction of war at all cost, this film will definitely strike a positive chord. Those who believe that art is a mere triviality may think this film is much ado about nothing. I believe they are, and that is why I enjoyed this film very much despite its flaws. 7/10.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review of THE LEGO MOVIE: Prodigious Imagination

February 11, 2014

 "The Lego Movie" is an animated film that uses Lego characters and sets to tell a story of how an ordinary guy can actually be extraordinary.

Emmett is just an ordinary construction worker who always waited for instructions to follow, never having an original thought by himself. Falling into a hole one day, he found a mysterious red block, which attached itself to Emmett's back. This turned out to be the legendary "Piece of Resistance". This item can only be possessed by a hero called the "Special" destined to save Lego Land from the nefarious President Business, who threatens to immobilize everything with a substance called the "Kragle". Threatened, Business sics Bad Cop on Emmett to capture him and recover the red piece.

Emmett and his friends (the sassy Wyldstyle, the old sage Vitruvius and the gruff superhero Batman), escape into the Cloud Cuckoo Palace to gather up other "Master Builders". Who these Master Builders are and how the story goes after this is very complicated to describe in words. It is simply better seen unfold in amazing animation on the big screen in grand style. Just when you think the story is at the limit of its absurdity, an unexpected shift in perspective happens which grounds everything back to reality.

It was fun to hear the voices of Chris Platt, Will Farrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman bring life to the main characters. It was fun to see all those cameo appearances of an array of Lego characters from various special Lego sets in the past. Later, it was fun to find out who voiced them (like Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Charlie Day or Billy Dee Williams). 

I felt this was a very imaginative way to tell a relatively common story. The twist at the final act gave it an additional touching dimension. There is something about Lego that evokes a special kind of nostalgia in older viewers like me. Even the Dymo labels seen in the final credits adds another touch of sentimentality. The 3D was done very well, and was really appropriate for a animated concept like this one. The theme song "Everything is Awesome" by Tegan and Sara was also very infectious.  I will not be surprised if this one gets nominated among the Best Animated Feature Films of this year. 8/10.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review of ALL IS LOST: Bleak Monotony

February 9, 2013

There is only one character in "All is Lost".  He is an elderly man who does not even have a name. We do not know anything about him except that he is trapped in the open sea in a sinking boat. 

From the very beginning, this man's yacht has already met an big accident while out at sea. It has sustained significant damage to its hull, and the water pouring in fast. For the next hour and a half or so, we will see the man struggle to survive the elements with only his sailing skills and his wits.

Robert Redford plays our man quietly. I felt it was too quiet. I realize there is a need to keep calm in serious situations like this, but his calm is unreal. There are hardly any words spoken. We do not know how he is feeling except for what we see in his face. Problem is, we hardly see anything on his face as well.

I commend Redford for taking on a very punishing physical role like this given his age. He did as well as his director wanted him to do, and probably more. However, the silent script and limited direction confined what Redford could have done further as an actor. 

Having just recently seen "Life of Pi" and "Gravity" recently (I have not seen Tom Hanks' "Castaway"), we know how a delimiting situation of being stranded alone in a desolate environment could be made more dynamic by innovative story telling devices. Or else, the film will be as bleak as its hopeless setting.

In "All is Lost," in the absence of these innovations, there is a lack of motivation for the audience to root for the protagonist. If the viewer is a non-sailor (which is probably the majority of us), he won't really understand why the man did what he did, whether he did them correctly or not, or why his decisions were such. The insufferable monotony reaches a point where you feel you just want to fast forward the whole film to the end, to see whether the man lives or dies.  4/10.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Review of ROBOCOP 2014: Cyborg Reinvented

February 7, 2014

I know I have seen the first RoboCop film by Paul Verhoven in 1987. That was big film back then. I do not really recall much detail about it anymore, except that it was about a policeman who was morphed into a cyborg, and it was very violent. This is new RoboCop film is rated PG-13 and my kids wanted to watch it more than I did. However, since it was receiving good reviews so far, we gave it a go.

The year is 2028, and OmniCorp supplies the world with robotic drones to take over military duties overseas. However, domestically, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars is meeting opposition from Congress. So he decides to develop a robot with a human conscience. So with the cybernetic talents of Dr. Dennett Norton, the first RoboCop was born from Officer Alex Murphy who was critically-injured in an explosion.

I do not really recall how faithful this was to the 1987 original or not, but this film was quite a solid one on its own. The backstory was good, with the political angles and the corporate greed all there to make it interesting. The special effects showing what is left of RoboCop's human body behind all the armor was disturbing. The gun fight scenes of RoboCop vs. drones were shot like we were within a frenzied shootout video game, shaky cam and all. 

I did not recognize the actor who played Alex Murphy when we were watching. It turned out to be one Joel Kinnaman, a new name for me. He lacked a strong charisma on screen as lead actor, so the movie had a B- movie feel when he was on. To his credit though, Kinnaman was able to portray the internal battle between his character's humanity vs. the technology of RoboCop very well.

Fortunately, there were big names there like Gary Oldman (as the sympathetic Dr. Norton), Michael Keaton (as the snaky and ruthless Mr. Sellars) and Samuel L. Jackson (hilarious as the pro-robot TV personality Pat Novak) in supporting roles to elevate this film to A levels. Abbie Cornish is also there, playing Alex's conflicted wife Clara.

This is a straight-out futuristic action movie, done by Brazilian director José Padilha in a formula familiar to modern action films of today. It can somehow feel like one of those Marvel films, like "Iron Man", the way it was done. The frenetic computer-generated actions scenes tended to overwhelm the human element though.

This "RoboCop" was exciting in the action sequences and thought-provoking in the moral dilemmas it presents. Ultimately though, it somehow also felt like an unnecessary remake, like that of another Paul Verhoven film, "Total Recall." But it does do its job to resurrect the character,with new and improved technology for the newer generation of movie viewers. It is actually very good if you have not seen the first film to compare it with. 7/10.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review of AMERICAN HUSTLE: Outrageous Sting

February 6, 2014

I was excited to watch this film the very first time I saw the promotional photograph showing its young illustrious cast of actors practically unrecognizable with their ornate hairstyles and snazzy outfits. 

When award season came rolled in late last year, this film figured very prominently in the nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and ALL FOUR Acting categories in the critics and guild awards, the Golden Globe, the BAFTAs and of course, the Oscars -- and actually winning a lot of them already! This film is a definite must-see.

American Hustle is set in the wild and wooly 1970s.  Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con artist who, together with his partner-in-crime sexy Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), was conscripted by over-eager FBI agent Richie diMaso (Bradley Cooper) to hatch a complicated sting operation to trap corrupt politicians, including New Jersey mayor Carmel Polito (Jeremy Renner). In the meantime, Irving has to keep his incendiary wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) on a leash or else his plot will be blown wide open.

Christian Bale had gotten so much out of his Batman shape for this role (reportedly gaining 50 pounds) as the Jewish conman with the elaborate comb-over hairdo. Amy Adams was certainly no Princess Giselle in her daring cleavage-revealing gowns and dresses. It was quite a hoot seeing Bradley Cooper in hair curlers, going more bananas than his role in The Hangover. Too bad there was too little of Jeremy Renner in his teased-up bouffant hairstyle.

The best performer for me though is Jennifer Lawrence in a supporting role that is not actually directly within the main plot, yet she does so well to steal the thunder from her other co-stars by being so audacious and wild. Playing this unstable woman older than her real age, this girl is really showing her versatility. It is no wonder that she is already being touted by critics to be the "next Meryl Streep"!

This is another quirky masterpiece from Director David O. Russell. Russell last year directed the excellent Silver Linings Playbook, which also scored nominations in all four Acting nominations, and then again this year with American Hustle (both years with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper) --  a testament to his skill with his actors.  American Hustle also recently just won the Outstanding Ensemble Cast at the Screen Actors Guild Awards to affirm this. 

Aside from picture, directing and acting, this film was also nominated by the Academy for its darkly comic Original Screenplay by Russell with Eric Warren Singer, its dynamic Film Editing, its meticulous 70s Production Design and its outrageous Costume Design. This brings its grand total of Oscar nominations to an impressive ten.

If you like great camp, this is the film to catch.  Everything about this movie is overblown and over the top. I enjoyed watching this film about con artists out- conning each other. There was so much fun watching their out-of-this-world hair and clothes. The extreme over-acting of each of the main cast (all Oscar pedigreed), so unlike anything we have ever seen them in -- it was just so downright entertaining. 8/10. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Review of SNOWPIERCER: Mutiny on the Train

February 4, 2014

It is unfortunate that this film did not receive any big publicity before it got shown in theaters this week. I did not even any plan to watch it myself when I cursorily saw that it was about a train running in the snow. The strange title also did not help. It did not really appeal to me. However, as the week was winding up, I was reading more and more positive reviews about this film. On this the last day, I made sure I went to see it. And am I glad I did.

"Snowpiercer" is set in 2031, 17 years after all life on Earth was decimated by the extreme adverse effects of a chemical supposedly for meant to control global warming, but went overboard and buried the whole planet in ice and snow instead. The only people left alive are on board a special train run by Wilford Industries, that had been perpetually going around its own transcontinental tracks all of those years. 

We are first introduced to the poor people (in full dystopian look) in what was revealed to be the back of the train. They were fed protein bricks and made to suffer indignities as their guards and superiors desired. Led by the intrepid Curtis and their "patriarch" Gilliam, the poor one day stage a daring mutiny to reverse their fortunes. Will their plan to fight the system prosper? Will they ever reach the very front of the train where Mr. Wilford himself personally runs the sacred locomotive engine?

Chris Evans is completely in his element playing a heroic leader type character. He is no Captain America here, mind you. Tilda Swinton steals her scenes as a cartoonishly evil and underhanded Minister who makes it hard for the poor folk. Ed Harris plays the revered and wonderful technological wizard, Mr. Wilford. Playing smaller but notable parts were John Hurt, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer. 

There are also a lot of South Korean actors here, headed by Song Kang-ho (who seemed to have lost a lot of weight since I last saw him in "The Host" and "Memories of Murder") and Ko Ah-sung (who made her film debut in "The Host"). 

The presence of an international cast makes the deep societal message that this film carries all the more substantial. This is biblical "Noah's Ark" meets Orwellian "1984" in a sci-fi milieu.  

It is amazing to see that despite the big name Hollywood stars that headline it, this is actually a South Korean production, and directed by an acclaimed Korean director and writer Bong Joon-ho. I have already seen three of Bong's oeuvre before -- "The Host" (2006), "Memories of Murder" (2003) (MY REVIEW) and even his full length directorial debut "Barking Dogs Never Bite" (2000) (MY REVIEW) -- and I am a fan. How could I have overlooked that "Snowpiercer" was by him as well? I would not have waited this long to watch it. 8/10.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Review of VIKINGS: THE REAL LEGEND OF THOR: Unintentionally Comic

February 3, 2014

This film is released locally this week as "Vikings: The Real Legend of Thor." I guess they had to promote the fact that there is a character named Thor in this movie to attract audiences, though he is nothing like the Thor of Marvel Comics people want to see. The newspaper ads only herald two of the actors in the B-list cast whom local viewers may vaguely recall.

The Christian religion is stealing the thunder away from the traditional Norse gods. Incensed, the violent red-haired god Thor is on a rampage to destroy the world. Another god Frey advises the King Eirick, raised from the dead by his beloved goddess of love Freya, that he needs to obtain the Horn from the underworld, Helheim. Only by blowing the horn in the face of Thor can the god of thunder by subdued. Eirick gathers a motley crew of Vikings and goes on a quest to save the earth from the wrath of the gods.

The lead role of Eirick was played by Dominic Purcell. For someone with the most important role, he came up with the worst acting of all. There was nothing inspiring about him, which makes the whole film collapse under his wretched performance.

Sticking out like a sore thumb is the presence of Jon Foo playing Yang, an Oriental slave. His graceful Chinese-style fighting skills stood out from the brutal sword play and barbaric bludgeoning. I guess we need someone to break the Slavic monotony, and he does his job fine, albeit as the unfortunate comic relief.

Talking about breaking the monotony, that would also explain the inexplicable presence of Natassia Malthe as Brynna, the token female warrior and love interest. I have to admit that her beauty was a welcome distraction among the burly and brawny Vikings.

Honestly, the story is not bad at all, with interesting developments towards the end. However, everything else about this film all scream B-Movie! The props were so unconvincingly fake. Thor's red hair wig looked terrible, and even his hammer itself looked so flimsy and plastic. The computer-generated imagery were very cheap-looking. The script was bloated with lousy lines. The acting was either very wooden or too hammy. Unintentionally funny, this film definitely could have been done a lot better. 3/10.