Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER: The Marvel Bar Gets Raised Even Higher!

March 27, 2014

I do not know what it is about films in the Marvel franchise, but more than often, they can manage to exceed our already high expectations of their films. Just when you thought that "The Avengers" was already a pinnacle of superhero action film perfection, along comes another one that challenges that position.

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is more than just an excellent action-packed superhero film. Aside from those big fist fights, gun fights, car chases, it also has piracy on the high seas and gigantic aircraft of mass destruction to add to the mayhem. All of these action scenes were executed perfectly - the stunts, the CG effects, the editing, the set-ups -- no loose ends.  Those who found the sound levels of "The Avengers" too much would find the quality of sound here just right.  The set design of the glass Triskelion building, headquarters of S.H.I.E.L.D., is amazing.  

The directors Anthony and Joe Russo hit all the right notes in their execution of a complex film.  We do not feel the two-hour plus running time pass us by.

Chris Evans gets more and more comfortable in playing this good-natured All-American hero.  His physical aptitude is of no question in all those high-energy action scenes. More than just his chiseled face and physique though, he also proves he has the acting chops for those unexpectedly emotional dramatic scenes in the film.  There was a charming one set in a museum, and another one in a hospital bedside, featuring a surprise guest cameo.

Scarlett Johansson is bad-ass and kick-ass as the Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff.  She had a lot more complex stunts to do here over those that wowed us in The Avengers.  We also get to know Natasha a little better -- her background, her work ethic, her skills -- but just enough to whet our interest even more about her mysterious character.

Samuel L Jackson reprises his recurrent role as Nick Fury.  Again we get to see Nick Fury more in action here as ever.  There was a particularly exciting sequence where Nick's car was ambushed in the middle of city traffic that was jaw-dropping in its execution.

It was really good to see Robert Redford back in a big role in a mainstream film. He plays Secretary Alexander Price who oversaw SHIELD for the US government, the man who picked Nick Fury to head SHIELD.  Redford still had that cool and collected touch of class that made him a big box-office star in the early 1970s.

There will be new characters introduced.  Anthony Mackie gets to be introduced as ex-soldier Sam Wilson, who will later don those awesome metal wings as Falcon.  The beautiful Emily VanCamp (of TV's "Revenge") is first introduced to us as shy nurse and Steve's next door neighbor, Sharon Carter, but she will also have surprises up her sleeve later. Hope to see more of these two characters in future CA, or even Avengers, films.

The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely was able to smoothly tell us about the Cap and the people he loved, along with the history of S.H.I.E.L.D., the history of HYDRA, the history of Black Widow, the history of the Falcon, all on top of a solid politically-charged thriller of a main story about a deadly S.H.I.E.L.D. project called Operation Insight. Again, all these multi-layered details were all tucked in neatly, with no significant plot holes to ponder about.  

There are two extra scenes in the end credits.  One will be shown midway after the main names (again with great-looking artwork!), featuring Loki's scepter and two new beings with powers.  This promises an interesting story line for a future film.  Another shorter extra scene will be shown at the very end of all the smaller print credits.

I am not really sure if there is still any surprise about the identity of The Winter Soldier. If I mention who plays him, you will already know. So I will just leave that for you to find out when you watch this film.  I am sure you will go watch this.  10/10.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Review of DEVIL'S DUE: Not Much Horror

March 24, 2014

Samantha (Allison Miller) and Zach (Zach Gilford) get married. For their honeymoon, they went to visit the Dominican Republic. One night there, they were brought by their taxi driver to a mysterious place where they get drunk and drugged. Nevertheless, they still managed to get back home safe and sound.

Not long after, Samantha finds out she was with child. From there, the further along the pregnancy Samantha got, the more bizarre and more violent behavior she would display. As she nears her due date, can Zach still do anything to avert the diabolical fate that seems to await his wife and baby?

Like many current horror films, "Devil's Due" is told through camera footage. Aside from the cameras Zach and other minor characters carried around, there was also footage from security cameras. The first thirty minutes were practically just needless wedding coverage video.  There would be a baby shower video somewhere in there as well.

When it got around to telling the story, the pace was also quite slow. Mundane daily events like going to the supermarket or the obstetrician were punctuated by some disgusting or violent scenes which would have been a big deal had it happened in real life. Here, they happened, but there seemed to have been no consequences that follow their occurrence.

The best moments of this film were those scenes showing Samantha's repulsive eating habits, her super-telekinetic powers, and her effect on Catholic priests. The rest of the film was unfortunately forgettable, all the way up to the predictable climax. 3/10.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Review of STRAIGHT As: Understated and Involving

March 22, 2014

The title alone will not suggest anything about the film. It was good that I watched this film without any idea what this was all about, not even what genre it was. I thought it was a romantic comedy. It was not exactly one. When the film started, I thought I would not like it. But as it went along, I was pulled in, all the way to its end. This is one good little film that deserves more attention.

Simply put, the story of "Straight As" is about how the lives of the Henderson family were affected by the surprise return of long-estranged Scott (Ryan Philippe). He came back supposedly because the ghost of their late mother had convinced him to make amends with his family. Scott's ex-girlfriend, now sister-in-law Katherine (Anna Paquin) is very flustered by his unwelcome visit, because it happens just as his brother (and her husband) William (Luke Wilson) was out of town on business. 

Scott manages to charm his way into favor of his nephew Charles and niece Gracie because his easy-going ways contrast with those of their uptight parents. However, with his rough manners, foul language, cigarettes, booze and pain-killers, will Scott ever be welcomed back by the family he left more than ten years ago?

The actors of this film worked very well. I loved that the acting in this film is very understated and restrained. There were no big hyper- dramatic scenes as family melodrama are mostly prone to having. 

I have not seen Ryan Philippe act in a lead role for a long time. His film career had never really recovered since he and Reese Witherspoon broke up. He was outside his usual zone playing the black sheep of the family. I believed he played the multiple levels of his complex damaged character very well, bringing out the innate good heart of his bad boy character.

I realized that I had not seen Anna Paquin act in a straight dramatic role ever since she won the Oscar as a precocious child in "The Piano"! It was a welcome break from notable recent roles with supernatural powers. I liked her subtle attack on a role which could have been a showcase of histrionics in a lesser actress. 

Luke Wilson's character was rather right up his old alley, but it was good to see him in a conflicted dramatic role. The child actors who played the two Henderson kids, Riley Thomas Stewart and Ursula Parker, were both very cute and natural in their portrayals, not annoying. Powers Boothe, who played the Henderson patriarch, also had his shining moments as his tough old character battles Alzheimer's disease and loneliness from his wife's death.

I liked how the whole story unfolded. Yes, the story elements were all soap opera staples, but the way they were woven together by director James Cox was interesting and involving. The musical score and the country-flavored songs were all very emotionally apt to the scenes they accompanied. The cinematographer's skillful play with lights and glare also serve the film well. As a whole, this quiet unheralded film was a pleasant surprise which more people should know about. 7/10.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Review of DIVERGENT: Ideal Take on a Less-Than-Ideal Book

March 20, 2014

Just finished reading the book "Divergent" by Veronica Roth before the movie opened today. It was a quick easy read. There was obvious inspiration from various other futuristic young adult books I have read, like "The Giver", "Ender's Game" and the "Hunger Games" books. Compared to the others, the treatment of the story in this book was likewise cold and very much more violent.  

The setting is the walled city of Chicago after a great war. Their society is divided into five distinct Factions based on personality traits: Dauntless (brave), Amity (friendly), Candor (honest), Erudite (intelligent) and Abnegation (selfless). 

At the age of 16, a child takes an examination to help him choose which one will be his faction for the rest of his life.  He may follow the suggestion of the exam results, or he may decide on his own. Those who fail to be accepted into a faction becomes factionless, hopelessly poor and destitute for life. 

Our heroine Beatrice Prior has been born to the Abnegation faction with their grey clothes and disdain for any form of vanity.  However, her examination results are revealed to be inconclusive, so she has to make her own decision.  Meanwhile, an uprising is brewing in Erudite against the government run by Abnegation.  

I had some problem with the book and the way the author tried hard to make the Factions distinct from each other, when it is easy to see that overlapping does happen. These traits simply cannot be mutually exclusive from each other.  It is also disturbing the way the author describes the Dauntless. Does being brave mean jumping off running trains, having piercings and tattoos, beating each other up mercilessly, or even killing yourself? This may give immature readers the wrong ideas about courage. 

- o - o - o -

The film was a perfectly conceived interpretation of the book.  The first few scenes, where they show the walled post-apocalyptic Chicago with people wearing color-coded clothes distinguishing each faction, were done with visual clarity.  How director Neil Burger showed us most of the memorable scenes in the book, like the choosing ceremony, the jumping on and off the trains, the "capture-the-flag" game, the zipline ride, the fear landscapes of Tris and Four, and the invasion of Abnegation were all very well done.

There were some parts which were reinterpreted in the film.  Most did not really affect the story-telling, like changing how Tris meets her Mom during Visiting Day, or glossing over a particularly violent episode where Peter stabs a fellow initiate in the eye.  The role of Four in Tris' fear simulation was funny in the book, but turned violent in the film. There was one big change towards the end about how a climactic surprise rescue transpired.  I thought the version in the book was so much more better set-up and exciting than the less-dramatic altered version we saw onscreen. 

As I suspected, the tall and striking Shailene Woodley is definitely not the small and mousy Tris we imagine while reading the book.  However, I thought Shailene gave an excellent portrayal of Tris' character, how she developed from a shy dependent girl to a confident fearless warrior.  For people who have not read the books, they will not be aware of any discrepancy at all.  

Theo James as Four had that strong quiet mysterious guy stance the whole film. However, he had very easy romantic chemistry with Shailene, so his character Four never really felt like a threat to Tris, unlike the initial parts in the book.  The director gave James a lot of lingering close-ups for the benefit of the teenage fan girls.  

Ansel Elgort, who played Tommy Ross in "Carrie" recently, plays Tris' brother Caleb here. His Caleb is less dynamic than I imagined him in the book. Coincidentally, Elgort has an upcoming movie with Shailene Woodley later this year called "The Fault in Our Stars" where they play boyfriend-girlfriend.

More up and coming actors play other more minor characters. Zoe Kravitz, who was in "After Earth" last year, is not exactly how I envisioned Tris' best friend Christina, but she won me over as the film went along.  Miles Teller, who was recently in "That Awkward Moment", plays bad boy Peter, whose role in the film is much diminished compared to the book. Jai Courtney, who played Bruce Willis' son in "A Good Day to Die Hard" last year, plays Tris' vicious tormentor in the training camp. 

Among the senior stars, Ashley Judd makes a nice comeback of sorts playing Tris' mother, who had major secrets of her own.  Maggie Q played Tris' examiner and tattoo artist Tori with the mysterious compassion. Kate Winslet plays the cool and calculating Erudite uprising leader Jeanine Matthews with icy perfection.

Overall, I thought this film was a very good interpretation of a book that was less than perfect in itself.  So, whatever things the film might show us which we might not like, like the slow pace of action progression, and the questionable motives of the characters, are actually because the book told it that way.  While still with violent scenes, the film mercifully dials down the violence levels in this film when compared to the book, for its PG rating.

Fans of the "Divergent" books will find this film version generally faithful. While it cannot compare to the high standard set by the "Hunger Games" film series in terms of cinematic quality and character casting (Jennifer Lawrence is a class of her own), "Divergent" definitely has its own entertaining appeal going for it. Sequels "Insurgent" and "Allegiant" already in pre-production, scheduled for showing in the next two years. 7/10.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review of EMPIRE STATE: Dragging and Miscast

March 19, 2014

Set in the Greek Quarter of New York City back in the early 1980s, "Empire State" is about Chris Potamitis (Liam Hemsworth), a lowly-paid security guard of an armored truck company. He made the unfortunate decision to abet in a robbery on his employer planned by his lowlife best friend, Eddie (Michael Angarano). These two absolutely clueless criminal amateurs actually pull off what turned out to be the biggest cash heist in the US history at that time.  All the local professional gangsters take note of this bold incursion into their turf and demand their take of the loot. But tough NYPD cop Detective Ransome (Dwayne Johnson) relentlessly breathe down their necks. 

Poor Liam Hemsworth looked very uncomfortable the whole time. He did not look convincing at all as a down-and-out impoverished security guard, despite that oversized uniform he was made to wear. I was thinking that his co-star, the scrawny Michael Angarano, would have been better off as Chris instead of his supporting role of Eddie. This was especially after we see a clip of the real Chris Potamitis at the end of the film. 

For his part, Angarano was quite okay as the sleazy Eddie. He had the right look and attitude for the character. It was just too bad that his character was poorly developed. Dwayne Johnson acted like all those macho cop roles he had taken on before this one. However, he looked and acted too "modern" and did not look like he belonged in that time period when these events happened. Emma Roberts had a role as Chris' girlfriend, which was largely inconsequential despite how she was billed in the poster.

The true-to-life crime story actually had potential to be a good film.  Under the direction of Dito Montiel though, its lazy and lifeless execution left a lot to be desired. The story-telling was slow and boring. There was no feeling of excitement even during the actual heist itself. There was no dramatic tension where there should have been. That scene of Chris with his father at the end could have been an awesome confrontation scene, but fell flat instead. This film looked and felt more like a made-for-TV movie from the 1980s than a current big screen feature. 3/10.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Review of NEED FOR SPEED: Not a Mere F&F Copycat

March 15, 2014

The story of "Need for Speed" begins in the small town of Mt. Kisco in New York state. Tobey Marshall ran a car detailing joint he inherited from his dad. An old rival, Dino Brewster, frames Tobey for causing a deadly car accident.  After serving his jail sentence, Tobey sought revenge and vindication via one big final race where the two main characters meet to settle their differences. 

I am have not seen any episode of the acclaimed TV series "Breaking Bad" so I was not familiar who lead actor Aaron Paul was.  As Tobey, Paul was able to convince us of his driving prowess, as well as effectively convey the deep emotional motivations.  

I had only known of the quirky Imogen Poots earlier this year in "That Awkward Moment."  She is in a much bigger role here as sassy Julia, the British car broker who got to be Toby's cross-country driving partner.  She is delightful, funny and awkward in a cute way.

As the bad guy Dino, Dominic Cooper has matured since we first saw him as the groom-to-be in "Mamma Mia".  Playing Tobey's crew are more up and coming young actors: Scott Mescudi (a.k.a. Kid Cudi the rapper) as Benny the wacky pilot; Rami Malek as Finn (his random naked comic sequence is still a head-scratcher), and Harrison Gilbertson as Little Pete (the emotional core of the film). 

The one senior star in the cast is Michael Keaton who played Monarch the online-based organizer of illegal drag races.  His animated play-by-play annotation of the racing adds to the excitement and drama.

Of course, the main stars are actually the amazing cars. Tobey drove from New York to California in a Custom 2014 Ford Mustang GT500. In the start of the film we witness a drag race with classic cars like the 1969 Ford Torino GT, 1967 Pontiac GTO, among others.  In the climactic big race, we see intense super-cars with speeds over 200kph like the beautiful Koenigsegg Agera R, Lamborghini Sesto Elemento, GTA Spano, McLaren P1, Bugatti Veyron Super Sport and others.  At the very end of the film, we even get to see a preview of a 2015 Ford Mustang.

The live (not CG) car racing and chase scenes were very excitingly edited together -- a true adrenaline rush. There is one particular car stunt scene called the "Grasshopper" in a Detroit highway that was outstandingly exhilarating.  We will be treated to various scenic American landscapes along the way as they drive cross-country. The Grand Canyon scenes were particularly spectacular.  

At first I did not plan to watch "Need for Speed" because the trailer made it look like an exact clone of "The Fast and the Furious" films. After I watched it, I realize that it is not. This is an excellent car movie in its own right!  8/10.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Review of MANNY: Emotional and Inspirational

March 14, 2014

This documentary is about the life and career of Manny Pacquiao, probably the most famous Filipino celebrity the world over now. While we in the Philippines idolize him as our "National Fist," it would be very interesting to hear what other peoples have to say about him.

The film was narrated by Liam Neeson.  It starts with Manny Pacquiao contemplating on why he boxes.  Pacquiao mostly narrates his story in Filipino (with English subtitles).  We learn that he joined fishermen when he was a poor boy growing up in Sarangani province. He credited that experience for developing his physical strength. From there, we will meet various people who have influenced his life and career.

Manny's mother Dionisia was restrained and sincere when she talked about his childhood.  Too bad that would only be her only part in the film.  His wife Jinkee had more participation, talking about their personal life.  There was an obvious hesitation in some parts when she was going to say something negative, but that was understandable.  Too bad there was no interview with his kids.  It would have been good to know how he was as a father.

The bulk of this documentary will of course be about his boxing career. We will meet his uncle Sardo Mejia who taught 12 year old Manny about boxing. His childhood friend Buboy Fernandez was trained by Manny to be his assistant trainer. We will go inside Wildcard Gym in L.A.  We get to learn more about Freddie Roach, his own career, how they met and their present relationship. Top Rank promoter Bob Arum and innovative conditioning coach Alex Ariza are also featured prominently.  Former managers Rod Nazario and Michael Koncz were not so favorably mentioned.

We get to witness the best scenes from Pacquiao's most memorable fights.  There was that 1995 match with a certain Rossel, Manny's first significant win that started him on his winning path. There was that match vs. Hussein in 2000, the first actual match Jinkee watched live, and she was six months pregnant then. His first match in the US, vs. Ledwaba, which Manny convincingly won despite being a longshot. 

There were highlights of his matches with Barrera, Morales, Solis, Diaz, Marquez, dela Joya, Hatton (that chilling knockout), Cotto, Margarito (that unprecedented eighth world title), and Bradley (that controversial loss by decision). There was of course mention of the dream match which may never be, that elusive one vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr.

We will also see Manny's forays into the entertainment scene. There were movies like "Wapak-Man" and "Anak ng Kumander", which did not exactly get good reviews nor good box office. There was his singing "Imagine" on TV with Will Ferrell. We see inside footage of Manny recording "Sometimes When We Touch" in Capitol Records, with no less than Dan Hill himself coaching him (which I found so funny). There was also a quick montage of his multiple product endorsements locally and abroad, many of which we have not seen before.

We will see his career in politics as congressman of the lone district of Sarangani.  There were even predictions posed about a possible presidency.  There was also footage from a prayer meeting where Manny was the motivational speaker.  There were thoughts shared about how these other activities were affecting his boxing career.

The celebrities they interviewed were also interesting, from Mark Wahlberg to Imelda Marcos!  It was heartening to hear testimonies of Manny's greatness from foreign boxing experts, how he is mentioned in the same breath as Muhammad Ali.  It was not all roses and plaudits though, as his early financial problems (not yet the tax woes) and many vices were also brought up.

One of the directors is Leon Gast who won an Oscar in 1996 directing another documentary about boxing "When We Were Kings." That film was about the iconic Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" match. The other director is a Fil-American Ryan Moore. This is Moore's first commercial film project. It must have been difficult to wade through all the footage and media appearances, choose the best clips and edit it together into a feature-length documentary such as this one. The first part about Pacquiao's rise to fame was excellent, very inspiring and touching. There were parts in the second half which tended to lose focus somewhat. But overall it had a very good handle on its multi-faceted and complex subject.

I think "Manny" succeeds in its aim to craft a fair character study of a man who came from nothing, and pushed himself to achieve great things for himself and his whole country.  This is a very well-made documentary feature, unexpectedly an emotional film which will move many to tears. 8/10.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Review of MR. PEABODY AND SHERMAN: History Comes Alive

March 6, 2014

At first I was not interested to watch this film since the poster looked absolutely juvenile.  The characters and the title did not appeal, looking and sounding so old-fashioned. My kids did not really want to watch it as well.  However, good initial reviews got me intrigued to see it.

Mr. Peabody is special little white dog who wore round-rimmed glasses and a red bow tie. He can talk, read tomes, graduate from Harvard, and earn a Nobel Prize -- a veritable Jack-of-all-trades who can do anything under the sun.  He adopts an abandoned baby boy named Sherman due to his desire to give the boy what he never had growing up, a home. 

Mr. Peabody and Sherman share a secret activity together, traipsing around history with an amazing time machine. This invention by Mr. Peabody can take them to any time in history he likes, allowing them to meet and be friends with all the great figures in history.

On Sherman's first day at school, a sassy little blond girl named Penny bullies him, and he retaliates by biting.  This altercation leads to a series of events which may cost Mr. Peabody not only his custody of his beloved Sherman, but may alter the whole fabric of human history as we know it.

The whole absurd concept of a genius dog adopting a boy really did not ring well with me. Thankfully, the execution of the story about them travelling through history did sustain my interest.  As a history buff, I enjoyed seeing the various periods in history and the characters come alive and interact with our protagonists.  Kids who have no interest in history will have a good time laughing at the crazy visual comedy as the unlikely pair go to Ancient Egypt, to Troy, to Florence during the Renaissance, to Versailles during the French Revolution, etc, and probably learn some things along the way.

The animation is okay, a bit on the old-fashioned style.  Dreamworks characters do not really grab you at first sight.  "Shrek," "How to Train Your Dragon" and "The Croods," I almost did not watch because of the unconventional artwork for the characters.  Luckily I was convinced to see them anyway because of good word of mouth, and I ended up loving them. This one I liked, not really love. 7/10.

Review of 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE: Eva Green for the Save!

March 6, 2014

The film "300" was a big hit when it hit the screens back in 2006.   The film was directed by Zack Snyder, while Miller served as executive producer and consultant. In order to approximate the artwork of the graphic novel, the film used a special super-imposition chroma key technique. This anticipated sequel makes use of the same things that made the first film a hit to try to make this second film as big a success.

Athenian general Themistocles shot an arrow in the battle of Marathon that angered the people of Persia.  The Persian navy was led by a Greek woman named Artemisia, under the name of their man-god Emperor Xerxes. The two and their armadas clash in the Aegean Sea in multiple bloody and explosive battles for supremacy.  One fights for pure love of country, while the other fights for sheer vengeance.

Instead of the imposing Gerard Butler, we get a lesser actor, Sullivan Stapleton, as the central character Themistocles in this sequel.  I thought he lacked charisma and conviction in his acting as the protagonist. There is that something lost or weak in his face that makes him less believable as the big hero. His lackluster screen presence and tentative performance almost ruined the film for me.

Fortunately, I was very much impressed with the performance of the antagonist.  Thanks to Eva Green, who delivers a sexy and bad-ass turn as Artemisia, I was not totally disappointed with the film. At first I thought it was only a big gimmick to have a female as the naval commander of Persia.  However, as it turns out, Ms. Green would completely own this film.  If not for her, I believe this film would tank big time.  

Rodrigo Santoro was again impressive as Persian King Xerxes, reprising his role from the first film.  We see him evolve from a mere man to a man-god in an elaborate sequence of CG glory.  Lena Headey also reprises her role as Queen Gorgo of Sparta.  She was the one who tells this story, but will also get in on the military action later. David Wenham was the survivor Delios who narrated the first film, but in this sequel, his appearance was merely a cameo at best.

The movie builds up on the first "300" film with a lot more Greeks (and their fabled abs) versus a lot more Persians.  The first "300" was about the Battle of Thermopylae.  This sequel is about the big naval Battle of Artemisia which happens at about the same time as the first battle, that is why there we can see this story weave in some events from the first film as well.  The action here is a lot more cartoonishly gory, with blood splattering in all directions in generous amounts. 

This is like "300" all over again, but without the benefit of novelty, without the powerful presence of Gerard Butler, and without the directorial skills of Zack Snyder.  This sequel by new director Noam Murro is certainly not better than the first film. So if you liked "300" as I did, you may still like this as well.  If you didn't, then this film won't convert you. 7/10.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Review of NON-STOP: Escalating Thrills

March 4, 2014

Beginning with "Taken" in 2008, Liam Neeson has really been going to town with his yearly action films which really hit the spot among movie fans. There had been no more projects of "Schindler's List" level, but his latest movies had been more shallow fun and excitement for the audiences to enjoy than for the critics. With the title alone, this latest film of his, "Non-Stop" follows that same successful trend.

This action-thriller is set in the claustrophobic confines of a passenger airplane in a trans-Atlantic flight. Bill Marks is a US Marshall. Mid-flight he begins to receive text messages in a secure line, demanding that he should get $150M deposited in a certain bank account, or else a passenger will be killed every twenty minutes until the demand is met. 

Because of Marks' gruff demeanor and rough ways, everyone thinks he is the hijacker! This inaccurate impression of Marks is likewise spreading beyond the confines of the plane in the news media. But Marks still had to keep his wits about him as he tries to figures out who among his co- passengers is the real culprit as the timer of a ticking time bomb is quickly running out.

Liam Neeson really has flawed hero characters like Bill Marks down pat. He has the dramatic skills and the action skills to pull this off creditably and believably. This guy is really on a roll. He is incredibly busy for an actor his age (he turns 62 this year), having six more films in the works for this year and the next, including "Taken 3".

Playing his gallery of suspects among the passengers are Julianne Moore (a lady who wanted to take the window seat beside Marks), Nate Parker (a military guy), Scoot McNairy (a school teacher), Corey Stoll (a NYC cop), Omar Metwally (a Muslim neuro-scientist). The two stewardesses were played by Michelle Dockery and surprisingly, Lupita Nyong'o (who just won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for "12 Years a Slave"). 

You may need to suspend disbelief and not think too hard about the events as they transpire. You are bound to find a plot hole or two if you look too hard. Some behaviors of the passengers, and even of Marks himself, felt very unrealistic, given the situation. Actually, hearing the entire motivation behind the whole complex plot verbalized may be a downer for some people. 

Overall though, the situation presented was very exciting as you try to figure out the perpetrator along with the protagonist. The cinematography within the enclosed space looked very good.  The special effects during the explosive climax looked very good.  Best of all, the pace of director Jaume Collet-Serra effectively built up suspense that kept us at the edge of our seats the whole time. That is the most important in a film like this, and "Non-Stop" achieves just that. 7/10.

Review of GRAND PIANO: Urgently Suspenseful

March 4, 2014

Tom Selznick is an acclaimed concert pianist. However, after messing up a key performance, he withdrew from the public eye. He agreed to perform again at a concert-tribute to his departed mentor. But as he began to play, he noted a threat written on his sheet music. He should play perfectly to the note, or his wife will die. 

Elijah Wood plays Tom with his trademark wide-eyed style of acting. This film is practically a one-man show for Wood as all the focus was on him as he played for his wife's life while trying to psych out his unseen adversary. The constant look of fear on his face made this film work. For a non-piano player like myself, Wood's piano playing looked wonderfully realistic.

The villain was played by John Cusack, whom we only hear for the most part as his chilling voice dictated what his captive should do. Cusack succeeds to convey that sinister feel by his vocal inflections alone. We only see his face for a brief while towards the end which was honestly a bit anti-climactic. 

The glamorous Kelly Bishe plays Tom's wife Emma, a celebrated actress who organized Tom's comeback event. Too bad, there really was not much for her to do here. I have to say though that I loved her haunting vocal solo (if that was actually her singing).

Actually the whole situation was impossible. While Tom was passionately playing complicated pieces, he was in constant communication with his hostage-taker via an earpiece. During certain movements in the concerto, Tom was actually able to run off the stage to go to the dressing room to investigate. He can even text while playing piano! 

I don't really know what kind of superhuman ability Tom has to keep on playing perfectly while all of this stressful things were swirling around him, including seeing dead bodies on the catwalk above. If you are able to suspend your disbelief in the incredibly improbable flow of events unfolding on the screen, you will get drawn into the excitement and tension of it all. 

This film is not very long, only an hour and twenty minutes. The whole situation was bordering on the absurd, yet the way director Eugenio Mira staged it, urgent suspense still prevailed. The cinematography was lush with rich colors. The editing was well done to heighten the dynamics. The piano music was otherworldly in its beauty and sweep. 

I enjoyed it. The middle section really had me on the edge of my seat. The concluding act was rather over-the-top, but overall this was a neat thriller that is worth to check out. 6/10.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Review of SAVING MR. BANKS: A Spoonful of Cinematic Sugar

February 28, 2014

"Mary Poppins" is a classic 1964 Walt Disney film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.  It tells of a magical nanny who was "practically perfect in every way."  Ms. Andrews plays her firm, but kind and loving.  She floated in midair with her umbrella, slid up the banister and said snappy expressions like "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!" 

This innovative film featured interaction between animated figures with live actors, contributing to its huge box office success. Its soundtrack album (with memorable songs like "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Jolly Holiday," and the Oscar-winning "Chim Chim Cheree") almost sold as much as the other big soundtrack that same year, the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night". This film launched Julie Andrews into movie stardom and won her the Oscar for Best Actress.

"Saving Mr. Banks" recounts the story of how the film "Mary Poppins" came to be. Author P.L. Travers, was adamant in keeping her precious character Mary away from Hollywood until rough financial times force her to concede. But, she made sure she would not make it easy for the man who wants the movie made, even if he was Walt Disney himself.

Emma Thompson plays the bitter curmudgeon P.L. Travers so well, like it was second nature. We see her literally giving Mr. Disney an impossibly hard time (like, how can you make a film without the color red?), yet we completely see where she is coming from. She plays someone so unpleasant, yet we will still be charmed. Too bad Ms. Thompson was caught in a year with so many vital female lead performances, that she missed what should have been an automatic Oscar nomination.

Tom Hanks is too much a superstar with such a distinct look to completely disappear into another iconic Hollywood figure, Walt Disney. However, if you see beyond how the actor looked like, Hanks amazingly captured the essence of the man Disney - - his joie de vivre, his passion, his optimism.  I was expecting him to be nominated for his supporting role here together with his lead performance in "Captain Phillips."  Too bad, he missed out on both.

Colin Farrell plays the flawed father of Travers whose life and death haunted his daughter her whole life. Farrell comes up with a deep and sensitive performance that we rarely saw from him before.  The Mr. Banks in the film's title refers to the father of the family that Mary worked as nanny for, Mr. George Banks, father of Jane and Michael Banks, played by David Tomlinson in the 1964 film.  There is an astute parallelism made in this current film between the relationship of Mr. Banks and his kids with Travers' own relationship with her father.

It was very surprising that this very well-made film hardly made a dent in the Oscar nomination list, earning only one nod for Musical Score. I thought it would get more since it was very well-made, so delightful yet effectively touching.  Fans of "Mary Poppins" will surely enjoy this look back at the process of how the movie was made and how those wonderful songs were written. This is a neat, old-fashioned film that will truly move even the hardest of hearts.  That powerful ending at the premiere night totally got to me.   

"Mary Poppins" was a favorite film of mine from my childhood. "Saving Mr. Banks" is a perfect companion piece, giving the older film an additional nostalgic dimension and more personal touch. 8/10.