Monday, October 27, 2014

Review of KRISTY: Hunting Pretty Girls Down

October 27, 2014

I was not exactly expecting much with a title as nondescript as "Kristy". There were also no big name actors to speak of it seems. The news that this film had alternative titles like "Random" and "Satanic" was not too encouraging as well.  I was just in the mood for a horror film one lazy afternoon so I went and watched this. Turns out this film was not exactly horror, but it was not bad at all.

The first frame of the opening credits was the first surprise. It showed the TWC logo. So the Weinstein Company was actually involved with this film! That was a surprise because the publicity was so low key, almost non-existent. It did give me some positive encouragement about the film I was about to watch though, as TWC is known for its Oscar quality films.

The film opens with the scene of a girl being killed by a couple of men wearing hoodies and left in a grassy field. She had a big slash across her neck and a letter K carved on her right cheek. Photos and video of this crime was uploaded onto the Internet, announcing that it was the time to kill "Kristy". "Kristy" it appears is any girl they think is "pretty, pure and blessed", and therefore should be hunted down and killed. To kill "Kristy" is to kill God supposedly.

One Thanksgiving, Justine was the only girl left in their college campus as everyone else went home. When she went to the convenience store to buy some supplies, she encounters a strange girl in a pink hoodie. When she got back to her college dorm, Justine realized that Pink Hoodie and her group of hoodie-wearing hoodlums had all followed her to campus. They were hunting her down, wanting to see her dead. 

Haley Bennett should be a bigger star some day. She looks great and she did very well in the lead role of Justine. She was able to effectively portray the fear and strong will of her smart, never-say-die character. This was no timid damsel-in-distress here. This girl was determined to survive. However, Justine was all alone and outnumbered, will she indeed survive this ordeal?

I was surprised to see that Ashley Greene (better known as vampy vampire Alice Cullen in the "Twilight" films) was actually cast as the main antagonist, the mysterious girl whose internet username was "DrkViolet801". Her face was barely seen at all, always obscured by her pink hoodie. In fact, they could have used another no-name actress and we would not have known the difference. 

This film is not exactly horror though. If you like gore, there was not too much of that, which was ok by me. I would call it a suspense-thriller, and a good one at that. The exciting musical score, along with the sinister whistling and the creepy whispering, was very effective in creating the thickly tense atmosphere necessary for this film to succeed. Some jump scares were pretty good. It would have been better if they gave a little more background about the anti-Kristy cult and what it really stood for though.

With a lot of suspension of disbelief, I actually liked this film as it is. This is not any deep film to analyze or think too much about. Just sit back and enjoy your racing pulse as you watch it. By the way, there is a short extra scene after all the closing credits roll up, if you still care to wait up and watch it. 6/10.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Review of THE JUDGE: Defending Family Dignity

October 24, 2014

"The Judge" in the title refers to Judge Joseph Palmer, a tough no-nonsense magistrate who presides in a small Indiana town courtroom. When his wife Mary passes away, he is reunited with his long-estranged son, the hot-shot Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer. Old wounds though have not yet healed. The day after the burial, Judge Palmer was accused of killing a particularly vicious murderer he once sent to prison. Will this case bring father and son closer together, or will it just drive them further apart?

Watching Robert Duvall act never feels like you are watching an acting performance. He is always so natural and realistic in anything he does. Those scenes showing his physical disabilities were so difficult to watch because they looked so real. His mental toughness, his irascible behavior, his senior moments, his judicial integrity were all portrayed on point. I think this may be the role which might win him his second Oscar. Duvall has had three nominations for Best Actor, and won for "Tender Mercies" way back 1982. He also had three nominations for Best Supporting Actor, two of which were for classics like "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now".

We are used to seeing Robert Downey, Jr. as a pugnacious smart-ass, like his Tony Stark or his Sherlock Holmes. You can add Hank Palmer to that list. However, those quieter moments he had with his father and two brothers at home and those with his precocious daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay) stood out more for me than his aggressive lawyering scenes in the courtroom. 

The supporting actors also did their part to make this film extraordinary. I would cite the performances of Vincent D'Onofrio (as Hank's unfortunate eldest brother Glen) and Jeremy Strong (as their kind mentally-challenged youngest Dale) to be particularly remarkable. Their family dynamics were at the same time traditional and close, as much as they were dysfunctional and fractured. It was these less ostentatious scenes within the Palmer household which make this film special.

Vera Farmiga lends her earthy charms as Hank's high school sweetheart Samantha. Her smart and sexy portrayal makes her a good match for Downey. It was always good to see the pretty face of Leighton Meester even though her role Carla was practically a marked cameo. The intensity of Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham was formidable. The hicktown charm of Dax Shepard made his bumbling character Atty. C.P. Kennedy a welcome respite from the heavy drama.

This is the first major foray into serious drama for director David Dobkin. Previously he only had forgettable light comedies like "Wedding Crashers" and "Shanghai Knights" under his limited belt. "The Judge" elevates him to another level altogether, and will likely be the film he is most remembered for. It took a bit of time for him to tell his story with a 141-minute running time. However, I found it worth every minute he took telling it the way he did. I liked how the story slowly but surely unfolded the way it did. 

"The Judge" may drip with sentimentality at times, but I did not mind. We all need a touching film where we can reflect on our own family relationships. I am a sucker for films about fathers and sons, and for films about brothers. like "Legends of the Fall" and "A River Runs Through It". A good cleansing cry at the movies once in a while is not a bad thing. 8/10.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review of FURY: History is Violent

October 23, 2014

It was April 1945, World War II was in its final chapters. We follow a jaded, war-weary sergeant code-named Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) leading his five-man team on board his Sherman tank named Fury on various attack or rescue missions within German borders. His gunner Bible (Shia LaBeouf) is a deeply religious man. His munitions loader Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal) is a belligerent redneck type. His driver Gordo (Michael Pena) is a smart-talking Mexican American. 

New on his team as assistant driver is young Norman (Logan Lerman), a military greenhorn whose only previous duty was typing letters behind a desk. This assignment thrusts innocent Norman headlong into the thick of the brutality of war and forces him toughen up faster than he ever had before. When Fury breaks down in the middle of the German countryside, with 300-man strong Nazi troops marching their way, Wardaddy and his crew have to make the biggest decision of their lives -- to hide or to fight.

Brad Pitt gives another Oscar-bait performance as Wardaddy. Despite his modern-looking ever perfectly coifed hair style, he manages to deliver a believable portrayal of a physically and emotionally-scarred military man. He had seemingly little humanity left in him, yet in the most dire of situations, his heart would still rise to the surface. 

As the war-shocked Norman, Logan Lerman goes way beyond what he was made to do in his Percy Jackson films. He held his own among the more experienced company. Pitt and Lerman share a quiet moment in the middle of the film with two German women which were effective acting moments for the two men, though the whole sequence was inherently disturbing.

After his real life meltdowns that hound the tabloids, it is good to see Shia LaBeouf give what must be his career-best performance right here. His emotionally-labile character gives LaBeouf a chance to shine, and he does just that with devastating restraint. 

The technical aspects of this film were flawless. The cinematography, film editing, make-up, visual effects and sound editing were excellent in establishing the horrors and brutality of war. Those two big scenes with the tanks (first one picking up soldiers trapped in the battlefield and a second one battling a German super-tank) were so well-executed and were the real highlights of the whole film. I thought the laser-light effects for the bullets being shot (not usually seen in previous World War II films) were effective in adding excitement to the battle scenes. The production design is especially worth mentioning because of its meticulousness and accuracy, especially when it came to weaponry and vehicles.

It is difficult to make anything very original anymore about World War II, so most of what we see are variations of what we have previously seen before. The theme of a young private brutally exposed to the deadly reality of war has definitely had other incarnations before. We hardly know anything about any of the crew members before they were soldiers. The Germans seem to be missing their targets a lot, while the Americans were perfect shots. The final scene involving a German soldier in the film also seemed unlikely to happen in real life.

However, despite these few quibbles, the film remains to be a very good war film. It may not really be in the level of "Saving Private Ryan" or "Schindler's List", but most audiences, especially war film aficionados, will surely like this one as well. 7/10.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review of WHIPLASH: Drumming Up Greatness

October 21, 2014

Andrew Nieman is an introverted 19-year old freshman in the Schaefer Conservatory of Music in New York City. Aside from his dad, he does not relate well to other people, as he is always obsessively practicing on his drums. He catches the attention of a notoriously hard-driving teacher Terence Fletcher, who recruits Andrew to join his studio jazz band. There, Fletcher pushes Andrew to play his drums to perfection using a hard abrasive instruction style, inflicting physical and emotional expected only from military drill sergeants. Will Andrew make it through or will he snap under the pressure?

Miles Teller is a young star on the rise. He was in three other films this year alone, including "Divergent". He is set to be seen as Mr. Fantastic in the reboot of "The Fantastic Four" franchise next year, along with four other films. "Whiplash" proves that he is also a serious actor to reckon with. The role is physically exhausting and emotionally demanding, and Teller nails it. As the drums prodigy Andrew, Teller looks like he mastered playing that drum set for real for this difficult role. Unlike the piano, it is hard to fake playing the drums. His passion in playing is palpable from across the screen.

J.K. Simmons, whom many of us only know as J. Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker's boss, in the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films, plays the irascible Mr. Fletcher, a teacher who is never satisfied with only good enough. He plays a hateful character who tended to exceed his boundaries as a mentor. Be it in his expletive-laden tirades or with just one penetrating stare, Simmons drips with chilling malevolence. However, Simmons imbues Fletcher with other layers so we do not only see him as just a one-dimensional antagonist.

"Whiplash" features some gloriously-filmed jazz band performances. I personally do not like jazz so much, but the exhilaration of the playing and the richness of the music are very hard to resist. The perfectly-edited scenes showing the band passionately playing their music had the vigor and energy of a sports match. That super-intense final scene alone will literally keep you at the edge of your seat. The audience in the theater where I watched erupted into spontaneous applause when it ended.

This is certainly not just another "Mr. Holland's Opus" or "Music of the Heart". While this also has student-teacher drama and beautiful music, Writer and director Damien Chazelle presents his story in a most unexpectedly disturbing, suspenseful, violent and even horrific way. This extraordinary film is brutally raw and frank, no punches were pulled. You will never hear the words "Good Job" the same way again. Such was its brutal yet exquisite sting. 9/10.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Review of THE BOOK OF LIFE: Vibrant Mexican Halloween

October 20, 2014

Romantic Manolo, scrappy Joaquin and smart Maria were three close childhood pals. Maria got sent to Europe to study. Joaquin trained as a military officer. Manolo was discouraged by his father from his musical aspirations, forcing him instead to take up bullfighting, which is the traditional Sanchez family occupation. When Maria returns to town after several years, Joaquin and Manolo vie for her heart. 

Meanwhile, the two lords of the underworld, La Muerta (Mistress of the Land of the Remembered) and Xibalba (Master of the Land of the Forgotten) take a bet as to whom Maria will marry. On the Day of the Dead, one of these deities unfairly intervenes. This leads to an adventure which will bring the characters from the land of the living to the land of the dead and back again.

The most striking feature of this film is the animation style. The human characters are made to look like wooden puppets. This artworks were so ingeniously crafted such that each character is distinct from each other. The three main human characters all look very good and noble. The supporting characters are rather on the atypical distorted side in their rendition, and these may need getting used to. 

The background artwork is no less spectacular. The highlight of the whole film are those scenes in the Land of the Remembered, showing it as a happy bustling and festive place. The colors were so vibrant and rich. The multi-layered designs were so intricate and meticulous in their endemically Mexican-inspired details. 

Another wonderful feature of this film is the musical score written by Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla. This musician has been awarded the Oscar two times before for "Babel" and "Brokeback Mountain."  The soundtrack also employs the most unexpected pop songs, sung Mexican style of course. Hearing a familiar song being sung makes me smile and even sing along. The sensitive singing voice of Diego Luna (as Manolo) makes songs as diverse as Radiohead's "Creep" to Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love" sound so good.

I believe this film had a lot of educational value in it for the young audience it targets. There are a lot of Latino values being tackled here about friendship and family, the status of women, the respect for the dead, etc., which are likewise universal as well, more often than not. It also introduces us, both kids and adults alike, to the vibrant Mexican culture, especially about their Day of the Dead.

The pace of the film was slow at first, but once you get into its groove, you will surely enjoy the eventful ride. My two sons with me, as well as the much younger kids in the theater with us, all seemed to enjoy the film very much as you hear a lot of gleeful laughter at the some of the shallower jokes. This was despite the rather macabre subject matter involving death and several grotesque-looking (albeit in a comical way) characters. It also had humorous moments that the adults would knowingly chuckle at. 

Aside from Diego Luna, the line-up of voice actors surprisingly included Zoe Saldana (as Maria) and Channing Tatum (as Joaquin). I would not have guessed it by only listening because of their Latino accents of their characters. Ron Perlman and Christina Applegate are also familiar names on board. Some well-known Latino actors like Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo and Placido Domingo lend their voices for Manolo's dad and ancestors. The most unexpected name I saw on the list though was that of Ice Cube as the sunshiny fluffy character called the Candlemaker. You would definitely not think of gritty rapper Ice Cube when you see and hear the very cute Candlemaker.

Writer and Director Jorge R. Gutierrez successfully expanded on his experience on Nickelodeon's frenetic Daytime Emmy award-winning animated series "El Tigre:The Adventures of Manny Rivera", which he also created. Here in "Book", he was able to proudly showcase his beloved Mexican roots on a much bigger platform. The name of acclaimed Mexican director Guillermo del Toro as one of the producers of this film also gives an additional assurance of excellence. 

Overall, "The Book of Life" is a very unique animated feature film. The basic story is based on Mexican folklore and traditions, so the flamboyant animation style had the vivid colors and ethnic designs of Mexico. The different look and unfamiliar references may turn off some less adventurous viewers, but really they should not. This is one very educational and very entertaining film for all ages to learn from and enjoy. 8/10.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review of DRACULA UNTOLD: Alternate Origin

October 18, 2014

This origin story of Dracula is not the classic Bram Stoker version we all know. That one had already been translated into numerous film versions since 1931, capped by the elegant and definitive 1992 film by Francis Ford Coppola starring Gary Oldman.

This re-imagined origin of the blood-sucking vampire Dracula is based on a real historical character Vlad the Impaler. He is a valiant prince of Transylvania. The cruel Sultan Mehmed of Turkey demands from Vlad 1,000 male children to join his ruthless army, and that should include Vlad's only son. Pushed to the wall to defend his son and people, Vlad was forced to turn to the dark side. He sought the powerful intercession of the Master Vampire to turn himself into a monster which could strike extreme fear in his enemies in order to overcome and defeat them.

This film has a historical graphic novel look and feel, like many popular films nowadays, much like the "300" films. The computer-generated effects were quite well done. The  battle scenes were quite stylishly shot, without excessive blood and gore. There are also some nifty-looking fantasy shots, like the Master Vampire's memorable tongue scene. The vampire transformation scenes were also quite effective. 

Luke Evans has a nobility in his look and stance that makes him a good choice for this new interpretation of Dracula. Vlad here is a good man who had to sacrifice his own soul to the devil in order to save his family and country, and Evans was able to give a balanced portrayal of this conflicted character. He recently had an intense turn in the small slasher film "No One Lives", and that intensity also served him well here as Vlad. We had seen this Welsh actor in more mainstream hit films like the last "Fast and Furious" film, as well as the last "Hobbit" film, so his career is well on the rise.

The rest of the supporting actors did their best on what basically were one-dimensional roles. The beautiful wife MIrena, as played by the ravishing Sarah Gadon, is ever loving and loyal. The Sultan, as played by a sinister Dominic Cooper, is brutish and violent. It was very good to see two members of HBO's "Game of Thrones" cast in this film. The formidable Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister on GoT) played the Master Vampire as pure evil.  Young Art Parkinson (Rickon Stark on GoT) played Vlad's son Ingeras.

As a whole this film was adequately diverting and entertaining, though not exactly outstanding in any particular way. I do hope this Dracula gets the sequel it seemed to promise at the end of this film. I admit I am curious to see how this new Dracula would fare as a hero-monster in more modern times. 6/10.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review of ARE YOU HERE: Intentions Unclear

October 16, 2014

Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson) is a TV weatherman whose life revolves on get high on weed, alcohol and random sex. One day, he accompanies his close friend from childhood, Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis), to attend the funeral of Ben's father. Ben, who was a mentally-unstable bum, inherited the bulk of his father's wealth, much to the consternation of his control-freak sister Terri (Amy Poehler). Furthermore, the father's beautiful young hippie widow, Angela (Laura Ramsey), complicates matters between the two best friends.

Owen Wilson plays his usual charming happy-go-lucky character we have seen in many of his previous films. His character will have some pretty bizarre decisions and drastic actions that are quite uncharacteristic of the Steve Dallas we meet in the first act. Galifianakis also plays the same unkempt, unorthodox, and unhinged man we have seen him play before, like the Hangover films. The stunt he pulls with his famous beard is already one of the highlights of this movie, and that says much about the film as a whole. 

Amy Poehler plays a bitter, sharp-tongued character here, unlike her TV persona that I know. She has some good moments, particularly that part where she speaks to an Amish guy about God. However as a whole, her angry character Terri is very perplexing to interpret. As the all-natural beauty Angela, Laura Ramsey is a welcome breath of fresh air in the overwrought mess. However, I am not sure whether the problem in her character is in the writing or her performance, because her Angela comes off as weak and incidental, rather than wise and inspiring.

One of the main draws of this film is that it is the first feature film written and directed by Max Weiner, the creator of iconic TV series Mad Men.  However, "Are You Here" is an unusual film which felt like it did not know its own intentions. The cast is composed of three big names in comedy: Wilson, Galifianakis and Poehler. The trailer seemed to suggest that this was going to be one big buddy comedy film. Even during the first part of the film itself, the film was upbeat in mood. However, as the film went along, the direction seemingly got  lost, with the story going completely to most unexpected places. 

You sort of get the feeling that Weiner was trying to say something about going deep within us to discover ourselves and live like who we really are naturally. However, the message gets so distorted along the way with the confusing flow of the story, with detours on mental illness and friendship woes. By the time it reaches that final metaphor in the end about a mechanical vs a real horse, most of the audience may have already tuned out or given up trying to make sense of it. 4/10.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review of LEFT BEHIND: Confusion and Cheese

October 12, 2014

Just recently, I saw a film called "The Remaining" which was an overtly Christian film about the Biblical Rapture done in horror story style, complete with barely seen black beings swooping down to literally grab people off the streets. I did not expect to see another film about this Rapture so soon after that first one.

"Left Behind" is about the Steele family. Mother Irene becomes very deeply religious and active in church in recent years. Unfortunately, this caused spirited daughter Chloe, as well as her pilot husband Ray, to drift apart from her. When Chloe comes home to surprise her father for his birthday, he was called to fly a plane from New York to London, among his other ulterior motives. That same day, a distressing event occurs where millions of people simultaneously suddenly disappear, leaving their clothes and things behind. Those people left behind scramble to make sense of what happens, as Ray struggles to land his damaged plane safely back to New York.

Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage once again majorly disappoints with his hammy and florid performance in this film as Ray here. He had a moment in the end where some genuine emotion came through, but it felt too late and too brief. It was good to see '80s sweetheart Lea Thompson back on the big screen again as Irene, but she was barely there. Cassi Thompson did her best to carry the film on the ground as Chloe, but her efforts were negated by the lines she was made to say and the stunts she was made to do. 

When the passengers were boarding the plane, I felt like I was watching a cheesy episode of the "Love Boat".  Of course, there was going to be a sexy and flirtatious stewardess Hattie (Nicki Whelan). There was a hotshot TV journalist Buck Williams (so this is what Chad Michael Murray is up to nowadays), a Moslem guy, an angry midget guy, a sleazy businessman, a nerdy Asian (!) conspiracy theorist, a nervous drug addict lady, an even more nervous gun-toting mother (Why did you accept this role, Jordin Sparks?). I guess you can see the chaotic over-the-top acting circus. 

In fact, this whole film had an 70s-80s TV movie look and feel about it. Even the opening credits looked from that era. If "The Remaining" had a horror approach to depicting the Rapture, "Left Behind" played like a bad B-action film, down to its fiery, explosive, down-the-wire, narrow-escape type finale. 

The Christian agenda was obvious from the start, and I did not mind that. In fact, I was looking forward to seeing how they would tie it into the story. However, even as a Christian film, I felt this film did not do its job well at all. Oddly, it made Christians appear unnaturally nutty or weird.  Worst of all, its evangelical message was lost in the confusion and the cheese. 2/10.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Review of DOLPHIN TALE 2: Empty Sequel

October 11, 2014

"Dolphin Tale 2" continues where the first "Dolphin Tale" film (2011) left off. This one is still set in the Clearwater Marine Hospital, a center for sick and disabled marine life. The central character is still Winter, the titular dolphin of the first film with the robotic tail.

Winter became stressed and out of sorts when his companion Panama dies of old age. Regulations dictate that a female dolphin should have a female companion. However, this companion could NOT have a clean bill of health in order to fit the criteria of dolphins allowed to stay in the center. If such a companion cannot be found, Winter will have to be transferred to another facility. Is there still hope for them to keep Winter?

With the dolphin story so threadbare, we have to watch the kids Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) and Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) undergo their own little subplots to fill the time. Sawyer had to decide whether he would accept a scholarship to attend a marine academy at sea. Hazel had her petty jealousy of a trainee getting close with Sawyer and her bratty arguments with her father, Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.). The roles of other adult actors like Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson and even Morgan Freeman are practically cameos only. They barely did or said anything substantial to the story.

I had the feeling that this was actually a needless sequel. The first film told a compelling story of how the center had rehabilitated a disabled dolphin, and told it very well. But this one really had trouble prolonging the action to fit a respectable running time for a feature film. A lot of the content, like those scenes with the pelican and the sea turtle, felt like filler. It totally relied on music scoring to generate drama, suspense and excitement when all we see are dolphins swimming in a pool. 

The first Dolphin Tale film had a great inspirational story to tell, interesting for audiences of all ages. Frankly, Dolphin Tale 2 did not. While it was good to see Winter again, this sequel felt like it was just cashing in on the goodwill and box office appeal generated by the first film, and nothing much else. 4/10.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review of GONE GIRL: Fearless and Fearsome

October 10, 2014

Five years ago, laidback Missourian Nick Dunne married gorgeous and smart New Yorker Amy. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick comes home to find their living room a big mess and his wife missing. The media hounds and persecutes him as police detectives turn up evidence indicating that Nick killed Amy. Nick denies these allegations, but there seems to be no more way out for him. Or is there?

I am not a fan of Ben Affleck as an actor. I thought his best role was that of the ham actor in "Shakespeare in Love" because he was basically playing himself. In this film though, Ben Affleck actually does a creditable job essaying this role of Nick. His character needed to teeter between guilt and innocence, between jerk and loser.  Affleck effectively handled this tricky balance. We should not know how we should feel for him in the first act. But by the last act, the audience, especially the men, would feel his helplessness.

I am also not a fan of Rosamund Pike. When I first saw her as a Bond Girl in "Die Another Day", I thought she was just a pretty face but without sparkle. Even in subsequent films, she was icy and without passion when she acts. All that totally changed with her riveting performance here as Amy. It is difficult to describe her performance without dropping a spoiler, so I have to stop right there. Suffice it to say, this performance is her breakthrough as a serious actress. It was fearless, and fearsome.

David Fincher is an amazing director. I have been a fan since "Se7en". He had an amazing filmography since directing iconic videos of Madonna ("Express Yourself") and Paula Abdul ("Straight Up") back in the 1980s, and memorable films like "Fight Club", "Zodiac","The Social Network", and now this one. This man continually improves in his stylish aesthetics. 

I have not yet read the book by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the complex screenplay), but the storytelling skills of Fincher were flawless in this film. It kept on surprising the audience up to the very end. His slick and fluid style makes us look beyond certain plot details which may seem questionable or even absurd. He raises serious issues about the intricacies of a married relationship and sensationalization of crime by the media. It will not feel like 149 minutes as the unfolding story mesmerizes you.

"Gone Girl" is the first film of the year that is seriously in contention for all the major Oscar awards of this year. In fact, nominations for the top 5 awards: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay (Adapted) are all sure things as early as now, with the statuettes themselves a reasonable reality. Nominations for cinematography, film editing, original musical score (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), and production design are likewise in the bag. 9/10.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Review of THE NOVEMBER MAN: A Senior Bond

October 9, 2014

Pierce Brosnan is one of those actors that have a distinct look and suave style that he cannot shake off in all of his work. Ever since he hit the big time as private investigator Remington Steele on TV in the 1980s, and up to the that time when he predictably became James Bond in the 1990s, he had been our favorite dapper, slick and charming action star.

After a 12-year hiatus as Bond, Brosnan makes this comeback as a spy in "November Man". Like Bond, this is also based on an espionage book series by Bill Granger in the 1970s-1980s featuring the character Peter Devereaux. We are brought back to the era of the Cold War with CIA agents battling Russians. 

Peter Devereaux is called back from retirement by his former handler Hanley to extract a deep-penetration agent Natalia, who was secretly Peter's wife. However, a younger rival spy Mason, who was Peter's previous protégé, gets in the way of the mission and kills Natalia. Before her death, Natalia was able to give Peter a vital clue -- a name of a woman who carries the foul secret of the popular Russian presidential candidate Federov. 

As Devereaux, Pierce Brosnan still has right look and slick confidence to credibly play a smart action hero. He injects new facets into this new character though, a viciousness and hot-headedness that we have not really seen from him before. He is not the epitome of cool in this one.

The rest of the characters though are rather stock. Former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko uses her exotic beauty as an avenging war victim. Bill Smitrovich gets plenty of screen time as the double-dealing Hanley. Lazar Ristovski was at his sleaziest as Federov. The talents of Amila Terzimehic were wasted as the assassin Alexa.

The worst detail though was about the supposed conflict between mentor and his student. The actor who plays Mason, Luke Bracey, may look like a Hemsworth brother, but does not have their screen charisma. The way the story was written did not really have a climactic face-off between these two characters that the trailer or press releases would have us believe. He could not hold a candle to Brosnan. In the ultimate analysis, the Mason character did not really matter in the aftermath of events.

If only veteran director Roger Donaldson handled the whole mentor vs. protégé plot more properly, this could have been a solid and more memorable spy thriller, which may have the potential for a franchise. Pierce Brosnan definitely has it in him to be a leading man (not just one of the Expendables). Acquiring the film rights for this Devereaux book series was a good idea on Brosnan's part, but this first film could have been more spectacular than this to ensure a sequel. 5/10.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review of THE EQUALIZER: Psychologically Violent

October 7, 2014

This film is based so loosely from the 1980s TV series starring Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, an ex-agent who helped poor individuals who have no one else to turn to in their crime-related problems. But the McCall here is no dapper English gentleman. Instead, he (Denzel Washington) is a genial employee of a Home Depot-type warehouse store who kept pretty much to himself. 

One day, he meets and befriends a teenage prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) at his usual dining place. When she had been beaten up by the Russian mobsters who handled her, McCall gets shaken out of his neat little routines, and an unparalleled killer of immeasurable resourcefulness and mad skills gets unleashed to champion the cause of the helpless.

This is another oft-told tale in Hollywood these days, an ex-CIA agent with superhuman abilities saving the day for some damsel in distress. We have seen this story over and over in different incarnations in various action films with Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, or other lesser known actors. With "The Equalizer" though, we are given Denzel Washington in the lead role, working with the same man who directed him to his Best Actor Oscar for "Training Day" back in 2001, Antoine Fuqua. There are higher expectations here.

The action sequences are well-planned and orchestrated, but I can't really say they are all that original. They are of extraordinary violence and gore, I'd give them that, hence the local R-16 rating. The whole "seeing small details around him while planning an attack" routine has been done before, and with much more logic, in the Sherlock Holmes films. The whole climactic "walking away from a series of big fiery explosions behind the hero" gimmick is practically a staple in countless A, B or C level action films before this one.

For me, the best scene in the whole film was actually not an action scene. It was the one where McCall had a serious face-to-face encounter with the vicious Russian gang leader, Teddy (Marton Csokas). That scene was one tense mind game where McCall exposes the weaknesses of his enemy using verbal intimidation alone. That was an exciting psy battle of wits at its best, better than all the shootouts and fights in the film. 

Denzel Washington did not exactly look like he had the right physical look to realistically convince me that he could do the stunts McCall was doing. However, in these intense face-to-face confrontation scenes, you know he is the type who could psych you out crazy even with his penetrating stare alone. This psychological dimension is what gives "The Equalizer" an edge over all the other run-of-the-mill action thrillers with the same basic story. 6/10.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


October 6, 2014

When I heard that there will be a new film version of Ibong Adarna, I thought this would be a good idea to take my kids to see it. This is in order to see this classic local epic they learned (or will learn) in their sixth grade Filipino class come to life. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one big bad idea.

This version of "Ibong Adarna" is not set in far off Berbania, but locally in what looked like a lakeside Muslim community ruled by a Sultan (Joel Torre) and Sultana (Angel Aquino). Instead of three sons, they only had one son, Sigasig (Rocco Nacino). Sigasig was already a prince and warrior, but he was still studying three letter words even at his age. Instead of two elder brothers, we have an unscrupulous mustachioed Uncle (Leo Martinez) and his dim-witted sidekick (Benjie Paras) who have evil designs on the throne. 

Instead of a bad dream, the Sultan fell severely ill because of voodoo inflicted by Bruha (Lilia Cuntapay, who else?) as conscripted by the jealous Uncle. A Nuno (Gary Lising) told them that only the song of a certain magic bird can cure the Sultan. Instead of a old hermit, we have a pretty fairy helping Sigasig on his quest. They even added a little native boy sporting a big afro hairdo to be his sidekick. They also added a tribe of mountain people wearing Cordillera threads (led by Ronnie Lazaro) to add further conflict.

Instead of squeezing the juice of a citrus fruit on his wound, Sigasig needed to extract the sap from what looked like a dry wooden wreath. Instead of the complex ending in the epic involving a love triangle and enchanted violence, here the magical bird turned into a princess named Adarna when it was kissed by Sigasig. 

The disappointment we felt while we were watching this travesty on screen cannot be expressed by mere words. We were terribly bored, underwhelmed and seriously wanted to walk out. The acting was terribly cheesy, way beneath the known talents of the actors gathered for this project. The visual effects were like the quality of a regular TV fantasy program only, no effort for believability and obviously cartoonish. They do not inspire awe nor wonder at all, even for the kids.

Even the 1972 comedy film about this mythical bird starring Dolphy, Panchito and Babalu with Rosanna Ortiz was way better than this one. At least that one had the sense not to stray too much from the original story, and was far more entertaining. This one did not even have any educational value by veering so radically from the source epic. It will even confuse kids who are studying the epic currently. Watching this film directed by Jun Urbano was a sorry waste of time and money. 1/10.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Review of WALKING ON SUNSHINE: Fun 1980s Pop Italian Romp!

October 4, 2014

"Walking On Sunshine" is almost exactly just like "Mamma Mia". There is a reunion of friends and an upcoming wedding. Both have its generous dose of cheesy comedy, light drama, summer romance, flash mob dancing and a whole lot of popcorn fun. However in "Walking", we are brought to Italy instead of Greece. Instead of ABBA songs, we have big pop hits of the 1980s from various artists. 

After her graduation from college, Taylor meets up with her sister Maddie and their good friends in the beautiful beach town of Puglia, Italy. Maddie, who recently just broke up with her older jerk boyfriend Doug, suddenly announces her intentions to marry a guy whom she just met five weeks ago. Maddie's fiance turns out to be Rafa, the same guy Taylor had a hot summer fling with three years ago. Now the plot thickens.

I confess that I grew up as a big fan of 1980's pop music, and I knew every song used in this film by heart. They even made it easier for me and everyone in the theater to sing along to the songs by flashing the lyrics as subtitles -- fantastic idea! Each song I hear being sung gave me a smile on my face. I also enjoyed those cheesy scenes where the characters dressed up in iconic 80s-music video costumes, which sure brought back memories of when MTV still showed music videos.

I thought the choices of the songs were quite apt for the situation in which they were played. Some songs just established the events, like "Holiday", "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", or "White Wedding". But there were some songs where the lyrics fit the conversation between the characters perfectly for the situation, like "Don't You Want Me", "Faith" or "If I Could Turn Back Time". You will also get to hear hits by Bananarama, Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis, the Bangles, Duran Duran, Wham! and of course, Katrina and the Waves.

I did not know any of the actors playing the main love triangle in the film, but they were a perky attractive bunch of young actors and actually did quite well within the limits of their roles. Hannah Arterton plays the serious practical sister Taylor. Ms. Arterton is not as elegant as her real-life sister Gemma, but she is quite cute. Anabel Scholey plays her ditzy, hopelessly romantic sister Maddie. Guilio Berruti plays the handsome Italian Raf, the guy caught between the sisters. 

The only actress I recognized is pop artist Leona Lewis, who was in there as one of the girls in the gang. She looked exotic and sultry, but she did not really get to do much. They also took some inspiration from "Pitch Perfect" and cast a "Fat Amy"-type sassy overweight girl as the sisters' best friend Lil in the person of Katy Brand. She is frank, brassy and such a lively presence onscreen. Greg Wise plays the sleazy ex-boyfriend Doug with his naughty European rascally charm.

Perfection in their acting is not really the most important thing here for the actors, nor is their singing ability. The filmmakers  Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini want to take us along on an entertaining Italian summer beach romp and provided us the perfect mixtape of 1980s pop music to bask in. They seemed to have a lot of fun doing this film and that was the only point, and this bright sunshiny fun definitely reflects to the audience. This was such an enjoyable, feel-good movie to watch. 7/10.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review of ANNABELLE: Distressingly Diabolical

October 3, 2014

We have met the creepy-looking vintage doll Annabelle before in last year's excellent and very memorable horror film "The Conjuring." She was just the front act there, showing up only at the pre-opening credits sequence. This year she gets a film all her own. We now get to know Annabelle more and learn how she became demonically possessed.

The setting of this film is in the 1960s in a California suburb. Young couple John and Mia are expecting their first child. One day, John surprises Mia, who was a vintage doll collector, with a huge antique doll with painted ivory face wearing white satin dress adorned by a red bow. It just so happened that same night, crazy satanic cultists attack their home and there was resulting bloodshed. However, since that night, there was no more peace in John and Mia's household, especially after she gives birth to their daughter, Leah.

A big part of why "Annabelle" worked as a horror film is the effective lead performance of coincidentally-named actress Annabelle Wallis as Mia. The character's name Mia, I am guessing, is a tribute to Mia Farrow, who was the star of a horror classic of the 1960s, "Rosemary's Baby." The stroller Mia uses for Leah looked very much like Rosemary's stroller, which is seen in posters of that old film. Ms. Wallis has an elegant beauty and her acting was sympathetic without becoming cheesy.

Ward Horton did well as Mia's husband John. He is a medical student, which gives him a convenient excuse to be a skeptic and always away during the night, leaving Mia alone in the house. Veteran actress Alfre Woodard is the only familiar face in the cast, and she plays their helpful neighbor Evelyn. Her story arc though was disappointing, and may be the only really negative thing I can say about this film.

John R. Leonetti, the cinematographer of "Insidious 1 & 2" and "The Conjuring" makes a respectable directorial debut with "Annabelle." He learned very well from his previous director James Wan, who sits as producer of this film. You can see that Leonetti has the eye for the perfect views to create the most effective suspense and surprise. 

I liked the throwback look of this film, with its faded color pallette and meticulous production design. The architecture, interior design, fashion, hairstyles, television shows, pop music all captured the era so well. Even the look of the cute baby Leah looked vintage, like the Gerber Baby. The limitation of technology also contributed to the helplessness factor. 

I liked the camera angles that give you a point of view such that you too do not know what will happen next. The suspense could be so intense with the excellent editing and splicing of scenes together accompanied by a swelling crescendo of music. There was that tense sequence with the popcorn, the sewing machine and the tv. There was also that thrilling sequence with the elevator. The timing for the jump scares was effective most of the time, even if you were sort of predicting it to happen already.

This is a film which may divide audiences as to whether it could match the audacity of "Insidious" or "The Conjuring." Frankly, it does not. But as it is, I liked "Annabelle" more than I thought I would. I was expecting the worst, since I hated how the Annabelle doll looked and I can't imagine anyone wanting a doll like it in their house. However, the film managed to transcend that limitation and actually create genuine scares that worked. 7/10.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review of THE RAILWAY MAN: Debilitating War Memories

October 2, 2014

"The Railway Man" is Eric Lomax. He is a British POW of the Japanese Army during World War 2, made to work on the Thai-Burma Railway. There he underwent severe and humiliating torture, which would haunt him for the rest of his life. However one day, when he read in the newspaper that one of the Japanese soldiers who tortured him was still alive, he saw his chance to face his past and recover his sanity.

The movie starts very slowly, so drab and dreary, like Eric's disturbed mental condition. Colin Firth, of course, can do this kind of quiet reflective role blindfolded. Nicole Kidman provided the only bright and pleasant diversion. She plays Eric's devoted wife, Patti, who wants to help him with his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but she can only do so much. 

However, when it reaches the part where Eric's harrowing experiences in the war were being recounted, with Jeremy Irvine playing the young Eric, the film becomes absolutely riveting. Stellan Skarsgard plays Finlay, one of Eric's old soldier friends who tries to help Patti by telling her about the suffering they had to endure in the hands of the enemy. However, he cannot seem to handle the memories himself. 

The film shows the Japanese treatment of their war prisoners going from bad to inhuman. Since I live in a country which had also suffered so much under the Japanese during WW2, I had heard many stories and seen plenty of local films about this tragic chapter of recent human history, but torture is still so difficult to watch on the big screen without looking away from the brutality.

But the main distinguishing mark and best parts of this film come in the third and final act, when Eric finally get to confront one of his main tormentors, Takeshi Nagase, the translator of the Japanese Imperial Army officers at his camp. In these scenes up to the very end, Colin Firth and Hiroyuki Sanada show virtuosity as actors. It is this concluding act that makes this film absolutely moving and worth watching. 7/10

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review of RUROUNI KENSHIN; THE LEGEND ENDS: Spectacular Sword Fights!

October 1, 2014

We only needed to wait one month for this much-awaited conclusion to the Ruruoni Kenshin film saga.  We were just regaled last August with "Kyoto Inferno." This time we will witness the how "The Legend Ends."

The last film ended with our hero Kenshin washed up on a beach badly injured. He was carried off to safety by a new character, which we will learn in this episode to be Hiko Seijuro, Kenshin's former master whom he had not seen for 15 years. 

The first hour of the film is basically spent on Kenshin training to get his fighting mojo back, as Kaoru was lying comatose in a hospital somewhere. Aside from a brief but exciting fight scene between master and student, there was a lot of talk in this hour about the fear of death and the will to live. I felt that the momentum of the film really got bogged down at this point by the philosophical arguments.

Thankfully, action gets revved up in the second hour and never let up until the end of the film. There was actually not much narrative anymore in this whole final episode. This is just a series of one big fight after the other setting up the climactic fight between Kenshin and Shishio, which we had been waiting for since the last film. 

There was that elegant fight between Kenshin and Aoshi, whom we already met in the last film as the captain of the Edo Hidden Warriors who wanted to topple the man who toppled the shogun. Then there was a spectacular public execution scene on the beach, which again ended in mass fighting. 

Of course, Shonosuke will again get his own featured bloody fistfight scene, this time with a Buddhist monk. Kenshin will also get the opportunity to again fight with the ever-smiling Sojiro who dealt him a bad loss in the last film. The ultimate best and most exhilarating fight scene of all is a four vs. one grand melee to the death. Shishio's flaming sword gives this final fight an extra fancy flair. 

For recent fans like me who have not read the manga or watched the anime version of Samurai X, this last episode is still a very good conclusion to this film franchise. This is mostly because of the high-quality choreography and execution of the sword fight scenes. This is already the third film, yet the fight scenes are still very exciting to watch. 

More devoted fans may complain about how characters were portrayed or their storylines changed. But for us who did not know better, this film was a great way to wrap up the story. The first film though back in 2012 is still the best one for me though. 7/10.