Friday, January 30, 2015

Review of THE BOY NEXT DOOR: Steamy and Silly

January 31, 2015

Claire, a beautiful classic literature teacher at a local high school, is currently separated from her unfaithful husband. One day, a handsome strapping boy Noah, moves in next door, befriends Claire's shy sickly son, does the manly work around her house. Seduction led vulnerable Claire into bed with Noah, which led to a guilty conscience. However, Noah simply would not accept NO for an answer anymore.

Ever since her return to the limelight via American Idol, Jennifer Lopez is still trying to convince all of us that she is still hot and sexy even past age 40. I will not deny that she really is. She does not really need to resort to in-your-face tactics to do it, but she does. Lately, she had that trashy "Booty" song and video, more revelatory deeply-plunging gowns at award shows, and now this vanity project which she herself produced.

JLo is ever-glamorous in this film, with perfectly coiffed hair, impeccable make-up and stylish outfits all the time. She exudes "sexy" in all her scenes, even when she was just lounging around her living room posing on her divan, or slyly peeking out her upstairs window into the privacy of her neighbor's bedroom. Her anticipated bed scene was mostly moaning and teasing in the shadows, which will disappoint those came to see more of her. Her acting is not bad as you may think. She did what the script told her to do, as embarrassing as those lines and scenes were. 

As the 19-year old title character Noah, 27-year old Ryan Guzman was the ideal charming lover boy in the first half, and the unshakable nightmare in the second half, both personas played with obvious relish. The way this film closed the camera in on his biceps and torso and behind, it seemed this movie was made for cougars and "mommy porn" book fans in mind. To be fair, Guzman registers very well on the big screen, with charisma like Ryan Phillippe or Freddie Prinze, Jr. in their heyday. Let us see if he can get on with his career after this.

Kristin Chenoweth does not sing here, but her character was a lot of fun of watch. Silly and kooky, she does not exactly convince us that she was the assistant principal of her school. Her Vicky was an interesting side character. Too bad she did not get to do too much, or else the movie would have ended earlier. She provides most of the comic relief of the film, the intended ones. 

Director Rob Cohen did not really have to worry about humor, his whole film was actually peppered with unintentionally (?) hilarious moments. The way Claire and Noah would finish each others sentences as they discussed Homer, the way Noah gifted Claire with a fresh-looking first edition of "The Iliad", the list goes on. And top it all off, the film ends an over-the-top fiery, eye-popping free-for-all in an isolated barn. I had to stifle my LOL during those final fight scenes.

In the final verdict, this movie was, in its own shallow way, entertaining. It was bad, but not annoyingly bad. Razzies are likely forthcoming next year for this, but hey, I bet you will have some mindless naughty fun while watching it. 4/10.

Review of BIRDMAN: Rejuvenating Redemption

January 30, 2015

Riggan Thomas was an actor who is remembered only for a masked flying superhero he played decades back. Now much older, he is obsessed to prove his relevance as an actor today by producing, directing and starring in a revival of a serious dramatic play on Broadway. His quest for artistic excellence and recognition is challenged by family issues, problematic co-stars, scathing critics and the ghost of his own past Hollywood success.

Michael Keaton is an inspired choice to play Riggan Thomas. He seemed like he was playing out his own career arc onscreen. This actor who is known mainly for playing the first iconic cinematic Batman back in 1989. Of course he had other good films like "Beetlejuice" and "My Life", but it will always be "Batman" he is remembered for. As Riggan, Keaton displayed his full range as a desperate actor on the cusp of insanity. 

The supporting cast is also very impressive. Edward Norton plays the charismatic and irascible Mike Shiner.  His deadpan delivery of the film's most absurd lines was incredibly on point. Emma Stone shines as Riggan's rebellious daughter fresh out of rehab. Her enigmatic smile at the end will puzzle you and inspire discussions. 

Zach Galifianakis veers from his usual comic schtick to play Riggan's manager Jake. Naomi Watts plays Lesley, Mike's girlfriend who was making her Broadway debut in Riggan's seemingly doomed play. The very elegant Andrea Riseborough plays Laura, Riggan's current girlfriend. Amy Ryan plays Sylvia, Riggan's sympathetic ex-wife.

The story in its barest bones may be familiar -- the struggle of actors between Hollywood commercialism and the "legitimate" theater stage. In "Birdman", director Alejandro Inarritu, whom I had long admired for his complex films like "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," tells the story from the point of view of an aging actor going mad. This approach led to unforgettable over-the-top images and fantastic situations that set this film apart. Its jazzy percussion-driven musical score will further unsettle you.

There is also that cinematographic achievement of Emmanuel Lubezki of creating what seems to be one long continuous take throughout the film, following characters as they walk through doors, hallways, stairs and stage and streets. If there was any film editing done at all, this was seamless and undetectable. That special visual effects had to be integrated into these continuous live action shots was amazing. I will really have to watch this film again to see this technical feat again more closely. 

Overall, this film deserves its place among the best films of the year. It can be polarizing as the topic may not be of any particular interest for some people, and they may find this film pretentious and irrelevant. However, people who love the theater (and film) will get all the inside jokes and hidden barbs scattered within its darkly witty script. For sheer audacity of tackling prickly issues about the entertainment industry with raw frankness and such cinematic brilliance, I think this film is bound for the Oscar Best Picture glory. 10/10.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review of INTO THE WOODS: Merry Fairytale Mash-Up

January 28, 2015

"Into the Woods" is a musical play with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. It made its Broadway debut on November 5, 1987, when it won several Tony Awards, including Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason). Bernadette Peters memorably portrayed the Witch, singing the main song for which the show is known,"Children Will Listen."

A baker and his wife was cursed childless by a vengeful wicked witch. The witch asks for four special items in order to break the spell. The couple crosses paths with various Brothers Grimm fairy tale characters,  like Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (and the Beanstalk), Rapunzel, and Cinderella in their quest. Unfortunately, the merry mix-up of circumstances still do not seem to work in their favor. Will they be able to meet the witch's deadline and finally get the child they had long been waiting for? Will everyone be getting their happily-ever-after?

Understandably, owing to the fantasy nature of this story, film is expected to be an ideal medium for the tale to unfold. This film version was just begging to be done. Now, thanks to Disney, the dream of the original show's many fans is finally a reality. I had seen a local production of the play many years ago and I remember I liked it very much. The all-star cast assembled as well as the awards buzz around it made me very excited to see it.

Director Rob Marshall had worked on film versions of three other Broadway hits before with mixed results. His first directorial job was the TV version of "Annie" in 1999, winning Emmys. He hit the major jackpot with "Chicago" in 2002, going on to win the Oscar for Best Picture and five other categories, nominated for 7 more. His interpretation of "Nine" (2009) though did not go too well, but it still earned him four Oscar nominations. "Into the Woods" gets three nominations: Supporting Actress, Production Design and Costume Design (by Colleen Atwood, who already won Oscars for her work in "Chicago", "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Alice in Wonderland").

James Corden plays the Baker, yet another kindly gentle musical man in his list of characters much similar to those he played in "Begin Again" and " One Chance." He projects real goodness on his face, making him fit for this role. Emily Blunt not only displays her talents for drama and comedy, but also surprises us with her singing prowess in her role as Baker's Wife. This was a far departure from her other big role in 2014, that of the futuristic battle heroine in "Edge of Tomorrow," proving her versatility.

Meryl Streep earns yet another Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actress) for her role as the Witch. This gives her a grand total of 19 nominations from the Academy, for which she has won three. Ms. Streep goes all over the top in her performance here. That she can sing is not a surprise anymore since she took on "Mamma Mia." I think she could get a nomination in whatever film she is in really if the role is unique enough, even though it is not really one of her best.

Anna Kendrick plays Cinderella, with Chris Pine as her Prince Charming and Christine Baranski as her Stepmother. If you have read the original Grimm version of Cinderella and how gruesome the shoe fitting went, this was how it was done here. Johnny Depp plays the Big Bad Wolf to Lilla Crawford's Little Red Riding Hood. Their first encounter where the Wolf singing "Hello, Little Girl" was supposedly tamed down from the original stage version but it was still very uncomfortable to watch. 

The first half of the film was so much fun to watch with all the action so cleanly edited together the complex story of intertwining fairytales flowed very smoothly and hilariously. Fun and momentum bogs down quite a bit, making time pass a little more slowly in the stranger, more darkly contemplative second half. Anyhow for me, this is one entertaining movie overall. However, those not familiar with with the original play and its music may not like it as much as I did, or even flat out hate it. 8/10.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review of MORTDECAI: Unctuously Unfunny

January 25, 2015

Lord Charles Mortdecai is an oddball, art-loving British aristocrat who has taken fancy to sporting a quirky small handlebar mustache, like generations of Mortdecai men before him, much to the displeasure of his sexy wife Johanna. Because he has fallen into tough financial times because of tax problems, he is desperate for a scheme to earn the needed dough.

One day, an Oxford art restorer working on a rare Goya painting was murdered. Inspector Alastair Martland sought the help of Mortdecai in locating and recovering the lost painting. From there, Mortdecai gets drawn into a madcap adventure which involved ruthless international art aficionados and their goons who were interested not only in the painting, but also the secret code written behind it that supposedly led to a great Nazi treasure.

Star Johnny Depp is coming from three straight films that did not do well in the box office --"Dark Shadows" (2012), "Lone Ranger" (2013) and "Transcendence" (2014). I am afraid this film will not really break this streak of bad luck. He really looked like he was trying too hard and hammy to make this weird character likable. Some jokes may float because of Depp's inherent charm; but sorry to say, a lot of it turned out rather embarrassing to watch. 

The only supporting actor who was given a really notable role was Depp's frequent co-star Paul Bettany as Mortdecai's impossibly loyal manservant/driver/bodyguard Jock. He and Depp make a great odd team together. Too bad the jokes about him also get old as they get told over and over too many times. 

Gwyneth Paltrow plays Charles' opinionated and independent wife Johanna. Ewan McGregor plays the Inspector Martland, Charles' old friend in college who was and is still infatuated with Johanna. The lovely Olivia Munn had the unfortunate role of being the nymphomaniac daughter of a Los Angeles art collector played by Jeff Goldblum. These stars play basically one-note characters not given too much to do. 

On paper, the story may have sounded like it could have been a lot of fun. However, as it was executed onscreen by director David Koepp, the final product did not always hit the right notes. The jokes (many of them off-color and vulgar) were falling flat and coming across as forced at several points (many were repeated to the point of annoyance). On the other hand, I did like the cartoonish way they showed Mordecai's travelling from city to city, old-fashioned as it may seem.

Mortdecai was based on a book trilogy written by English author Kyril Bonfiglioli in the 1970s. This film was adapted from the first book "Don't Point That Gun at Me" published in 1973. Because of the poor result of this first film installment, chances are the other two books will not see cinematic life anymore. 4/10.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Review of ANNIE: Sassy, Spunky and Spirited

January 22, 2015

The original "Annie" was a character in a fictional cartoon strip called "Little Orphan Annie" by Harold Gray. This strip was very popular back then during the Great Depression not only because of its story of red-haired, blank eyed Annie, her dog Sandy and her benefactor Daddy Warbucks, but also because it would have commentary on various political topics. 

In 1977, a musical entitled "Annie" based on characters of the cartoon strip debuted on Broadway. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical and ran for six years, giving us very popular songs like "Tomorrow" and "It's a Hard Knock Life."

In 1982, a film version of the musical "Annie" was released with Aileen Quinn as the redhead orphan girl. It also stars Albert Finney as (Daddy Warbucks) and Carol Burnett (as Miss Hannigan). This film had mixed reviews but was the 10th highest grossing film of 1982 nonetheless. An Emmy-award winning TV movie version of Annie was broadcast in 1999, with Alicia Morton (as Annie), Victor Garber (as Daddy Warbucks) and Kathy Bates (as Miss Hannigan).

This recent incarnation of Annie updates the story of the 1977 musical from the Depression to modern times. It was also surprised audiences with the radically unconventional casting choice of having African-American child actress Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie!

Annie is one of the foster children under the care of mean and drunk has-been musician Miss Hannigan in her apartment in Harlem. Mr. Will Stacks is a wealthy cell phone magnate unsuccessfully running for mayor of New York City. One day, Mr. Stacks saved Annie from being hit by a van. When a video of this deed was uploaded on the net, the ratings of Stacks skyrocket in the polls. To gain further media mileage, Stacks proceeded to take temporary guardianship of Annie. However, as Annie and Stacks grow more and more fond of each other, fate seems to have other plans.

Admittedly it took some getting used to at first, but little Quvenzhan√© Wallis eventually convinces us that she was a good choice to be Annie. This girl first gained attention as Hushpuppy in the Oscar-nominated indie film "Beasts of the Southern Wild" in 2012, which was filmed when she was only six years old. In fact, Wallis was even nominated for Best Actress, the youngest ever with that honor at the age of nine. As Annie, Wallis was sassy, spunky and spirited. Her singing voice was good enough in her solos like "Tomorrow" and "Opportunity." 

Jamie Foxx was made to deliver some lame lines, but overall he was both dapper and funny as Mr. Sparks. He also got to show off his smooth singing voice in the song "This City's Yours" which he sang while Stacks was touring Annie over NYC by helicopter. He shares a good chemistry with Wallis as their dramatic scenes hit home.

Cameron Diaz can split opinions about her over-the-top performance as Ms. Hannigan. She plays a hateful character, but personally, I liked the way Diaz played her. The writers also added the cute touch she was once a soloist in C+C Music Company! Aside from her solo song "Little Girls", she also shines vocally in the song "Who Am I?", which she sings with Foxx and Wallis.

Rose Byrne was very sweet as Grace, Stack's loyal personal assistant. Bobby Cannavale was slimy as Guy, Stack's ruthless political adviser. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Nash, Stack's imposing but kind driver. David Zayas plays Lou, the owner of a neighborhood store who has a crush on Miss Hannigan.

Honestly, I was expecting it to be really bad because of the very negative reviews given it. However, while watching, I found it generally charming and delightful, thanks to the charisma of its stars. The modern pop hiphop arrangement of the songs and the updating of the storyline with gadgets and social media, were both very cool. It could have been edited to be a little shorter. This film is mainly geared for young audiences, hence the simplistic storytelling by director Will Gluck. Anyhow, little girls especially will really like it. 6/10. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review of AMERICAN SNIPER: Debilitating Desensitization

January 21, 2015

In recent years, there is at least one war movie set in the Middle East that catches Oscars' attention. There was "The Hurt Locker," "Zero Dark Thirty," and "Lone Survivor." This year, it is "American Sniper," which is nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture.

The title refers to Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a real-life Navy Seal who served during the war against Iraq from 2003-2009. He was a Texan cowboy who decided he wanted to do more for his country as a soldier. During his training, it is discovered that he has a particular talent for being a sniper. He subsequently had four tours of duty in six years, notoriously credited with a record 160 confirmed kills (probably even more in reality). On the other end, he was neglecting his young family Stateside -- his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and his kids. An injury in his last mission led to his forced retirement. He realizes he cannot get back to living a normal life anymore.

Director Clint Eastwood had directed introspective war films before, the lyrical "Letters from Iwo Jima" (2006) being a personal favorite. Being a Eastwood movie, the story of "American Sniper" (based on Chris Kyle's own memoirs) was told in a very straight-forward manner, not too much cinematic excess. The war scenes in this film are very well-shot, with excellent editing and sound mixing. It does not shirk from the violence, but there was no overkill on the gore. The climactic sniper scene (a spectacular 2,100 yard kill) and its dusty aftermath is really a memorable one, very exciting and exhilarating in execution. 

The last thirty minutes or so dealing with Kyle's post-traumatic stress disorder were very touching. This is where Bradley Cooper best displays the acting chops which earned him his nominations for Best Actor from various award-giving bodies, Oscar included. This is already Cooper's third Oscar nomination in a row after "Silver Lining Playbook" and "American Hustle". Aside from the fact that Cooper absolutely dominates this film with his nuanced performance, the patriotic fervor inspired by this film may also work in his favor, although his category is really tight this year.

With the title alone, expect to watch a very American film -- a movie clearly made for its flag, country and ideals. While it has been accused of being pro-war propaganda, you will actually pick up Clint Eastwood's anti-war sentiments along the way. (Oh, you will notice something odd about Chris and Taya's baby, but don't let it bother you too much.) 8/10.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Review of TAKEN 3: Useless and Unworthy Sequel

January 20, 2015

"Taken" (2008) was such a memorable action film. It brought Liam Neeson back up from his career doldrums and made him into a bankable senior action hero. Its exotic European setting, the frightening white slavery story, and the extreme violence of the action sequences made it a most memorable film. "Taken 2" (2012) was an okay follow-up, yet we already recognize that its formula is getting a bit thinned out. After watching the much-awaited "Taken 3" though, they really should have stopped while they were ahead.

This third episode of the series was set entirely in the state of California. Our hero ex-CIA Special Ops man Bryan Mills gets framed for killing someone very close to him. He needs to figure out who really did the crime before the police catch up with him. That is all. It is as generic as it sounds. Furthermore, with the Russian hoodlums as the bad guys, it is just like any B-quality Seagal, Van Damme or Statham flick out there we have seen before.

Totally gone are all the elements which made the first Taken film so memorable and special. The action sequences had no grit or realism. At no time did we ever feel that Mills was in any serious danger. There was even a scene where the bad guy was just wearing white Speedos while fighting Mills, which honestly had me chuckling in its supreme awkwardness. The car chases were so run-of -the-mill and disappointing. The fondness of the director Oliver Megaton for close-ups on the action scenes too much did not help.

Liam Neeson acted like he was just fulfilling a contract here. He is usually good and reliable as an actor, but in this film, he looked bored and seemed to lack the passion he is known for. Maggie Grace is pretty but she sort of looked old to be a whiny college student. One look at Dougray Scott's face and you can already predict what his role will be. Sam Spruell An interesting addition to the cast is Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker as the senior police officer who tries to match wits against Mills. 

"Taken" should just have ended after the first one. The second one was passable. But this third one is totally unnecessary. It need not have been done at all. Esteemed scriptwriter Luc Besson should not have settled for such a lackluster final episode to end his action trilogy. No one even gets "taken" in this film at all. 3/10.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Review of BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP: Memory Madness

January 15, 2015

Christine (Nicole Kidman) wakes up every morning with her memory completely erased. Her husband Ben (Colin Firth) patiently reintroduces himself and their relationship to her. A certain Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong) also calls her house daily, telling her that she had been his patient since a violent experience caused her condition. With each day, Christine would discover something or someone which would help her piece her past back together. Will she ever be able to figure out the truth before she goes to sleep again?

A story that deals with memory loss had been tackled in several films. "50 First Dates" would probably be the most popular one, taking the lighter, romantic-comedy route to flesh out the problems of this condition. "Before I Go to Sleep" takes a decidedly more serious psycho-horror thriller approach. This story unfolds for the viewer as it unfolds for Christine. As we get absorbed into her condition, we will feel her helplessness as conflicting "truths" come to fore, and her shock as traumatic memories break through.

Nicole Kidman played the troubled Christine in a raw and sympathetic way. She carried the film well, as we all feel her trust issues and root for her to get to the bottom of things faster. Colin Firth had a more challenging job of playing a man trying his best to convince Christine of who he was and the sincerity of his love for her. The intense facial features of Mark Strong worked in his favor in his suspiciously ambiguous role as Dr. Nasch. Anne Marie Duff plays Christine's old friend Claire who could be the key to the mystery, or is she?

At 90 minutes, the pacing of the film was fast, with red herrings and twisty revelations coming one after the other. There are some questionable details about the story. A particularly glaring one was Claire's seemingly total isolation from the world, like there was no way for her to ask anyone else what happened to her after so many years of this problem. The degree of abusive violence can also be very disturbing. I was very interested and entertained up to the climax, but the ensuing scenes up to ending could have been better executed. 6/10.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review of TRAGIC THEATER: Waylaid Focus

January 13, 2015

The year was 1999. Annie Francisco (Andi Eigenmann) was an employee of the Dept. of Tourism assigned to the revive the Manila Film Center as a viable tourist destination. She sought the help of Fr. Nilo Marcelo (John Estrada) and his group of "spirit communicators" to help exorcise the place of ghosts of construction workers buried under the collapsed ceiling and left buried when the building was being built back in 1981. However, as Fr. Nilo and friends proceed with their supernatural intervention against the restless spirits, Annie herself is haunted by her own violent past experiences, as well as by a powerful diabolical spirit.

"Tragic Theater" is the first Filipino film released in 2015. It was preceded by controversy because its trailer was infamously rated X twice by the MTRCB for being "too scary." Of course, this hullabaloo effectively piqued everyone's interest more to watch the whole film to see what the fuss was all about. Since its opening though, there had been several discouraging negative reviews that came out.  However, curiosity still got the better of me. I had to see it for myself.

This film had a clean polished look. I liked the imaginative camera angles, the extreme closeups of characters, the intensely creepy music, the subtle horror effects, the make-up of the ghosts and the set design of the theater itself. Apart from the annoying disturbance of Annie's accursed cell phone and her stupid stubbornness, I thought the first part of the film was quite effectively scary, disturbing and even gory. You will look away from the screen when it gets to the part when one ghost was describing how their corpses were desecrated by those who were tasked to finish the job after the accident. 

Everything came to a peak when Annie was lifted up crucifixion-style and left hanging in midair by an unseen force.  That scene was awesome to behold on the big screen, very cleanly executed and beautifully photographed. The esteemed director Tikoy Aguiluz was able to create truly haunting images here from inventive vantage points, in cooperation with his cinematographer Boy Yniguez. 

After reaching that remarkable zenith though, the film unfortunately crumbled into a confusing mess. There were details that had been forgotten as the film progressed. What happened to that senior spirit medium Erwin? After his compelling scene during the first visit to the theater, he was lost and unmentioned in the rest of the film. Also, what were those longing looks of Annie towards Fr. Nilo all about? Why build up this tension to go nowhere? We even see a lengthy detour into the history of the Archbishop exorcist Miguel Agcaoili (Christopher de Leon) which I felt was not even that necessary at all.

The film just seemed to lose its focus as it went on. The story totally shifted from a grand scale (being about the many souls trapped in the theater) to a more limited personal scale (of Annie being possessed by a demon). Instead of being the central topic, the theater became relegated to secondary priority, largely acting only as the setting for Annie's story. 

There was an overlong and over-the-top exorcism scene in the theater officiated by the Archbishop. But this special church rite was done only for Annie. The exorcism of the disturbed worker souls merely became a secondary event happening outside the theater. This was only done by the junior members of the team, played by young actors too pretty to be convincing. Their poorly-explained "radical theory" technique freed only but four of the many souls whom we saw filling the seats of the auditorium. Is that all? This for me was extremely disappointing.

One of the best, most unsettling scenes in the film was when we see the ghosts sitting in their seats repeatedly shouting "Bakit kasi minadali?!" ("Why did they have to rush?!"). Maybe we can ask the same question to the filmmakers behind this film. After a meticulously well-made first part, they seemed to have rushed the climax and ending, editing together various scenes in a way that failed to be scary. They focused too much on Annie and her travails, when they should have concentrated more on the Theater and its ghosts. After all, the title of the film is "Tragic THEATER", not "Tragic Annie". 5/10.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Review of NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB: Robin Williams' Valediction

January 11, 2015

The ancient Egyptian tablet that gives life to the exhibits of the Museum of Natural History in New York is strangely getting corroded. This causes the all the living exhibit friends to act erratically. Only Ahkmenrah's father, the Pharaoh Merenkahre, would know how to fix the problem, but he is in the British Museum in London. So security guard Larry Daley has to go there and get the tablet fixed before the magic is lost forever.

Ben Stiller's character Larry does not get many big comic moments as he mainly gives way to his co-actors to shine. Larry is having issues that his son Nick had unconventional career plans. Stiller does get to do a new role here, that of a new wax model of a Neanderthal man Laa, who was made in Larry's likeness. Unfortunately many of the side-by-side moments between Larry and Laa were hit and miss. Many of these jokes fell flat, with the best parts already shown in the trailer.

It was very good to see the old friends we have known and enjoyed in the first two films together again in this concluding episode. These were Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Pharaoh Akhmenrah (Rami Malek), Roman officer Octavius (Steve Coogan), cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson), Dexter the capuchin monkey, Attila the Hun, Sacajawea, Rexy the T-Rex skeleton, among others.  We also get to see again Dick van Dyke and the late Mickey Rooney who played rival security guards in the first film.

When they reach the British Museum, the tablet brings the exhibits there to life. New friends are introduced and more madcap adventures ensue. Aside from the old Pharaoh played by Ben Kingsley, we meet two more important side characters.  Rebel Wilson plays female security guard Tilly and she was usually funny. The swashbuckling action of this film was provided by Sir Lancelot, as played by the dashing Dan Stevens. His scene fighting with the Triceratops skeleton was thrillingly choreographed and executed. His scenes with "King Arthur" (played by a special uncredited A-list guest star) and those on the rooftop with the melting nose were hilarious.

The third act was strangely downbeat for an adventure-comedy film like this. But it has a special sentimental appeal because of the emotional valedictory words delivered by the late beloved actor, Robin Williams. It was not merely Roosevelt saying goodbye to Larry. It felt as if Williams was bidding us (the audience) his farewell. For that special moment alone, this becomes a must-watch for all Robin Williams fans, as this is already his final onscreen appearance in a film. 6/10.

Friday, January 9, 2015

My Review of SEVENTH SON: Familiar Fantasy

January 8, 2014

Set in medieval times in Europe somewhere, "Seventh Son" brings us back to a time when supernatural beings like witches, ghosts, ghasts and the like wreaked otherworldly terror on the countryside. The people depended on a special knight called the "Spook" to fight these creatures and restore peace in the land.

Master Gregory is the last living Spook and he is getting on in age. In his last big fight with the grand witch Mother Malkin, he lost his apprentice Billy.  Gregory calls on Tom Ward, another "seventh son of a seventh son," to take his place before Mother Malkin totally regains her powers by the night of the full blood moon. Will Tom be up to the task of becoming the new Spook? Or will pretty lass Alice distract Tom from his destiny?

Ben Barnes plays Tom Ward. Barnes first gained attention as Prince Caspian in the Narnia films, though his career did not really fly too much after that. He takes another stab at stardom with yet another action fantasy with this one. Already an adult man, Barnes was already too old for the teen character he is supposed to play. Anyhow, while he did still have a youthful handsome mien, his screen charisma seems strangely wan. 

Jeff Bridges plays Master Gregory. He is at his hammy best here -- all drunk, curmudgeonly and slurred. This is already his third film IN A ROW playing an old master training an heir-apparent to his position. Bridges felt like he just reprised his roles in "RIPD" and "The Giver" from the past two years. I liked his witty zingers during the training sessions which added humor to the proceedings.

Julianne Moore goes all campy playing Mother Malkin with evil relish and glee. She seemed to be having a field day with this over-the-top character, much unlike the more serious and quiet ones she is more known for. In addition, she and her coven of powerful witches (played by Antje Traue, Djimon Hounsou, Jason Scott Lee, among others) get to wear more elaborate witchy-chic costumes than Maleficent. They also get to transform into dragons and similarly fantastic beasts, thanks to some neat and nifty computer-generated special effects.

This film is based on the young adult novel "The Spook's Apprentice" written by Joseph Delaney, the first of many in a series. Unlike the atmospheric and creepy book it was based on, the film is makes it more of an exciting action fantasy for cinematic verve. Tom and Alice in the book are both pre-teens, but older here (like what they did for "Percy Jackson"). The witch characters did not fit their descriptions in the book as well. They did not turn into animals in the book, for one. In fact, one of the side characters, the deformed humanoid Tusk, even shifts over from evil in the book to good in the film.

"Seventh Son" is alright as an action fantasy film for younger teen audiences. The visual effects were uneven, hit and miss. Some (like the shape-shifting) could be impressive and seamless, but some (like the conflagrations) looked old-fashioned and garishly fake. Book fans may be disappointed by the major deviations from the original tale. Those who are unfamiliar with the book though will be entertained, but will definitely feel that the story being told by director Sergey Bodrov follows a familiar and very tired formula. 6/10.