Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review of THE LAST FIVE YEARS: Play vs. Film

February 25, 2015

"The Last 5 Years" is about a couple whose 5-year relationship had gone awry. However, the story was not told nor staged in a linear fashion. We first see a distraught young lady named Cathy still hurting about her lost love.  We then see an excited young man Jamie who just met the ideal goddess for his life. They would alternately sing one "stream of consciousness" song after the other to tell their story. Cathy's was going backwards, as Jamie's was going forwards. At almost exactly the halfway point of the show, they finally sing together what would be their wedding song.  

In the play I saw, even if I already knew what was going on, it was still difficult to understand every little story they were telling.  The songs sung to tell the story were not exactly easy on the uninitiated ear because of their unusual melodies, discordant notes, and repetitive loops. I watched this film after I have seen the play, so I already knew the flow of the story. But more than that, being more visual with the setting and background characters, the movie made the story clearer than the play. In the play, the actors were pantomiming a lot so it was harder to understand what was happening.

This is not an easy musical for everyone to digest or like.  I may be in the minority here, but I cannot say I enjoyed watching this play. The running time was only one and a half hours (without intermission), but it seemed to just be going on and on without making much sense, even if I already knew what was going on. The time-bending storytelling gimmick by writer Joseph Robert Brown was innovative, but for me, it did not really work on the stage. It did not give me a chance to get to know these two characters enough to commiserate with their predicament. The singing talents of the stars who played Cathy and Jamie (Nikki Gil and Joaquin Valdez) were the saving graces of the theater production I saw.

In this movie version, Jamie was played by Broadway actor Jeremy Jordan, while Cathy was played by Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick. How they attack their roles determine who the audience will be sympathizing with between these two flawed characters. Was Director Richard de Gravenese biased? I thought while Jordan played Jamie as chipper and likable, Kendrick was playing Cathy as such an annoying nag. Is is Kendrick's sharp facial features or her shrill voice (be it in speaking or singing)? The Cathy in the play I watched did not come across as irritating as she was played here by Kendrick.

I still do not like this negative love story too much. I thought the film would add further dimensions, but it did not do so significantly as it followed the musical play to the letter. The limitations of the play became the same limitations of the film.  5/10.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

How I Would Rank This Year's Oscar Best Picture Nominees (2015)

February 22, 2015

With the Oscar Awards coming tomorrow (February 23, morning Manila time), it is time to make my fearless Oscar predictions.  Here is how I would rank this year's nominees for Oscar Best Picture based on my own opinions when I first saw these films.  Unlike other years, I think all eight of these Best Picture nominees will bring home at least one Oscar.

1. BIRDMAN 10/10 

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. (My Full Review)

"Birdman" is nominated for nine Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. I think "Birdman" will win Best Picture and Cinematography, along with its sure award for Original Screenplay. 


Old European charm and gentility is stamped all over this Wes Anderson film. The production design should be commended for those beautiful sets. The candy-colored hotel and the grand mansion of Madame D. were both designed and decorated so deliciously intricate and ornate. The period costumes were amazing in their detail and sense of humor. The actions sequences were done like they were silent movies from the 1920s -- totally fun. (My Full Review)

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is nominated for nine Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling and Original Musical Score. The sure awards here are for Best Original Screenplay, Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling and Production Design. 


It is a testament to the directing and storytelling skills of director Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian director I have not heard from before. He was able to take a turgid story about people trying to break enemy codes during the war, not really a visually cinematic topic to begin with, and turn it into an exciting and suspenseful thriller. He was able to unearth and draw out the dramatic potentials in the life of Alan Turing and make us all care about this person, whom we may not easily relate to in real life. (My Full Review)

"The Imitation Game" is nominated for eight Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Production Design, Original Musical Score. The sure Oscar here is for Adapted Screenplay.

4. WHIPLASH  9/10

"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. (My Full Review)

"Whiplash" is nominated for five Oscars: Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Mixing. The Best Supporting Actor Oscar for J.K. Simmons is already a sure thing. I hope it can win one of the Sound Oscars as well given the excellent quality of the drumming sounds in the film, maybe the Sound Mixing.

5. BOYHOOD 8/10

Richard Linklater likes telling long stories. He is best known for writing and directing his "Before Sunrise" trilogy. That love story of Jesse and Celine was told in three films released nine years apart per film. Here in "Boyhood", Linklater tells a story that spans twelve years. This time, he actually took twelve years to film it (intermittently, of course). With that conceit, this is a literally epic piece of filmmaking in that sense. (My Full Review)

"Boyhood" is nominated for six Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay and Film Editing. The Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Patricia Arquette is a sure thing. I also think Linklater will pick up the Best Director award.

6. SELMA 8/10

"Selma" tells of a crucial time during the life of Martin Luther King in the 1960s, when people of color faced in trying to register to vote in the segregated south. Of several films about the Civil Rights Movement, this one had a more authentic look and sound to it. With "Selma", director Ava Duvernay has created an elegant masterpiece of storytelling, making a series of unjust events that happened in just a single small town in Alabama resound meaningfully to audiences all over the world. (My Full Review)

Unusually, "Selma" was just nominated for one other award other than Best Picture. This was in the more minor category of Original Song, where it is bound to win an Oscar for composer John Legend. 


Being a Clint 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. 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 Eastwood's anti-war sentiments along the way. (My Full Review)

"American Sniper" is nominated for six Oscars: Best Picture, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. It will be given one of the Sound awards, probably the Sound Editing one.


"The Theory of Everything" is a beautiful looking film with a heartwarming inspirational subject matter. It is just too bad that real life did not give this film the happy ending we all wanted it to have. Felicity Jones as Jane was very good, as were the other supporting actors in the cast. However, this film is clearly Eddie Redmayne's showcase as ALS-stricken physics genius Stephen Hawking. (My Full Review)

"The Theory of Everything" is nominated for five Oscars: Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Adapted Screenplay and Musical Score. The Oscars for Best Actor for Eddie Redmayne and Best Original Musical Score for Johann Johannsson are surely in the bag.


My bets for the other categories:

Best Animated Feature: "How to Train Your Dragon 2" (My Full Review)

Best Foreign Language Film: "Ida" (Poland) (My Full Review)

Best Actress: Julianne Moore (for "Still Alice"

Ms. Moore's portrayal of Alice Howland, a 50-year old accomplished linguistic professor who was gradually stricken with early-onset Alzheimer's disease is poignant and dignified, not sappy nor sentimental. Having won all the other awards being given this season, it is a pretty sure bet that she will finally take home the Oscar in this her fifth nomination.

Best Documentary Feature: "Citizenfour" 

The documentary about Edward Snowden and the top secret information he has about the National Security Agency is the best known among the nominees and the one with the most critical acclaim. Thus, it is the top bet to win.

Best Animated Short: "Feast" 

This is the short film about a puppy who grew up with his junk food eating owner, and how his diet changed when he dated a vegan waitress. We all saw this charming animated short before "Big Hero 6", so it should be the best known among all the nominees.

Best Visual Effects: "Interstellar" (My Full Review)

Review of SELMA: Prejudice and Pride

February 22, 2015

"Selma" tells of a crucial time of the Civil Rights movement that took place during the life of Martin Luther King in the 1960s, when people of color faced in trying to register to vote in the segregated south. It showed the resistance of the white majority in the persons of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Alabama governor George Wallace to grant this vital right. A march from Selma to Montgomery was planned as a non-violent protest was met with violent resistance by the white authorities. This "Bloody Sunday" atrocity was broadcast on national television triggering more attention and sympathy for King's cause.

For a younger non-American watching and unfamiliar with how the events really went in real life, the story was very neatly told by writer Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay. In the powerful first sequence, as Dr. King was receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, a Baptist church for blacks was bombed and a lady Annie Lee Cooper was denied her right to register to vote in Alabama. We would witness scenes of quiet tension, like the frustrating meetings between King and Pres. Johnson to arguments between King and his wife Coretta. However, the scenes of racial violence were more memorably disturbing.

It is interesting that for a film about recent American history, the four main characters were played by British actors. David Oyewolo played Dr. King. Carmen Ejogo played Coretta Scott King. Tom Wilkinson played Pres. Johnson. Tim Roth played Gov. Wallace. I personally felt all the performances were powerfully on point as the script required. But again, since I am not familiar with the actual personalities in real life, I would not be able to judge on the accuracy of their portrayals of these people.

There have been several films about the Civil Rights Movement, and this would count as one of the best I have seen, up there with "Mississippi Burning." This one had a more authentic look and sound to it. With "Selma", director Ava Duvernay has created an elegant masterpiece of storytelling, making a series of unjust events that happened in just a single small town in Alabama resound meaningfully to audiences all over the world. 8/10.

Review of THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING: Resplendent Redmayne

February 25, 2015

"The Theory of Everything" traces the story of acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking from his days in Cambridge, during which he met his first love, Jane Wilding, and his worst nemesis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This film follows their love story through the challenges of ALS, marriage and children, scientific renown, all the way to an unexpected conclusion.

This biopic was done very well with excellent nostalgic cinematography, meticulous period production design, and a wonderfully emotional musical score. The story is told in an engaging manner, effectively bringing the audience along on an inspiring love story that withstood the storms until it could not. People who go in to know more about Hawking as a scientist may feel shortchanged, because unfortunately, his science is not really the main focus here. Because the love story took precedent over the science though, it may feel a bit generic at certain points.

The centerpiece of this film though is the resplendent transformation of actor Eddie Redmayne into Stephen Hawking. Redmayne was positively vibrant in the scenes showing the halcyon days of Hawking's youth, meeting the beautiful girl of his dreams. As the scenes turned to the slow deterioration of his body secondary to the motor neuron disease, Redmayne shows us the physical ordeal Hawking suffered. He nailed every smallest wobble and tremor.with clinical precision and heart-rending realism. Hawking's emotional journey was likewise well portrayed with an acting so deeply internalized. It felt like we were watching Hawking himself. This role of a lifetime got a performance of a lifetime from Eddie Redmayne, and for that reason, he is the clear winner in the Oscar race for lead actor.

"The Theory of Everything" is a beautiful looking film with a heartwarming inspirational subject matter. It is just too bad that real life did not give this film the happy ending we all wanted it to have. Felicity Jones as Jane was very good, as were the other supporting actors in the cast. However, this film is clearly Eddie Redmayne's showcase. This film is nominated for five Oscar awards, including Best Picture, Actor and Actress, Adapted Screenplay and Musical Score. The Musical Score award seems to be in the bag, together with Redmayne's for Best Actor. 7/10.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review of KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE: Spy Spectacular!

February 20, 2015

When Eggsy was a toddler, his father was killed in the line of work. He was given a special medal by a well-dressed gentleman, telling him that he can call when he is in trouble. Seventeen years later, growing up in a rough London suburb, Eggsy got himself thrown in jail after engaging police in a backwards car chase. He calls the number behind the medal, and in comes the dapper Harry Hart to the rescue. Knowing Eggsy's wasted talents in gymnastics and academics, Harry brings him to try out for a vacancy in his ultra-secret spy organization, the Kingsmen.

The fun begins with the opening credits, when letters would form out of the rubble that fell from various explosions of an ancient temple, to the tune of Dire Straits' hit "Money for Nothing". You knew by then that you should be ready for something tongue-in-cheek. The beginning sequences do not hide the fact that this would be a graphically violent film. Throughout the film we will be regaled with fights with guns, bombs, and blades, all in extraordinarily spectacular fashion we have never seen before.

Colin Firth, an actor who is practically typecast as the shy guy in romantic comedies, shows a totally screen persona here. As Harry Hart, aka Galahad, he is a swashbuckling super spy like we have never seen him before. Mark Strong makes another memorable screen appearance as Merlin, the Number 2 man among the Kingsmen. The ever reliable Michael Caine plays Arthur, the head Kingsman. He can play this type of role with his eyes closed. 

Samuel L. Jackson is hilarious as the villain Richmond Valentine, an insane megalomaniac telecom tycoon with a lisp planning to have mankind kill each other. Exotic beauty Sofia Boutella is Valentine's vicious henchman Gazelle, a graceful killer with her deadly sharp prosthetic legs. Mark Hamill was unrecognizable as the elderly environmentalist Professor Arnold, whose abduction starts the action.

The biggest surprise is the breakthrough star-making performance of Taron Egerton as Eggsy. In the beginning it took some time getting used to the new face. But as the film went on, Egerton will possess the screen with his action skills and suave charm. He stood his ground, even in the strong presence of his esteemed co-stars. By the time the film ends, you could not wait to see more of this young man in future films. 

Overall, this is a very entertaining, visually stimulating film. The production design, with all those gadgetry and weaponry, is very inventive and eye-catching. The musical score is pulsating and exciting. The action sequences were really relentlessly bloody, with various body parts getting impaled, sliced off or blowing up. Yet, this was all done with typically British wry humor and aristocratic class. 

Director Matthew Vaughn takes the James Bond genre, and mixes in the superhero and hi-tech elements of two excellent films he directed before ("Kick-Ass" and "X-Men: First Class"), as well as some Cockney elements from his earlier productions like "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels". With "Kingsman", Vaughn has actually managed to create something even more fantastic. This is the best 2015 release so far. 9/10.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Review of UNBROKEN: Incomplete Inspiration

February 19, 2015

"Unbroken" tells the life story of Louis Zamperini, based on the 2010 non-fiction book written by Laura Hillenbrand entitled "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption." After touching a bit about Zamperini's childhood and his Olympic career as a runner, the rest of the film would only focus on two of his life's most harrowing experiences.  

Zamperini survived 47 days in a liferaft with two fellow crewmen when their bomber plane was damaged in midair and crashed in the ocean. However, Day 47 at sea was also the day they were picked up and made prisoners by the Japanese Navy and sent to a P.O.W. camp. Zamperini faced the relentless sadism of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, code-named "Bird," the Japanese officer in charge who subjected him to cruel torture.

From the title of the book it was based on, this film was supposed to have shown Zamperini's survival, resilience and redemption. However, as told by director Angelina Jolie from the script written by Ethan and Joel Coen, all this film showed was the part about survival. Indeed, the survival spirit of Zamperini was very impressive, but the storytelling tended to be heavy-handed and tedious.

Furthermore, we were also waiting for the film to show us his resilience and redemption after his ordeals during the war. Unfortunately, these events were merely summarized in a few slides shown at the end of the film. Zamperini's religious renewal later in life was totally not mentioned. For a film that was two and half hours long, you would have hoped there would be scenes to show at least some of these post-war events which show the process of his post-traumatic resilience and ultimate recovery.

Nailing the difficult role of Zamperini, young actor Jack O'Donnell breaks through into the big leagues. We see him undergo an incredibly scary physical transformation from buff Olympic athlete to emaciated prisoner of war. Aside from that, he portrays the unimaginable suffering endured by this man with depth and sensitivity. The climactic scene shown on the poster where Zamperini is seen carrying a heavy wooden plank could have been executed better by Jolie, but O'Donnell's intense performance saved it and gave it much pathos and power.

This film suffers from turgid storytelling. The lifeboat scenes went on too long, complete with unbelievable things like the soldiers capturing and eating a shark with the limited supplies they had. The prisoner camp scenes also went on too long, with the unconvincing portrayal of The Bird by Japanese pop star Miyavi (Takamasa Ishihara) not helping. The technical aspects though like cinematography, production design and sound are topnotch in quality.

If the main point of this film is forgiveness and redemption, director Angelina Jolie seemed to have forgotten about these. For me, her sophomore venture in directing succeeded only to depress, but failed to inspire. 6/10.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY: Dubious Dominant

February 18, 2015

"Fifty Shades of Grey" is a very (un)popular 2011 erotic novel that dealt with a sexual relationship marked by domination and submission. It started as "Twilight" fanfiction written by British author E.L. James on her website. It later gained viral status as an e-book, leading to a best-selling print publication and worldwide notoriety as "mommy porn." 

Now, it had gone one step further and has been brought to life on the silver screen. Of course, controversy continued to hound this film production, starting from the casting choices for the lead roles, which were never popular with the fans. Locally there was a lot of talk about censorship with "blurs and blocks", despite the fact that it had already been rated R-18. (While in France, I saw that this film had been incredibly rated as R-12.) 

Of course, all this media hullabaloo resulted in more audience curiosity. Despite scathingly bad reviews when it opened on Valentine's Day, this film pulled in a startling box-office haul of $95M in its first weekend alone. Against my better judgement, I simply had to see what the fuss was all about.

Anastasia Steele is a college student majoring in English Literature. When she met young business tycoon Christian Grey, she was attracted to his strength of character and the mystery of his person. Mr. Grey, likewise taken by Ana's charm and innocence, pursued her with gifts, from first editions of Thomas Hardy novels to rides on the company helicopter. 

However, when the virginal Ana was falling in love with Grey, she would discover that he was not into the traditional romantic affair she was expecting. His "thing" was sexual domination and submission, as proven by the array of whips, chains and cuffs he had in his "playroom." Will Ana willingly submit to this man's perverse idea of a relationship?

The topic of sexual domination and submission in itself is not palatable to most tastes, including mine. To be fair, the film had been careful in showing that there was consent as far as Ana's concerned when it came to sexual activities. The screenplay is based on the book, so the shortcomings of the book are the same shortcomings of the film, when it comes to cheesy situations and lines. Even if audiences knew what the film was going to be about when they go in to watch this, many will still be repelled or disgusted by the aberrant and abusive sexual behavior they see on screen.

As far the sex scenes were concerned, this film paled in comparison with "Basic Instinct" or "9 1/2 Weeks" when it comes to erotic danger and urgency. To add further damper, the "blocks" the local distributors employed to protect the eyes Filipino audience from prurience were so ugly. Sometimes these black blocks would occupy an entire half of the wide screen! Anyway, these unsightly "blocks" aside, I think the boring depiction of sex in this film was because the actors playing Ana and Christian did not have any chemistry between them. 

I thought Jamie Dornan was woefully miscast as Christian Grey. Physically, he was not tall and imposing enough. Attitudinally, he did not look dominant or confident enough. In fact, he looked awkward in a lot of scenes. He did not look like he was having any pleasure at all with what he was doing. Stripped down to basics, this main conflict of this film was Christian fighting the romantic love he was feeling for Ana in order to fulfill his domination fetish. Dornan could not effectively get this across. His wooden acting made the whole film fail to fly. With all the staring that Grey had to do, I also get distracted with Dornan's right eye, which bulged bigger than the left.

In contrast, Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) was able to convey the conflicts in her character quite well, I thought. She was in love and at the same time intimidated by Grey. She had more nude scenes than Dornan, which was ironic for a film targeted for a female audience. I guess this was done for the benefit of the husbands and boyfriends who will be "forced" by their wives and girlfriends to watch this with them. She did show acting talent here, so I hope doing this film will not stagnate her career.

With its slick-looking production design and a killer pop soundtrack, this film is not the total bore it was made out to be. Ironically for a major Valentine release however, the relationship we see in this film is romance-less, thrill-less and loveless, only deeply disturbing. 4/10.

Review of THE WEDDING RINGER: Groom Glitches

February 17, 2015

Doug is a nerdy introvert who is about to get married to a beautiful girl Gretchen. However, with two weeks to go before their grand wedding, Doug still could not come up with a Best Men and six groomsmen. Enter the smooth-talking hustler Jimmy who runs a Best Man for rent business to provide what Doug so desperately needed: a best friend. The spoofy title comes from the traditional Best Man duty of bringing the wedding rings during the ceremony.

Many wedding comedies would be about the bride, like "My Best Friend's Wedding" or "Bride Wars." There have been movies about the parents, like "Father of the Bride" or "Mother of the Bride". There have been been movies about the "The Wedding Planner" or "The Wedding Singer' or even "Wedding Crashers.' More recently, there had films about members of the entourage of either gender, "The Hangover" and "Bridesmaids." As a point of distinction, "The Wedding Ringer" is an uncommon wedding comedy made from the point of view of the groom. 

Josh Gad is well-cast as the shy and socially-inept groom-to-be Doug. With his chubby frame, smiling face and polite demeanor, it is not hard to rally behind him and root him on. It is not really hard to conceive how a significant number of men could face the problems as Doug, not having male friends close enough to call a best man or groomsmen. He is easy for the audience to identify with.

Kevin Hart is a natural to play the boisterous and gregarious Jimmy, who had to assume all the traits and fit in all the tall tales that Doug told Gretchen about his imaginary "best friend" dubiously named Bic Mitchum (from various items he saw in the medicine cabinet). Despite his character's filthy mouth prone to profanity, Hart, in his interactions with Gad, still manages to be funny and engaging in a potentially annoying role. 

The other actors portraying the "groomsmen" were a rowdy random bunch of the strangest types of men. They were hit and miss in their jokes, many times coming off as too cringe-worthy. Easily recognizable among them is hefty, long-haired Jorge Garcia. The very final scene is even a well-placed reference to Garcia's most famous role on the hit TV thriller series "Lost."

As the bride Gretchen, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting basically reprises her breakthrough role as a sexy but flaky girl in an unlikely relationship with a nerd on hit TV comedy series "Big Bang Theory". More positively impressive is Olivia Thirlby as Gretchen's younger sister Alison. Ms. Thirlby is very pretty and smart, making a mark despite her limited screentime.

Yes, "The Wedding Ringer" had derivative, shallow and raunchy humor, but it still came across with some insightful ideas about male friendships and its intricacies. This film is the feature debut of Jeremy Garelick, who also co-wrote the script. The lead pair of Josh Gad and Kevin Hart share a vibrant comic chemistry together that is a lot of fun to watch. Looking forward to watching more film projects starring these two upcoming comedians. 5/10.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Review of PADDINGTON: Ursine Whimsy

February 15, 2015

From the jungles of deepest darkest Peru, British explorer Montgomery Clark discovers a family of special bears who can speak English and loved orange marmalade. He tells the bears that if ever they get to London, he will be more than happy to take them in. One day, after a strong earthquake causes the death of his beloved Uncle, a young bear decides to stowaway on a ship to go to London to find a better life for himself.

In London, a friendly family, the Browns, decide to take him in. They named the bear after the train station they found him in, Paddington. The father Henry is always wary of his family's safety, while the mother Mary is more welcoming and warm. The daughter Judy is a whiz with languages, while the son Jonathan is a genius with mechanical matters. While searching for the elusive Mr. Clark, Paddington crosses paths with Millicent, a sadistic taxidermist who wants to make him a stuffed bear, for more reasons than it would seem.

I only knew Paddington Bear as a piece of childhood trivia. I never really knew him, other than the fact that he was a cute little British teddy bear with a hat and overcoat. I have not read any of the books by Michael Bond and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum, which was first published back in 1958. 

This film was my first formal introduction to this beloved character and I clearly can see why he has endured through the years. He is truly adorable! His childlike innocence is heartwarming and delightful. It is to the credit of Xian Lim, who voiced Paddington in the local release. Lim does not really have a truly distinctive recognizable voice. However, more importantly, he was able to convey the most essential heart and spirit of Paddington. In the original British version, Paddington was voiced by Ben Whishaw. It appears they have a different voice actor per country of release, an interesting publicity gimmick.

Like "Roger Rabbit", "Space Jam" and "Garfield" before it, the animated Paddington here flawlessly interacts with live human actors. "Downton Abbey" actor Hugh Bonneville plays a stern but kind Henry Brown. "Happy Go Lucky" actress Sally Hawkins plays the quirky and happy Mary Brown, she who always wore red. Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin play the two Brown children. Two-time Oscar-nominated actress Julie Walters as plays Mrs. Bird, the loyal housekeeper of the Browns. 

Nicole Kidman plays the cruel Millicent with so much evil relish, it is fun to watch her. Her final scene is hilarious! Other esteemed British actors fill out the other character roles. Jim Broadbent plays Samuel Gruber, friendly antique shop owner. Peter Capaldi plays the Brown's annoying neighbor, Mr. Curry. Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon provide the voices of Paddington's Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo back in Peru.

Be you a long-time fan or first time viewer, this "Paddington" will endear himself to you. His antics, mishaps and misadventures were so well-executed by director Paul King, who also wrote the script together with Hamish McColl. The timelessness of the story and characters is also reflected in the wonderful production design which incorporated elements from various decades seamlessly. Some moments as the story turns dark can be scary for very young kids so parental guidance is recommended. 

Overall though, be prepared to enjoy and be enthralled this very charming piece of British comedy. You will leave the theater with a smile on your face. You will also want to whip up your own orange marmalade sandwich right away. 9/10.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Review of RECLAIM: Scam Scenario

February 5, 2015

Steven and Shannon are a young childless American couple who had adopted a little Haitian girl over the Internet. When they go there to pick her up, cute little Nina was their dream come true. Two days later, their dream turns into a nightmare when Nina suddenly disappears from their room. The police suspect that they had been victimized by a gang of international extortionists who run a fake adoption scam.

Ryan Phillippe and Rachelle Lefevre play the unsuspecting Steven and Shannon very well. They were convincing in their altruism for adopting an orphaned girl from a third world country which just had a major earthquake disaster. They were also convincing in their stupidity for all the crazy decisions that this couple made in the film.

The bad guys were so apparent from the get-go. John Cusack played Benjamin, an intrusive American fellow whom Steven and Shannon met at their resort. There was no doubt from their first encounter that this Benjamin and his cohorts Paola (Veronica Faye Foo) and Salo (Jandres Burgos) would turn from being simply annoying neighbors at the beginning into real ruthless dangerous criminals.

Two character actors with uniquely distinct facial features will play tricks on you on the nature of their characters. Jacki Weaver plays Ms. Reigert, the refined owner of the adoption agency Steven dealt with. Luis Guzman plays yet another Latino policeman here, like he has done in many films we have seen him in. Are they also in on the take?

The topic of the film about fake adoption scams and children on the black market was actually very promising. The beginning of the film was very good, setting up the interesting scenario. However, the moment John Cusack and company entered the scene with their one-dimensional bad boy swagger, you just knew this was going to degenerate into another one of those generic shoot-em-up B-action films. And it really did. 3/10.

Review of JUPITER ASCENDING: Intergalactic Intrigues

February 6, 2015

"Jupiter Ascending" is the latest attempt by the Wachowski siblings Andy and Larry (now Lana), to recover their lost glory after The Matrix phenomenon eventually fizzled out after unsuccessful sequels to the groundbreaking 1999 original. 

Despite her stellar first name, Jupiter Jones is an ordinary girl. She and her Russian immigrant mother worked as house cleaners for the rich and famous in Chicago. When alien beings try to abduct her, she was rescued by a valiant warrior with flying boots named Cain Wise. Never in her wildest dreams did she expect that she would be involved in an cosmic power struggle for control of Earth itself.

Meanwhile, millions of light years away, the three Abrasax siblings -- the power-hungry Balem, the vain Kalique and the hedonistic Titus -- indulge in their power play for control of their own sectors of the universe. For these members of the intergalactic ruling class, planet Earth is a valuable farm of life essences just waiting to be harvested. Only Jupiter, being the genetic reincarnation of their mother, stands in their way now, or the Earth is doomed for destruction.

This film has a 127 minute running time during which it tries to ambitiously build a complex new mythology of a trans-universal order. I am assuming this would be the first episode of a planned franchise, and so its creators really took their time to define its rules and parameters. The worlds they built were fantastic and imaginative, wonders of computer-generated imagery. The elaborate costumes and out-of-the-box production designs are the best features of this film. The swelling musical score also heightens the grandeur of the scenes presented on screen.

The action sequences were very well-choreographed and executed. The multitude of characters can get confusing at first, but they had me fascinated, maybe except for the extended family of Jupiter (mostly there for comic relief). I liked that segment where Jupiter was going through red tape at a topsy-turvy government facility, encountering lazy bureaucrats at each step. There should have been more of such sociological commentary of these new worlds, rather than all political and personal aspects.

The central character of Jupiter Jones, as charmingly played by the lovely Mila Kunis, was engagingly likable. I like the way she delivers her lines, especially the funny, sassy ones. She makes me smile. Her rescuer Caine Wise, as played by the athletic Channing Tatum, was gracefully heroic. It came to a point though that the action already felt a tad repetitive with Cain rescuing Jupiter over and over and over, you knew she was never really in any danger at all. The love angle between the two took a lot of screen time, and they had excellent chemistry together.

Sean Bean (best known as Ned Stark in "The Game of Thrones") was impressive as the usually reliable Stinger, a good friend and former comrade-at-arms of Cain. Eddie Redmayne (current Oscar nominee for "The Theory of Everything") gives a totally over-the-top, breathy-voiced rendition of the main antagonist Balem. Redmayne's performance is one of the more polarizing aspects of this film, as some viewers can totally hate it. The handsome Douglas Booth (recently seen as Romeo in the 2013 film version of the Shakespeare classic) played the shrewd Titus with relish. Tuppence Middleton (who was also in "The Imitation Game") was ravishing in her portrayal of ever-youthful Kalique. 

Overall, I thought the film was generally entertaining, anchored on the characters of Jupiter and Cain, as played by the charismatic pair of Kunis and Tatum. The Wachowskis have created a whole new universe which could be the playground for their imaginations for better adventure stories in the future. Being a sci-fi fantasy, the possibilities are limitless. I thought Jupiter and Cain look great together, and I would not mind seeing this pair again in a sequel. 7/10.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Review of WILD: Questionable Quest

February 5, 2015

Depressed after a family tragedy involving her mother, Cheryl Strayed decided to embark on a long hard hike along the punishing Pacific Crest Trail to recover her bearings and to heal herself. "Wild" follows Cheryl on her harrowing 1,100 mile solo hike, as she faced potential and real dangers from mother nature and from fellow humans along the way.

Reese Witherspoon is getting award nominations for playing Cheryl. However, I am not engaged by her performance. Her enormous backpack looks really heavy, but it seemed like the difficulty stopped there. The rest of the time, her hardships of the hike were obviously just acting, never felt real to me. It does not also help that the character she is portraying does not inspire my sympathy as she was written. The way this film portrayed Cheryl, she had unrealistically over-the-top responses to regular challenges we all face as human beings. Her losses were not particularly extraordinary to push her to such unreasonable extremes of negative behavior.

Laura Dern scored a surprise Oscar nomination for her very fleeting appearance here as Cheryl's mother Bobbi. In those few minutes onscreen, I can already see why Cheryl was devastated by what happened to her mother. The portrayal of Ms. Dern is very effective and memorable despite its brevity. Laura Dern made more of an impact on me in those few minutes, than Witherspoon in the whole film. Dern's affecting performance was the saving grace of this film for me.

The beautifully photographed desert and snow vistas aside, I did not like the way director Jean-Marc Vallee told Cheryl's story, unlike the way he handled "Dallas Buyers Club" last year. In that film, Matthew McConaughey's character was a homophobic sex addict, not exactly hero material. Yet the way his story was told by Vallee, we still rooted for him to get through his ordeal with AIDS. This did not happen for me in this film in Cheryl's case. I see her physical journey and her emotional journey. But the spiritual journey, which was supposed to uplift and inspire me, I did not see.

Among the Oscar-nominated films this year, this is the film that I do not get what the awards buzz was about. This film is based on Strayed's memoirs entitled ""Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail". I get the "Lost" part. But the film never gave me the "Found" part. 5/10.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Review of THE IMITATION GAME: Engaging Enigma

February 4, 2015

A prodigious academic mathematician from Cambridge, Alan Turing led a team of code-breakers at Britain's top-secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, during World War II. Their mission was to break the code used by the German army to communicate their plans -- Enigma -- deemed unbreakable by all the Allies. 

Unlike his other co-workers, Turing was not satisfied in solving one coded message at a time. He wanted to build a machine which could solve everything at one go. This expensive and seemingly futile efforts made him a lot of enemies determined to bring him down, even if it meant attacking his private life.

The film also touches on young Turing's lonely life in boarding school, as well as his life of personal persecution after the war.

Benedict Cumberbatch has a very distinct-looking face. However, in some magical way, he manages to still be an effective chameleon when he acts.  If he were a lesser actor, the character of Alan Turing could be dangerously close to becoming a clone of another of his famous roles Sherlock Holmes. However, Cumberbatch does not only etch out a distinct character. His Alan Turing is a memorable achievement in acting. When I was watching this film, I was in awe on how he portrayed this anti-social introverted genius with his fair share of public conflicts and inner turmoil.

Keira Knightley played fellow mathematical genius and Cambridge graduate student Joan Clarke, who became Turing's colleague, close friend and fiancee. Knightley's performance as the staunchly loyal Clarke is sincere and understated. Her Oscar nomination is reward enough for her good work here.

There is also strong support from character actor Charles Dance, as Cmdr. Alastair Denniston, Turing's nemesis during his days at Bletchley Park. Mark Strong plays Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies of the mysterious ultra-secret MI-6. Matthew Goode (as charismatic chess champion Hugh Alexander) and Allen Leech (as sly double agent John Cairncross) standout among the cryptanalyst crew.

It is a testament to the directing and storytelling skills of director Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian director I have not heard from before. He was able to take a turgid story about people trying to break enemy codes during the war, not really a visually cinematic topic to begin with, and turn it into an exciting and suspenseful thriller. He was able to unearth and draw out the dramatic potentials in the life of Alan Turing and make us all care about this person, whom we may not easily relate to in real life. 

"The Imitation Game" is a must-see film. It is one of the most cited films in this year's Oscar race, nominated for 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Film Editing, Production Design, Music Score and Adapted Screenplay. 9/10.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review of AUTOMATA: Rational Robotics


This is a film I had never heard of when it was quietly released in local cinemas this week together with big films like "Birdman" and "Into the Woods." The unique title caught my attention, and despite knowing absolutely nothing about it, I went and watched it. I am actually glad I did.

The story is set in 2044, a dystopian future when solar storms have rendered the earth practically unlivable. A robotics company called ROC produce Automata Pilgrim robots, designed to build the walls protecting the last remaining cities on earth containing the remaining 1% of the human population. Man still controls these robots via two strict protocols. The first protocol prevents robots from harming living organisms. The second protocol prevents robots from altering themselves or other robots.

Jacq Vaucan is a jaded insurance agent of ROC robotics corporation who wants to move to a new city after his wife gives birth. However, he was assigned to investigate cases of robots reported to be violating the safety protocols. In his mission, he encounters a remarkable female robot named Cleo, and later, an even more remarkable male robot, named Blue. They seem to have circumvented the second protocol somehow, and were capable of improving themselves. Will the human race remain safe in the presence of such powerful robots?

Antonio Banderas was able to embody the insouciance and jadedness of this world-weary man Jacq Vaucan very well. This is not to say he was able to avoid performing with his usual acting tics. While these may be a bit distracting, his exaggerated gestures and accented voice made his character more interesting to watch during the long philosophical discourses that marked the film's second half. 

It was good to see Banderas interact on the screen with his real-life spouse Melanie Griffith, whom I have not seen on the big screen for a very long time already.  Griffith plays Dr. Dupre, a "clock-maker", someone who can repair and reprogram robots. Her distinct voice is still squeaky and her acting style still cutesy, it was nostalgic. Too bad her character did not play a longer role in the story. I would have liked to see how someone with Dupre's engineering skills would interact with the self-aware robots in the end.

Dylan McDermott plays Sean Wallace, a hot-headed man quick with his gun. He represented that segment of humanity paranoid about the robots and was not averse to using violence against them. McDermott's character was harsh and vicious. The atmosphere of a scene instantly changes to a charged negative vibe when he is on - scary. 

Writer-Director Gabe Ibanez was able to create a sensitive and contemplative piece about the relationship of man and artificial intelligence. The cinematography is clean with a pale color palette. The script is insightful and thought-provoking. Despite being short on action (this is a European production, not Hollywood), this film can really engage you and draw you into the complex discussions about the essence of humanity and the survival of a race. Check this quiet yet gritty little film out if you are in a thinking mood, it will be time well-spent. 7/10.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Review of VICE: Stale SciFi

February 1, 2015

VICE is a resort where members can indulge freely in any psychologically or sociologically sick fantasy of their choice. Owned and designed by Julian Michaels. Vice boasts of having "artificials", humanoid staff who act, think and feel like real humans. Clients can do anything he wants with these artificials, going to the extremes of sex and violence that are unacceptable in real life.

One day, a pretty resident artificial named Kelly suffers a glitch in her programming and was becoming aware of past acts of violence done on her. Confused, she wants to escape her predestined fate. She encounters A.I. genetic designer Evan Lund and a crusading policeman Detective Roy Tedeschi on her flight out of Vice. Can they beat the powerful Mr. Michaels at his own game?

Bruce Willis headlines this film as the debonair Julian Michaels. However, despite the prominent billing, he is not the main character here. Willis only brings his cool presence and name into the project, and nothing else. His performance is quite bland. To begin with, there is nothing much that his character had to do, so he probably just spent only a day shooting all his parts.

Most of the story revolved around lesser-known actors in the cast. Thomas Jane is over-the-top as the loud, unkempt, tough cop Roy, who was against the "untouchable" operations of Vice. Bryan Greenberg brings in the sensitive dramatic aspects of the film in his role as Evan, who designed Kelly out of his recently-departed wife Michelle. 

The central character in all this is Kelly, brought to life by Ambyr Childers. Childers had this blond bimbo make-up which made her look like a young and generic-looking Denise Richards or Heather Graham. She just had that blank stare look on her face which does not show much emotion. Despite being in the lead role, I don't think Ms. Childers would get much positive career mileage from her performance here.

The basic sci-fi concepts behind this film's story was actually very good and interesting. On paper, the integration of real human DNA into androids had the potential for a sophisticated film which could match "Blade Runner." Unfortunately, in the hands of writers Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore and director Brian A Miller, "Vice" ended up an ordinary forgettable B-rate action flick. The first scenes alone screamed B-movie. 

The ending even seemed to promise a sequel. Unless they can come up with a much better way to showcase their slick sci-fi ideas, no thanks. 2/10.