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12 Strong (2018)
That Final Charge on Horseback Saved It All
About a month after the NYC attacks of 9/11/2001, a 12-member US Army Green Berets code-named Operational Detachment Alpha 595 (ODA 595) were chosen to be sent on a covert mission to Afghanistan. As part of Task Force Dagger, they joined forces with General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) of the Northern Alliance to reclaim key Taliban-held cities there.
The members of ODA 595 all had to ride horses because of the inhospitable terrain and distance they needed to cover. This was no problem for their charismatic leader Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), who grew up on a ranch, but this was his first time in actual combat. The other members, like Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Sam Diller (Michael Pena), Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes), Vern Michaels (Thad Luckinbill), etc, had to master their horse-riding skills overnight on top of their combat skills in order to keep up with their dangerously harrowing mission.
When they get to Afghanistan, it took some time for the war action to get going, as our heroes still needed to acquaint themselves with their unfamiliar allies. While the intense battle scenes took us in the middle of the gunfire and explosions, there was point when the action actually became repetitive as we would see the same strategy of attack (get coordinates of the camp, launch airstrike to decimate the enemy, engage the remained on the ground) for all the Taliban encampments, with just a little dramatic variation here and there for the sake of distinction.
The centerpiece battle scene however was only upon us by the final thirty minutes or so of the film. This was the grand charge of Nelson's ragtag troop ON HORSEBACK to attack the superior numbers and firepower of the Taliban troops. That was an elaborate but very well-executed battle sequence for which this film would be remembered for. It was certainly unique, exciting and exhilarating to watch, worth the whole price of admission in itself.
This was a good war film even if the 12 Americans all seemed to lead charmed lives despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them. On the other hand, the Taliban were all portrayed as cruel religious fanatics, as there were scenes commenting on their inhumane beliefs and practices particular about women. A strong all-American patriotic sentiment swelled at the end, fully expected in a true to life story of modern heroism as this. 6/10.
The Commuter (2018)
Another Frenetic Neeson Flick
Michael McCauley is a 60-year old insurance salesman who was just laid off from his job. On his way home on the train (the same train he had been taking everyday going to work for the past ten years), a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) offered him $100,000 if he could use his skills as an ex-NYPD cop to seek out a specific passenger with a bag and put a GPS device on him before gets off at the Cold Spring station. If McCauley failed at this task, his family will be killed.
With a synopsis like that, you can already imagine how tense and claustrophobic this action-thriller was going to be. The travel time from Grand Central Station in the heart of NYC to the Cold Spring station (a distance of 85 km) on the Metro North Railroad via the Hudson line is about an hour and 20 minutes only in real life.
I liked the opening montage showing the day-to-day domestic life of Michael McCauley, his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) and son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his daily train ride into the city. I thought this sequence so eloquently conveyed their routine with the passage of time and seasons. I liked that Michael read the classic books Danny needed to read for school -- something I also do with my kids. Oftentimes, we pay no mind to the scenes with the opening credits, but this one certainly grabbed my attention from the start.
Despite the sheer impossibility of what was being asked of him, you know that Liam Neeson will do whatever it takes to save his family. Of course, his trademark invincibility and other super-human abilities will come in pretty handy, like they conveniently did in his previous action flicks. Honestly, he had to look for a needle in a veritable haystack in this one. No one can do that crazy task given the nebulous clues, extreme time limits and the hundreds of people on that train. But hey, he's Liam Neeson.
We suspend our disbelief as we go with the quick pacing of the action. No matter how contrived the situations may be, we are sucked into the flow of the story all the way to its slam-bang super-explosive climax. Tightly shot, bone-crunching fight scenes between McCauley and various suspects escalate the excitement along the way. Astute viewers may be able to guess how things are going to wind up at the end, but director Jaume Collet-Serra (who had directed Neeson twice before) knew exactly how to keep us hooked. 7/10.
Fun Obnoxious Partners
There had been a lot of buddy cop movies involving one serious level-headed cop forced to work with a crazy wild cannon partner. In the 80s, they had a balance of drama and comedy like 48 Hrs. (1984), "Lethal Weapon" (1987) and "Tango and Cash" (1989). Later on, the comedy dominated, as with "Rush Hour" (1998), "The Other Guys" (2010), and "The Heat" (2013). This new one "CHIPS" now joins that long list.
"CHiPs" was a hit TV series which ran for 6 seasons in the late 70s to the early 80s. This was a generally very wholesome, light comedy- drama series that made stars out of Larry Wilcox (as Officer Jon Baker) and specially Eric Estrada (as Officer Frank Poncherello). As with other buddy cop TV series that became films like "Starsky and Hutch" (2004), and "21 Jump Street" (2012), this new film incarnation of "CHIPS" is considerably edgier and raunchier than its venerable, vanilla- flavored predecessor.
Jon Baker is an injury-laden ex-motorcycle riding champ who wants to save his sinking marriage by becoming a policeman, barely making it under probation as the oldest rookie on the force. His partner goes by the name of Frank Poncherello, an undercover agent sent to investigate a violent big-time heist suspected to have been perpetrated by a gang of policemen. Both of them have their own hangups and eccentricities which put them at odds with each other at first. Later though, they end up saving each other's lives and eventually forge an strong yet unconventional partnership between them.
The action in this film is violent and graphic (decapitation alert!). The adrenaline mainly comes from all the breathtaking motorcycle riding stunts weaving in and out of traffic, which I hope will not encourage the already unruly motorcycle riders on the streets now. Those custom Ducati bikes they rode looked very fine and powerful. There are also car stunts, gunfights and big fiery explosions galore to keep the energy on the constant up.
Another aspect that keeps the energy up is the very raunchy comedy as written by the same guy who directed and acted as its lead character Jon Baker, Dax Shepard. This comedian is mainly known for his work on TV series like "Punk'd" and "Parenthood". "CHIPS" is his biggest film to date. The comedy style is very shallow and juvenile, with a lot of sexual references, with a lot of naughty closeups to further amp up the raunch factor visually. Shepard's brand of comedy is very physical and over-the-top, not always funny.
Michael Pena is usually seen in serious good-guy roles, like "Crash," "World Trade Center" and "Collateral Beauty". I have never seen him in such a vulgar role like this one before. He looked mighty awkward doing this role, and maybe come across as miscast. However, because of this discomfort, I felt he actually funny in the role of a guy that had a lusty deviant sex drive lay beneath a calm and professional surface.
Their chemistry together was really iffy, but actually gels better towards the end. If you have been reading my previous reviews on films like "Hangover" (MY REVIEW) or "Sausage Party" (MY REVIEW), raunchy comedies are not really my cup of tea. But this one had its few laugh out loud moments, mainly due to the naughty guy banter of the two lead actors. The obnoxious factor can go overboard though. As an extra bonus, a paunchy Erik Estrada had a cameo before the movie ended, not too flattering, but it was good to see him again. 4/10.
More Than Just a Zombie Film
This new Korean film "Train to Busan" is certainly earning a lot of positive word of mouth and box office success since its debut in the Midnight Screenings section of this year's Cannes Film Festival.
The central character is Seok-woo, a man stressed out with problems about his investments business and his divorce. His 9-year old daughter Su-an, feeling neglected, requests her father to bring her to Busan the next day to see her estranged mother. Seok-woo could not say no.
On the same train to Busan as Seok-woo and Su-an, a lady passenger with a bite wound on her legs, collapses and turns into a zombie. As she bites another person, that next person would also turn into a zombie and so on. Panic ensues on the train, and as everyone eventually discover along the way that the same zombie frenzy was true for the rest of the country. The fight to survive is now on.
This film was one exhilarating roller-coaster ride from beginning to end. The zombies and their attack scenes were very well-executed with a combination of practical and computer-generated effects. These monsters were very fast-moving and relentless in their quest for human flesh. We hear people around us gasp and shriek with shock as we see these zombies pile up in droves and hordes, crash out of windows and barrel through doors. We breathlessly hang on to the edge of our seats the whole ride.
Of course, what Korean film does not have a good dose of melodrama? The father-daughter dynamic between Seok-woo and Su-an is front and center. But aside from them, we also meet a cast of supporting characters on the train whose fates we will be following for the rest of the film. These include a burly man with his pregnant wife, a teenager with his girlfriend and his baseball team, a haughty businessman, two elderly sisters and a homeless man, among others. We get just enough introduction about who they are for us to care about what happens to them.
Gong Woo played the flawed lead character Seok-woo very well. He was able to convincingly portray the development of this uncaring apathetic guy into a hero we could all root for to get through this crisis alive. He was as good in the weepy dramatic scenes as he was in the swashbuckling action scenes. This actor has come a long way since his breakout role as lead star of the TV romantic comedy series "The Coffee Prince" back in 2007.
Kim Su-an is only 10 years old but she had already been acting in films for five years now. She is the dramatic core of this film as the daughter desperately reaching out to her jaded father. As a child actress, she held her own impressively among this cast of veterans with her heartfelt portrayal. Who would have thought that the sad little song she wanted to sing for her father would resonate so much?
Ma Dong-seok is charismatic as Sang-hwa, a devoted husband and selfless fighter. We see him first as some sort of comic relief only, which made the audience warm up to him. Later, we would discover how much more his character was able to do and give for others, and loved him more. His pregnant wife Seong-kyeong was played by acclaimed Korean indie film actress Jung Yu-mi, conveying strength in her delicate condition.
Another actor of note is Kim Eui-sung, who was totally hateful in his role as the selfish Yong-suk. In total contrast to Sang-hwa, Yong- suk was a man only thought of himself alone, not caring that he actually put a lot of other characters directly into harm's way.
Ahn So-hee (as Jin-hee) and Choi Woo-shik (as Young-guk) were in there to inject some teenage romantic angst into the film. They were relatively lightweight performers who were probably included just because they looked cool. That scene when Young-guk encounters his baseball teammates-turned-zombies was very well-conceived by the writers.
People may dismiss as "just" being a zombie film, but it is the drama of human relationships and interactions that rises above the horrific and thrilling carnage. Director Yeon Sang-ho's first two feature- length films ("The King of Pigs" and "The Fake") were both animated films exploring the bleak side of human nature. With his first live action directorial effort, Yeon has created a complete film masterpiece with "Train to Busan." Highly recommended! 10/10.
Secrets, Survival, Sharks
Set in mid-1945 during World War II, the USS Indianapolis, led by Captain Charles McVay (Nicolas Cage), was secretly tasked to deliver parts of an atomic bomb (which would later be dropped on Hiroshima) unescorted to a naval base in the Pacific. Back in open sea after successfully delivering their cargo, the ship was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine in the Philippine Sea. The sailors spent five gruelling days with minimal supplies floating on life rafts in shark-infested waters. Only 317 of the original 1,196 crew members survive the ordeal.
The first hour of the film was quite brisk and eventful. The main storyline was laid out within the first scene. The backstory about some of the young sailors were introduced, oddly not too much on McVay himself. The USS Indianapolis embarked on its mission, torpedoed and sunk all within that first hour. However, this meant that the entire second hour would only be dealing about the survival ordeal of the sailors among the sharks awaiting rescue. It got maudlin and repetitive after the first few shark attacks. This was definitely not the war action film people were expecting to see.
The actors all seem to have come from the Nicolas Cage school of hammy acting. The major side story was about two friends who were in love with the same girl back home. Another side story was about a couple of sailors, one white, one black, constantly at odds with each other. There was also another side story about an arrogant young officer and his despicable attitude. All these rehashed side stories just served to fill out the rest of the running time before and after the sinking. The best actor for me would have to be Yutaka Takeuchi, the Japanese actor playing court-martial witness Commander Hashimoto, who displayed dignified subtly in his brief role.
For its Philippine release, this film's subtitle "Men of Courage" was replaced with "Disaster at (sic) Philippine Sea." However, for Filipino moviegoers expecting to actually see some part of the Philippines or see Filipinos in action in this film, they will be disappointed. The Philippines was mentioned but was never actually shown except for scene labels to establish the location. There was an extra card interrupting the closing credits stating how the search for the wreck of the Indianapolis was undertaken in 2001 in cooperation with the Philippine government and National Geographic. That was all about the Philippines here, nothing more. 5/10.
Just Watched It and Liked It, Surprised with All the Hate
The first "Ghostbusters" was a classic American comedy film from 1984. Written by actors Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis and directed by Ivan Reitman, it was about three parapsychologists (Venkman, Stantz and Spengler) who ran a ghost hunting outfit in New York City. This year, a reboot of this film with an all-female main cast written and directed by Paul Feig is released.
Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) have been interested in ghostly phenomena since they were in high school. After a period of estrangement brought about by differences in career paths, they are reunited when they were called to investigate a ghostly sighting at a local museum.
Together with nuclear engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann and her prodigious talent for inventing weapons and New York subway employee Patty Tolan, they formally launch a ghost hunting business, later dubbed by media as "Ghostbusters". For their first major case, they track down a mentally-disturbed janitor of a local hotel who had been causing malevolent spirits to appear all over New York City. Never would they have guessed that this case would actually lead to a city-wide ectoplasmic apocalypse.
Melissa McCarthy was not annoying here as Abby, unlike her early films. She continues her winning run following "The Heat" and "Spy" (also by director Feig). Kristen Wiig is so geeky, so self- deprecating, so delightfully funny as Erin. It took time for me to warm up to the unorthodox comedy styles of Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, since this is the first movie I have seen them in a film. They eventually do hit their stride as the quirky badass Holtzmann and the loud excitable Patty. coming up with their own comic highlights.
The scenes with their pretty but dumb receptionist Kevin were so awkward and cringe-worthy. But only because he was played by Chris Hemsworth, the against-type casting actually worked to make this character hilarious. In addition, I found the scenes accompanying first part of the closing credits featuring Hemsworth were so embarrassingly funny. You won't see Thor the same way again. While this Kevin character could also be seen as feministic male-bashing, but I did not take offense because of the good-natured comic treatment.
Being a reboot of a beloved film, comparisons, fair or otherwise, will be inevitable. Most evident would be that the comedy in the original film was more subtle and mature, while the comedy in this reboot can be gross and childish. The disparity of male and female team dynamics and interactions are very clearly noted. There was none of the sexual innuendo and smoking which were prominent in the first film. The ghosts of this reboot had the same colorful and cartoony style as the first film, but the technological advance of 30 years is evident to make them look polished.
There was no mention of ever having a previous Ghostbusters, which may bum out loyal die-hard fans. However, I enjoyed seeing many references to the first film, like the logo, the old firehouse, Dana's apartment building (now a hotel), Ecto-1 (now a hearse), Slimer and the Marshmallow Man. I had fun seeing the original cast members (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Annie Potts, Ernie Hudson and Sigourney Weaver) in cameo appearances, though too bad that they were not as their old characters. The late Harold Ramis was cited in a dedication at the end of the closing credits.
There was also a very short extra scene at the very end of the credits when the song faded out. There was a mention of a name which can be recalled from the first movie. Was this just another nostalgic throwback or was it hinting a possible sequel?
My sons and I had so much fun watching this light-hearted and happy- vibed film. I was actually laughing out loud so much at some pretty side-splitting silly gags. The interaction between the four ladies started off uncomfortable and rough. But as the movie got on, they really hit it off very well, and their individual comic styles gelled very well as a group as they spouted all their pseudo- scientific jargon and wielded their sophisticated proton-pack weaponry. 8/10.
Yeob-gi-jeok-in geu-nyeo 2 (2016)
An Insulting Sequel to the Iconic Original
Gyeon-woo is back, but without the original Girl anymore. This situation opened up the opportunity for him to meet and hook up with another "sassy" (also unnamed) girl. (He is really a masochistic sort, isn't he?) Anyhow, this girl is Chinese this time, knows her marital arts and her cameras, They actually get married here in a charming indigenous ceremony. Conflict arises when Gyeon-woo gets a job at a tech company with an abusive boss. His Wife will not take that abuse sitting down, but will Gyeon-woo appreciate her for it?
Sad to say, watching "The New Sassy Girl" right after watching "My Sassy Girl" just emphasized just how bad this sequel by director Jo Geun-sik is. The comedy was terribly flat all the way, with nothing memorable that sticks at all. Even the romantic conflict is very lame, practically just tacked on without any emotional impact.
The age of Cha Tae-hyun (already 40 years old now) shows, and his attempt to recapture his 2001 charm was largely ineffective. While she is pretty, Victoria Song (as the new Sassy) could not really measure up to the high level set by Jun Ji-hyun in the first film, in both charm and performance. Her role was very poorly developed.
I thought this sequel did not really need to happen. It was but an insult to the former's memory. 2/10.
Enjoyed This Way More Than the First Reboot Film
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began as comic book characters in 1984, later spinning off to have its own cartoon series, toys, video games, and of course, films. There was a cartoonish film trilogy in the 1990s. Recently, Michael Bay produced a franchise-reboot as a live action-computer-generated motion capture film. I did not particularly like this very dark 2014 film, rating it only a 5/10. When trailers came out for this sequel though, I already saw that it looked like it was going to be a way better movie than the first one.
The turtle heroes, along with old pals April O'Neil and Vern Fenwick, and new friend Casey Jones, spring back into action as Shredder was busted from incarceration. The arch-villain had inter- galactically nefarious plans as he conspired with mad scientist Dr. Baxter Stockman to bring into Earth an evil Dimension X being called Krang and his Technodrome in his wild dream of world domination.
The way the turtles looked in this new film was way better executed. In the first one, they all looked too big, ugly and unwieldy. Their appearance now is more accessible, more in tune with their personalities. Even if the storyline will have their team tested, this was a truly excellent ensemble work among the four actors behind them, imbuing each one with individual charm. They are: Pete Ploszek (as conflicted leader Leonardo), Alan Ritchson (as muscle- bound rebel Raphael), Jeremy Howard (as brainy scientist Donatello) and Noel Fisher (as childlike spirit Michelangelo).
Also similarly excellent were the CG artwork, performance and the on screen chemistry between the two comical evil side characters, warthog Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and the rhino Rocksteady (Stephen Farrelly). They definitely stole their scenes from right under the main bad guy Shredder (Brian Tee), who felt rather lackluster among the other colorful characters of the film. The pinkish brain-like maniacal alien super-villain Krang was portrayed with gruesome glee by Brad Garrett.
The unconvincing and hammy acting of Megan Fox (as April) and Will Arnett (as Vern) were fortunately buoyed up the excellence of the CGI and story around them. Tyler Perry was an over-the-top nerd as Dr. Stockman, uncomfortably funny. Veteran acting nominee Laura Linney was uncharacteristically stiff as police chief Rebecca Vincent. The best live performer of the film was TV's "Arrow" Stephen Amell as Casey Jones. His graceful physicality (with a hockey stick and skates) and smart-alecky sense of humor made him stand out.
The look of this new film is so much better than the first one, literally "out of the shadows" where the first one wallowed. There were brighter colors, a lighter mood, a more fun throwback general feel about it. The previous one was too dark and intense, and took itself too seriously, to its own detriment. With this one, we had our beloved Turtles back to the unpretentious way we knew them in our youth. Serious critics may be hard on this one, but I really enjoyed 112 minutes with it, right up to the classic TV cartoon theme song over the closing credits.
Angry Birds (2016)
Angry Birds is a video game franchise created by Finnish company Rovio Entertainment, It was first released in December 2009. By July 2015, the series' various games in all its different formats have been downloaded over three billion times the world over. It was not a big wonder that a film would eventually be made from the characters of this game.
Practically everyone has seen at least the original game with the five birds: main bird Red, yellow bird Chuck, black bird Bomb, white bird Matilda, and triple Blues. Many should be familiar with the maddening physics-laced puzzle game play of launching these angry birds to hit the green pigs hiding under various structures. Not too good with analyzing projectile motion, I admit I was not so patient with this game.
The film's storyline tells of Red as a miserable hotheaded outcast with poor people skills. A violent altercation with another bird caused him to be sentenced to attend Anger Management classes under Matilda. There, he met Chuck and Bomb, as well as quiet giant maroon bird named Terence. One day, a ship of green pigs landed on the birds' island. While the other birds welcomed their unusual guests, Red remained suspicious that the Pigs were up to no good. Unfortunately, Red's worst fears were soon confirmed, and birds have to go beyond themselves to get their precious treasures back.
The film as a whole was better than what the trailer showed. For the most part, the storytelling was very entertaining. The best part of the film was the climactic battle where we saw the birds in action with the giant slingshot, but it was too short, I felt. It was too bad we only saw the green boomerang toucan bird Hal, the tiny orange bird Bubbles and the cute pink bird Stella all too briefly. On the other hand, an inordinately long, occasionally awkward, time was spent with the iconic Mighty Eagle.
The voices come from some of the most popular comedians working in Hollywood today. Jason Sudeikis was Red. Danny McBride was Bomb. Maya Rudolph was Matilda. Bill Hader was Leonard. Josh Gad, whom we last heard as Olaf in "Frozen," was Chuck, a hyperactive voice performance I really enjoyed. Peter Dinklage did so well in his ironic casting the Mighty Eagle. It is very surprising that the first time I have seen Sean Penn's name in a film again was as Terence. Fans of the Youtube channel Smosh will be delighted that Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla have cameos here as the voices of Bubbles and Hal respectively.
The comedy was rather weird to describe. The jokes can really be juvenile, shallow and silly, but there were also quite a number of adult humor (some even creepy or uncomfortable references). I liked the obvious parody of the "Time in a Bottle" scene from "X-Men Days of Future Past" or that Grady twins reference from "The Shining." I liked the cheery and cheesy retro pop songs in the soundtrack, from "Never Gonna Give You Up" to "I Will Survive", to accompany the most unexpected scenes.
I had fun watching it for sure, but I cannot say I completely liked this film. It was really had to put a finger on what exactly the film lacked, but my kids and I all felt it while watching. Looking back now, I think it may have been this odd sense of humor, which felt forced and flat at times. Anyhow, the small kids in the theater were giggling and laughing so much at the cute green pigs and wide- eyed hatchlings, I enjoyed hearing their delighted reactions. I guess then that the film did hit their target and that is most important. 6/10.
Bastille Day (2016)
Imposing and Exciting Idris Elba
Idris Elba has been in big Marvel films like "Thor" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron", but I don't really know how he looked like without the Heimdall costume. He had a performance last year in the film "Beasts of No Nation" which triggered controversy when he was not nominated for an Oscar, but this was not shown locally. Just this year, he had been in two films, "Zootopia" and "The Jungle Book." However in both films, we only hear his deep imposing voice. With this film "Bastille Day," we finally see Idris Elba as a modern day action hero, not far from the news that he is being touted to be the next James Bond.
Michael Mason is a skillful American thief in Paris. One day, he steals a bag from a distraught girl on the street named Zoe. After getting her cell phone and seeing nothing else of apparent value in the bag, he throws it into a garbage dump. The unexpected happens, killing four people and triggering mass paranoia and discontent in the city of Lights. CIA operative Sean Briar goes over and beyond his assignment to get to Mason and secure him before the French Police do, uncovering an insidiously complex plot which will come to pass on Bastille Day.
Idris Elba is as imposing and impressive as his voice was. When asked why he ran away, Mason quipped, "Don't you see how you look like?" Elba's Briar was big, macho, tough and scary, anyone would have tried to run if he comes to get him. As an agent, Briar was an independent-minded and reckless rouge to the chagrin of his CIA bosses, but to the delight of the audience. If this was a preview of how he would be as James Bond, it makes us all eager to see how Elba will transform the iconic role as his own.
Richard Madden is more known to many as the ill-fated Robb Stark on HBO's "Game of Thrones". After he bid the TV series goodbye via a bloody Red Wedding, he went on to be Prince Charming in the live action version of "Cinderella." Physically, Madden looked like a scared boy when placed side by side with the intimidating Idris Elba, which made him just right for the role of the unfortunate Mason, a guy who just so happened to steal the wrong bag. I liked the chemistry that was built between the two characters.
I was floored by the action sequences of this film, so raw with bone- crunching realism. I liked that the chase and fight scenes were not too obviously choreographed. That chase scene on the rooftops would have been flawless parkour stunts in another film. But here it was shaky and so uncertain that it created so much tension, so much better. The execution of the many twists and turns of the story was very effectively done, such that we never would have seen the climax miles away. I would not mind a sequel as the ending seemed to suggest. 8/10.
Revolution and Romance
So, another hugely popular young adult series has come to an end. Like the "Harry Potter" and the "Twilight Saga", the "Hunger Games" franchise also chose to divide the final book, "Mockingjay", into two films. When I saw Part 1 of "Mockingjay" last year, I thought it lacked substance to stand alone on its own. However, now that I have seen Part 2, I understand why they could not have just made it as one single big movie.
After the long introduction to the action that is Part 1, Part 2 begins where it left off. Katniss is dead set on killing President Snow. Peeta is slowly recovering from the brainwashing he suffered by the guys in the Capitol. Gale is wasting no time in trying to win Katniss back. The three of them are members of a team sent by President Coin to storm into the Capitol and kill President Snow. However, their mission is beset with dangerous and elaborate booby traps, as only the best Gamemakers of the Capitol can concoct.
Being their fourth film already together, Jennifer Lawrence (as Katniss), Josh Hutcherson (as Peeta), Liam Hemsworth (as Gale), Woody Harrelson (as Haymitch), Elizabeth Banks (as Effie Trinket), Stanley Tucci (as Caesar) and Donald Sutherland (as grand old President Snow) have really fit their respective characters like a glove by this time. With Jennifer Lawrence there portraying her, every rash act of Katniss becomes heroic somehow. She gets the audience to actually root for this indecisive, foolhardy character.
Julianne Moore (as Coin) and Natalie Dormer (as Cressida) had to contend with bad hairstyles but do get their jobs done right. It was good to see and hear the departed Philip Seymour Hoffman one last time as Plutarch, though his screen time here was very short. It was great to see Game of Thrones actress Gwendoline Christie in a small scene as Commander Lyme. It was good to see the other victors like Finnick (Sam Claflin), Annie (Stef Dawson), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Johanna (Jenna Malone), though their screen time was also very brief.
"Mockingjay Part 2" is a very long movie and it can feel like it. It was more than 2 hours (137 minutes to be exact) of war, politics, and yes, the love triangle. There are actually no more Hunger Games to show in this one, but the Capitol itself was turned into one large-scale Hunger Games arena when Katniss and company encounter the "pods" (which were spectacularly violent land mines). I actually do not recall that there were oil tsunamis or mutant monsters underground in the books, but these were the most shocking and thrilling parts of this film. Without these, the younger members of the audience may doze off with all the talking scenes. 7/10.
The Last Witch Hunter (2015)
Average Unoriginal Witch Film
In ancient times, Kaulder was a fearless witch hunter who was able to kill the Queen Witch herself. However, before she died, the Queen cursed Kaulder with immortality. Cut to modern times, Kaulder is the last witch hunter of his kind. A congregation of priests called the Axe and Cross were commissioned to help Kaulder over the centuries in his sworn mission to incapacitate and incarcerate all the bad witches. Loyalists of the Queen though are working feverishly to resurrect her, setting up a major confrontation between good and evil to decide the fate of mankind.
As predicted, Vin Diesel's acting was as one-dimensional as ever. His look was as unchanging as ever too. He looks the same whoever character he played -- Riddick, Toretto, now Kaulder. They should have kept the ancient Kaulder look which would have set the character apart. As predicted also, Vin Diesel's pervasive good guy vibes are very apparent no matter how tough or violent he gets. These good vibes saved the day, making this derivative and CG-laden witch adventure more bearable and entertaining. Of course, we would root for him to route the queen and her minions, good should triumph over evil!
Michael Caine and Elijah Wood play priests of the Axe and Cross, who were Kaulder's personal assistants, advisers and bodyguards, Dolan 36th and Dolan 37th respectively. However, their roles were not as big as their names would make you expect. Caine was as cool as you'd expect, acting like he was Alfred or any of the recent Caine roles you can recall. His performance was always a respectable effort even though he may only be just phoning this one in, being so short. Elijah Wood looked very wrong in this role. The way he looked with a priest's collar was very awkward. His acting was so stiff, as if he knew how wrong he was for that role.
I was expecting the priests to be Kaulder's sidekicks in his battle against the Witch Queen, but it turns out they would be out of the scene for most parts of the film. Kaulder's companion would be a young female witch named Chloe played by Rose Leslie. Leslie, who gained popularity as Wildling Ygritte in TV's "Game of Thrones," is a polarizing actress, either you will like her or you won't. I like her, so I liked that she has moved onto Hollywood, and she gives a strong feisty performance as her TV character did.
I did not think this film "The Last Witch Hunter" would be anything original, and it was not. The poster was generic, looking like it could be a poster of one of Vin Diesel's "Riddick" films. Even the title was generic, "Witch Hunter" having been just used in a recent Jeremy Renner- Gemma Arterton film called "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters." Still I went in to watch this film because it is a Vin Diesel film. As consistently one-note his tough guy roles were, at least Diesel certainly knew how to entertain his audience. And that he did. 5/10.
Amenabar and Hawke Worked So Well Together Here!
For a long time, Alejandro Amenabar has been one of my favorite writer- directors for the twisted suspense thrillers. He was quite prolific at the turn of the century -- "Thesis" (1996), "Open Your Eyes" (1997) and his English-language debut "The Others" (2001). His biographical drama "The Sea Inside" won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004.
Since then though, his output had been sparse. That was why when I heard that he will be releasing a new film this year entitled "Regression," I made sure I went to watch it.
Seventeen-year old Angela Gray accuses her father of sexually abusing her. Detective Bruce Kenner is assigned to her case. The father meekly admits to the crime, but does not actually recall doing it. Kenner seeks the help of Psychology professor Kenneth Raines to elicit his repressed memories, as well as those of the other members of the Gray family, via hypnotic regression. What is revealed from these sessions are diabolical confessions of such disturbing nature that Kenner himself could not get them out of his own mind.
Ethan Hawke is such a good actor, really. From his feature debut in "Dead Poet's Society," then "Before Sunrise" (and its series), "Gattaca," "Sinister" to his Oscar-nominated performances in "Training Day" and "Boyhood," this guy can really portray the most ordinary characters and wind up making them very memorable. His intense take of the obsessed Bruce Kenner was riveting and infectious. His visions become our visions, his beliefs our beliefs. He had a flawless interactive rapport with Amenabar's camera, registering and conveying the anger, paranoia, confusion, and fear of his character so well on screen.
Emma Watson returns on her trajectory to becoming a serious movie actress after being sidelined by unfortunate roles in "This is the End" and "Noah." The talent and the promise are there, but the connection with her role as the troubled Angela was not as convincing as that of Hawke's. Her best performances were still those for Hermione Granger. Her young adult performances in films like "Perks of Being a Wallflower" and "The Bling Ring" had a certain unnatural stiffness in them, as it was again here as well.
Credible supporting performances were given by David Thewlis as the authoritative Prof. Raines and David Dencik as Angela's repentant father John. Going a bit over the top was Dale Dickey and her exaggeratedly demented performance as Angela's grandmother Rose. The strangest casting decision was that of Lothaire Bluteau as the priest Reverend Murray. He exuded such a creepy vibe, which of course may be the director's intention.
While "Regression" was still not on the same level of excellence as "Open Your Eyes" or "The Others," Alejandro Amenabar returned to form with this comeback project of sorts. The script, though weak and flawed in certain aspects (like motive, for one important example), was still logical and grounded despite dealing with controversial religious and psychological matters. The storytelling engages you despite the dark unpleasant topics and relentlessly morbid atmosphere. I am looking forward to the next Amenabar opus. I hope it does not take so many years anymore. 7/10
Knock Knock (2015)
Keanu's Most Wretched and Embarrassing Role!
When I saw the name of Eli Roth as director of this film, I should have taken that as a warning that this was probably going to be a bad movie. Roth's previous work either as director or writer were mostly crazy violent and gory just for the sake of being gory. Unlike his other films though, like the dreadful "Hostel" or the awful "Aftershock", this one had a known movie star in the lead role -- Keanu Reeves. It was because of Reeves that convinced me that I could give this film a chance.
Successful architect Evan Webber is an ideal husband of an artist wife and a model father of two. One day (ironically it was Father's Day), Evan was left behind at home because of work while the rest of his family went on a beach vacation. That night, two sexy young ladies show up at this door lost and soaking wet from the rain. Evan kindly admits them into his house so they can get dry and call for a cab. However, these two liberated girls had kinky shenanigans in mind for Evan, and then some.
In spite of the fact that the script and the acting were already pretty cheesy from the very start, the premise of the film actually seemed promising at first. Things do get interesting when the girls came into the scene and turned on their charms in an attempt to seduce the faithful family man. After that key scene though, the rest of the film turned south and just got more and more ridiculous up to the very end which unfortunately did not come right away.
Keanu Reeves is one enigmatic star whose career definitely had its ups and downs. In the beginning, he was able to balance his comedy ("Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure"), romance ("A Walk in the Clouds"), drama ("My Own Private Idaho") and action ("Speed" and "Matrix"). Since the turn of the millennium though, his career turned for the worse, with no really memorable roles to speak of. His last two films, "47 Ronin" and "John Wick," brought his name back up for the better. However, "Knock, Knock" knocks him down again with a performance so dismal it will be long-remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Keanu Reeves' wretched portrayal of Evan Webber is simply beyond embarrassing. Reeves playing monster with his family at the start was just the first of many cringe-worthy scenes for him in the whole course of this film. As his character was threatened with death later in the film, Reeves' impassioned appeal for his life was so hilariously delivered with the craziest of words, it actually had me laughing out loud in spite of myself. Finally, when a scene came when we see Reeves' head on the ground with only his comical facial emoting, I totally lost it laughing. I cannot fathom how a star of his stature could have allowed himself to suffer such shameful indignities.
We can't really expect much from the other relatively unknown actors in the cast who also came up with similarly ludicrous performances. Lorenza Izzo (Eli Roth's wife in real life) and Ana de Armas (the hotter blonde vixen) played the two seductresses Genesis and Bel with such loony, over-the-top abandon. Aaron Burns played the gay friend Louis, who was more concerned about the artwork than people. They did look like they were having a lot of fun doing their inane scenes (even though the situations were not supposed to be funny).
What was on Eli Roth's mind when he wrote and directed this? Were all the outrageous scenarios and lousy hammy acting done on purpose to somehow make this film stand out? Was this all an elaborate warning about logging out of Facebook once you are done with it? Anyway, everything was so exaggeratedly bad it was actually uproariously funny. It was definitely not what I expected going in, but I did get a good laugh out of it so I won't call it a total disaster. 3/10.
Francisco - El Padre Jorge (2015)
Disappointing and Dry Biopic
This is an Argentinian film about Fr. Jorge Bergoglio's life prior to Papacy. Based on its simple and straightforward trailer, I am not really expecting too much. However, I still watched the film to learn more about this beloved man and how he rose among the ranks to be the anointed leader of Catholics worldwide.
"Papa Francisco" (also called "Francis: Pray for Me" or "Francisco - El Padre Jorge") tells the life story of the Fr. Jorge Bergoglio (Darío Grandinetti) from Argentina, from his boyhood to his election as Pope in 2013. These were told alongside the fictional story of Ana (Silvia Abascal), a agnostic Spanish lady reporter (with an Argentinian mother) assigned to cover the Papal election of 2005. Ana met Padre Jorge when they sat across each other on a train going to Rome, and from then became lifelong friends.
The Ana character may have been based on Elisabetta Pique, an Argentine journalist and friend of Padre Jorge, who wrote the biographical book "Pope Francis: Life and Revolution" upon which this film was based. The book was said to be based on interviews on more than seventy people who knew the Pope very well. While individual stories may have read well as a book, but these same stories may also have led to the rather disjointed nature of this film.
The film, written and directed by Beda Docampo Feijóo, told the Pope's story in bite-sized episodes, flashing backwards and forwards in time. These scenes just seemed like simple renditions of the highlights of his life, with no effort to connect them into one cohesive whole. There were scenes about controversies, but these were executed with no tension at all. The best example would be this confrontation scene with a lady politician who wanted him to lay off on his crusade against corruption. Padre Jorge says a few eloquent words, and the scene was over, no more follow through on what happens next.
There were good episodes, like the one where the young Jorge (Gabriel Gallichio) met a beautiful lady at a wedding reception where they danced the tango, exchanged books and phone numbers. Unfortunately, we never hear of her again after she left on a bus. In fact, that would be the way this film treated most of the other characters from Padre Jorge's past, like his mother or his friends. They were never mentioned again when Padre Jorge was already cardinal. The only exception would be Padre Jorge's book about St. Francis. We saw it given to Jorge by his grandmother when he was a young man, and we would see that book again before he was announced as Pope.
Award-winning Argentinian actor Dario Grandinetti plays the senior Padre Jorge. His last film of note was "Wild Tales", an Argentinian film which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last year. While he may look sincere, Grandinetti did not really capture the charisma of Padre Jorge. The delivery of his lines were so stiff and lifeless. There was no passion that could be felt nor inspiration that can be drawn from his dry performance. Grandinetti's Padre Jorge did not smile much nor exude warmth, so unlike the person he is portraying. 24 year-old Argentine actor Gabriel Gallichio certainly had more charm in his few scenes as the young Jorge during his student days.
This was a simple biographical film with no high artistic aspirations. It was just a plain retelling of various events in the present Pope's lifetime with no unifying concept. This film does not have cinematic artistry nor wide audience appeal of other biopics like "Gandhi," "The Last Emperor," or even "Romero". It would probably appeal only to Catholics who simply want to know more about their present leader. But even with those modest expectations, this uneven film would probably still fall short. With his growing worldwide popularity, I trust Pope Francis will have a better film about him in the future. 5/10.
Rushed Right Through
This sequel to last month's live-action version of the manga/anime "Attack on Titan." That was a much-anticipated film because of the popularity of the anime. However, it was uniformly met with bad reviews and fan disappointment because of the poor Titan special effects, but more because of the significant, arguably ill-advised or unnecessary changes in the storyline made to fit a live-action format.
The first episode ended with the revelation that Eren was actually the special Titan who was killing the other regular Titans. This sequel began with an inquiry conducted by a ruthless Director General who seemed to want nothing but to execute Eren. Of course, Eren's friend Armin bravely argued for his friend. The action builds up to a climactic grand three-way fight among three special Titans on the outermost wall.
This sequel, released just a month after the original, was only about an hour and a half long. The first 20 minutes or so was just a reiteration of the event in the first film. For me, the two films could have been simply integrated into one longer film. We do not see much of the regular Titans anymore in this film. We will also see the origin of the Titans and the reason why Eren become a Titan recalled in flashbacks which i wished were treated with more details and clarity.
Like the first film, and even more so in this sequel, we see over-the- top acting from most of the cast. The main group of young soldiers, led of course by the trio of lead characters: Eren Yeager (Haruma Miura), Mikasa Ackerman (Mizuhara Kiko), and Armin Arlert (Kanata Hongô). The Mikasa of the films was not at all like the Mikasa in the anime. We see at least one act of bravery from each of their friends as well, namely Sasha Blouse aka Potato Girl (Nanami Sakuraba), Jean Kirstein (Takahiro Miura) and Sannagi (Satoru Matsuo).
We see more of the bespectacled yet incredibly (and hilariously) hyperactive senior female officer Hange Zoë (Satomi Ishihara). We will get a surprising revelation about the enigmatic Shikishima (Hiroki Hasegawa), the character that replaced Levi Ackerman, "Humanity's Strongest Soldier" in the manga/anime. A similarly remarkable storyline follows the human antagonist Kubal (Jun Kunimura). Unfortunately, the film does not give us a satisfactory explanation about what happened to these last two characters.
This film just sought to close the main storyline started by the first film, direct to the point. No more side detours were included. It was all over in less than 90 minutes. Unfortunately, a major part of this sequel was just a lot of talking, with practically no action in the first hour. By the time it reached the battle-royale in the last thirty minutes, a lot of the audience may have already zoned out. It was not really much of an Armageddon as promised by its title. 4/10.
Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)
Animated Adam Sandler Misadventure
According to the 2012 animated film, Count Dracula ran "Hotel Transylvania" as a resort for monsters who wanted to get away from the humans who frighten them. One day, a human boy named Jonathan stumbles upon the existence of this hotel and falls for the Gothic charms of Dracula's daughter Mavis. Being the over-protective dad that he was, single-dad Dracula does everything to keep the two from falling in love.
In this sequel, Jonathan and Mavis got married and have a son Dennis. Dracula was very concerned that his grandson Dennis was already turning five, but was not showing any signs of being a vampire. So while Mavis and Jonathan fly to California to visit his parents, Dracula and his wacky gang of monsters bring Dennis to a vampire summer camp, hoping the kid's fangs come out faster.
From the poster alone, we already know that this sequel will be a cute juvenile romp with delightful "monsters". The story line is reminiscent of other films, like "Sky High" or "The Incredibles," about the distress caused by an offspring who apparently did not have the superpowers of his parents. In the first film, the laughs came from Dracula struggling with the problem of his daughter falling in love with a human. In this sequel, it was also Dracula's struggles about this grandson that make this film funny (mildly) more than anything else.
Since this is a sequel, the artwork was basically the same as the first one, with most of the characters coming back to reprise their roles. Curiously, the look of the new main character baby Dennis was not at all original. With his full head of wild curly red hair, Dennis looked almost exactly like the baby brothers of Merida in "Brave." The design of Great Grandpa Vlad and more so his scary sidekick Bela and his army of ghoulish vampire bats could be the stuff of nightmares for very young kids. The special effect of flames looked very good.
Adam Sandler's voice was very apparent as Count Dracula. You can totally imagine him talking in that "Dracula" accent. The cast list boasts of an impressive roster of noted comedians past and present who were all able to project their comic personas through their voice work for their characters. Of course, Sandler's usual movie posse is there composed of Kevin James (as Frankenstein), Steve Buscemi (as Werewolf Wayne), and David Spade (as Invisible Man Griffin). Andy Samberg plays the goofy Jonathan opposite teen star Selena Gomez as Mavis. In smaller supporting roles are Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman (as human grandparents Linda and Mike), Dana Carvey (as Camp Counselor Dana), Fran Drescher (as Frankenstein's wife Eunice), and the most esteemed Mel Brooks (as Vlad).
This another one of those zany, hyper, and yes, predictable animated films for the juvenile set, ultimately not too memorable. Despite the illustrious cast of comics though, the big laughs in this film are only few and far between. At most, a smile or a little chuckle here and there are all you get. Despite some disturbing scenes of apparent child endangerment in this film, you know this is all done in the spirit of silly fun and nothing bad is really going to happen. 5/10.
A Glorious and Grim Adventure
This film tells the true story of a group of men who dared to climb to the peak, braving a harsh environment physiologically-incompatible with human life. Bob Cotter ran Adventures Consultants, a service to guide climbers willing to shell out $75,000 up to the Everest summit. His support staff includes base camp manager Helen Wilton, medic Dr. Caroline Mackenzie, along with a number of expert climbers and native sherpas for guides.
For the fateful climb on May 10, 1976, we follow expedition group leader Rob Hall and his group composed of doctor Beck Weathers, mailman Doug Hansen, journalist Jon Krakauer (who eventually wrote the book about this climb), female Japanese veteran climber Yasuko Namba and others. Before their big climb on May 10, they first had a month-long training camp on the lower levels of the mountain in order to acclimatize their bodies to the inhospitable conditions. While the group was up the mountain though, a deadly blizzard descends upon the mountain, placing all the men on the mountain in extreme peril.
Jason Clarke radiated a lot of warmth as compassionate New Zealander expedition group leader Rob Hall. His conversations with his pregnant wife Jan (played by Keira Knightley in a brief yet remarkable supporting performance) were touching and heartbreaking.
Josh Brolin was loud and arrogant as the wealthy Texan climber Beck. John Hawkes was perfectly self-effacing as Doug, a poor working man whose climb was partially sponsored by school children. Despite his prominent billing, Jake Gyllenhaal plays only a small role as an unconventional surfer-type rival guide. As in his previous films, Sam Worthington was not really very memorable as Bob Cotter. Emily Watson was motherly as the distressed manager Helen.
I am partial to mountain adventures more than the beach. Based on my limited number of hikes up mountains like Pinatubo or Diamondhead, reaching the peak gives such a victorious feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment. Knowing my limitations as a climber, I know that climbing even a segment of Everest is but an impossible pipe dream.
That is why I liked this movie a lot. With its spectacular cinematography, this film brought me up to the summit of Everest in such a realistic, involving way. The places on the majestic mountain which I never would have even dreamed of seeing, like the Base Camp (17,000 ft), the Balcony (27,390 ft) or the Hillary Step (28,740 ft), were right there in front of my eyes!
We see everything along their snowy way -- those elegant yaks, those serene Buddhist monks, all the way up to the legendary peak with the little flags summiteers have planted their as a sign of their successful conquest. We will also see the various faces of the human spirit when challenged by the elements -- from triumph, valor and brotherhood to despair, defeat and resignation.
Thankfully, the very real dangers of the climb, like the wide crevasses to be crossed on rickety ladders, the icy wind burning the skin off your face, the nasty frostbite that could cost you to lose frozen body parts, or the avalanches that can rumble down on you at anytime, are to be experienced from the safety of your theater seats.
The parts of the film when the characters were just making their way up the mountain and training for the big climb may be slow for certain audience members. You will learn a lot about the medical aspect of climbing up to an oxygen-poor altitude such as that of Everest. For me, I vicariously immersed myself in that literally breathtaking climbing experience which for certain I will never have myself.
Man, in his quest to prove that he the master of this world, has this unquenchable desire to conquer the earth's highest peak -- Mt. Everest. However in climbing Everest, the last word, as the film tells us, always belonged to the mountain. 8/10.
Heneral Luna (2015)
"Heneral Luna" tells us a more detailed account of the life of one of the revolutionary heroes we learn about in school, yet know practically nothing about -- Gen. Antonio Luna. Practically all we know about him is that he had a very bad temper which gained him a lot of enemies, eventually leading to his assassination. Aside from telling us specific situations where this legendary temper flared up, we also get to meet him more intimately as a leader, a soldier, as a son and as a man.
Even from his intense penetrating gaze and formidable mustache in the poster alone, you already know John Arcilla will be excellent in this film. His comic timing was impeccable. It was a most vibrant performance of a most vivid man, making him really loom larger than life. He was over-the-top in his explosiveness, just the way Tarog wanted him to be. The way he was built up, we were ready for that climactic assassination scene, however outrageous the savagery.
Mon Confiado was a picture of ironic calm as President Emilio Aguinaldo. The more movies we watch about the revolution certainly brings up more and more questions about the controversial Aguinaldo. Nonie Buencamino was so slimy as his treacherous surname-sake Felipe Buencamino. That nonchalant look on Lorenz Martinez face was so hateful as he essayed the role of the equally haughty Gen. Tomas Mascardo.
It was also such a casting risk and surprise to put known comedians in such key roles, like Epy Quizon as Apolinario Mabini, Leo Martinez as Pedro Paterno and Ketchup Eusebio as the vengeful Capt. Pedro Janolino. I must admit their presence can be distracting in certain dramatic moments, particularly Eusebio. Or maybe that was their purpose -- to balance out the severe seriousness of those scenes.
You immediately upfront that the filmmakers were aiming high for this film. The initial introductory texts were written in English, signifying intentions for this film to make the rounds of foreign film festivals. (I read that there were even certain reels with English subtitles shown in some more upscale cinemas.) The presence of disclaimers stating that this is a work of fiction inspired by fact could somehow raise an uneasy question as to how much fiction was in there mixed among the facts.
This film will also grab you with its gorgeous cinematography. The images on the big screen had such vivid colors and innovative camera angles. The period production design and the costume design were meticulous in detail. During a beautifully-edited flashback sequence, there was a stylized scene about Rizal's execution that was so uniquely and hauntingly rendered. There are most gruesome and graphic special effects showing the violent brutality of warfare which will shock you.
The historical storytelling was very clear, exciting and engaging from beginning to end, with a fresh graphic novel feel to it. Humor was such an unexpected yet integral element of the script, from those crisp off- color expletives of Luna to those sarcastic side comments of Lt. Rusca (Archie Alemania) and many more in between of different shades. The patriotic sentiments were very poetically-written, but the way they were delivered here felt sincere. They did not sound preachy or cheesy, like when such lines were mouthed by Robin Padilla in "Bonifacio" or Jeorge E.R. Ejército in "El Presidente".
Just like a Marvel film, there was an extra scene in the middle of the closing credits, suggesting a next film featuring Paulo Avelino as Gen. Gregorio del Pilar. There was also a brief cameo appearance of Benjamin Alves as a young Manuel L. Quezon, hinting at a possible trilogy. This is a very exciting plan indeed which we all hope will materialize given the success of "Heneral Luna".
I hear this is also under consideration of being submitted for Oscar consideration, and I support that campaign. The screening I caught today was a full-house despite being 1:30 in the afternoon on a weekday. It was really gratifying to see a quality Filipino film have commercial success even if it was not an inane comedy or "kilig" teen flick with box-office stars in the cast.
Kudos to Artikulo Uno Productions and director-film editor-musical scorer Jerrold Tarog for coming up with what may just be the best, certainly the most audacious, Filipino film released this year to date. Like Gen. Luna, this film leads a mad charge on horseback with a raised fist against Filipinos who say they love their country yet look out for their personal interests first. Let's hope this strong message hits its targets. 9/10.
Rogues, Rebels and Zombies!
Almost exactly one year ago, the first "Maze Runner" film was released in local theaters. I thought that the action sequences within the maze scenes were all quite exciting and very entertaining to watch. However, after all the excellent suspense and tension built up in the first two- thirds of the film, at the end nothing really gets explained clearly. It felt like an incomplete film on its own. For those it gets interested though, this sequel is expected to give answers to questions raised in the first film.
While under the care of a high-security facility, Thomas becomes increasingly suspicious of Janson, the man in charge. When he overhears a sinister plot hatching, he gets his fellow Gladers out to brave the arid desert called the Scorch outside. However, it was not only the elements they have to worry about, there were still a horde of killer zombies called the Cranks out there to contend with. Thomas and his gang survive the Scorch and unite with the rebel group in the mountains in order to fight the danger foisted on humanity by the increasingly mysterious Dr. Ava Paige and her WCKD organization.
Dylan O'Brien continues his good portrayal of the ever-doubting Thomas. In this film, his character would need to make a lot of difficult decisions and O'Brien convinces us that he can make those hard choices. The other young actors in his gang do not really do too much to stand out. Aidan Gillen, the ever-slimy Littlefinger on "Game of Thrones" brings his smarmy charms in this film as the Rat-Man, Janson. One look at him and I cannot really separate him from his TV character.
Rosa Salazar gives a strong performance as Brenda, a survivor within the city ruins whom Thomas encounters. She registers better on screen than the main female lead Kaya Scodelario, who plays Teresa. It was good to see another "Game of Thrones" actress in there, the attractive Nathalie Emmanuel, who plays Harriet, one of the rebels. Veteran actresses Lili Taylor and Patricia Clarkson lend class to their rival scientist characters, Mary Cooper and Ava Paige, respectively.
The excitement build up strongly in the first act. However the second act in the Scorch felt a bit slow as the Cranks overstay their parts too long. Their horror scenes were effectively creepy at first but they get a bit too repetitive. A protracted hallucinatory party scene can also be quite head-scratching. The third act though hikes up the explosive climactic action and revives anticipatory audience excitement for the next installment. The production design of elaborate setup of the WCKD laboratory and the ruins of the huge city looked very good. At the end of the 130 minute running time, there are still a lot of questions about the true intentions of WCKD, or is that name alone already a giveaway clue?
There was no more maze in this movie anymore for the characters to run through. However, the maze is for the viewer who has to try to absorb this whole labyrinthine dystopian world that James Dashner hatched in his novels. Director Wes Ball does his best to make the complex plot engaging, exciting and entertaining with some pretty well-executed action scenes. Overall, when compared to the first "Maze Runner", this sequel was the more satisfying film for me. 7/10.
Das kleine Gespenst (2013)
Friendly Ghost Story for Kindergarteners
This charming children's film tells of a little white ghost who roams the halls of the castle from 12 midnight to 1 am every day with his ring of keys which can open any lock. However, he yearns to see the brightness of the daytime. Upon advice of his friend the Owl, Little Ghost needed to switch the time of a certain watch tied to him in order to set the waking time he wanted.
Since he did not know which watch, Ghost proceeded to switch the time of all the watches in the castle. While he was switching a valuable watch, a spirited kid named Karl sees him. Ghost takes the watch with him in panic, and Karl was blamed for the watch's loss. From there, the Ghost and Karl will go through a lot of mishaps and misadventures while trying to rectify the situation
As you can see for the poster, Little Ghost looks a lot like Casper the friendly ghost, and acts a lot like him too. The special effects used looked obviously practical, a foamy sphere for a head and a white sheet as his body. This is clearly for very young children. There is nothing really scary about this ghost. Even his dubbed voice sounds like that of an adorable child -- very cute indeed. He would be singing some songs too for some additional entertainment.
The adult actors all act in a clownish, cartoonish style as is customary for kiddie movies. Notably funny was Uwe Ochsenknecht, the actor who played both the Swedish general in the portrait and the haughty town Mayor. The actors who played the obese Chief of Police and the Clockmaker was also quite silly. Jonas Holdenrieder, who played Karl, and the actors who played his friends, did well. They were not pushy nor annoying like some Hollywood child actors were wont to do.
This is a German children's film dubbed in English. Being a European film, you cannot really expect the fast and frenetic Hollywood style of storytelling. The story was told in a slower pace which may make older kids who are more used to superheroes or monsters bored. There was only one certain point in the film when the child Karl will be in a very precarious situation, but you know things will all turn out for the best.
"The Little Ghost" will be funny and thrilling for younger kids. For adults though, the film's retro vibe and simple visual effects may seem hokey for most adults. Give it a chance though, and it may surprise and delight you, like it did for me. 6/10.
The Transporter Refueled (2015)
Average but Promising
The first "Transporter" film was shown in the year 2002, followed by sequels in 2005 and 2008. The main character was Frank Martin, a mercenary "transporter" with mad driving skills whom people hire to deliver people or packages anywhere. This series made an action star out of then unknown actor Jason Statham, whose brawny heft and martial arts abilities fit the character like a T.
Now that a much older Statham is now doing films like "The Expendables", producer Luc Besson decided to resurrect the character of Frank Martin with a new unknown young actor. Will this reboot be a success like the original, or will this fail in comparison like many reboots of other old film series?
Frank Martin was hired by Anna and her gang of high-class prostitutes bent on revenge. They had come up with an elaborate plot to get back at Karasov, the man who made their lives a living hell for the past 15 years. After the first deal, the girls wanted Frank to help them with the next step of their scheme, but he declined. The girls abduct his father Frank Senior in order to coerce Frank Junior to do their bidding.
New actor Ed Skrein is the new Frank Martin. "Game of Thrones" fans will recall Skrein to be the original actor cast in the role of Daario, consort of the Khaleesi. He is of the same mold Jason Statham was cut from, tall, manly and well-built. However, Skrein, with his chiseled face and glamor posturing, felt too much like a fashion model to be convincing. Even if he gets disheveled by the action, he never really comes across as a genuine rough and tough action hero, like Statham did. He has got the suave and skills part down pat, but too bad he did not have the Statham charm to complete the package.
Whatever charisma Skrein lacked in the lead role was made up for by Ray Stevenson in the role of the dad, Frank Senior. This veteran character actor owned the screen whenever he was on because of his magnetic screen presence in this secondary role. He seems miscast as a retired water salesman, but in a good way. He exuded so much confidence such that the unlikely things his character was able to do were somehow made believable. I actually wanted to see more father-son scenes between Stevenson and Skrein, as they had good chemistry together.
French model Loan Chabanol played Anna. She was sexy and seductive as the role called for. Chabanol and the other three girls fulfill their roles as eye candy here. They were avenging angels one moment and damsels in distress in another. The acting may not have been remarkable, but that is not exactly why they were cast in these roles.
On its own, "The Transformer Refueled" had its moments of great action, like the brawl in the disco storeroom, or that frenetic airplane escape scene. It does have the Luc Besson touch, though the director here was Camille Delamarre, who has been promoted from being editor of "Transporter 3". Frank's Audi sedan looks great. The familiar story is not much to care about, and will probably be forgotten soon. Nevertheless I am not totally trashing this. I think I would likely watch the sequel should there be one. Without the Jason Statham shadow it finds itself under, it was actually passable as a crime action thriller. 5/10.
Shingeki no kyojin (2015)
Gets Worse When Compared to Anime
I did not even plan to watch this film when I saw ads that it was going to be shown. However, I was surprised when a lot of young people were actually very excited to see it. Apparently it was a very famous manga turned anime series. They wanted to see how the story would be translated into a film with live actors. The film was locally rated R-16 and this actually got me curious as to what could be so adult about it. As the film started, I would not have to wait too long to find out why.
The film is about a dystopian world when what is left of humanity has been confined inside a huge walled city. The tall concrete walls were built to protect them from huge monsters they called Titans who ate human beings for fun. That has been the status quo for 100 years until one day when one particularly gigantic Titan suddenly showed up and kicked a hole through the ancient wall. This enabled the naked bloodthirsty humanoid giants to gain entrance and ravage the town.
The film follows the story of three teenage friends (the rebellious Eren, the mousy Mikasa and the smart Armin) as they first experienced first hand the horror of this new scourge, and two years later when they become soldiers to fight an impossible battle against the insatiable monsters. During one heated battle when he rescued a friend from certain death, Eren gets swallowed down by one Titan. However, it was also then that fortune began to favor the humans when a new, different and more powerful kind of Titan emerged whose enraged fighting was directed against the other Titans.
The film felt like a Japanese "Hunger Games" or "Maze Runner" with its young adult lead characters and dystopian setting. The special effects of the Titans were rather crude and unimpressive. There was perverse sense of excitement in seeing the Titans chomping down humans, but this eventually wore off after witnessing the first few bites.
The pace of the storytelling stalled somewhere in the middle such that the film became tiresome to watch. It was only until the action picked up again by the climactic battle in the end that the film became truly exciting. The way the main characters were portrayed was unlikeable, especially Eren and Mikasa. Something felt off about their characterizations. The story may be interesting, but the execution by director Shinji Higuchi was not entirely satisfactory.
My curiosity sparked, I decided to watch the original 2013 anime "Shingeki-no-Kyojin" online. The events in this first film were only in the first eight of the 25 episodes in the series. (The sequel is already set to be released by next month on Sept. 19 in Japan.) Even in the first two episodes alone, I already saw how much the filmmakers changed the way the anime told the story. I could understand why the filmmakers may changed the European setting (though the Western names for Japanese actors could be puzzling) or why they made the characters older. I also understand how it would be impossible to get all the backstory of the characters in more detail due to time constraints, but I felt they should not have totally ignored this very important aspect.
Eren in the film, as played by Haruma Miura, was immediately introduced as a cocky slacker who could not hold a job more than a few days. We do not know anything more about him at all. So the events that will happen to him in the course of the film would be totally head-scratching for the uninitiated. The painfully awkward Mikasa of the film, as played by Kiku Mizuhara, is really very different from the cool and confident Mikasa of the anime. This character was really very poorly portrayed in the film, even in the second act when she was already supposed to be an elite soldier.
Watching the excellent anime made me even more disappointed with the film version. The film was a dreary version, from the dim color palette to the cheesy special effects. The lacking character development in the film was even more blatant when placed beside the rich back stories in the anime. The voice acting in the animated version was even more compelling and moving than the rather lame live acting in the film version. That the film even took time to inject unnecessary scenes of a sexual nature (not in the anime) felt pathetic.
When I initially watched the film without having seen the anime yet, I already felt the film was not able to deliver the best from what could have been a very potent story. After watching the anime, I am even more disappointed with how the film missed to capture the interesting stories of the characters. It went for the obvious audience draw -- the visually gory thrill of seeing mighty Titans pulling apart or biting the head off puny humans -- without developing its main characters properly. When the novelty of those grim spectacles soon passed, the characters were left without enough heart for audiences to root for in the end. 5/10.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
Slick and Stylish, But ...
2015 has been a great year for espionage films. From the beginning of the year, there was "Kingsmen: Secret Service". Just this past summer, there was "Spy" followed by "Mission:Impossible - Rogue Nation." All of these were very successful, both commercially and critically. And now, another spy film is gunning to join that illustrious list.
'The Man from U.N.C.L.E." was originally a TV series from the mid-1960s developed by Sam Rolfe. It starred Robert Vaughn (as American agent Napoleon Solo) and David McCallum (as Russian agent Illya Kuryakin). U.N.C.L.E. was an acronym for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, a secret international counter-espionage organization, aiming to maintain worldwide political and legal order. This series lasted for four years from 1964 to 68, becoming a cultural icon of sorts at that time with its audacious theme of US-Russian cooperation at the height of the Cold War.
This reboot of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." for the modern generation retained the Cold War setting. American agent Napoleon Solo and Russian agent Illya Kuryakin are forced to work together to prevent the nefarious plans of glamorous but ruthless arms dealer Victoria Vinciguerra. They connect with Gaby Teller, the daughter of a kidnapped German nuclear scientist, as a means of getting closer on Victoria's tail. But it would appear that Gaby also is not all she seemed to be, or is she?
Henry Cavill carries the film as Napoleon Solo. With his elegant chiseled looks, Cavill credibly portrayed the cool and capable spy Solo, as much as he was able to credibly portray Superman last year. He also succeeded in pulling off the smart-alecky personality of Solo, a man with a bristling sense of humor -- something we would not have expected from his deadly serious Superman performance. Henry Cavill was suave personified here. Considering George Clooney and Tom Cruise were the first choices for the role of Solo, I'd say Cavill did not do badly at all in this lead role.
Armie Hammer is quite a handsome actor himself, but he could not really lift his career off the ground after his breakthrough role as the Winklevoss twins in "The Social Network." Forgettable films like "Mirror Mirror" and worse "The Lone Ranger" did not do his career any favors. Here in U.N.C.L.E., Hammer was able to hold his own against the charismatic Cavill in the charm and action fronts. However, since he is basically the straight man here, he often found himself behind Cavill's shadow.
I have been looking forward for the next big project of Swedish actress Alicia Vikander since I first saw her in "A Royal Affair" three years ago. Her Hollywood career is picking up with her turn as the enigmatic automaton Ava in the acclaimed "Ex-Machina" released just earlier this year. Now with her role as the mysterious Gaby Teller, she finally gets her biggest break. It is just too bad that she did not get as many slambang action scenes like that other Swedish babe, Rebecca Ferguson, did in "M:I Rogue Nation."
Elizabeth Debicki makes a good impression as the main villain Victoria, with her towering beehive, striking haute couture and naked ambition. Luca Calvani also registered well on screen as Victoria's husband, the debonair playboy Alexander. It was also great to see Hugh Grant again, playing British agent Waverley. I am thinking that if a franchise was ever made out of this film, we would see more of Grant since this character Waverly was the officer in charge of Solo and Kuryakin in the TV series.
Compared to "Kingsman", the technical hardware we see in "U.N.C.L.E." would be described as less spectacular. Compared to "Spy", the wit we see in "U.N.C.L.E." would be described as less riotous. Compared to "M:I Rogue Nation", the stunts we see in "U.N.C.L.E." would be described as less breathtaking. However judged on its own, this film version of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." as directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie is not at all bad. The 60s-inspired production design, hair and costumes were so fab. (Those huge yellow subtitles can be distracting and hard to read though.) Despite having tentative pacing in some scenes, it was still fun and entertaining to watch overall.
But do I dare say it, after Superhero fatigue, could it be that there may also be Spy fatigue setting in? 7/10.
The Good Lie (2014)
Affecting and Authentic
In the 1980s there was a major civil war in the Sudan causing several children to lose their families. Left on their own devices, these kids had to travel hundreds of miles in order to reach safe haven beyond the border. This film follows the story of one such set of displaced and orphaned children, dubbed by aid workers and media as "The Lost Boys of Sudan".
After their eldest brother Theo sacrificed himself to be captured by soldiers, Mamere and his sister Abital were able to reach the refugee camp in Kenya on their own, together with another set of brothers they met along the way, Jeremiah and Paul. Several years later, all four of them, now young adults, were luckily picked to be among those to be relocated to the United States.
In Kansas City, Missouri, the boys met employment counselor Carrie Davis, who helped them settle in their new home and find jobs. There, they discovered not only new comforts of life and new opportunities, but also new challenges they had to face. While Mamere worked hard to go to medical school, he constantly worried about his sister Abital who was separated from him at the airport and sent to live in Boston with a foster family. Deeper down, he also continued to be haunted by the sacrifice his brother Theo did for them to live.
Reese Witherspoon gets top billing, but she is not the main character of the film at all. Her Carrie goes out of her way to help the Sudanese boys get settled into their new lives. She helps them solve various problems by pulling some bureaucratic strings. But it is still the boys themselves, particularly Mamere, who make the big decisions in their lives. Despite her star status, Witherspoon never drew attention to herself in this role. She gracefully gives her African co-stars the spotlight they deserved.
Arnold Oceng plays the lead character Mamere with dignified restraint. It is his performance upon which the whole movie revolved around. He was able to gain our sympathy towards his plight and the various demons he had to face. The actors who played Abital (a radiant Kuoth Wiel), Jeremiah (Ger Duany) and Paul (Emmanuel Jal) all suffered through the Sudanese Civil War in real life, thus accounting for the affecting authenticity in their performances. The young actors who played these characters as child refugees were similarly very effective in their portrayals.
Honestly I was not too excited to see this film thinking it would be another one of those "White Savior" films like "The Blind Side" or "Dangerous Minds", where a white man saves a poor person of color out of his miserable condition. At the end though, my fears were unfounded. This turned out to be quite engaging despite its very serious topic.
Aside from some awkward moment of humor in the middle as the brothers were adjusting to American life which felt forced, the rest of the film with its theme of brotherly devotion was heartwarming and inspirational. While its overwhelming positivity is wonderful, it may also be seen by some as its main drawback. 7/10.