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The Mockingjay Lives
In the very beginning of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1", 17-year-old Katniss Everdeen has been through a hell of a lot. She went through two Hunger Games, her love Peeta has been taken by the Capitol and as witnessed later, she sees that her home District 12 has been destroyed by no other than the sinisterly wicked President Coriolanus Snow who has kidnapped and brainwashed poor Peeta in order to call off the radical rebellion that's happening against the dystopian world of Panem and to get rid of the cause known as the Mockingjay. So far, it totally seems that we're closer to the end of an amazing series. The tone gets very dark, the political ideas and serious themes are more thought-provoking and it's surprisingly different from the previous two. Gone are the stunning arenas and colorfully bold costumes and it adds in a more darker (or gray-ish) palette and a few key elements that makes the first part of the third and final book of Suzanne Collins' marvelous trilogy a gripping and strong, if not better, addition in the series. The always wonderful Oscar-winning Jennifer Lawrence takes Katniss to new heights. She's broken, haunted, tormented by nightmares and still suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She's confined in an underground bunker known as District 13, run by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore in a solid performance). Coin is unsure about Katniss, seeing that she is still suffering after the events in the Third Quarter Quell in "Catching Fire". Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles) insists that she still has to be the Mockingjay. It's a simple logic: Show the rebellion that she is still standing and fighting until the end by filming propaganda (or "propos") videos. Take the scene in District 8, after a airstrike sent by Snow (Donald Sutherland), she speaks from the heart knowing that the rebels won't surrender that easy after that event. Still, Katniss is ripped apart by many things. She still cares for Gale (the incredible Liam Hemsworth) who's ready for the revolution to happen, but her heart belongs to Peeta (a heart wrenching and soulful Josh Hutcherson), as mentioned that he is the Capitol's puppet or just saving Katniss from devastation. But she is saved by her mom (Paula Malcomson) and her sister, Prim (the adorable Willow Shields). Also joining in the ranks are another broken victor Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), Katniss' mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who is now sober and still very helpful, Cressida (a wickedly cool Natalie Dormer from "The Tudors" and "Game of Thrones"), a filmmaker trying to capture as much as she can with Katniss in the middle of all this along with her camera crew, a wheelchair-bound Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) who communicates with transporting video signals and crashing it through the Capitol and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a smart deviation from the book, who does not like being in a world full of gray jumpsuits but comes around eventually. Taking apart the final book in a series and turning it into two movies doesn't really seem necessary (it worked out before with "Harry Potter" and "Twilight"), but returning director Francis Lawrence of "Catching Fire" and screenwriters Danny Strong ("The Butler", "Game Change") and Peter Craig ("The Town") with adaptation by Suzanne Collins herself manages to keep the film moving at a slow but breakneck pace to give us some deep insights in the world of Panem, expands its scope a bit more, and getting us really connected and involved with the world while staying true to Collins's book and changing and fixing some of the weaknesses of the book. There's not much action this time around (there's only two big set pieces), but it's deeply rooted in the story and characters and the human drama behind it works its way though our minds. And again, the movie and this franchise wouldn't work if it weren't for Jennifer Lawrence. She makes Katniss a wounded, vulnerable, but strong and charismatic heroine that's joining in the ranks of strong females such as Lisbeth Salander and Hermione Granger. In a surprisingly sweet moment, she belts out a signature moment from the book, "The Hanging Tree", a bluegrass-type of song. When she sings, we immediately feel it and we see that she becomes a beacon of hope for the rebellion. I know it's only one half of a movie but it's only half good when it ends with a thrilling climax involving a rescue mission and a striking cliffhanger that leads our way into the finale. What will the final film bring to the table? I don't know. But if you're thinking with a groan or a relieved sigh for next year, make sure your homework is prepared and you got enough information so that you won't be lost in the system. Since it's the calm before the storm, "Mockingjay: Part 1" may not have a whole lot to take it all in, but it refuses to back down and stands up for the revolution and the power of changing the world one day at a time.
Peter Jackson breathes fire (and makes more magic) in the middle chapter of The Hobbit
Just as I predicted, a middle chapter, like "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire", that manages to be better this time around. As we all know back in 2012, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (or "snooze", if you didn't feel like sitting through another Middle-earth journey), we got to know Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, Thorin Oakenshield and the dwarfs as they go on their quest to destroy the vicious dragon Smaug and to reclaim the dwarfs' homeland of Erebor. As if we didn't know, but giving the fact that it is based on one whole book by J.R.R. Tolkien (Author of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), the first part of the three-part series took them on unexpected adventures and it felt kind of natural to see it come to life. Now we enter with "The Hobbit 2" or as we like to call it "The Desolation of Smaug" and thank Durin for Peter Jackson for bringing us a spectacular adventure that is magical, epic and sharp as a sword. Continuing on their Quest, Bilbo (the always reliable Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the dwarfs, including Balin (Ken Stott), Kili (Aidan Turner), Fili (Dean O'Gorman), Dwalin (Graham McTavish) and Bofur (James Nesbitt) are hiding from killer Orcs including Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) and their Wargs who wants nothing more than Thorin's head on something. Gandalf (The always remarkable Sir Ian McKellan) joins too, but goes away to search for more clues involving The Necromancer along with Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). Along the way, as they make their way back to Erebor, Bilbo and the dwarfs encounter some wickedly dangerous spiders, Mirkwood Elves, including returning regular Orlando Bloom as Legolas and Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, and also traveling in a town full of Men called Lake-town before trying to reach the almighty dragon known as Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). When they go back to Erebor to find Smaug and the Dwarfs' heirloom known as the Arkenstone, you wouldn't believe me when I tell you that it's one of the most spectacular moments ever brought on film. Here's the thing: You have to wait 108 minutes of that to get to see Bilbo meeting the dragon. Other than the meeting with Gollum and a rather nasty run-in with three trolls, Bilbo seeing Smaug is one of the more iconic passages from the book. And Peter Jackson brings it to life, proving once again that he is a visual genius who refuses to back down and let the special effects, no matter how brilliant they are, tell the story. "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" surprised me from beginning to end. It had to, despite the fact it's 8 minutes shorter than the first film and I still happen to be one of the skeptics who believes that 1 book does not create a trilogy of films. But having seen both of the films, I actually realized that, so far, they are not that bad. It breathes the story a bit more and the characters happen to grow a bit more stronger and the films tends to get a bit more darker while it happens to be lighter than "The Lord of the Rings". And while I admire Bilbo's bravery, Thorin's stubbornness and courage as well as developing some impressive leadership skills and Gandalf's wiseness (even though he has limited screen time than the rest), it's the supporting characters that gives "The Desolation of Smaug" a bit more sting, like Bilbo's sword. Lilly's Tauriel, a new addition to the film, is feisty, strong and rebellious and she's got a crush on Kili. Bloom as Legolas is awesome and is always good with a bow with arrows. Mikael Persbrandt drops by as Beorn, a skin-changer, a character I remembered very well from the book. And Stephen Fry commands his scenes as the likable but very corrupt Mayor of Lake-town. But for me, the scene-stealers are Lee Pace who is excellent as the Elvenking Thranduil, Legolas' father and Luke Evans (from "Immortals" and "Fast and Furious 6") who delivers a exceptional performance as Bard the Bowman, a character very expanded from the book, but amazingly, it works. I hope that everything falls into place when "The Battle of the Five Armies" hits theaters later this year and that it does not disappoint Tolkien enthusiasts and audiences who are so desperate to know what happens next, when it ends with a few wickedly stunning surprises and a cliffhanger so stunning that proves that when the time comes, all Hell will break loose. I'm so relieved that "The Hobbit" has managed to get an upgrade this time with the second chapter, and it's not just because of the awesome special effects, but those who love the story will get to see that there's a bit more heart and soul and that the magic of Middle-earth is not going anywhere. Plus, you get one cool barrel ride and some good Orc decapitations to go along with it.
Katniss Everdeen, Girl on Fire, returns with a bang in Francis Lawrence's pulse-pounding adaptation of Suzanne Collins' 2nd book in "The Hunger Games" trilogy
As we know last year, "The Hunger Games" became a surprising hit, introducing us to Katniss Everdeen, a female character who is strong, vulnerable and brave. And it made a movie star out of Jennifer Lawrence, who was the perfect choice to play Katniss. But some people (and fans) weren't pleased with the first film, mainly they thought it wasn't as strong as the book and that the shaky-cam wasn't suitable for this material. I thought that director Gary Ross did such a great job with the film, and luckily, I was very excited for the second installment. In the rare tradition of sequels that are better than the first film, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" joins in. This is a film that is more complex, more mature, more thrilling and more emotional than "The Hunger Games" and it's a magnificent adaptation of Suzanne Collins' 2nd book in the trilogy (soon to be four films) that will leave audiences breathless. In "Catching Fire", Katniss (Recent Oscar-Winner Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have survived last year's Hunger Games and are scarred from that experience, but President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is not pleased. When he visits Katniss in her home at District 12, he gives her an ultimatum: Convince the dystopian world of Panem that the (acting for the cameras) love between them is real during their Victory Tour or war will be coming. After their victory tour, in which most of the people in Panem are forming a rebellion against the Capitol, Katniss just wants to stay in District 12, hunting with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who have feelings for her, and to keep her mother and sister Prim (Willow Shields) safe. Snow wants to get rid of Katniss now that she's the voice of the revolution, but Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a better idea: Put her and Peeta back in the arena for the 3rd Quarter Quell (75th Hunger Games) with previous victors who are "all experienced killers". Some of those victors includes wise Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and nutty Wiress (Amanda Plummer) from District 3, fierce Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) from District 7 and handsome, but arrogant Finnick Odair (a charming star-making turn by Sam Claflin from "Snow White and the Huntsman") from District 4. As they make their way to the arena that are filled with excellent surprises (wonderfully shot in Hawaii with IMAX cameras), Katniss and Peeta wonder do they have to survive again in order to trust someone or are they just another piece in their games. This is a great opportunity to have a new director in Francis Lawrence (director of the fun "Water for Elephants" and "I Am Legend") who has a more relaxed approach than Gary Ross and he and Oscar-winning screenwriters Simon Beaufoy ("Slumdog Millionaire") and Michael DeBruyn a.k.a Michael Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine") manages to be faithful to the book but understands the themes of fear, hope, life, love and survival and combines them together so that it could resonate with any one who can relate to it. He even gives the cast also including returning regulars Woody Harrelson as Katniss and Peeta's mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, the PR agent of the Capitol, Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, host of Capitol TV and Lenny Kravitz as Katniss' stylist, Cinna, astonishing performances. Mr. Lawrence (not related to Jennifer), who will also direct the last two films based on the third book "Mockingjay", also gets some help from the returning regulars: exhilarating music composed by James Newton Howard and marvelous production design by Philip Messina and new additions: vivid costumes by Trish Summerville and beautifully photographed by Jo Willems. It's rare to have an amazing actress who can capture a leading character that is memorable and unforgettable, but also can carry us all the way throughout this series. And Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant at capturing Katniss, this time as a tortured soul who will do anything to survive. It's a wonderful blockbuster that is intense and intriguing, but also has a lot of heart and soul. You definitely wouldn't want to miss a pulse-pounding moment of it.
The Bling Ring (2013)
Sofia Coppola's quirky film about five teens who will steal anything to get their 15 minutes of fame
We know who these kids are. Five teenagers sneak into a house of a famous celebrity and sneak away with lots of jewelry, clothes, shoes, cash and even other accessories including a gun, drugs and a box full of watches. As Frank Ocean says in the end-title track of Sofia Coppola's 5th film "The Bling Ring", these are "super rich kids with nothing but fake friends". However, they weren't really super rich but they were trying to get by by being a part of the Hollywood limelight. Based on actual events and from the Vanity Fair article "The Suspect Wore Louboutins" (and later a book) by Nancy Jo Sales, this is a ridiculously stylish, fantastic and quirky film about five teens (4 girls and 1 boy) who are so bored with their normal high-school lives and decides to steal everything from the houses of Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox, Rachel Bilson and yes, even Lindsay Lohan in order to get their 15 minutes of fame. Set in Calabasas, California, this movie follows awkward gay teen Marc (marvelous Isreal Broussard) who moves from Indian Hills to Calabasas because he didn't fit in with the crowd. That is until he becomes friends with Rebecca (stunning Katie Chang), a girl who dreams of becoming a big fashion designer. Can I also say Rebecca is also a bit of a kleptomaniac? For her, having to survive high school and hang out with friends at clubs and at parties, it's just not enough for her. So, Rebecca becomes the ringleader in this scandal in which they steal from the rich celebrities and just give it...to themselves. Joining in are hip-hop-loving, gangsta-speaking and drugged-out party girl Chloe (dazzling Clare Julien), and also Nicki (the always lovely Emma Watson) and her friend Sam (sensational Taissa Farmiga, Vera's sister) who are stuck in their other world thanks to Nicki's New Age mom (The electric Leslie Mann). However, with every scandal, there lies a price and a consequence to pay for your actions in order to be a part of the Hollywood lifestyle once they continue to steal from the celebrities' houses whenever they're not around. "The Bling Ring" stings. And it should sting, mainly because Sofia Coppola, as a writer and director, knows how to create characters that we should love, hate or just both. But here's the thing, these teens are flawed. Do we care about them or do we just laugh at their debauchery or do we have the guts to stand up and say that it's the parents' fault for making them do this? It is kinda hard to answer that question, but Ms. Coppola (daughter of legendary filmmaker Francis Ford) sneaks in another question: do we feel sorry for them? And amazingly, that's a yes. But mostly, it's not afraid to make us laugh at them, because everyday for the kids, it's like sneaking into the mall after hours and stealing all the good free stuff that all the other celebrities have. The performances are amazing, besides Watson, Farmiga and Mann, some of the cast are newcomers and they are quite convincing every time you see them and they hold our attention. Watson, in her second film after Harry Potter, is, as always, sublime to watch. Donning long brown hair and with a convincing So-Cal accent, she captures Nicki mainly because she strikes while the iron is hot and she affectionately have a intelligence about her. Look at the beginning scene when she talks about how she believes in Karma and would like to run a country for all she knows and tell me that's not real enough for you. As a fan of Ms. Coppola, it is amazing that she uses digital photography with help from the late Harris Savides and Christopher Blauvelt to create a colorful, but somewhat bleak world that separates the teens from their luxurious lifestyles to their time at home, covering up all the evidence or lying to their parents about it. There are lots of things to talk for a movie that is filled by sharp bravado and electrifying firepower. Maybe the kids (wherever they may be) that inspired this story should learn something: It's not safe to sell yourself in order to get what you want, because in the end, it's only going to get you into more trouble. I urge you to see it and maybe, just maybe, you get to be a part of their world and see how in the end, crime does pay when you steal from so many celebrities. "The Bling Ring" is a terrific treasure.
Move over, Twilight! Abraham Lincoln is making vampires look cool again
Who knew that our 16th President of the United States had a secret life that nobody (including your friendly humble reviewer here) knows about? And who knew that a movie called "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" would actually be a wickedly cool action/horror movie that has a surprisingly quirky sense of humor as well as a warm heart? Whether if you knew so much about Honest Abe or if you've been dozing off during History Class, this movie might put you in your place if you're looking for something special to watch whether it's on Halloween or the night before your history exam. Directed with visual gusto by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian genius that brought us 2008's "Wanted" and produced by one of my favorite filmmakers, Tim Burton, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" follows our title character, played marvelously with star appeal and charm by Benjamin Walker, before he became the president that created the Emancipation Proclamation. He's a young lad seeking revenge on the vampire that killed his mother when he was a kid. Only then, he will need some guidance from a stranger named Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) who teaches Abe how to destroy vampires. (Don't forget, Henry is one, too.) His mission is to destroy every vampire he sees including his mother's killer, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), its leader, Adam (Rufus Sewell) and his sexy enforcer of a sister named Vadoma (Erin Wasson). They have a part to play by creating a nation full of vampires. Whenever he's not around slaying vampires with his silver ax, Abe develops a sweet relationship with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who will become his future First Lady, but even if he has to keep his profession secret from her, especially becoming the president we already know the history of, it's only a matter of time for him to save our nation before it would be at its end. As one of two movies of 2012 that tells the history of Honest Abe, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is one of those vampire movies that, unlike "The Twilight Saga", makes vampires cool again. It's not meant to be taken seriously, even though it's half a true story, it keeps a straight face by not trying to make it go over-the-top. The action sequences are spectacular and wildly original (two of my favorite ones are the chase with stampeding CGI horses and the climatic one with the train on the burning train tracks), the look of the film is fantastic, bringing a lot of grit and beauty to a action movie that has bite and the cast is just perfect, which also includes Anthony Mackie as Abe's childhood friend, Will, Jimmi Simpson as shopkeeper-turned-friend Joshua Speed and even an unbilled Alan Tudyk stops by for a few scenes as Stephen A. Douglas. Even the villains doesn't get to sneer or go over-the-top, except for one. Not to mention, the screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted the movie based on his fantastic best-selling novel, has a lot of wit and some funny one-liners. For example, when Henry asks what kind of weapons Abe like to use for killing vampires, he says that he's not very good with shooting irons, but he adds this: "But I was a rail splitter." It's a thrilling, funny, sometimes gory, and intense bloody adventure that's well worth looking at more than once. Plus, does this movie that has a vampire throwing a horse at our hero say "no" to you?
Man of Steel (2013)
In Krypton, the "S" may stand for Hope, but here on Earth, it still stands for Super
Superman has been an international icon for so many years. It's was too hard to believe when we read the comic books and saw his origin story coming to life right in front of our eyes and we marveled at the illustrated images and the power of him saving our world. Since Superman has just turned 75 this year, we started to think, do we need another Superman movie? Well, let me think: We had the serial films back in the 30's and 40's, then we had the late Christopher Reeve when he starred in all four Superman films from 1978 to 1987. (The original remained the best.) Then, next thing we know, Superman came to T.V. with Dean Cain stepping into the suit, then we had an origin story about him before he was Superman which was the series "Smallville". Then, in 2006, director Bryan Singer brought us "Superman Returns", which didn't do so well. But not to fear, I think the new Superman is something we might need after all. Which is why I decided to go for "Man of Steel" and in a way, it feels fresh and modern but borrows some of the formula from "Batman Begins" (The director of that film and the 2 sequels that followed is Christopher Nolan, who produced this movie), thus making it darker, grittier and surprisingly enough, has pure heart and emotion. Most of that mainly comes from the inspired casting of Henry Cavill, a British actor I remember very well from Showtime's "The Tudors", for creating a rather conflicted Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent. And whether he's ragged, rugged and/or being a normal guy, he carries a lot of charm and has the heart and soul to actually carry the movie on his muscled shoulders and that's just a start. We get to witness Superman's story from the beginning in Krypton, when his father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe, fantastic) arriving to see his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) giving birth to Kal-El. Then, as the story progresses, Krypton comes to an end. But, Kal-El on the other hand survives and resides in Smallville, Kansas under the alias Clark Kent. His two adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) are in the process of finding out who he really is, which is something he's been wanting to find out as well. Then as he grows up, he worked in a series of odd jobs as a fisherman, a bartender and even a waiter at IHop. Then he definitely discovers his true calling and his answers when he discovers a ship that was sent from Krypton that landed right here on Earth. This also attracts General Zod (Michael Shannon), who comes up with a plan to unleash Hell on Earth by building a new Krypton and to get rid of Kal-El, who turns into....well, you get the idea. "Man of Steel" doesn't exactly carry as much humor and fun as the Christopher Reeve films, but it takes itself seriously and I salute Zack Snyder (of the 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead", "300", "Watchmen" and "Sucker Punch" for creating an exciting ride that's fast-paced, energetic and heartwarming, filled with amazing special effects that doesn't overcrowd the story. He even gives terrific performances from an exceptional cast including Amy Adams as reporter Lois Lane and an ideal one at that, Laurence Fishburne is incredible as Perry White, Lois's boss at the Daily Planet, Costner and Lane as the Kents are brilliant and they have moments that will immediately tug at your heartstrings and Michael Shannon makes General Zod one of the best villains I have ever seen since the Joker. (D.C.-wise, of course). I must even give special props to Dylan Sprayberry as the 13-year-old Clark and Cooper Timberline as the 9-year-old Clark, for trying not to underplay the situations that Clark had to go through and trying to find his identity, but still comes out strong into the person he will become. As for Cavill, he definitely is a star on the rise. I know that even he can't top Reeve, but I admit that he is the best Superman since Reeve and he fits into the suit very well. I wouldn't be surprised if I've seen people from age 10 to 95 going to see it and coming out amazed, but have their own different opinions of it. My opinion is this: The "S" is not quite super yet, but it does stand for "Superb".
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Great F. Scott! Gatsby remains Gatsby, after all.
F. Scott Fitzgerald certainly was one of America's famous writers. He knew the world of "The Jazz Age". Alcohol was illegal, morals were looser, women had their hair and skirts shorter and there was the haves (Rich) and the have-nots (Poor). It was all good for a moment and then just like that...it was all gone. So, strictly speaking, if you got yourself into the world of Fitzgerald with his third book that came out in 1925, "The Great Gatsby" (I know I have), then you wait and see what Gatsby has in store for you. By Gatsby, I do mean Baz Luhrmann, that visionary wild genius who brought us "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet", "Strictly Ballroom" and "Moulin Rouge", brings us "The Great Gatsby", but in a way you haven't even visualized it before with the use of mind-blowing 3D. Teaming up with his frequent collaborators, co-writer Craig Pearce and Luhrmann's wife Catherine Martin (who does the film's wonderful production design and lavish costumes), he gives us a "Gatsby" that may not be in your head, but it's everything that we wanted to see and more. Also, he frames the story differently but remains true to the spirit and the words of what Fitzgerald was writing about in the book. (They literally leap off the page and into the screen.) The narrator/observer of the story is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a 29-year-old man who buys a house on West Egg, Long Island, New York (which was actually shot in Australia) while working as a bondsman on Wall Street. Set in the summer of 1922 during "The Jazz Age", Nick gets himself caught up in this whole new world where booze, partying and sex were not prohibited. One day, he gets invited to a party run by his next-door neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Turns out that this Gatsby has a lot of secrets. Are the rumors (German spy, war hero, killer) even true about him? Nick warms up to him a little bit, as Gatsby wants something special to complete his perfect world. Meet Nick's second cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). Gatsby has a strong connection to her, as he wants to continue with their relationship that happened five years ago, when she was a rich blossom and he was a poor soldier. Turns out though, she's married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a racist and sleazy snob who cheats on her with a mistress named Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) whose husband George (Jason Clarke from "Zero Dark Thirty" and TV's "Brotherhood") is an auto mechanic. Once Gatsby and Daisy's relationship starts to bloom, it's all starts to go downhill, which leads to events and secrets that are...quite unexpected. "The Great Gatsby" has something to ask us: Does it look and feel modern, while remaining true to the time period? The answer is yes. Absolutely, yes. What Luhrmann does, amazingly in my opinion, is to combine the world of jazz into the world of hip-hop with help from rap star Jay-Z (who is one of the executive producers of this movie as well as contributing 4 songs to the soundtrack). It all connects somehow, purely anachronistically weird to put modern music in during the summer of 1922, but it works. The brilliant soundtrack also gets help from Beyonce, Andre 3000, Fergie, Sia, will.i.am, Florence + The Machine, Lana Del Rey, the xx, Bryan Ferry, Emeli Sande, Nero, Gotye and the perfect use of Jack White's cover of U2's "Love Is Blindness". As a fan of Luhrmann, I loved that he uses the images that were in the book and turned them into something magical. Images like the green light, Gatsby's yellow Rolls-Royce and the blue sign with the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg will stay with you forever. Plus, the cast is phenomenal. DiCaprio makes a great Gatsby, for sure. He keeps it cool and calm, and there's a fantastic scene in which this Gatsby ultimately snaps at Tom while trying to defend Daisy's honor. Mulligan is a great Daisy, she's a sweet girl on the inside without a doubt, on the outside she's emotionally fragile. Maguire still keeps his boyish charm and gives such a terrific performance as Nick. Edgerton is appropriately sleazy as Tom, Isla Fisher carries some emotions and high spirits in her small role as Myrtle and Clarke has some moments that will ultimately break your heart as George. Also, a wonderful newcomer from Austraila, Elizabeth Debicki is beautifully gorgeous as Jordan Baker and Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan is a solid Meyer Wolfsheim, breaking through the walls of typecasting. "The Great Gatsby" is another golden experience from Luhrmann, a endearingly tragic love story at the core of it, but at the same time, there is also some social commentary going on there too. It's the perfect summer escape from all the superhero movies and action films that are coming out at the movies throughout the summer. It's a wild, enthralling and captivating romantic drama that glows with moments of sheer enchantment. See it in 3D, as Jordan Baker would say: "It kinda takes your breath away." Fitzgerald would've been proud for sure.
Les Misérables (2012)
Do You Hear the People Sing? It's about a movie for our times
If you were one of the lucky millions of people who read Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables", seen the stage show and dreamed a dream for a movie musical to come to life, faithfully and truthfully, good news, life has brought you that dream you dreamed. Thanks to Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (of "The King's Speech"), producer Cameron Mackintosh (of "The Phantom of the Opera" and the stage show of "Les Miz") and the originals of the stage show, Claude-Michel Schoenberg, Alain Boubil and Herbert Kretzmer, it finally comes to life. As a person who never seen the musicals on stage, but watched the movies based on the shows, I always imagined that something like "Les Miserables" would be a movie musical for our times, this is actually quite true with Occupy Wall Street and recent events that happened for the past couple of years. I'm getting too far away with this review, so perhaps I should start with this: Les Miserables is enthralling, heart-wrenching, epic, powerful, sometimes humorous, haunting and harrowing, and it is, without a doubt, the best film of 2012. In this sung-through libretto set in France, the story is about a prisoner named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who spent 19 years in jail (5 for stealing a loaf of bread, 14 for trying to escape) and is recently freed, however, he is on parole thanks to Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Having been released and not accepted into most towns, Valjean seeks refuge from The Bishop of Digne (The original Valjean on stage, Colm Wilkinson), rewarding with food and a few of his prized possessions. Having caught an epiphany of his about living a much better life, Valjean breaks his parole and hides, only for Javert to chase after him for years. Under the new identity of Monsieur Le Mayor, Valjean crosses paths with Fantine (Anne Hathaway, who recently won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in this role), a single mom who has been working at his factory, having been recently fired for accusations of prostitution by her co-workers and her boss, in which she ends up as one. Taking her to the hospital before she kicks the bucket much later, Valjean, with Fantine's permission, vows to take care of her daughter, Cosette (young version played by Isabelle Allen, older version played by Amanda Seyfried) and rescue her from the innkeepers Thenardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen). Years and years later, Valjean remains on the run from Javert, and keeping Cosette safe. However, safe will working out just fine when Cosette falls for a young Student of the Revolution named Marius (a star-making turn by Eddie Redmayne from "My Week with Marilyn"), who is on the crush target by his friend, Eponine (another star-making turn by Samantha Barks, who also played Eponine on stage), daughter of the Thenardiers. And of course, this is during the Rebellion of France done by The Students of the Revolution with leader Enjolras (fantastic Aaron Tveit) and little lad Gavroche (terrific Daniel Huttlestone). I won't say anything else, you just have to witness this for yourself. Les Miserables has its lovers and its haters, critically speaking of course. I know that the haters are criticizing this movie because Tom Hooper's respectable use of hand-held cameras and close-ups, thanks to cinematographer Danny Cohen. And why is Russell Crowe singing in this movie? I already know they are picking on him because of that, but I ignored them, because I salute Crowe for taking the courage to do something like this, and his performance is absolutely stunning, developing more than just a clichéd, single-minded bad guy. The lovers including me, will see this movie more than once. I would watch it again, because of not only Hooper's direction, but of him using his actors to actually sing live on-camera so that it can carry some real emotions through. For example, when Fantine is singing that oh-so-signature song "I Dreamed a Dream", it's in one shot, pure close-up and she pours her heart out about how her dream is "so different from this hell I'm living". It's one of the best scenes ever shot, and Hathaway puts Susan Boyle back in her place. The actors gives everything they got, especially Jackman and Hathaway, who definitely gives the best performances of their careers. Seyfried is heartwarming and as always, enchanting and her chemistry with Redmayne (with "A Heart Full of Love") is absolutely charming. Barks, who also carries Eponine's signature tune "On My Own", is beautifully heartbreaking. Cohen and Carter are a perfect movie couple and when they perform "Master of the House", it's hilarious and carries a lot of fun with that number. Note how they always pickpocketing a lot of people, while they are running their inn. And of course, I did say that Redmayne gives a star-making turn and boy, he is ingeniously good. When he belts out "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables", he knocks you out completely. I did say this is the best film of the year, because there is something about this movie makes it emotionally gripping and that is about hope. We only hope that sometimes we want our voices to be heard and how they want what's best for us, but we always have the chance to find out about the world and could maybe discover it. It may never change, but we'll never know, which quite fits this lyric: "There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes."
Middle-Earth awaits you...again
The best way to start off a review of a movie, especially one like "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is to start off with this burning question that has been on everyone's mind (including mine): How on Middle-earth would you take a prequel book which is 300 pages long (mine's 287) into three movies? According to director/co-writer Peter Jackson and his screenwriters Guillermo Del Toro, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, they wanted to expand the story a bit more by using the appendices by the back of the Lord of the Rings books. In a way, having seen "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" recently, it actually make sense. That way, we get a chance to know some of the characters, not to mention, a lot of exposition. Now, that I got that out of the way, I want to talk about "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey". This first part of a trilogy (another one comes out later this year, last one comes out in December 2014) which is based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien (who also wrote The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), is visually stunning, epic and also remains an enchanting piece of filmmaking the way that the Lord of the Rings film series have accomplished by doing. However, it doesn't match the greatness of the original trilogy which won a combined 17 Academy Awards. The movie sags a bit during its middle section, and sometimes, I wish they could take away some of the exposition so that we can enjoy the story a bit more. But those are my flaws for a well-made and entertaining film filled with intense action, amazing moments of humor and breathtaking special effects. Set 60 years before the Battle of Middle-earth, "The Hobbit" follows a young hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (a perfectly-cast Martin Freeman from "Sherlock" and "The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy") who has been asked by a wizard named Gandalf the Grey (one of the few returning regulars, Sir Ian McKellen) to accompany him on an adventure. He reluctantly refuses at first, only to find out later that 13 dwarfs have arrived at his small house, unannounced, including their leader Thorin Oakenshield (the marvelous Richard Armitage). After a raucous feast, Thorin comes up with a plan to take back their kingdom of Erebor from the clutches of the evil dragon known as Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch, in motion-capture form). So Bilbo leaves the life that he loves living in Hobbiton and joins the group, known as a "burgler" to the dwarfs, as they head their way towards the Misty Mountains. Along the way, they encounter a trio of bumbling trolls, Orcs, Wargs, Goblins, Elves, Stone Giants, a small creature named Gollum (Andy Serkis) and Eagles. And that's only the first part. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is totally worth the price of admission. For a lot of things, it's somewhat faithful to the writings of Tolkien. It's a bit overlong (It's 169 minutes long), but still you have to admire the craft and the work of production designer Dan Hennah, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and even the creative teams of Weta Workshop and Weta Digital. Not to mention the returning regulars from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy including Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman the White, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Elijah Wood as Frodo and of course, Ian Holm as the older Bilbo Baggins, who is telling the story before the events of "The Fellowship of the Ring" began. Peter Jackson, who won an Oscar for "The Return of the King", remains a visual genius. He understood the world of Middle-earth, he knew the characters and he knows how to visually execute the film with style, magic and to give us a hint of darkness, courtesy of composer Howard Shore, who incorporates some of the themes of the old and adding in some of the new. Shot in High-Frame Rate 3D (I only seen it in 2D), Jackson definitely adds something new to the story without letting go too far. What makes "The Hobbit" a spectacular feat (and saves it too) is by watching Freeman, Armitage, McKellen and Serkis. They own these characters and we accept them for that. You know what, this is that kind of movie I'll be glad to watch again. Let's hope that the next one, "The Desolation of Smaug" will be better than this one somehow.
Warm Bodies (2013)
Make way for a teenage zombie that is sure to be the best surprise to kick off the new year.
Here's something you don't see every day: A romantic comedy involving zombies. Thus, "Warm Bodies", a fresh, fast-paced, sensational and truly original delight that is sure to knock your socks off from beginning to end. Start with the premise: After an plague has cursed people to turn into zombies, the real humans including General Grigio (John Malkovich) separate themselves from the brain-eating zombies by building up a wall in order to keep them away. Along the way, we get to meet one of those zombies. Meet R (the charming British heartthrob Nicholas Hoult). He doesn't quite like this life, knowing that he has to eat brains in order to survive and to live off the memories of the humans he's killed. He's looking for someone to connect to, which is really explained through his facial expressions and inner monologues. Then it's love at first bite, when he's finally connecting to Julie (Australian beauty Teresa Palmer), daughter of General Grigio. When he sees her after she shoots most of his friends, he decides to protect her and to "keep her safe". Yes, this zombie is in love. Protecting her in his abandoned airplane filled with vinyl records, a record player, and other resourceful things, R finally gets to realize that something was missing in him all along, leaving his heart beating to realize that he loves her. That's when R, his friend M (a wonderful Rob Corddry) and the other zombies are starting to change. That's all good, until the CG skeletal creatures known as Bonies will do anything to prevent that from happening, which leads off into the film's fantastical climax. "Warm Bodies", directed by Jonathan Levine (of the delightful comedy-drama "50/50" and the incredibly wicked "The Wackness"), who also adapted the film from Isaac Marion's bestselling book for young adults, combines a mixture of 5 different genres (comedy, horror, romance, drama, even a little bit of sci-fi) that makes the film more smarter and even more better than "The Twilight Saga". (Take that, Jacob Black.) What also makes it work is the inspired casting of Nicholas Hoult from "About a Boy", "X-men: First Class" and the upcoming "Jack the Giant Slayer". As R, he literally dives deep into the emotions as well as having terrific comic timing through his expressions and his inner monologues by using a spot-on American accent. He also develops great chemistry with Teresa Palmer, known as the butt-kicking alien Six in "I Am Number Four", who, as Julie, has a tough and fearless personality as well as a emotional side to her. The supporting cast is also incredible, including Analeigh Tipton, who is hilarious as Julie's friend, Nora, Dave Franco (James's little brother from last year's "21 Jump Street") who gets a brief amount of screen time, but really sticks it out as Julie's ex-boyfriend, Perry, who (in order not to spoil this) gets called for a dinner date that includes brains on the menu and the great John Malkovich excels as a man who believes that the zombies are nothing more than just flesh-eating corpses looking forward to get shot in the head, but doesn't believe that his only daughter is in love with one. I know what you're thinking, this is just another zombie movie. But "Warm Bodies" is certainly different than that. It revives the zombie genre by bringing something original to the screen. For those who love the TV series "The Walking Dead" and the other zombie comedies "Zombieland" and "Shaun of the Dead", not to mention George A. Romero "...of the Dead" series, you actually will get a taste of what the zombie world is like through the eyes of one. And maybe like R's, your heart will warm up too. This is the best surprise so far this year. Note: "Warm Bodies" is pretty tame, but pushing the envelope for a PG-13 film involving zombies who eats brains and Bonies who consumes hearts. Those are hardly seen, but there are people who shoot zombies in the head with guns. That works in order to keep it very organic.