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The Legend of Katniss Everdeen
Before I went to see "Mockingjay: Part 2", I took my little time re-watching the first three installments of "The Hunger Games". I remember being very excited to the first "Hunger Games" after reading all three books. My main thing when it came to movies based on books is that it had to be done right. It definitely seemed like the odds be ever in our favor because it became a big hit for Lionsgate and producer Nina Jacobson. Year after year after year, I never wanted to miss a single "Hunger Games" film when it came out at the movies. Now my mission is complete and the powerful story of Katniss Everdeen comes to an end in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 2". Now, beware for what I am about to tell you because this is a grim, emotionally gripping and thrilling finale that already had me hooked. It's quite better than "Mockingjay: Part 1", to which some fans were disappointed by it (not me, okay, maybe a little), and even though it doesn't reach the epic quality of the first two films, it's safe to say that this is the best finale of a series that's more human and thought-provoking than any YA series out there. Part 2 of "Mockingjay" begins immediately after the events of Part 1. After a brutal attack caused by her love, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) due to the "hijacking" by the always subtly vicious President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Katniss (the always phenomenal Oscar-Winner Jennifer Lawrence) has reached her breaking point. She vows to take down Snow and the tyrannical Capital. Teamed up with Commander Boggs (Mahershala Ali), Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Finnick (Sam Claflin), Katniss seems ready to go, but it's not an easy way to get there. The entire city is booby-trapped with pods. Some are terrifying (like the unforgettable Lizard Mutts), some are disturbing (like floor mines) and some are definitely tricky (like thick black oil and machine guns). As the movie progresses, Peeta joins in, still messed up, and Katniss and the Squad 451 team has discovered that they are in a real-life war, where, as always, there are shocking casualties and no easy way out this time. I guess, we can say that they are played for pawns again and it turns into "the 76th Hunger Games", as Finnick reminds us. Throughout this fast-paced movie, it's less humorous and more darker and intense than the previous films. But it's more mature, more stronger and it's quite unflinching when its socio-political issues are shown to us in some moments. Katniss remains the Mockingjay, which is quite similar to Jennifer Lawrence who has become the real Mockingjay. They both have been plucked from obscurity and reached for something big by being what people really want from them and they do succeed at what they do the best. Both director Francis Lawrence and star Jennifer Lawrence (no relation), unsurprisingly, are the keys to making this remarkable series work. (Gary Ross did a fantastic job directing the first one). But I've been saying too much about them in my reviews of the films, let me give some support to the rest of the team. Props has to go to casting director Debra Zane for finding this excellent all-star team. From Woody Harrelson as Haymitch to Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket to the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee to Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin to Jena Malone as Johanna Mason to Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman to Natalie Dormer as Cressida and to, of course, Willow Shields as Katniss' sister, Prim. Everyone (well, not everyone) has their moments here and we get to say goodbye to these beloved characters and worlds that Suzanne Collins created. In the last installment, the stakes are higher than they have been before and Katniss will be tested in different ways that will lead her to make a choice or two that will change the dystopian world of Panem. Plus, it avoids the conventional happy ending and leave us with sparks of hope, even though "there are much worse games to play". What an amazing series. What a terrific finale. To quote Effie Trinket, "Breathe it all in, Katniss. This is all for you."
The Force is ALIVE!!!
It took me a long time to write reviews again, which is fair, because I have been going through a bit of a block lately. Since it's the first day of a new year, I guess it's fair that the first review I write of this year is last year's (actually, it came out three weeks ago) biggest hit. To be honest, I didn't expect "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" to crawl deep inside my brain and bring me back into the world of space that I remembered when I was a kid. Mainly, because I lost touch of it for a while. I wasn't born in 1977, but I remember seeing two of the three original "Star Wars" movies with my dad when it was re- released in 1997. Now after re-watching all 6 episodes of the Star Wars saga after seeing "Force", I realized that this was a world (or worlds) I couldn't leave behind. So, what's new this time? Well, Disney took over Lucasfilm, George Lucas is still retired, and it looks like the beginning of the new trilogy can definitely return to the flavor of the much-loved original trilogy (the prequel trilogy still remains quite divisive among fans). Now taken over by J.J. Abrams (director of "Star Trek" and its following sequel), "The Force Awakens" is a wonderful, exhilarating, funny, triumphant, sometimes tragic and beautifully imaginative adventure that reminded me and a lot of people who have already seen it how much we've loved and missed "Star Wars". We cheer for the heroes, hiss at the bad and we feel for the ones that are in-between. Plus, we get to experience worlds that Lucas and company has created 39 years ago and it still remains as vibrant and colorful and thrilling as ever. Whether you missed out or live in a cave (I don't think you're one of those people, because you've already seen the movie more than once), let me try to explain a bit of the plot without spoiling it. Set three decades after the events of "Return of the Jedi", a fellow Jedi that we all know and love has disappeared and the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is hell-bent on finding him and getting rid of him. Meanwhile, we get to meet some impressive new characters. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger from Jakku who has been for looking for her family ever since she was a little girl. Finn (John Boyega from "Attack the Block") is a Stormtrooper who has been ripped from his family and has been sent to kill but manages to turn the other corner, as it is. Finally, there's Poe (Oscar Isaac from "Ex Machina" and "Inside Llewyn Davis") who's a pilot. Oh, wait, there's also a new droid on the scene. Its name is BB-8, who is quite friendly and helpful in every way. Joined together quite late in the process, they team up with returning characters Han Solo (Harrison Ford), General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and, of course, our favorite Wookie, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) in order the find the missing Jedi and to take down the First Order led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Our mo-cap superstar Andy Serkis), Ren and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, also from "Ex Machina"). I was ever so reluctant to see another episode of "Star Wars", but after seeing it, it renewed my interest in the world of both filmmaking and "Star Wars". It looks as if Abrams has accomplished what Lucas did in the past, recreating the magic as if it still existed. Characters, galaxies, secrets, epic battles and plentiful twists and turns that never diminished of what Lucas had envisioned before. The only glue that remains as a big piece of the puzzle is the always unforgettable score done by John Williams. With the iconic opening theme and a few additional themes added in there as well, Williams once again creates another bit of lightning in a bottle. Nothing moved me more as I got to see Solo and Leia together again, as well as our original droids, C-3PO and R2D2. (Mark Hamill is also in here as well, but I can't reveal where he's at.) Plus the new characters are brilliantly cast. Newcomer Daisy Ridley is a star I definitely should keep my eye on. I even liked her chemistry with John Boyega, who is both heartfelt and humorous at certain turns. We don't get to see much of Poe in the movie, but Oscar Isaac brings a warm and dashing impression. But the standouts are definitely Adam Driver who brings a lot of terror and emotional depth as Kylo Ren and (obviously) Harrison Ford as Solo. This character that we loved for so long is charming, energetic and ruggedly laid-back as ever and Ford continues to make that character totally rewarding. This is a movie event I will never forget (next to "Jurassic World", it's easy not to overlook this). All I can say is this: I can't wait to see what Rian Johnson (director of "Looper" and "Brick") and Colin Trevorrow (director of "Jurassic World") can do with Episodes 8 (coming 2017) & 9 (coming 2019), because this is a fantastic saga that shouldn't be forgotten. The "Star Wars" saga still remains a amazing group of films that if you watch from the very beginning (I always start with Episodes I-III then Episodes IV-VI), you can see that the story still connects one way or another. I certainly hope to see this movie again. Probably because I want to pick up on some of the hidden secrets that are hinted at. Also, I want to be overwhelmed by the amazing visuals, memorable characters and incredible worlds. Another ingredient to add into this is that the Force has been passed down from one generation to another. With "The Force Awakens", it just shows that the force is definitely with us, forever and always. And I'm glad that I got to be apart of it again.
"Will You Follow Me...One Last Time?" Of course, we will
4 books by J.R.R. Tolkien. 6 films. 2 trilogies. And they were made by one director. Plus, it took 17 years to create these films. Has there ever been a time in which Peter Jackson needed to take a break? After creating "The Hobbit" trilogy, maybe he can. In one of the quieter moments of "The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies", Bilbo Baggins reminisces to Thorin Oakenshield about their journey that led them to the Dwarfs' Kingdom of Erebor, but also "The good, the bad and how lucky I am that I made it home." There is a lot to remember in the final Hobbit film, especially in the entire Middle-Earth saga. There are moments of light humor, thrilling action sequences that includes marvelous special effects as well as some awesome orc and goblin beheadings, powerful drama and of course, the enchantment that started with the imagination of an amazing author and an amazing filmmaker as well. In "The Battle of The Five Armies", the best of "The Hobbit" films, the stakes are high and our hobbit Bilbo along with our heroes are faced with deadly obstacles, not to mention that they discover something a whole lot more that could change Middle-Earth forever and will also lead into the events in "The Lord of the Rings". Now, of course, "The Battle of The Five Armies" immediately picks up right where "The Desolation of Smaug" left off. Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the Dwarfs has unintentionally let the dragon out of its cage. Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) has left Erebor, and now terrorizes Lake-town. What happens to him and Lake-town is an astonishing sight to witness. Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellan) was captured by The Necromancer now revealing itself as Sauron and is now discovering that Sauron has built up an Army or two lead by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) and his co-hort Bolg (John Tui) so they can cause and create hell on Middle-Earth. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the remaining dwarfs including Kili (Aidan Turner), Fili (Dean O'Gorman) and Bofur (James Nesbitt) has survived the attack on Lake-town. And the Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace) wants nothing more but to reclaim his own treasure. In the kingdom of Erebor, as predicted before, Thorin "can't see beyond his own desire", as he is suffering from Dragon-Sickness. Bilbo and the Dwarfs slowly starts to notice it, which leads to Bilbo to commit one fateful act to save Middle-Earth. If only that would be the case. Then, it leads to the subtitle of this film, in which Orcs, Men, Dwarfs, Elves and Eagles fight to the death in the ultimate battle of good vs. evil in the entire trilogy. Being the shortest of the entire Middle-Earth Saga (It's only 144 minutes), "The Battle of the Five Armies" has moments in which the characters realizing that something is worth fighting for rather than each other. They also commit (and sacrifice) themselves to find their place in this world. Because Jackson has a knack of creating the world of Middle-Earth with breathtaking special effects and a big cast, the films give each of the actors their moments to shine even if their moments are not as big as the others. For example, look at Martin Freeman. He caught my eye, surprisingly, as the lead in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and now, with the help of "Sherlock", the first season of FX's "Fargo" and with "The Hobbit" trilogy, he's becoming an top-notch, A-list star. His performance as Bilbo through these three films is remarkable, creating humanity as well as developing a surprisingly emotional side to him. I guess you can say he is becoming more like Bilbo, as well. Armitage's Shakespearian-like Thorin is scary-great. He creates a incredibly tragic character who slowly starts to care more about the journey, his kingdom, the Arkenstone and the gold, rather than the people guiding him on that quest, until he sees the dangers of falling into what his father and grandfather has done before, even when he says he doesn't want to be like them. Plus, it can be the last time we see some of the returning regulars like Ian McKellan as Gandalf the Grey, Cate Blanchett as Lady Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman the Wise and Hugo Weaving as Lord Elrond as they strike back and make magic one last time. But, as I stated before, the supporting players like Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Ken Stott (as Balin), Graham McTavish (as Dwalin) and Ryan Gage (as the slimy and greedy Alfrid) add a lot more sting and more emotional depth to their performances. "The Battle of the Five Armies" brings back some of the magic and greatness of "The Lord of the Rings" mainly because it adds a bit more substance to the films and it also moves in a more quicker pace. Plus, the action is more intense, the drama is more emotional, the love story between Kili and Tauriel is more stronger and there is some quirky humor snuck in there even when the tone has gotten more darker. These movies captivated me for so many years and it's rather fitting to say farewell to the cast and crew for bringing Tolkien's world of Middle-Earth to the screen with the last installment of the series. Like "Harry Potter", "The Chronicles of Narnia", and "The Hunger Games", their stories will (and have) become classics and once you viewed or read "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" as one equal, it all connects. Sometimes the best one is the last one worth waiting for.
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 Heath Ledger's 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 overplay 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.