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It's really hard for me to not spoil the surprises of a movie like "Me Before You". For general moviegoers, they'll be expecting another love story about two people who fall in love until one of the characters has a dark secret that could tear them apart. For fans of the book, they will love the fact that it's incredibly faithful to the Jojo Moyes novel (See "The Fault in Our Stars", "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" and other true-to-the-book movies for details), but also they will also get so much more out of it. I recently read the novel last month before the film came out and I found the book affectionate, funny and surprisingly uplifting. I think the key to any book-based movie is to find the right actors to have not only good chemistry, but to make sure that audiences will remember the characters in their hearts. Boy, have they lucked out with two immensely charming actors in this terrific film. "Me Before You" tells the story of Louisa "Lou" Clark (Emilia Clarke), a 26-year-old happy-go-lucky woman who has been trying to find the right job to support her working-class family. That is until she unexpectedly finds one by working as a caregiver to Will Traynor (Sam Claflin). Will was "The Man", that guy who had everything at the palm of his hands until an motorcycle accident left him an quadriplegic. Now he's sarcastic, bitter, moody and thinking of really dark thoughts. How did his heart turn to ice? Anyway, Lou refuses to be put off by a man who lost everything and gave his friends and everybody, as Lou calls it, "the (crappy) treatment". Suddenly, it starts off being an antagonistic relationship to a rather healthy one as Lou, with the help of her sister, Treena (Jenna Coleman), tries to help Will understand that life is definitely worth living for. And, yes, they do start to fall for one another, until Will has that secret that could end it all. I like the movie, but I do have a couple of minor problems: The first one is that the movie is not exactly as deep and sometimes dark as the book was. I give it points for letting the book and the movie asks the two questions: "Can you fall in love with a person but disagree on what their opinion of life is?" and "Can that same person change your life, even when it's least expected?" The second one is that first-time feature film director Thea Sharrock moves the film a little too fast without giving us a moment to understand Will's plight and Lou's cheerful earnestness while trying to get to the best parts of the story. But those problems did wash away with the help of Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin. Clarke, best known as the Mother of Dragons on "Game of Thrones", should've been a breakout movie star with that last Terminator movie. Here, that title suits Clarke well as the character of the quick-witted but sometimes vulnerable Lou. Claflin, in his first movie outside of "The Hunger Games" series, has the most challenging role, so far. But he is remarkable as the stubborn but sincere Will. Their chemistry together is amazing. The supporting cast is also good too, with Janet McTeer and Charles Dance (also from "Game of Thrones") as Will's parents who are constantly worried about him and his safety, Stephen Peacocke as Will's nurse, Nathan, Matthew Lewis (Hello, Neville Longbottom) as Lou's boyfriend who is completely uncomfortable about Lou's job, Brendan Coyle and Samantha Spiro as Lou's parents and there's also a really funny cameo from the "absolutely fabulous" Joanna Lumley. Credit must be given to Jojo Moyes, who adapted her terrific book to the screen (she also wrote the sequel book "After You") with some witty dialogue, tender emotion and sometimes dealing with real themes, although it's not as deep as the book. "Me Before You" is a simple story, sure. But while it probably won't be in my top 5 of the best love stories ever, I still found to be in the same old tradition of tearjerkers, the one where you laugh, you cry and you'll come out feeling good. By the way, it's a lot better than "The Choice".
The Portokalos family are that kind of family that joins the Parthenon of best movie families ever. A lot of us who are not Greek and come from different backgrounds can sometimes relate to this family. They are the kind of family that are big, loud, overbearing and sometimes obnoxious, but it's a lovable, wise and real family. That was part of the appeal of the genuinely funny and sincere "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" 14 years ago, which is still the #1 romantic comedy of all time, by the way, and it worked even more this time in the sequel to the surprise box-office hit. Here is a sequel that feels more natural than a simple cash-grab. It's a movie that brings back everybody (and I do mean, everybody) for another big fat Greek wedding, while also dealing with more situations that will surprise and even move your family. It's also the movie where I knew what was going to happen, but I didn't know how it will affect me in the end. In the first movie, we followed Toula, a 30-year-old Greek-American woman who got her life together and fell in love and ultimately married a non-Greek named Ian, which shocks her father, who wanted her to marry a Greek boy and make Greek babies. And, of course, in the end, Toula and Ian has a daughter. Now, in "MBFGW2", which takes place 11 years later, that daughter named Paris (now played by the delightful Elena Kampouris) is now growing up and is sort of fed up with her extended family constantly smothering her everywhere she goes and she really wants to go far away from her family. In the meantime, Toula (Nia Vardalos) and Ian (John Corbett) are struggling with their 17-year marriage. Are they missing the spark? Or is Toula busy trying to convince her daughter that she is making the wrong choice? The answer to that is quite an honest one. Since it's called "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", who's getting married? Well, turns out it's Toula's parents, Gus (Michael Constantine) and Maria (Lainie Kazan). When they were married 50 years ago, their marriage certificate was not signed. So that means everybody in the family comes back including the always reliable Aunt Voula (the hilarious Andrea Martin), sexy and feisty Nikki (Gia Carides), sincere Athena (Stavroula Logothettis), earnest Angelo (Joey Fatone) and muscle-bound Nick (Louis Mandylor) as they prepare for the biggest, fattest and Greek-est wedding since the first one. The success to these movies is the strong semi-autobiographical writing by Vardalos. Her screenplay to these two movies are filled with hilarious one-lines and visual gags that are sure to be quite memorable with people who've seen it more than once and sharp dialogue that can remind you of what your family used to say. But it's also honest (sometimes to a fault) and authentic. This wonderful ensemble cast is still remarkable and the charming chemistry between Vardalos and Corbett still resonates with me. Director Kirk Jones (taking over from Joel Zwick) who has dealt with an ensemble team before in "What to Expect When You're Expecting" and "Waking Ned Devine" keeps the brisk pace moving forward and makes sure that every single character gets their moments, including the kooky but endearing Mana-Yiayia (Bess Meisler), while filling the screen with enough hilarity and heart that all of us can remember the first time around. Sometimes movie sequels are viewed as "companion pieces". I don't usually use that term a lot, but "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" serves as a satisfying companion piece to the original. For one thing, it's great to see this family again because, for me, it feels like they haven't even left. They are still the same as they were before. They may have changed a little, but they are still who they are. Sometimes, I wished my family was like the Portokalos family. Do you think of the same question?
Forgive me for saying this, but I'm a sucker for love stories. I'm more familiar with the Nicholas Sparks brand because I remember the first time I actually got involved with his stories and that was "A Walk to Remember". It's been 14 years since that wonderful movie and 17 years since his first book-to-film being "Message in a Bottle" and it seems that the Sparks brand is still going and so far, he has written 18 books with one more coming out later this year and 11 of his books has been translated to the screen. The 11th is the more recent one and that is "The Choice". Now, I'll be honest. We know where this stuff is going, we know that it's predictable and we know where the twists are at. Still, "The Choice" is an impressive movie and what made me chose this movie are the two stars that made me smile and care as two characters who have two separate choices to make in their lives. After she made a terrific lead turn in one of my favorite surprises of 2013, "Warm Bodies", the always luminous Teresa Palmer keeps that star shining even brighter as Gabby Holland, a young nurse who moves to North Carolina and is the next-door neighbor of Travis Shaw (Benjamin Walker), a veterinarian who is a fun-loving party animal who hangs out with his friends and loves to drive girls crazy. Their friendship immediately starts off on the wrong foot when Gabby's dog gets pregnant and she blames him for letting his dog impregnate her. He asks her out, she rebuffs him. Mainly that's because she has a boyfriend in Dr. Ryan McCarthy (Tom Welling), who goes out of town. Also Travis gets blind-sighted by Monica (Alexandra Daddario), the girl his friends call "the boomerang". Anyway, he takes a liking to her, even though she "bothers" him, and then their friendship turns into something more than that. Then, in the tradition of Sparks, a tragedy happens and Travis and Gabby has to make two different choices. For Gabby, which man does she want to wake up with the next morning. For Travis, it's something a little more personal that I can't reveal. Usually, I stick around for the third-act of any Sparks movies to find out what happens next, but the third-act of "The Choice" is very obvious and somewhat dry. Like I said, we know what happens throughout the story, even if the final effect turns out to be something a little different. But what saves the movie and that last act are the magnetic chemistry of Palmer and Walker. Even though they may not match the magic of Noah & Allie, Landon & Jamie, Luke & Sophia, John & Savannah....and so on, Travis & Gabby are appealing, flawed and earnest people. They do argue with one another most of the time, but there is a lot of love there for the rest of the time. These two actors have it, especially Walker (remember him as "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"?), who shows a lot of emotions that shows up right in the final act. The movie also gets some solid support from Maggie Grace as Travis's sister, Stephanie and Tom Wilkinson, still superb as always as Dr. Shep, who is Travis's dad and also a veterinarian. It's also not afraid to show some humor in there too. Whether you think it's intentional or unintentional, well, that's your choice. I like the movie and the actors, so that's my opinion. However, I think that Mr. Sparks should try something a little more original and unpredictable. I know there's a reason why he's called the master of romance because he does appeal to the women as well as the hopeless romantics. He does produces some lavishing productions, though. I'm only hoping for it and I'm just saying.
You know the expression "kids like to be scared nowadays"? Well, let's just say that there was one author who knew how to whip up one...no make that over 100 stories that would scared the living #2 out of kids as well as their parents. That was the "Goosebumps" series written by R.L. Stine. Personally, I have read some of his books as well as growing up with the "Goosebumps" T.V. series back in the 90's. But I never would've thought that they would be interested in turning it into a movie. I was concerned that the filmmakers would pick a story and translated to film, because there are so many "Goosebumps" books. Wisely, with the help of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (of Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" and "Big Eyes"), who wrote the story and Darren Lemke (of "Jack the Giant Slayer" and "Shrek Forever After") who studied the blueprints of Alexander & Karaszewski and turned it into a screenplay, they came up with the clever idea of not having one monster, but over 50 of Stine's monsters (or unless I counted it wrong) in one movie, but with an original story to go with it. That's what made this "Goosebumps" movie for me an exciting experience. The story is one you heard of before, but spun in a witty and fresh way. It follows a teen named Zach Cooper (the incredible Dylan Minnette) who, after the loss of his father, moved from New York to Madison, Delaware with his mom (Amy Ryan, Oscar nominee of "Gone Baby Gone") who is the new principal of his new school. Once he arrives, he becomes friends with next-door neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush), but is quickly shooed away by her dad, Mr. Shivers (Jack Black) who warns the young boy to stay away from both of them. One night, things do get a bit bumpy and Zach and his new friend Champ ("Super 8"'s scene-stealer Ryan Lee), who was "born with the gift of fear", to investigate what's going on. Who knew that Mr. Shivers had a secret of his own that made people stay away from him? He happens to be R.L. Stine himself. Anyway, the two friends discovers the manuscripts of "Goosebumps" and Zach unintentionally opens one of them, releasing the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena. Now with some of the monsters, which includes lawn gnomes, ghouls, The Werewolf of Fever Swamp, a giant praying mantis, The Invisible Boy (voiced by Black) and a ventriloquist's dummy---sorry, puppet named Slappy (also voiced with such uproarious zest by Black) who serves as our main antagonist, leaping off the pages of their books, it's up to our four heroes to put them back into the books before Madison will become a real "Horrorland". In the tradition of movies of the 80's and 90's like "The Goonies", "Gremlins", and "Jumanji" (also add "The Spiderwick Chronicles", and "Zathura: A Space Adventure", if you have to), "Goosebumps", directed by Rob Letterman, is a fun family movie that is hilarious, charming and wonderfully thrilling with plenty of good old- fashioned scares that is not too scary, but scary enough for kids ages 9 & up. The adults who know or don't know about "Goosebumps" will also enjoy it and will get to savor in Jack Black's over-the-top funny and warm performance, reminding us with movies like "Shallow Hal", "School of Rock" and the "Kung Fu Panda" movies what an amazing comedic and tender presence he has. The three kids are quite impressive and likable, which is good. And even the superb supporting cast (including the always hilarious Jillian Bell as Zach's boy-crazy Aunt Lorraine, Timothy Simons and Amanda Lund as the two most dim-witted police officers in movie history and an underutilized Ken Marino as the coach who nearly hits on Principal Cooper) doesn't hurt, too. Plus, the screenplay provides some really funny insights (and in-jokes) on the "Goosebumps" stories, Stine making a few off-handed comments about "Steve" King: "I've sold way more books than him, but no one ever talks about that! Ever!" and delivering some solid one-liners, some of them come from the lovable, but wimpy Champ. I hope we get to have some more family films like this. Usually, we don't get a lot of smart live-action family films that aren't rude, sloppy or reaching for masochistic pain. It's a very good thing that "Goosebumps" belongs in that category because we all have to pick up a book one day and get lost in the world of imagination. That's what we all need, that's my philosophy. Plus, it's nice to be scared by something as classic as this. And, as Mr. Stine pointed out, every great story has a beginning, a middle and a twist. This is one of the best family films of 2015.
I'll be very brief about this, because this movie has been on the negative end for some critics. But say what you want about it, because despite its problems, the second film in the DC Extended Universe "Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice" is incredibly entertaining. Sure, it's loud, it's big, it's overlong, over-scored and sometimes overstuffed with characters and plot points, but I didn't care. I was enthralled by the experience of seeing two of our best DC superheroes in a vicious battle beyond anything else. Now, I'm going to try my best not to spoil it, but let me see what I can remember. Set after the destructive event that led to a very controversial choice involving our Man of Steel, everyone is thinking this: Is Superman a threat? Or is he the savior? One thinks of that first question. Ben Affleck is a nice choice to fit into the Batman suit as well as playing the playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne. He's very hell-bent on getting rid of Superman mainly because of that disastrous event that changed everything for him. Superman a.k.a. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is very conflicted about his decisions and wonders if he is both. He remains in love with his fellow Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), still a very feisty one, and she sees that he is a good man. And then there's Lex Luthor, played with such madcap zest that will make people love it or hate it by Jesse Eisenberg, who would also love to see Superman fall. And you know how villains are, they always carry a secret that could at least bring one of our heroes down. Another addition to the mix is Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman (A wickedly awesome Gal Gadot from Fast & Furious 4-6), the Amazonian princess who will probably steal Batman's heart and help save the day. The fight between God and Man (Thus the first part of the title, by the way) will arrive soon and it's very intense, but it's also quite an emotional one that will lead to some very unexpected surprises. I had a good time with this movie. Sure it might turn people off, but it's very epic and very stunning throughout. Director Zack Snyder (of "300" and "Man of Steel") and screenwriters Chris Terrio (of the Oscar-Winning "Argo" with Ben Affleck) and David S. Goyer (of the "Blade" trilogy, "Batman Begins" and "Man of Steel") kept me on the edge of my seat with some startling secrets (some will lead to the two-part Justice League movies), terrific characters and heartfelt moments that I am sure that comic-book fans would definitely approve. It still doesn't have much joy and humor than the previous efforts, but I guess it's worth it. Plus, the action is insanely good, so that helps, too. As I mention before, Affleck is terrific to watch as Batman. But is he the best Batman since Christian Bale, Michael Keaton and, to a great extent due to his upcoming Lego adventure, Will Arnett? I will give it some time to think about it. But I still think Cavill is the best Superman since the late Christopher Reeve, Adams is quietly convincing once again as Ms. Lane and Jeremy Irons is fantastic (as usual) as Batman's butler, Alfred. Plus I have to mention some nice supporting work from Holly Hunter as Senator June Finch, Diane Lane as Clark's adoptive mom, Martha, Tao Okamoto as Lex's assistant Mercy Graves and Harry Lennix as Secretary Swanwick, who knows a thing or two. This is a purely exciting film. I hope that the next films of the DC Extended Universe doesn't disappoint, because something tells me that was a warm-up in order to get ready for the "Justice League" films. But I'm pretty sure that when I take a look back at "Man of Steel" and this movie, there are some clues as to why these chain of events happen to set up the story. But at least, I was fully aware of what was going to happen but didn't know how it was happening. The hype is real. We should start believing in it.
Confession: I have a very limited comic book experience. I just learn about these Marvel or D.C. characters from either my 17-year-old uncle or my knowledge from traditional comic-book movies and animated T.V. shows. The best comic-book movies I always connected with the most are the X-Men saga. I've been a fan ever since the first movie directed by Bryan Singer came out 16 years ago. (Currently waiting for "X-Men: Apocalypse" to come out this Memorial Day.) But this is quite new to me when I heard that there is a "Deadpool" movie actually happening. Last time I heard about "Deadpool", I first saw him in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", which I liked but it was the rotten apple of the series. He was, of course, played by Ryan Reynolds, who made the most of his very small role until... (see the movie or not and see why all of us were so disappointed.) Anyway, me being the reluctant one, I didn't think a "Deadpool" movie would work. Guess what, it's the one all of us comic- book or non-comic-book nerds are waiting for. So why did I warm up to "Deadpool"? Well, for one thing, this guy who dresses up in a red suit is the kind of hero we haven't seen in a while. A man who shoots first and says a few wise-ass things after that. He's also known to break all types of walls (first, second, third, fourth and I'm pretty sure there's a fifth one) and he doesn't give a *bleep* about everything. As played by Reynolds, he seems to be the perfect choice for an R-rated and unbelievably unconventional Marvel character. So, how does this movie work? Well, it starts off with the ridiculously inventive opening titles done in Deadpool's way plus a killer action sequence on a highway. Then it's the origin story of "Deadpool" which is quite a surprising one. We get to meet Wade T. Wilson (Reynolds), also known as "The Merc with the Mouth" and maximum brute force. He also finds his "Pretty Woman" (see what I did there?) in Vanessa (Morena Baccarin from "Spy", "Gotham" and "Homeland"). There is a massive flaw in this system, in which he has cancer. Making sure he doesn't lose her, he signs for a experiment that should help him be cured of cancer. Turns out poor Wade made a deal with the devil, or in this case, Ajax (a stunning Ed Skrein who is obviously a doppelganger for Nicholas Hoult, also known as "Beast" from the "X-Men" series) for an experiment that goes horribly wrong leaving his whole body scarred. Now, all Wade needs to do is get revenge on Ajax and once he puts on the Deadpool outfit, it's all good to go. But standing in his way though are two members of the X-Men: Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (feisty Brianna Hildebrand). "Deadpool" is (and has to be) the best R- Rated unconventional superhero movie of its kind since the original "Kick-Ass". It has the right to make fun of the superhero genre and be super cheeky, clever, dark, funny and incredibly bloody. It even wears its heart and the R-Rating on its sleeve, for example, there's a sex scene with Deadpool and Vanessa, set to Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl" that pushes the boundaries to anything I've ever seen. Plus, the bone- breaking, blood-spurting action is about as inventive as one could possibly ask for. Plus, Deadpool also has a tendency to talk smack about everything from the studio that's releasing the film to the X-Men to Wolverine and the actor playing him and even the actor that's playing Deadpool. Although I wasn't a fan of "Van Wilder" and I only warmed to him when he was in great movies like "Definitely, Maybe", "The Proposal", "Smokin' Aces" and "The Change-Up", I like Ryan Reynolds and he's very good here. Scratch the "very good", he's electric in the role of Deadpool. His foul-mouthed, fast-paced and earnest deliveries of certain lines are sure to be quite memorable. And even though there are times when we just want him to shut up, you can't put him down because we like Deadpool and we certainly want him to get the girl. He's also helped by a really cool cast including Morena Baccarin who provides the heart and soul of gold in the love story part, T.J. Miller, who I also like, is pitch-perfect as "the comic relief" (in Deadpool's terms, not mine) Weasel, Leslie Uggams as Uncle Al, who is wise, blind and caring (not in the traditional sense) and M.M.A fighter turned movie star Gina Carano is lethally badass as Angel Dust, who is more stronger than Mr. Pool and Colossus all combined. Props has to go to first-time director Tim Miller (from the world of visual effects) and screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick of "Zombieland" for letting this animal go loose in wild, big and cool ways that breaks the usual types of stuff we usually see in most superhero movies and for giving Reynolds an opportunity to get comically crazy and go out blazing with a high chord, like he always does. Deadpool is actually the first movie of 2016 that unabashedly lives up to the hype, mainly because we weren't expecting something quite like this. I don't know if we will have something like this again, but hey, at least it was awesome, right? You'll have a blast, trust me and bring some chimichangas while you're at it. It's the perfect and most twisted Valentine's Day gift you'll give to your significant other. Oh, and one more thing, this movie is not for the faint of heart, the squeamish and certainly not for kids.
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."
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 a part of it again.
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.
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.
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