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Nuuk (2019)
Snowbound Miseries
8 November 2019
Usually, if a Filipino movie is shot in a foreign country, it is to take advantage of its festive scenery and exotic romantic ambiance. But this one is very different. Nuuk is the capital and largest city of Greenland, an island territory of Denmark, three-fourths of which are within the Arctic Circle. This location was chosen for its seemingly perpetual bitter cold and snowy winters, which was just the perfect backdrop for this story of desolation and depression.

Elaisa Svendsen is a middle-aged Filipina woman who lived in Nuuk. She had been a widow twice-over already. She had a very testy relationship with her rebellious young adult son Karl Kleist. She had been estranged for some time because her interference with his love affairs cost him the girl he truly loved.

One day, while desperate for her Prozac fix, she met a visiting Filipino seaman Mark Alvarez at the pharmacy. Friendly and caring, Mark lent Elaisa a helping hand with her many problems. Just when Elaisa thought some sun was shining through in her life, it appeared that a blizzard was threatening to cause further havoc.

Alice Dixson had the showier role as Elaisa, and she went for it unrestrained. She was a lonely woman whose struggle to make a meaningful connection with her son had wreaked damage to her delicate psyche. Her vodka and her Prozac pills were her only friends in her tough times. In the final act she had a number of intense breakdown scenes, a couple of them set outdoors in the snow which definitely raised the level of difficulty.

For most of the film, Aga Muhlach played Mark as Elaisa's supportive friend and potential Romeo. Initially, his performance felt rather tentative and unnatural, which was unusual knowing the caliber of actor that he is. However, by the time the final act came around, everything fell into place so well that we understand the rationale of the acting choices he made to make his character more believable.

The third actor in this drama is Greenlander filmmaker and actor Ujarneq Fleischer in the role of Karl. This was a difficult and thankless role, playing a troubled character not easy to like or sympathize with. Based on Karl's life, the image of life in Nuuk was not too rosy compared to life in the Philippines. Comments on the high rate of suicide among the youth and the easy morals of girls further cast Greenland in a rather unfavorable light.

Every carefully-chosen scene location emanated a sense a sinking feeling of distance, misery and isolation. The bluish tint cast over the white outdoor scenes made the whole atmosphere feel all the more bleak. The pacing of the story telling was purposely slow to build up more tension. However, there were scenes where momentum flagged (like some awkward romance scenes) or felt repetitive (like those Karl scenes at the bar).

The first film by director Veronica Velasco that I had seen was "Through Night and Day" (2018), a rom-com which she shot in Iceland. However, in this new project, she went even further north into Greenland and shot this psychological noir in sub-zero temperatures. This was a commendable effort to tell a complex story not commonly tackled in Filipino films in a technique not commonly used by local filmmakers particularly for mainstream films. 7/10.
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Midway (2019)
Account of Crucial Naval Battle in Emmerich Style
29 October 2019
This film is a straightforward retelling of the events in the first months of the War in the Pacific beginning with Pearl Harbor and culminating in the Battle of Midway (June 1942). In between, it also touched on Doolittle's Raid on Tokyo (April 1942) and the Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942). The story was told mainly from the point of view of two American soldiers, namely pilot Lt. Dick Best (Ed Skrein) who led his dive bomber squadron at Midway, and intelligence officer Lt. Comm. Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) who with his code-breaker team predicted the Midway attack.

Along the way, we meet other famous American soldiers: Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet; Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey (Dennis Quaid) who led the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise; Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance (Jake Weber) who took over the Enterprise for the Battle of Midway; Best's fellow aviators Lt. Comm. Wade McClusky (Luke Evans), Lt. Comm. Eugene Lindsey (Darren Criss) and Lt. Comm. Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart); cryptographer Commander Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown) and Aviation Machinist Mate Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas).

The side of the Japanese Imperial Army and their unique military culture were also given fair screen time in this film. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Commander in Chief of their combined fleet, was portrayed with calm and quiet dignity. We also get to meet other Japanese officers and their own brands of leadership Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano) who commanded the Hiryu with nobility, and Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (Jun Kunimura) whose controversial battle decisions had negative impact against the Japanese campaign.

The execution of the critical battle scenes are the main draws to watch this film. Director Roland Emmerich will always be remembered as the man who brought us "Independence Day" (1996) and "2012" (2009). Of course, there are big explosions and massive destruction here as well. The massive scenes showing fiery exploding seacraft and aircraft were rendered with crisp cinematography and meticulous visual effects to create impressive screen spectacles. The aviation scenes, particularly the dive bomber runs by Dick Best, were excellently staged, shot and edited to elicit an exhilarating rush.

For its 2 hours 18 minute run, the story of the crucial naval battles and the heroism of its real-life protagonists were front and center here in "Midway." There were no fictional characters or cheesy love stories like in the first "Midway" film or "Pearl Harbor." While seeing some popular young actors like Criss or Jonas can be distracting, the all-star cast generally rendered honor and respect to the heroes they portrayed. Focusing on soldiers of lesser rank allowed for some intimate personal drama in actual battle situations, perhaps with not much depth as possible. As this movie is rated PG, so do not expect to see graphic injuries at the level of "Saving Private Ryan."
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Missed the YA Adventure Bandwagon
2 August 2018
Warning: Spoilers
In an unspecified year in the future, 98% of American kids were wiped out by a mysterious disease called Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration (or IAAN). 10-year old Ruby Daly was one of the survivors. She and the other survivors of the plague were gathered up by the government and put them in a camp.

There the kids were classified by color, based on the special ability that they possessed: Greens were geniuses. Blues were telepathics. Golds had electrical powers. Reds and Oranges were rare, but were considered dangerous and were terminated on site. Ruby was an Orange. She had to discover how to use her power in order to survive.

When Ruby was able to escape from her camp, she met and made friends with a group of fellow runaways, namely Zu (a Yellow cutie), Chubbs (a Green nerd) and Liam (a Blue jock). Inevitably, a romance will bloom between Ruby and Liam, a common angle in these YA books. They eventually found and sought refuge in EDO, a camp for survivor kids.

I went into this film not knowing that it was based on the first book of a young adult book series written by Alexandra Bracken. Her "The Darkest Minds" series started in 2012, and is now already into its fifth installment. When it came to the part about classifying the kids according to their abilities, "Divergent" immediately came to mind. That book series by Veronica Roth began in 2011. So these two were basically one in spirit, riding the same YA trend in the earlier part of this decade.

However, the film version of "Divergent" came out in 2014, just about the same time when similar YA films like "The Hunger Games" (2012) and its sequels, "The Giver" (2014) and "The Maze Runner" (2014) came out. That is the problem with "The Darkest Minds," it came out at this time when this trend had already run out of steam. Even the sequels of "Divergent" and "Maze Runner" only did middling box office business when they were released more recently.

Up and coming young actress Amandla Sternberg played Ruby. She has the star quality and screen presence seen in Jennifer Lawrence (as Katniss Everdeen) and Shailene Woodley (as Beatrice Prior). Sternberg began her career as young Cataleya in "Columbiana" (2011) and as Rue in "The Hunger Games" (2012). She had her first lead role last year in "Everything, Everything," and now this. With the sensitive acting she showed here, it is not far-fetched that she will also earn critical acclaim in the future.

Harris Dickinson played Liam Stewart. He was in the same mold as Theo James (as Four in "Divergent"), looking and acting a lot like him. Skylan Brooks and Miya Cech play her other friends Chubs and Suzume "Zu", respectively. Patrick Gibson played Clancy Gray, the son of the US President and a fellow Orange who took a special interest in Ruby.

Former teen star Mandy Moore (from "A Walk to Remember," 2002) is now 34 years old, and played Dr. Cate, a doctor from the resistance (Children's League) who helped Ruby escape the camp. Bradley Whitford played US President Grey, a shadowy figurehead much like President Snow was in "Hunger Games." "Game of Thrones" star Gwendoline Christie had a few scenes as Lady Jane, a bounty hunter chasing runaway kids.

Watching "The Darkest Minds" gave me a "been there, done that" feeling. I could not help but see just another rehash of all the previous YA adventure series, and that was also reflected in this review. It did have its own twists, particularly regarding a certain power that only Ruby can perform, but it will take sequels to explore how this story will proceed from the familiar set-up it had begun with here. As of now though, we are still not sure if those sequels will come or not. 5/10.
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Virtual Virtuosity
24 March 2018
"Ready Player One" was first a sci-fi novel written by Ernest Cline, published in 2011. Warner Bros. saw so much potential in this novel, they bought the rights for its film version a full year before it was even published. Cline adapted his own book into a script, with the assistance of veteran screenwriter Zak Penn. With Steven Spielberg signing on to direct in 2015, this film had all the ingredients for a blockbuster film.

It is 2045. Wade Watt was an orphaned young man who lived in the "Stacks," a dystopian slum neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. Like everyone else at that time, Wade spent his days going inside the OASIS, a virtual world where people can do anything they desire. As his avatar Parzival, Wade wanted to win the game challenge left by the late OASIS inventor James Halliday -- where anyone who can win three keys leading to an Easter Egg hidden somewhere in the OASIS will inherit full ownership of the Halliday's invention.

I first saw lead actor Tye Sheridan in 2015 in two thematically diverse films like "Scout's Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" (MY REVIEW) and "Dark Places" (MY REVIEW). He then made a strong impression as the young Cyclops in "X-Men: Apocalypse" (2016). His role here as Wade Watts is bound to launch this young 21-year old actor into super-stardom. Although half of the time, we see him as his avatar Parzival, Sheridan ably carried the whole film on his shoulders in both the action and drama components of his role.

His group of friends in the OASIS were a diverse bunch of very skilled video game geeks. Lena Waithe played Helen Harris, whose OASIS identity Aech was a musclebound male techie and Wade's best friend. Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao play Japanese gamers Toshiro and Akihide whose avatars were samurai Daito and ninja Shoto respectively. Olivia Cooke played Samantha Cook, a rebel activist in real life and Wade's cyber crush Art3mis virtually. Although the book does not have a follow-up, it does not seem impossible if we see this group again in a future sequel for further adventures of The High Five.

Mark Rylance was not easily recognized in his unkempt long-haired geek make-up as the eccentric James Halliday, the timid genius who developed a virtual world to escape the loneliness of the real world. Simon Pegg played Halliday's only friend and business partner Ogden Morrow, who later became estranged due to their divergent philosophies.

Veteran character actor Ben Mendehlson played the main antagonist character Nolan Sorrento, CEO of the Innovative Online Industries or IOI, manufacturers of virtual reality hardware. He hired an entire army of virtual warriors in order to win Halliday's Easter Egg in order for IOI to gain control of the whole OASIS. There was so much subtle tongue-in-cheek humor in his portrayal of a ruthless character. T.J. Miller stole scenes as virtual mercenary i-R0k whom Sorrento hired to do his virtual mayhem.

This film was so much fun to watch with all the pop culture references that abound in it. You'd need repeated watching of this film to catch all those little juicy details hidden in the scenes and the dialogue. You will see King Kong, Mecha-Godzilla, Gundam, the Iron Giant in all their glory, and catch glimpses of the Batmobile, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Tony Manero's disco moves and many more.

The musical soundtrack was steeped in 1980s pop songs, beginning with Van Halen's "Jump" from the opening scene, and citations of a-ha and Duran Duran. There were rich references to 1980s movies with mentions of names like John Hughes, Ferris Bueller and Buckaroo Banzai. Parzival's car is a DeLorean from "Back to the Future." There was entire elaborate segment dedicated to a tribute to the horror classic "The Shining" (Stanley Kubrick, 1980), in what is probably the most fun part of the whole film.

Watching a film like this in 3D IMAX is very much worth the additional ticket expense. The computer-generated world of OASIS really came alive three-dimensionally for the audience as they are drawn in and immersed into what is practically what the characters were virtually seeing and experiencing in their heads.

From the 1970s all the way to the 1990s, Steven Spielberg had given us some of the most engaging adventure films of all time both by young film fans and old -- "Jaws" (1974), "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), "Jurassic Park" (1993). It is only now that Spielberg had again handled material that showed that he still had that magic touch when it comes to directing these types of films, making them connect with audiences of all generations. 10/10.
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Red Sparrow (2018)
Modern-Day Matahari
2 March 2018
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) was a prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet until a freak accident forced her out of her rising career due to injury. Desperate to be able to keep supporting her ill mother (Joely Richardson), Dominika accepted the sketchy offer of her very own uncle Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a highly-placed Russian spy official, to help them lure a certain subject for an extra-judicial execution.

She was sent to an academy for Sparrows under the tutelage of the "Matron" (Charlotte Rampling). This was a training ground for select agents who would use their looks and bodies to seduce required information out of targets. Her first case was to make contact with an American agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), and coax out of him the identity of the Russian mole he was protecting.

The film is a long one, 140 minutes -- more than two hours. It took its time to establish Dominika's back story in the first act. It devoted a lot of scenes of her Sparrow training, and these were some of the most interesting, controversial and sensational parts of the film. The rest of the film would be standard double-crossing spy dramatics we are more familiar with, a femme fatale spy is one of the oldest tricks in the book. However, not without some unexpected nifty twists of its own.

Jennifer Lawrence finally conquered her fear to do film nudity in one very bold scene in front of a room of people, as she taunted a fellow trainee Nikolai (Makar Zaporozhskiy) to have sex with her. I was expecting bone-crushing fight scenes like those we saw in other female spy films like "Salt" or "Atomic Blonde" but there was not much of that here. That does not mean though that this was short on painfully gruesome torture scenes -- both inflicted on, and inflicted by, JLaw. She felt really ice cold here, not easy for us to connect with.

Joel Edgerton played an unconventional movie spy -- a one-dimensional good guy. There was never a point where you felt Nash would do anything bad to Dominika. Funny how the men (not JLaw) kept on referring to him as handsome, like we need to be convinced. On the other hand, I was more impressed with the characterization of Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts of Dominika's Uncle Vanya. You knew the character was bad news, but the actor tries to give him some layers to make that final scene worth your while. Jeremy Irons looked miscast as the Russian General Korchnoi.

I wish Charlotte Rampling had more to do in the film than in only in those training center scenes. I was hoping that she and/or any of her classmates would figure in actual action somewhere else in the film, but there would be none of that. Mary Louise Parker was as quirky (and spaced out) as ever as Stephanie Boucher, the chief of staff to a US senator who was not averse to sharing secret data with her lesbian lover who turned out to be another Sparrow Marta (Thekla Reuten).

The storytelling of director Francis Lawrence (best known for having directed JLaw in three out of the four "Hunger Games" films) was not complicated and engaging, but may have occasional drag in certain points in Act 2. It sort of felt like a "Mission Impossible" the way the elements of the complex scheme all fell neatly into place. I think there could have been a more deeply psychological exploration of sexual espionage, as that was its main selling point. The Sparrow academy part could actually have been a whole film in itself, but here, it barely scratched the surface of its cinematic potential. 6/10.
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Paper-Thin Crime Story Pushes Sex to the Side
7 February 2018
Anastasia and Christian are now married. Being married to a controlling billionaire, Ana felt stifled by Christian's rules and security, but she enjoyed defying him to make her point felt. Their European honeymoon was interrupted by news of a fire set inside Christian's office building. Much later, Ana herself was assaulted in their own condo by an intruder who turned out to be her ex-boss Eric Hyde. Aside from trying to figure out why Hyde hated Grey with a passion, the newlyweds also try to deal with an unexpected guest.

Since this film was shot back to back with the second film by director James Foley, it looked and felt just like it. There was not much improvement to be expected in the acting of Dakota Johnson and Jaime Dornan, though they did seem to be more relaxed already by now. Eric Johnson was one-dimensional in his portrayal of token antagonist Jack Hyde. The rest of the cast may be good-looking but were similarly bland, from Brant Daugherty (as Ana's stiff bodyguard Sawyer) to Arielle Kebbel (as the flirty architect Gia Matteo).

The cinematography was still lush and vibrant, showing the extravagant lifestyles of the rich and famous Greys (their vacations, their houses, their cars), as well as what happens in their bedrooms. The sexy scenes were not as instrumental to the story anymore as they were in the first two films. These gratuitous scenes basically became fillers to stretch out a lame revenge crime story into 105 minutes.

The best aspect of all the Fifty Shades films remains to be its musical soundtrack. There is nothing that immediately stood out as strongly as "Love Me Like You Do" or "Earned It" did from the first film, or "I Don't Wanna Live Forever" from the second film. However, "For You" by Rita Ora (who played as Christian's sister Mia) and Liam Payne, and "Capital Letters" by Hailee Steinfeld are definitely ear candy that deserve to be radio hits as well. We also get to see and hear Jaime Dornan sing "Maybe I'm Amazed" while playing the piano -- not bad.

The paper-thin story actually centered around dreary side character Eric Hyde and his vindictiveness, than about Christian Grey and his BDSM obsession. There was clearly nothing more to tell about Grey anymore here. We see only Christian's petulant immaturity when dealing with adult relationship issues. While Ana had the more interesting story to tell, Niall Leonard's script can occasionally make her come across as flighty and annoying. Anyhow, at least we can see that these two really deserve each other! 4/10.
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Winchester (2018)
Campy Ms. Mirren as Widow in Black
2 February 2018
The year was 1906 in San Jose, California. San Francisco-based psychiatrist Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) was called in by the lawyers of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. to assess the mental health of their CEO, Mrs. Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). She had been obsessed about constantly building new rooms and sections to her house with no clear reasons, which caused concern among the members of her board.

Upon visiting her house, Dr. Price began seeing frightful visions. At first, he thought that these were just illusions from his addiction to laudanum. However, when Ms. Sarah's grandson Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey), son of her niece Marian (Sarah Snook), was showing signs of possession by an evil spirit, Dr. Price needed to get his act together to help the Winchesters figure out how to fight back against the violently disturbed spirit of Cpl. Benjamin Block (Eamon Farren) who was determined to exact his revenge.

Despite the American topic, this was actually an Australian production. The film was written and directed by Austrailian identical twins Peter and Michael Spierig, billed together as "The Spierig Brothers." I did not recognize the name right away, but I realized that I had seen one of their films before, "Predestination" (2015) which I liked (MY REVIEW). Just last year, they directed the 8th installment of the "Saw" franchise called "Jigsaw" which I was not able to see. Majority of the cast was also Australian, like Clarke, Snook and Farren, along with Angus Sampson (as Ms. Sarah's helper) and Laura Brent (as Ruby, Eric's wife).

Helen Mirren seemed to be having a lot of fun wearing her oppressively black widow's gown and veil, which she wore for the entire length of this movie. Her acting was on the hammy side and was actually quite amusing to watch. She somehow gave the impression that she was not taking this project too seriously, and that may be a good thing in this case. She knows her character had some over-the-top lines and scenes, so she wisely played her with tongue-in-cheek.

I know Jason Clarke mostly for his macho action films, like "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (2014) and "Everest" (2015). Him getting jumpy, startled and freaked out as the tormented Dr. Price in this film must have been quite a fun change of pace for him. It was his character who went through a more complete story arc in film, and he did deliver, acting-wise. There was a remarkable detail in Dr. Price's life that was a nice little twist in the film which I appreciated.

The only other film I saw Sarah Snook in was "Predestination". She was just limited to playing the concerned mother. Viewers of the rebooted "Twin Peaks" last year will recognize Eamon Farren. His character Block was given quite a back story behind his vengeful anger. Of course, Angus Sampson was the comic relief for all the "Insidious" films. Here, all he did nothing much but to hammer doors shut with 13 pieces of nails.

It did not have the Hollywood polish in terms of its cinematography and special effects. The scenes which were set at night or in darkness were too dark and were difficult to watch. The horror visual effects were quite basic, not up to present standards. A lot of the scares were jump scares brought about by sudden jolts of a ghostly face or a sudden blast of sound. While certain aspects of the story were interesting, the pacing of the storytelling was rather slow and tedious at parts. 5/10.
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Intersecting Relationships in Searing Songs
1 February 2018
Within the past two years, I had seen "Changing Partners" in all its incarnations. First in June 2016, it was a one-night only staged reading at the CCP as part of Virgin Labfest XII (MY REVIEW). Second, in September 2016, it was a full-length play produced by Munkeymusic staged at the PETA Theater (MY REVIEW). And now November 2017, it had already crossed over to the silver screen! I think this should count as one of the fastest film adaptations of a theater musical play ever.

I quote my own description of the plot as the screenplay was adapted from the book and libretto as is: ""Changing Partners" tells us about the love relationship of Alex and Cris, two individuals 15 years apart in age who decide to live together. It tells us about how their love story began and how it eventually evolved six years later. The twist of this ingenious script is that the roles of Alex and Cris can interchangeably be played by male and female actors such that the dynamics of the relationship also change significantly. Then again, it also shows that the outcome of such relationships may not really be that different after all, whatever the genders of the people involved."

Needless to say, I already know "Changing Partners" and its uniquely ingenious storytelling style very well. I know for a fact that Vincent de Jesus' words in both spoken dialogue (with co-writer Lilit Reyes) and in the song lyrics were all impeccably chosen to convey their intended messages in the most heartbreaking ways possible. There was no doubt that these same words, all drawn from the deepest well of emotions possible, will resonate similarly well in movie form. I simply needed to see how director Dan Villegas will translate this intricate web of human relationships into the film medium.

The whole look of the film is beautiful and classy. The quality of the film, camera and colors is first rate. The four apartments where the four pairs of "Alex and Cris" lived were all stylish to look at. The editing for a film like this is one of paramount importance. This intertwined-intersecting story of eight separate characters portrayed by four actors needed to flow smoothly from pair to pair, and the fluid editing simply blurred the distinctions between each individual episode to create the coherent illusion of unity, no matter which gender preference the characters are.

Practically the whole film was shot in elegant close-ups of its cast of four actors -- Agot Isidro, Jojit Lorenzo, Anna Luna and Sandino Martin (the same four actors in the full stage version) -- each one playing two distinct characters. Every little emotional nuance on their faces can be seen full on. This was one of the main advantages of a film version of a play, where audiences are at quite a distance away. With their faces magnified on that giant screen, all four actors truly bared all their heart and soul as they mouth those painful lines to each other and to us.

The highlight of the play was the climactic confrontation scene with all four actors on the stage at the same time. In the screen version, director Villegas weaved the scenes with all four actors alternatingly switching roles from one Alex to another, from one Cris to another so smoothly to create such a powerful unforgettable sequence. Sometimes you could not tell anymore which Alex and which Cris was singing, but it did not matter anymore. They were all one in the same pain. You simply could not pick one actor over another. This was a truly seamless ensemble in the pure sense of the word. 9/10.
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12 Strong (2018)
That Final Charge on Horseback Saved It All
18 January 2018
Warning: Spoilers
About a month after the NYC attacks of 9/11/2001, a 12-member US Army Green Berets code-named Operational Detachment Alpha 595 (ODA 595) were chosen to be sent on a covert mission to Afghanistan. As part of Task Force Dagger, they joined forces with General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) of the Northern Alliance to reclaim key Taliban-held cities there.

The members of ODA 595 all had to ride horses because of the inhospitable terrain and distance they needed to cover. This was no problem for their charismatic leader Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), who grew up on a ranch, but this was his first time in actual combat. The other members, like Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Sam Diller (Michael Pena), Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes), Vern Michaels (Thad Luckinbill), etc, had to master their horse-riding skills overnight on top of their combat skills in order to keep up with their dangerously harrowing mission.

When they get to Afghanistan, it took some time for the war action to get going, as our heroes still needed to acquaint themselves with their unfamiliar allies. While the intense battle scenes took us in the middle of the gunfire and explosions, there was point when the action actually became repetitive as we would see the same strategy of attack (get coordinates of the camp, launch airstrike to decimate the enemy, engage the remained on the ground) for all the Taliban encampments, with just a little dramatic variation here and there for the sake of distinction.

The centerpiece battle scene however was only upon us by the final thirty minutes or so of the film. This was the grand charge of Nelson's ragtag troop ON HORSEBACK to attack the superior numbers and firepower of the Taliban troops. That was an elaborate but very well-executed battle sequence for which this film would be remembered for. It was certainly unique, exciting and exhilarating to watch, worth the whole price of admission in itself.

This was a good war film even if the 12 Americans all seemed to lead charmed lives despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them. On the other hand, the Taliban were all portrayed as cruel religious fanatics, as there were scenes commenting on their inhumane beliefs and practices particular about women. A strong all-American patriotic sentiment swelled at the end, fully expected in a true to life story of modern heroism as this. 6/10.
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The Commuter (I) (2018)
Another Frenetic Neeson Flick
11 January 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Michael McCauley is a 60-year old insurance salesman who was just laid off from his job. On his way home on the train (the same train he had been taking everyday going to work for the past ten years), a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) offered him $100,000 if he could use his skills as an ex-NYPD cop to seek out a specific passenger with a bag and put a GPS device on him before gets off at the Cold Spring station. If McCauley failed at this task, his family will be killed.

With a synopsis like that, you can already imagine how tense and claustrophobic this action-thriller was going to be. The travel time from Grand Central Station in the heart of NYC to the Cold Spring station (a distance of 85 km) on the Metro North Railroad via the Hudson line is about an hour and 20 minutes only in real life.

I liked the opening montage showing the day-to-day domestic life of Michael McCauley, his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) and son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his daily train ride into the city. I thought this sequence so eloquently conveyed their routine with the passage of time and seasons. I liked that Michael read the classic books Danny needed to read for school -- something I also do with my kids. Oftentimes, we pay no mind to the scenes with the opening credits, but this one certainly grabbed my attention from the start.

Despite the sheer impossibility of what was being asked of him, you know that Liam Neeson will do whatever it takes to save his family. Of course, his trademark invincibility and other super-human abilities will come in pretty handy, like they conveniently did in his previous action flicks. Honestly, he had to look for a needle in a veritable haystack in this one. No one can do that crazy task given the nebulous clues, extreme time limits and the hundreds of people on that train. But hey, he's Liam Neeson.

We suspend our disbelief as we go with the quick pacing of the action. No matter how contrived the situations may be, we are sucked into the flow of the story all the way to its slam-bang super-explosive climax. Tightly shot, bone-crunching fight scenes between McCauley and various suspects escalate the excitement along the way. Astute viewers may be able to guess how things are going to wind up at the end, but director Jaume Collet-Serra (who had directed Neeson twice before) knew exactly how to keep us hooked. 7/10.
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CHIPS (2017)
Fun Obnoxious Partners
23 March 2017
There had been a lot of buddy cop movies involving one serious level-headed cop forced to work with a crazy wild cannon partner. In the 80s, they had a balance of drama and comedy like 48 Hrs. (1984), "Lethal Weapon" (1987) and "Tango and Cash" (1989). Later on, the comedy dominated, as with "Rush Hour" (1998), "The Other Guys" (2010), and "The Heat" (2013). This new one "CHIPS" now joins that long list.

"CHiPs" was a hit TV series which ran for 6 seasons in the late 70s to the early 80s. This was a generally very wholesome, light comedy- drama series that made stars out of Larry Wilcox (as Officer Jon Baker) and specially Eric Estrada (as Officer Frank Poncherello). As with other buddy cop TV series that became films like "Starsky and Hutch" (2004), and "21 Jump Street" (2012), this new film incarnation of "CHIPS" is considerably edgier and raunchier than its venerable, vanilla- flavored predecessor.

Jon Baker is an injury-laden ex-motorcycle riding champ who wants to save his sinking marriage by becoming a policeman, barely making it under probation as the oldest rookie on the force. His partner goes by the name of Frank Poncherello, an undercover agent sent to investigate a violent big-time heist suspected to have been perpetrated by a gang of policemen. Both of them have their own hangups and eccentricities which put them at odds with each other at first. Later though, they end up saving each other's lives and eventually forge an strong yet unconventional partnership between them.

The action in this film is violent and graphic (decapitation alert!). The adrenaline mainly comes from all the breathtaking motorcycle riding stunts weaving in and out of traffic, which I hope will not encourage the already unruly motorcycle riders on the streets now. Those custom Ducati bikes they rode looked very fine and powerful. There are also car stunts, gunfights and big fiery explosions galore to keep the energy on the constant up.

Another aspect that keeps the energy up is the very raunchy comedy as written by the same guy who directed and acted as its lead character Jon Baker, Dax Shepard. This comedian is mainly known for his work on TV series like "Punk'd" and "Parenthood". "CHIPS" is his biggest film to date. The comedy style is very shallow and juvenile, with a lot of sexual references, with a lot of naughty closeups to further amp up the raunch factor visually. Shepard's brand of comedy is very physical and over-the-top, not always funny.

Michael Pena is usually seen in serious good-guy roles, like "Crash," "World Trade Center" and "Collateral Beauty". I have never seen him in such a vulgar role like this one before. He looked mighty awkward doing this role, and maybe come across as miscast. However, because of this discomfort, I felt he actually funny in the role of a guy that had a lusty deviant sex drive lay beneath a calm and professional surface.

Their chemistry together was really iffy, but actually gels better towards the end. If you have been reading my previous reviews on films like "Hangover" (MY REVIEW) or "Sausage Party" (MY REVIEW), raunchy comedies are not really my cup of tea. But this one had its few laugh out loud moments, mainly due to the naughty guy banter of the two lead actors. The obnoxious factor can go overboard though. As an extra bonus, a paunchy Erik Estrada had a cameo before the movie ended, not too flattering, but it was good to see him again. 4/10.
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More Than Just a Zombie Film
5 September 2016
This new Korean film "Train to Busan" is certainly earning a lot of positive word of mouth and box office success since its debut in the Midnight Screenings section of this year's Cannes Film Festival.

The central character is Seok-woo, a man stressed out with problems about his investments business and his divorce. His 9-year old daughter Su-an, feeling neglected, requests her father to bring her to Busan the next day to see her estranged mother. Seok-woo could not say no.

On the same train to Busan as Seok-woo and Su-an, a lady passenger with a bite wound on her legs, collapses and turns into a zombie. As she bites another person, that next person would also turn into a zombie and so on. Panic ensues on the train, and as everyone eventually discover along the way that the same zombie frenzy was true for the rest of the country. The fight to survive is now on.

This film was one exhilarating roller-coaster ride from beginning to end. The zombies and their attack scenes were very well-executed with a combination of practical and computer-generated effects. These monsters were very fast-moving and relentless in their quest for human flesh. We hear people around us gasp and shriek with shock as we see these zombies pile up in droves and hordes, crash out of windows and barrel through doors. We breathlessly hang on to the edge of our seats the whole ride.

Of course, what Korean film does not have a good dose of melodrama? The father-daughter dynamic between Seok-woo and Su-an is front and center. But aside from them, we also meet a cast of supporting characters on the train whose fates we will be following for the rest of the film. These include a burly man with his pregnant wife, a teenager with his girlfriend and his baseball team, a haughty businessman, two elderly sisters and a homeless man, among others. We get just enough introduction about who they are for us to care about what happens to them.

Gong Woo played the flawed lead character Seok-woo very well. He was able to convincingly portray the development of this uncaring apathetic guy into a hero we could all root for to get through this crisis alive. He was as good in the weepy dramatic scenes as he was in the swashbuckling action scenes. This actor has come a long way since his breakout role as lead star of the TV romantic comedy series "The Coffee Prince" back in 2007.

Kim Su-an is only 10 years old but she had already been acting in films for five years now. She is the dramatic core of this film as the daughter desperately reaching out to her jaded father. As a child actress, she held her own impressively among this cast of veterans with her heartfelt portrayal. Who would have thought that the sad little song she wanted to sing for her father would resonate so much?

Ma Dong-seok is charismatic as Sang-hwa, a devoted husband and selfless fighter. We see him first as some sort of comic relief only, which made the audience warm up to him. Later, we would discover how much more his character was able to do and give for others, and loved him more. His pregnant wife Seong-kyeong was played by acclaimed Korean indie film actress Jung Yu-mi, conveying strength in her delicate condition.

Another actor of note is Kim Eui-sung, who was totally hateful in his role as the selfish Yong-suk. In total contrast to Sang-hwa, Yong- suk was a man only thought of himself alone, not caring that he actually put a lot of other characters directly into harm's way.

Ahn So-hee (as Jin-hee) and Choi Woo-shik (as Young-guk) were in there to inject some teenage romantic angst into the film. They were relatively lightweight performers who were probably included just because they looked cool. That scene when Young-guk encounters his baseball teammates-turned-zombies was very well-conceived by the writers.

People may dismiss as "just" being a zombie film, but it is the drama of human relationships and interactions that rises above the horrific and thrilling carnage. Director Yeon Sang-ho's first two feature- length films ("The King of Pigs" and "The Fake") were both animated films exploring the bleak side of human nature. With his first live action directorial effort, Yeon has created a complete film masterpiece with "Train to Busan." Highly recommended! 10/10.
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Secrets, Survival, Sharks
25 August 2016
Set in mid-1945 during World War II, the USS Indianapolis, led by Captain Charles McVay (Nicolas Cage), was secretly tasked to deliver parts of an atomic bomb (which would later be dropped on Hiroshima) unescorted to a naval base in the Pacific. Back in open sea after successfully delivering their cargo, the ship was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine in the Philippine Sea. The sailors spent five gruelling days with minimal supplies floating on life rafts in shark-infested waters. Only 317 of the original 1,196 crew members survive the ordeal.

The first hour of the film was quite brisk and eventful. The main storyline was laid out within the first scene. The backstory about some of the young sailors were introduced, oddly not too much on McVay himself. The USS Indianapolis embarked on its mission, torpedoed and sunk all within that first hour. However, this meant that the entire second hour would only be dealing about the survival ordeal of the sailors among the sharks awaiting rescue. It got maudlin and repetitive after the first few shark attacks. This was definitely not the war action film people were expecting to see.

The actors all seem to have come from the Nicolas Cage school of hammy acting. The major side story was about two friends who were in love with the same girl back home. Another side story was about a couple of sailors, one white, one black, constantly at odds with each other. There was also another side story about an arrogant young officer and his despicable attitude. All these rehashed side stories just served to fill out the rest of the running time before and after the sinking. The best actor for me would have to be Yutaka Takeuchi, the Japanese actor playing court-martial witness Commander Hashimoto, who displayed dignified subtly in his brief role.

For its Philippine release, this film's subtitle "Men of Courage" was replaced with "Disaster at (sic) Philippine Sea." However, for Filipino moviegoers expecting to actually see some part of the Philippines or see Filipinos in action in this film, they will be disappointed. The Philippines was mentioned but was never actually shown except for scene labels to establish the location. There was an extra card interrupting the closing credits stating how the search for the wreck of the Indianapolis was undertaken in 2001 in cooperation with the Philippine government and National Geographic. That was all about the Philippines here, nothing more. 5/10.
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Ghostbusters (2016)
Just Watched It and Liked It, Surprised with All the Hate
17 July 2016
The first "Ghostbusters" was a classic American comedy film from 1984. Written by actors Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis and directed by Ivan Reitman, it was about three parapsychologists (Venkman, Stantz and Spengler) who ran a ghost hunting outfit in New York City. This year, a reboot of this film with an all-female main cast written and directed by Paul Feig is released.

Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) have been interested in ghostly phenomena since they were in high school. After a period of estrangement brought about by differences in career paths, they are reunited when they were called to investigate a ghostly sighting at a local museum.

Together with nuclear engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann and her prodigious talent for inventing weapons and New York subway employee Patty Tolan, they formally launch a ghost hunting business, later dubbed by media as "Ghostbusters". For their first major case, they track down a mentally-disturbed janitor of a local hotel who had been causing malevolent spirits to appear all over New York City. Never would they have guessed that this case would actually lead to a city-wide ectoplasmic apocalypse.

Melissa McCarthy was not annoying here as Abby, unlike her early films. She continues her winning run following "The Heat" and "Spy" (also by director Feig). Kristen Wiig is so geeky, so self- deprecating, so delightfully funny as Erin. It took time for me to warm up to the unorthodox comedy styles of Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, since this is the first movie I have seen them in a film. They eventually do hit their stride as the quirky badass Holtzmann and the loud excitable Patty. coming up with their own comic highlights.

The scenes with their pretty but dumb receptionist Kevin were so awkward and cringe-worthy. But only because he was played by Chris Hemsworth, the against-type casting actually worked to make this character hilarious. In addition, I found the scenes accompanying first part of the closing credits featuring Hemsworth were so embarrassingly funny. You won't see Thor the same way again. While this Kevin character could also be seen as feministic male-bashing, but I did not take offense because of the good-natured comic treatment.

Being a reboot of a beloved film, comparisons, fair or otherwise, will be inevitable. Most evident would be that the comedy in the original film was more subtle and mature, while the comedy in this reboot can be gross and childish. The disparity of male and female team dynamics and interactions are very clearly noted. There was none of the sexual innuendo and smoking which were prominent in the first film. The ghosts of this reboot had the same colorful and cartoony style as the first film, but the technological advance of 30 years is evident to make them look polished.

There was no mention of ever having a previous Ghostbusters, which may bum out loyal die-hard fans. However, I enjoyed seeing many references to the first film, like the logo, the old firehouse, Dana's apartment building (now a hotel), Ecto-1 (now a hearse), Slimer and the Marshmallow Man. I had fun seeing the original cast members (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Annie Potts, Ernie Hudson and Sigourney Weaver) in cameo appearances, though too bad that they were not as their old characters. The late Harold Ramis was cited in a dedication at the end of the closing credits.

There was also a very short extra scene at the very end of the credits when the song faded out. There was a mention of a name which can be recalled from the first movie. Was this just another nostalgic throwback or was it hinting a possible sequel?

My sons and I had so much fun watching this light-hearted and happy- vibed film. I was actually laughing out loud so much at some pretty side-splitting silly gags. The interaction between the four ladies started off uncomfortable and rough. But as the movie got on, they really hit it off very well, and their individual comic styles gelled very well as a group as they spouted all their pseudo- scientific jargon and wielded their sophisticated proton-pack weaponry. 8/10.
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An Insulting Sequel to the Iconic Original
5 June 2016
Gyeon-woo is back, but without the original Girl anymore. This situation opened up the opportunity for him to meet and hook up with another "sassy" (also unnamed) girl. (He is really a masochistic sort, isn't he?) Anyhow, this girl is Chinese this time, knows her marital arts and her cameras, They actually get married here in a charming indigenous ceremony. Conflict arises when Gyeon-woo gets a job at a tech company with an abusive boss. His Wife will not take that abuse sitting down, but will Gyeon-woo appreciate her for it?

Sad to say, watching "The New Sassy Girl" right after watching "My Sassy Girl" just emphasized just how bad this sequel by director Jo Geun-sik is. The comedy was terribly flat all the way, with nothing memorable that sticks at all. Even the romantic conflict is very lame, practically just tacked on without any emotional impact.

The age of Cha Tae-hyun (already 40 years old now) shows, and his attempt to recapture his 2001 charm was largely ineffective. While she is pretty, Victoria Song (as the new Sassy) could not really measure up to the high level set by Jun Ji-hyun in the first film, in both charm and performance. Her role was very poorly developed.

I thought this sequel did not really need to happen. It was but an insult to the former's memory. 2/10.
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Enjoyed This Way More Than the First Reboot Film
1 June 2016
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began as comic book characters in 1984, later spinning off to have its own cartoon series, toys, video games, and of course, films. There was a cartoonish film trilogy in the 1990s. Recently, Michael Bay produced a franchise-reboot as a live action-computer-generated motion capture film. I did not particularly like this very dark 2014 film, rating it only a 5/10. When trailers came out for this sequel though, I already saw that it looked like it was going to be a way better movie than the first one.

The turtle heroes, along with old pals April O'Neil and Vern Fenwick, and new friend Casey Jones, spring back into action as Shredder was busted from incarceration. The arch-villain had inter- galactically nefarious plans as he conspired with mad scientist Dr. Baxter Stockman to bring into Earth an evil Dimension X being called Krang and his Technodrome in his wild dream of world domination.

The way the turtles looked in this new film was way better executed. In the first one, they all looked too big, ugly and unwieldy. Their appearance now is more accessible, more in tune with their personalities. Even if the storyline will have their team tested, this was a truly excellent ensemble work among the four actors behind them, imbuing each one with individual charm. They are: Pete Ploszek (as conflicted leader Leonardo), Alan Ritchson (as muscle- bound rebel Raphael), Jeremy Howard (as brainy scientist Donatello) and Noel Fisher (as childlike spirit Michelangelo).

Also similarly excellent were the CG artwork, performance and the on screen chemistry between the two comical evil side characters, warthog Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and the rhino Rocksteady (Stephen Farrelly). They definitely stole their scenes from right under the main bad guy Shredder (Brian Tee), who felt rather lackluster among the other colorful characters of the film. The pinkish brain-like maniacal alien super-villain Krang was portrayed with gruesome glee by Brad Garrett.

The unconvincing and hammy acting of Megan Fox (as April) and Will Arnett (as Vern) were fortunately buoyed up the excellence of the CGI and story around them. Tyler Perry was an over-the-top nerd as Dr. Stockman, uncomfortably funny. Veteran acting nominee Laura Linney was uncharacteristically stiff as police chief Rebecca Vincent. The best live performer of the film was TV's "Arrow" Stephen Amell as Casey Jones. His graceful physicality (with a hockey stick and skates) and smart-alecky sense of humor made him stand out.

The look of this new film is so much better than the first one, literally "out of the shadows" where the first one wallowed. There were brighter colors, a lighter mood, a more fun throwback general feel about it. The previous one was too dark and intense, and took itself too seriously, to its own detriment. With this one, we had our beloved Turtles back to the unpretentious way we knew them in our youth. Serious critics may be hard on this one, but I really enjoyed 112 minutes with it, right up to the classic TV cartoon theme song over the closing credits.
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Avian Absurdities
14 May 2016
Angry Birds is a video game franchise created by Finnish company Rovio Entertainment, It was first released in December 2009. By July 2015, the series' various games in all its different formats have been downloaded over three billion times the world over. It was not a big wonder that a film would eventually be made from the characters of this game.

Practically everyone has seen at least the original game with the five birds: main bird Red, yellow bird Chuck, black bird Bomb, white bird Matilda, and triple Blues. Many should be familiar with the maddening physics-laced puzzle game play of launching these angry birds to hit the green pigs hiding under various structures. Not too good with analyzing projectile motion, I admit I was not so patient with this game.

The film's storyline tells of Red as a miserable hotheaded outcast with poor people skills. A violent altercation with another bird caused him to be sentenced to attend Anger Management classes under Matilda. There, he met Chuck and Bomb, as well as quiet giant maroon bird named Terence. One day, a ship of green pigs landed on the birds' island. While the other birds welcomed their unusual guests, Red remained suspicious that the Pigs were up to no good. Unfortunately, Red's worst fears were soon confirmed, and birds have to go beyond themselves to get their precious treasures back.

The film as a whole was better than what the trailer showed. For the most part, the storytelling was very entertaining. The best part of the film was the climactic battle where we saw the birds in action with the giant slingshot, but it was too short, I felt. It was too bad we only saw the green boomerang toucan bird Hal, the tiny orange bird Bubbles and the cute pink bird Stella all too briefly. On the other hand, an inordinately long, occasionally awkward, time was spent with the iconic Mighty Eagle.

The voices come from some of the most popular comedians working in Hollywood today. Jason Sudeikis was Red. Danny McBride was Bomb. Maya Rudolph was Matilda. Bill Hader was Leonard. Josh Gad, whom we last heard as Olaf in "Frozen," was Chuck, a hyperactive voice performance I really enjoyed. Peter Dinklage did so well in his ironic casting the Mighty Eagle. It is very surprising that the first time I have seen Sean Penn's name in a film again was as Terence. Fans of the Youtube channel Smosh will be delighted that Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla have cameos here as the voices of Bubbles and Hal respectively.

The comedy was rather weird to describe. The jokes can really be juvenile, shallow and silly, but there were also quite a number of adult humor (some even creepy or uncomfortable references). I liked the obvious parody of the "Time in a Bottle" scene from "X-Men Days of Future Past" or that Grady twins reference from "The Shining." I liked the cheery and cheesy retro pop songs in the soundtrack, from "Never Gonna Give You Up" to "I Will Survive", to accompany the most unexpected scenes.

I had fun watching it for sure, but I cannot say I completely liked this film. It was really had to put a finger on what exactly the film lacked, but my kids and I all felt it while watching. Looking back now, I think it may have been this odd sense of humor, which felt forced and flat at times. Anyhow, the small kids in the theater were giggling and laughing so much at the cute green pigs and wide- eyed hatchlings, I enjoyed hearing their delighted reactions. I guess then that the film did hit their target and that is most important. 6/10.
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The Take (2016)
Imposing and Exciting Idris Elba
22 April 2016
Idris Elba has been in big Marvel films like "Thor" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron", but I don't really know how he looked like without the Heimdall costume. He had a performance last year in the film "Beasts of No Nation" which triggered controversy when he was not nominated for an Oscar, but this was not shown locally. Just this year, he had been in two films, "Zootopia" and "The Jungle Book." However in both films, we only hear his deep imposing voice. With this film "Bastille Day," we finally see Idris Elba as a modern day action hero, not far from the news that he is being touted to be the next James Bond.

Michael Mason is a skillful American thief in Paris. One day, he steals a bag from a distraught girl on the street named Zoe. After getting her cell phone and seeing nothing else of apparent value in the bag, he throws it into a garbage dump. The unexpected happens, killing four people and triggering mass paranoia and discontent in the city of Lights. CIA operative Sean Briar goes over and beyond his assignment to get to Mason and secure him before the French Police do, uncovering an insidiously complex plot which will come to pass on Bastille Day.

Idris Elba is as imposing and impressive as his voice was. When asked why he ran away, Mason quipped, "Don't you see how you look like?" Elba's Briar was big, macho, tough and scary, anyone would have tried to run if he comes to get him. As an agent, Briar was an independent-minded and reckless rouge to the chagrin of his CIA bosses, but to the delight of the audience. If this was a preview of how he would be as James Bond, it makes us all eager to see how Elba will transform the iconic role as his own.

Richard Madden is more known to many as the ill-fated Robb Stark on HBO's "Game of Thrones". After he bid the TV series goodbye via a bloody Red Wedding, he went on to be Prince Charming in the live action version of "Cinderella." Physically, Madden looked like a scared boy when placed side by side with the intimidating Idris Elba, which made him just right for the role of the unfortunate Mason, a guy who just so happened to steal the wrong bag. I liked the chemistry that was built between the two characters.

I was floored by the action sequences of this film, so raw with bone- crunching realism. I liked that the chase and fight scenes were not too obviously choreographed. That chase scene on the rooftops would have been flawless parkour stunts in another film. But here it was shaky and so uncertain that it created so much tension, so much better. The execution of the many twists and turns of the story was very effectively done, such that we never would have seen the climax miles away. I would not mind a sequel as the ending seemed to suggest. 8/10.
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Revolution and Romance
19 November 2015
So, another hugely popular young adult series has come to an end. Like the "Harry Potter" and the "Twilight Saga", the "Hunger Games" franchise also chose to divide the final book, "Mockingjay", into two films. When I saw Part 1 of "Mockingjay" last year, I thought it lacked substance to stand alone on its own. However, now that I have seen Part 2, I understand why they could not have just made it as one single big movie.

After the long introduction to the action that is Part 1, Part 2 begins where it left off. Katniss is dead set on killing President Snow. Peeta is slowly recovering from the brainwashing he suffered by the guys in the Capitol. Gale is wasting no time in trying to win Katniss back. The three of them are members of a team sent by President Coin to storm into the Capitol and kill President Snow. However, their mission is beset with dangerous and elaborate booby traps, as only the best Gamemakers of the Capitol can concoct.

Being their fourth film already together, Jennifer Lawrence (as Katniss), Josh Hutcherson (as Peeta), Liam Hemsworth (as Gale), Woody Harrelson (as Haymitch), Elizabeth Banks (as Effie Trinket), Stanley Tucci (as Caesar) and Donald Sutherland (as grand old President Snow) have really fit their respective characters like a glove by this time. With Jennifer Lawrence there portraying her, every rash act of Katniss becomes heroic somehow. She gets the audience to actually root for this indecisive, foolhardy character.

Julianne Moore (as Coin) and Natalie Dormer (as Cressida) had to contend with bad hairstyles but do get their jobs done right. It was good to see and hear the departed Philip Seymour Hoffman one last time as Plutarch, though his screen time here was very short. It was great to see Game of Thrones actress Gwendoline Christie in a small scene as Commander Lyme. It was good to see the other victors like Finnick (Sam Claflin), Annie (Stef Dawson), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Johanna (Jenna Malone), though their screen time was also very brief.

"Mockingjay Part 2" is a very long movie and it can feel like it. It was more than 2 hours (137 minutes to be exact) of war, politics, and yes, the love triangle. There are actually no more Hunger Games to show in this one, but the Capitol itself was turned into one large-scale Hunger Games arena when Katniss and company encounter the "pods" (which were spectacularly violent land mines). I actually do not recall that there were oil tsunamis or mutant monsters underground in the books, but these were the most shocking and thrilling parts of this film. Without these, the younger members of the audience may doze off with all the talking scenes. 7/10.
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Average Unoriginal Witch Film
22 October 2015
In ancient times, Kaulder was a fearless witch hunter who was able to kill the Queen Witch herself. However, before she died, the Queen cursed Kaulder with immortality. Cut to modern times, Kaulder is the last witch hunter of his kind. A congregation of priests called the Axe and Cross were commissioned to help Kaulder over the centuries in his sworn mission to incapacitate and incarcerate all the bad witches. Loyalists of the Queen though are working feverishly to resurrect her, setting up a major confrontation between good and evil to decide the fate of mankind.

As predicted, Vin Diesel's acting was as one-dimensional as ever. His look was as unchanging as ever too. He looks the same whoever character he played -- Riddick, Toretto, now Kaulder. They should have kept the ancient Kaulder look which would have set the character apart. As predicted also, Vin Diesel's pervasive good guy vibes are very apparent no matter how tough or violent he gets. These good vibes saved the day, making this derivative and CG-laden witch adventure more bearable and entertaining. Of course, we would root for him to route the queen and her minions, good should triumph over evil!

Michael Caine and Elijah Wood play priests of the Axe and Cross, who were Kaulder's personal assistants, advisers and bodyguards, Dolan 36th and Dolan 37th respectively. However, their roles were not as big as their names would make you expect. Caine was as cool as you'd expect, acting like he was Alfred or any of the recent Caine roles you can recall. His performance was always a respectable effort even though he may only be just phoning this one in, being so short. Elijah Wood looked very wrong in this role. The way he looked with a priest's collar was very awkward. His acting was so stiff, as if he knew how wrong he was for that role.

I was expecting the priests to be Kaulder's sidekicks in his battle against the Witch Queen, but it turns out they would be out of the scene for most parts of the film. Kaulder's companion would be a young female witch named Chloe played by Rose Leslie. Leslie, who gained popularity as Wildling Ygritte in TV's "Game of Thrones," is a polarizing actress, either you will like her or you won't. I like her, so I liked that she has moved onto Hollywood, and she gives a strong feisty performance as her TV character did.

I did not think this film "The Last Witch Hunter" would be anything original, and it was not. The poster was generic, looking like it could be a poster of one of Vin Diesel's "Riddick" films. Even the title was generic, "Witch Hunter" having been just used in a recent Jeremy Renner- Gemma Arterton film called "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters." Still I went in to watch this film because it is a Vin Diesel film. As consistently one-note his tough guy roles were, at least Diesel certainly knew how to entertain his audience. And that he did. 5/10.
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Regression (I) (2015)
Amenabar and Hawke Worked So Well Together Here!
22 October 2015
For a long time, Alejandro Amenabar has been one of my favorite writer- directors for the twisted suspense thrillers. He was quite prolific at the turn of the century -- "Thesis" (1996), "Open Your Eyes" (1997) and his English-language debut "The Others" (2001). His biographical drama "The Sea Inside" won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004.

Since then though, his output had been sparse. That was why when I heard that he will be releasing a new film this year entitled "Regression," I made sure I went to watch it.

Seventeen-year old Angela Gray accuses her father of sexually abusing her. Detective Bruce Kenner is assigned to her case. The father meekly admits to the crime, but does not actually recall doing it. Kenner seeks the help of Psychology professor Kenneth Raines to elicit his repressed memories, as well as those of the other members of the Gray family, via hypnotic regression. What is revealed from these sessions are diabolical confessions of such disturbing nature that Kenner himself could not get them out of his own mind.

Ethan Hawke is such a good actor, really. From his feature debut in "Dead Poet's Society," then "Before Sunrise" (and its series), "Gattaca," "Sinister" to his Oscar-nominated performances in "Training Day" and "Boyhood," this guy can really portray the most ordinary characters and wind up making them very memorable. His intense take of the obsessed Bruce Kenner was riveting and infectious. His visions become our visions, his beliefs our beliefs. He had a flawless interactive rapport with Amenabar's camera, registering and conveying the anger, paranoia, confusion, and fear of his character so well on screen.

Emma Watson returns on her trajectory to becoming a serious movie actress after being sidelined by unfortunate roles in "This is the End" and "Noah." The talent and the promise are there, but the connection with her role as the troubled Angela was not as convincing as that of Hawke's. Her best performances were still those for Hermione Granger. Her young adult performances in films like "Perks of Being a Wallflower" and "The Bling Ring" had a certain unnatural stiffness in them, as it was again here as well.

Credible supporting performances were given by David Thewlis as the authoritative Prof. Raines and David Dencik as Angela's repentant father John. Going a bit over the top was Dale Dickey and her exaggeratedly demented performance as Angela's grandmother Rose. The strangest casting decision was that of Lothaire Bluteau as the priest Reverend Murray. He exuded such a creepy vibe, which of course may be the director's intention.

While "Regression" was still not on the same level of excellence as "Open Your Eyes" or "The Others," Alejandro Amenabar returned to form with this comeback project of sorts. The script, though weak and flawed in certain aspects (like motive, for one important example), was still logical and grounded despite dealing with controversial religious and psychological matters. The storytelling engages you despite the dark unpleasant topics and relentlessly morbid atmosphere. I am looking forward to the next Amenabar opus. I hope it does not take so many years anymore. 7/10
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Knock Knock (I) (2015)
Keanu's Most Wretched and Embarrassing Role!
22 October 2015
When I saw the name of Eli Roth as director of this film, I should have taken that as a warning that this was probably going to be a bad movie. Roth's previous work either as director or writer were mostly crazy violent and gory just for the sake of being gory. Unlike his other films though, like the dreadful "Hostel" or the awful "Aftershock", this one had a known movie star in the lead role -- Keanu Reeves. It was because of Reeves that convinced me that I could give this film a chance.

Successful architect Evan Webber is an ideal husband of an artist wife and a model father of two. One day (ironically it was Father's Day), Evan was left behind at home because of work while the rest of his family went on a beach vacation. That night, two sexy young ladies show up at this door lost and soaking wet from the rain. Evan kindly admits them into his house so they can get dry and call for a cab. However, these two liberated girls had kinky shenanigans in mind for Evan, and then some.

In spite of the fact that the script and the acting were already pretty cheesy from the very start, the premise of the film actually seemed promising at first. Things do get interesting when the girls came into the scene and turned on their charms in an attempt to seduce the faithful family man. After that key scene though, the rest of the film turned south and just got more and more ridiculous up to the very end which unfortunately did not come right away.

Keanu Reeves is one enigmatic star whose career definitely had its ups and downs. In the beginning, he was able to balance his comedy ("Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure"), romance ("A Walk in the Clouds"), drama ("My Own Private Idaho") and action ("Speed" and "Matrix"). Since the turn of the millennium though, his career turned for the worse, with no really memorable roles to speak of. His last two films, "47 Ronin" and "John Wick," brought his name back up for the better. However, "Knock, Knock" knocks him down again with a performance so dismal it will be long-remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Keanu Reeves' wretched portrayal of Evan Webber is simply beyond embarrassing. Reeves playing monster with his family at the start was just the first of many cringe-worthy scenes for him in the whole course of this film. As his character was threatened with death later in the film, Reeves' impassioned appeal for his life was so hilariously delivered with the craziest of words, it actually had me laughing out loud in spite of myself. Finally, when a scene came when we see Reeves' head on the ground with only his comical facial emoting, I totally lost it laughing. I cannot fathom how a star of his stature could have allowed himself to suffer such shameful indignities.

We can't really expect much from the other relatively unknown actors in the cast who also came up with similarly ludicrous performances. Lorenza Izzo (Eli Roth's wife in real life) and Ana de Armas (the hotter blonde vixen) played the two seductresses Genesis and Bel with such loony, over-the-top abandon. Aaron Burns played the gay friend Louis, who was more concerned about the artwork than people. They did look like they were having a lot of fun doing their inane scenes (even though the situations were not supposed to be funny).

What was on Eli Roth's mind when he wrote and directed this? Were all the outrageous scenarios and lousy hammy acting done on purpose to somehow make this film stand out? Was this all an elaborate warning about logging out of Facebook once you are done with it? Anyway, everything was so exaggeratedly bad it was actually uproariously funny. It was definitely not what I expected going in, but I did get a good laugh out of it so I won't call it a total disaster. 3/10.
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Disappointing and Dry Biopic
1 October 2015
This is an Argentinian film about Fr. Jorge Bergoglio's life prior to Papacy. Based on its simple and straightforward trailer, I am not really expecting too much. However, I still watched the film to learn more about this beloved man and how he rose among the ranks to be the anointed leader of Catholics worldwide.

"Papa Francisco" (also called "Francis: Pray for Me" or "Francisco - El Padre Jorge") tells the life story of the Fr. Jorge Bergoglio (Darío Grandinetti) from Argentina, from his boyhood to his election as Pope in 2013. These were told alongside the fictional story of Ana (Silvia Abascal), a agnostic Spanish lady reporter (with an Argentinian mother) assigned to cover the Papal election of 2005. Ana met Padre Jorge when they sat across each other on a train going to Rome, and from then became lifelong friends.

The Ana character may have been based on Elisabetta Pique, an Argentine journalist and friend of Padre Jorge, who wrote the biographical book "Pope Francis: Life and Revolution" upon which this film was based. The book was said to be based on interviews on more than seventy people who knew the Pope very well. While individual stories may have read well as a book, but these same stories may also have led to the rather disjointed nature of this film.

The film, written and directed by Beda Docampo Feijóo, told the Pope's story in bite-sized episodes, flashing backwards and forwards in time. These scenes just seemed like simple renditions of the highlights of his life, with no effort to connect them into one cohesive whole. There were scenes about controversies, but these were executed with no tension at all. The best example would be this confrontation scene with a lady politician who wanted him to lay off on his crusade against corruption. Padre Jorge says a few eloquent words, and the scene was over, no more follow through on what happens next.

There were good episodes, like the one where the young Jorge (Gabriel Gallichio) met a beautiful lady at a wedding reception where they danced the tango, exchanged books and phone numbers. Unfortunately, we never hear of her again after she left on a bus. In fact, that would be the way this film treated most of the other characters from Padre Jorge's past, like his mother or his friends. They were never mentioned again when Padre Jorge was already cardinal. The only exception would be Padre Jorge's book about St. Francis. We saw it given to Jorge by his grandmother when he was a young man, and we would see that book again before he was announced as Pope.

Award-winning Argentinian actor Dario Grandinetti plays the senior Padre Jorge. His last film of note was "Wild Tales", an Argentinian film which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last year. While he may look sincere, Grandinetti did not really capture the charisma of Padre Jorge. The delivery of his lines were so stiff and lifeless. There was no passion that could be felt nor inspiration that can be drawn from his dry performance. Grandinetti's Padre Jorge did not smile much nor exude warmth, so unlike the person he is portraying. 24 year-old Argentine actor Gabriel Gallichio certainly had more charm in his few scenes as the young Jorge during his student days.

This was a simple biographical film with no high artistic aspirations. It was just a plain retelling of various events in the present Pope's lifetime with no unifying concept. This film does not have cinematic artistry nor wide audience appeal of other biopics like "Gandhi," "The Last Emperor," or even "Romero". It would probably appeal only to Catholics who simply want to know more about their present leader. But even with those modest expectations, this uneven film would probably still fall short. With his growing worldwide popularity, I trust Pope Francis will have a better film about him in the future. 5/10.
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Rushed Right Through
27 September 2015
This sequel to last month's live-action version of the manga/anime "Attack on Titan." That was a much-anticipated film because of the popularity of the anime. However, it was uniformly met with bad reviews and fan disappointment because of the poor Titan special effects, but more because of the significant, arguably ill-advised or unnecessary changes in the storyline made to fit a live-action format.

The first episode ended with the revelation that Eren was actually the special Titan who was killing the other regular Titans. This sequel began with an inquiry conducted by a ruthless Director General who seemed to want nothing but to execute Eren. Of course, Eren's friend Armin bravely argued for his friend. The action builds up to a climactic grand three-way fight among three special Titans on the outermost wall.

This sequel, released just a month after the original, was only about an hour and a half long. The first 20 minutes or so was just a reiteration of the event in the first film. For me, the two films could have been simply integrated into one longer film. We do not see much of the regular Titans anymore in this film. We will also see the origin of the Titans and the reason why Eren become a Titan recalled in flashbacks which i wished were treated with more details and clarity.

Like the first film, and even more so in this sequel, we see over-the- top acting from most of the cast. The main group of young soldiers, led of course by the trio of lead characters: Eren Yeager (Haruma Miura), Mikasa Ackerman (Mizuhara Kiko), and Armin Arlert (Kanata Hongô). The Mikasa of the films was not at all like the Mikasa in the anime. We see at least one act of bravery from each of their friends as well, namely Sasha Blouse aka Potato Girl (Nanami Sakuraba), Jean Kirstein (Takahiro Miura) and Sannagi (Satoru Matsuo).

We see more of the bespectacled yet incredibly (and hilariously) hyperactive senior female officer Hange Zoë (Satomi Ishihara). We will get a surprising revelation about the enigmatic Shikishima (Hiroki Hasegawa), the character that replaced Levi Ackerman, "Humanity's Strongest Soldier" in the manga/anime. A similarly remarkable storyline follows the human antagonist Kubal (Jun Kunimura). Unfortunately, the film does not give us a satisfactory explanation about what happened to these last two characters.

This film just sought to close the main storyline started by the first film, direct to the point. No more side detours were included. It was all over in less than 90 minutes. Unfortunately, a major part of this sequel was just a lot of talking, with practically no action in the first hour. By the time it reached the battle-royale in the last thirty minutes, a lot of the audience may have already zoned out. It was not really much of an Armageddon as promised by its title. 4/10.
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Animated Adam Sandler Misadventure
25 September 2015
According to the 2012 animated film, Count Dracula ran "Hotel Transylvania" as a resort for monsters who wanted to get away from the humans who frighten them. One day, a human boy named Jonathan stumbles upon the existence of this hotel and falls for the Gothic charms of Dracula's daughter Mavis. Being the over-protective dad that he was, single-dad Dracula does everything to keep the two from falling in love.

In this sequel, Jonathan and Mavis got married and have a son Dennis. Dracula was very concerned that his grandson Dennis was already turning five, but was not showing any signs of being a vampire. So while Mavis and Jonathan fly to California to visit his parents, Dracula and his wacky gang of monsters bring Dennis to a vampire summer camp, hoping the kid's fangs come out faster.

From the poster alone, we already know that this sequel will be a cute juvenile romp with delightful "monsters". The story line is reminiscent of other films, like "Sky High" or "The Incredibles," about the distress caused by an offspring who apparently did not have the superpowers of his parents. In the first film, the laughs came from Dracula struggling with the problem of his daughter falling in love with a human. In this sequel, it was also Dracula's struggles about this grandson that make this film funny (mildly) more than anything else.

Since this is a sequel, the artwork was basically the same as the first one, with most of the characters coming back to reprise their roles. Curiously, the look of the new main character baby Dennis was not at all original. With his full head of wild curly red hair, Dennis looked almost exactly like the baby brothers of Merida in "Brave." The design of Great Grandpa Vlad and more so his scary sidekick Bela and his army of ghoulish vampire bats could be the stuff of nightmares for very young kids. The special effect of flames looked very good.

Adam Sandler's voice was very apparent as Count Dracula. You can totally imagine him talking in that "Dracula" accent. The cast list boasts of an impressive roster of noted comedians past and present who were all able to project their comic personas through their voice work for their characters. Of course, Sandler's usual movie posse is there composed of Kevin James (as Frankenstein), Steve Buscemi (as Werewolf Wayne), and David Spade (as Invisible Man Griffin). Andy Samberg plays the goofy Jonathan opposite teen star Selena Gomez as Mavis. In smaller supporting roles are Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman (as human grandparents Linda and Mike), Dana Carvey (as Camp Counselor Dana), Fran Drescher (as Frankenstein's wife Eunice), and the most esteemed Mel Brooks (as Vlad).

This another one of those zany, hyper, and yes, predictable animated films for the juvenile set, ultimately not too memorable. Despite the illustrious cast of comics though, the big laughs in this film are only few and far between. At most, a smile or a little chuckle here and there are all you get. Despite some disturbing scenes of apparent child endangerment in this film, you know this is all done in the spirit of silly fun and nothing bad is really going to happen. 5/10.
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