January – April 2013 Movie Review (Foreign & Local Films)

Published April 15, 2013 by putrizk

January – April 2013 Movie Review

 

BAD ROMANCE

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Bad Romance is a mashup of odd treatments that don’t really work together. Through its runtime, it’s able to squeeze in canned laughter, animation, references to mainstream romances and television shows, Japanese faux-philosophy, blatant product placement for Chooks-to-go, and a whole lot of murder.

Andrea (Mercedes Cabral) works the front desk of the Castaway Hotel, a hotel so isolated that getting any cell reception is rare. She is obsessed with actor Sam Lloyd Pascual (Francis Lopez), and spends much of her day watching his TV show and dreaming about meeting him. It just so happens that Sam Lloyd turns up at the hotel one day, staying there while he rides out a public scandal. Andrea is immediately swept off her feet as Sam Lloyd shows her some interest. But Sam Lloyd is not the perfect boyfriend that she imagines, and things soon go horribly wrong.

The comedic side  of the film is built on the rocky foundation of pop culture references, the movie quoting lines verbatim from old mainstream romcoms in place of actual jokes. The thriller half falls apart due to practical concerns, the movie unable to put together a coherent sequence of events.

Mercedes Cabral isn’t really able to sell the crazy shift that takes place within her character. Francis Lopez mumbles through some of his lines, the lack of enunciation taking away from whatever intention was embedded into his dialogue. The supporting cast is underutilized, their performances lost in the shuffle of the movie’s whims.

Bad Romance seems to have separate ideas about its two halves, both drawing heavily from cinematic cliché.

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN

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Disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, Banning works with national security to rescue the President from his kidnappers.

Eighteen months ago, Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) saved the president’s life, but in doing so, he failed to save the first lady. Though he clearly made the right choice, he’s taken out of the president’s security detail, the president unwilling to deal with a constant reminder of the day his wife died. Now, a group of North Korean terrorists manage to get into the White House and take the president hostage. Mike, now working in the treasury, rushes to the White House to help his brothers in the Secret Service. Unfortunately, all of them get wiped out, leaving Mike as the only one the president has for rescue.

Like most presidential action thrillers, there’s a certain amount of patriotic cheerleading that goes on when America gets the bad guys — particularly after national landmarks like the White House and Washington Monument have been destroyed. Audiences demand revenge, and director  delivers it in bloody sequences intended to prove that it just takes one well-armed, well-trained American (OK, Butler’s actually Scottish, but he’s playing an American) to mete out justice. Butler, who’s also a producer, has made a series of duds recently, but he’s in his element cursing and killing and promising to save the president.

The real problem is mixing the inherent craziness of the form with a weirdly dour, self-serious tone. The movies tells this story as if it were a docudrama, complete with little title cards informing the audience of the current time and date, as well as introducing each of the major characters in government.

To be fair, the stabbing and the shooting and all the action is fairly well done. But the film as a whole just isn’t very smart. The filmmakers don’t even understand how DEFCON numbering works. All of the cast members bring their A-game to a script that isn’t exactly inspired but doesn’t need to be when the White House has been attacked, the vice president executed on television, and the female secretary of defense (Melissa Leo, who gives an electric performance) is being tortured and beaten while she recites the Pledge of Allegiance. The screenwriters know there’s no way this story can end without a climactic fight between Butler, Yune, and Eckhart, who plays a remarkably fit president. And Freeman and Angela Bassett (as head of the Secret Service) are very good in their secondary roles.

Olympus Has Fallen is a better Die Hard movie than It’s a Good Day to Die Hard was. At the very least, its action scenes are more coherent, and it isn’t afraid to show an uglier side of violence.

NARUTO: ROAD TO NINJA

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Naruto: Road to Ninja  begins with the young ninja of Konoha village defending their home from the Akatsuki, a rogue team of shinobi that are all supposed to be dead. They fend them off well enough, but it turns out that their opponents were merely the puppets of a much more sinister force. Soon after the attack, Naruto and Sakura are transported to an alternate reality, a mirror universe where everyone they know has an opposite personality. The two try to figure out how to get back, but the new reality offers them things that they’ve always dreamt of.

Actually, the film doesn’t even really explain the significance of the main villain of the story. Stripped from context, it all becomes a series of blank signifiers, the full effect of the reality-jumping plot losing a lot of the impact. Putting that aside, the movie has other problems. The main one is that one of its story threads is much more interesting than the other.

There are a number of noticeably static frames in the movie, entire scenes that play out with no actual movement. It’s a cheap trick that really shouldn’t be in a major motion picture. Naruto’s character arc is pretty compelling, building on a well of emotions that doesn’t really need explaining.

Naruto: Road to Ninja isn’t that much of an upgrade, and one of the two main character threads is just painful to sit through. For the faithful, the movie is somewhat of a return to form; capturing much of what is odd and unique about the anime and the source material and translating it to a feature length form. What the film tries to do, it does well. Most of the personality changes are superficial to the story, but are played to great comedic effect. In the quieter moments you get to peer into Naruto’s inner thoughts and his increasing turmoil as he struggles to accept his parents (whom he understands to be false) and his new identity. Combined with the reactions of the family he never knew, you’ll likely be weepy (or teary-eyed at least). And laughing a moment later.

The film brought back everything that was great about the series (the humour, the emotional ties, the many characters and their skills), and compressed it into a package that fans should never miss. This is one trip down memory lane that’s worth every penny at the cinemas.

OBLIVION

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Tom Cruise stars in Oblivion, an original and groundbreaking cinematic event from the visionary director of TRON: Legacy and producers of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. On a spectacular future Earth that has evolved beyond recognition, one man’s confrontation with the past will lead him on a journey of redemption and discovery as he battles to save mankind. 2077: Jack Harper (Cruise) serves as a security repairmen stationed on an evacuated Earth.

Earth, in the near future. Decades after a massive war against an alien race known as the scavengers, the planet lies broken and lifeless. Most of the population has been relocated to one of Saturn’s moons. The only humans left on Earth are Jack and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). The two watch over the machines that harvest the planet’s resources for energy, defending them against the remaining scavengers. But not everything is as it seems, and when a spacecraft suddenly crash lands on to the planet, Jack is soon confronted with the truth of his existence.

The film is big on ideas but light on details, with major revelations mentioned offhand, the consequences and practicalities hardly considered. It basically stops at being cool, the film rarely doing the work necessary to fill in these big sci-fi concepts. It would be a bit too much of an exaggeration to say the effect is ‘stunning’. We all know what the sky looks like, after all. Instead, it’s just very natural, as the set is lit by these projections. Hence, on this set all the reflections get the skyscape too, there’s no major green screen hell here for the actors and compositors to deal with. Kosinski was also keen to make this a “daylight” sci-fi flick and chose Iceland’s terrain and seasonal all-day sunshine as the main outdoor location.

So does this movie have a similar whiff about it? Well it’s doubtful if it will be hailed as a sci-fi classic, but it’s still an entertaining enough romp. The fragmented lives aspect of the storyline makes it more difficult to feel any warmth for the female characters given their spooky ways, but it remains nevertheless intriguing, even if you’re not exactly rooting for Cruise, Kurylenko and co. Still, their performances are convincing although Morgan Freeman doing his stereotypical wise old man routine shows rather unimaginative casting. Cruise is now best when his character is in peril, when the circumstances and his physicality are made to provide the emotional content. In other contexts, Cruise feels a little otherworldly. Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko play their roles equally cold.

Oblivion eventually gives up its secrets by introducing some flashback elements that join the dots in a way that doesn’t suggest that this is simply an aliens v. humans battle built around pre-owned ideas. The film brings to light one of the great paradoxes of the modern cinematic age. One would think that science fiction would get the most benefit from the advancements in special effects technology.

IT TAKES A MAN AND A WOMAN

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It Takes a Man and a Woman is the third and final installment in A Very Special Love series of films. It follows the life of Miggy (Cruz) and Laida (Geronimo) after their break-up which occur after the events of the second film. Miggy, who is now in a relationship with Isabelle (Daza) while Laida is now fiercer woman after living in the United States. They try to co-exist in the same company, while Laida tries to opposed Miggy’s business decision.

The story then shifts to a more serious tone which is effectively heart-wrenching. When Miggy confronts Laida in the elevator and she finally unleashes what she has been feeling all along, one can’t help but be moved with that scene. The moment perfectly captured the pain of breakups and that not even time and separation could easily erase it especially if the love shared was deep. The fact that this is the third part of this story helps because we already have an investment to their relationship and it also feels like they are just going through a natural cycle of real life relationships. It also had a thought-provoking insight about forgiveness which was helped even further by a subplot that involves Laida’s parents.

Sarah Geronimo and John Lloyd Cruz are able to express such longing pain and regret in their quieter moments, filling in whatever gaps the narrative might have. The two exhibit so much talent and chemistry that the relationship remains entirely credible, despite the fact that the two never even kiss. The supporting cast features solid performances, particularly from the great Irma Adlawan. It just that some of these actors feel a little extraneous, playing parts that belong entirely to the bloat.

The film might just be too stuck on the idea of what made the previous films successful, relying heavily on goofy humor and the romcom formula to tell the story. But these characters have grown up and changed, and are now wrestling with deeper issues. It might have done the film good to just take a more subdued approach, trusting in the talents of the two leads to provide the mainstream appeal. That said, the current approach still provides some charm. There’s just a sense that it could have been so much more.

THE HOST

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When an unseen enemy threatens mankind by taking over their bodies and erasing their memories, Melanie will risk everything to protect the people she cares most about, proving that love can conquer all in a dangerous new world.

What if everything you love was taken from you in the blink of an eye? “The Host” is the next epic love story from the creator of the “Twilight Saga,” worldwide bestselling author, Stephenie Meyer. When an unseen enemy threatens mankind by taking over their bodies and erasing their memories, Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan) will risk everything to protect the people she cares most about – Jared (Max Irons), Ian (Jake Abel), her brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) and her Uncle Jeb (William Hurt) , proving that love can conquer all in a dangerous new world.

The film glosses over the practical details of the conceit, never really explaining how this benign, seemingly peaceful alien race was able to overcome the Earth’s defenses, or why they feel the need to control so many planets. The central concept just seems shaker than it needs to be, the very nature of the antagonists odd and contradictory. Moving past the premise, the film delivers a story that is equally prone to lazy writing. Characters are ill defined, and conflict only seems to happen sporadically, in brief spurts between long stretches of enervating exposition.

The film gets off to a promising start and then just slowly, methodically dies. The story makes less and less sense as the story goes along, bringing up questions that will never be answered. And the plot just refuses to take off, the movie just lacking the conflict to make any of it interesting. The best the film can offer are a couple of impressive images that imagine a world far richer than the story can really provide. It just isn’t enough.

GI JOE (Retaliation)

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In this sequel, the G.I. Joes are not only fighting their mortal enemy Cobra; they are forced to contend with threats from within the government that jeopardize their very existence.

GI Joe Retaliation tries to be a sequel and a reboot at the same time by desperately trying to extinguish our memories of the terrible first film. When The Rock was cast in the recent Fast and Furious movie, the move somehow breathed new life into the waning franchise.

Most of the characters aren’t even interesting. The film barely bothers to come with any personality for some of its players. Flint and Jinx are so completely devoid of any defining characteristics. They could have been replaced by pieces of tofu and it probably wouldn’t have mattered. D.J. Cotrona and Elodie Yung are terribly handicapped in these roles, the two just not given anything to work with. Dwayne Johnson fares better as Roadblock, but the movie’s weird seriousness doesn’t play to the actor’s strengths. And Bruce Willis phones in yet another performance.

There is no one in the world that will tell you that the first G.I. Joe movie was a masterpiece. But there is a growing contingent in both the popular and critical worlds that has fallen to its strange charms. But there is nothing charming about G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the film falling prey to the homogeny of the blockbuster. What used to be about toys becomes something else entirely, the guns becoming all too real, the deaths coming fast and furious. Whatever joy was established by its predecessor is all gone now, replaced by the cold Hollywood sheen.

ADMISSION

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A Princeton admissions officer who is up for a major promotion takes a professional risk after she meets a college-bound alternative school kid who just might be the son she gave up years ago in a secret adoption.

Tina Fey (30 Rock) and Paul Rudd (This is 40) are paired for the first time on-screen in Admission, the new comedy/drama directed by Academy Award nominee Paul Weitz (About a Boy, In Good Company), about the surprising detours we encounter on the road to happiness. Every spring, high school seniors anxiously await letters of college admission that will affirm and encourage their potential. At Princeton University, admissions officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) is a gatekeeper evaluating thousands of applicants. Year in and year out, Portia has lived her life by the book, at work as well as at the home she shares with Princeton professor Mark (Michael Sheen). When Clarence (Wallace Shawn), the Dean of Admissions, announces his impending retirement, the likeliest candidates to succeed him are Portia and her office rival Corinne (Gloria Reuben). For Portia, however, it’s business as usual as she hits the road on her annual recruiting trip.

The film miscalculates a bit in taking the form of a light comedy. It gets off to a rocky start as it establishes this quirky tone that seems intent on ending every scene on a one liner. There’s a serious dimension to this milieu that seems to go mostly unexplored, some of it playing second fiddle to the more familiar rhythms of set up to punchline. But the story deals with issues that are a little heavier than the tone can carry. Big dramatic points are played for laughs, the film setting up these large comedic set pieces that end up in tears. It can be whiplash-inducing at times.

The film ends up a little more middle-of-the-road than the story ought to suggest. There is a seed of something truly fascinating in here, the wealth of ironies and personal drama that could have blossomed into a really daring film. But this film isn’t quite up to that challenge. It stays within the comfortable bounds of the romantic comedy, putting all the serious questions on the backburner as it plays most of its drama for laughs. To be fair, those are often quality laughs. But one can’t shake the sense that there could have been something more.

THE CROODS

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Eep (voiced by Emma Stone, a teenage cave-girl living in prehistoric times, longs for adventure in the big open world right outside where she lives with her entire family — mom Ugga (Catherine Keener), grandmother Gran (Cloris Leachman), brother Thunk (Clark Duke), baby sister Sandy (Randy Thom), and dad Grug (Nicolas Cage). Grug is a traditionalist, believing that there’s no safe place beyond the cold dark of their hideout cave. He thinks that Eep should rein in her adventurous side because it can only lead to danger, that you should “never not be afraid.” He means well, but Eep feels very constrained. She longs to explore what lies beyond their hole-in-the-mountain wall, and not only when it’s time to hunt for food. One day, she sneaks out, lured by a sliver of light, and meets a young man named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) who knows how to start a fire. He’s a confident explorer with an adorable creature named Belt (Chris Sanders) as his only companion. Guy knows there are big changes ahead: The ground is literally shifting under their feet. Guy thinks Eep and her family have to run to safety with him, but to where? A whole new world that even the anxious Grug concedes may be the only key to survival. But that means going out into the open for the Croods, and they aren’t used to being so vulnerable.

The movie presents two sides of a very strange argument. Grug is all about keeping his family safe, and he thinks the only way to do that is to quell all curiosity. Guy, on the other hand, represents the other extreme, at one point telling a story where falling off a cliff does not end with death, but instead flying towards the sun. The lengthy second act lingers on this argument, repeating the simple rhythm of the family into trouble, Grug failing to get them through, and Guy coming up with the solution.

Visually, the film is gorgeous, benefitting from a strong sense of design and an almost painterly approach to lighting scenes. Hyperkinetic action scenes pick up the pace through the sloggier story sections. The film looks great in 3D, though at this point, the novelty of the technology is wearing thin. A strong voice cast further enhances things. Emma Stone’s distinctive voice gives Eep a delightful sense of defiance. Nicolas Cage gives Grug surprising dramatic range. And Ryan Reynolds is perfectly charming as Guy.

What makes the film great is how it doesn’t just rest on its CGI glories (though they’re pretty amazing — see below!). Though the visuals are exciting, there’s a steady heartbeat that booms at the movie’s center. Stone Age they may be, but Grug — and, to a certain extent, Ugga — struggle with a parenting dilemma that iPhone-lugging moms and dads experience, too: having to let go of children on the cusp of adulthood and, even more important, learning from them, too, as they experience a bigger, more complicated world. The Croods explores this dynamic with compassion and surprising depth. There aren’t as many knowing winks at the audience as most other movies in this genre, but you won’t miss them much. Would it be icing on the cake if a film with an assertive, intelligent teenage girl as its main character didn’t end up having her — and the other females, for that matter — rely on the men to save them? Yes. Does it take away from the film’s girl-power message? A little. Is this an awesome film anyway?

APARTMENT 1303

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Adapted from the novel by author Kei Oishi, Ataru Oikawa’s Apartment 1303 explores the horrific case of a purportedly haunted apartment. Sayaka was excited at the prospect of striking out on her own; so excited that she invited her closest friends to her new apartment to celebrate. In the middle of the party, however, Sayaka begins acting very strangely and lunges over the balcony to her death. But Sayaka was never suicidal, and her friends refuse to believe that she could have taken her own life. When Sayaka’s sister Mariko decides to investigate, she discovers that her sibling wasn’t the first to take a fatal plunge from that particular apartment.

A modern ghost story which turns a love hate relationship between mother and daughter into a tale of horror.

The plot is basically summed up in this statement: “There’s a murderous ghost in this apartment. I will stay here and do nothing about it.” That’s all that happens. Even after finding out the sad history of the place, receiving warnings from the creepy girl next door, and experiencing various supernatural events that leave bruises, the protagonists of this movie do nothing to avert their fates. There is no tension because there is really no conflict. Conflict requires effort from both sides, and in this case, the protagonists seem content to commit suicide by apartment. The production values are awful, the film often looking even worse than some of the lowest-budgeted local movies.

The film is representative of everything that is wrong with many of today’s horror movies. It is, first of all, a remake, the entire project beginning from a dearth of originality and creativity. It acts mostly as a delivery system for jump scares, eschewing things like character development and plot in order to make room for long scenes where the music swells and something creeps in the background. The horror genre used to be a place where young filmmakers could experiment, putting their own twist on long established tropes. But now it is just a clearinghouse for the same cliché elements, none of them actually scary.

PAGARI

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Pagari  tries to show the misconception of Muslims, the true meaning of friendship and the love of Allah.

Muhammad and Abdullah (Teejay Marquez and Arkin del Rosario) are best friends. This much is clear from the film’s opening narration. In dazzling defiance of storytelling’s “show, don’t tell” rule, the film has this narration over the very first scene that has the interacting. We hear nothing of their conversation, the voiceover narration delivering an unwieldy amount of exposition. And even with all that, the information delivered basically adds up to “Muhammad and Abdullah are best friends.”

As for showing the misconception of Muslims, it’s hard to tell where the movie is coming from. It shows very little of the religion. There are just two mentions of Islam in the entire thing. The first comes when Muhammad asks Abdullah if he’d still want to be a Muslim if he somehow had a second life. The second mention is in voice over narration, Muhammad informing us that their fathers had already abandoned the tenets of Islam. The point could be that Muslims are actually indistinguishable from other people, the boys showing almost no indication that they follow the teachings of the religion.

The film has the form of a personal statement. It all seems to be coming from a very specific place, and that much should be respected. But the statement doesn’t come through very clearly. The movie is put together so poorly that whatever ideas the movie was trying to get across simply fail. Intentions can only get a movie so far. One tends to require skill and technical know how to craft something that’s actually watchable.

DRACULA 3D

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Dario Argento finally is back with a new movie, this time it is all about vampires. You might think Argento is jumping the band wagon since the overload of vampire related series and movies. But you should see this more as a counter attack of Argento to try and bring back class to the vampires.

t the height of his powers, there was no one better at exploring the intersection of sex and violence and terror, making the director a unique fit for Stoker’s masterpiece. But today, it’s a little harder to make that case. Argento has now spent decades making movies that only offer a pale imitation of his former glory. This version of Dracula is mostly inert and wooden, and occasionally unintentionally funny.

The performances from most actors aren’t bad, they are completely coming over as b-actors thanks to bad character development and a bad script. This is really taking a toll on the complete movie. I really must say this is one of the worst movies I have seen in a long time. Argento is trying new things and that is not a bad thing at all but the movie just suffers because of it. Not only is the script badly done the 3D CGI effects are even worse. It is like a crappy 3D artist that just started school could have made them. There is this one horrible transformation of Dracula turning into a wolf and it really makes me want to scream at the screen! And not in a good way.

The film doesn’t really add much to the story. It follows the plot pretty closely, rarely making any diversions from the established canon. That might sound like the movie is being faithful, but that’s giving it too much credit. To be really faithful to the book, the movie would need to have a measure of greater subtext floating beneath the bloody surface. But this adaptation is entirely too flat and straightforward, lacking any sort of sophistication. It’s also an awkward fit for a three-act movie. The story starts and stops in a way that simply works better in novels.

It is incomprehensibly bad, the film turning one of the great classics of horror literature into a really tepid, often silly little movie. It’s hard to reconcile the Argento that made Suspiria and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage with the Argento that directed this film. Then again, we haven’t seen the classic Argento in a long while. Perhaps being a legend just doesn’t sit well with the director. Perhaps he needed the struggle of making his name to really inspire him.

SO UNDERCOVER

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A tough, street-smart private eye is hired by the FBI to go undercover in a college sorority.

When the FBI hires her to go undercover at a college sorority, Molly Morris (Miley Cyrus) must transform herself from a tough, streetwise private investigator to a refined, sophisticated university girl to help protect the daughter of a one-time Mobster. With several suspects on her list, Molly unexpectedly discovers that not everyone is who they appear to be, including herself.

The film attempts to give the sorority some personality by contriving odd rituals and specific language. But it all feels like an older person’s conception of what a young woman is like nowadays. Apparently, sorority girls all hang out in their underwear talking about owning white Bentleys. They have sparkly cellphones and say things like “amazeballs.” At no point do they ever seem like actual college girls. Some exaggeration is necessary in any comedy, but the film’s complete disconnect from reality makes it difficult to invest in.

It’s probably worth noting that So Undercover didn’t even make it to theaters in the U.S. It ended up as a direct-to-video feature, a status that is usually reserved for B-movies and the occasional terrible sequel to a popular film. I guess So Undercover might qualify in a weird way for the latter type of movie, since it might as well be a terrible sequel to Miss Congeniality. Of course, Miss Congeniality already had a terrible sequel, which makes this the third-tier option.

CHASING MAVERICKS

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When young Jay Moriarity discovers that the mythic Mavericks surf break, one of the biggest waves on Earth, exists just miles from his Santa Cruz home, he enlists the help of local legend Frosty Hesson to train him to survive it.

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air’s salubrity,” Emerson once advised. It’s a path embraced by the wetsuit warriors in “Chasing Mavericks,” a surfing movie about men, water and waves, and how and why they sometimes come together beautifully and sometimes collide with terrifying force. The movie, directed by Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted, is based on the true story of a Santa Cruz-area surfer, Rick Hesson, entertainingly nicknamed Frosty — welcome to California, people! — who back in the day helped shape a legend-to-be: Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston), a boy with a dream and a battered board.

The film ends up taking a very familiar form. A young hothead takes training from a wise elder with unorthodox methods. Though the film is based on a true story, it squeezes that story into the confines of the sports movie formula. It does so in strangely unexciting ways, too. One of the big challenges that Jay is faced with is writing an essay. The film is set in a particularly interesting milieu, filled with breathtaking views and heart stopping action, and it settles on having its main character struggle with a typewriter.

Ironically, considering all that raging water and pumping adrenalin, it’s a disappointment to have their story’s telling so dryly and listlessly executed.

As no-nonsense Hesson, Butler convincingly invests his character with a commanding presence and rugged physicality, although it’s a shame the Scottish-born actor’s commitment to a credible, consistent American accent wasn’t as equally fierce.

Chasing Mavericks kind of does a disservice to the memory of the real Jay Moriarty. Though the film seeks to celebrate his life, it instead reduces it, compressing it to fit the familiar dramatic cliches of mainstream cinema. It finds little insight into his character, turning him into a bland hero who can’t really seem to deal with his problems unless they involve a surfboard. The movie proclaims him an inspiration, but it portrays him as indistinct.

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE

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When a street magician’s stunts begins to make their show look stale, superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton look to salvage on their act – and their friendship – by staging their own daring stunt.

The movie itself is another matter. It starts off with a flashback to young Burt, a suburban latchkey kid bullied remorselessly at school, discovering the wonders of a do-it-yourself magic kit. (“Everybody loves a magician … and they’ll love you, too,” it not-so-subtly promises.) He soon enlists fellow loner-nerd Anthony as his sidekick, and the two quickly become inseparable and grow up to become a popular magic act, the Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton, played by, respectively, Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi. But by the time the film settles into its story, they’re on the verge of has-been-dom: Regaling ever-dwindling crowds with old-fashioned, vaguely sexist spectacle, they’ve turned their childhood fantasies into a tired Vegas routine. (One of their tricks involves a faux-high-school pantomime about Burt stealing a jock’s girlfriend.)

The film can often be funny in singular bursts. Likewise, the dramatic bits can also be effective in isolation. The problem is when one looks at the larger picture. The film is about the love of magic, but it exhibits little love for the craft itself. It espouses a kind of magic that does no harm to anyone, but settles on a final trick that contradicts that idea. It is too goofy to be taken seriously, but also too mushy to have its meaner bits just laughed off.

There is fun to be had in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone but the movie still fails to pay-off its central themes and is surprisingly devoid of intriguing magic tricks. Carell and Carrey poke fun at stunt magicians and casino illusionists, but even by the end, the movie doesn’t say anything interesting about either category. Characters are haphazardly thrown together in uninspired setups and while the film spouts one truism after another on the subject of magic, friendship, and even love, none of the ideas are ever exemplified through the actual actions of the characters on screen.

The film simply suffers from mainstream laziness. It feels like it’s just filling out an equation, going through the rhythms of the modern comedy without really thinking of how those pieces interact. And so there is some semblance of heart, a couple of outrageous bits, and a lot of jokes at the expense of a particular profession.

APARISYON

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Aparisyon is not a horror film, it is a very quiet film. Much of it takes place within the walls of a peaceful little convent, where the residents mostly concern themselves with communing with a higher power. But the movie wields its silence with often-frightening power, the absence of sound representative of something far more destructive just floating in the air, causing tension and erosion between these women of faith.

Lourdes (Jodi Sta. Maria) enters a monastery located in a remote area where the nuns are shielded away from the rising tension of the Marcos regime. There she meets Remy (Mylene Dizon), a nun who secretly attends meetings of activists. One day, Lourdes accompanied Remy in one of the meetings but it ran late and they were unable to go back to the monastery before dark. On their way home, the nuns were assaulted by bandits. Remy manages to escape but Lourdes was left behind. Worrying about the nuns who haven’t come home yet, Mother Superior Sister Ruth (Fides Cuyugan-Asensio) and her assistant Sister Vera (Racquel Villavencio) searched for them and what they discovered will forever change their lives.

Silence is the film’s weapon of choice. The halls of Adoration Monastery echo with forceful silence; the kind of quiet that suffocates and terrifies. It’s a deceptively simple story: once the act of violence occurs, the film retreats inside the convent to basically document how the nuns react. But from this simple plot, the film extrapolates a grand allegory, exploring the futility of passivity in the face of an increasingly violent society. The movie constructs an intense atmosphere, built on the thick air of guilt and denial, as it examines the murky consciences of these holy women.

Even if the film is almost entirely set in the monastery it was able to maximize the surrounding to make the viewers feel the coldness and sullen mode of the convent after the tragedy happened. Moreover, the film was able to tell an affecting story with less dialogue and even in silence. The film didn’t have to resort to use drawn out speeches or lines to tell us the inner turmoil the characters are going through. The very talented cast was used efficiently.

It’s really the best kind of movie that can emerge from the boundaries of that particular grant system: it’s modest in scope but grand in ambition, finding complex themes within smaller stories.

DEAD MAN DOWN

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Niels Arden Oplev, the acclaimed director of the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), makes his American theatrical debut with the new action thriller, Dead Man Down. Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace star as two strangers who are irresistibly drawn to one another by their mutual desire for revenge. The film co-stars Terrence Howard and Dominic Cooper, from a screenplay by J.H. Wyman (Fringe).

The film is structured weirdly, the narrative built entirely on a series of twists. The movie parcels out its information slowly, trying to obscure as much of the story as possible before suddenly releasing a burst of exposition. There are elements of interest through all this, but a lot of it is obscured by the film’s insistence on indirect storytelling. The film keeps the characters’ intentions unclear for far too long, keeping them at an awkward distance and making it difficult to forge a connection. The film also tends to overcomplicate things, burdening this otherwise simple revenge narrative with a few too many plot threads.

Whereas the film up to this point has presented the complete opposite, situations both controlled and highly manipulated. And again it’s odd because it’s here, Dead Man Down forgets its own core concept – revenge is never that easy.

Dead Man Down is all flavor and no substance. The camera and the sound design offer up plenty of atmosphere, and the supporting cast offers surprising nuance, but the story is just too slow and convoluted to be interesting. At times, it feels like the film is just catching up with the audience, slowly making up the ground that it lost through its awkward storytelling choices.

It’s an almost sad admission as Dead Man Down works fantastically with its cast but falls short with its story due to a lack of refinement.

 MUST BE…LOVE

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Ivan (Daniel Padilla) and Patchot (Kathryn Bernardo) have been friends since they were kids. They have been through a lot together. Ivan was there when Patchot’s beauty queen mother left her family for loftier career opportunities, and Patchot stood by Ivan when his father ran off with another woman. When they grew up, their familiarity starts to pose a problem with Patchot, who starts to develop feelings for her best friend, who finds it hard to see her beyond the friend zone. Worse, Patchot’s cousin Angel (Liza Soberano) arrives from the US and Ivan immediately falls for her. Even worse, Patchot’s dad (John Estrada) would not allow her to explore her femininity because he fears that Patchot would turn out exactly like her mother, the deserter. When Ivan’s gay uncle (John Lapuz) decides to help out the lovelorn teen, Ivan begins to see a whole new side to the friend that he has known forever.

The film is weirdly pragmatic in that way, juxtaposing this young romance against a history of failed loves. Teenage romance can feel awfully fluffy, but the film imbues the central relationship with emotion weightier than puppy attraction. The most affecting part of the movie has Patchot confronting her father about the identity that he has foisted on her, the young girl begging for leeway to discover who she really is.

If I were to post any complaint about the movie, perhaps, it would only be overselling of the tomboy angle for Patchot in the beginning. It is one thing to be boyish but it would seem that her character was also oblivious to the basic tenets of personal hygiene, appearing always caked in dirt, sweat and charcoal. Also, the speed of the courtship between Ivan and Angel seemed to proceed at too fast a pace.

Must Be…Love is a tough movie to rate. Ratings are terribly arbitrary to begin with, but numbers are increasingly inadequate for movies that can inspire mixed emotions. There is merit in the themes the movie manages to explore. Behind the cutesy façade of teen romance lies an actual theme worth exploring. It questions the simplistic truism that people just ought to be themselves, pointing out quite fairly that young people probably don’t even really know who they are, and that a large part of their identities come from external influences.

It spoke about love between friends, family and and love for oneself — looking beyond the superficial and appreciating a person for what he/ she is. It’s a bit cliche but for a movie that targets mostly teens, its still a great lesson to impart.

MOVIE 43

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A series of interconnected short films follows a washed-up producer as he pitches insane story lines featuring some of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

The film is sketchy, in every sense. It’s a collection of short comedy movies in the manner of the 70s cult classic Kentucky Fried Movie, each with a separate director, in which many very famous actors have been persuaded to take part. It looks like a lot of favours have been called in, from very big names who are being very good sports. It is crass, infantile, grossout, sometimes funny, mostly not, and most of all it’s very strange to witness this cameo parade of stars, a substantial proportion of whom have no obvious gift for comedy.

The movie’s general lack of inspiration is even more egregious when one considers the talent involved. It really is hard to imagine how the likes of Winslet and Jackman got roped into this disaster. But it’s really more disappointing to see generally great comedic actors squandered with these lowbrow concepts. Chris Pratt and Anna Faris are wasted on the film’s most scatological segment.

The names involved would suggest some appeal, at least, some measure of inspiration that would such draw such acclaimed stars to the project. But inspiration is short in Movie 43.

Movie 43 could never hope to achieve anything above the very low bar it sets for itself – but it certainly comes pretty close to maintaining that low standard throughout. Definitely not a cult-classic like Kentucky Fried Movie (and I imagine a fair number of the actors in the cast wouldn’t cry if this film was overlooked), but it will make for a fun rental down the line.

QUEST FOR A HEART

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The format of animation is less restrictive as opposed to actually filming the movie and especially in the case of a fantasy film. However, it seems the scriptwriters weren’t really paying attention to the essentials of what makes a good Rölli film (see “Rölli – Amazing Tales”) and instead what we end up is very similar to “Rölli ja Metsänhenki”. A generic children’s fantasy-film with Rölli slapped on to make it sell.

Long ago, the gods created the Heart of Understanding as a means of ending the conflict between them. Milli (voiced by Lisa Stansfield) is an elf who seeks the Heart in order to save her village. Along the way, she encounters the Rölli, a race of hobbit-like creatures who revel in being horrible and filthy. At first, the Rölli aren’t very nice to her, but they soon become her unlikely allies. A small group of Rölli accompanies her on her epic journey to a far off mountain, where they must all face their greatest fears.

The film looks so incredibly unremarkable, it’s the sort of stuff you’d expect from a straight-to-TV or DVD animated film. While the character designs are themselves good the character-portrayals are disappointing. Everyone over-acts and they should have found far more appropriate voices for some of them.

The lines are often spaced out awkwardly, and the English dialogue doesn’t always seem to match up with the animation. Lisa Stansfield makes Milli a little more annoying than was probably intended.

Having said all this movie does actually have some funny moments and an okay plot, but even Rölli himself comes off incredibly lame for some reason. The film is a good children’s animation film, but parents are likely going to get bored with it.

It seems like a really tough sell, and it isn’t like we are hard up for children’s entertainment. Quest for a Heart is already at a disadvantage with its lack of specific cultural context. The fact that it’s almost six years old makes it an even more difficult proposition. And beyond all this, the movie just isn’t very good.

 SABIK

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Adonis and Amanda (Lawrence Manalo and Renee Lopez) are vigorously trying to have a baby, but they aren’t having any luck. Amanda’s younger sister Myra (Mia Henarez) moves in, bringing along her boyfriend Glenn (Christopher Capistrano). In a moment of weakness, Amanda betrays her husband and her sister by sleeping with Glenn. She tries to end the affair soon after, but her intentions are thwarted by her sudden pregnancy.

Meanwhile, Adonis’ younger brother Xander (Jay Enriquez) is exploring his own sexuality, having his first gay experiences. The film basically runs the gamut of clichés of this genre. It barely tries to string together a logical sequence of events. It’s more likely to linger on a bathing scene than explore the emotions inherent to the story. Seriously, this movie has two of the longest bathing scenes I’ve ever seen, the camera digging into every nook and cranny of its actors’ naked forms.

Sabik doesn’t even bother to make the sex feel natural. The people on this movie seem to have sex based simply on proximity, their bodies just moving on their own accord, ignoring the severe lack of mood or motivation.

The film ends up going nowhere as well, the story unable to capitalize on any of the potential drama borne from the situation. The movie just thuds into a perfunctory ending that deigns to offer some sort of moralistic judgment on its characters. That’s really rich coming from this movie, which is really little more than a framework for really long bathing scenes.

Very near to a trash film.

 

THE DINASAUR PROJECT

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The Dinosaur Project features previously unseen footage from the ill-fated, eponymous 2011 expedition to the Congo in search of the Mokele Mbembe. Discover a world lost for millions of years.

The film is an ambitious quest by a team of western explorers, hoping to find a water creature, whose origins are rooted in myth and fantasy. The head of the expedition, an Indiana Jones type, has his plans for a successful trip spoiled though, after his helicopter is brought down by a flock of strange enormous birds and to add to his troubles, he also has to look after his stowaway son Luke. Luke is the film’s main narrator; with an arsenal of personal cameras at his disposal, the young techno-geek captures every minute of this project, which becomes a lesson in survival.

The special effects simply aren’t up to par, the interactions between the humans and the dinosaurs looking really awkward. The shaky camerawork seems to have been employed specifically to hide the shoddiness of the production. The movie relies too much on the inherent chaos of a handheld camera to suggest danger, it scenes lacking any kind of building suspense or tension. The acting is similarly subpar.

The creatures themselves predictably disappointing, the effects created by the same company that crafted the BBC’s Planet Dinosaur and failing to ever rise above TV quality; the reveal of Mokele Mbembe particularly underwhelming.

It never really uses it to its full potential, the aesthetic more of a smokescreen than a means of immersing the audience in the action. Not that there’s much action to be immersed in, really. The Dinosaur Project, a found footage flick that disappoints at just about every turn, and makes you wish the tapes had remained lost.

DJANGO UNCHAINED

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Set in the South two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave whose brutal history with his former owners lands him face-to-face with German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is on the trail of the murderous Brittle brothers, and only Django can lead him to his bounty. Honing vital hunting skills, Django remains focused on one goal: finding and rescuing Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife he lost to the slave trade long ago. Django and Schultz’s search ultimately leads them to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the proprietor of “Candyland,” an infamous plantation. Exploring the compound under false pretenses, Django and Schultz arouse the suspicion of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s trusted house slave.

It is probably enough to mention that the film is wildly entertaining. The movie builds a thoroughly engaging caper, filled with compelling turns and a good amount of action. The film is stunningly shot and scored, fully capturing the scale of Westerns of old while still maintaining a more modern sensibility. And Tarantino’s knack for dialogue remains dazzling, his characters gifted with verve and wit unmatched in most of cinema.

Tarantino’s fascination with language comes to the fore in the terrifying verbal conflict between DiCaprio, the ornately loquacious villain, and Schultz, the eloquent democrat. They provide the prelude to the film’s violent climax the way the debates over abolition were the curtain-raiser for the civil war. Django Unchained is a long, powerful film, its dramatic brush strokes broad and colourful, its psychological points made with considerable subtlety and wit.

The film isn’t perfect by any means: it lapses into self-indulgence in the last twenty minutes or so, betraying much of its own complexity with a more simplistic morality. The film never does get around to questioning its own thirst for vengeance, laying it out as a triumphant solution to a rather complicated problem. But this isn’t nearly enough to undo the good laid out by the first two hours of this picture.

Perhaps the most significant moments are when Django is trained by Schultz as a gunfighter. From any distance, on any occasion, Django can shoot with ruthless accuracy and verve, and afterwards permits himself a grin of pleasure.

THE LAST EXORCISM 2

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As Nell Sweetzer tries to build a new life after the events of the first movie, the evil force that once possessed her returns with an even more horrific plan.

Continuing where the first film left off, Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) is found terrified and alone in rural Louisiana. Back in the relative safety of New Orleans, Nell realizes that she can’t remember entire portions of the previous months only that she is the last surviving member of her family. Just as Nell begins the difficult process of starting a new life, the evil force that once possessed her is back with other, unimaginably horrific plans that mean her last exorcism was just the beginning.

The movie spends all of its time with her, but the writing keeps her completely indistinct. She simply conforms to the needs of every scene. She’s timid except when she’s not. She’s demure unless she hears a couple of people having sex in the next room. She doesn’t trust anyone, except she does. The rest of the characters are similarly vague, making it hard to care about anybody’s well being. And in a horror movie, that ought to be a requirement. Ho-hum acting from the cast only compounds the problem.

The bad news is that this matter-of-fact, brick-by-brick approach to building scares and tension probably won’t work for audiences who just want to scream a lot, so Gass-Donnelly undercuts it all by haphazardly tossing in jump scares of the cheapest, most predictable kind, which force their own, crippling rhythm to the movie. Instead of experiencing the slow build of tension, watching this girl’s reality unravel around her, we wind up being carried along from cheap thrill to cheap thrill. And they’re not even particularly good thrills.

It is easily argued that The Last Exorcism Part II is an unnecessary sequel. There have already been so many exorcism films, and this one doesn’t really try to do anything different. It just meanders through the same dumb clichés that have defined the genre for decades now. If you watch closely enough, you’ll see that somewhere inside The Last Exorcism Part II is a very good thriller — a genuinely unnerving movie about possession — struggling to get out. But then the sound drops out, the music shrieks, a figure jumps out, and we’re back to the same old, same old.

CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: WORLDS AWAY

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From the big top to the big screen, visionary filmmaker James Cameron and director Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Narnia) invite you and your family on an all new 3D adventure: Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away. A young couple who is separated, must journey through the astonishing and dreamlike worlds of Cirque du Soleil to find each other, as audiences experience the immersive 3D technology that will allow them to leap, soar, swim, and dance with the performers.

The film is actually composed of acts from several of the Cirque du Soleil shows. There is only a trace of narrative, and it invariably gives way to whatever thing they want to show next. It doesn’t make for a very coherent experience. It’s difficult to find much of a connection, for example, between a scene featuring Asian contortionists and a group of superhero costume-clad trampolinists bouncing around to an Elvis tune.

A gamine woman (Erica Linz) wandering into a circus is smitten by a daring young aerialist, whose sudden plunge from the trapeze takes her with him into a hallucinatory world of performance. One is soundtracked to the Beatles, another to Elvis; one looks like a really expensive mime on Flash Gordon, complete with Ming the Merciless. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it, just a lot of elaborately costumed gymnasts showing off their athletic strength and bendiness.

What is more doubtful, however, is the staging of these scenes. First of all, the 3D is pretty ineffective, since everything is shot against a flat black background. And the camera does these acts no favors. Applying the language of cinema to the acts only results in a dichotomy between action and reaction. Changing angles lessens the impact of an acrobatic feat, the integrity of the action lost between cuts.

The rest of the movie kind of misses the point, however. Some things are just meant to be seen live.

SNITCH

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A father goes undercover for the DEA in order to free his son who was imprisoned after being set up in drug deal.

In the fast-paced action thriller SNITCH, Dwayne Johnson stars as a father whose teenage son is wrongly accused of a drug distribution crime and is looking at a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years. Desperate and determined to rescue his son at all costs, he makes a deal with the U.S. attorney to work as an undercover informant and infiltrate a drug cartel on a dangerous mission — risking everything, including his family and his own life.

The movie lapses into pulpy action elements near the end, but for the most part, it stays neatly within the realm of social drama. The film dissects the weakness of mandatory minimum laws, looking into how the war on drugs can be thoroughly unjust and ruins the lives of good kids who might have just made one bad decision. The film’s argument is surprisingly cogent. It portrays a drug war as a battle between two morally compromised sides.

Snitch has an uphill struggle from the get-go. Though its subject matter reeks of gravitas, it doesn’t have the chops of a rich, complicated film like traffic (despite a cast that includes the underused Sarandon and the top-rate Bratt), nor does it have the taut pacing of the Bourne movies. But for an action thriller with a message (that drug-sentencing laws for first-time offenders are massively unfair), it moves at a good clip and lets the plot, based on a true story, unspool in a straightforward, if pedestrian, manner.

It’s a less interesting solution than the movie has been proposing so far. But for most of the movie, it’s able to stay grounded in this reality, one where generally good kids can end up in prison, where they have the good beaten out of them.

Snitch is no trailblazer, though not every movie has to be. It’s really more of a two-and-a-half-star film than a three, but we’ll give it the extra half star, anyway, for the eye-opening, fast-moving story.

21 AND OVER

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The night before his big medical school interview, a promising student celebrates his 21st birthday with his two best friends.

Miller and Casey (Miles Teller and Skylar Astin) are at Northern University visiting their high school best friend Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) for his 21st birthday. They urge him to go out and have a drink, in spite of the fact that he has a medical school interview the following morning. What was supposed to be just one beer turns into a bar crawl, and soon enough, Jeff Chang is passed out. Miller and Casey soon realize they don’t know where Jeff Chang lives, and they have to scramble around campus to find his address and get him home before his dad arrives to pick him up for his interview.

21 and Over was written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who wrote The Hangover, so they know a thing or two about raunch, and they know a thing or two about story; what made The Hangover work so well was in part its odd, mystery-genre structure. They try for a bit of the same in this new film, in that our heroes spend much of the film trying to find JeffChang’s house, but a bunch of guys looking for a house isn’t a mystery, or at least not an interesting one.

The film does offer a hint of something deeper going on, with the characters slowly discovering that their friend Jeff Chang isn’t as put together as they remember him. But that thread pretty much fizzles out and gives way to the much less intriguing drama between friends who just don’t call each other enough.

More importantly, and more fatally, the raunch itself isn’t all that nutty, either. Sure, there’s a teddy bear glued to genitalia, there’s an elaborately grotesque nod to Eyes Wide Shut, there are surreal party scenes galore, not to mention the aforementioned cascade of dude nudity.

But it’s still a lot more entertaining than 21 & Over, owing to its genuine sense of danger and solid cast. With that movie already existing, this is little more than a redundancy.

THE FINAL JUDGEMENTImage26-year-old Shogo Washio (Kota Miura) sense danger from the expansion of Asian superpower nation Ouran. Shogo Washio teams up with Kenzo Nakagishi (Ken Kaito) and establishes a new political party. He loses in the elections to gain a seat in the house of representatives.

A few years later Japan is now invaded by the country of Ouran and falls under the military occupation of that country. Basic freedoms like speech and religion are lost, while protestors are killed. In this environment, Shogo Washio joins the underground resistance organization ROLE.

The film meanders through its lengthy runtime, the characters never really in danger in spite of the oppressive regime that looms over them. The film seems wary of showing any sort of violence, which is problematic because it keeps insisting that Ouran is killing people. Without seeing this, the threat of the bad guys is terribly abstract. The film is in fact so neutered that its climax is really just the main character giving a speech. The message of the speech is agreeable, but it seems unlikely to inspire the reaction that it gets in the movie.

The dialogue in English sounds terribly unnatural, but that’s almost to be expected. More surprising are the subtitles, which use odd turns of phrase that often change the nuance of the lines. The message isn’t very complex, but there is certainly something lost in all this translation. The acting is pretty bad.

This is where the movie falters. Its story is long and meandering and generally devoid of any meaningful drama. One can even acknowledge that the message in the film is worth considering.

THE FIGHTING CHEFSImageA group of chefs is divided into two fighting groups after learning they only have three months before they’re all fired from their restaurant.

The movie centers on a block of small but mostly successful restaurants. One day, their landlord Don Manolo (Mark Gil) comes to deliver some bad news: they’re going to have to close up shop in three months to make way for a new development. The man known only as Master Chef (Ronnie Ricketts) must lead this motley group of chefs in order to save their restaurants. But to do that, he must deal with discord within his own ranks, and fend off the attacks of Don Manolo’s greedier brother Gerry (Roi Vinzon).

The film never really gets around to being much fun. The movie just doesn’t explore the silliness of its concept enough. Its fights, aside from the occasional pepper mill strike from Chef Boy Logro, are disappointingly conventional. Worse yet, they are shot terribly. The movie is an eyesore, with many of its scenes completely out of focus.

The cast is game, but this just translates into a lot of mugging for the camera. It is quite amazing, then, that Mark Gil still manages to pull off something resembling pathos in this movie. He feels a little out of place, his scenes carrying an odd sense of gravity to them.

The Fighting Chefs needed to commit to the insanity of its premise, detaching from reality to deliver a vision of a world where chefs are made to fight. What we get instead is terribly disappointing: a meandering, repetitive “comedy” burdened with subpar production values and badly shot action. It’s all meant to be fun, I suppose, but it doesn’t turn out that way.

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

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Disney’s fantastical adventure “Oz The Great and Powerful,” directed by Sam Raimi, imagines the origins of L. Frank Baum’s beloved wizard character. When Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a small-time circus magician with dubious ethics, is hurled away from dusty Kansas to the vibrant Land of Oz, he thinks he’s hit the jackpot-fame and fortune are his for the taking-that is until he meets three witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams), who are not convinced he is the great wizard everyone’s been expecting. Reluctantly drawn into the epic problems facing the Land of Oz and its inhabitants, Oscar must find out who is good and who is evil before it is too late. Putting his magical arts to use through illusion, ingenuity-and even a bit of wizardry-Oscar transforms himself not only into the great wizard but into a better man as well. When small-time magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) pulls one flimflam too many, he finds himself hurled into the fantastical Land of Oz where he must somehow transform himself into the great wizard-and just maybe into a better man as well.

The film does give them a lush playground to work with: a CGI-laden wonderland filled with dazzling visuals. There’s plenty of imagination to be found in these frames, though one might note that it all feels a little cold at times. This is especially felt with the monsters. Though the flying monkeys in the 1939 Wizard of Oz were pretty low-tech, they had a tactility to them that made them more menacing than the CGI monsters in this film.

The land of Oz is a land of color, and Raimi’s team has done a solid job with immense bright flowers and swirling mists. The CGI is a bit too obvious in some scenes, especially the backgrounds as major characters are walking around, but the China Girl (Joey King) and Finley the Monkey (Braff) are wonderful, both in animation and personality.

Oz calls for a performance, and that can be a problem for Franco. Mila Kunis similarly struggles in the role, looking lost for most of the picture. Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams provide much of the appeal of this film, with broad performances that just slightly wink at the audience, a subtle sense of humor that the film could’ve used more of.

Oz the Great and Powerful can’t keep up the illusion either. It feels thoroughly bland at times, featuring little of the wit and subversion that Raimi’s films were once known for. While I’m happy for all of Raimi’s success, there are times when I wish his budgets were much, much smaller.

The sequel (and there will be a sequel) needs to combine both the sinister and enchanted aspects of the land of Oz in order for the audience to feel a deeper connection to the story. And please, please let our female inhabitants possess a measure of self-control.

STOKERImageAfter India’s father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother. She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.

Stoker is a dark, overtly Hitchcockian chronicle of that process. With a push from her brooding, mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) — a nod to a similarly murderous and mysterious character of the same name in Alfred Hitchcoc’s  “Shadow of a Doubt” — India explores her darkest impulses and learns to embrace them. It’s a twisted coming of age tale in which reaching maturity means becoming the monster one was destined to be.

There is a lot more to this, but it would probably be best to reveal nothing else. Even the previous synopsis might already be too much. This film is best seen knowing as little about it as possible. This is not because there are big twists to be unraveled; in fact, the film plays out in a fairly straightforward fashion.

Mr. Park, a respected Korean director making his English-language debut, delivers plenty of creepiness, dialing up the heat on India’s violent tendencies until the inevitable release. Like many of Mr. Park’s Korean films, “Stoker” is a story of a fractured family and violence passed through generations. But while it is as immaculately crafted as anything he’s ever made, it lacks the visceral kick of his best movies.

The actors hold up their end as well. Mia Wasikowska brings to bear a visible awkwardness that blossoms into something genuinely terrifying. Matthew Goode’s intense charisma lends credence to everything that happens. And Nicole Kidman employs a passive cruelty that is fascinating to watch, even as it borders on parody.

Much of that distance, however, is simply a feature of the screenplay by Wentworth Miller, which comes across as a revision or two short: Mr. Miller’s  story is built on a handful of big twists, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do with his characters when he’s not leading into a big reveal. Too many scenes are vague and overly focused on metaphorical intrigue.

The thing about it is that it’s actually very light on story, and much of it plays out predictably. But it makes for a lush, if obvious metaphor, one that is realized quite beautifully on screen.

ALFREDO S. LIM: THE UNTOLD STORYImageAlfredo S. Lim: The Untold Story largely takes place in the 1960s. Police Major Alfredo Lim (Cesar Montano) has just been commended for being one of Manila’s ten most outstanding officers. But the celebration is cut short when one of his co-honorees is killed while trying to stop a robbery. Lim gets on the trail of this gang of criminals, carrying out a major surveillance operation. But his work takes a personal toll, his devotion to his duty causing friction in his marriage. And his righteousness ruffles the feathers of very powerful people, putting his family’s life in danger.

The production values are pretty high, and the photography recalls Kaminski at times. But there’s so little holding these frames together. The tone varies wildly, the film swinging between very serious matters and lame stabs at comedy. The movie jumps haphazardly from scene to scene, never lingering ling enough to make any of it matter.

Cesar Montano does not seem to do much to get in the head of Lim, offering up a performance mostly indistinguishable from his other roles. He doesn’t get very good performances from the rest of the cast either. Alessandra de Rossi feels entirely out of place in the movie.

The real criminal in The Untold Story is its painfully awful script, which is a travesty of both dialogue and character. The film plods through its scenes like a crippled leper, blabbering uninteresting lines from equally uninteresting characters.

It’s hard not to feel that there’s a missed opportunity here. Alfredo Lim’s life is a treasure trove of great stories, but despite Montano’s best intentions, the film isn’t one of them.

It is instead awfully tedious, the film lacking the focus and the storytelling skill to put together a coherent narrative. At best, the movie can only look good from a distance, where one may only perceive the money that went into building the package.

As a piece of historical drama, the film is far too preposterous to be taken seriously. And as a piece of entertainment, it’s far too dull to be enjoyed. No amount of technical skill can replace what a good story and great characterization can do.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

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Life doesn’t always go according to plan. Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) has lost everything — his house, his job, and his wife. He now finds himself living back with his mother (Jacki Weaver) and father (Robert DeNiro) after spending eight months is a state institution on a plea bargain. Pat is determined to rebuild his life, remain positive and reunite with his wife, despite the challenging circumstances of their separation. All Pat’s parents want is for him to get back on his feet-and to share their family’s obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles football team. When Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a mysterious girl with problems of her own, things get complicated. Tiffany offers to help Pat reconnect with his wife, but only if he’ll do something very important for her in return. As their deal plays out, an unexpected bond begins to form between them, and silver linings appear in both of their lives.

The film has a main story – a former teacher named Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is released from a mental hospital after an eight month stay and tries to win back the affection of his cheating ex-wife (Brea Bee) – but that simple-though-entertaining plot almost fades away in your mind as you watch the fascinating characters who come in and out of Pat’s life. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who meets our hero after he moves back home, is a recently widowed young woman who coped with her distress by having sex with every person in her office. Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), Pat’s father, is not just an obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan, but also a compulsive gambler with OCD tendencies in his extreme superstitiousness. Ronnie (John Ortiz) is Pat’s best friend who is stuck in a marriage with a woman (Julia Stiles) who bosses him around and has completely shredded his confidence. And not only are these characters beautifully illustrated and crafted with depth and personality, Russell utilizes them to their greatest extent, not only fitting them into the larger story seamlessly, but also providing each of them with a full arc to play with.

The film just gets brutally honest with its characters, peering into the darker corners of humanity. And that makes it feel genuine. It makes the comedy sharper in relief, the laughs being wrung from the stress of their interactions. This all builds up a fairly conventional romcom ending that involves a great amount of cheese and cinematic inevitability, but it feels like the movie earns it.

Throughout the film he makes a point of having the camera come rushing up to actors until its right in their faces. It’s sometimes disorienting, but it creates an atmosphere for the movie and makes you feel as though you’re watching the story through the eyes of the characters.

David O. Russell’s purposeful direction makes the journey engaging. And he gets a lot out of his actors. Bradley Cooper uses two sides to his persona to effective ends, playing notes of sweetness and psychosis in equal measures. Jennifer Lawrence plays to her strengths, exuding a toughness meant to hide a crippling fragility within. This is also the best we’ve seen from Robert de Niro in a while.

There’s a thin line to walk in crafting a comedy about mental illness. Going about it in the wrong way could not only result in something insensitive, but also foolish and overdone, with characters waving their arms in the air and running down the street with their pants around their ankles.

Silver Linings Playbook could have probably stood to be a little more unconventional in the end. The movie simultaneously cuts through the pretenses and contrivances of the movie romance, while still adhering to the classic feel-good rhythms of the genre.

JACK AND THE GIANT SLAYERImageThe ancient war between humans and a race of giants is reignited when Jack, a young farmhand fighting for a kingdom and the love of a princess, opens a gateway between the two worlds.

The film retells the old English fairy tale about a farm boy named Jack (Nicholas Hoult) who grows up hearing the legend of King Erik, who defeated giants of Gantua, a land between heaven and Earth. While at market to sell his uncle’s horse and cart, Jack meets and defends the honor of Princess Isabelle (who’s disguised as a commoner) and sells his horse to a desperate monk, who gives Jack a sack of beans and the promise of treasure if he keeps them safe. After Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) escapes the palace for an adventure and ends up at Jack’s farm, one of the beans accidentally gets wet and shoots up — Jack’s farm and the princess along with it. The king (Ian McShane) dispatches his head guardian, Elmont (Ewan McGregor), to climb the stalk, and Jack, now smitten with Isabelle, volunteers to join the rescue. But their mission is thwarted by the king’s counselor (and Isabelle’s betrothed), Roderick (Stanley Tucci), who wants to use an ancient crown to rule the giants and the kingdom below it.

The film handles its requisite plot points with plenty of skill, but little panache. We are now at the point where visual effects can look kind of generic, and this film suffers from that particular affliction. Things look good enough, but hardly exceptional. The problem is that the movie seems to keep the giants at a distance, with few real interactions with the human characters.

Nicholas Hoult can be oddly grounded in even the most outlandish of settings. It’s a real asset in this kind of movie, his performance warm and welcoming. He has fine chemistry with Eleanor Tomlinson, who acquits herself well enough in a somewhat thankless role. Ewan McGregor lays on the charm as Captain Elmont, fitting the swashbuckling type rather well. Stanley Tucci, who always classes up a joint, brings a tinge of classic farcical villainy to his role. And Ian McShane lends plenty of gravity to what could have been just a throwaway role.

The special effects and the scatological humor make it obvious that this fantasy is aimed at tween boys — the only members of an audience who would laugh at a giant picking and then eating his own booger.

The film puts together a nice little package, with a solid story, decent action, and a much better than average cast of actors. The human element provided by the actors makes it all a little better than just fine.

GAPANG

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Gapang doesn’t convey enough to merit much thought. It is yet another movie that seems to have been constructed around the requisite sex sequences, and thus has nothing to offer the viewer who is looking for something more.

Miguel (Miguel Alcantara) is working to put his brother Diego (TJ Alonzo) through school. But now his construction job is wrapping up, and he’s unable to get the money to pay for his brother’s tuition. And unbeknownst to him, Diego is actually squandering his hard-earned money on gambling. A despondent Miguel shares his troubles with his neighbor (Jacob Diaz), who is about to leave for work overseas. Miguel is shown kindness, which he decides to reciprocate. What begins as just two friends sharing problems becomes something more in due time.

There is no plot, really. This subset of our local cinema isn’t really known for intricate plotting, but many movies exert some effort in this regard. Few have managed to actually form coherent stories, but there is at least an attempt. Gapang, on the other hand, flails through the series of situations that don’t add up to anything substantial.

Many of the scenes are entirely too dark, and a lot of the dialogue is completely unintelligible. This must be what it feels like to be really old, with all your senses failing. The movie offers up nothing of value artistically. The entire thing just builds up to an interminable sex sequence that alternates between scenes of the act and b-roll footage of the city outside. It’s a little more interesting than your average gay indie sex scene, but it’s way too long and the cutaways are pointless.

So things can only get more and more incoherent, and production values are going to dip further and further into the toilet. Perhaps someday, however, it will get so nonsensical that it will start to resemble pop art.

ILIW

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Iliw is a strange bit of film programming that brings it to theaters now. I panned this film back then in my coverage of the festival. A second viewing has not really changed that opinion. The film features decent production values for the time, but its storytelling is abysmal.

Set in Vigan and Baguio during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, “Iliw, nos.tal.gi.a” (a Visayan word that means to be grieved and, incidentally, also refers to a snake) tells a well-worn story of star-crossed love, this time between Fidela (Kaye Abad, “Ang Tanging Ina”, TV’s “Maalaala Mo Kaya”) and Takahashi, a colonel in the Imperial Army (played by Japanese actor Hiroyuki Takashima)

Theirs is a love borne, initially, of convenience; Fidela’s father (portrayed by Amante Pulido) is the postmaster of Baguio, and is a prisoner of the Japanese for seditious activities, and consorting with the enemy is the only way she will be able to keep in touch with him. As is to be expected from stories of this type, true love eventually blossoms (apparently, through a series of longing looks), presenting with a romance that is forbidden in every sense of the word.

The film takes romance for granted. It seems to think that the story comes with high emotions by default, and it doesn’t have to earn its dramatic high points. This is sheer folly. The film doesn’t have a dramatic pulse, languidly fading in and out of disconnected scenes, occasionally landing on moments that have people hysterically wailing.

The lack of consistency extends to the editing, cinematography and production design as well. Costumes and props are somewhat decent at depicting the period (if a little cleaner and crisper than they would be with actual, everyday use, but such is the case with many of our historical films), though to be perfectly honest, the city of Vigan does most of the heavy lifting.

The production values looks pretty good for a digital movie from 2009. That isn’t really saying much though. Images still look soft and fuzzy, and the use of CGI feels like a poor choice overall. The acting gets pretty soapy at its lowest points. At its best, it’s still pretty awkward, due mainly to the language barrier. The film glosses over this particular obstacle, making it out that the characters can understand each other.

There are elements to this story that on paper make for a terrific tragic drama. But it just doesn’t work out that way. The movie almost seems afraid to tackle the messier aspects of story. It backs away from any real conflict in this relationship, and it mostly drifts along lazily, waiting for some sort of drama to present itself.

In the end, Iliw is a film that doesn’t aim any higher than what you would probably find on your TV screen while flipping channels.

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES

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A supernatural love story set in the South, “Beautiful Creatures” tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers: Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), a young man longing to escape his small town, and Lena (Alice Englert), a mysterious new girl. Together, they uncover dark secrets about their respective families, their history and their town.

Incoming high school junior Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) can only think about leaving his backward hometown of Gatlin, South Carolina. That, and the girl that keeps showing up in his dreams. And when that girl suddenly shows up in town, he becomes drawn to her. That girl is Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), niece to mysterious town recluse Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons). Ethan persists, and he finds out that there is something more to Lena and her family. She is a bearer of great magical power, and in three months, when she turns sixteen, her true nature will be revealed: either light or dark. Ethan resolves to stick by her and lead her in the right direction.

Beautiful Creatures sounds pretty bloody awful. But, god is in the details, and this film – and, I suspect, the novel it is based on – get the details refreshingly right. Firstly, Lena is in charge. She carries the responsibility, she makes the decisions, and she solves the problems. The relief after Twilight’s moping nonentity of a female lead could not be more acute.

The story runs through the now-standard tropes of this form of young adult fiction. It tells a story of forbidden love between a normal human and a supernatural being. The human is special somehow, smarter and better than the average folk of whatever backwater town he or she is from. The supernatural ability being is afraid of his or her own nature. Their love transcends whatever rules the world provides for them.

And any film that’s quoting Bukowski and invoking Kurt Vonnegut in its first 10 minutes is always going to score some very non-objective brownie points from me.

Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert make for a fetching couple, but cute moments are pretty much all they have. They look completely lost as the film arcs towards its big, dramatic moments. Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson have one incredible scene together, but they get drowned out by the rest of the noise.

I would like to believe that Beautiful Creatures is a much more interesting novel than this movie would suggest. Mix those sort of agreeable smarts with some excellent casting – young leads Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert (daughter of Jane Campion) are both very good, while Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson are both clearly enjoying camping and vamping it up in the grown-up support roles – and Beautiful Creatures turns out to be my pleasant surprise of the year so far.

SAVAGES

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Pot growers Ben and Chon face off against the Mexican drug cartel who kidnapped their shared girlfriend.

Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the stars, show that they are not just pretty faces. No, they are also incredibly bad actors. They play Chon and Ben, two supercool drug dealers who have made a fortune plying top-quality dope in the Laguna Beach area of California. Ben is a brainy and decent guy who totally wants to supply poor people in the developing world with clean water facilities. Chon is a muscly ex-soldier, whose military buddies show up at opportune moments to provide firepower. Things turn nasty when a Mexican drug cartel moves in on their turf and kidnaps their shared girlfriend O (Blake Lively), for whom they are the Jules et Jim of drugs. O is short for Ophelia, incidentally, a literary allusion that turns out to have zero significance. These Mexicans are led by the imperious Elena, played by Salma Hayek, and her brutish enforcer, played by Benicio Del Toro, both playing up to broad stereotypes. And there’s a crooked DEA cop, played by John Travolta.

The movie tries to sell the idea that the cartels are a vicious bunch, but the plot doesn’t really bear that out. The threat of violence is oddly distant, and the power to kill is largely left in the hands of the main characters. This all builds to a cop-out ending that doesn’t really change anything. The film’s pleasures mainly lie in the supporting characters.

Hayek is like Johnny Depp giving a drag-queen impersonation of Winona Ryder doing a homage to Luis Guzmán. Travolta is phoning it in from a part of the world that doesn’t have telephones, and Del Toro, charmlessly grunting his way through the lines.

Savages offers several things to like. Even at his worst, Oliver Stone will always offer something interesting to look at. And the supporting cast bumps up the appeal a few notches. But there just isn’t a whole lot to it. The Mexican cartels are a juicy subject, ripe for the kind of exploration that a director like Stone could provide.

The film plays up to Stone’s worst tendencies: machismo, bombast and self-indulgence, and the factor that could conceivably have made this movie tolerable – humour – is off the menu.

ANNA KARENINA

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The third collaboration of Keira Knightley with acclaimed director Joe Wright, following the award-winning box office successes Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, is a bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s timeless novel by Tom Stoppard. The story powerfully explores the capacity for love that surges through the human heart. As Anna (Ms. Knightley) questions her happiness and marriage, change comes to all around her.

This version of Anna Karenina takes place almost entirely in a theater and is extremely stylized. It’s a little strange at first; during the opening scene I was like, “What is this and why am I watching it?” But then I was totally sucked in and the theater setting seemed to work naturally with the themes of the story. I felt that by making the staging obvious, the story was allowed to dominate and I didn’t have to sit through the typical explanations of what’s going on that would have slowed the pace of the movie. Plus, IT’S A METAPHOR. A beautiful Russian metaphor.

The movie dispenses with large parts of the novel, doing away with much of Levin’s story to concentrate on Anna’s adultery. It changes the complexion of the story completely, and the movie as a whole tends to oversimplify. But this is not necessarily a weakness. Though the film cannot quite capture the scope of the book, it does wonders with the specific slice that it picks up. It captures the manic passion of the love affair, and the ruin that it leaves behind.

The central question of Anna Karenina seems to be, did Anna really love Vronsky? Not because if she did love Vronsky it would excuse her behavior, but because the message of the story is different depending on how you answer that question (I know we were spoon-fed a message about lust and all that, but I decided to ignore it). And honestly, I don’t think it’s a question that has a definitive answer. Personally, though, I believe Anna did love Vronsky, because unless he had some magical penis or something, I don’t think Anna would give up her son just because she found a guy sexually attractive.

Much of the film takes place on a set that resembles an old theater, filled with moving parts that at times require incredible, exacting choreography. It’s an illusion that visualizes one of the primary themes of the story, externalizing the idea that the life that Anna yearns for is little more than a show.

Anna Karenina is no replacement for the novel, of course. It simplifies things a tad too much, and misses out on the rich parallels between the stories of Anna and Levin. If one could only experience this story in one way, then the novel remains the better option.

Even though I had some issues with the story itself, I thought Anna Karenina was a really, really good movie. I loved how stylized it was, while still being very emotional and focusing on the characters of the story. I haven’t read the book, but I think this might be one of the best book-to-movie adaptations I’ve ever seen.

LINCOLN

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Steven Spielberg directs Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, a revealing drama that focuses on the 16th President’s tumultuous final months in office. In a nation divided by war and the strong winds of change, Lincoln pursues a course of action designed to end the war, unite the country and abolish slavery. With the moral courage and fierce determination to succeed, his choices during this critical moment will change the fate of generations to come

Lincoln begins a year before the end of the civil war with the movie’s only battle scene. It’s a minute of the bloody, hand-to-hand combat at Jenkins’ Ferry, Arkansas, that by a brilliant piece of editing legerdemain is transformed into two black soldiers recalling the battle while talking to Lincoln about the future of the Union. The scene establishes the rock-like physical presence of the war-weary president, his warmth, modesty and humanity. The picture concludes a year later with a non-triumphalist coda that follows five days after Confederate general Robert E Lee’s surrender.

The direction is restrained, the stylistic choices largely defined by the light-spilling cinematography of Janusz Kaminski. For the most part, Spielberg allows his actors to deliver the verve of the arguments, and to capture the spirit of the times.

Lincoln is playing a deadly game, juggling a variety of balls. Simultaneously he must hold his cabinet together with the particular help of his closest, most honest confidant, secretary of state Seward (David Strathairn), to gather the votes necessary to secure the vote he needs in Congress and keep secret the presence of a top peace-seeking delegation from the south.

Is there really any risk in giving this task to Daniel Day-Lewis, perhaps the finest actor currently working? Day-Lewis provides a more human vision of the president, a man of unlikely proportions who purposefully makes himself small to communicate with others. He is a man prone to telling overlong stories, and plagued by doubt even in the things he most believes in. He can be cruel and shrewd, even in his kindness. It is a mesmerizing performance that ought to define our conception of the president for years to come. Nor was there much danger in entrusting Sally Field with the complexities of Mary Todd Lincoln, or in giving Tommy Lee Jones the license to yell at people.

Almost a film in itself and a source of both fun and realism, in the presence of three political fixers, Washington lobbyists before the term was coined. The film going past the bounds of its story into his death. It feels like a tacked on coda meant to deliver the kind of drama not present in the story of legislation. But the film doesn’t need it.

In a towering performance, Day-Lewis encompasses the great statesman who shaped history, the intimate man of the people and the mysterious, charismatic figure. It manages to look past the legend of Lincoln and find something much more interesting and affecting: a deeply troubled man faced with the greatest challenge his country has ever faced, believing in democracy yet stymied by it, surrounded by people who cannot quite see his vision.

A MOMENT IN TIME

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Jillian ( Julia Montes) is a sheltered rich girl with only a few friends and music to keep her company. When Patrick (Coco Martin), a charming artist forced to give up his dream because of the untimely death of his mother, enters her life, she easily falls in love with him. But their budding romance encounters a major setback when it is revealed that the two share a connected past that may affect their future happiness.

I think the beginning part, when Patrick was laying on the charm on Jillian was actually the main reason why viewers went to see the movie.  It is the season of romance after all and Coco plays the happy go lucky heartthrob quite well. In the movie, Coco is seen doing a lot of goofy stuff that his previous characters have not given him a chance to do. And since the chemistry between the two stars was already proven in their earlier pairing, there was no surprise when their scenes were met with a lot of smiles and approving whispers from the audience. The supporting cast also contributed to establishing the story.

The film is built on one of the most insufferable romances committed to film. A better movie would have started at this point: a young man travels to a distant land to win back a woman he once wronged. Instead, we are here having sat through their already insufferable romance, with nothing to do but to mash them together for no reason other than the demands of the genre. There is no real dramatic tension here, as the film simply snaps back into its default arrangement.

The relationship between the two stars was not even fully established that the heavy drama was already injected into the story, testing the bond that was supposedly formed between them. This affected the entire pace of the story and feelings that went with it. The ending too, seemed a bit too simple considering how complicated the problem was presented as. It would seem that the bulk of the film was devoted to the drama that the ending seemed a bit forced in order to change location to Europe, which was breathtaking by the way.

Coco Martin delivers a schizophrenic performance, unable to find a believable medium between mania and depression. Julia Montes doesn’t have enough of a character to hold on to, and is relegated to mimicking real emotions. I was just having a bit of a problem with the depressing background music which fed to the tone of the film but other than that, it was a decent output from the studios. I just wished that the filmmakers were able to balance the romance and the drama aspects of the film better.

A Moment In Time gets it completely backwards. It provides a really strong argument for keeping these two people apart. And at the same time, it provides few reasons for them to be together. Their entire romance is founded on one of the creepiest courtships I’ve ever seen in a movie.

SMILEY

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After discovering an urban legend of a demented serial killer, who has nothing but a carved ‘smiley’ on his face, a mentally fragile teen must decide whether she is going insane – or will be the next victim.

Ashley (Caitlin Gerard) arrives at university, excited for the college experience. She soon meets a group of hackers who pride themselves on being Internet trolls. They introduce her to a strange urban legend: If you type “I did it for the lulz” three times into a random video chat service, a killer called Smiley will show up on the other end and kill the person you’re chatting with. Against her better judgment, Ashley tries this for herself, and much to her surprise, it actually works. She struggles with the reality of having caused someone’s death, and starts to believe that Smiley is coming after her.

The film kind of spins out of control. Director Michael Gallagher tries to walk the line between traditional horror and some sort of Matrix-style, self-referential, technophobic statement on modernity and the power of the Internet. It’s a strange mix. The film is shot ham-handedly, relying mostly on awkward single shots that switch back and forth predictably. Occasionally, an epic crane shot is used, but for something undeserving like a character walking into her house. If the idea is to make the proceedings feel ominous, it doesn’t really work. And there are way too many cheap scare tactics—a character turns around and suddenly comes face to face with the monster … except it’s really her best friend.

Performances are terribly weak. Caitlin Gerard makes for a terrible lead performer, exhibiting zero personality throughout the entire movie. In addition to being a bit of a mess, Smiley has given birth to some controversy, as the director has been receiving death threats from certain groups.

Smiley ends on a final note of silly horror pandering, adding another predictable twist in the last few seconds. Those who are upset by Smiley, as well as those who are just looking for a good horror movie, would do best to turn their attention elsewhere.

SAFE HAVEN

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A young woman with a mysterious past lands in Southport, North Carolina where her bond with a widower forces her to confront the dark secret that haunts her.

Katie (Julianne Hough) arrives in a small coastal town in North Carolina, running away from something. She tries to live an isolated life, but she soon catches the attention of widower Alex (Josh Duhamel), the town’s general store owner. Slowly, Katie opens up to him, and considers the possibility of romance. But the truth about her running away still lurks in the corners. Back in Boston, a police detective is doing everything he can to find her. And just as Katie seems to find some measure of happiness, her past catches up to her and challenges all that.

Overall it’s quite over the top. There’s a lot of schmaltzy stuff with long, woeful looks into the distance, which frankly we don’t have time for. it’s a bit too fairytale and although we like a happy ending, you can’t help thinking that with such a chilling undercurrent to the story, it’s a bit of a cookie-cutter cop out.

The film goes for two. It does not go well. The first twist reveals the entire flight of the main character to be completely illogical. One must step around the details here, but it would be enough to say that she didn’t think the whole thing through, and she could have probably saved herself a good deal of trouble by staying and just dealing with the fallout of the inciting event.

It’s Nicholas Sparks through and through so expect lots of drama – a lot of which won’t always seem particularly believable. But if you love a romcom you will definitely find yourself getting wrapped up in the scary Mary plot line. Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel probably have too many years between them, but they look good enough together on screen. Hough can’t quite sell the emotional component of her character, but I’d chalk that up more to the twisty writing than to her performance.

Safe Haven seems to miscalculate what people will find heartwarming. It’s a problem of many romantic films nowadays, as so many love stories have been told that writers grasp at straws for anything that would make their little romance distinctive. But this film’s final bid for tugging at the heartstrings isn’t heartwarming at all. Over all, it’s a nice, neat little film with a good story that’ll keep you guessing and have you gasping like a fish out of water.

PLAYING FOR KEEPS

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Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Dennis Quaid star in Playing for Keeps, a romantic comedy about a charming, down-on-his luck former soccer star (Butler) who returns home to put his life back together. Looking for a way to rebuild his relationship with his son, he gets roped into coaching the boy’s soccer team. But his attempts to finally become an “adult” are met with hilarious challenges from the attractive “soccer moms” who pursue him at every turn.

George (Gerard Butler) used to be a major international soccer star. But now his career is done, and a couple of bad investments have landed him in a bad place. He moves to Virginia to be closer to his ex-wife Stacie and son Lewis (Jessica Biel and Noah Lomax), while trying to get a job as a sports broadcaster. He unexpectedly gets recruited into coaching his son’s soccer team. What should have been a simple bond with his son turns out to be a major distraction, as the parents in the stands vie for his attention. Between the sexy divorcees and a bullying millionaire dad, George struggles to prove to his son and his ex-wife that he’s not the man who left them years ago

A movie should have personality; otherwise, why call it entertainment? Some of the worst ones can at least find comfort in having a point of view. But to be, well, “meh?” Why bother? Playing for Keeps is about as formulaic as a romantic comedy can get, and goes light on both the laughs and spark. The film basically revolves around George being unable to spend time with his son because women keep throwing themselves at him, or because the bully millionaire keeps asking things of him. And so the tension of the movie is built around George being unable to say no to people, which is a real non-starter. The thing is that the film makes it clear that George doesn’t really want any of this.

There’s no momentum, no surprises, no energy. It’s not awful, but it’s not terribly good, either. It’s just there. Gerard Butler continues to be cast in these kinds of roles, even though he is a far more interesting actor than these movies can really accommodate. The man clearly has charm, a sort of interesting bluster that hides a strange vulnerability. But the modern romcom doesn’t really have much room for any sort of complexity. Jessica Biel deserves something more interesting as well. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Uma Thurman and Judy Greer slum it as the mothers who throw themselves at George.

Playing for Keeps is a film that just doesn’t try. It seems to have a premise and a preordained end point. It feels like everything in between is just empty filler, just a way to delay the most predictable things from happening. Since there’s little here that’s refreshing — aside from Lomax’s work as Lewis — it’s not hard to guess how things will turn out between George and Stacie. But it’s not easy to see why we should sit in the audience, either.

A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD

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John McClane travels to Russia to help out his seemingly wayward son, Jack, only to discover that Jack is a CIA operative working to prevent a nuclear-weapons heist, causing the father and son to team up against underworld forces.

New York detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) travels to Moscow looking for his son Jack (Jai Courtney). Much to his dismay, Jack has been put in prison for murder. John heads to the courthouse hoping to just catch a glimpse of his son. But an attack on the courthouse soon reveals the truth: Jack is actually a CIA agent working on a covert op to rescue a political prisoner from the clutches of a corrupt politician. His father’s presence messes up the mission, and father and son are forced to team up to defeat this formidable group of bad guys.

That sense of complacency towards action movie tropes — the assumption a line like that will pan out OK because hey, you’ve heard this sort of thing before, so how hard can it be? — is felt throughout A Good Day to Die Hard, and not just in how it was written. Moore’s action sequences are insufferably dull, a metallic coloured mixer of guns, machinery and torsos cobbled together like sheets of iron rubbing up against each other.

The movie stalls after that. There are still a couple of big stunts that have bodies falling ridiculous distances and somehow surviving, but for the most part, the movie seems content with relatively sedate shootouts that bear no real danger for the protagonists.

It’s hard to extrapolate emotion from Bruce Willis at the best of times, but John Moore doesn’t even appear to have woken him up for the shoot. Mostly gone is the determination of the character, replaced by an easy wryness that reads too cool to be relatable. Jai Courtney makes little impact as Jack, making the potential future of the franchise a murky one at best.

A Good Day to Die Hard is pretty much just a pretty good chase scene, a couple of good stunts, and very little else. It harbors little of what made the original film such an enduring presence in the canon of action cinema. At this point, it’s just a desperate cash-in, a hastily assembled collection of action set pieces that happen to feature some guy named John McClane.

FLIGHT

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In this action-packed mystery thriller, Academy Award winner, Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a seasoned airline pilot, who miraculously crash lands his plane after a mid-air catastrophe, saving nearly every soul on board. After the crash, Whip is hailed as a hero, but as more is learned, more questions than answers arise as to who or what was really at fault and what really happened on that plane?

Airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is flying a plane from Florida to Atlanta. Minutes before descent, the plane suddenly goes into an uncontrolled dive. Miraculously, however, thanks to Whitaker’s expert flying, the plane lands relatively safely, with only six of the 102 passengers dying. The pilot is a hero, but the investigation soon reveals that he was drunk on the morning of the flight. Whitaker is forced to face his demons as he prepares to face questioning from the federal investigators.

An even more central weakness of John Gatins’ inexplicably Oscar-nominated screenplay is that the film would end immediately if the pilot would only own up to his mistakes, and acknowledge that he is a risk to the public as well as himself.  It’s hard to understand why he doesn’t come to this glaringly obvious conclusion two hours earlier than he does.

It is a story of loneliness and self-delusion, of the lies that are built in order to bridge the cognitive dissonance of such an absurd existence. But Zemeckis’ direction is oddly cold, more focused on moving the narrative forward than capturing the bleakness of this character’s life. It certainly makes for propulsive, entertaining cinema, but it costs the movie in the end.

Though it’s refreshing to see an American film that acknowledges the possibility of interracial relationships, this one never convinces. Both parties seem too self-obsessed to care about each other, with the result that we don’t care about them either. The film leans hard on Denzel Washington to fill in the blanks, and while the actor does a tremendous job of fleshing out the pain of this particular character, he sometimes feels at odds with the movie at large. He commits to the ugliness of the character, but the movie is itself averse to ugliness. It wants to make you laugh, playing some of its darkest beats with the rhythm of a comedic bit.

The preachy screenplay goes too far in the other direction, showing him without remorse or feelings for his dead passengers and self-indulgently sabotaging his fight against addiction so repetitively that he becomes a bore, and the film ends up like an over-extended infomercial for Alcoholics Anonymous.

Flight is entirely watchable. It is a well-crafted movie with a great central performance and one of the best sequences in recent memory. A problem only emerges when you really start to think about it: how it tends to introduce self-destruction with a musical cue, or how the most dangerous of the characters is played as a joke, or how it never really examines the dangerous effects of alcohol withdrawal.  The film feels as though it’s been made by reformed alcoholic Christians preaching about the virtues of recovery and believing in a higher power. Flight is fair in the air; on the floor it’s a bore.

RACE 2

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A significant chunk of Mumbai filmdom’s creative output has changed for the better since the year 2008, the first quarter of which saw the release of Race, a Hollywood rip-off that had Bollywood critics run for cover.

Ranvir (Saif Ali Khan) travels to Turkey and quickly befriends ruthless billionaire Armaan (John Abraham). Ranvir ingratiates himself to Armaan by pulling off a major scam and making him lots of money. He then promises the billionaire an even bigger take in a massive heist. The truth, however, is that Ranvir isn’t everything that he seems. He is seeking revenge against Armaan, who was the man behind the death of Ranvir’s beloved. But Armaan is not clueless either, and he soon discovers Ranvir’s true intentions. The two play a game of cat and mouse, where the roles keeps changing, and the loyalty of everyone them is constantly in question.

Race 2 proves how difficult it can be for a producer to let go of an idea that yielded a box-office bonanza the first time around. The makers of this film obviously haven’t heard of, or do not believe in, the law of diminishing returns. The movie is built on a foundation of ludicrous twists, each one sillier than the next. It’s all just a series of betrayals, none of which come off as particularly surprising. The film does a poor job of keeping the loyalties of the characters ambiguous, every scene too prone to having them spell out exactly what they’re thinking.

The brawny John Abraham (replacing the relatively scrawny Akshaye Khanna of the earlier film) ensures that the sequel has a markedly higher beefcake and testosterone quotient. Keeping the boys company is a trio of bimbos all too eager to flash generous décolletage while playing second fiddle. All of the above is, of course, par for the course in an Abbas-Mustan film.

The modern Bollywood special effects extravaganza is kind of a confounding creature. These productions aren’t too concerned with being realistic, and thus, offer scenes with a sense of unhinged grandeur. And so men will survive falls that ought to have broken every bone in their body, and a boat might be used to chase down a car, and someone might drive a car through an airplane cabin in midair.

Race 2 is slickly packaged around dramatic twists and turns that fly at you thicker and faster than you care to count. It moves at a fair clip and is packed with explosions, stunts and chases that might be crowd-pleasing. The trouble is that the narrative is too breathless for its own good. To be fair, some of the implausible action sequences are startlingly good. However, they do not add up to a convincing enough whole that can paper over the holes in the narrative.

The film tries to make itself out as clever, but the truth is all too plain to see. It is a ridiculously dumb film that would have worked better if they had tried to keep things a little simpler.

GABRIEL: ITO ANG KWENTO  KO

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Gabriel is saddled with the totally unnecessary parenthetical ”Ito ang Kuwento Ko”, as if the name of the title character wasn’t enough to suggest that the story was his own. It’s just one of the many strange choices that this movie makes, a movie that is hilariously declared a masterpiece on its trailer description on Youtube.

As children, Gabriel (Norris John) and his brother Benedict (Lester Lucas) were taken away from their adulterous mother by their father. Growing up, Gabriel never gave up on reuniting with his mother. When his father declares that he’s become close to another woman, Gabriel decides to leave their home and find his mother. But his new surroundings offer no peace, as a prospective romance soon lands him in the sights of a jealous rival. And while all this is happening, Gabriel continues to work towards the reconciliation of his family.

The entire movie is based on a silly misunderstanding that could have explained away in a few seconds. And yet, this conflict is played as high opera, pushing the characters to scream and yell and cry as if the world was about to crumble. Gabriel is basically invincible, the character never really finding himself in any trouble that he couldn’t kick his way out of. The most tension-filled scene in the movie is also the most ridiculous one. It does not help that Norris John comes off as a bit of a psychopath. His acting is completely unnatural, lacking the most basic connection to human emotion.

The film only finds worth as a piece of ironic viewing. It certainly does mean well, and at the very least, the people involved seem to really believe in the project.

I LOVE YOU PARE KO

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I Love You Pare Ko is the story of a gay man in love with a homophobe. To be clear, this isn’t just the kind of homophobe that stays away from gay people. He lures unsuspecting homosexuals into compromising situations, wherein he can do them bodily harm. Somehow, this doesn’t end the crush.

Best friends Sam and Carlo (Rocco Nacino and Rodjun Cruz) do everything together. They do have one secret between them, however: Sam is actually gay, and he’s in love with Carlo. The problem is that Carlo is a big time homophobe, so Sam has to put up an act around him all the time. But when Carlo gets into some trouble, Sam sees an opportunity to finally come out to his friend. He tries to solve Carlo’s problems, hoping to use the goodwill to win him over. But something unexpected happens.

The film spends most of its time spinning it’s wheels, wasting time repeating beats and on pointlessly long diversions. In theory, these diversions are meant to be funny. In practice, they are anything but. They linger endlessly on the cheapest and easiest of targets, the movie lacking the imagination to transcend the fart joke or the comedic lustiness of an unattractive person.

Rocco Nacino is more obviously talented. Though the role is broader, he still gives it more nuance than his partner can. Rodjun Cruz, on the other hand, is pretty dire as an actor. The movie relies on him to deliver the emotional blow, but he just doesn’t seem to be capable of it.

The film eventually gets around to teaching Carlo a lesson, having him being accepting of homosexuals in the end. But his redemption isn’t really much of a story. That the movie ends on his becoming happy is just another sign of its utter narrative confusion.

BROKEN CITY

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In a broken city rife with injustice, ex-cop Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) seeks redemption and revenge after being double-crossed and then framed by its most powerful figure, the mayor (Russell Crowe). Billy’s relentless pursuit of justice, matched only by his streetwise toughness, makes him an unstoppable force and the mayor’s worst nightmare.

Seven years after a murder charge gets him thrown out of the NYPD, private detective Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) is hired by Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) to follow his wife Catharine (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Ostensibly, he’s following her to gather evidence of an affair. Billy faithfully carries out the job, but he gets much more than he bargained for. Soon, Billy is digging for the truth, and he gets on the trail of a secret that powerful people seem to be willing to kill for.

If you’re intrigued in any way by this boilerplate premise, then you’re going to be mighty thankful that actors of the calibre of Crowe and Wahlberg are there to turn up the heat when needed. Both give the vibe they’re a lot better than the material they’re working with, and weirdly enough, this mildly disguised arrogance works to the advantage of Broken City. The leading female characters fare even worse. Catherine Zeta-Jones (as Crowe’s understandably neglected spouse) and Natalie Martinez (as Wahlberg’s missus, a wanna-be actress) come across as little more than living, breathing plot devices.

The movie forks off into too many different directions, providing a myriad of extraneous details that add little to the bigger picture. There’s a whole subplot concerning Taggart’s girlfriend that tailspins into nowhere. And there are several little twists that seem to have been tacked on as extra flavor. It gets to be too much pretty quickly. Solid filmmaking keeps things from completely falling off the rails. The film tries to convince the audience that the villains are both ruthless and brilliant, and yet their plans seem to leave too many loose ends.

Broken City hardly stands up to scrutiny. Too many of its big revelations rely on major contrivances, and few of the twists and turns actually make sense in hindsight. But to its credit, it can pretty entertaining in the meantime, while those actors are still up on screen, debating the very nature of the human race. Overall, Broken City is an industriously aimless thriller, scurrying up and down the corridors of power, looking for any way out. If it is escape you are after, best be patient, and don’t get your hopes up unless it’s Crowe and Wahlberg picking the locks.

BULLET TO THE HEAD

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After watching their respective partners die, a New Orleans hitman and a Washington D.C. detective form an alliance in order to bring down their common enemy.

Professional hitman Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone) is betrayed by a client following a hit, causing the death of his partner. Detective Kwan (Sung Kang) arrives in town to investigate the death of his former partner, who happens to have been the target of Jimmy’s last job. The two form an unlikely alliance in order to discover the truth behind the double cross. Though their methods are inherently incompatible, their partnership yields results, and they soon uncover a vast conspiracy that involves corruption on a grand scale.

Bullet to the Head delivers on that front. While the fight choreography might not be on the level of modern martial arts-influenced action films, some old-school smart sequencing by Hill results in a number of set pieces that deliver visceral thrills that few of those modern films can manage.  The film plays out like a buddy cop picture, with the two main characters squabbling their way to the conclusion.

On the humor side: the same racially-charged banter that made the 48 hrs. Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte pairing so fun is replicated in the relationship between Jimmy and Kwon. You could make a drinking game out of the amount of racist Asian jokes this movie throws around – so be warned if you’re sensitive on that front. In terms of overarching narrative; Alessandro Camon’s (The Messenger) adaptation of Alexis Nolent’s graphic novel manages to make a mess of even the most basic storyline (climb the ladder of scumbags).

The acting is all right. Sylvester Stallone sometimes seems like he’s a line or two behind, but his sheer physical presence is more than enough for this role. Sung Kang, on the other hand, is unable to establish himself. Then again, the script doesn’t give him much to cling to.

Bullet to the Head also has the proud distinction of being one of the most obvious product-plugging films seen in a long time. It insists on using the buddy formula as a respite from the violence, but it’s written so badly that it just seems extraneous. Every scene that has the two mains trading insults only reveals how little chemistry the two leads have between them.

Action fans, saddle up. Sly fans, saddle up. Those not into gritty and brutal looks at machismo characters bloodying each other up and talking foul, move on. The film almost works best out of context, when no words are being spoken, and an axe fight just breaks out between two clearly dangerous men.

UPSIDE DOWN

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Ever since Adam (Jim Sturgess) and Eden (Kirsten Dunst) fell in love as teens, their bond has faced astronomical odds. The pair are separated not just by social class and a political system bent on keeping them apart, but also by a freak planetary condition: they live on twinned worlds with gravities that pull in opposite directions-he on the poverty-stricken planet below, she on the wealthy, exploitative world above. Their budding but illicit romance screeches to a tragic halt when interplanetary-border patrol agents catch them and Eden suffers an apparently fatal fall. But when, ten years later, Adam learns she is alive and working at a vast corporation whose towering headquarters connects their planets, he sets out on a dangerous quest to infiltrate the company and the upper world to reconnect with her.

The film also fails to give much insight to what caused such a disparity between worlds. The allegory is obvious enough, but the framework behind the metaphor is really fragile. The film seems to be entirely built on the shaky foundation of a visual idea, all of the work being put into creating these beautiful images of worlds of opposing gravity. The rewards of the work are clear enough: the movie is often stunning, offering up unique images that haven’t really been seen before.

Is the film something to look at? Yes. “Upside Down” is something to look at. But that’s not enough for a full-length, full-bodied, romance. The rules of physics on Solanas’ worlds keep fishtailing around, so that you don’t quite know what you’re watching or how the gravity thing works. Despite the actors’ open-hearted sincerity, it’s hard to care.

Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst play the romantic leads, and though the two have considerable individual charms, together they produce little heat. Perhaps it is just a function of the convoluted script, but the two have so little chemistry that all the romance has to be externalized. Their love is made grand by the stunning vistas that surround them, and the inherent tragedy of their opposite natures. But there isn’t much real spark between them.

But the rest of Upside Down ultimately gets weighed down by its own ponderous, and increasingly contradictory, logic. If matter and inverse matter burst into flames, for instance, why doesn’t Adam get a terrible case of heartburn — let alone spontaneous combustion — every time he eats or drinks something from Eden’s planet?

The film reveals itself to be nothing more than that. The romance that forms the core of this story is so uninspiring that it never seems worth the trouble of transcending the practicalities and obstacles that the setting so dutifully provides.

HITCHCOCK

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Hitchcock is a love story about one of the most influential filmmakers of the last century, Alfred Hitchcock and his wife and partner Alma Reville. The film takes place during the making of Hitchcock’s seminal movie Psycho.

Fresh off the success of North by Northwest, director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is struggling to find his next project. Seeking something different, he settles on Psycho, a horrific tale of murder based on a real life serial killer. Hitchcock grapples with skeptical studio bosses, offended censors, and his very own demons as he fights to bring the story to the screen. As he self-destructs, his wife and constant collaborator Alma (Helen Mirren) begins to question her devotion to him. With the two at odds, the director is faced for the first time with the possibility of failure.

We see how the studio is dead against Hitchcock doing this vulgar shocker, so he mortgages his house to raise the cash, thus intensifying the troubles in his marriage, which are smoothly raised and sentimentally resolved by showing Alma’s friendship with ambitious writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) and Hitchcock’s poignant feelings for Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), who was to play Marion’s sister Lila in Psycho. Given what we know about how he later bullied and scared Hedren, boldly dramatised in The Girl, this is feeble. As for the making of Psycho and the shower scene, we get the moment where Hitchcock snatches the knife and shows how to stab – and what’s supposedly going through his mind is glib and unconvincing. A disappointing excursion into movie history.

The movie tells the story of one of the most remarkable films ever made, a groundbreaking picture that bucked all expectation and took every risk to reach audiences. It is unfortunate, then, that this movie takes the opposite approach. It relishes the mundane, staying always within the safe boundaries of predictable, inoffensive cinema.

The film takes great pleasure in exploring the director’s more amusing quirks, employing breezy filmmaking to highlight the humor in every situation. Far less successful are its attempts to tie the menace of real life serial killer Ed Gein into the narrative. The film just doesn’t have the capacity to dig into the darker side of the human condition.

Hitchcock is a bit of a weirdo on set, but Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) bears it with such cheerful good sense that the sting is drawn. To beef up the dramatic tension, Gervasi unwisely introduces the character of Ed Gein (the gruesome Wisconsin killer who inspired Psycho’s Norman Bates) to act as a kind of warped imaginary therapist to the troubled Hitchcock. It adds a clunky and confused dash of hammy silliness to an otherwise sophisticated film.

The film seems to have no ambitions beyond becoming a marginal prestige picture, banking that the acting talent involved would be enough to grant people a pleasant time in the cinema.

MAMA

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Guillermo del Toro presents Mama, a supernatural thriller that tells the haunting tale of two little girls who disappeared into the woods the day that their mother was murdered. When they are rescued years later and begin a new life, they find that someone or something still wants to come tuck them in at night. The day their father killed their mother, sisters Victoria and Lilly vanished near their suburban neighborhood. For five long years, their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), have been madly searching for them. But when, incredibly, the kids are found alive in a decrepit cabin, the couple wonders if the girls are the only guests they have welcomed into their home.

To be fair, these holes are more like animate shadows that sort of breathe and spit moths, and the film itself is very scary. I had bruises afterward from jerking around in my seat and knocking my knees on the cup holders, and spent most of the 100-minute thrill ride with my cheek pressed into my companion’s neck. Turns out there’s not much creepier or more captivating than feral children skittering around like crabs.

The movie immediately invokes the language of the fairy tale, taking its cue from the darkest of the Brother Grimm’s stories. It is at this level that the film is best appreciated. It offers up clever inversions of fairy tale tropes, the film expanding on the traditional female roles of the witch and the wicked stepmother.

Like most horror movies, Mama loses a lot of steam once you get a good, long look at Mama, herself. But in this case, I felt like the deflation was more due to Mama’s humanity than it was to bad make-up or cartoonish special effects (i.e., not the same as whatever disappointment you may have felt upon finally seeing the aliens in Signs). By the time we finally see Mama, we understand her — we feel bad for her — and empathy will make you less afraid of anybody.

The horror is in fact at its most effective when it lingers in seemingly normal moments, before taking a turn that unveils the terrors lurking within. Not the whole movie is like this however. The film is still prone to cheap jump scares that are driven more by the aggressive sound design than by any effort to build atmosphere.

Jessica Chastain seems to be showing up everywhere these days, and the clamor for her talents seems perfectly understandable. Chastain ensures that her character isn’t simply a medium for screams, and brings to fore the many conflicting issues that her character is quietly dealing with. Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse are exceptional as Victoria and Lilly, the two girls delivering compelling, oddly physical performances. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau performs admirably in what is mostly a thankless role, shining in the few moments that he’s given to stretch.

Mama has a bittersweet and unexpected ending, which you don’t often find with horror films. But perhaps my favorite aspect of the movie (aside from the fact that it made me very, very afraid) is that it paints a refreshingly complicated and ultimately poignant portrait of female relationships; the women in Mama are grouchy and loyal and sensitive — prickly pears, in other words. It certainly provides enough of the requisite scare scenes to satiate those simply looking for that familiar horror thrill.

WARM BODIES

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After R (a highly unusual zombie) saves Julie from an attack, the two form a relationship that sets in motion a sequence of events that might transform the entire lifeless world.

The world is overrun by zombies. One particular zombie, R (Nicholas Hoult), wonders if there’s anything more to his existence. While shambling for brains one night, he encounters Julie (Teresa Palmer), one of the last remaining human survivors. Drawn to her thanks to the memories of one of his meals, he rescues her from his fellow zombies and takes her back to his home. And as he spends more time with her, he realizes that something inside him is changing, something that could change the entire world.

Warm Bodies doesn’t give this a religious frame, which is probably for the best given Hollywood’s handling of religion in general, but anyone of faith will see the underlying message.  Neither the faithful nor the sinners can survive without hope and love, and without expressing it to each other.  Ultimately, humanity cannot be saved by pitched battles or by hiding behind walls, but by one act of love and charity at a time.

But the film manages to hold together, thanks mostly to a very defined tone. Right from the start, the film establishes a certain yearning in the main character, the low-key tragedy of his being trapped in a body that he can’t really control. The film wryly explores this idea, lightly touching on themes of memory and identity, and never getting too serious.

The cast is good, especially John Malkovich, whose role as the leader of the humans could easily have been a cardboard-cutout character.  The casting of an actor of Malkovich’s subtlety is no accident.  Rob Corddry (What Happens In Vegas) gives the best performance I’ve seen him give as M, R’s “best friend” in the zombie world.  Their idea of a conversation in the beginning of the film will remind many women of how male friends converse in the real world, by the way.  Analeigh Tipton steals a couple of scenes as Julie’s friend Nora, and becomes more integral to the plot and theme near the end.

Warm Bodies can’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny. It doesn’t try hard enough to explore its conceit, glossing over details that could have really enriched the narrative. And yet, it is also fairly charming in its shallowness. The film makes the case that even in the post-apocalypse, love doesn’t have to be the end of the world.

It’s very easy to enjoy this film on its superficial level, as an often-humorous tale of zombies looking for love in all the wrong places, but that misses its spiritual core.  And that is really the heart of the film, both literally in several sequences and figuratively.

SEDUCTION

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The staging of the scenes in Seduction, at the very least, is often sumptuous, offering an attention to thematic detail that goes a step further than most movies.

Fireman Ram (Richard Gutierrez) is having trouble saving up the money to pay for his dad’s kidney transplant. While trying to find the money, he meets two very different women. Trina (Sarah Lahbati) is from his neighborhood, and is mostly quiet and reserved. Sophia (Solenn Heussaff), who he rescues from a burning building, is wealthy and outgoing. He rents a room in Trina’s house, and gets a job from Sophia. He becomes drawn to both women, each providing him with something that he needs. But he is soon forced to make a choice between the two of them, and that choice comes with all sorts of consequences.

Scenes of a provincial wedding might be interrupted by a short aside featuring a man urinating into the grass. And in a couple of interesting sequences, the world and its characters are delineated by fire and rain. Scene by scene, the movie constructs a skewed reality filled with volatile emotions, visual jokes and a strange otherness that suggests a world odder than our own.

A lot of it is reliant on showy bouts of dramatics, with the main character often lashing out at his surroundings. These scenes can be somewhat entertaining, but they don’t actually reveal much about the character.

Richard Gutierrez often accompanies his bouts of emotion with outward physical action, reliant on external indicators to express his inner thoughts. This character seemed to call for a more subtle form of volatility, the complexities of his dilemma lost in the largeness of his actions. Sarah Lahbati, on the other hand, turns out to be quite the natural actress. She underplays the role well enough, creating a solid anchor for the film’s stranger twists. Solenn Heussaff’s awkward delivery can still be problematic at points, but she makes up for it with a natural, undeniable magnetism.

The film feels contracted, even though it isn’t a short movie by any means. It just doesn’t get to really dig into the characters’ motivations, the movie all too ready to accept their overly dramatic choices.

CHINESE ZODIAC

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A man searches the world for a set of mystic artifacts – 12 bronze heads of the animals from the Chinese zodiac.

Years ago, twelve bronze heads representing the signs of the Chinese Zodiac were taken from the summer palace. In present day, those heads are fetching high prices at auction. The relic-dealing MP Corporation hires mercenary treasure hunter JC (Jackie Chan) to find the remaining heads, promising him lots of money for each head recovered. JC and his team of thieves travel the world, looking for every trace of the heads. But along the way, they meet a group of young people dedicated to repatriating national relics, and though the money is extremely good, the thieves start to question their motivations.

There is a bit in here concerning the failing marriage of two of JC’s partners. This goes along with an odd thread that follows JC trying to reconcile with his wife. Along the way, they also recruit a Frenchwoman seeking her family’s history, and earn the ire of French millionaire and his guards. And this is all blanketed with a nationalistic message that calls for the return of artifacts to their home nations.

The acting is not so good, the script is still thin and sometimes reminds a very cheap Asian comedies and action movies which have been made in 80-90s. Talking about stunts and fight I can say that fight scene w/ the couches against Taekwondo champion turned stuntman Alaa Safi is in pretty in line with 80′s Jackie standards.

Clocking in at just over two hours Chinese Zodiac may have action, comedy, stunts, beautiful damsels and sophisticated gadgets galore, but what it lacks is the soul in its story and it becomes something of a vanity project for Jackie Chan… even his trick with chewing gum lost its screen power.

Chinese Zodiac offers bursts of fun, but overall, it’s kind of a slog. It’s eventually undone by its own quest for largeness, its need to go bigger, to have more locations, and to construct more logistically complex stunts. But as with many of Chan’s recent efforts, this just translates into an unwieldy plot that detracts from all the stuff that he does best.

The combination of Indiana Jones-style adventures with Chan’s signature brand converted Armour of God series into most successful and action-packed films, but CZ12 is too far from it and definitely not the best Jackie’s movie.

GANGSTER SQUAD

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Los Angeles, 1949. Ruthless, Brooklyn-born mob king Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) runs the show in this town, reaping the ill-gotten gains from the drugs, the guns, the prostitutes and-if he has his way-every wire bet placed west of Chicago. And he does it all with the protection of not only his own paid goons, but also the police and the politicians who are under his control. It’s enough to intimidate even the bravest, street-hardened cop…except, perhaps, for the small, secret crew of LAPD outsiders led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who come together to try to tear Cohen’s world apart.

Gangster Squad takes one of the most sophisticated police operations of its time and reduces it to clichéd, violent pabulum. It adheres to a certain formula, and replaces interesting true details with silly movie nonsense. And so there is an ill-advised romance in all this. And at least one of the characters is motivated by revenge.

There are a few good lines here and there (eg O’Mara’s chief lieutenant remarks of the attempt to reform LA: “The whole town is underwater and you’re grabbing a bucket when you should be grabbing a bathing suit”). But the story has little connection to reality. The film is set entirely in 1949, when in fact Cohen wasn’t put away until first 1950 and then, finally, in 1961 and, as with Capone, it was accountants that brought him down, not thuggish cops. It can be easy to forgive a film for changing historical details in service of a larger theme. But here, the film can’t even settle on what it wants to say. It puts aside all thought of motif and theme in favor of stylish action sequences.

The film makes the mistake of caricaturing the period. This is most evident in the acting. Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen resembles a Dick Tracy villain, his face contorting to comic book proportions. Josh Brolin, on the other hand, may as well be Dick Tracy himself, his jaw becoming his most defining characteristic. Ryan Gosling teeters on self-parody with his Lothario ways, and Emma Stone feels completely out of place in the setting.

Gangster Squad’s pacing is quick and fluid, and it moves quickly, escalating and pushing characters to boiling points and confrontations. These are mostly emotionally empty because there is very little time devoted to developing the characters or their emotions. But playing on the stereotypes and what we expect of these cliches, we understand who these characters are and what we are supposed to feel for them. The movie’s focus is on action, and cheap thrills. On that level, it delivers.

For some reason, they decided to tell a much less interesting fiction. What a terrible decision.

THE MAN WITH THE IRON FIST

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On the hunt for a fabled treasure of gold, a band of warriors, assassins, and a rogue British soldier descend upon a village in feudal China, where a humble blacksmith looks to defend himself and his fellow villagers.

The film follows a blacksmith (RZA) who works in Jungle Village, making powerful weapons for the local feuding clans. He tries to lead a quiet life, staying out of trouble, hoping to make enough money to buy the freedom of the prostitute Miss Silk (Jamie Chung). But things quickly get complicated for him when a shipment of gold is scheduled to pass through the village. Powerful warriors with unique weapons and skills converge on Jungle Village, all with their eyes on the shipment of gold. The blacksmith gets caught up in all this, and is forced to return to his past in order to honor new debts.

First is to take it as it is, a schlocky B-movie homage to the kung fu movies that The RZA and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan loved growing up.The other is to examine how this movie, when taken in contrast with something like Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” reveals how difficult and how brilliant Tarantino’s work is despite all of the claims that it is merely remixing or remaking previous work. When we take the homage idea in, there is a lot to appreciate.

It is ultimately what makes it a poor martial arts movie. Those Shaw Brothers movies were almost entirely built around the physical prowess of its stars, and while Russell Crowe is adept at delivering the craziest of lines, he just can’t keep up with a pace of a kung-fu film. Still, plenty of these performances are actually fun to watch. Aside from the aforementioned Russell Crowe, Byron Mann hams it up beautifully as the villainous Silver Lion. RZA seems to be pretty limited as an actor, but he places himself in the right role, channeling the quiet, stoic resolve of many heroes past.

It is also lean on story, lacking in character development, and mostly forgettable. And if you have issues with the misogynist nature of hiphop, then this film will only further trouble you. Even the appearance of bad-ass ladies in the form of the Black Widow clan, Lady Gemini, and Lucy Liu are not enough to balance out the violence and objectification.

In that sense, this is the kind of movie that we can forward in discussions that are dismissive of Tarantino’s style. He doesn’t merely borrow or cut and paste, but he reappropriates the films that he has seen, creating his own new kind of film from them.

The Man With The Iron Fists is actually undone by its action sequences. When the characters aren’t fighting, they are paying beautiful homage to one of the craziest film genres of all time, finding great pleasure in every maniacal laugh and odd turn of phrase. But the tribute falls apart when the fists start flying, and it is revealed that while the spirit is willing, the body just isn’t able. And while we see some potential here, he hasn’t directed the kind of kung fu movie that would be something to get excited about. It’s a fun attempt. But it isn’t much of a film.

PARKER

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A thief with a unique code of professional ethics is double-crossed by his crew and left for dead. Assuming a new disguise and forming an unlikely alliance with a woman on the inside, he looks to hijack the score of the crew’s latest heist.

Professional thief Parker (Jason Statham) leads a small crew on a heist to steal a million dollars from the Ohio State Fair. The caper is successful, but his partners decide to double-cross him, wanting his share of the take to fund an even bigger heist. They shoot him, but he manages to survive. Parker makes his way to Palm Beach, Florida, where the crew is planning to steal millions of dollars worth of jewelry. Parker, with the help of a down-on-her-luck real estate agent (Jennifer Lopez), intends to get his revenge.

The elements are there for Parker to fly high as pulpy entertainment, with Statham playing the rare male badass who’s not a womanizer – rather, Parker’s committed to his girlfriend (Emma Booth) and her father/his friend (Nick Nolte) – and yet, still able to get his hands dirty in a creative fashion. Indeed, Parker finds way to hurt people using things like toilet tank lids and gun clips in creative ways that resonate on a deeper level of irony (and entertain anyone who’s just looking to watch Stath bring on the hurt). That violence is limited, but effective and responsibly bloody in execution, even when Parker hurts himself in a cringe-inducing knife fight.

The film runs at a stupefying two hours, with so little of the time dedicated to advancing the plot or providing flavor. Instead, time is squandered on an extraneous character that the movie contrives into relevance. Leslie, played by Jennifer Lopez, could be easily cut out of the movie without really affecting the general point of the narrative. Hackford’s direction, while competent, leaves something to be desired; similarly, there are some questionable editing choices along the way that stand out as clumsy and confusing in logic (ex. flashbacks during the middle-of-action in the opening robbery set piece). McLaughlin’s script has no pretensions about elevating Westlake’s dime novel tropes, but it also has limited fun playing around with them. As indicated before, there’s recognition of the appeal these stories have for regular people (see: a short montage where clueless rich people ogle diamonds is a fun setup, giving extra reason to cheer the working-class Parker and Leslie), just not enough and in limited doses.

Jason Statham is an odd choice to play the title character. Looking past the fact that he’s from the wrong country, Statham charms lie elsewhere. The role seems to have called for something a tad darker, and a tad colder. Statham is inclined to play tough guys who hide a soft heart, and that’s what goes wrong here. Jennifer Lopez is all right, but she’s saddled with a completely unnecessary role. The supporting cast is populated with great character actors who don’t get to do a whole lot.

If you’re interested in standard kick ass Statham entertainment, Parker will probably leave you bored. Everyone else, there’s an unremarkable but (mostly) satisfactory crime tale worth checking out, especially in comparison to what else is playing in theaters right now (though you’ll also be fine waiting to rent it). The movie just doesn’t seem inclined to bring something new to the table, starting instead from hoary clichés of action films past, never really considering what the character or the setting might bring to the table.

MENOR DE EDAD

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Menor de Edad is gutsy, and confidently so. This depiction of a young woman trying to escape the clutches of poverty.

Fifteen-year-old Jen (Meg Imperial) doesn’t have a very happy life. Her classmates make fun of her for being raised by lesbians. Her boyfriend broke up with her because she didn’t want to have sex. Her mother is constantly berating her. She seeks comfort in a violent gang of girls led by her cousin, and in the arms of her Filipino teacher Ariel (Wendell Ramos). She develops quite a crush on her teacher as he tries to help her through her issues. But things turn sour between them when he rejects her advances, and soon both are caught in lies that will change their lives forever.

The movie portrays a general struggle against an oppressive patriarchy. But the movie’s approach to studying its issues is hopelessly blunt. The movie zips from one subplot to another, playing up the drama but never lingering long enough to examine what motivates the characters.

The film is set up to deliver dramatic moments, but it never does the work to give those moments a logical foundation. The characters make the most baffling choices, their actions seemingly guided by dramatic clichés.

To be fair, this is a far more energized Joel Lamangan than we usually see. He steps out of his comfort zone somewhat, moving the camera, making risky stylistic choices and editing more aggressively. Unfortunately, the energy is misguided. The movie appears to trying to emulate a more “indie” aesthetic, but the techniques are employed without any real purpose within a scene. It all just adds up to a messy, disjointed experience. Acting-wise, the film is still pitched at high melodrama, and the actors are made to scream when something subtler might have worked.

And what makes Menor de Edad admirable is how much grit it dares to show its audience. Shot on site in a decrepit community, the movie uses the area more as a character than a setting. The cramped space feels like a living entity, and you’d feel why Jennica is trying to run away from it.

The film so loud and unfocused that it draws out a physical reaction. There’s merit in the issues the movie is trying to explore, but they are handled with all the grace of a sledgehammer.

THE IMPOSSIBLE

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Maria, Henry and their three sons begin their winter vacation in Thailand, looking forward to a few days in tropical paradise. But on the morning of December 26th, as the family relaxes around the pool after their Christmas festivities the night before, a terrifying roar rises up from the center of the earth. As Maria freezes in fear, a huge wall of black water races across the hotel grounds toward her.

There is something uneasy about telling the story of this disaster from the perspective of tourists. While the story of this one family is definitely worth telling, it sometimes feels like there is a bigger story that is being missed, one tied to the people whose home was being devastated. It doesn’t make the story any less worth telling, but it does provide a couple of troubling moments where it feels like the plight of the locals is being shortchanged.

The most impressive part of the movie was the tsunami hitting. When the water hits, you can’t help but be in awe at its power. I used to wonder why people didn’t just run away. When the wave begins roaring through the resort, you begin to understand how powerful this event was. How helpless the people were in its wake. And as Naomi Watts struggles to keep her head above water, as she tries to stay near her son, you can empathise with her. I could feel her terror.

The film smartly establishes some basic family dynamics earlier on, and it pays them off in spades. Clever structuring obscures the fate of the protagonists for most of the movie, adding layers of tension through the already maddeningly visceral experience. And it’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking. The sequence where the tsunami hits is masterful, going in fascinatingly close to the utter horror of the experience. It follows the characters as they get thrown around by the violent waves, their bodies helpless to resist the current.

The big problem for me however, was a subtle hint of racism that permeated every inch of this film. It begins with the casting. The family at the heart of this story are Spanish. Yet for the movie they are whitewashed, replaced by two white people who now come from England. After watching the movie, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Thai people were not adversely affected by the tsunami. It seems like the only people injured in the disaster, the only ones who are suffering, are privileged white people. The Thai are just there to silently help the white people and patch them back up. Why is this the story being told? It’s because if you made the movie about a Thai family’s story of survival, it probably wouldn’t sell as many tickets.

Naomi Watts has always been one of the finest actresses of her generation, often taking risks that other performers never could. She approaches this role with a refreshing lack of vanity, and offers up something quite powerful because of it. Ewan McGregor’s boyish charms are used to great effect here, his character balancing youthful hope and slow, fearful dread. But it is young Tom Holland who steals the show as their eldest child. The character is forced to grow up really quickly in this story, and Holland handles that task with noticeable aplomb.

The Impossible is a good movie – in parts. There are some scenes I’d watch again. But I’d fast forward through most of it. If you like having your heart strings tugged, The Impossible could be your kind of film, but it is also troubling when put into a certain context. There is something inherently uncomfortable about building a feel-good tale about such a horrific tragedy, the movie ending with a sense of strange triumph even as it leaves behind a land and a people still devastated.

HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS

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After getting a taste for blood as children, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) have become the ultimate vigilantes, hell bent on retribution. Now, unbeknownst to them, Hansel and Gretel have become the hunted, and must face an evil far greater than witches…their past.

Siblings Hansel and Gretel were abandoned in the woods by their parents years ago. They found their way to a witch’s house, and managed to defeat her. After that, the two dedicated their lives to killing off witches. Now, they find their way to a hamlet where children have been going missing. The two investigate, and stumble on to a cabal of witches planning a profane ritual in three days on the blood moon. And along the way, they discover something about their past that changes their understanding of their origins.

It is incredible to think that only recently I was raising niggling little objections to some minor things. I feel like a billionaire who has become poor overnight, remembering when I was not entirely happy with a certain type of champagne. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is so uncompromisingly rubbish that it is impossible to watch it without your rage and despair doubling with every minute that passes.

There is just a hint of irreverence skirting the edges of the film, a silliness that indicates a dash of self-awareness in the proceedings. This, along with the over-the-top, R-worthy violence, is what sets the film apart from other films of its ilk. There is a great deal of brutal violence, and people getting their noses broken and heads squished. Women are punched and kicked all the time.

The more effective action scenes recall the twisted sensibilities of a Sam Raimi movie, lingering in the grotesque and comedic. An overblown Zimmer score also serves to make the film feel more bombastic than it really is. The film can’t quite pick a tone, and the result feels more generic than it ought to be. The cast can feel similarly indistinct. I’m clutching at theoretical straws here. Maybe it was just always like this. Basically, Hansel & Gretel is a film that does not neglect any opportunity to be abysmal. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton are mostly made to play stoic, even when delivering wisecracks. They are two more dour antiheroes in a landscape littered with them. The two certainly have more personality than this, and it might have been more interesting to just show them having fun. Famke Janssen is also a bit held back as the villain of the piece. It’s really only Peter Stormare and Thomas Mann in the supporting cast who really give this film a kick of flavor and personality.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is occasionally fun, but as a whole, it isn’t committed enough to its own silliness to really pop. The hints of self-aware comedy and over-the-top violence suggest that the movie could have been a Raimi-esque romp.

KANIIG

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Kaniig is a film defined by its location. It appears that the production had found a hotel willing to let them shoot, and they built a story around using the setting. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, of course, and the production values are typically terrible.

Glenn and Lucas (John Canterbury and Lawrence Manalo) share a bed in a hotel room. Lesbian lovers Lorraine and Queenie (Honey Lopez and Ruby Dela Rosa) have the same arrangement, except for the fact that they’re in a relationship. Lucas secretly pines for his roommate, but is afraid that Glenn will reject him for being gay. Meanwhile, Glenn has fallen for Lorraine. On her part, Lorraine wants to stay faithful to her girlfriend, but the pressures of their relationship push her to consider the possibility of entertaining Glenn’s advances.

The movie treads on familiar ground, depicting a really lame story about infidelity, largely wasting time between tepid, badly shot sex scenes. The film is indeed garbage, featuring a story that doesn’t make any sense, and production values that lie far below what should be considered passable in Philippine cinema.

The acting is painful, the actors unable to deliver lines with any sort of conviction. The movie plays a gag reel in its credits, and there really doesn’t seem to be much difference between the goofs and what actually made it into the film.

Too many of these films have already been reviewed, and their flaws are all generally the same. Even the hint of self-awareness has been seen before, in a spate of movies in this genre that are all about producing indie films. In the end, the movie is exactly what it says it is a totally garbage.

THE LAST STAND

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The leader of a drug cartel busts out of a courthouse and speeds to the Mexican border, where the only thing in his path is a sheriff and his inexperienced staff.

Sheriff Ray Owens (Arnold Schwazenegger) is expecting a quiet weekend as most of the residents of Sommerton, Arizona have left to catch a football game. Sadly, for the sheriff, he has trouble coming his way in the form of escaped drug cartel kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), who is barreling towards the sleepy little border town on his way back to Mexico. Cortez has evaded and killed dozens of federal agents already, and Owens and his small crew of deputies are the only ones left to keep the druglord from leaving the country.

The Last Stand‘s setup is unapologetically formulaic, and as mentioned before, filled with plot holes that require a hefty dose of disbelief suspending. Any attempts to fill-out the relatively straightforward plot – supporting character arcs, villainous exposition, or an underdeveloped twist – speed past without consequence and occasionally distract from the pacing in the core storyline. The film doesn’t bother with deep or insightful drama; however, The Last Stand presents enough charming characters, clever filmmaking choices, and downright entertaining (sometimes gory) action set pieces for an enjoyable experience.

A few set pieces of vehicular manslaughter keep the plot moving for the first half of the film and some viewers will likely find the overarching plot to be stretched too thin upfront. However, the second half of the movie provides one explosive setup after another – making smart use of main street Sommertown Junction and surrounding areas. Most notably, a sequence about two-thirds of the way through ups the ante – providing a quick succession of crowd-pleasing moments that lead into a slick (albeit campy) finale.

It’s all still pretty fun, if disappointingly conventional. Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t quite the physical presence that he used to be, but there’s still some spark in those old bones. A surprisingly brutal fistfight near the end of the movie shows that the former governor still has some moves. Meanwhile, Eduardo Noriega exudes a villainous confidence in his scenes that is perfect for the film. In the supporting cast, Zach Gilford offers some real heart, and Johnny Knoxville brings the crazy.

The Last Stand only offers hints of unique flavor – an enjoyably baffling car chase through a cornfield immediately comes to mind, as well as bits of background detail that give scenes a little more personality. Otherwise, it’s a staunchly conventional action movie. Director Kim Ji-woon finds a solid balance between cheese and stylized action with his American debut – while making smart use of a likable and quirky roster of characters.

PARENTAL GUIDANCE

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Old school grandfather Artie (Billy Crystal), who is accustomed to calling the shots, meets his match when he and his eager-to-please wife Diane (Bette Midler) agree to babysit their three grandkids when their type-A helicopter parents (Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott) go away for work. But when 21st century problems collide with Artie and Diane’s old school methods of tough rules, lots of love and old-fashioned games, it’s learning to bend – and not holding your ground – that binds a family together.

The movie doesn’t seem to think that there might be a happy medium between modern parenting and the old ways. The film paints such a ridiculous caricature of modern parenting, the current generation of parents apparently completely helpless to wrangle their kids. Meanwhile, a game of kick the can magically brings everyone together, and makes the kids happier than they’ve ever been.

The movie strives to be as comfortable as possible, and to be fair it does accomplish that much. It isn’t very exciting cinema, but it is ultimately harmless. At worst, it is just something to disregard. Billy Crystal and Bette Midler are such confident pros that their crack timing elevates even substandard material. Midler seems to be having fun as the outrageous grandma, while Crystal carries the heavier load with utter ease. Marisa Tomei, who seem more energized and enthusiastic.

Parental Guidance has been slapped together by its director, Andy Fickman, and after a while it seems to run out of jokes, maybe to make room for all the crying and hug-it-out family redemption in the last half hour. There are worse family films than Parental Guidance, but there are many better ones as well.

A HAUNTED HOUSE

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Malcolm and Kisha move into their dream home, but soon learn a demon also resides there. When Kisha becomes possessed, Malcolm – determined to keep his sex life on track – turns to a priest, a psychic, and a team of ghost-busters for help.

The film really loses its way in the final reel, when Cedric the Entertainer shows up as an ex-con priest attempting an exorcism on the newly possessed Kisha. The normally reliable star founders as he delivers an endless series of profane one-liners, as does veteran comic actor David Koechner as a security-camera installer who moonlights as a reality television star.

A Haunted House isn’t really very interested in that. Rather than put forward humor that is specific to the genre involved, it mostly settles for a more generic brand of bawdy, lowbrow comedy. For example, rather than make fun of the silliness that usually comes with bringing a psychic into the story, the film simply makes the psychic aggressively gay.

The film’s lack of real laughs is really disappointing considering the comedic talent involved but somehow, Wayans and Atkins have an engaging comic chemistry and a few likable moments in the early going, before their space becomes invaded by the ghost, which has sex with both Kisha (who, predictably, really loves it) and Malcolm (who, predictably, really does not). But the fact that there’s no visible paranormal activity until about 25 minutes in points up the problem with A Hauted House.

Then again, returning the lost scenes probably wouldn’t increase the value of the movie by much. At most, they would provide audiences with something bawdier to gawk at on screen. Having seen none of it, I can’t really speak with authority on that matter.

LES MISERABLES

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Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Misérables tells an enthralling story of broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice and redemption-a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit. Jackman plays ex-prisoner Jean Valjean, hunted for decades by the ruthless policeman Javert (Crowe) after he breaks parole. When Valjean agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s (Hathaway) young daughter, Cosette, their lives change forever. In December 2012, the world’s longest-running musical brings its power to the big screen in Tom Hooper’s sweeping and spectacular interpretation of Victor Hugo’s epic tale.

It conquers its audience with weapons all its own: not passion so much as passionate sincerity, not power so much as overwhelming force. Every line, every note, every scene is belted out with diaphragm-quivering conviction and unbroken, unremitting intensity. The physical strength of this movie is impressive: an awe-inspiring and colossal effort, just like Valjean’s as he lifts the flagpole at the beginning of the film. You can almost see the movie’s muscles flexing and the veins standing out like whipcords on its forehead. At the end of 158 minutes, you really have experienced something. What exactly, I’m still not sure.

This is an odd musical to try that with, because nothing about the musical is remotely naturalistic. Many of these songs are already pitched at the level of high opera, and having the actors choke through them seems counterintuitive. Still, the film sometimes hits on something exceptional. The most affecting scene comes in his movie’s opening act, as Valjean is astonished and moved by the Christ-like charity of the Bishop (Colm Wilkinson) who takes him in, and forgives him for attempting to steal silverware, making him a present of it and protecting him from arrest (“I have saved your soul for God”). Jackman sings a soliloquy directly to camera (“Why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love?”), eyes blazing with a new knowledge.

The film struggles to settle on a visual treatment, making each performance seem disconnected from the others. Though the film impresses with its high production values, it disappoints in many of its directorial choices. There’s little logic in the shot choices, the film often putting together several completely different styles of composition in the same scene, never establishing a sense of space or any sort of visual theme, apart from the overall dreary pallor cast on the entire movie.

Other moments are less successful. Hathaway’s fervent rendition of the SuBo standard I Dreamed a Dream, in extreme close-up, has been much admired, but for me her performance and appearance is a bit Marie Antoinette-ish. Her poverty-stricken character is supposed to have pitifully sold her teeth to a street dentist. Conveniently, this turns out to mean just her back teeth: her dazzlingly white front teeth are untouched. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are great as the dodgy innkeepers M and Mme Thénardier, but the crowd scenes have a thumbs-in-the-waistcoat feel, and when smudgy-faced urchin Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) addresses grownups in Cockney as “my dear” then we really are in Jack Wild territory. The star is Hugh Jackman. But Ruseel Crowe offers the most open, human performance I have seen from him. His singing is so sweetly unselfconscious that there is something paradoxically engaging about his Javert, even when he’s being a cruel, unbending law-officer and royalist spy.

Les Miserables is so focused on delivering emotional bombast that it often forgets that there might be more to a scene than the relentless suffering of the characters. Given that, it still works sometimes, the performances generally strong enough to carry the scenes with them.

ZERO DARK THIRTY

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For a decade, an elite team of intelligence and military operatives, working in secret across the globe, devoted themselves to a single goal: to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty reunites the Oscar winning team of director-producer Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) for the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man.

The movie largely follows the exploits of a young CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain). She is assigned to the team tasked with finding Osama Bin Laden. She spends the first couple of years interrogating detainees, until one of them finally gives up the name of a personal courier to Osama Bin Laden using the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Maya then dedicates the next few years to finding this mysterious courier, chasing one lead after another while living the dangerous life of a professional spy.

It’s frankly incredible that, in the middle of such a complicated story, Zero Dark Thirty presents such a complex character in Maya, a tough woman in an impossible job who sidesteps every imaginable possible cliche. Everything about her, from the way she wears a scarf over her head when interrogating a detainee to the false smiles she gives to put powerful men at ease, speaks to her unusual position as a woman in the Middle East, but that contrast never becomes text, just another fascinating layer in a story with no simple conclusions.

There are some who say it glorifies torture by distorting events and making it seem like torture played a part in the eventual capture of Osama Bin Laden. And it is an important argument to make; one should never just easily accept the narratives being presented in a movie with such a highly charged subject. But there is also another side to consider: the film also presents torture as a truly terrible act with dubious results, and it exacts a great cost from its perpetrators.

The film is decidedly sober about its depiction of events. There is no glory to be found in their mission, no grand sentiment to cling to. It’s just a bunch of armed men shooting people in the dark, then shooting corpses to make sure they’re dead. Not all of the characters around her are equally as complex– Chris Pratt, Harold Perrineau and Joel Edgerton are just a few of the big names who are gone as soon as they arrive– but Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini and especially Clarke all make their impact, though all somewhat overshadowed by the powerhouse that is Chastian.

Zero Dark Thirty stands as counterpoint to the largely celebratory mood that followed the death of Osama Bin Laden.  Like the woman at its center, Zero Dark Thirty exudes a constant, quiet confidence, telling a story with an ending we all know and making it feel thrilling, suspenseful, and completely vital.

SCORPION LOVERS

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Scorpion Lovers is a movie that I’ve seen before. Several times, in fact. The strange thing about the current crop of gay indie movies is that they are all pretty much the same film.

There is a couple. There is another person living in the house. An affair occurs. It comes to light. Drama. This is the plot of dozens of movies in this genre, with the only variation really happening in the various permutations of genders involved in the sex. In this one, the main couple is gay, and the interloper is a man who also happens to sleep with women.

It’s just a matter of playing out the same scenarios over and over again, which mostly means badly shot, artless sex scenes. To be fair to this one, it sets itself apart by not including a shower scene. But for the most part, it offers little of value to the viewer.

The characters talk openly about the affair, stating and restating the fear of being found out. For some reason, the participants in the affair are incapable of sensing that they have been found out, even though there is every indication of it.

The acting is terrible, the cast made up of interchangeable faces with zero personality, hired more for a willingness to show up naked on screen than any discernable talent. The production is as same-y and predictable as everything else. The camerawork is really bad, and the sound is inconsistent.

Bad movies are easy enough to accept, but this movie represents something far bigger. It is part of an entire movement of our local cinema that seems to have given up completely on offering anything of value. Now it is just a matter of putting together the same components: a house, three or four actors, and ceaseless, pointless repetition.

RED DAWN

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A group of teenagers look to save their town from an invasion of North Korean soldiers.

The film begins by introducing brothers Jed and Matt Eckert (Chris Hemsworth and Josh Peck). Jed is a marine who has just returned to his hometown of Spokane. Matt is the hotshot quarterback of the local high school team, the Wolverines. When North Korea suddenly attacks the United States and takes control of their town, the brothers find themselves having to lead a ragtag group of young people to repel the invaders and take back their home. But the brothers still have issues between them, and that puts everyone in danger.

The movie was made three years ago, and it is quite apparent why it didn’t succeed in finding distributors for so long. Funnily, the antagonists in the film were originally Chinese, and were digitally converted to North Koreans so as to not offend the good folks from China. Sadly none of the alterations fail to offend the audience’s intelligence.

Red Dawn relies heavily on choppy editing and shaky camerawork to hide the deficiencies of its action sequences. The film only settles down long enough to play out a painfully trite story between the brothers. There’s no real story, just a series of firefights and skirmishes, as the youngsters — who call themselves the Wolverines after the local high-school team — try to rid the town of alien invaders. What else are red-blooded American kids going to do?

Chris Hemsworth comes off as wooden and uninterested. A promising cast of young actors gets very little to do. Josh Hutcherson and Adrienne Palicki have proven to be reliable assets in previous outings, but they are largely squandered here. The only interesting aspect of the film is that Bradley has amped up the urban-warfare aspect. The chases and battles set in city landscapes have a certain kinetic excitement that’s impossible to deny.

The biggest flaw of Red Dawn is its lack of imagination. It doesn’t put in the effort to build this particular reality, to inject details that would make the world interesting or distinct. This is essentially what differentiates it from the original movie. Otherwise, these are generic and stock characters, set in story that is laughable and manipulative. The film doesn’t celebrate much of anything except the virtue of kicking ass.

LIFE OF PI

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Ang Lee creates a groundbreaking movie event about a young man who survives a disaster at sea and is hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery. While cast away, he forms an amazing and unexpected connection with another survivor…a fearsome Bengal tiger.

The film tells the fantastic story of Pi Patel (played in adulthood by Irrfan Khan, and played as a teenager by Suraj Sharma). Decades ago, teenage Pi was on a Japanese freighter bound for Canada, accompanying a cargo of animals from his family’s now-defunct zoo. The freighter gets caught in a storm and capsizes. Pi is the only human to make it out alive, managing to stay on a lifeboat as the storm tore the ship to pieces. But Pi is not alone on the lifeboat: a handful of animals make it to the lifeboat with him, among them their zoo’s most dangerous animal, an adult Bengal Tiger.

He adopts different styles to fit his new subjects, and while there are certain recurrent themes, among them the disruption of families and young people facing moral and physical challenges, there are no obsessive concerns of the sort once considered a necessity for auteurs. He has a fastidious eye for a great image but he also has a concern for language.

It is a survivalist tale unlike anyone’s ever seen, pitting a single human against a heightened vision of nature, both more beautiful and more dangerous than one might initially conceive. The images are often surreal, openly artificial and dreamlike, with impossibly still ocean waters reflecting an endless sky, and schools of flying fish that feel nothing less than miraculous. But even as the images get stranger, the film continues to make the experience feel urgent and visceral.

The movie is framed by a talk that Pi is having with an author. The author is looking for material for a novel, so this occasion is Pi’s recounting of his unbelievable adventure. I felt that this was a weak framing device, and the author-Pi scenes became a bit intrusive, pulling us out of the story and often explaining things unnecessarily, as if we had to be led by the hand to understand things.

The connection between the spiritual search of the characters and Pi’s ordeal is tenuous most of the time. The film seems to acknowledge by laying out the answers plainly, mostly in one sequence that flatly delivers a twist. The film is magical enough that it doesn’t really matter, but it does make the conclusion far simpler than it ought to be.

Suraj Sharma pulls off a Herculean feat in this movie. He is alone for most of the film, with no one to trade lines with or to react to. But the emotions of the character come through anyway, made clear by Sharma’s impressive physicality and facial expressiveness. Irrfan Khan somehow manages to match Sharma’s intensity in far more sedate scenes in the present, narrating the story as if his entire life depended on it. There aren’t many other roles to speak of, but even in small parts, Adil Hussain and Tabu pull off some remarkable things, the two representing far larger archetypes of parenthood than the script gave room for.

But then there lies the problem of worldview. The film is supposed to be inspirational. It’s a feel good movie for almost everyone. So even when it has to look at something dark, it does not plunge into and explore that darkness fully.I am not asking that the film be extremely dark, as that isn’t its project. However, without that darkness, it’s hard to appreciate the light as much.

Life of Pi doesn’t quite live up to the promise laid out in the beginning. The conceit is that Pi’s story is the kind that might make people believe in the existence of a higher being. It’s not quite that, but then again, nothing really is.

 JACK REACHER

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Six shots. Five dead. One heartland city thrown into a state of terror. But within hours the cops have it solved: a slam-dunk case. Except for one thing. The accused man says: You got the wrong guy. Then he says: Get Reacher for me. And sure enough, ex-military investigator Jack Reacher is coming. He knows this shooter-a trained military sniper who never should have missed a shot. Reacher is certain something is not right-and soon the slam-dunk case explodes.

Five people are killed by a sniper in downtown Pittsburgh. All the evidence points to former army sniper James Barr, and he is quickly arrested. In interrogation, Barr makes one request: to call Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise). Reacher was once a brilliant military investigator, before going off the grid and living life as a drifter. Much to the surprise of the police and the District Attorney, Reacher suddenly shows up in town, seeking to get to the truth of the crime. While at first, he is convinced of Barr’s guilt, he soon discovers something a little more sinister in the wings.

The riveting opening 15 minutes is what makes Jack Reacher worth seeing. A killer drives into a multi-storey car park in midtown Pittsburgh, sets himself up – looking across the river to a path alongside the Pittsburgh Pirates stadium – and proceeds to observe potential targets, several of them children, through the crosshairs of a sniper’s rifle. It’s a guiltily involving point of view. In the film, however, he is a little too omnipotent, a little too cool. The film never lets us see him sweat, mild annoyance being his only reaction to potential danger. Meanwhile, the other characters keep talking him up, growing his legend while the story continues.

Tom Cruise, who’s as short as Alan Ladd, unlikely casting. Though not bad in the right role, he’s more cocky and devious than mysterious and unassailable. Cruise makes little impression, and when at the end he appears to be driving off in search of a sequel, one wonders if he has the making of a Bourne-again serial hero. He seems more overreacher than Reacher, while the dependable Jenkins and the seductive Pike drift through the action with nothing to get a purchase on. Sadly, McQuarrie provides little of the cool wit and none of the dramatic fibre he brought to The Usual Suspects or his other film as director, the bizarre TheWay of the Gun.

Jack Reacher is too long, too smug, and a little too Tom Cruise. To be fair, it is moderately fun, the film offering flashes of directorial and narrative brilliance. But for the most part, the movie is committed to telling a story with no stakes, following a dour, mostly unlikable man who is never in any danger of failing.

125 comments on “January – April 2013 Movie Review (Foreign & Local Films)

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