The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor


The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
★ / ★★★★

When I read this film’s scathing reviews (to say the least), I thought people were just being way too hard on it so I still wanted to watch it. Despite people’s advice (and insistence) to stay as far away from this movie as possible, I still hoped that I would like it even just a little bit because I love the first two “Mummy” installments (they reminded me of the spirit of the “Indiana Jones” franchise). This time around, I’d have to agree with everyone else; this is as bad as they say it is. First of all, they replaced my favorite actor from the franchise: Rachel Weisz. I thought she was perfect as Evelyn O’Connell because she excels at being bookish-smart and rarely depending on chance in order to reach some sort of success. It means that she’s perfect for Brendan Fraser’s character, Rick O’Connell, because he’s too goofy for his own good (which often leads him to trouble) and only depends on luck in order to get the upper hand. Maria Bello, Weisz’s replacement, interprets the character so differently, I felt like she was Rick O’Connell’s unwelcome second wife. She’s one dimensional, not that strong, and lacks charisma. Not to mention she doesn’t have chemistry with Frasier. Moreover, even though Luke Ford as Alex O’Connell is nice to look at, I didn’t find him as witty and as plucky as the younger Alex O’Connell (Freddie Boath) back in “The Mummy Returns.” In fact, I found Ford as interesting as an inert plank leaning against a wall. Brendar Frasier, despite his best efforts and fun energy, was sidelined. To me, the focus of this film was the conflict between Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li’s characters. Not only did the camera spend too much time on them (even though I really liked their martial arts scenes), the story is really about a thousand year old thirst for power and revenge. And somehow, Frasier and the gang managed to get tangled in its maelstrom. As for the film’s pacing, it didn’t really get interesting up until the forty-minute mark. In fact, I was kind of getting sleepy which is not a good sign because I love action-adventure films. I love watching characters travel from one place to another, seeing exotic locales, and winning at the end of the day. In this film, I didn’t really care about the characters because I never thought they were in any real danger. I literally rolled my eyes from when the Yetis appeared up until the end. Just when I thought that’s the worst of it, a dragon appeared… and then a giant monster that could bring down planes. In a nutshell, it just got too ridiculous. As much as I love the “Mummy” franchise, I’d have to urge everyone to skip this one and see something else–something that truly captures how it’s like to go on an adventure.

The Reader


The Reader (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★

If Kate Winslet doesn’t get nominated and win two Oscars for her performances in “Revolutionary Road” and “The Reader,” I would be very disappointed with the Academy. Having seen pretty much all of the films that generated the most buzz in the Best Actress category, I can vouch that she’s the one who truly deserves it. In “The Reader,” Winslet shines as a woman who gets sexually entangled with a fifteen-year-old boy, played with such vulnerability and innocence by David Kross. Strangely enough, even though their relationship is taboo, I’m willing to admit that I did find chemistry between the two of them. In the first half of the picture, Stephen Daldry, the director, was smart enough to focus on the two leads’ hunger. That hunger is presented both emotionally and physically but never completely separate. Both of the characters intentions are never completely clear which makes the film that much more interesting. I was often questioning myself about who was really using the other. Just when I thought it was about to lose its focus, the second half was able to summon all of its power and give its audiences reasons why they should care for the Winslet and Kross (played by Ralph Fiennes as time went on). Even though the two are deeply flawed, we relate to them in many ways because they tend to choose the more difficult path in order to keep protecting their secrets. Such secrets may seem so simple at first glance but there’s a lot of shame in those secrets, especially those that belong to Winslet’s character. Some of the best scenes of “The Reader” are its silent moments when the images do not require an explanation. Having said all of that, I think this film would’ve been much stronger if the last thirty minutes were more fluid. I thought there were many “final” scenes where the film could’ve ended. The “choppiness” could’ve been taken care of with a little bit more time. I’m giving this a high recommendation for the reasons mentioned previously but especially for Winslet’s performance. But the real surprise for me was the newcomer Kross, who I hope to see more in the future. He’s so brave for deciding to star in a film of this caliber. He not only sheds his clothes but ultimately his soul–which is far more challenging for any actor his age.

XXY


XXY (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I’ve heard of Klinefelter’s Syndrome in several Biology courses but I’ve never seen a film that focuses on the condition. Inés Efron does a great job as Alex who has not yet made a decision whether to continue as a female or get an operation to become a male, but has recently decided to stop taking pills which contain hormones that aim to retain her femininity. Her parents invite a doctor and his family; things get complicated when Alex meets Alvaro (Martín Piroyansky). Since this is the first film I saw about XXY Syndrome, I was surprised by its mature sensitivity. During several points in the film, just when I thought it was going to take the Lifetime route, it completely turns to a different, more daring direction. I don’t know if I felt pity or sympathy for Alex (maybe it’s understanding) but I wanted to scream for her. Every time I look in her eyes, I feel like she desperately wants to escape but couldn’t. She tries to love her body but she’s always reminded by others that she’s different so she constantly reevaluates herself. Even though she has supportive parents and some supportive friends, some strangers are so cruel to her to the point where I wanted to jump into the movie and fight for her. Her relationship with Alvaro is so fragile but I feel like they reach some sort of understanding. Whenever they’d interact, they feed off each other’s differences to the point where they reach some sort of comfort around one another. Toward the end of the picture, we get to learn more about Alvaro and his need for approval from his father. That confrontation scene before they left Alex’ beach house felt like a punch in the stomach to me. It was so honest but painful, yet it was also beautiful and a relief. The use of color and tone of this film reflected the characters and I absolutely loved looking at it; it’s almost like poetry but composed of images instead of words. I must also commend this film’s focus because each scene has something to do with the big picture. I love films like this because even though it’s emotionally exhausting, it feels so rewarding because we feel that much more knowledgeable about something we didn’t know much about. If you’re a fan of the blurring between two extremes, such as gender and sexuality, this film receives a very enthusiastic recommendation from me.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2


The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

This sequel is arguably just as good as the original mainly because of the exotic locations and earnest acting. Two and half out of the four storylines worked for me: Amber Tamblyn’s pregnancy scare and her fear of everyone leaving her someday, America Ferrera’s accidental acting gig and her fear of growing distant from her friends, and half of Alexis Bledel’s lost love (Michael Rady) in Greece. I usually love watching Blake Lively (and I did love her here) but the storyline involving archeology and her grandmother felt forced. Every time the film would focus on her so-called life challenges, the momentum of the picture slowed down tremendously. As for the part that didn’t work for me regarding Bledel, it mostly has something to do with her acting. This was also a problem in the first film but whenever she’s about to cry, it feels really forced to the point where it’s borderline laughable. I can read it in her eyes–her questioning about whether she’s exuding enough tears and emotion. Out of the four, acting-wise, I think she’s the most dispensable. However, there’s something about this movie’s energy that kept me interested. I believed that the four leads really were college students because of the way they talked to each other and the questions that they raised (and eventually answered) when no one was around. Even though I’m not the target age group, I could relate with some of the girls, especially Tamblyn’s serious and introspective persona (not to mention her love for movies), because I have gone through the fears of losing one’s high school friends when I moved on to college. Overall, I’m recommending “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2” because it has nice life lessons and the actresses are interesting to watch.

Thunderball


Thunderball (1965)
★★★ / ★★★★

It’s interesting to me when I look back on how the “James Bond” franchise changed over several decades. I can understand why many people consider Sean Connery as the best 007 because he can be dangerous and charming at the same time–and looks like he’s having fun. “Thunderball” is the fourth Bond picture and it’s different from the first three because it has so many cheesy but (sometimes) amusing one-liners. I consider this movie to be uneven because even though rousing action sequences are still present, they are immediately followed by tedious dialogue that only occasionally push the story forward. It’s a shame because the picture truly shines when the audiences are actually seeing SPECTRE’s plan in action, all the while knowing that Bond will somehow keep them from succeeding. It’s hard for me not to recommend this Bond installment because the femme fatales are interesting (Claudine Auger as Domino and Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe). The audiences know their motivations but that doesn’t mean their goals are predictable. Adolfo Celi as Emilio Largo (also known as SPECTRE #2) is a good villain because he can go head-to-head with Bond. Celi’s character has been parodied many times such as in the “Austin Powers” franchise. And there are many memorable scenes such as the underwater battle scenes in the ocean, when the wounded Bond evades his enemies during a parade, the scene where Bond is trapped in a swimming pool infested with sharks… I just wish that the script would’ve been written better. When it’s time to take a scene seriously, it falls apart because someone would say or do something unintentionally funny. Still, I say go see it for the gadgets, interesting use of color, realistic fight scenes, and memorable side characters.

Live and Let Die


Live and Let Die (1973)
★★ / ★★★★

This isn’t my favorite James Bond film even though it has a nice balance of action and humor. At times I felt like it was too light to the point where it’s impossible to take the more serious scenes… well, seriously. Rooger Moore is a mediocre 007 because he lacks a certain edge that Sean Connery has. Moore is a bit too goofy with his one-liners and I wanted him to be more dangerous. One of my major problems is that the film somewhat relied on the belief of tarot cards coming true. That lack of realism really bothered me and I wish the writers eliminated it from the story. It’s a shame because the premise started off well: three agents were killed from different sides of the globe and Bond has to find a connection on why it happened. While the beginning is brilliant, the execution and the conclusion are less than impressive. Come to think of it, I don’t think they answered all of my questions regarding the premise. It simply answered the “why” aspect in one of the scenes and completely forgot about it for the rest of the picture. Somehow, Bond manages to meet a girl who can see the future and become crocodile food. Although the latter scene is very impressive (it’s arguably the best scene of the film), it hardly makes up for the rest of the film’s inconsistencies. Bond is supposed to be the center of the story but there were many scenes where he could not be found. If I were to estimate the net time Moore was not on film, it would be around twenty minutes. When introducing a new actor playing Bond, the smart move is to put him in front of the camera 95% of the time (or more) so the audiences will get a chance to get to know him more. By the end of this film, I felt like Moore was secondary to the big picture.

Tropic Thunder


Tropic Thunder (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

This is not as funny as everyone made it to be. I thought it spent too much of its time showing people shooting guns and not enough time telling Hollywood jokes. For a two-hour film, I thought it would reach some sort of balance. Written and directed by Ben Stiller, he has some really funny sketches such as the fake trailers prior to the main feature, Robert Downey Jr. as a method actor, Tom Cruise as the over-the-top movie mogul, and not to mention the Oscar scene. Other than those few elements, I simply chuckled through the rest (if they were at least somewhat funny). Jack Black and Ben Stiller weren’t as funny as they could have been. Compared to Downey Jr. and Cruise, Black and Stiller were trying too hard to get noticed; instead of enhancing the experience, it became distracting. But I appreciated the cameos from Tyra Banks, Jennifer Love-Hewitt, Lance Bass, and Alicia Silverstone. They made me pay attention when nothing was going on on screen. What made this movie slightly above average at times was its self-awareness. It’s unabashed when it comes to making references to war pictures like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket.” I love the scene where Downey Jr. recalled the films and actors that focus on mental retardation: Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” and Sean Penn in “I Am Sam.” If they would have appeared, it would have been that much better. But what really did not work for me was the jungle scenes. When people are shooting guns and running away from the artillery, it becomes chaotic. Those “action” scenes feel like fillers when the jokes are not in the foreground. This is supposed to be a comedy but I didn’t see the comedy behind the violence. Perhaps if this had been a dark comedy film, it would’ve worked… but it wasn’t so it didn’t. The story becomes slow and it feels like the actors are not reaching their full potential because they are left to just run around screaming. If this movie would have been tilted toward the show business instead of the actual war scenes, I think I would’ve enjoyed it that much more.