Mortal Engines (2018)
★ / ★★★★
Boiled down to its essence, “Mortal Engines” is a parable involving privileged whites who desperately wish to maintain dominance over the poor, many of whom are people of color. Those in power reside in a massive mobile city of London, obliterating everything in its path for resources. It is a predator city in which one of the citizens’ respected leaders is Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a man in search of putting together rare materials to create a power source similar to a nuclear weapon. As you see, the central plot and its moving parts are not subtle. But for some reason, the screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, buries what could have been a potentially deep, thoughtful, timely story in place of a sort of love story between a girl with facial scarring (Hera Hilmar) and an apprentice historian (Robert Sheehan), which includes an awkward appendage of the former’s origin story. As one expository sequence reveals another… and then another still for about an hour, viewers yearning to be challenged are haunted by rawer images of Londoners treating war like sport. They gather and cheer with ecstasy as their gargantuan home threatens to utterly destroy another smaller and exponentially weaker moving city. Director Christian Rivers is given nothing to work with other than expensive special and visual effects—all smoke and mirrors, no substance.
★ / ★★★★
It’s always depressing when you’re watching a movie and your eyes are seemed to be programmed to check the clock, hoping that about thirty minutes had passed since the last glance, only to find out, with much dismay, that barely five minutes has gone by. In “Immortals,” written by Charley Parlapanides and Vlas Parlapanides, Theseus (Henry Cavill), a peasant whose mother (Anne Day-Jones) was regarded by the village as a whore, was chosen by Zeus (Luke Evans) to lead his people, the Hellenics, to fight against King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) and stop his blood-thirsty quest of obtaining the Epirus Bow, so powerful a weapon that it could awaken the Titans and bring destruction to the world. While I have no problem conceding that some of the images it offered were awe-inspiring, like when the action would switch into slow motion and show Theseus fiercely plunging a spear into other men’s throats as if they were made out of butter, but there were instances when it was impossible to see a thing because it was so dark. For a movie with a healthy budget, I wondered why the filmmakers didn’t seem to have enough light on set. I wished that the characters constantly carried around a torch especially during the scenes set at night and they were required to actually speak and communicate ideas. If we couldn’t see the actors’ faces, then what chance did we have in absorbing certain subtleties, if any, so we could end up having a certain level of understanding of the men and women in the brewing war? The story was messy and confusing. Aside from the fact that I had no idea how the characters got from Point A to Point B, Phaedra (Freida Pinto) being a virgin oracle who knew the location of the much desired Epirus Bow was not handled properly. We saw the first scene through her eyes, a glimpse of what was to come. But since we knew what was going to happen, the journey toward future had to be executed a certain way, loyal to the goal yet packed with enough surprises, so that we wouldn’t be bored or feel cheated. I wasn’t convinced that the screenplay was strong enough so sustain such a promise because the visuals almost always took precedence. The characters lacked logic. There was a natural sexual tension between Cavill and Pinto, covered in grime and sweat, but not between Theseus and Phaedra. While the actors looked alluring, I reckoned that the writers interpreted the actors looking good while barely clothed as actively constructing genuine sexual friction between their characters. Given that Phaedra and the people that surrounded her knew that she would lose her gift of foresight the second she lost her virginity, to have the peasant and a holy figure engage in sex was not only careless with regards to story but a tired convenience for the sake of consummating something even if the romantic angle was barely established. Surely having the ability see the future could have game-changing effects in a time of war. It would have been more interesting to watch Theseus being very attracted to the oracle yet he had to maintain his distance because, during such a critical period, he valued his responsibility to his people more than his craving for flesh. At least for me, the most interesting heroes are those who are required to practice self-denial for the sake of the bigger picture. Directed by Tarsem Singh, watching “Immortals” was like looking at a painting that you can admire because it looks good on the outside. But when a person asks why you like it, your brain panics and you quickly realize that you can’t find anything concrete about it. In order not to come off as stupid, you feel that you have to say something–anything–and you end up saying, “Oh, because it’s shiny.”
The Goonies (1985)
★★ / ★★★★
In Richard Donner’s “The Goonies,” a group of kids found a map containing the location of a pirate treasure. Brothers Mikey (Sean Astin) and Brand (Josh Brolin) had a week before their family were forced to move because their parents could no longer afford their home. But when Data (Jonathan Ke Quan), Mouth (Corey Feldman) and Chunk (Jeff Cohen) agreed with Mikey to search for the mythical treasure for one last adventure, they stumbled upon the hiding place of three Italian criminals (Anne Ramsey, Joe Pantoliano, Robert David) on the run from the cops. Their hiding place contained a secret passageway that led to an underground cave that housed the legendary pirate ship. “The Goonies” would appeal to kids because they would most likely be able relate to the characters’ silliness and quirkiness, the soundtrack was energetic, and it played upon the universal idea of children’s penchant for treasure hunting. Despite being a kid at heart, I wasn’t that entertained. There were far too many people in the cave. The two girls, Andy (Kerri Green) and Stef (Martha Plimpton), were completely unnecessary. The romance between Andy and Brand dragged the picture’s momentum. How could we root for their romance if they weren’t fully realized characters? The fact that the picture kept suggesting that there could be something between Andy, around sixteen years old, and Mikey, who was still in elementary school, was more awkward than funny, creepy than cute. I felt like the girls in the movie were added simply to appeal to the same sex. I wish they made their exit when they stumbled upon a well where three guys above could have taken them home. I grew tired of their whining. I enjoyed the film most when the guys accidentally triggered booby traps. It was like watching a light version of Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” exciting but we never truly felt that the characters were in any real danger. We were simply curious to see how the protagonists would adapt to the quickly changing environment. I did wish, however, that the criminals were more dangerous. Most of the time, they acted more like cartoon characters. I didn’t buy for one second that they were smart enough to pull off breaking someone out of jail as they did in the first scene. “The Goonies” wasn’t rich with subtlety. The child actors’ lines often felt forced and it was obvious when some of their lines were dubbed. They probably ran out of takes. Still, the movie was entertaining and charming in its own way. Based on Spielberg’s story, I couldn’t help but wonder how sharper and stronger it might have been under his direction.
★★★ / ★★★★
When an innocent man was taken by the police and tortured to death, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who worked for a passively tyrannical (and ultimately incompetent) government, was assigned to take a closer look at the computer error. Despite being aware that the many confusing bureaucracies that often led to dead-ends didn’t always serve the citizens’ best interests, Sam chose to retreat to his fantasy world when he felt overwhelmed. In his daydream, he was a powerful winged warrior who dueled a Samurai in order to rescue a beautiful woman. Reality and fantasy collided when Sam ran into Jill (Kim Greist), sharing great resemblance to the girl of his dreams, a woman suspected of terrorist activities like bombing public places. Directed by Terry Gilliam, “Brazil” was an adventurous satire that is worth viewing multiple times. There were heavy symbolisms, like a man being eaten by paperwork, and scenes that didn’t always fit into the big picture. For instance, the two electricians who seemed to gain some sick pleasure torturing Sam as they slowly took over his home. Granted, the scenes were very funny especially when Robert De Niro’s mysterious character appeared to lend Sam a helping hand. However, the picture was most fascinating when it tackled the absurd. Sam’s mother (Katherine Helmond) and her friends were obsessed with plastic surgery. Despite the many “complications,” they were willing to go back and endure the pain of having their skin cut up and stretched up to their scalp. It was almost like watching an addiction. It was hilarious but it held some semblance of truth in today’s obsession with youth and its relationship with the magic of science. What I found strange was how romantic the movie was at times. The film referenced Michael Curtiz’ “Casablanca” and its influence showed. The courtship scenes between Sam and Jill were silly and tender, yet it had darkness looming over the edge as something bigger than both of them threatened their budding relationship. It was interesting that Jill had the more masculine qualities, like driving a big truck that she called her cab, while Sam was the hopeless romantic who was hesitant to take action. Lastly, I found the final twenty minutes to be very hypnotic. While it didn’t make much sense as a whole, like in our dreams, sometimes the parts were more meaningful. What Sam went through personified the nightmare of the dystopian world that he and his loved ones happened to inhabit. “Brazil” was an ambitious and imaginative film which was not unlike watching someone’s dreams. It requires a bit of thinking from us and, more importantly, recognition that our government and society may be heading in a similar direction.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), youngest of the Pevensie siblings, were left in England to live their cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) while their parents and older siblings, Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley), lived in the United States. Edmund and Lucy did not get along with their cousin, but the three of them ended up in Narnia when a painting of an ocean with a ship turned to life. They were taken aboard by Caspian’s (Ben Barnes) crew and explained to them their mission of collecting seven swords and defeating an evil green mist. The third installment of “The Chronicles of Narnia” franchise, based on C.S. Lewis’ books, was ultimately disappointing because it failed to capture a right balance between magic and heart. While it was heavy on the special and visual effects, the fighting scenes felt empty because the picture did not establish a good reason why they were fighting in the first place. Yes, the green mist was obviously a negative entity, but I had questions about who was controlling the mist and what was the common theme that tied the various characters together. Having faith in the majestic Aslan simply did not cut it because the kids from the first two films have grown up. Therefore, their personal challenges, too, should have evolved. The way they chose to deal with their respective challenges should have had a certain level of complexity and it should have always been at the forefront. Hints of such challenges involved Edmund and his feeling that he was always second best. Now that his brother was no longer allowed in Narnia, he thought that it was his turn to be a leader. His expectations were dampened when Caspian was seen as the leader instead of him. Aside from two measly scenes, one was when Edmund tried to enlist in the army and the other when he and Caspian had an argument in a cavern full of gold, the movie did not tackle Edmund’s insecurity in a thoughtful way. The same happened to Lucy as she craved to have her sister’s beauty. Her obsession led her to a dangerous spell but aside from one or two scenes, her problems were seemingly solved. The film should have taken the opportunity to explore that angle because so many girls suffer from low esteem. Sacrificing two or three battle sequences would have been more than fair. I’ve heard that the writers, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Michael Petroni, made some drastic changes from the original material. I was fine with it as long as they proved to me that the changes were made for the better. I wasn’t convinced. Despite “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” directed by Michael Apted, looking gorgeous as usual, it was choppy, lacked real tension, and the core characters felt secondary. That was an unforgivable sin.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sally (Bailee Madison) was sent by her mother to live with her father (Guy Pearce), Alex, in Rhode Island while he and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes), Kim, restored the historic Blackwood mansion. Despite the manor house being dark and creepy, it wasn’t haunted by ghosts. It was, however, home to little creatures in the basement whose diet consisted of children’s bones and teeth. Based on the screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” reached a synergy between horrific and fantastic elements. Although Sally had the tendency to mope about, we loved her because she was sassy, and we cared for her because her childlike curiosity often got the best of her. It could have taken the convenient path of simply putting children in peril to deliver cheap thrills, but the material strived to be more than that. It provided us with a proper background story that involved Blackwood (Garry McDonald) and his desperation to save his eight-year-old son from the teeth-hungry creatures. Like the best horror movies, I found myself wanting to know more about the source of horror and why the antagonists were motivated to do the things they did. The jump-out-of-your-seat and cringe-in-your-seat moments were earned. Naturally, Alex didn’t believe in her daughter’s stories. He believed the stories were a product of adjustment issues. After all, Sally felt like she wasn’t wanted by her mother, claiming that she had been given away. It was expected that the father would eventually realize that the creatures from her daughter’s imagination were actually real. It was a matter of exactly when. Perhaps as he looked through a keyhole and a needle was waiting on the other side? When Sally took pictures using a polaroid camera during an important dinner? It teased our expectations and the answer was given to us when we least expected it. However, I wish the filmmakers showed less of how the creature looked like. It didn’t help that their bodies were revealed early on. It didn’t give us time to speculate. The teeth-lovers were CGI and I wasn’t too convinced that the animation complemented the gothic interiors of the mansion. It would have been just as effective if we only saw the creatures’ glowing eyes as they hid in darkness from under the bed and staring ravenously on the other side of the hallway. Furthermore, Kim could have been more developed. She was Sally’s eventual mother figure (rather than an evil stepmother) who was reluctant in her ability to parent. That struggle was interesting and an exploration of her feelings of inadequacy would have added another layer of emotional resonance. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” directed by Troy Nixey, was accompanied by a gorgeous art direction and cinematography. Like the towering Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” it made me want to explore its interiors as well as its grounds.
Sucker Punch (2011)
★ / ★★★★
After their mother’s death, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) and her sister were left in the hands of their evil stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). When he found out that the sisters were the heir to the fortune he hoped to receive, he was possessed by rage and tried to hurt the girls. Commotion ensued and Baby Doll was accused of accidentally killing her sister. She was sent to a mental hospital where she eventually planned her escape with other patients (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung). Directed by Zack Snyder, there was no denying that “Sucker Punch” delivered visual acrobatics galore. The action sequences looked dream-like, appropriate because much of the fantastic elements occurred in Baby Doll’s mind, and the girls looked great in their respective outfits. However, it was unfortunate that there was really nothing else to elevate the picture. The acting was atrocious. Blue (Oscar Isaac), one of the main orderlies, for some reason, always felt the need to scream in order to get his point across. I understood that Isaac wanted his character to exhibit a detestable menace, but he should have given more variety to his performance. Sometimes whispering a line in a slithery tone could actually pack a more powerful punch than yelling like a spoiled child. I was astounded that we didn’t learn much about Baby Doll’s friends. They were important because they helped our protagonist to get the four items required if she was to earn her freedom. I wondered what the sisters, Sweat Pea and Rocket, had done to deserve being sent to such a prison. They seemed very close. Maybe for a reason. The girls were supposed to have gone crazy in some way but there was no evidence that they weren’t quite right in the head. If they were sent to the mental hospital for the wrong reasons, the script should have acknowledged that instead of leaving us in the dark. They, too, could have been framed like Baby Doll. Overlooking such a basic detail proved to me how little Snyder thought about the story. “Sucker Punch” tackled three worlds: the mental institution, the brothel, and the war against Nazi zombies. Too much time was spent in the whorehouse, the least interesting of them all, and not enough time in the asylum. Though beautiful to look at due to its post-apocalyptic imagery, I could care less about the battle scenes with the dragons, giant samurais, and Nazi zombies. The reason why Snyder should have given us more scenes of Baby Doll in the asylum was because that was Baby Doll’s grim reality: in five days, she was to be lobotomized. Those who’ve played a role-playing video game in the past five years are aware that the games have mini-movies during key events in the story arc. Those images were as good as the ones found here and some of the stories in those games are quite compelling. If images were all this film had to offer, then why should we bother to watch it?
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
James (Paul Terry) lived with his egocentric aunts (Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes) ever since his parents died in a car accident. His guardians were very abusive, often sending him off to clean up after them, calling him worthless, teasing him about being an orphan and not having friends, and leaving him off to feed on scraps from the garbage. But when an old man (Pete Postlethwaite) gave James some magical green “crocodile tongues,” the boy’s life had a chance to finally change for the better. But first he had to escape the horrible household, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and make his way to New York City. Adapted from Roald Dahl’s story, “James and the Giant Peach” worked mainly for children but it had enough darkness to keep the older audiences engaged. While the film was full of energy, especially the first-rate stop-motion animation scenes with the eccentric bugs (Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider, David Thewlis as Earthworm, Simon Callow as Grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as Centipede, and Jane Leeves as Ms. Ladybug), the scenes when James had to deal with the feelings of abandonment due to the death of his parents and his yearning to be free from an abusive household carried a certain level of gravity. It was touching, sometimes a bit melodramatic, but we could not help but root for James because a child should not had to endure so much. However, admittedly, I enjoyed the picture more when I was a kid. While some of the jokes were still amusing, I wished the story had focused more about James instead of the bugs. After all, it was supposed to be about James learning to make new friends, despite how strange they may have been, after a considerable amount of time in isolation. The stop-motion animation and character development should have formed a kind of synergy instead of one getting in the way of another. Nevertheless, when I look at the big picture and its possible impact on its intended audiences, the movie was enjoyable because its high level of creativity in terms of its visual puns and wordplay. Directed by Henry Selick, “James and the Giant Peach” offered a strange universe with creepy images and eerie atmosphere but it wore its heart on its sleeve so kids should not be disturbed by its darker undertones. Younger kids may question their parents about death but I do not think it is a subject that parents should shy away from because it is a natural part of life. In fact, tackling the subject should further highlight the fact that, like the giant peach, life is indeed quite magical.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Many years prior, Merlin had three apprentices: Balthazar (Nicolas Cage), Horvath (Alfred Molina), and Veronica (Monica Bellucci). However, Horvath decided to team up with the evil Morgana (Alice Krige) and take over the world. Veronica decided to sacrifice herself, through a series of magical spells, by emprisoning Morgana’s soul in her body. Fastforward to the 21st century, Balthazar recruited a geeky Physics student (Jay Baruchel), Dave, who he believed to be the so-called Prime Merlinian, Merlin’s successor, to prevent the release of Morgana and defeat Horvath once and for all. Naturally, nerdy Dave had other things on his mind like romancing a girl he knew when he was still in grade school. There was a lot of unnecessary backstory in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and it did not have a lot of payoff. Special and visual effects were abound, some were, admittedly, impressive (I highly enjoyed the scenes when statues would come to life and attempt to kill the protagonists), but what it lacked was a strong and defined emotional core. As much as I like the adorable Baruchel as an actor, I believe he might have been miscast because he failed to inject multidimensionality to his character. Yes, Physics and the girl were very important to him but what else was he passionate about? When he found out he was supposed to be the next Merlin, there was no sense of wonder and I did not feel a conflict moving enough to keep me wanting to see how things would unfold. Furthermore, I felt as though Cage was too campy for the role and most of his one-liners fell completely flat. It was almost desperate. The writers should have trimmed the parts when Cage made heavy-handed speeches about embracing destiny and focused more on the twenty-year-old who was supposed to wield a great power but did not know what to do with it. Considering that the picture was essentially a Disney film, perhaps it felt the need to cater toward children and that was the reason why pretty much everything was oversimplified. However, I think a bit of edge could have greatly benefited the movie in terms of tone. Not for a second did I believe that the bad guys had the upper hand over the good guys. Directed by Jon Turteltaub, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” delivered many action-packed adventures all over New York City but, other than occassional thrills, it lacked a range of other emotions. Its references to “Fantasia” were highly enjoyable but since the filmmakers did not take the material to the next level, I’m not quite sure if modern audiences (especially younger kids in which it catered toward) will recognize the allusions.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A group of aliens visited Earth to get some plant samples, but they were interrupted by humans whose mission was to record extra-terrestrial life. One alien failed to make it back to the ship. On the night Elliot (Henry Thomas) went to pick up pizza from the delivery man, he heard a noise in the shed. Elliot threw a ball inside. Something threw the ball back to him. Elliot was a lonely kid. He recognized the creature as harmless and they became friends. Written by Melissa Mathison and directed by Steven Spielberg, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” was a prime example of the power movies can have across generations. It appealed to children because the alien was cute and cuddly. The scenes of E.T. exploring the family’s home, held together by a recently divorced matriarch (Dee Wallace), was comic genius. Those of us whose parents allowed us to stay home alone could relate to E.T. as he explored the refrigerator and made a complete mess of the kitchen. Furthermore, no one could resist releasing burst of laughter when Gertie (Drew Barrymore), Elliot’s precocious younger sister, dressed up E.T. as a girl. As for adults, it was a genuinely heartwarming film. The connection between Elliot and E.T. was fully explored so being emotionally invested was effortless. Symbolisms, notably the flower, were present but they were never manipulative nor did they take the focus away from the boy and his pet alien. But what I admired most, and the reason why Spielberg is one of my favorite directors, was in the way Spielberg carefully controlled his scenes. Notice when the family was having dinner and the conversation started in a light-hearted way. The topic was what they should be for Halloween. After several lines of funny dialogue, Elliot started to get annoyed by his older brother (Robert MacNaughton) because he insisted that what Elliot saw in the shed was just a goblin or a coyote. However, Elliot’s frustration was directed to the unsuspecting mother, the easier target, someone physically closest to him on the table. The painful subject of their father being with another woman in Mexico suddenly came up. The progression from funny to annoyance to hurt was masterful. We learned about the subtle intricacies of the characters by simply observing how they reacted to the flow of conversations. A similar technique was used toward the end, involving a freezer, but the emotions were entirely different: From sadness, surprise, to utter joy. I also admired the way the director ended the film as our protagonist looked into the sky full of hope, wonder, and maturity. Right when I yelled, “Cut!” in my head, the picture faded to black. An unparalled story about the universality of friendship, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” doesn’t seem to age. That’s because the lessons it had to impart about empathy, love, friendship, and family define us as a species.
★★ / ★★★★
The Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) was a bubbly couple on “vacation” in their beloved big house. Sadly, they died via drowning when their car plunged into a river. A couple of months later, initially unaware that the former owners tragically passed away, the Deetz family (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder) moved into the Maitlands’ former home. After a few failed attempts to scare away the new family, the dead couple recruited the nasty Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), a self-proclaimed “bio-exorcist” with a talent for verbal double entendres. Directed by Tim Burton, “Beetlejuice” was quirky, fast-paced and had a solid grasp of dark and sometimes macabre humor. I enjoyed watching it as a kid because even though it had elements of horror, the scary scenes were light and the irony embedded in the images (such as a skeleton that obviously died from severe burns claimed that he wanted to quit smoking) overshadowed the grotesque. However, seeing the film from an adult’s perspective, it crossed the line between cute and cheesy too many times. I cringed at the scenes when the characters broke into songs. Once was enough because I understood that the characters were being possessed by ghosts but after several times it happened, the joke became stale. I felt like the material was desperate to entertain but it did not need to because it was at its best when the jokes flowed naturally. Small twists regarding our archetype of haunted houses elevated the picture. For instance, I loved the scene when Baldwin and Davis decided to scare the family by putting designer blankets over their heads. I would have expected their strategy to work because if I was the one that saw two figures with blankets over their heads in an empty hallway, I would have ran out the house in record time. Instead, Burton injected a small twist by having Ryder’s character be weird but friendly and open to paranormal happenings in order to show us that there were other dimensions to her gothic high school stereotype. There was one scene that I found touching which I thought could have been explored further. That is, when Ryder’s character decided that she wanted to die at such a young age. It was a shame the material shied away from the sadness in order to deliver more comedy that did not work half of the time. Nevertheless, I believe “Beetlejuice” is worth watching because it had a spectrum of humor that ranged from deadpan, slapstick to slightly disturbing.
★★ / ★★★★
Powerful ruler Odin (Anthony Hopkins) had two sons, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), with two very different personalities. Thor couldn’t wait to be king of Asgard. Wielding absolute power, in a symbol of a throne, was at the top of his priorities. Loki, on the other hand, was the quiet one. His actions were preceded by thorough thinking. However, there was brewing jealousy from his end. When Thor and his friends (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander) had unwisely broken a truce and caused a new war against the Frost Giants, Odin banished Thor to Earth to learn about humility and what it meant to be a great leader. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Thor” was unexpectedly comedic. I actually enjoyed the comedy, especially when sarcastic Darcy (Kat Dennings) was on screen, more than the action scenes themselves. Watching the action sequences, although supported by grand special and visual effects, failed to get me to become emotionally invested. I believe it had something to do with the fact that Thor’s evolution from a bellicose warrior to a more controlled leader wasn’t fully convincing. What did being romantically involved have to do with becoming an effective king? From what I gathered, he simply grew weak in the knees whenever he was next to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a fellow researcher of Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), one of the three people Thor met when he landed on Earth. And given that love was the answer to everything, I failed to understand why she would be attracted to him other than the fact that he had a nice set of abs and biceps. She was supposedly smart but her intelligence was thrown out the window the moment he took off his shirt. It was insulting. The director didn’t take enough time, other than one or two short scenes, to explore the relationship between the two lovers. Jane was supposed to be our conduit so that we would ultimately care about about the title character. As for Thor’s friends in Asgard, I wondered how they could stand him. Surely being a prince wasn’t enough to earn their loyalties. After leading them to a suicide mission and narrowly escaping, none of them questioned Thor’s ability to make smart decisions. Didn’t they have minds of their own? Instead of weighing the complexities of the somewhat cheesy story, I found myself focusing more on spotting other Avengers characters like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and references to the Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man.” What “Thor” lacked was the crucial journey designed to win us over. When he was on Earth, he didn’t learn what it meant to be human. He just developed a crush. It’s a bad sign when we find ourselves feeling nothing when Thor faced incredible danger.
★★ / ★★★★
Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) was a struggling writer in New York. He claimed he had ideas for his book but he was at a loss on how to put them together. He spent most of his days staring at the computer and accomplishing nothing. But his luck turned for the better when he ran into his ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth). Vernon, a former drug dealer, handed Eddie a pill called an NZT48 which allowed the person to use his brain in full capacity. Eddie finished his book in no time but that wasn’t enough. He realized he needed more of the magic pills so he could earn enough money and be set for life. “Limitless,” based on Alan Glynn’s novel “The Dark Fields,” was an entertaining fantasy for about half of its running time. It posed interesting questions about what one man would do if he was given the chance to become the smartest man on the planet. Naturally, finding a cure for diseases like AIDS or finding a solution for world hunger was not one of his priorities. Instead, he decided to borrow money from a thug (Andrew Howard) and forgot to pay him back, got involved with a cunning businessman (Robert De Niro) who was willing to go great lengths to remain at the top of the food chain, and win back the girl who dumped him when he was at his worst. Maybe he wasn’t as smart as the drug led him to believe. While the picture remained energetic throughout, I noticed that half-way through, I began to think about the technicalities involving the drug in question. For instance, what chemical compounds was it made of? Eddie recruited a scientist to make more of the pills and I got the impression that it was relatively simple to make. And given that the drug was able to bind to more receptors in the brain, how was the body able to compensate for the overdrive given that Eddie was consuming the pills like Nerds candy? In the least, I expected him to eat more because the brain needs glucose to function. I understood that it was supposed to be science fiction. However, I wouldn’t have focused on the technicalities if the filmmakers had chosen to stray from the formula they’ve grown accustomed to. Every time Eddie took the drug, the scenery looked happier and brighter. The soundtrack was more upbeat. The temporary happiness was countered by a mysterious man (Tomas Arana) who stalked Eddie. The same set-up was used about five or six times. It was tiresome, lazy, and, most importantly, it didn’t always move the story forward. Characters like the mysterious man and the murdered woman in the hotel were left on the sideline. A handful of questions were left unanswered. The film lightly tackled some of the repercussions of addiction but it ultimately glorified it. On one hand, I thought it was refreshing. Admittedly, when our protagonist was on a high, I laughed at the ridiculous things that happened to him. On the other hand, it felt like a slap in the face of real people struggling with drug addiction. It was supposed to be a cautionary tale but it lacked the gray areas of ethics and morality.
★★★ / ★★★★
The constantly bullied Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) was the son of an emotionally distant factory owner (Jonathan Hyde) who stumbled upon a magical board game called Jumanji. After a row with his father about being sent to boarding school, he rolled the dice and he was sucked into the game and lived in the jungle for 26 years. The new residents (Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce) of the former Parrish mansion then found the game and started playing, all the while unaware of the dangerous situations of which they were about to face. With the help of Alan and his crush (now 26 years older played by Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt), the four had to finish the game in order restore peace in their town. “Jumanji” was one of those films I watched so many times when I was a kid because I couldn’t get enough of its manic energy and wondrous sense of adventure. It had emotional resonance for me because the heart of the picture was the bond between the father and the son and at the time my dad was in America while my mom, brother and I were in the Philippines. Every time I saw the movie, I thought about my dad and how much I missed him. I identified with Dunst’s character–how imaginative she was and how she had to take care of her brother. I guess it helped that Pierce looked somewhat like my brother with his curly hair and wisecracks. One of the elements I found to be most effective in the film was its increasing amount of danger every time a character rolled the dice. The board game started off with giant African bats and only became more impressive from there. I found my eyes being fixated on the screen in suspense just in case something would suddenly pop out from nowhere. To balance the excitement and suspense, the picture also had a great sense of humor. I loved the small details like a rhinoceros being barely able to keep up during the stampede, Hyde also playing the villainous Van Pelt whose goal was to kill Alan (talk about father-son issues), all the looting that happened in stores when the town was in absolute chaos, and even the dated CGI (those creepy monkeys!) was all part of the fun. It didn’t take itself too seriously but it didn’t dumb down the material for its audiences so it became a solid popcorn entertainment. The film could have been stronger if it had more scenes between Alan when he was a kid and his father. There was a real pain and sadness in their strained relationship. The revelations that happened much later would have been more moving and bittersweet. For a movie being older than 15 years, “Jumanji,” based on the novel by Chris Van Allsburg and directed by Joe Johnston, is still fresh and better than most kid-friendly adventure movies out there today.