Tag: hugh jackman

Missing Link


Missing Link (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Laika’s latest outing “Missing Link” has nearly all the elements to make a wonderful adventure film for the whole family. Technically, it is a marvel. As a whole, however, the picture is a disappointment because it fails to grab the viewers on an emotional, gut level. It is strange because the story’s theme is belongingness. We follow two outcasts—an explorer and a mythical beast who are strangers initially—who travel across the globe with the goal of finding a place or group of likeminded individuals who will accept them for who they are. The story’s trajectory is familiar and so the details that compose of that path must be special in order for the work to stand out from its contemporaries—animated film or otherwise.

I enjoyed the film for its seemingly insignificant details. Notice when a character is recalling either a painful or cherished memory, the listener, human or non-human, reacts—a small smile, for instance, that forms suddenly from a neutral expression or how one’s head tilts at a precise moment of surprise or concern which confirms that he or she is indeed interested in what is being shared. These animated figures are made to embody the body language of actual people and so it does not at all require effort to relate to the characters’ personalities, motivations, purpose, or hopes for the future.

More generic animated movies are more concerned about delivering kaleidoscopic colors and busy action. While the film, written and directed by Chris Butler, delivers on those fronts—perhaps most impressive a scene where our protagonists are being hunted by a bounty hunter aboard a ship that undergoes various acrobatics due to a storm—colors and action almost always have clear context behind them. Sure, there are silly pun-filled jokes, but remove such one-liners altogether and meat remains on screen. In other words, the filmmakers are not simply interested in providing sensory, shallow entertainment. It enjoys getting us to think or consider once a while and that is invaluable.

The voice work by Hugh Jackman, as the British explorer Sir Lionel Frost who specializes in providing proof of mythical creatures’ existence, and Zach Galifianakis, as a Sasquatch capable of speaking English despite living in isolation out in the wilderness, is top-notch. In the middle of the movie, I became convinced that the two must have provided their lines in the same room, facing each other. Emotions behind the words command force, jokes land more often than not—which requires precise delivery especially when the point is to underline culture clash, and a convincing sense of camaraderie gets stronger as the work moves forward. If the voice actors actually recorded at different times, I would be even more impressed.

But the work did not move me emotionally—at least not on the level the screenwriter intended to move the viewer. I think it is due to a character I found to be completely unnecessary. Ms. Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), Sir Frost’s romantic interest, appears to be around only to deliver sassy comments and explain or highlight the life lessons that Sir Frost and Mr. Link (the Sasquatch) are supposed to be learning about themselves. By vocalizing the insights that should naturally come about throughout the duo’s journey, it cheapens the material. On this level, it assumes that viewers—especially children—are lacking self-awareness, a critical miscalculation that leaves a sour lasting impression.

The Greatest Showman


The Greatest Showman (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Viewers expecting a thorough and accurate presentation of P.T. Barnum’s (Hugh Jackman) personal life and business career are certain to be dissatisfied by “The Greatest Showman,” based on the screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, since it is more concerned about delivering showstopping musical numbers than old-fashioned storytelling. Here is a film for fans of modern musicals: it makes the audience feel good, it moves quickly, and it has just enough willingness to move the audience toward a more emotional territory without necessarily enveloping them in subtlety and nuance. It is a project to be enjoyed on the spot, not to be thought about or pined over afterwards. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

And so the picture must be evaluated through the scope of a modern musical. It surprised me because it has more than three good songs. Better yet: these songs do not always come from the same character singing about the same subject but only using different words. Standouts include “A Million Dreams,” “The Other Side,” “Never Enough,” “This is Me,” and “Rewrite the Stars”—already composing half of the soundtrack. Better still—each song is supported by elegant visuals, whether it be sheets being blown by the wind toward a certain direction which matches that of how a woman’s dress falls just so or how a singer’s body keeps still but her graceful limbs deliver a spectrum of emotions. The film offers no shortage of musical and visual styles.

Had the filmmakers been more brazen with the kind of work they wish to deliver, it would have been wiser to drop the typical trappings involving the subject’s home life as his career soars, for example. On this level, it offers no originality. I quite disliked how Charity, Barnum’s wife, is written because there is barely any dimension to her identity and personality. Michelle Williams portrays the highly supportive spouse and she does what she can with the role. But one looks at her face and immediately recognizes she is not being challenged. Here is a performer who can deliver any emotion, oftentimes several emotions at once, across any genre… but the character is written without any fire or excitement.

The plot involves the showman hiring people who happen to have physical oddities. The theme is supposed to be a celebration of differences, specifically those living along the fringes of society, either living an invisible lifestyle or visibly shamed for being born a certain way. I found it curious then that halfway through, the so-called freaks are nearly forgotten. Certainly they appear during shows and at times we see them backstage saying a line or two, but we rarely get a sense of who they really are outside of their eccentricities.

For instance, Lettie, the Bearded Lady, played by Keala Settle, commands such an intriguing (and amusing) presence but the screenplay fails to delve into some of her past. What makes her interesting as a person other than her facial hair? What makes her such a jovial person despite her struggles? Instead, we are provided a more accessible subject: a romance between Phillip (Zac Efron) and Anne (Zendaya), how interracial relationships are shamed in the past. But one gets the impression that the various social disapprovals Anne and Phillip endure do not hold a candle against the level of hated and violence that interracial couples during that era had undergone.

It goes to show that smart execution and great energy can propel otherwise relatively average premises into solid crowdpleasers. “The Greatest Showman,” directed by Michael Gracey, belongs in this category and pulling off such a feat, despite the handful of aforementioned elements working against it, should be worn as a badge of honor.

Eddie the Eagle


Eddie the Eagle (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

Dexter Fletcher’s “Eddie the Eagle,” about the first British ski-jumper who represented Great Britain during the 1988 Winter Olympics, is a feel-good biopic, certainly able to offer more than a handful enjoyable moments due to its enthusiastic lead performance, but one that is ultimately forgettable. The screenplay by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton fails to explore deeply enough into the mind and heart of the highly determined twenty-two-year-old Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) and so his failures and victories oftentimes come across superficial.

Perhaps the approach of not digging too deeply is a conscious choice. Maybe the goal is to tell Edwards’ story without the typical razzle-dazzle of ace biopics but tell it as simply and directly as possible. But an argument can be made that exactly because the story is not about winning medals but about a person who has always dreamed of becoming an Olympian, the filmmakers should have strived to make their work stand out.

Eddie is a highly relatable character because all his life just about everyone he knew at one point tried to convince him, explicitly and implicitly, to settle for a life that is ordinary. A potentially interesting character is Terry (Keith Allen), Eddie’s father, who tells his son that he should drop his dreams, learn to be practical, train to become a plasterer. We wonder why this is Terry’s attitude toward his only son but the material never answers our questions. As a result, during Terry’s change of heart at the latter end of the picture, the evolution comes across as forced and artificial. The sentimentality is cringe-worthy.

Even the story of Eddie’s coach, former ski-jumper Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), is undercooked and formulaic. The fallout between Bronson and his former coach, played by Christopher Walken, is quite uninteresting and whenever it becomes the focal point of the picture for a time, the momentum is slowed almost to a halt. Too many gaps of information are not filled in and we never quite see their entire story come together. Instead, Bronson is seen drinking a lot of alcohol to show he has become a failure. This is formulaic. There is no refreshing angle in terms of how Bronson’s past connects to his current coaching duty.

Always a joy to watch, however, is Egerton who fills the screen with overwhelming gusto. I wished he had reeled in a bit more when it comes to delivering exaggerated facial expressions—to his credit, the Olympian he is portraying does have such ticks—because there are instances when real emotions are overshadowed by such a depiction. Still, Egerton proves one scene after another that he knows how to perform and keep his character fresh even though the screenplay struggles at times to come up with novel elements to keep us thoroughly engaged.

“Eddie the Eagle” is worth seeing at least once for Egerton’s performance and the source material’s uplifting message, hence the marginal recommendation, even though there is nothing particularly memorable about the work. At one point in the film, there is a discussion about being willing to go all the way, to take necessary risks to attain a goal. Otherwise, why even bother trying. Maybe the filmmakers should have taken a bit of that advice in order to have made a stronger picture that undeniably makes its own mark.

Logan


Logan (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

An argument can be made that “Logan,” directed by James Mangold, is not just for fans of the previous “X-Men” and “Wolverine” movies. The plot does not revolve around attempting to save the planet from destruction in the hands of Mutants or non-Mutants nor does it center upon fighting for the future of those with special abilities. It is not about finding one’s identity outside of one’s Mutant abilities either. Instead, the picture is about aging and mortality. Thus, its target audience skews toward a later age group, which makes sense because viewers who are likely to find meaning and establish an emotional bond with the film are those who have grown older alongside the aforementioned series, especially fans of Hugh Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine. If this project is truly Jackman’s final turn as Logan, it is a strong exit because it stands out from the movies that came before.

There is an enveloping late ‘70s minimalist vibe to the project, fascinating because the story takes place in 2029. There is a whole lot of yellow dirt, western films playing on television, focus on unpolished areas of towns. But upon closer inspection, futuristic elements can be found in the background. Ostentatious special and visual effects are kept at a bare minimum which creates a gritty and natural feel. It is essentially a raw chase picture where Logan, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), and a mysterious girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) make a handful of stops along the way, but the journey serving as a giant metaphor toward our impermanence. There just so happens to be action sequences placed in between.

The decision to amplify and show the violence straight-on is a fresh take on the genre. Although Tim Miller’s “Deadpool” employs violence as a source of humor from time to time, this work utilizes violence to underline the idea of maiming and killing others, whether it the hands of a Mutant or non-Mutant, being a brutal thing. Eventually, around the halfway point, I caught myself not wanting to see any more metal claws being shoved through someone’s skull or a person’s throat being slashed clean. This artistic decision provides more gravity to an already layered and textured material.

Perhaps least intriguing is its portrayal of villains. Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant) and his leading errand boy Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) do not get enough scenes, or richly-written scenes, to show their motivations. We learn only how monstrous they are through a video flashback. Outside of this recorded video, when the antagonists come face-to-face with Wolverine, there is a noticeable lack of intrigue. I wanted to have a chance measure Dr. Rice’s cunningness and intelligence and to determine Pierce’s personal motivation. Even the company they work for remains a mystery.

“Logan,” based on the screenplay by Scott Frank, James Mangold, and Michael Green, serves both as strong entertainment and as an insightful exploration of how it might be like to notice one’s physical and mental deterioration. During the final third of the picture, well before the expected final battle, I felt as though the story of the remaining X-men was complete. Here is a movie that underscores a distinction between closure and an ending.

X-Men: Days of Future Past


X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Since the development of the Sentinel program, spearheaded by Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage), humans with special powers, collectively known as Mutants, have been hunted and eradicated. But the Sentinels, non-metallic machines that can quickly adapt to their environment, have gone haywire throughout the years: Instead of killing only Mutants, they somehow gained the ability to detect non-Mutant humans who are capable of having children with special mutations on the X chromosome.

This had lead to the planet being reduced to an apocalyptic wasteland and it is up to Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to the 1970s and convince former partners, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), to team up and prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Dr. Trask—the very action that pushed the Sentinel program to pass.

Despite the first “X-Men” live-action film having been released almost fifteen years ago, it really is quite a feat that its sequels and spin-offs, which peaked in quality during “X2,” both, including this installment, having been directed by Bryan Singer, remain relatively fresh even though the franchise is not the most consistent. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is, in a handful of ways, a return to form—it offers solid action entertainment, jokes and references to previous installments that are actually funny but not distracting, and, by the end, it hints at the raw potential of future sequels. The final scene rewards those who have seen the entire series. I will say only this: I enjoyed how it plays with time travel and acknowledging the gigantic, if not maddening, miscalculations of previous entries. Yes, I am referring to you, “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

Not allowing every Mutant to become the center of attention is a smart move. We get only a glimpse or a few seconds with once familiar faces like Rogue (Anna Paquin), Havok (Lucas Till), and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and they are not given a lot to do. Instead, the writer, Simon Kinberg, makes the right decision by focusing on Wolverine, the eyes in which we see the story through, and the challenges of getting the young Professor Xavier and Magneto to come to terms with each other and their own personal demons. These are men with a lot of anger, a lot of conviction, a lot of power—watching McAvoy and Fassbender navigate their characters through an archipelago of emotions is like watching a good old-fashioned drama. Take away their superpowers and they remain interesting.

Less effective are scenes with Mystique. Although Lawrence is more than capable of delivering the requisite emotions to play a conflicted character, the speeches between Professor X and Mystique—as well as Magneto and Mystique to an extent—as to why killing Dr. Trask will not solve anything become a bore eventually. Instead of being moved by the push and pull of Mystique’s morality, I found the whole charade somewhat disingenuous. Instead of being invested in the conflict, I noticed the syrupy attributes of the lines. Clearly, the writer is very smart and creative when it comes to how action sequences and overarching plots are going to play out. However, getting to the core of the emotions and allowing us to care in a deep way is an Achilles’ heel.

A character that does not get enough screen time is a teenager named Peter (Evan Peters), later known as Quicksilver, a Mutant with very special talents—so special that Professor X, Wolverine, and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) ask for his help to break into the Pentagon. The sheer brilliance of the scene at the Pentagon must be seen to be believed. I had not experienced so much excitement and glee since Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike’s duel in “X2.” To me, it is the essence of what makes “X-Men” so great: Its content need not be “dark” to be considered great—it just needs to be smart and cheeky.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” provides what one expects of a superhero film: astonishing special and visual effects, eye-opening action sequences, as well as characters worth getting to know and rooting for. However, it fails to surpass my expectations because it does not get the build-up of emotions—which lead to key realizations—exactly right. Alas, perhaps less discerning viewers will be more forgiving for this.

Prisoners


Prisoners (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

The Dovers and the Birchs hold a little get-together over Thanksgiving, but what should have been a peaceful and enjoyable holiday turns into a nightmare when the two young girls from each family go missing. The prime suspect is a teenager named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who is later discovered to have an IQ of a ten-year-old, because the girls are seen climbing on his RV a few hours prior to their disappearance. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) interviews the suspect but since no viable information can be extracted out of him, he is released after two days. This does not sit well with Keller (Hugh Jackman). He is convinced that Alex is involved somehow and if the police are unable to do their job, he is more than happy to take action.

“Prisoners,” written by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Denis Villeneuve, has the right texture and atmosphere to tell a grim dramatic thriller, but it is bogged down by an overlong running time—clocking in at around two hours and thirty minutes—and it has very few reasons to do so. Instead of being a lean and mean piece of work, we are made to sit through repetitive scenes involving torture. As a result, the middle part sags and drags. It might have been more effective if there was an extended torture scene that took place in one room and allowed us to absorb the horror of watching someone get beaten until he was black and blue, broken bones and all—at once.

Some might argue that one hundred and fifty minutes is justified to tell the story because it allows us to feel the exhaustion and frustration of the characters. I am not convinced. If this were a more efficient picture with smarts and gusto, it would have found alternative avenues to communicate the psychological breakdown of its main players sans jumping back and forth to Keller forcing Alex to give up information that he may or may not have.

For example, I would not have minded if the material if had spent more time exploring the other parents’ states of mind. The matriarchs (Viola Davis, Maria Bello) are underused. Davis is given more to do by allowing Nancy to react to certain discoveries, but Bello’s character, Grace, does nothing but cry. Franklin (Terrence Howard), Nancy’s husband, would have been a great supporting foil for Keller but his role is greatly diminished about halfway through. I felt the screenplay struggling to juggle its characters—all deserving of complexity and attention given its fascinating subject matter.

Although Jackman has the more ostentatious role as an increasingly angry father (and he is very good at it), it is Gyllenhaal that shines in my eyes. I enjoyed watching the little ticks the actor has chosen to incorporate to his performance. Detective Loki looks very tired, almost unhappy, but I believed it when he is said to have solved every case he has ever been assigned. The man may take a while to connect the dots but he is very determined and willing to look into all logical possibilities of the case. Because Keller and Loki have opposite temperaments, their consistent clashing is interesting and I wondered to what degree their relationship will change over the course of the film.

We get many remakes of foreign films these days—a significant percentage of them not very impressive. However, I am most interested to see how this story can be interpreted by a French, German, Iranian, or Japanese cast and director. I want to see an interpretation that is less in-your-face and more contemplative. Here, the majority of the emotions are handled with an exclamation point. Subtlety is not the picture’s strength despite a memorable final shot.

Movie 43


Movie 43 (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

When word spreads like wildfire that a movie is terrible, sometimes it is a challenge to keep an open mind and evaluate it as is–without taking word-of-mouth into consideration. This is why “Movie 43,” composed of shorts by various writers and directors, is somewhat of a surprise. I came in expecting I would hate it, but it turns out to be just another mediocre effort. While that is not a ringing endorsement, I enjoyed four–maybe five–out of about thirteen scenarios on screen, from Naomi Watts kissing her on-screen son on the lips to an animated gay cat who is caught by Elizabeth Banks masturbating to Josh Duhamel’s shirtless pictures.

The best segment is “Victory’s Glory,” written by Rocky Russo and Jeremy Sosenko, which focuses on group of black high school basketball players in the late ’50s who are worried about facing white players on the court. Coach Jackson (Terrence Howard) gives them a pep talk, assuring them that they will win simply because they are black. His argument relies on African-American stereotypes: tall, long-limbed, athletic. The comedy works because it goes all the way in poking fun of the racism that, for better or worse, has defined America as a nation. Propelled by Rusty Cundieff’s energetic direction and Howard’s performance, the penultimate short clip is a blast.

Another section that is worth watching is called “Beezel,” written and directed by James Gunn, named after an animated cat owned by Anson (Duhamel), a man who plans to begin a new chapter with his girlfriend (Banks). I enjoyed its creative leap of using an animated cat and not a trained animal who does tricks for the camera. By doing so, the feline–in under five minutes–is given color, personality, and clear motivation. Like “Victory’s Glory,” it starts with what should be a one-note joke but upends expectations by willing to experiment without veering completely off-course.

Many of the others do not fare as well. “The Catch,” directed by Peter Farrelly, does exactly the opposite. The joke involves a woman (Kate Winslet) going on a blind date with a handsome man (Hugh Jackman) who happens to have a set of testicles hanging off his neck. It should be funny. After all, many of us are so used to watching Winslet in serious roles. When she does comedy, it is difficult to read her and I like that she always has a level of danger in her eyes. However, the writers end up relying on one joke–everybody, except for Winslet’s character, failing to notice the man’s deformity–and hoping that the scrotum is disgusting enough to hide the sheer laziness of the material.

Most repulsive, boring, and pointless is director James Duffy’s “Super Hero Speed Dating.” A suggestion for the writer: if you’re going to put Batman (Jason Sudeikis), Robin (Justin Long), Superman (Bobby Cannavale), Wonder Woman (Leslie Bibb) in the same clip, make sure the script is written smart and worthy of the pop culture icons you are undertaking. Otherwise, like this segment, it ends up being like a cheaply produced dress up with no script, no effort, and no laughter. It is easily the most disposable of the bunch.

Lastly, “Movie 43” is not helped by the sequence of its segments. While the overarching storyline involving a screenwriter (Dennis Quaid) and a movie executive (Greg Kinnear) is as lifeless as a rock, the middle portion is almost unbearable, for the most part a landfill of uninspired ideas that will not pass as remotely funny even in an alternate universe, still there are a few standouts that do work.

The Wolverine


The Wolverine (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

At this point you might be thinking, “Oh, great. Another ‘Wolverine’ movie.” But retract those adamantium claws. “The Wolverine,” directed by James Mangold, is an installment worth seeing because it strives to show us something new: a Wolverine that, for the majority of the picture, is not indestructible. This haunted mutant gets exactly what he has been yearning for: a chance to become human again–and all the fragility that comes with it.

Logan (Hugh Jackman), living in isolation on the snowy mountains of Canada, gets a visit from a Japanese red-haired woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who says that she has been given the task to find and take him to a man he saved in World War II, Yashida, formerly a soldier and now the leader of a tech giant in Tokyo (Ken Yamamura and Hal Yamanouchi, respectively). Yashida is dying and this might be Logan’s final opportunity to say goodbye to an old friend. During their meeting, the old man claims that he has a gift that is equal to the life Logan had given him so many years ago: mortality.

For once, I cared about Wolverine as he is shown running toward a fray. While many of his enemies know how to defend themselves with martial arts and various weapons, the battlefield is even in that, like the men he faces, Wolverine is capable of sustaining wounds for a long period of time. He bleeds. He stumbles. He slows down because of severe pain. At one point, we see him get stitches because bullets remain inside his body and gashes cease to close on their own.

The picture makes use of its Japanese setting. I enjoyed watching our protagonist and Mariko (Tao Okamoto), Yashida’s beloved granddaughter and Logan’s potential romantic interest, running all over the streets and inside establishments of Tokyo in an attempt to escape from the vicious Yakuza. This extended chase sequence culminates atop a bullet train where the most dangerous enemy is not a man wielding a weapon but sturdy objects that just happen to be in the way. I believe the best action scenes are the ones that demand so much attention that I end up not knowing what I would do if I were put in the same situation.

Urban areas tend to be places of physical confrontation while rural places is in accordance with contemplation. There are a number of conversations that touch upon topics like bravery, honor, and sacrifice–staples of the Japanese culture. This is where the pacing begins to feel a little slow, but they are necessary for us to understand why it is so important for Logan to consider himself as human again, not just in the way he feels inside but also in what can hurt him physically. He wants the entire package. I did, however, have a hard time buying completely in Okamoto and Jackman’s chemistry. Their characters’ friendship is enough to carry the picture and anything more feels forced.

For a while, it is difficult to pinpoint the main villain because several characters are thrown at us right when Logan arrives in Japan’s capital. However, the screenplay by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank gives each character enough time to capture our interest even though they are not necessarily multi-dimensional. I must say, however, that the one actor with whom I cannot help but look at even if she is simply standing on one side of the frame is Svetlana Khodchenkova, playing a biochemist in charge of Yashida’s cancer treatments. I wished the scientist had been given more depth and screen time.

Jackman is in the middle of this sci-fi action-adventure and he, as usual, holds his own. The sheer physicality required to play a convincing Wolverine is not easy achieve. And without the ability modulate hard and soft facial expressions while maintaining that there is constantly something going in the character’s head is equally challenging–if not more. Jackman does it exceedingly well and I hope he will choose to play Wolverine for years to come.

Rise of the Guardians


Rise of the Guardians (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Pitch Black (voiced by Jude Law), also known as the Boogeyman, decides that it is time for children to start believing in him again. The last time his power had reached an unfathomable zenith was during the Dark Ages when everyone lived in fear. His resurgence, however, involves destroying children’s hopes and dreams which in turn fuel the powers of North (Alec Baldwin), Tooth (Isla Fisher), Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and the Sandman. If children stop believing in them, the Guardians will cease to exist. To help them fight Pitch, the mysterious Man in the Moon appoints a new Guardian: Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the spirit of winter who hopes to recall the memory of his past life.

Based on the book series by William Joyce, “Rise of the Guardians” offers plenty of material to be enjoyed by both children and adults. Although the characters are based on fictional figures but are nonetheless a part of our cultures, the material is more child-like than childish, infusing a sense of wonder and genuine emotions in its story rather than resting on running evanescent and shallow gags.

Part of the fun is that our archetypes of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy are turned inside out. Because the way they look are so different from what we normally expect, the screenplay is one step ahead in engaging us. For example, we do not expect Santa Claus to have tattoos or the Easter Bunny to be a six-footer, tough-talking, boomerang-wielding warrior.

Their personalities, too, are turned upside down. Not all of them are immediately likable. Not all of them even get the chance to speak. I was impressed that the Sandman does not get a chance to utter a word and yet he is given so much personality. Throughout the course of the film, we learn to like some of the Guardians a little more since our first impression.

I found it difficult to find fault with its style of animation. Since it is has plenty of action sequences, the texture of the movements feel swift even if a character only walks from Point A to Point B. This fluidity allows the film to truly shine, for instance, when the Guardians use their superpowers to stop Pitch from executing his master plan.

But the picture is not only strong during the hyperkinetic action. The facial expressions of the characters perfectly match the emotions behind the voices. In terms of voice acting, Law excels in exuding real menace. The way Pitch slithers and goes on about his devious intentions correspond to the sliminess in Law’s voiceover.

There is a little boy named Jamie (Dakota Goyo) who is intent on holding onto the belief that the Guardians are real. Though cute, this is the weakest strand because the script at times verges on sentimentality. Perhaps the intention is to make the human element as simple as possible so that it will be more accessible to children. Either way, it did not work for me completely. The material is more enjoyable when it focuses on the dynamics among the Guardians and the clever little jokes aimed at them or each other.

Directed by Peter Ramsey, despite its sugary shortcomings, “Rise of the Guardians” is visually arresting and offers a story worth telling. Almost everything about it is delightful. It is difficult to imagine a child not dropping what he or she is doing and paying attention to it because there is so much energy behind the battles as well as during times when characters are required to speak.

Les Misérables


Misérables, Les (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Having done imprisonment and hard labor for years, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) decides to break his parole and disposes of his old identity. With a new life comes a personal vow to lead an honest life and helping others along the way. Eight years later, 1823, Valjean, under a pseudonym, has become the mayor of Paris and a factory owner. A worker, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), has been fired by the manager after she is discovered to have been sending money to an illegitimate daughter. Eventually, the desperate woman is driven to prostitution. While on her deathbed due to possible extreme exhaustion combined with famine, guilt-ridden Valjean promises to take care of her child.

Based on Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s stage musical, “Les Misérables” might have been a more immersing picture if it had been divided into two films. It has the scope of three or four movies and cramming the material into a two-and-a-half hour film means sacrificing depth of events and characterization. These two are very necessary if we are to plunge completely into a world of the past that is both full of blazing passion and dark realities. Without splendid work from three of the four central performances, the whole project might have collapsed under its own ambitions.

The picture proves expert in executing individual scenes. When it is only the camera and an actor in a frame, it captures the feeling of privacy beautifully. Most memorable is Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” so absent of vanity that although I did not fully buy into her character’s desperation due to glaring lack of details about Fantine, I was nonetheless very moved. Close-ups are utilized well, highlighting the most minuscule ticks on the performer’s face. I liked the way Hathaway is willing to be ugly–not superficially like having grime all over her or sporting a Mia Farrow haircut à la “Rosemary’s Baby”–by contorting her face in awkward angles in order to summon the right emotions and hitting the right notes. It is too bad that she is not in front of the camera the entire time.

Jackman is very capable as the conflicted protagonist. Like Hathaway, his talent is best showcased during the more personal scenes. He gets the most screen time, but at times I wondered about the other characters like Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Fantine’s grown-up daughter, and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), one of the young people who is adamant about creating a revolution. Cosette is introduced and disappears for a big chunk of time so the romance between she and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), Enjolras’ partner in the cause, is not entirely believable even though the actors look attractive together. Because of the lack of depth, Cosette comes off soft and beautiful but vapid, a critical misstep considering that she is a symbol of Valjean’s redemption. As Marius, Redmayne is very good in balancing the subtleties between two kinds of passion: the girl he loves and his duty to do what he thinks is right for his country. Since Marius is given more time to develop, he escapes being superficial. At least we understand half of the couple.

Though some may consider Russell Crowe’s voice to be the weakest link in the musical, I say it is the occasional mismanagement of the camera. This is a problem when there are five or six people in a frame. Tom Hooper, the director, is generous when it comes to going for the close-ups–which does not always work. When the technique is used in a group shot, I felt the camera inching toward a face. Sometimes Hooper flings the camera at them. It took me out of the experience. In such cases, it might have been better if the camera had allowed us to absorb the celebration or whatever is going on from afar.

I was won over by the ambition of “Les Misérables” even though about half of the songs are not my cup of tea. What saddens me is that movies like the last chapter of “The Twilight Saga” gets split in two when it is absolutely not necessary because the story is so thin. In here, you can really feel that there is so much more to discover about the characters and their experiences, but a lot of the details are sacrificed. This creates a feeling of an incomplete film due to the noticeable gaps in the screenplay.

The Prestige


The Prestige (2006)
★★ / ★★★★

Robert (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred (Christian Bale) were gifted magicians. They used to work together up until Alfred accidentally caused the death of Robert’s wife during a performance. Her death triggered Robert’s obsession to have a better career than Alfred, a difficult feat because his rival could effortlessly think outside the box, a natural magician, although he lacked a bit of drama in order to establish a solid rising action and truly engage the audience during his performances. As the two attempted to create more complex tricks, everything else in their lives began to fall apart. Alfred’s wife (Rebecca Hall) became unhappy with their marriage and Robert’s lover (Scarlett Johansson) began to feel used when Robert asked her to spy on his former colleague. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “The Prestige” was a curious film for me because no matter how many times I watched it, I failed to see why it’s loved by practically everyone I know. I admired the performances. Bale was wonderful as a family man who was completely invested in his craft. Every time he spoke about magic and being on stage, I felt passion in his eyes and the subtle intensity of the varying intonations in his voice. Jackman was equally great as a man who was never satisfied. I felt sad for his character because despite his many achievements, what he truly wanted was an impossibility–for his wife to live again. The dark hunger consumed him and he became unable to question his motives or if vengeance was even worth it. The story was interesting because its core was about how being a magician defined a soul. Its labyrinthine storytelling, jumping between past and present, kept my attention because it was like solving a puzzle. However, the picture committed something I found very distasteful. That is, when Robert’s greatest trick, with the help of a scientist named Tesla (David Bowie), was finally revealed, it was borderline science fiction. Imagine a magician who, using a white cloth, made a pigeon disappear right before our eyes. We wait in heavy anticipation for him to bring back the pigeon. Once the “Tada!” moment came, what laid before us was not a pigeon. What appeared was a blue mouse or something not similar to a pigeon at all. The magic trick had turned into a joke. That was how I felt when all cards were laid on the table. Some critical pieces made no sense. I felt cheated because I had the impression that the magic trick was supposed to be grounded in reality. It wasn’t and, I must admit, I felt angry for spending the time in trying to figure out the secret. “The Prestige” wore out its welcome but was kept afloat by its morally complex characters and their willingness to destroy each other for the sake of nothing.

Real Steel


Real Steel (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) was addicted to robot gambling which was inopportune, in the least, because he was neck-deep in debt. After his robot was demolished by a raging bull, he was informed that his former girlfriend had passed away and his son, Max (Dakota Goyo), needed an official guardian. Charlie was to appear in court to pick up the boy, but Max’ aunt, Debra (Hope Davis), who married a rich man, wanted to adopt him. For a hundred thousand dollars, the gambler made a deal, unbeknownst to Max and Debra, with the husband: Max was to spend time with his father over the summer but he was to be returned in Debra’s care after their trip to Italy. Written by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, and Jeremy Leven, “Real Steel” managed to be quite involving as it explored the connection between father and son through robot fighting. The picture was smart in first establishing Charlie as our protagonist on the path to self-destruction. He was a good guy, but he often relied on instincts instead of measured calculation to make a quick buck. On the outside, he seemed to do it for the money. He was a former boxer who saw himself as a failure in that field. I looked at him and considered that perhaps he gambled for the rush. Maybe watching his robot fight was like being in the ring himself. As his machines were eradicated, so were his personal connections. Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), his somewhat girlfriend and the daughter of the man who taught him to box, really needed the money that Charlie burrowed to pay for the gym she managed. This made him so desperate, he didn’t even think twice to sell his son. Charlie and Max were quite opposite but the same in important ways. Meeting for the first time, the son suspected that he’d been sold and asked his father if he, in fact, was. Charlie told the boy the truth but Max, plucky and sarcastic, digested the information with dignity and dealt with it on his own. When presented by bad news, neither shriveled; both saw it as a chance to start anew and to prove everybody wrong. That was the reason why I wanted Charlie and Max to succeed as robot gamblers and as father and son. Notice that I haven’t even discussed the robots. That’s because they were secondary to the human drama that propelled the movie forward, yet necessary as a catharsis for these characters. Max stumbled upon a robot named Atom in a junkyard. It was a sparring robot, designed to take a lot of hits but not actually hit back as effectively. With the help of Charlie’s robots, Ambush and Noisy Boy, that had been destroyed, Max was able to extract necessary pieces from them to make Atom stronger in both offense and defense. Eventually, they won enough fights to gain popularity and be invited to World Robot Boxing Tournament in which they had to face Zeus, the undefeated robot champion. Based on “Steel,” a short story by Richard Matheson, “Real Steel,” directed by Shawn Levy, was ultimately a story of redemption. Our decision to emotionally invest in the characters, if one so chooses, was worthwhile because it wasn’t just about metals clanging against each other like in Michael Bay’s egregious “Transformers” movies. There was something real at stake. That is, a father finding his son and recognizing that he was good enough even though he wasn’t perfect.

X2


X2 (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a teleporter, was sent to kill the president for the sake of peace between humans and Mutants, William Stryker (Brian Cox) blamed Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the mutants he harbored in his School for Gifted Youngsters. Unbeknownst to the president, Stryker, a military scientist, had devoted his career in solving the “mutant problem” and wasn’t above genocide to reach his goals.”X2: X-Men United,” directed by Bryan Singer,” was a confident sequel which was reflected from its energetic opening scene. There was a certain flow in which the camera moved, the way it smoothly slithered across and between hallways, sometimes in elegant slow motion, as it followed Nightcrawler’s impressive disappearing acts. It was a stark contrast from its predecessor’s modest approach; it immediately gave us something new. Much of the film’s goal was to expand storylines it already introduced. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) learned more about his past and his adamantium claws, Cyclops (James Marsden) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) actually acted like a real couple, Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) continued their struggle in not having a physical relationship, and Magneto (Ian McKellen), with the help of a very resourceful Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), finally escaped his plastic prison. But what impressed me most was in the way the filmmakers took opposing sides, Professor X and Magneto, and made them work together in such a way that didn’t feel forced. In fact, we relished them occupying the same space because of the awkward tension. How do you work with someone who tried to kill you or one of your friends just some time before? They didn’t have to necessarily like each other but without one another, they wouldn’t be able to achieve their goals. Various levels of symbiosis were explored which ranged from mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism. I admired that the action sequences always had purpose but never afraid to go over-the-top. For instance, there was a gruesome scene in which Magneto sensed one of the guards having too much iron in his blood. I watched in wide-eyed anticipation (or horror) as Magneto extracted the metal from the man’s body. It looked painful and there was no way the guard would have survived the extreme experience. Some scenes served no purpose other than to show off the Mutants’ powers. Take Iceman and a couple of shots in which he froze a bottle of pop and a cup of coffee by simply touching or blowing on them. But the key was heart being always ahead of the cool factor. His visit to his home and the way he had to inform his family that he was a Mutant reflected a coming out experience. He wasn’t one of the lucky ones. “X2” met and exceeded its grand ambitions.

X-Men


X-Men (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

Evolution is a slow process but every once in a while, and for unknown reasons, it jumps forward. The next step in evolution for humans was for select few to develop unique abilities, which typically began in puberty, that ranged from varying psychic powers to consciously deconstructing one’s molecular structure. This created fear and hatred between normal humans and Mutants. There was a legislation, if passed, would allow the government to legally keep a record of those with abilities. Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellen), also called Magneto for his ability to control metals and create magnetic fields, found the idea outrageous and was willing to kill, along with his henchmen (Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn), those without tolerance. It reminded him of his time in the concentration camps, the way the Jewish was marked like cattle. On the other hand, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), also known as Professor X, created a school for Mutants so they would learn to control their abilities. He believed that over time, Mutants and humans would be able to co-exist. Directed by Bryan Singer, what I loved most about “X-Men” was it had a modest feel to it. I imagine that might have been difficult to accomplish because there were so many interesting characters worth putting under the spotlight. By giving us a relatively simple story and a modicum of, though never obvious, character development, we could easily navigate ourselves into their world and the conflicts that impacted their existence. It didn’t take the easy route of putting the Mutants’ abilities ahead of what they stood for and their place in the brewing war between humans and Mutants or, quite possibly, Professor X’s group versus Magneto’s. It started out small with Rogue (Anna Paquin) not understanding her powers. It was a smart decision because most Mutants’ abilities came to a surprise to them. From there, everything fell naturally into place as she met amnesiac Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Professor X’s instructors like Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Storm (Halle Berry). She even found potential romance in Bobby (Shawn Ashmore), a boy who could generate ice at whim. In spite of being a modern and sleek science fiction film on the outside, it had elements of classic coming-of-age elements which paved the way for us to become emotionally invested in the characters. By highlighting who they were and what they stood for, it underlined the prejudice from both the humans and the Mutants. “X-Men,” a fast-paced action-adventure with enough humor on the side especially the friendly banters between Wolverine and Cyclops, understood the importance of having a solid foundation before dealing with more ambitious storylines.