Saturday, August 01, 2015

'Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation' Feels Like a Perfect 007 Film

In my opinion, this fifth Mission: Impossible installment is the franchise’s best yet.  Seriously, this franchise ages as gracefully as its star, Tom Cruise (can you believe that he’s already in his 50’s!) – both only get better with age.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation sees the return of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF colleagues Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames; the only character that appeared in all five films aside from Ethan Hunt) as they go against “The Syndicate”, a secret terrorist organization made up of rogue highly-trained international spooks presumed to be dead by their governments.  Teaming up with Ethan and his team is the enigmatic British agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), whose allegiance is wrapped in ambiguity.

Growing up, I’ve developed a deep fondness for the 007 films – yes, even the silly ones – that I’m restricted by sentimentality to have Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation as my most favorite spy movie ever.  However, the greatest compliment I can give this movie is it’s what I imagine an ideal 007 movie should be.  Really.  The plot, the opening sequence, the tech, the villain, the tone, the world-hopping, etc. – Rogue Nation has the vibes of a 007 movie.  Heck, Ilsa Faust seemed like the greatest Bond girl ever (more on her later).  If Rogue Nation is a 007 movie, it could even have been my most favorite one ever.

Rogue Nation has flawlessly melded the exciting elements of a “spy movie as an action film” and the intriguing elements of “spy movie as an espionage drama” to create a perfect spy movie experience.  It’s equally action-packed and cerebral; its dose of humor isn’t out of place, works very well, and doesn’t cheapen the tension.  The plot may seem as unlikely as that of a 007 movie, but it’s not too far-fetched to be dismissed as something stupidly unrealistic.  The narrative is enthralling from start to finish; I found no dull moment.  And I find (MILD SPOILERS) the way Ethan Hunt won against the main antagonist extremely, fist-pumping-ly satisfying.

The stunts and action sequences are insanely stunning.  Intense hand-to-hand combats, shootouts, parkour, car chases, etc. – this movie has them all.  The notable scene from the trailers in which Ethan Hunt is hanging outside a flying plane was truly just the tip of the iceberg.

All of the main cast members – Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin, and Sean Harris – deliver great performances.  They really put a lot of personality into their characters – making all these characters fascinating.

But the most fascinating character in this movie is definitely Ilsa Faust.  Among this year’s movie female characters, she’s only next to Mad Max’s Imperator Furiosa in greatness.  There are plenty of badass female spy characters (greatest of which is, of course, Black Widow) out there already, but Faust is definitely among the top of them.  I love the fact that she’s not an ultra-competent fighter who overwhelms opponents with ease.  She kicks butts, but she also gets hit.  This vulnerability adds additional depth to the character (and also reminds me of Buffy Summers, my most favorite female character in fiction) as much as her struggles as a spook assigned with an impossible mission.  The Mission: Impossible franchise tend to replace female characters with each new movie, but I hope I’ll see more of Faust in future installments.

Spin-off, anyone?

Prior to Rogue Nation, I’ve already been enjoying the Mission: Impossible movies very much.  But it’s only with Rogue Nation that I could really say that I’ve finally become an invested fan of this franchise.  If I will redo my list for top 10 fictional spooks, Ethan Hunt will definitely be in it now.

I’m now excitedly looking forward to the next one (I admit that I was a bit indifferent for new installments before).  As long as Tom Cruise can remain dedicated to this franchise and succeeding directors will be consistent in keeping everything fresh and thrilling, I would love to see this go to Mission: Impossible 10 (and, again, I hope we’ll  get to see more of Ilsa Faust).                                                        

Thursday, July 30, 2015

'Sound! Euphonium' Is a Charming Concert Band Drama

Sound! Euphonium (also known as Hibike! Euphonium) is a 13-episode anime series that details the drama and development behind Kitauji High School’s concert band.  There are plenty of characters, but the story focuses on freshman Kumiko Oumae.  She has been playing the euphonium for seven years; however, she’s not necessarily masterful of playing the instrument nor dedicated to it.  But through the progress of the story, she gains new realizations and perspective on what it really means to belong and compete in a concert band.

At the start of the story, the Kitauji concert band is in subpar condition and has a lot of issues, much the dismay of Kumiko and the other freshmen members.  Some senior members – particularly the officers – have their hearts in the right places.  However, the culture of the club is that of laziness, apathy, and lack of focus.  Fortunately for the club, the new music teacher and club adviser, Noboru Taki, knows what buttons to push in order to motivate the members into improving themselves.  Through his strict but courteous and patient guidance, he pushes the Kitauji concert band into aiming for the Nationals competition.

Sound! Euphonium doesn’t necessarily have a lot of originality to offer.  But despite its familiar themes and tropes, it’s still pretty amiable.  The story gives a believable and engaging depiction of the emotions and conflicts happening among members of a high school concert band as they struggle towards the top.  Moreover, its fine animation helps keeping the storytelling appealing.

Having only 13 episodes makes Sound! Euphonium easy to binge-watch.  But, on the other hand, the small amount of total episodes also means that development for both its plot and its many characters is limited.  In fact, the prime fault I find in this anime is that, in my opinion, there wasn’t enough time to properly flesh out its many characters – hence, I never grew caring for any of its characters.

Another slight fault I find is that the musical pieces featured are not that interesting.  With the exception of Orpheus in the Underworld’s can-can sequence (which reminded me of how awesome that piece is) in the first episode, I wasn’t particularly drawn to any of the music (unlike with Kids on the Slope which made me immersed on its jazz music).  Still, the musical details and choices are good.  And I love how the music is beautifully synchronized with well-done animation.

As for the romance – since that’s to be expected from a high school story – well, it’s actually minimal.  Some stuff on high school “puppy love” and rejection have been touched upon, but it was pretty nigh irrelevant.  It’s also worth noting that there’s some seemingly Yuri tension (or I’m just being too malicious) between Kumiko and fellow freshman, Reina Kousaka.

Sound! Euphonium is not for everyone, but those who enjoy lovely anime visuals, music, ensembles, and slice-of-life high school drama are sure to like this.  Personally, this anime series isn’t something I’m particularly excited about, but it’s charming enough to warrant a recommendation from me (whatever that’s worth).

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Bruce Timm’s ‘Justice League: Gods and Monsters’ Is a Terrific Reinvention of the Justice League

Justice League: Gods and Monsters is the third of the three DC direct-to-video animated features scheduled for 2015.  On the other hand, the number of Marvel direct-to-video animated features released this year is… zip!  Seriously, I grow more disappointed with each DC animated movie being released without any Marvel response.  I understand that Marvel is already making serious money in the big screen that they can consider the direct-to-video market close to irrelevant, and they don’t need to compete with DC here.  But as a fan, I really, really wish Marvel would imitate DC in annually producing three or more animated movies a year.   Maybe they can continue exploring the worlds of their epic short-live animated TV series Spectacular Spider-Man and Avengers: Earth Mightiest Heroes through a couple of animated features.  Heck, Marvel can even create a shared universe for their animated movies.

Sorry, I got off topic.  Just needed to express that.  Anyway, back to Justice League: Gods and Monsters

The movie is basically an “Elseworld” tale.  It is set in an alternate universe in which Amanda Waller is President of the United States; Lex Luthor is a super-scientist confined to a high-tech, levitating “wheel chair” (that will remind you of Prof. X); Superman is named Hernan Guerra, the son of General Zod instead of Jor-el, and was found and raised by a Mexican immigrant couple instead of the Kents; Batman is a vampire scientist named Kirk Langstrom (in the regular DC universe, Langstrom is the Batman villain Man-Bat); Wonder Woman is named Bekka, a New God outcast and the widow of Orion; and unique takes on some familiar DC scientists.  This universe’s version of the DC Trinity – Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman – forms this universe’s the Justice League.  They work closely with the US government, and do “fight evil and save the world” stuff, but their methods closely resembles that of The Elite (Read Action Comics’ “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” storyline or watch the DCAOU movie Superman vs. the Elite) rather than that of traditional Justice League.  They are violent, ruthless, and have no qualms on going for the overkill.  They even muse about taking over the world someday in order to better protect it.  Hence, it’s no surprise that a good part of the public and media fears and hates them.

A mystery engulfs most of the central plot of the movie.  Shapeshifting killer robots are assassinating several important scientists and making it appear that these were done by the Justice League.  Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have to figure out what is the connection between the targeted scientists, why they are being framed for the murders, and who is the real mastermind behind them; as well as reflect if there’s a need to change their methods.

Coming into this movie, I admit that I was prepared to hate it.  The trailers for it never appealed to me, and I was never sold on the premise.  I thought that the legendary Bruce Timm – creator of the awesome and beloved DC “Timmverse” – was making a mistake for making this kind of film.  But, watching it finally, I found it surprisingly terrific.  In fact, among all of DC’s animated movies this year – this and JL: Throne of Atlantis and Batman vs. Robin – this is what I like the most.  Its utter Elsworld-ness abundantly adds intrigued and charm, not only to its world-building, but to its overall storytelling.  The plot isn’t flawless, but it’s nearly so, and it’s generally well-told and well-written.  Its Justice League roster, though small in size, has great dynamic.  The voice acting is compelling.  And I love the fact that the very appealing “Timmverse”-style of animation was used.

I’m happy that I was proven wrong for doubting Bruce Timm.  Justice League: Gods and Monsters proves to be another engaging and entertaining DC animated movie.  I love its world, characters, and premise, and I want to see more of them.  So I’m happy that a ten-episode season 2 of Justice League: Gods and Monsters Chronicles is set for 2016 (the first season, consisting of three very short episodes, was released earlier this year in Machinima’s Youtube channel to promote the movie).  But I want more than that.  I’m hoping for movie sequels or a web TV series.  Frankly, I prefer seeing more of Bruce Timm’s Gods and Monsters universe being explored in future projects (this or a series of Injustice: Gods Among Us animated films) than having the continuation of the New 52-style Justice League series of films.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

'Scooby Doo! And KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery' Feels Like an Episode of 'The New Scooby Doo Movies'

Scooby Doo is an icon, and beloved through generations.  A consistent stream of modern cartoons as well as re-runs of old ones ensure that.  But the surprise to me is that producers apparently find KISS still relevant or appealing enough to warrant a crossover with Scooby Doo.  Seriously, is KISS really the kind of thing you want to introduce to a younger audience?

Anyway, in the direct-to-video animated movie Scooby Doo! and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery, the Scooby Gang goes to visit a KISS theme park on which the hard rock band is set to have a Halloween concert.  At arrival, they learn that the theme park is under attack by the mysterious Crimson Witch, and this put the concert at risk of being cancelled.  The Scooby Gang has to team up with KISS in order to get to the bottom of the mystery and save the day.

KISS members Starchild, Demon, Spaceman, and Catman are basically real-life cartoon characters anyway, so the transition to cartoons isn’t that big of a leap.  However, they are depicted to have superpowers in this movie.  It’s not really that absurd of a concept to someone who is familiar with the supernatural representation of KISS in the comics, and just treats this incarnation of the band as based on the comics’ version rather than the real-life band.

KISS’ songs are understandably featured in this movie.  But it’s not that inappropriate as it seems to be.  If you know KISS, you would know that despite their outlandish and hardcore appearances and theatrics, their music per se is really not that heavy nor has that dark vibes.  Their music is tamer than what their image implies.  And though I’m not a fan of KISS’ music, I don’t hate it either.  So I tolerated its presence in the movie.

The movie is as dumb, ridiculous, and weird as you would expect.  But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  As what it’s trying to be – a good form of kids’ entertainment – it hits its mark.  The voice work is good and the animation has appeal.  There is kids-level fun in it.

Scooby Doo used to have a show called The New Scooby Doo Movies wherein real-life celebrities or popular animated characters would guest star.  And I was reminded of it while watching this.  If Scooby Doo! and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery had been an episode of that show, it would have been a pretty solid one.  Of course, if it was up to me, I would prefer seeing the Scooby Gang team up with Batman & Robin, Josie & the Pussycats, or the Addams Family (my most favorite The New Scooby Doo Movies guest stars) again instead of KISS.         

Friday, July 24, 2015

'The Death Of "Superman Lives": What Happened?' Makes Me Wish 'Superman Lives' Was Made

Back in the mid to late 90’s, a Superman movie starring Nicolas Cage and directed by Tim Burton was undergoing development.  “Superman Lives” is what would have been the title.  It was scheduled for a 1998 release date – and then 1999 – but Warner Bros. decided to pull the plug while ongoing production.  Forward years later into the Internet Age, Superman Lives somewhat gained an “urban legend” status, and the general perception about it is that it would have been a godawful film.  The major points raised were that Tim Burton’s knack for weirdness would have bastardized the Superman mythos, and that Nicolas Cage was a giant miscast, that he would have been like the “George Clooney as Batman” version of Superman, only worse.  It also didn’t help that the Nicolas Cage photo that was being circulated was this…
…which was taken during the earliest of the development process.  Hence, Superman Lives is enveloped with notoriety in the collective Internet consciousness.

But it was also enveloped in intrigue.  There was genuine curiosity for the story behind it and how it could have turned out.  Through the years, details have surfaced in the Internet that provided us glimpses of what might have been, but there has never really been a comprehensive, easily accessible source of the backstory of Superman Lives.

Until now.  And that is Jon Schnepp’s The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?.

In this documentary, Schnepp was able to interview several key people behind Superman Lives – producer Jon Peters; director Tim Burton; scriptwriters Kevin Smith, Wesley Strick, and Dan Gilroy; and other contributors to its production – which, accompanied by concept arts and archival footage, gave us a fascinating picture on how the movie would have looked like during its different stages of production.  And from what I got from it, Superman Lives would have been awesomely convoluted and different.

The story was going to be a loose adaptation of the epic 1992 comic book storyline “The Death of Superman.”  And it was going to have a couple of insane elements.  Here are some of them:
  • Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and Doomsday were all going to be in it. 
  • Lex Luthor and Brainiac would combine into one entity. 
  • Kevin Smith’s early draft – which he himself admitted was fan fiction-y in quality – had Batman giving a stirring speech during Superman’s interment. 
  • Kal-El would have had a Kryptonian A.I. companion growing up, which would serve as his “teddy bear”, confidant, and mentor at different stages of his life, which would then serve as Kal-El’s armor while he is healing. 
  • Jon Peters insisted that a giant spider should be in it, and Smith complied by writing the “Thanagarian Snare Beast” into the script. 
  • Peters apparently also made a horribly stupid suggestion of not having Superman fly in the movie (though this was probably overruled later).

But though the documentary effectively details how much Superman Lives would have departed from the Superman mythology and how bizarre it would have been, Schnepp also made sure that the documentary would also draw attention on some of the cool things that the movie had, as well as raised some points on how it wouldn’t necessarily suck.  There are also parts that kind of criticize fans who tend to collectively rage and prematurely judge a movie whenever they get hold of a piece of information with little or no context at all attached to it.

Personally, I was apathetic or impartial whether Superman Lives should have been made or not.  But after watching this documentary – as the title of this article have already stated – I now do wish that Superman Lives was made back in the 90’s.  Of course, I wouldn’t want to have such movie made at the present time.  But back in 1999?  That would have been great.  It’s going to be a weird and different take on Superman, but I felt in my bones that it would have its moments of entertainment regardless of how the quality turned out to be.  At worst, it could have been the Superman version of Batman and Robin.  And being at this point of time, I wouldn’t mind its awfulness because it would have already been a thing of the past.  We could have made fun of it and go enjoy hating it as we do with Batman and Robin.

On the other hand, it could have been epic.  Tim Burton’s take on the Batman mythos was weird, but it worked really well.  Fans hated the casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman, but he turned out to be awesome, and is now considered by many (including yours truly) as the greatest live-action portrayal of Batman so far.

And just like Keaton, Cage might have turned out to be unexpectedly awesome, too.  Yes, in present time, he is considered by many as someone that has fallen from grace after starring in too many godawful films (guy needs the money).  But remember that back in the 90’s, Cage was a hot property.  He had won an Oscar in 1995.  And he starred in several beloved 90’s action films like Con Air, The Rock, and Face Off.  Personally, I’m a fan of Nicolas Cage as an actor.  He has genuine talent and could project a lot of acting depth when doing good movies.  And on bad movies, he hams it up so incredibly well (e.g. Vampire’s Kiss, The Wicker Man remake) that his presence would ensure an entertaining time nonetheless.  So whether he would have made a terrific or terrible Superman, it’s almost a guarantee that he would have done an entertaining job.

In the end, we can only really speculate on how Superman Lives would have been.  Thankfully, we now have The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?.  Not only did it give us more fuel for our speculations, but watching it is also the closest thing we’ll have on experiencing Superman Lives – and this documentary is quite an enjoyable experience.  

Monday, July 20, 2015

Yep, 'Kill Me, Heal Me' Indeed Killed DID Better than 'Hyde, Jekyll, Me'

When I wrote about Hyde, Jekyll, Me last month, I mentioned about its curious case with another network’s drama series, Kill Me, Heal Me, which not only aired at the same timeslot as Hyde, Jekyll, Me, but also has the same premise – a chaebol (South Korean term for family-controlled conglomerate) man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) or multiple personality disorder because of a traumatic experience in his childhood.  I also mentioned that according to some reviews that I read about it, the latter drama series is actually better, which got me curious, and I hinted, though didn’t commit, that I might give it a look.

Well, I did give it a look.  In fact, I watched the entire series.  It did take a while before KMHM (I will be abbreviating Kill Me, Heal Me from now on) grew on me.  Maybe because I’ve just recently watched HJM (will be abbreviating Hyde, Jekyll, Me, too) and the similarities were hindrances in immediately providing me a fresh experience.  It was only around episode 7 – the part wherein the reason behind the series’ title was revealed – that I found myself completely enjoying it.  At that point, I began to feel that those reviews that said Kill Me, Heal Me is better than Hyde, Jekyll, Me were turning out to be right.  KMHM explores its themes more deeply, its plot holds up much more satisfactorily, and it’s just smarter overall.  The writing is smarter.  And the characters behave smarter – or, at least, know how to think much better than the characters of HJM (yep, it can’t be helped; I will be comparing the two several times throughout this article).

The plot of KMHM is centered on Cha Do-hyun, a member of the Seong Jin chaebol who, at the start of the story, is enjoying a productive academic life in the States.  However, an incident triggers his DID to manifest, the cause of which, as later revealed in the story, was a childhood trauma.  For the next 11 years, he refuses to go home to South Korea so that he can find treatment for his condition while hiding this fact from the Seong Jin family, who are pretty keen about reputation.  However, circumstance forces Do-hyun to go back to Korea, and on his return, he meets Oh Ri-jin, a first year psychiatry resident.  Oh Ri-jin eventually becomes Do-hyun’s personal psychiatrist, secretly treating him for his DID.  As the story progresses, the two learn the secrets of the past, tread the path to healing, and fall in love.

To be honest, I find nothing electrifying about the romance.  But it doesn’t matter.  The story is much more important anyway.  And KMHM truly has a complex and well-plotted story.  It’s full of intrigues and layered with great twists.  The well-developed, well-timed reveals of the story’s mysteries blew me away.  Details that are seemingly small and irrelevant are actually important or intertwine with something important.  Everything fits like a puzzle in the end.

Both HJM actor Hyun Bin and KMHM actor Ji Sung did an impressive job in playing different personalities distinctively.  However, though Hyun Bin was great in HJM, he was limited to two personalities to play.  Ji Sung, on the other hand, has seven personalities to play, hence, he has more room to show a more versatile performance.  It’s not as awesome as Tatiana Maslany’s performance in Orphan Black, but it’s really enjoyable to watch.

Meanwhile, Hwang Jung-eum as Oh Ri-jin is… well, she’s okay, I guess.  But she hams it up a lot when doing comedy.  I was almost turned off by how ridiculous her overacting is.  She makes up for it by being having a couple of fun and heartfelt character moments.

The six personalities that fragmented out of Cha Do-hyun
The most important thing that I find KMHM doing much better is its use of DID as a central plot device.  I’m not saying that KMHM is more scientifically accurate – it does have its share of absurdity – but it has used DID much better than how HJM used it in making an interesting story.  Moreover, not only does KMHM feature more personalities than HJM, but each personality has a sensible background on how he or she came to being.  These personalities are fleshed out properly.

Moreover, Oh Ri-jin also connected deeply with all personalities instead of focusing with one.  What I hated most about HJM is the female lead character’s one-sided focus of her love to a split personality, lack of understanding that the personalities are basically one, and lack of impact on the resolution of the male lead character’s DID.  I have none of these problems with Ri-jin.  She really was a significant element in the resolution of the DID problem, and it’s not only because she is a psychiatrist and a love interest, but there’s a great twist on why she is an important aspect of the recovery process.

Of course, it does have to rely on some typical tropes of Koreanovelas (or drama in general) – most particularly, the “small world coincidences” – for the narrative to work.  And there are also times when the narrative stumble into moments of gratuity and dumbness.  But despite some missteps, KMHM consistently maintains its general trajectory of smart storytelling going toward a smart conclusion.  Despite the complexity of the plot – and the narrative’s need to juggle romance, mystery, suspense, and comedy – KMHM succeeds overall in telling a unique, entertaining, and thoughtful story.

KMHM doesn’t match the nigh-perfectness (in my eyes) of I Hear Your Voice.  But I’m really all praise about this series.  Except for the music.  The music sucks (except the ska-style music used during comedic moments, which I like).  But aside from this, I have nothing to complain.  I can say that I thoroughly liked KMHM.

So there you go.  At this point, I have already watched four complete Koreanovelas, and I have another series to check out next – Healers (will review this as soon as I’m finished with it.  I’m currently a third through episode one).  Plus, a label for Koreanovelas is now available for this blog.  So, I guess, it’s time – July 20, 2015.  10 p.m. (those who already watched KMHM will get this reference) – to officially declare that I’m now into Koreanovelas, too.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Cool Plot Twist Can't Save 'Insurgent' from Being as Mediocre as Expected

Insurgent (its full, more boring name is The Divergent Series: Insurgent) is the sequel to last year’s Divergent, a movie about a dystopian society set in post-apocalyptic Chicago wherein people are divided into five factions depending on their inherent traits and personalities.  To be honest, I’m already tired of movie adaptations of YA novels that are mere attempts to replicate the success of Twilight (being the worst kind) or The Hunger Games (being the best kind), and I actually intended to skip watching this movie.  But I recently found myself having nothing better to do or watch, and since I saw the first Divergent movie, the nerd completist in me felt obligated to watch this second installment.

The first Divergent movie had a few entertaining moments, and there was something interesting about its premise.  However, it’s such a forgettable and unexciting story overall that I have literally forgotten what the story of Divergent was.  I have flashes of memories of some scenes and a basic grasp of the general plot, but I seriously can’t remember large chunks of what happened in the first movie.  Heck, I even forgot the faces of the characters out of Shailene Woodley, Maggie Q, and Kate Winslet.  That’s why I was surprised to see Miles Teller in this movie – “Oh, he was that d-bag guy?”  There’s no way I would re-watch it for the sake of prepping for Insurgent.  It’s definitely going to be a tedious chore, if ever.  Hence, it took me a while to catch the plot transition of Divergent to Insurgent.

As to be expected, Insurgent is full of boring clichés and dumb conveniences that I found it so hard to get invested in the movie.  It basically has the same tone and personality – or lack thereof – as the previous movie.  There are moments when it felt it was going into something interesting but failed to follow it up.  “Hey, that looks cool.  I wonder where thi – Oh wait.  It’s over?  That’s it?”

I also found it so hard to root for the main character, Tris.  She’s pretty bland.  When she cuts her hair at the beginning of the movie without any sensible explanation given aside from “I wanted something different”, I knew that I won’t ever like this character.  Moreover, though a fine actress, Shailene Woodley has no appeal.  Everyone is saying that she is the next Jennifer Lawrence, but I’ve always find nothing of that whenever I see her on screen.

I probably would have liked it more if the story focused on Maggie Q (I’m obviously a fan) or on Miles Teller.  Teller’s character, like the rest of them, never made an impact in me the first movie (again, I even forget Teller was in it).  To be fair, I had only taken notice of Miles Teller for the first time in Whiplash, so he’s a more familiar actor to me now than when I watched Divergent.  Still, I kind of like his character, Peter Hayes; he definitely has the best characterization and character development among the lot, and Miles Teller played Hayes’ d-bag, self-centered persona to winning perfection.  Too bad Miles Teller and Maggie Q are just third-tier characters in this movie.  

Also worth mentioning: Though the characters they portrayed are one-dimensional, Naomi Watts and Kate Winslet, delivered good performances.  But that is to be expected from an Oscar nominee and an Oscar winner.

The climax and big twist in the end are actually pretty cool.  But I was worn out at that point, and had long given up on the movie.  Wading through an hour and a half of bad material to get to 15 minutes or so of good stuff isn’t worth it.

Insurgent is a mediocre, barely watchable movie at best.  The only good thing I can say about it is that, due to its emphatic ending, I will no longer have the difficulty of connecting the story of this move to next year’s installment, Allegiant Part 1 – ugh, another gratuitous two-parter franchise finale – that is, of course, if I’m ever led to watch it.

Friday, July 17, 2015

'Ant-Man' Gives the Marvel Cinematic Universe a Tiny Hero with Giant Contributions

Stepping down from the epic scale of its previous two offerings – Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron – Marvel’s newest movie is Ant-Man, the studio’s first solo superhero origin movie since 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger.  However, Ant-Man’s heist element, sense of fun, captivating cast performances, and dynamic storytelling elevates it from being merely a typical superhero origin movie.  And as far as being a superhero origin movie is concerned, Ant-Man is Marvel’s best since Iron Man.

Ant-Man introduces us to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a former engineer and burglar, who has just been recently released from prison.  He is recruited by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man, to succeed him as well as aid him in stopping his former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), from his desire to perfect and use the same shrinking technology of Ant-Man for his own evil purposes.  As Pym and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) train him in becoming a proper Ant-Man, Scott embraces the opportunity for redemption and rises up to the challenge of being a hero.

I enjoyed Ant-Man a lot.  It has a lot of clever ideas, and carries them out rather well.  It has an ample amount of funny moments.  The execution and shots of its actions scenes are beautiful.  Its connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s major components work really, really well; they turn out to be sensible instead of just being needless servicing.  The adorability, heart, and depth that it attempts to generate resonate with sincerity and appeal.  And the excitement I got from its mid-credits scene was the greatest I’ve ever had from a Marvel mid-/post-credits scene since Tony Stark showed up in The Incredible Hulk.

I love the cast of this movie.  Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, and Evangeline Lilly are phenomenal.  It’s apparent from Rudd’s performance that he is living in the moment and loves every second of being a superhero in the MCU.  He is so into his character.  The charisma and likability of Paul Rudd as Scott Lang are comparable to that of Robert Downey, Jr.’s first outing as Tony Stark in Iron Man.  (I really like his portrayal as Scott Lang/Ant-Man that I now think the character should move up in my list for size-manipulators in fiction.)

Michael Douglas played the heck out of Hank Pym; every scene he’s in has been thoroughly compelling.  And Ant-Man is the movie that made an Evangeline Lilly fan out of me.  Can’t wait to see her as (SPOILERS?) the MCU’s version of the Wasp.  Moreover, the trio of Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian , and Tip “T.I.” Harris – playing the members of Lang’s heist team – who I initially thought out of place and unnecessary to the movie, have surprisingly enjoyable presence (especially Peña).

Ant-Man does have its share of bumps.  But considering the fact that it has to deal with the problem of having initial director Edgar Wright leaving mid-production (due to creative differences with Marvel), this movie not turning to be worse is a fine achievement.  Replacement director Peyton Reed did a fantastic job in molding the project into the delightful finished product it has become.

It’s intriguing to wonder how the movie could have turned out in the hands of Wright.  But it’s not as if this movie is devoid of Edgar Wright.  His fingerprints are still apparent in this movie.

Ant-Man is definitely one of this year’s best.  I think, at this point, it’s sitting within the top 4.  Not only that, but Ant-Man could probably be within my top 6 most favorite Marvel Studios films of all time.  That’s how great I think this movie is.

"The Rogue Cut" Is An Enjoyable But Unessential Supplement to 'X-Men: Days of Future Past'

I like director’s cut/extended versions of movies.  Yes, half of the time, the director’s cut merely pads the movie and doesn’t add substance.  However, the other half of the time, a director’s cut allows a movie to make more sense, have more thrills, and have more depth.  The best example of an extended version doing some considerable enhancement was on the Lord of the Rings, and I personally like the alternate ending version of I Am Legend more than the original one.   So when an alternate, extended version of X-Men: Days of Future Past was announced to be released this year, I was intrigued.  X-Men: DOFP was one of 2014’s best movies, for not only was it a surprisingly good film by itself, but it also pulled off a successful continuity clean-up to revitalize the franchise moving forward.  I was hoping that this extended version would further elevate this movie.

X-Men: DOFP’s extended edition is named “The Rogue Cut.”  It’s called such for a subplot centered on a rescue mission for Rogue takes much of the additional extra minutes.  Some of the additional scenes are minor clips on the future X-Men team and a subplot on Beast and Mystique.  Unfortunately, though these provide interesting moments to explore the characters, they don’t contribute much in improving the movie.  And despite being called “The Rogue Cut”, the character Rogue doesn’t really do much in it.  Seriously, I long for a more comics-accurate, badass Rogue adaptation in film.  Anna Paquin’s version has never done justice to the character.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching “The Rogue Cut.”  DOFP is essentially a good film already, so watching “The Rogue Cut” is basically just re-watching the movie again.  The additional subplots and action scenes are superfluous, but I still welcome them – they don’t improve the movie much, but they don’t diminish it as well.  Watching the “The Rogue Cut” isn’t really an imperative, but it’s just something necessary to do as a fan.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

'Ted 2' Reminds Me That I'm Not Really a Fan of Seth McFarlane's Humor

Though I occasionally watched Family Guy and find Stewie Griffen an interesting character, I’ve never been a fan of the show nor of Seth McFarlane.  Yes, some of McFarlane’s jokes were funny.  But in every five jokes delivered, only one made me burst out laughing, one induces just a chuckle, two I find distasteful, and one was quite unfunny.  However, I enjoyed the first Ted movie.  I considered it as the most hilarious movie of 2012.  There’s something about Seth McFarlane’s brand of humor embodied in an adorable stuffed teddy bear that worked very, very well.  So Ted 2 is one of the 2015 movies I was looking forward to.  I was curious if McFarlane can pull it off again.

In Ted 2, John Bennet (Mark Wahlberg) has been divorced for six months from Lori, whom he had married at the end of the first movie.  On the other hand, Ted (Seth McFarlane) marries his girlfriend Tami-Lyn (Jessica Barth) and they decide to have a baby.  However, a serious complication arises when the couple attempts to adopt and it is revealed that it won’t be possible since, in the eyes of the law, Ted is not a person but mere property.  Pissed, Ted and John seek the help of rookie lawyer Samantha Leslie Jackson (Amanda Seyfried) to establish Ted’s personhood on court.

I find the first Ted movie much funnier.  Ted 2’s comedy completely relied on being stupid, offensive, and disgusting.  To be fair, that was to be expected.  Still, the first Ted movie really has more clever comedic content, better comedic timing, and better comedic delivery overall.  Ted 2 just decided to go with the infamous McFarlane brand of humor without trying to be creative about it.

That said, there were still parts that made me laugh robustly.  The jokes that worked really worked well.  My most favorite scene was when John and Ted went to watch an improv comedy show and yelled out awesomely inappropriate suggestions.  That was a comedic masterwork.  However, most of the time it’s all stoner and crude humor, or jokes that I didn’t get, like that part with Liam Neeson and a Trix cereal.

Yep, Liam Neeson.  Sorry, if that’s a spoiler.  But this movie has a surprising number of cameos.  Liam Neeson is just one of them.  Seriously, there was a lot.  I guess many Hollywood people like Seth McFarlane that he got them to appear in this movie.

Another surprising detail in this movie was the decision to add musical numbers in this movie.  They felt okay at first, but as these songs progressed, they felt out of place in the end.

As for the story – well, I never really expect that this movie to be smart.  Still, the whole “Ted fighting for personhood” aspect actually gave the movie a chance to have some depth.  Unfortunately, the story failed to tap into this.  The resolution of the conflict was anti-climactic, the narrative was lazy, and the plot lacked common sense.

Ted 2’s only upgrade from the first movie is Amanda Seyfried, who is hands down better than Mila Kunis.  Aside from that, Ted 2 fails to top or even match its predecessor.  This simply shows that the first Ted movie is just a manifestation of McFarlane’s 1:4 odds of succeeding in comedy.