G.I. Joe: Retaliation

G. I. Joe: Retaliation PosterRating: ★★☆☆☆

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a no-brainer of a movie. If a supernatural force beyond understanding urged you to like “The Rise of Cobra”, then it is likely that you will enjoy the sequel just as much. Bless you. However, if you hated the 2009 film at least half as much as I did, then you should be smart enough to avoid its 2013 follow-up. Besides, I’m pretty sure that you’ve long decided on whether you’ll see this or not since it’s already been out for almost three weeks.

Sigh. I shouldn’t be writing this review. It’s almost 1 in the morning and I have to be at work in a few hours. (Damn it! I have to be at work in a few hours!) So what gives? You see, movies that are as preposterous as “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” are the most fun to review. And, dear reader, when a movie like this is released, I cannot resist. Roger Ebert specialized in reviewing movies that are dumb beyond belief. I write this in further dedication to his spectacular life.

For the 15th time, Channing Tatum reprises his role as Channing Tatum. He isn’t around for long through as he is quickly replaced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the film’s lead hero. The Rock (The Tooth Fairy) makes a better action star than Channing Tatum, which doesn’t really say much for The Rock, since Justin Timberlake and even Jay Leno would also make a better action star than Tatum. With over 20 movies in his resume, Tatum’s career highlight so far is playing a stripper in “Magic Mike”. Is it about time for the 32-year-old non-actor to take a long, honest look at himself?

Channing Tatum and Dwayne Johnson in G.I. Joe: Retaliation

The majority of the Joes are wiped out early on, leaving the fate of the world in the hands of Roadblock (The Rock), Flint, and Lady Jaye. The latter two Joes provide the film with its face value, especially Jaye. She is one of those sexy characters who can avoid all levels of suspicion by simply keeping her head down and her boobs up. We’re lucky she’s on our side. They are later joined by General Joe Colton, effortlessly played by Bruce Willis, probably because he doesn’t care. Colton supplies one of the two entertaining scenes in the film by touring us to his seemingly normal suburban home that has more firearms and ammunition than the entire Philippine Army.

One of the few returning cast members from the original film is Storm Shadow, the gravity-defying ninja with an awkward weakness. Storm Shadow’s first sequence establishes him to be an invincible warrior who can withstand almost all sorts of beatings. He suffers a major electrocution and an explosion big enough to blow up a McDonald’s. No worries. He walks it off like any other ninja would. Later, in the film’s climax, four or five box crates are pushed against him. He gets knocked down. Say what? Poor Storm Spirit. Two more box crates and he would’ve died.

Movies within the same category as “Retaliation” makes its living from advanced gadgets and weaponry. And while this sequel runs on action and adrenaline, its use of technology is utterly joyless and anticlimactic. Consider the sequence when Cobra is rescued from imprisonment. A cluster of robot fireflies is sent to the prison. Think about it. Millions and millions of dollars and hundreds and hundreds of hours must have been spent in the creation of such a complex device. I had high hopes for its capabilities, but what do the robots do the moment they reach the prison gates? They explode. Say what? Whatever happened to firing a rocket launcher? Is it me, or did the evil mastermind Cobra spent millions just to blow up a gate?

Cobra and Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe: Retaliation

The scene doesn’t even end there. Firefly, the villain played by Ray Stevenson, not the exploding robots, drives his motorcycle full speed towards the prison’s thick, maximum-security entrance. Seconds before Firefly collides with the wall, he dislodges himself from the motorcycle, causing the motorcycle to do some dislodging on its own. The vehicle, which turns out to be a model far advanced than what it appears to be, separates into about six different pieces. It strikes the wall at full force, and explodes. While I sat motionless and exhausted inside the theater, I imagined Michael Bay, sitting inside a different theater, watching the same movie, saying to himself: “Challenge Accepted”. Oh, dear.

As the extremely wealthy Cobra is released from his bondage, so does his master plan is revealed to us. Are you ready? Seven armed satellites have been positioned above seven countries. Each satellite holds a bomb. A push of a button can annihilate half of the human race! The Joes must act fast! To defeat Cobra and save mankind, Roadblock and his team must… but wait! How much money did Cobra allot for this project? Where did he build the seven satellites and seven bombs? Where did he get the manpower that made this all happen? When did he find the time to print Cobra Flags and Cobra Banners to display outside the White House? I don’t have the exact numbers, but I’m pretty sure that Cobra has the most expensive “Take over the World” budget in movie history. If Cobra just waited a couple more years and saved up, he could have just bought the world.

One last thing: how did those bomb-satellites reach the orbit without getting noticed? Did Cobra commence take off during NASA’s lunch break?

Roger Ebert. My Hero. In Memory.

Roger Ebert at the Movies

He really was my Hero. He delivered me from a lot of the dismal possibilities of an uncertain life: the tragedy of a wasted youth, the temptation to rebel, and the confused depression of having to face a future without a path. Everyone who knew him will share certain memories of his life – his reviews, his achievements, his passion, his complex relationship with the late Gene Siskel – but it is our personal memories of him that will prove to be the most enduring, the most significant.

My memories of Roger Joseph Ebert are one of my most prized possessions. His wisdom changed the way I identify people, his humor changed the way I carry my problems, and his values changed my perspective and priorities. He was my teacher, my supporter, and my correspondent, and during times of doubt and sadness, he was also my encourager, my counselor, and, above all, my friend.

And now he is gone.

A great light has just faded in my world, and I am in what feels to be, the darkest point of my life.

Roger Ebert: My Hero

It is unusual for someone to express this much sorrow for a film critic, but to categorize Roger as a simple “Film Critic” is to commit a crime against his memory. Yes, his inexorable passion for the movies permanently altered the essence and practice of film criticism itself, but it was his kindness, empathy, insight, compassion, humility, and invincible optimism that defines his humanity. If it was possible for me to give him my youth, he would be dancing to “Singin’ in the Rain” somewhere in Chicago right about now.

I first encountered Roger’s reviews when I was 16 years old (five years ago), which was the peak of my prayer life. I had been asking God for something that millions of other people are searching for: a direction. I was one of those aimless high school students who was too busy playing video games to pursue anything of real substance. I had already been in love with the movies at that point, but there was nothing more to it. I stumbled upon Roger’s work, and after a few months of endless reading, my dream was born. I kept reading and never looked back. God provided a direction for my journey by introducing Roger to me.

They say that God works in mysterious ways. Isn’t it mysterious that he intended for me to find a deep connection with a person who is two generations older than I am?

Roger Ebert

Long ago I decided that I wanted to become a film critic by profession. I still do. From the very beginning, I knew that it wasn’t a common profession and that it didn’t involve a lot of monetary rewards. I didn’t care. I still don’t. I found a passion that made me feel good about myself because there was an urgent importance to it. I have a stable job that has taken over a large portion of my life, but the fire of my dream remains burning. To abandon a dream because it doesn’t pay much is to betray the gift of your existence.

One of my lasting attributes is my extreme insecurity. I never enjoyed talking about myself, but you couldn’t shut me up whenever Roger was mentioned in a conversation. He is one of the few things that I am completely and unashamedly confident about. That I’m one of those people who was blessed enough to discover his razor-sharp, lightning-quick wit. That I’ve memorized his pans that has obliterated the reputation of countless bad movies that had it coming. That I’m part of a group of movie-lovers who understands that “a movie is not about what it’s about, but how it’s about it”.

I recited Roger’s words on command, and I would recite Roger’s words even if no one asked for it, and even if I know that they’ve heard me tell them before what I’m about to say. A lot of my friends know how much I admire him, but no one will ever understand how much he means to me. Whenever I feel left out on a particular movie, I could always count on Roger to either back me up or correct me. With Roger, it never really mattered if you agreed with him or not; his opinion may be worlds apart from your own, but you can find peace with his reviews knowing that he only intends to make you a smarter moviegoer.

Reflecting on these things, I somewhat feel hopelessly alone now that Roger’s no longer around.

Roger Ebert on Imperfections

Roger loved the movies more than anyone, and he was the absolute best at what he did. He transformed freedom of expression to an art, and no force in this world could make him compromise his work or surrender his passion. (Roger continued to write, tweet, host film festivals, and appear on television during the last decade of his life despite suffering from cancer.) When Roger wrote about the movies he loves, he transcended opinion writing and approached perfect poetry. When faced with the task of reviewing a bad movie, he was merciless in his condemnation. He did everything in his power to preserve the most profound of all the art forms by lifting the movies that shape it and burying the ones that shame it.

I consider it my duty to continue what he, for so long, fought for. Werner Herzog considers Roger to be the Soldier of the Cinema; he spent 46 years of his life paving a path for those who value the movies as much as he did. Roger left us with 15 books to his name, over 10,000 reviews from his website, and hundreds of other essays for us to read, analyze, breathe. We are well-equipped. All we have to do is march.

Roger’s Blog is one of the calming refuges of my messy life. I would leave comments on his entries in hope that he would one day reply. Guess what? On June 18, 2010, he replied. It was his 68th birthday. I told him about how much his writing gave me a hope, a dream, a skill, and, eventually, a job. Summarizing that lengthy comment on that blissful day, I gave him my eternal gratefulness and told him that he was my biggest Hero. I imagined his voice saying the words as I read his reply: “Anyone receptive to inspiration will find it somewhere.” Oh I was receptive all right. And boy did I find my inspiration. He’s gone now, but I’ll be thinking of him every day, just as I always have.

Thank God for Roger Ebert.

Thumbs Up from Roger Ebert

MOVIE JOURNAL: Oz the Great and Powerful and Jack the Giant Slayer

It’s that time of the year again where celebrities are restocking their Botox supply in preparation for Red Carpet Premiers. My prediction is that such displays of anesthetized beauty will be adequately mild in the following months, since neither a “Sex and the City” nor a “The Expendables” sequel will be released this year. Three cheers! And no more “Twilight” movies to piss on our brains! Thank the heavens! And! Say it ain’t so! The next Michael Bay movie won’t be in theaters until 2014! Hallelujah!

The season of Summer Movies is once again here, which is an event that belongs to Producers, a lot of which will be biting their nails all the way to their project’s release date. Jerry Bruckheimer won’t be one of them biters though. Just take a quick look at his track record.

With a net worth of $850 million, they guy clearly has everything all figured out. Bruckheimer reminds me of one of those wizards at horse races who always casts his cash on the horse that’ll end up making him rich. His horse for 2013 is Disney’s “The Lone Ranger” starring Johnny Depp, which has the aura of a “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, with trains as pirate ships, Tonto as Captain Jack Sparrow and Armie Hammer as Orlando Bloom.

While Kristen Stewart tries to find another job that only requires her to daydream and stare into vacant space, let’s take a brief look at the first two Summer Movies of the year: “Oz the Great and the Powerful” and “Jack the Giant Slayer”.

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful - Rating: ★★½☆☆

When circus magician Oscar Diggs emerges from the refuge of his hot-air balloon, his relief quickly turns into awe as the Land of Oz fills his sense of wonder. While younger audiences will marvel at the kingdom as much as Oscar, I couldn’t help but fear that the same tools that help build a shinier, zestier Oz would also be the cause of the film’s downfall.

2013’s Land of Oz looks like it’s within the same neighborhood as Avatar’s Pandora and Alice’s Wonderland. It’s bright and vivid, but it’s James Franco who gives life to the screen. Though marked as one of the most awful hosts in the history of the Oscars, he is a likeable actor, and he plays Oz with theatrical energy. Too bad he is weighed down by Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, and Michelle Williams, who are as terrible at being witches as much as James Franco is terrible at being an Oscar Host.

Most of the film’s joy is supplied by the returning elements from 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz”. (Good news for those who have seen Victor Fleming’s masterpiece, but what about the folks who are visiting the Land of Oz for the first time?) There is a satisfaction in simply seeing familiar things like the yellow brick road. And Emerald City. And Kansas! And the Muchkins! About the Muchkins though: What’s the point of having them in the film if you’re not gonna allow them to finish their thing?

“Oz the Great and Powerful” is not without the silly fun that represents director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man Trilogy), and the screenplay inserts enough references to tickle our memory, but the story fades away in the film’s final sequences, where Oz becomes just another stage for special effects. How very disappointing. Though a solid hour swings between cute and amusing, this 200 million dollar prequel is still a couple colors short of a rainbow.

Jack the Giant Slayer

Jack the Giant Slayer - Rating: ★★★☆☆

There are those rare instances when a bad trailer sucker punches you just so the actual movie could kill your lowered expectations once it’s time for the screening. Such is my experience with “Jack the Giant Slayer”, a surprisingly entertaining adventure tale about giants, beanstalks, and the strength and consistency of Ewan McGregor’s hair styling product. I’m serious. What is he using and where can I get one?

Let’s begin at the point of the film where things become interesting. The Princess seeks shelter from the storm at the house of a Young Farmer. They flirt subtly. And then they flirt blatantly. The two of them are about to make a romantic connection until – until a damn beanstalk explodes from the floor, launching the Young Farmer out of his own home. I hate it when that happens. The house, with The Princess trapped inside, is carried to the sky as the beanstalk continues to grow.

The beanstalk takes the Young Farmer, accompanied by a few of The King’s men, to a floating city so immense and so broad, that we wonder why it doesn’t create a shadow on the ground. They encounter roaring giants who aren’t as ferocious as they are hilarious. Legends say that the giants are desperate to climb down their kingdom and rule the land of the humans, probably to escape each other’s stench. There is more breathing room downstairs, you see.

All the notable names involved in “Jack the Giant Slayer” are way above the material they were presented with. I think what makes it all so darn fun is the director’s and actors’ playful attitude towards the movie. Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) show that he knows how to have fun by capitalizing on the goofy look of the giants and by staging a situation where Ewan McGregor becomes an oven away from becoming a burrito.

Stanley Tucci has the best role in the film as Roderick, a scheming, middle-aged bachelor who exercises an evil plan to control the giants. Roderick, in all his gap-toothed glory, is the kind of role that an actor like Tucci would accept for the sole purpose of making a few nephews proud. “Hey! Guess what? My uncle made an army of giants bow down to him while wearing a glowing crown!”

Freedom, Updates, and the Oscars

It is over. I am done. No. Free. Yeah. That’s the word: Free. After four years of non-education, I am finally alive again. I can’t describe the happiness. It’s like being released from prison, except prisons have better cafeteria food. Am I being too harsh to my soon-to-be Alma Mater? Enroll in my college for one semester, and you’d agree that I’m not being harsh enough.

The college itself is incompetent, but I met a few great people during my stay there. My estimate is that for each dozen dismal professors, there is one professor who exemplifies legitimate intellect. Why they agreed to teach in such a sad, crumbling institution is beyond me. The economy? Blackmail? Who knows? I don’t even know how I ended up there in the first place.


Batch 2013

I made friends with a handful of quick-witted people who always seem to be conscious of their surroundings. We are different in many ways – in philosophies, in background, in opinions – but I think we all agree that our college is the closest thing to hell we’ve ever been to. For the sake of graduating, we just smile, do our homework, and keep our thoughts to ourselves. Come graduation day, which is in a month, I’ll be putting on that smile again. To those who are actually studying in an adequate school, allow me to share with you a little wisdom from good ‘ol Roger Ebert that kept me sane:

“Don’t train for a career–train for a life. The career will take care of itself, and give you more satisfaction than a surrender to corporate or professional bureaucracy. If you make careers in that world, you will be more successful because your education was not narrow.”

Anyway, one of the greatest rewards that will come out of my graduation is that, on top of my full-time work, I’ll be able to post regularly here again. I thought my Movie Journal could keep me semi-active while I finish my remaining units, but the final stretch of school was a lot more time-consuming than I anticipated. But as Rancho of “3 Idiots” always like to say while holding his fist against his chest: “All Izz Well”. My first review of 2013 will be “Jack the Giant Slayer”. I initially wanted to review “Silver Linings Playbook”, which has just been released here, but I figured not a lot of people will be interested in a review of a movie that was released in the U.S. over three months ago.

Jack the Giant Slayer

Now I move on to the most important part of this post. I plan to start over with a different website. My site’s name will be changed. A tagline will be included. There will be a more organized navigation bar. (Where in the hell did this site’s navigation bar disappear to anyway?) There will be more variety in posts. And so on. I have lots of plans. But that’s all they are so far: Plans. I’ll keep posting here while I look for help and resources, but as soon as the site is up, I’ll be transferring all my reviews there, and this site will simply become another wasteland in the vast universe of the Internet.

About the future site’s name, how does Film Hound sound? Right now, I personally think that a third word is missing. Film Hound Joint? Film Hound Suite? Film Hound Central? One friend suggested Film Hound Infobahn, but I’m still breeding ideas in my head. The tagline will be “Fighting for Better Movies”, that’s for sure. It has been with me since I started this site, and it just feels right as the summary of my, mission, if that’s what you call it.

Before I talk about the Oscars, I have to announce that I wasn’t able to watch the show at all. I was at work during the live telecast and I couldn’t find a replay when I got home. So I’ll only be able to discuss my thoughts about the nominees and some of the winners because … Damn it, YouTube!… not many clips are available online.

Ang Lee's Oscar for Life of Pi

Because my country has issues with independent films and foreign language films, I’ve yet to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, “Silver Linings Playbook”, “Django Unchained”, and “Amour”. But considering the nominees that I have seen, I would say that Argo deserved its Best Picture Oscar, although a part of me wanted “Life of Pi” to win, even though its narrative is flawed. The middle stages of Ang Lee’s latest film are pure cinema magic. When I found out that Ben Affleck wasn’t even nominated for Best Director… Damn it, Oscar!… I was pretty sure that Lee would win. Fudge muffins! I should’ve Tweeted about it! I could have had proof!

That Daniel Day-Lewis won his record-setting third Oscar for Best Lead Actor was no surprise. The moment he was nominated, I was thinking ahead when I asked myself: “Will he go for a 4th win?” “Lincoln” was a great film because Steven Spielberg doesn’t compromise on his material. He respects the story he’s telling and believes that its power is enough to move us, to educate us. In the screening I attended, I noticed that a few members of the audience were bored of all the talking and arguing. What were they expecting from a movie about the Thirteenth Amendment? Explosions?

That’s all I have to say for now. My life is about to experience a major change, and I’m looking forward to it, so far. I’ll get to watch more movies now more than ever, so I can’t complain. I’ll attend the 8:15 PM screening of “Jack the Giant Slayer” on Saturday. In the meantime, here is one of those funny cat videos on the Internetz.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

An Unexpected Journey Poster

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Let me get things straight first. I enjoyed “An Expected Journey” as I was viewing it. From the film’s first half hour, I could tell that it wasn’t going to be an event as grand and glorious as any of the “Lord of the Rings” movies, which was just fine by me. Though weighed down by several substantial flaws, I felt a mild satisfaction when the credits started to roll. The verdict of a movie reviewer should always be based on the immediate experience, and on that notion I should label “An Unexpected Journey” a success. But my later convictions overruled the other, and I realize that I cannot award a positive rating to a movie that could have easily been great but chose not to.

The three volumes that comprised Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” were made into three different films. That’s over 1,300 pages translated into nine hours of film. And while “An Unexpected Journey”, 2013’s “The Desolation of the Smaug”, and 2014’s “There and Back Again” are the components of another planned trilogy, there are all based on a single Tolkien novel, 1937’s “The Hobbit”, which is only around 300 pages long. Does Peter Jackson really have enough material for a trilogy? We don’t know yet, but judging on this first installment, it seems that he will stretch his way to his second billion-dollar franchise. Every single sequence in this introductory film is prolonged, and several other scenes feel unnecessary. The story itself is compelling, but the deadweight pacing prevents us from being compelled.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins

Time winds back as dear Bilbo Baggins recalls the period of his life when he joined a group of homesick Dwarves, accompanied by the wise and helpful Gandalf (Ian McKellen), in an adventure too dangerous for a hobbit. Opening Narrations always do a good job in setting up the background for a plot, and old Bilbo tells us of Erebor, the realm of the Dwarves that is filled with precious gold. The citizens of Erebor are left with no choice but to abandon their kingdom the moment Smaug flies in and takes control of it. Smaug is of course the greedy dragon with a fetish for gold, of all things. If dragons like Smaug roam in today’s world, and if they pillage great cities blessed with endless treasures, then the Philippines would be one of the safest places on Earth Just sayin’.

Anyway, the Dwarves are steadfast in their mission to reclaim their homeland, and Gandalf convinces their leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage), to take young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) with them, right after they invade his privacy, trash his house, and eat his food. (You would not want to have Dwarves for neighbors. Elves would be more fun.) Other than our main protagonists, the rest of the members of the pack are interchangeable, carrying no distinct characteristics. This is a disappointment. The heroes in the LOTR were memorable in the way that they were diverse and well-developed. Each character came from different races, was introduced with different back stories, and was driven by different motivations. By the time you finished watching “Fellowship of the Ring”, you already knew each character by name. There was Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir. I’m trying to make a mental list of the fellowship in “An Unexpected Journey”, and this is what I’ve got so far: Gandalf, Bilbo, Thorin, Bald Dwarf, Fat Dwarf, Skinny Dwarf, Old Dwarf, and Other Dwarf.

Andy Serkis as Gollum

The progression of their adventure takes us through some memorable sequences and some not so amusing ones. Divided by extended periods of tedious walking and plot setting, the most enjoyable parts of the film involve hungry, towering trolls, battling stone giants, and a high-stakes riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum. (Spoiler!) It’s disappointing how all of this comes down to a climax located at the edge of a cliff, on top of a tree. At this point of the film, we see our heroes climb a tree, clump together, and throw pine fireballs to fend off those blasted orcs. A weak way to end such a movie, but there you go. (End Spoiler) This non-climax will feel all the more disappointing when you remind yourself that you spent a massive 150 minutes to get there.

All of my complaints would not have been so if they simply decided to make one darn movie. There are discussions in “An Unexpected Journey” regarding the return of a devilish Necromancer, and we are only treated to small, quick peeks to Smaug the dragon. How much better things would have been if these elements were maximized in this film instead of reserving them for Parts 2 and 3? Did Peter Jackson pushed for this idea, or did “The Hobbit” fall into the hands of greedy Hollywood Producers/Smaugs who want to make more money for the sake of more money? Hollywood’s obsession with franchising everything it touches is getting out of hand. Will the world ever be ready for a Three Little Pigs Trilogy?

MOVIE JOURNAL: Wreck-It Ralph and Take Shelter

School has been a real asshole. I know, I know. My first post since July, and I open with a grumble? I can explain. Time is so darn precious, and much of it is required by the job I have to attend to and this blog that I have to raise. That I’ve only been able to write one review (The Dark Knight Rises) since school started should give you an idea of how endlessly busy I’ve become. Such is my distress, but I find inspiration in the immortal words of Mark Twain: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”. Ah, yes.

But of course the quote is only applicable if you are an extremely intelligent person… or if your school is incompetent by world record standards. I’m not a very smart person, and that should be enough of a hint. Which brings me back to my opening sentence. But never mind. I’m scheduled to graduate in April of next year. That’s five more months. I persevere.

Though April 2013 isn’t as far away as it seems, I can’t wait that long to start posting actively here again. That is why I’ve decided to start this Movie Journal. Despite my soul-sucking schedule, I’m still able to watch around two to four movies a week. It’s the reviewing part that I don’t have time for anymore. So much opportunity has already gone to waste, and I hope that this Journal will be the beginning of a steady revival. Films that I saw and wanted to write about but did not end up reviewing include “Argo”, “Looper”, “Skyfall”, “The Avengers”, “The Muppets”, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”, “The Bourne Legacy”, and many, many more.

I plan to post a Journal entry about once a week or every other week, depending on my requirements form school and work. (This will be my routine until I graduate college, reclaiming sweet freedom.) Each post will feature (1) a brief intro regarding my current status and future plans and (2) a short discussion of about two to three movies that I watched within that week; think of it as a collection of Quick Reviews gathered to make one long post. For this first post, I’ll talk about two movies that I’ve recently seen, movies that I’m very enthusiastic about. And they are as follows.

Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph - Rating: ★★★★★

I’ve long complained about how many movies of today are constructed to flow like a banal, routine video game. Who would have thought that flipping this notion could produce a place that is so dazzlingly original? “Wreck-It Ralph” is a video game that functions like a Real Movie. Sure, it retains the usual Disney elements of the Misunderstood Good Guy and his Spirited Sidekick, but their journey unfolds within such a beautifully imagined universe that everything it surrounds is given a fresh feel. The story takes place inside arcade games where its characters are able to move independently when no human is in sight. I’m sure our pals at “Toy Story” can relate.

Much of the fun from “Wreck-It Ralph” comes from the ingenious logic used by Disney to connect the games of the arcade. We learn that the adaptor of the extension cord is the central station where famous video game characters like Donkey Kong, Sonic, and Mario could bump into each other and exchange High Fives. Characters can visit other games by travelling through the cord’s wires (Duh!), which are conveniently labeled by game. This allows the story to instantly shift from one dimension to another that’s completely different in genre, design, and graphics. We follow the lives of Ralph, the villain of a 30-year-old game called Fix-It Felix, Jr., and Vanellope von Schweetz, the glitch from a racing game called Sugar Rush.

I cared for Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Venellope (Sarah Silverman). In fact, this is the most I’ve shown affection for a pair of animated characters since I was first introduced to Carl and Ellie Fredricksen in “Up”. I did not want the movie to end.  There were too many games left to explore, and there was a lot more video game characters that I wanted to meet. But oh well. “Wreck-It Ralph” represents the most creative use of animation in years, and the Academy would commit a shameful injustice if it doesn’t award this gem the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Take Shelter

Take Shelter - Rating: ★★★★★

“Take Shelter”, the most overlooked Great Movie of 2011, is an apocalyptic thriller that transpires entirely inside the afflicted mind of a man trapped in an agonizing fear. This man is Curtis (Michael Shannon), a simple construction worker who lives in a small town in Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their deaf, six-year-old daughter, Hannah. Curtis greatly loves his family, is happy with his job, and is working hard to earn for an expensive operation that could restore Hannah her hearing. Everything is going alright for Curtis until he is plagued by nightmares and hallucinations about a monstrous storm that, according to his visions, will arrive without warning and rain destruction upon the helpless town.

Without deliberation and approval from his wife, Curtis decides to build a storm shelter that he can’t afford with time that he doesn’t have. The townspeople, and later even Samantha, think that the storm shelter is a stupid idea, and that Curtis’s efforts are futile. We, on the other hand, as the film’s audience, are able to empathize with Curtis because we experience every nightmare and hallucination that Curtis goes through. The obvious observation here is that Curtis building the shelter is an act of sheer paranoia, which is not the case. More perceptive moviegoers will identify Curtis’s actions as a fulfillment of his unconditional love towards his family. He risks his employment, his reputation and at some points even his marriage just to make sure that his family is safe from a threat that may not actually end up happening.

With this fact, we feel a subtle suspense, and the final twenty minutes of “Take Shelter” is something to hold in high regard; I was completely in a state of awe during the film’s final scenes. Michael Shannon’s performance here is the most powerful and convincing acting I have witnessed since Daniel Day-Lewis drank our milkshake in 2007’s “There Will Be Blood”. And that’s saying a lot.

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises PosterRating: ★★★★☆

Christopher Nolan influenced a rare and astonishing phenomenon back in 2008: He united Critics and Fanboys in glorious, peaceful accordance.  Few would argue with the notion that “The Dark Knight” is the greatest superhero movie ever made. No other comic book movie even comes close. None. To compare “The Dark Knight” with lesser films like “Thor”, or “Captain America”, or “The Amazing Spiderman”, is like comparing Michael Jordan with Kobe Bryant. Why even bother?

But it seems that the overwhelming success of “The Dark Knight” has placed Nolan in an interesting position. His masterpiece left a hungry audience with rising expectations, which is a reasonable effect. Wouldn’t it be weird to walk in a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” and expect the second greatest superhero movie ever made?

Whether this closing chapter is better than its predecessors is not a major concern. All three Batman movies are exhilarating and memorable, and it can be said that they belong in a league of their own. As an artist who is constantly propelled to challenge our minds, Christopher Nolan adapts the superhero genre but does not conform to its traditions. He constructs a dark and ominous world that’s very close to our own, a world separated from the detached, happy-go-lucky playground occupied by the heroes of “The Avengers”.

Gotham is not merely utilized as a canvass for fighting and a backdrop for explosions. Nolan perceives the city’s citizens as more than just curious onlookers or helpless victims. He understands that their knowledge and opinion of Batman greatly affects his actions and limitations, and Nolan puts this principle to good use, especially during the moral chaos instigated by The Joker in “The Dark Knight”. The scale of the series is vast and involving. That the story requires the presence of Real Actors (Morgan Freeman, Michael Cane, Gary Oldman) reveals that there is more to see here than trivial action. In an age where Michael Bay has repeatedly hammered our brains to a pulp, Mr. Nolan has been diligent in rewarding us with movies that give us a jump start.

Tom Hardy as Bane

So Nolan’s Batman Trilogy is an enormous triumph, but, contrary to my previous paragraphs, I am here to review an individual movie, not a trilogy. “The Dark Knight Rises” gave me conflicting emotions as I found myself standing between the line of Satisfaction and Disappointment. I felt satisfaction in the fact that I just saw the finest summer blockbuster of 2012; disappointment slowly emerged as I acknowledged that, out of the three Batman films by Nolan, this was the most flawed and problematic. So much of the movie could have been so much better.

There is a swarm of characters here – old ones, new ones, unnecessary ones, dead ones… You name it. The tragedy is that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and other key characters are robbed of quality screen time in order to develop new supporting characters that only function as nonessential plot devices in a convoluted script. Take, for example, the addition of a suspicious philanthropist named Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). What’s a girl like here doing in a movie like this? Here’s a rule I’d like to propose: Anyone who claims to be a philanthropist in a comic book movie is a Plot Twist waiting to be revealed. Why did Nolan feel the need to invest a lot of time and effort for a twist so apparent and insipid? His films have always been ambitious, but this is his first movie where I got the impression that he may be trying too hard. Maybe the insane hype that “The Dark Knight” left him with a lot of pressure.

And now we move on to Bane (Tom Hardy). His opening sequence, which is one of the film’s most spectacular moments, establishes him as both freakishly strong and extensively intelligent. His immense physique, fearsome and menacing, makes him overqualified for “The Expendables”. His master plan, to annihilate Gotham City via nuclear explosion, forces the troubled and defeated Bruce Wayne to revive his alter-ego, despite the bad publicity. Both Hero and Villain were mentored by Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), but we are warned by the always concerned Alfred that Bane may be too much for Batman to handle. Imagine a villain so powerful that he gives Batman a year’s worth of physical punishment in five minutes. He reveals himself to be a monster of no mercy and sadistic humor when he dumps the half-dead Bruce in a hellish prison just for the lulz. No doubt Bane is an effective villain, but he doesn’t make up for an entertaining character. His intimidating presence wears off in the later scenes, and the movie eventually discards him completely in order to highlight needless twists.

Bane and Batman

I mentioned earlier the threat of a fusion bomb. We are informed that the bomb is set to detonate in, if I’m not mistaken, five months. This incredibly long countdown causes countless of exchanges between characters where they update each other, and the audience, regarding the bomb’s state. “Three months ‘til detonation!” “We have two weeks to stop that bomb!” “Twelve hours left! We have to do something!” “One hour to go before that thing goes off! We don’t have much time!”

This causes the suspense of the threat to die down. One element of the plot is delayed so the slower parts of the story could catch up. Can a heavily injured Batman make a full recovery and defeat Bane if the bomb has a countdown of 45 minutes? Try to recall the ferry sequence in “The Dark Knight”. Because the passengers of the two ferries only have 15 minutes to decide, the suspense is magnified, the action is immediate, the possibilities are many, and the moral issue is fascinating. As we sit in eager anticipation, we can easily visualize The Joker blowing up both of the ferries because everyone else chose to do the right thing. Can we really imagine the city of Gotham as a giant pile of ash?

Does my review of “The Dark Knight Rises” feel like a negative one? If yes, then I should make it clear that the flaws are forgivable; the movie has a lot more things going for it than against it. I enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone who wants their intelligence to participate in the theater. We don’t get a lot of Summer Blockbusters with a brain in its head. I predict that it will reach the billion dollar milestone in the box office. The DVD version, once released, will also sell millions and millions of copies, for it will feature those magic white words that should be able to decipher the mysteries surrounding Bane’s dialogue.

Wrath of the Titans

Wrath of the Titans Poster Rating: ★½☆☆☆

You don’t have to observe real hard to notice that there’s actually just one titan in “Wrath of the Titans”. That would be the fearsome Kronos, a monstrous being who can be best summarized as a walking volcano with arms, legs, and a face. In the film’s latest moments, smoke, ash and lava violently erupt from his crevices, which is exactly the sight you’d expect from someone who had just risen out from the hellish underworld.

Before we get into anything else, let’s do a quick background check. Kronos is the father of Zeus, Hades and Poseidon. Zeus (Liam Neeson) has a son named Ares, who like his father is also a god. Everything seems rather normal until Zeus decides to get in bed with a human. The woman then gives birth to Perseus, a half-god half-human fisherman. So this would make Kronos the grandfather of Perseus? But what about Helius, the son of Perseus? Can he be considered as one-forth god? You know what would have been a lot more interesting than this movie? A documentary about these characters having a family reunion.

Wrath of the TitansAnyway, the underworld prison of Tartacus can no longer contain its captives. Zeus calls for a meeting with his brothers to address this issue. Where do they agree to hold their meeting? The Underworld, the home of Hades (Ralph Fiennes). So Poseidon gets killed and Zeus becomes a prisoner of Hades. Unfortunate, but things like that tend to happen when you decide to hold your meeting in the Underworld. Perseus goes on a mission to rescue his father. He must be quick though, because Hades plans to drain the power of Zeus to awaken Kronos.

And that’s the last plot point you will read from this review. To further discuss the plot would be pointless. The movie, even within the context of fantasy, features ludicrous situations of zero substance. And because the film’s director is the clueless Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles), even the action sequences offer no consolation. Somewhere inside an elaborate labyrinth, Perseus battles a Minotaur, or something like that. I’m not sure. We never get a clear shot of the darn beast. It’s just brief shots of a huge, ugly head covered with a lot of froth and… and rage. Perseus uses his right fist, followed by his left one, and the next thing we know, the monster is dead on the ground. I have seen fights at The Jerry Springer Show that have more cohesion and impact.

Kronos in Wrath of the TitansWhat else can I recall? Remember Ares, the other son of Zeus? He gets into a brawl with Perseus. Ares, who is a god, is winning the battle against the lesser strength of Perseus. Ares is about to attain victory until… until Perseus is able to put the Sleeper Hold on him. You know, like in wrestling. Ares passes out. Perseus kills him. But wait. How effective can the Sleeper Hold be? Did the screenwriter forget that Ares is a god?

Now back to where we started. Awakened Kronos has escaped Tartacus. Not only is he sweating lava all over place, but he’s also punching the ground to create mini-earthquakes. According to one of the characters, Kronos intends to destroy the world. My dilemma with giant villains is there lack of efficiency. They all look so slow and sluggish and easy to hit. If Kronos had no one to stop him, it would take him around 8-10 years to fully destroy the world. Approximately.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games PosterRating: ★★★½☆

As the early minutes of the movie unfolded, it seemed to me that its principal premise was assembled by prominent ideas that came before it. When the story reveals to us that young men and women would have to slaughter each other for survival’s sake, we cannot help but be reminded of the infamous Japanese cult classic, “Battle Royale”. And later, when we learn that the bloodshed is to be controlled and televised by a game master, “The Truman Show” comes to mind. We can sit here and try to draw parallels between these different worlds, but no. Any discussions regarding the film’s possible influences would end in useless futility. “The Hunger Games” is independent in its desires and ambitions. It has a life of its own.

This adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s bestseller takes us to a dystopian future where the North America of today has become, in a word, kaput. Wars have destroyed democracy, and out of their wreckages the nation of Panem comes into being. The poor and powerless are distributed in the destitute 12 Districts while all the douchebags and oddballs can be found in the thriving, dominating Capitol. I like how the movie ignores the common vision of how people in the future dress in bland costumes. The citizens of Capitol have fascinating taste; their daily lives are spent with hairstyles and clothing that would startle cosplay addicts. The fashion trend there is so perplexing that if Lady Ga Ga lived during that era, she would easily blend in.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss EverdeenThe rulers of Capitol exercise their superiority against the 12 Districts through The Hunger Games, an annual event that features teenagers, weapons, murders, and live television. (Disturbing, yes, but not as disturbing as that TV show about the Kardashian folks.) Here is how the event goes: One boy and one girl from each district are randomly selected. Once drafted, the chosen district members, called Tributes, are brought to the Capitol. That they undergo special training is not really a surprise. What intrigued me were the movie’s subtle examinations regarding both ends of reality television. How much of a Tribute’s identity is sincere when it is broadcasted through the lens of the media? Where do the viewers of The Hunger Games find the entertainment in its mindless violence?

The story starts off with the happenings leading to the 74th Hunger Games. Most of our attention is focused on District 12’s Katniss Everdeen, who is impeccably played by Jennifer Lawrence. The movie demonstrates patience in the way it builds the Katniss character. Before she is thrown into the game’s deadly arena, we are given a chance to study her thoughts and memories, fears and feelings, strengths and weaknesses. As the movie progresses from District 12 to the Capitol, we realize that she’d rather be with a bow and arrow than with a camera and an interviewer. Though she is at first shy and awkward, she makes her way in the hearts of a number of people. When she finally steps foot in the arena, we see her more than just another participant in a televised bloodbath.

Katniss Everdeen and Peeta MellarkWhile the movie was still in the process of casting, I heard rumors that my love, Saoirse Ronan, was one of the actresses that were being considered to play Katniss. Without thinking of actress/character compatibility, I rooted for her. And now that I’ve seen the film, I realize that the role was made for Jennifer Lawrence. Ms. Lawrence is slowly becoming one of those tremendous talents that should always be aiming for high challenges. She played Mystique in last year’s “X-Men: First Class”, but that character didn’t deserve Lawrence. (If you’ve seen her in the excellent “Winter’s Bone”, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.) I’m glad that they chose a real actress to play Katniss. Imagine if Katniss was portrayed by Selena Gomez or Vanessa Hudgens. LOL.

I mentioned earlier that two Tributes are selected from each district. Katniss is joined by the sympathetic Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson); he specializes in camouflage and cheesy dialogue. His special feelings for her have remained hidden for years, but The Hunger Games have provided him an opportunity to finally express his love. Teenagers will be teenagers. A romance is expectedly developed. Most girls will disagree with me on this, but I thought that the romance was far too overworked. To attract a bigger audience, the movie sacrifices a lot of its compelling content in exchange for more common ones. If you’ve read my review of “Real Steel”, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Another downside in “The Hunger Games” that isn’t exactly the fault of the filmmakers is the movie’s exaggerated hype. It’s a satisfying movie, but it won’t match the impossible expectations set by its fanatical fans. Lower your standards for “The Hunger Games”, and you should have a jolly good time. On a similar note: Lower your standards for “The Dark Knight Rises”, and you should enter Movie Paradise.

John Carter

John Carter Poster Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Once upon a time, the folks at Disney wanted to make a movie that combines the qualities of Westerns, War Epics, and Science Fiction. 250 million dollars later, and we are introduced to the vast and zealous vision of “John Carter”. Here is a concept that’s big enough to spawn its own franchise. Heck, I’m already saving up for the Happy Meal collectibles it will inspire at McDonalds. The movie’s franchise-sized idea holds good potential, but too much set-up is dedicated into this one movie that there is isn’t anything in it except for those darn set-ups.

The film follows the journey of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Civil War Veteran from Virginia who isn’t in good terms with the local authorities. His attempts to elude imprisonment lead him to a cave with a well-dressed alien loitering within it. He knocks the bastard down. It instinctively pulls out a glowing medallion and starts reciting something in its native language. Carter grabs the medallion, and before he could sell it to the nearest pawnshop, he is transported to Mars. It is there where he comes across with the green-skinned, four-eyed Tharks. Fascinating creatures these Tharks are. If a giant caterpillar and a tall NBA player ever had a love child, it would look something close to a Thark.

Tas Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and John Carter (Taylor Kitsch)Like all beauty pageant contestants, what the Tharks really want is world peace, but their influence is limited by their meager population and inferior technology. A great war between the mighty cities of Helium and Zodanga is at its peak. This issue is expanded with heavy exposition: The people from Helium are the good guys, and it’s Zodanga that’s causing all the trouble. They want to seize Helium so they could win the ultimate prize: Mars, a wasteland the size of a planet. Of all the citizens of Helium, it is its princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), that is most fearful of defeat. If their army is unable to fight off the soldiers of Zodanga, she will be forced to marry its leader, Kantos Kan. One thing I like about Dejah Thoris is the fact that she is one helluva scientist. We finally meet an intelligent woman in a Summer Blockbuster Movie, and she’s from another planet.

Besides John Carter’s encounters with the Tharks, and besides the dispute between Helium and Zodanga, and besides the efforts of the princess to prevent her forced marriage, is a subplot involving the shape-shifting Therns. Equipped with great powers that can vaporize any structure and being, they hide. Of course. Anyway, there’s also this story about a plan to conquer… but why continue? “John Carter” is all introductions and explanations and discussions separated by brief and generic action sequences. John Carter himself is a dull and bland character; he is one of those heroes who is defined by their special ability. But even that part is underwhelming. The lower Martian gravity allows him to leap at great lengths, but so what? I like Roger Ebert’s observation: “When it is possible to teleport yourself from Earth to Mars, why are you considered extraordinary because you can jump really high?”

Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch in John CarterThere is a 30-second span in the film where John Carter slashes his way through dozens and dozens of towering aliens. In a later scene, we see him use a chain to hurl a large boulder against a monster. How is this possible for a Civil War veteran from Virginia? Did the change in gravity also grant him super strength? Some more observations: Where do the Martians get all the materials to build their complex space ships and gadgets? Since there is no vegetation in sight to supply oxygen, what keeps John Carter alive? Why won’t the Therns use their vaporizing weapons when needed? Why do the citizens of Helium and Zodanga look like… Americans? If they are Earthlings who arrived before John Carter, then why is their blood blue?

I’m sure everything in the movie is better explained in “A Princess of Mars”, the book from which “John Carter” is based upon. Maybe it’s one of those novels that doesn’t translate well in film. Books contain more space for plotting and characterization. 132 minutes is quite long for a film, yet it wasn’t enough for the broad story of “John Carter”. I mean, if Mr. Carter and Ms. Thoris got married, and they had children, and they scratched their arm, will purple blood come out?