Sunday, November 12, 2017

"Murder at the Orient Express"

Adapted from Agatha Christie's crime novel (1934), Kenneth Branagh (“Cinderella,” "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit"), “Thor”) directs and stars in this plush production, “Murder at the Orient Express, as the famed detective Hercule Poirot.

After solving a case of a missing sacred relic in Jerusalem with a rabbi, a priest and an imam as the accused, as delightfully demonstrated to an astonished crowd, the detective boards a train in Istanbul to London for a break.  The Orient Express.

Aside from the crew where the train conductor (Marwan Kenzari) is most prominent, the luxury train is sparse with only 13 other passengers aboard.  The international passengers are princess (Judy Dench, “Skyfall”), maid (Olivia Coleman), count (Sergei Polunin), countess (Lucy Boynton), governess (Daisy Ridley), widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), missionary (Penelope Cruz, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”), doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), professor (Willem Dafoe), car salesman (Manuel Garcia-Raflo), valet (Derek Jacobi), assistant (Josh Gad, “Beauty and the Beast”) and businessman (Johnny Depp, “The Tourist”). 

The three-day trip was meant to be relaxing, alas, trouble follows.   A passenger is found dead.  Murdered, as a matter of fact. To top it off, the train is derailed by an avalanche and they are all stranded.  Chill fills the air and it's not just because of the wintry weather.  It's up to the detective to solve the case, using his keen eye of observations, investigating each passenger and uncovering any motivation or connection.  Hopefully, everyone remains alive until they are rescued.  As it turns out, the passengers may not be who they say they are.

What stands out the most is not the acting, even with a starry and stylish cast.  The cinematography is the star of the movie.  It's captivating from start to finish.  The warmth and hustle and bustle of the daily life in the era permeate the opening scenes, against the backdrop of ancient stone walls, steamboats and vintage trains.  Then onto the snowy journey across moonlit mountains and sun-kissed plains, ending at sunset. Fine fashion and design are abound.  Immaculately dressed travelers, crisp linens and polished mahogany.  The movie is stunningly shot with creative angles and details and  lavishly lit.  The way the deceased is first shown to the audience is unconventionally filmed.

If you've never read the novel or seen the original film, the reveal's shock value is high.  Hercule Poirot, quite possibly the greatest detective of his time, is a man of law and order who values justice and balance.  In the end, he's forced to examine his principles.  Perhaps there's a situation where imbalance in life is necessary or that peace is more important than justice.

The dots are not always connecting clearly when they are rolling rapidly, and while suspension of disbelief is needed for this whodunnit tale, “Murder at the Orient Express” is a well-crafted, old-fashioned and modish murder mystery with a fantastic twist.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

"Thor: Ragnarok"

“Thor: Ragnarok” closes the standalone chapter of the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth, “The Avengers” series, "Rush"). Like “Thor: The Dark World,” the movie takes place almost entirely on distant planets, although it's tonally very different. Taika Waititi-directed 'Ragnarok' is overall bright and cheery.

Thor reunites with his mischievous, adversarial adopted brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and tracks down their banished father, King of Asgard, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) on Earth. Here they encounter Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”) and his magical tricks.

After the death of Odin, Hela (Cate Blanchett, “Cinderella”) emerges from exile. She is the bloodthirsty sister Thor and Loki never knew, Odin's firstborn. Hela is marching back into Asgard to claim her birthright as the rightful heir of to the throne. Following the tradition of royal family drama, the revelation is the most interesting part of the story. Thor discovers that his late father wasn't always the benevolent and peaceful leader he knew and that the gleaming kingdom of Asgard has a dark history.

While Thor is mighty, Hela is mightier, as proven by what she does with the Mjolnir, Thor's hammer. Without his powerful hammer, Thor has to improvise and look within himself to show his strength when Hela unleashes hell upon Asgard. Hela's motivation is as legit as it gets as far as villain goes.

The super sibling showdown has to wait, however. First, Thor finds himself crash-landing on an artificial planet built on scraps, Sakaar, and getting captured by a scrap hauler (Tessa Thompson). Thor is hauled into the Grandmaster's (Jeff Goldblum) residence and forced into a bombastic gladiatorial match with a reigning champion, none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”). Fortunately, the scrap hauler turns out to be Valkyrie, a legendary former Asgard warrior.

Desperately wanting to get back to Asgard to save his people, Thor persuades Hulk, Valkyrie and Loki to escape from Sakaar, return to his home planet and defeat Hela. This is where the bulk of the comedy takes place. More than one-liners, their interactions are hilarious. Bruce Banner now has been in the Hulk form continuously for two years, so he has developed a more advanced level of expression and vocabulary, although still primitive by human standard.

Back at Asgard, Hela is raising an army of undead and goes on a murder spree. She declares herself queen and wants to continue with her ambition to conquer other realms. The quartet works together, and with the help from Asgard guardian, Heimdall (Idris Elba), to stop Hela and also to prevent a prophecy of Asgardian destruction, Ragnarok, from coming to fruition. In the end, the cost is way high.

The movie is brimming with comedic deliveries (including star cameos), fluid and packed action scenes bursting with candy colors. There's a “Guardian of the Galaxy” feel to it. The actors look like they're having one helluva time. There is nothing particularly memorable, unlike, say, the last installment of Captain America, 'Civil War,' but it sure is entertaining as a whole.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is a blast of rock-and-roll.


Friday, October 27, 2017

Upcoming Movies: November 2017

November 3
"Thor: Ragnarok" ( - Imprisoned, Thor finds himself in a gladiatorial contest against the Hulk, a former ally. Thor must fight for survival and race against time to prevent Hela from destroying the Asgardian civilization.

"Lady Bird" ( - The adventures of a young woman living in Northern California for a year.

November 10
"Murder on the Orient Express" ( - A lavish train ride unfolds into a stylish & suspenseful mystery. From the novel by Agatha Christie, strangers race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

"Thelma" -  A woman begins to fall in love, only to discover that she has fantastic powers.

November 17
"Justice League" ( - Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman's selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy.

"Wonder" - Based on the New York Times bestseller, a boy with facial differences enters fifth grade, attending a mainstream elementary school for the first time.

November 24
"Coco" ( - An aspiring musician teams up with a charming trickster on an extraordinary journey through the Land of the Dead.

"Call Me by Your Name" ( - The son of an American professor is enamored by the graduate student who comes to study and live with his family in their northern Italian home.  They share an unforgettable summer full of music, food, and romance that will change them.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

"Blade Runner 2049"

Having never seen the original "Blade Runner" (1982), which became somewhat of a cult-classic over the years, I didn't know what to expect.  With a brief intro narrative, I've found "Blade Runner 2049" works just as well as a standalone film.  Time will tell whether it would follow its predecessor's footstep.

The film picks up 30 years after the events in the first installment.  The previous version of replicants, or bioengineered beings, have been outlawed due to their rebellions.  While they have been replaced by the next generation, a perfect disposable workforce who obey human commands, some of the older version continue to live.  Government agents, or blade runners, are tasked to hunt for these hidden replicants and retire them, whether or not they are violent.  One of them is a farmer, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista).  The officer tasked to retire Sapper is simply called 'K' (Ryan Gosling; "La-La Land," "The Ides of March," "Drive").

After Sapper is gone, K discovers a box deeply buried beneath the land surrounding Sapper's home.  This box contains a miraculous secret, a clue that propels him to a dangerous search, and answers that leave him shaken to the core.  His discovery leads to him to track down Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford; "Ender's Game," "The Age of Adaline"), the loner blade runner from 2019.  It also gets him pursued by a replicant manufacturer led by its creepy leader, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, "Suicide Squad"), accompanied by his faithful right-hand replicant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks).  A few other players whose interactions with K are significant are his cyber-girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), his boss Liutenant Joshi (Robin Wright, "Wonder Woman") and memory-making scientist Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri).

I'm typically intrigued by films with philosophical themes.  In recent memories, Villeneuve's own "Arrival," "Ex-Machina," "Interstellar," "Transcendence," "Cloud Atlas," "Inception."  There's some of that here, about how far is too far for a machine to be indistinguishable from human and what to do with them.  Whether or not the replicants' memories are implanted or programmed to behave a certain way, they feel real to them and they may not know that they are false reality.  Some things here feel shoehorned or grandiloquent though, told instead of shown.

Heavy on cinematography, the film plays on light and shadow and a palette of saturated marigold and cool blue.  After the great ecosystem disaster, people survive on synthetic farming and a weather that's either dusty, misty, rainy or snowy.  The great digital blackout wipes out most data, leaving K to rely on analog devices.  The grimy atmosphere, bathed in cerulean neon lights, dotted by outsized holograms and Asian fusion influence, reminds me of "Ghost in the Shell." Although it becomes kind of monotonous because of the overlong size.

With a running time of nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes, and a slow pace, it doesn't always sustain the suspense, even with a foreboding score.  A full half-hour of drawn out scenes could be cut without shortchanging the story.  The pace mirrors the thought-provoking "Arrival" from last year, directed by the same person, Denis Villeneuve.  However, that film's right under 2 hours.

"Blade Runner 2049" captures the most attention in pieces, during the concealed stage, clue-trailing and reveal.  While it doesn't quite meet the heightened expectations, it's runs on plenty of nostalgia, twists and visuals.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

"Kingsman: The Golden Circle"

"Kingsman: The Secret Service" set the bar thrillingly high.  Dynamically directed, sensationally choreographed and exemplarily executed, it' s absurdly over-the-top, sleekly stylized, expansive and inventive, and most importantly, outrageously fun.  Expectations are running high on the hills of the Comic Con-hyped panel earlier this summer.

No longer the fresh-faced recruit, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a full-fledged spy, carrying the baton of his dearly departed mentor, Harry (Colin Firth, "The King's Speech").  He's also in a committed relationship with royalty, Swedish Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom).

The movie opens with an adrenaline rush of a faceoff between Eggsy and a failed recruit, now equipped with a mechanical arm, Charlie (Edward Holcroft).  They go head-to-head inside of a speeding car on a trafficked road, with Eggsy hanging out of a car on the door, flying onto the roof and lying on the dragged door on the street, maneuvering himself into the trunk, and finally peeking out into the backseat to finish the fight.  Dodging pursuers under the  hails of bullets, Eggsy dives the car into a lake, entering an underwater lair into safety.  Such recklessly incredible sequence.  This is followed by a spinning sky lift crashing and tumbling down snowy Italian mountain tops down the road.

The Kingsman headquarter and sites end up getting blown up to bits, leaving the two survivors, Eggsy and gizmo guy, Merlin (Mark Strong, "The Imitation Game") searching for clues.  A clue takes them into the good ol' USA, Kentucky.  As it turns out, on the other side of the world, there's another secret spy agency, Statesman.

Whilst Kingsman has a tailored suit shop as a front, Statesman's is a liquor distillery.   The sharply dressed Kingsmen have a fisticuff  with a skeptical Statesman, decked in a cowboy outfit, Agent Tequila (Channing Tatum, "Hail, Caesar!").  Once their identity is verified, they are met with key personnel; leader Champagne (Jeff Bridges, "The Giver"), Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) and tech guru Ginger Ale (Halle Berry, "Cloud Atlas").  Miraculously, Statesman has back-from-the-dead Harry under their care, although he has no memory of who he is, having been shot in the head in the first installment.

Tracing their common enemy to a drug master, Poppy (Julianne Moore, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 & 2"), Kingsman and Statesman work together to prevent millions of people from death.  Don't mistake Poppy's Stepford wife appearance as meek.  She's evil and brutal, first shown releasing robotic dogs and forcing a new recruit to prove his loyalty by decimating another agent down a meat grinder.  And oh, by the way, she also serves a mean hamburger...

Psychotic Poppy runs the largest drug cartel in the world deep in a Colombian jungle, an isolated neighborhood with an American 1950s style, complete with a retro salon, theater and diner.  Poppy is not your run-of-the-mill villain.  Craving for worldwide fame and freedom, she wants drugs to be legalized, just like alcohol and cigarettes.  She unleashes virus into the drugs, causing those who take them to go through dying stages.  She offers antidotes; for a price, of course.  If the first movie lightly touches on class divisions, 'Golden Circle' threads on war on drugs, with a political agenda and personal vendetta associated with it.

The movie continues to be visually impressive and a showcase of gadgets.  While not quite as eye popping as the blade-legged lady and colorful head explosion, it's got the original bullet-proof umbrella and even more stuff, like the seriously cool mechanical arm, brain-healing gel, electric lasso, baseball grenade and briefcase shield, used in an army of shootouts and stylized slice-and-dice fights.  But the tongue-in-cheek humor and comic style remain, so it's not anywhere as grave or gory as it sounds.  It's not without its share of controversy, however.  A specific crude scene that got its director, Matthew Vaughn ("X-Men: First Class") and lead actor addressing the media.

'The Golden Circle' may not top the original or feels as refreshing as two years ago, but the cheeky spy adventure runs circles around most sequels. And from the ending, there's more story to be told, with Statesman coming into prominence in the world-saving business.

As fast, ferocious and uproarious as the first, "Kingsman: The Golden Circle" is a wild blast of entertainment.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


An animation about an orphan girl and aspiring ballerina, set against an idealized backdrop of late 18th century Paris.  Along with her best friend, a hopeful inventor, she escaped from the orphanage and embarks on a quest to study at the prestigious Grand Opera Ballet School in Paris.

If you enjoy classical dance, especially ballet, it's enchanting to watch how those tricky movements are captured so elegantly in an animation format.  The creative, improvised training using household items, impromptu tabletop dance sequence, competitive face-off are very impressive.  And the adventure elements are fun.

The movie could benefit from having a backstory for a key supporting character.  The over-the-top villain and romantic angle feel out of place.  The dialogues leave a lot to be desired.  And the moral of the story may be ambiguous to some.

But the French-Canadian production also offers a different kind of animation with its excellence on ballet movements.  The movie imparts a belief to have a real passion for your dreams.  With some luck and hard work, you could make it a reality against all odds.   "Leap!" is lively and highly enjoyable.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Comic-Con 2017 Recap

[For a blast from the past, check out these recaps from years past!]

Well, better late than never... In contrast with last year with jam-packed interactive activities, talk shows, press lines, it's more like 'Comic-Con Lite' for me this year - the lightest in nearly all the years I've been covering the convention.  The main reason is because of lack of programming in the feature film and TV pilot areas (outside of Hall H Saturday) and the lack of press conferences across the board.  I was also really sick, so I had to limit my attendance.

Here are the highlights: (thank goodness for an epic 'Kingsman' panel!)

"Kingsman: The Golden Circle" (September 22, 2017)
In attendance: stars Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges

[For the 'Kingsman' press conference from 2014, check out this recap here]

20th Century Fox pulled out all the stops.  The studio presented three lengthy footages of the upcoming sequel of the spy action, a panel full of stars, and plenty of booze to boot.  While everyone had a shot glass, Halle Berry chugged an entire pint of bourbon, to the cheers of her co-stars and audience.   There's a good banter about Channing Tatum's physical strength and Taron Egerton's being asked again to hold his breath under water for one of the shots.  Attendees of the panel each received a bright orange Kingsman T-shirt with a faux tuxedo front and a fidget spinner.  The studio also converted Hard Rock Cafe into Kingsman Central, by providing free poppy burgers and whiskey cocktails for three nights of happy hour.

The first footage is out-of-this world!  Eggsy, now an agent with the British spy organization, faces off with a former agent recruit with a mechanical arm.  They go head-to-head inside of a speeding car, in the backseat, up on the roof, and in the trunk.  At one point, Eggsy is forced to lie on a dragged car door on the street.  Dodging pursuers, he dives the car into a lake, entering a secret lair.  No words can do justice to describe this incredible sequence.

The second took our sharply dressed Kingsman agent and his handler across pond to the good ol' USA (Kentucky).  They have a fisticuff  in a wine cellar with an agent from the U.S. spy organization, Statesman.  That would be Tatum's character, carrying a Southern accent and decked in a cowboy outfit.

The third showed a 1950s style neighborhood, a cover for a drug trade in the middle of a jungle.  Don't mistake Julianne Moore's character's Stepford wife appearance; she's evil and brutal.  Accompanied by two robot dogs, she tests a new recruit's loyalty by having him take down one of her agents and shove him down to a meat grinder.  Take a wild guess on what kind of hamburger is being served to our new recruit...


"Deception" (ABC, premiere date TBD)

If you enjoyed "Now You See Me," you'll be in for a treat.  Instead of a two-hour movie, how about a little magic every week from the comfort of your home?  Cameron Black (Jack Cutmore-Scott), a magician down-on-his-luck, shows up at a crime scene after watching the news of an explosion and a disappearing plane on the ground.  He thinks it's an elaborate bait done by an illusionist who might have framed his brother and wanted to get his attention.

Smart-alekcy, it's quite a delight to see Cameron pulling off cool stunts, pursuing and trapping drug cartel leads through misdirection, disguise and escape scheme.  He's got a sleight of hand with cards, knife-throwing, bullet-catching, kidnapping, car chase and secret getaway.  Saying more would be ruining the surprise.

They stunts may be implausible, but the show is meant to be an escapist.   It's got potentials with elements of mirage, action, humor, and a hint of a future romance.  The trick (pun intended) would be to keep those tricks fresh episode after episode.  Let's hope for some magic!


"Inhumans" (2-hour premier on IMAX, September 1; ABC, September 29)
In attendance: producers Jeph Loeb and Scott Buck; director Roel Reine; stars Anson Mount, Iwan Rheon, Serinda Swan, Ken Leung, Eme Ikwuakor, Isabelle Cornish, Mike Moh, Ellen Wonglom, Sonya Balmores

A first in TV history, the first two hours of the episodes will be initially released in IMAX theaters. The FX-heavy show (600 special effects in the first two episodes) tells a the story of a superpowered royal family, the arrival of Inhumans on Earth and their adjustment of living with humans in our planet.

Among the Marvel Inhumans are King Black Bolt (with a destructive voice whose whisper could level cities; therefore, he does not speak), Queen Medusa (with a prehensile red hair), the king's brother Maximus (a 'normal' one without superpower but has the ambition of a king and ability to influence people), military leader Gorgon (with cattle-like hooves that can generate shockwaves), Black Bolt's cousin and adviser Karnak (with the ability to see every possible angle and find fault in everything), Medusa's younger sister Crystal (with the ability to control elements).  There's also Lockjaw, a 2,000-pound bulldog with teleporting power.

Extended sneak peeks show an Inhuman being hunted by armed soldiers in the Hawaiian jungle,  a tense dinner sequence depicting conflict between Black Bolt and Maximus (with Medusa interpreting Black Bolt's sign language), a brotherly betrayal and a military coup, a confrontation between Medusa (and her hair-raising power) and Maximus, Karnak's mental fighting prowess, and Black Bolt's being transported into Earth.  A human named Louise has been exposed to a substance that alters the Inhuman gene.  The substance appears on Earth, alarming the king, who then sends his cousin Triton to investigate, save Inhumans and bring them back.

The showrunner talked about having relatable characters who happen to have superpowers.  These Inhumans, who have depended on superpowers all their lives, may find that having them are not always helpful to solve problems.

While the show didn't grab me from the start like the CW superhero shows, to be fair, I would have to see the pilot to make an informed opinion.  "Inhumans" will be on my fall roster.


Miscellaneous TV Shows & Panels

Syfy brought in several minutes of trailer of "Krytpton" and a mini panel (showrunners Cameron Welsh and Damian Kindler, and star Cameron Cuffe).  The show reimagines the backstory of Superman's grandfather in his home planet before its destruction 200 years before the events in the "Man of Steel" movie.  The House of El rises up against tyranny and is thrown into the bottom of society.  The story involves time travel from the present time and a conspiracy to prevent Superman's legacy from happening.  It is a story about sacrifice and triumph.  Adam Strange and Hawkwoman will appear on the show.   Villain will include Brainiac.

Time-travel show "Timeless"(NBC) made history this past spring when it was cancelled and brought back three days later after fans fiercely made their collective voice known in social media.  A very grateful panel, creators (Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan) and stars (Abigail Spencer, Matt Lanter, Malcolm Barrett and Goran Visnjic) showed up to show their appreciation and answer questions from fans (plot, character arcs, favorite scenes such as time period and costumes), including their indescribable reactions to the show cancellation and return.   Spencer was especially vocal in her gratitude.  The creators  promised to deliver a comeback in January 2018.

I don't watch fantasy police procedural dramedy "Lucifer" (Fox), so I left shortly after the panel (which featured stars such as Tom Ellis and Tricia Helfer) started.  From the footage and audience's reaction, the show looks like devilish fun and has quite a bit of following.

NBC had a pilot and a full panel with "Midnight, Texas" novel author and cast (Fran├žois Arnaud, Dylan Bruce, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Arielle Kebbel, Sarah Ramos, Peter Mensah, Yul Vazquez, Jason Lewis), stumping for the summer horror offering.  If you like horror and supernatural, you may want to check it out.


While I didn't explore much this year, I partially attended an intriguing presentation of the "State of the Iron Man Tech," attended by Gravity Founder, Richard Browning and stuntwoman Zoe Bells ("Iron Man," "Inglorious Bastards"), showing onscreen the invention and experiment of a real exosuit.  Unfortunately, due to a time conflict, I wasn't able to attend the press-only session for a private demonstration of the suit.

Far from making Iron Man a reality, it shows that it's possible to have a wearable, flying suit (although it's more like hovering for now).  Although it does take a quite a bit of practice, and a rigorous training regimen, in order to be able to operate the suit.  It's a combination of high tech and peak physicality.  You can view Browning's demonstration on Youtube here.

Inside of the exhibit halls, I visited the "Alien Covenant" attraction.  Visitors were invited into a a chamber to undergo 'Colonist Certification Test' to determine their suitability for the next colonization mission.  A cosplayer, acting like a synthetic greeted participants and warned that the images depicted onscreen might be too graphic for the younger ones.  Sirens blared and screen after screen depicted grotesque alien attacks on humans.  Finally, a live person behind the door crying out for help, but she wasn't able to get out, leaving blood splatters behind.  Participants received a set of collectible pins.  Creatively speaking, having an interactive component and a personalized ID badge or photo inside the chamber would have been neat.

Among notable exhibits were Justice League's Batmobile, Thor: Ragnarok's costumes and headpiece, Ghost in the Shell's silicon shell, It's yellow raincoat and red balloon.

Here's to Comic-Con 2018!

[click to enlarge pictures]

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Comic-Con 2017: Free Tasty Treat

[For a blast from the past, check out these recaps from years past! 

If you're in the San Diego area, head downtown and enjoy the sights, sounds... and taste of Comic-Con celebration.  In addition to the free attractions for those without badges, Hard Rock Cafe is hosting a 'Kingsman' Happy Hour.  Enjoy a FREE Poppy Burger and Statesman Whiskey Cocktail!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

"Spider-Man: Homecoming"

Marvel finally comes swinging with the web-slinger as one of its newest superheroes.  After his exuberant introduction in "Captain America: Civil War" last year, Tom Holland's ("The Impossible") Spider-Man arrives at your friendly neighborhood theaters.   With "Wonder Woman" out of the way, "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is expected to cast a far-reaching web to become one of the biggest box office hits this summer.

How would you top a scene-stealing role in a mega ensemble of superheroes movie?  By going small in scope.  With a youthful spirit and similar vibe to "Ant-Man," the movie feels dissimilar to most Marvel movies, yet it's clearly Marvel's, especially with the appearance of Tony Stark/Iron-Man (Robert Downey, Jr., "The Judge") and a virtual cameo of another acclaimed Avenger.

We meet Peter back in his hometown, Queens, NY.  A high school student, he is juggling homework, tests, girl crush, homecoming dance, debate team and detention.  The smallest detail makes things real, like having to ask Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, "The Ides of March") to buy another backpack since his has gone missing from the alley where he left it so that he could engage in his crime-fighting extracurricular activity.

Mostly handling petty misdeeds, Peter eagerly awaits his next mission with the superheroes league.  Tony is not so keen though.  'Don't call us, we'll call you,' sums up the instruction he gives to his young protege.  Although he does gift Peter a Spider-Man suit, upgraded with high-tech features, which lead to some amusing scenes.

Not willing to stay back, Peter pursues a trail of a more dangerous crime, which puts him as a target of Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Michael Keaton; "The Founder," "Spotlight").  Vulture is an ordinary guy who turns into an illicit life in order to provide for his family.  He and his crew were pushed out by the Department of Damage Control from cleaning up the aftermath of the alien invasion showdown with the Avengers.  He managed to salvage some of the Chitauri technology, which he uses to develop weapons for sale in the black market, in addition to equipping himself with a weaponized wing suit.

The action set pieces are thrilling.  The movie picks up the pace with the Washington Monument incident, a standout especially in 3-D.  Spider-Man breathlessly scales the full height of the monument, creates a momentum high up in the air to crash into the glass window in order to catch a falling elevator.  Webbing the split-in-half Staten Island ferry is another.  And affixing himself to an invisible jet while fighting off Vulture.  The most tense moment with Vulture cleverly occurs on the ground, however.  In a single, seemingly innocuous exchange in a car.

"Spider-Man: Homecoming" is more about Peter Parker than Spider-Man.  Unlike Tobey Maguire ("Pawn Sacrifice") and Andrew Garfield ("The Social Network"), Holland was in the last of his teen years when the movie was filmed and he really does look like a high school teenager.  Absent is the angst of his predecessors, but Peter is unmistakably a total nerd, awkward with a goofy charm.  Marvel wisely skips showing the radioactive spider bite origin and heaviness of  the death of Uncle Ben, making this a different take, keeping it light and fizzy.  Yet, the movie still manages to sneak a couple of twists.

After five Spider-Man movies from Sony, it's quite a homecoming.  "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is fresh, fun and fantastic.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

"Wonder Woman"

[For a live panel with director Patty Jenkins, check out the 2017 WonderCon recap here]

In "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," Wonder Woman makes a striking entrance on the battleground.  Gal Gadot looks fantastic as a warrior princess and more than holds her own, fighting alongside Superman and Batman.  She was, in fact, the highlight of that movie.

"Wonder Woman" is arguably the most anticipated movie of the year, or dare I say, generations.  Even as superhero movies have reigned supreme, there hasn't been a credible one with a female lead.  Now that "Wonder Woman" has arrived at the theaters, how does her origin story fare?  In a word, wondrous.

Formed from clay and brought to life by Zeus, Diana was raised in Themyscira, a hidden island inhabited by all-female Amazonian warriors.  The island is a breathtaking sight, with soaring stone walls, clifftop meadows and craggy sea cliffs towering over azure waters.  Life is paradise.

The leaders, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and General Antiope (Robin Wright), have divergent point of views about how to raise Diana.  As her mother, Hippolyta wants to protect Diana from the world, whereas Antiope believes that the best way to truly protect her is to train her to be a strong warrior so that she can defend herself should the situation ever calls for it.  Young Diana, who has the aptitude for fighting skills, is eventually trained and trained harder than any other and grows up to be the fiercest fighter.

When a plane crash lands into the island, carrying a British pilot and spy, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, "The Finest Hours," "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," "Unstoppable"), Diana plunges into sea and saves his life.  Steve is not alone, however.  Hot on his trail is the German army, hunting him down for a notebook that belongs to General Ludendorff (Danny Huston).  The notebooks contains the work of a malicious chemist, Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya).  They are building a chemical weapon, poison gas that would annihilate everyone on its path.  A shoreside fight between the Amazonians and the armed soldiers ensues. Even with a dazzling display of balletic combat and archery dexterity by the warriors, there are casualties on the Amazonians' side.

Diana, raised with a belief that Ares, the God of War vanquished by Zeus, may still be alive and return to corrupt and harm mankind, grabs a special sword, shield and lasso and sails off with Steve, following him back to London.  She naively believes that Ludendorff is Ares and that if she defeats him, his death would end all wars.  In reality, things are not that simple, of course.

Back in the modern world, Steve is not able to convince the government about his plan to take down Ludendorff.  He goes rogue and recruits a few good men to embark on his own mission.  Diana, tagging along for the journey, is shaken by the horrors of the war, encountering the wounded and the dead.  Revealing herself as Wonder Woman, she is even more determined to save the world, first by crossing through No Man's Land, fighting and dodging bullets, allowing a safer passage for the men.  There is a high spot when she leaps from a makeshift shield and crashes into a tower.

The movie balances the dramatic (even very moving) scenes with comedic ones.  Gadot and Pine share a natural chemistry.  Any preconceived concerns about Gadot being cast as Wonder Woman will be gone.  She is athletic and graceful, exudes the right amount of charisma, innocence and conviction.  There is a sense of exuberance lighting her spirit.  A capable and credible fighter with a heroic heart, she chooses to venture into the world truly out of a sense of moral duty.  Pine's Steve is world-weary, courageous, charming and humorous.  He is not merely a comical sidekick or damsel in distress here.  As a matter of fact, based on his selfless, valiant actions to stop the genocide, he is a hero in his own right.

The fish-out-water scenes, where Diana encounters a man for the first time and not quite knowing how to act in the men's world, bring the needed levity that prevent the movie (essentially a war movie along the lines of "Captain America: The First Avenger") from being dark and grim.

The action scenes and visual effects are triumphant.  The glorious soundtrack is particularly memorable.  But more importantly, as promised by director Patty Jenkins, the story has heart, humor, heroism and humanity.  It's a  superhero fantasy adventure, war drama, action and romance with a heroine that embodies truth, peace, love, courage and compassion.  Even with all the darkness in the world, we can always choose light.

"Wonder Woman," simply put, is a wonder.


[Costume display at Comic-Con 2016]

Sunday, April 9, 2017

"Ghost in the Shell"

The opening of the live action adaption of the Japanese anime, "Ghost in the Shell," is nothing short of eye-catching.  A human brain is encased in metal and fused into a full synthetic shell.  The mechanized skeleton is then immersed in a blood red and milky white liquid.  It emerges in a perfect humanoid form.

A shell-shocked woman (Scarlett Johansson; "The Avengers" series, "Her") saved from a near-death incident wakes up in a lab, finding that her brain is intact, but the rest of her is manufactured, courtesy of a corporation named Hanka Robotics.  The lead scientist that greets her, Dr. Ouellet (Juliette Binoche), seems caring, but something ominous is going on.  The CEO of the corporation, Cutter, (Peter Ferdinando), solely treats the woman as an asset, a weapon that must be controlled.

A year later, that woman becomes Major, commander of Section 9, a terrorist-fighting unit led by a Japanese chief, Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano).  Major, accompanied by right-hand man Batoe (Pilou Asbaek), leads a team of cyber-enhanced people to fight crimes. One of those crimes is a major hacking and murders of Hanka scientists done by a mysterious being named Kuze (Michael Pitt). Those scientists worked Project 2571, a secret project that birthed Major.

When Major tracks down Kuze and finally connects with him, she finds that her existence may not be what it seems.  And that the medication supplied from Hanka is intended to suppress her memory about her past.

Visually, the movie encapsulates a depressing vision of the world where cyborgs are all the rage and cyber crimes are even more threatening.  Director Rupert Sanders ("Snow White and the Huntsman") uses a moody palette, illuminating the futuristic megapolis with looming holograms and neon lights, and using slow motion in capturing Major's movements in all her sleek beauty and translucency.  Diving down from a skyscraper, rising above a shallow pool, shattering tower glass and sliding into attack mode.  Although as arresting as the aesthetics are, they get a bit monotone after a while.

The premise has potentials, exploring life as a human with a robotic body and what it means for humanity if someone like Major is mass-produced.

The whitewashing, while controversial, is a non-issue in the context of this story, as it has an explanation.  What's more notable is the story only goes surface-deep, halting at the stage where Major discovers her identity.  It could  have spent more time on the backstory and character development, and less on fancy fights.  It's hard to care when you hardly know the characters.  A much better film three years ago, "Ex-Machina," delivers both on the futuristic visual and philosophical level.

"Ghost in the Shell" is a shiny shell.  It's pretty to look at, but lacking in soul.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"Beauty and the Beast"

Two years ago, the lushly gorgeous and opulently vibrant "Cinderella" was so earnest and charming it swept me away with its dreamy fairy tale romance and magic of happily ever after.  The bars are set high for Disney's next live adaptation, Bill Condon-directed "Beauty and the Beast."  Not only a fairy tale classic, but also a musical.

Emma Watson ("Harry Potter" series)  is Belle.  Not your average pretty girl, she is  bright and bookish with an independent mind and adventurous spirit.  The vibrant opening number, where Belle sings her way into the hustle and bustle of the town square says it all.  A young woman ahead of her time, Belle always feels there has to be more than this simple provincial life.

One day, her artist and inventor father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), gets lost on the way home after a long trip.  All of a sudden, a summer night turns snowy and he stumbles upon a gothic castle.  He runs out after initially seeking shelter and food, spooked by the eeriness inside.  Prior to leaving, he cuts a single rose from the garden as a gift for Belle.  He is caught by Beast (Dan Stevens) and imprisoned in the dungeon.

When Maurice's horse returns home without him, a worried Belle rides into the woods and traces her father's path, leading her to  the castle.  While scared by Beast, she willingly trades herself for her father's freedom and becomes Beast's prisoner.

To Belle's amazement, she comes across animated household appliances; Lumiere candleabra (Ewan McGregor; "The Impossible," "Perfect Sense," "Haywire"), Cogsworth clock (Ian McKellen, "X-Men" series), Mrs. Potts teapot (Emma Thompson, "Saving Mr. Banks"), Chip teacup (Nathan Mack), Plumette feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, "Miss Sloane"), Madame Garderobe wardrobe cabinet (Audra McDonald), Maestro Cadenza harpsichord (Stanley Tucci, "The Hunger Games" series).

The uproarious movements and interactions among the anthropomorphic characters make the movie very entertaining.  The magical dining show with flying flatware they put up for Belle dazzles.  And don't underestimate their feisty fighting style when the situation calls for it later in the story.

Belle was determined to escape at first.  But she is let out of the dungeon, given her own room, and allowed to roam pretty freely.  Except into the one forbidden section of the castle.  It is where Beast's bewitched rose is kept, encased in a glass dome.

As in the original, Beast is a cursed prince. A partying prince with no regard for the common folks, he refuses to help a bedraggled woman, who turns out to be an enchantress.  Here the prince is given a brief backstory why he became the way he was.  The enchantress cursed the prince into a ghastly beast and transformed his loyal servants into those animated household wares.  She also went to cast a spell over the land, enabling people to forget about the prince and the castle dwellers.

If the last petal of the rose falls and Beast hasn't earned to love and be loved by another, he would remain forever in his transmogrified form.  His servants, would turn into inanimate objects, which makes the stake higher.

Returning into town, Maurice tells the residents about the existence of Beast and beseeches them to save his beloved Belle.  Gaston (Luke Evans; "The Girl on the Train," "Immortals"), a vainglorious war veteran vying for Belle's heart, firstly puts a show of lending a hand, before leaving Maurice in the dust.  He then kicks up a storm, corralling the villagers to attack the castle and kill Beast.  No amount of fun tavern dancing scenes could mask Gaston's true, gruesome color.  His jovial sidekick, Le Fou (Josh Gad; "Jobs," "Love & Other Drugs"), really deserves better.

An incident with the wolves and wounded Beast is a turning point in Belle's and Beast's relationship.  Belle begins to see a protector and tender side of Beast, underneath his monstrous exterior and brusque manner. They connect through books and humor.  They take peaceful walks and play snowball fights.  The iconic candlelit dance is luminous.  Belle's golden gown, appearing feather-light, glows in the ballroom.  Eventually Beast does the ultimate sacrifice, which breaks the curse.

The special effects are mixed, varying from very realistic to limited.  A couple of things could look more alive or offer more moving range.  But the movie is a sumptuous visual feast with a seamless musical.

You can't help but be all smiles when eternal winter turns into spring and the palace is filled with people and celebration of life.  The tale as old as time is enchanting as ever. "Beauty and the Beast" has magic, music and joy.