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Sunday, July 18, 2021
Sunday, July 11, 2021
Daughter. Sister. Avenger.
At long last, the movie that has been postponed for more than a year due to the pandemic and overdue solo for the character of Natasha Romanoff, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, “The Avengers” series, “Captain America: Civil War,” “Captain America: Winter Soldier,“ “Iron Man 2,” “Hail, Caesar!,” "Her") arrives at the theaters. Is it still relevant? Heck, yeah.
The movie is both an origin and mid-prequel story, taking back to Natasha's childhood in America and the period of time between “Captain America: Civil War” and '”Avengers: Infinity War.” Along with her younger sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), she's raised by her Russian parents, Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz, “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” “The Bourne Legacy,” “Runaway Jury”), in a suburban Midwest neighborhood. Their seemingly idyllic life came to an abrupt halt when one night they had to flee the authorities and make a daring, harrowing escape back to their home country, Russia.
Fast forward to over two decades later, as one of the Avengers that supports Team Cap, Natasha is on the run for refusing to submit to the Sokovia Accords, an international law that requires superheroes to be registered and monitored.
While in a hideout, Natasha discovers a message and mysterious vials sent to her by her long lost sister, Yelena. She's suddenly attacked by a robotic assassin, who is after the vials, and narrowly escapes. Those red liquid are antidotes that would deprogram trained assassins, mind-controlled by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone, "Snow White and the Huntsman") a control center called the Red Room. These young women were trafficked as children, trained in martial arts and weaponry, and embedded in positions all over the world to do his bidding.
Reunited with her sister, Natasha hears that Dreykov, whom she thought was dead, is still alive and in business. The assassin-turned-heroine couldn't help but join in the mission to track down Dreykov, find and destroy the Red Room. In order to do this, they needed the help of their super soldier father, Alexei. From there they find their spy mother, Melina, who has surprises of her own. When the family reunites at the dinner table, it's a mixed of painful past and quirky humor. It's clear that it's not even a typical dysfunctional family.
While the plot may be slim, but the emotional core is there and action nearly non-stop, in close quarters and massive set pieces. From sliding down rooftops and swinging into windows to brutal fights, high speed chases, prison break, avalanche escape and free falls. There's also a twist that reminisces “Captain America: Winter Soldier.”
The movie not only showcases Natasha's reformed spirit and heroic action, but also an excellent introduction to Yelena, who may be carrying the Black Widow mantle following Natasha's fate in “Avengers: Endgame.” Less polished than her older sister, Yelena certainly has her own charms. She pokes fun at Natasha's fighting poses and ribs her about her Avengers family. Pugh looks like she belongs in the Marvel Universe and if the post-credit scene is any indication, her story may not end here.
The movie has Mission Impossible's escapes and Bourne's hand-to-hand combat wrapped in a Bond's sleek style. The parting shot made me feel a bit nostalgic; I will miss Johansson's Black Widow in the Marvel Universe. While the movie should have been released several years ago, it's better late than never. The character finally has a backstory and a closure, and a potential for her legacy to continue on.
Sunday, May 30, 2021
Like “Maleficent,” Disney has done wonders in refashioning the origin story of Cruela de Vil, one of its most heinous villains with “Cruella.” Born as Estella (Emma Stone, “La La Land, ” “The Amazing Spider-Man”), Cruella is more of an anti-hero than a villain here.
As a kid (Tipper Seiferd-Cleveland) with a dual-toned jet black and platinum hair, Estella was viewed as a freak and she got into fights in school. Her sweet-natured mother (Emily Beecham), a single parent, tried to tone down her rebelliousness to keep her out of trouble.
When Estella was expelled from school, she's looking for help for her daughter when she met a tragic end, leaving Estella orphaned and heartbroken with guilt. On the run, Estella ran into two other homeless kids, Horace (Joseph Macdonald, Paul Walter-Hausher) and Jasper (Ziggy Gardner, Joel Fry), and they quickly banded together.
The trio grows up together on the streets of London, from pocket-picking to more brazen thievery to survive, utilizing Estella's fashion talent to create disguises, accompanied by their dogs which are trained to steal. The scenes are hysterical; one of them leads to Estella snagging a menial job at a legendary department store, House of Liberty.
An unintended incident shows off Estella's innate talent as an aspiring fashion designer, which leads to Estella being discovered by a merciless fashion maven, Baroness von Hellman, (Emma Thompson). The Baroness hires Estella to work for her.
Not only Thompson wears her Devil Wears Prada's narcissistic elitism and tyrannical chilliness down to pat, she dials it up to an unfathomable level. But Estella continues to catch her attention. Having a keen eye for design and natural creative flair, Estella becomes a rising star and the Baroness' go-to assistant.
One day during a meeting, Estella sees something connected to her childhood that shocks her to her core, propelling her to plot a series of events against the Baroness. It's devilishly entertaining to see an enemy on the inside in action. A failed Mission Impossible's type of heist opens Estella's eyes further and makes her realize the extent of the Baroness' savagery. Her cruelty knows no bounds.
If a human could grow a devil's horns out of her head, Estella would have as she stares down pure evil. Brilliant, bad and a little bit mad, Stone is emotionally raw and icily determined, as fabulous in her performance as draped in luxurious fabric.
Estella goes by the name of Cruella, the nickname bestowed to her in childhood. She shows up at the Baroness' galas, stylishly upstaging her at every turn, whether in a lavish clifftop mansion or on the street with the masses.
Cruella rambunctiously rocks the scenes in glamorous gowns and vivid colors, bringing in glowing lights and live music. The elaborate stunts are lapped up by the press and fans, and tank the Baroness' popularity and haute couture sales. The vicious rivalry cycle, while vivacious, overflows and could use a little scissor's cut.
Cruella's over-the-top stratagems finally catch up to her, but not all is lost. Fate twists again and turns around in unexpected ways. Precisely prepared and setting her mark on the Baroness, the final act goes down in a dramatic Kingman's action and is unmistakably satisfying. Amidst the superficiality of decadent fashion and high society, the story has layers of twists and characters sharply play off each other.
Fashionably extravagant, twistedly tragic and deliriously hilarious, “Cruella” is wickedly entertaining.
Sunday, May 23, 2021
After a record-breaking 437 days due to the once-in-a-century pandemic, the skies open up and the angels sing... no matter how many streaming choices I've got and how awesome they can be or how enjoyable outdoor drive-in theaters are, it's not nearly the same as watching movies on the giant screen and surround sound in an indoor theater.
The State of California is finally opening up and while any movie could be as good as any, in the end, it's not a superhero blockbuster or fast action franchise that drew me in. It's a low-key romcom filmed in Ireland. Ireland, with its panoramic lush greenery, is one of the countries I'd love to return to visit someday.
Seven years ago on the day before New Year's day, dressed in five layers deep, I stood shivering at the Cliffs of Moher, nearly blown away, engulfed in one of the worst winter storms. The cliffs were nearly invisible, shrouded in thick fog, and howling wind and freezing rain whipping the entire area.
After working so hard and failing at an audition for the prestigious Manhattan Conservatory of Music, Finley Sinclair (Rose Reid), a technically accomplished, aspiring violinist decides to take a semester abroad in a coastal countryside of Ireland. Her belated brother did that once and it changed his life.
A meet cute on the plane with a movie star, Beckett Rush (Jedidiah Goodacre), and a later encounter at the bed & breakfast owned by Finley's host family set them both on self-discovery paths. The host family, who used to host Finley's brother years ago, adds a hilarious flair with their hospitality and warmth. The movie unexpectedly has numerous laugh-out-loud scenes.
Beckett, the jaded teen heartthrob in a Game of Throne-sque movie series, has his whole life planned for him by his overly controlling father and manager, Montgomery Rush (Tom Everett Scott). His on-and-off romance with longtime co-star, Taylor Risdale (Katherine McNamara), and the drama surrounding it, is frequently fabricated for the purpose of keeping the buzz alive for the movie and making it successful at all costs.
Beckett's relationship with Finley makes him look deeper about what he really wants to do with his life. But it's not just his life that he needs to think about; as a bankable movie star who's been pushed to sign future contracts, his decision will impact everyone else around him.
Finley is on her own journey too. Being away from home, a refreshing change of scenery, the opportunity to let loose and play fiddle along with welcoming Irish folks relaxes her and gives her confidence, enabling her to put her heart into her performance.
At the same time, Finley tries hard to make a connection with a quarrelsome, reticent nursing home patient, Cathleen Sweeney (Vanessa Redgrave, "Letters to Juliet"), who is assigned to her as part of her school program. The lonely elderly woman has been shunned for decades by the villagers due to something she did in her past.
Finley, caring by nature, attempts to find out what really happened and help Cathleen. This side storyline is surprisingly tear-jerking. She is also on a personal mission to find one particular graveyard cross found in her brother's drawing on the journal given by her host family.
Cliches aside, if you long for a feel-good gem, spectacular scenery that may inspire you to dream of traveling again, lively Irish music and pub toe-tapping dancing, a coming-of-age romance with a generous side of funny and poignancy, “Finding You” may just be what you're looking for.
Tuesday, May 4, 2021
Superhero fans... Assemble! Disney has a dozen superhero movies coming up... check out the epic flashbacks to the last decade, teaser trailers for "Black Widow," "Sang Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings," and "The Eternals," and full titles reveal for Marvel's Phase 4.
Here's the exciting lineup, 2021-2023:
Black Widow - July 9, 2021
Sang Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings - September 3, 2021
The Eternals - November 5, 2021
Spider-Man: No Way Home - December 17, 2021
March 25, 2022 - Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Thor: Love and Thunder - May 6, 2022
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever - July 8, 2022
The Marvels - November 11, 2022
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania - February 17, 2023
Guardians and the Galaxy Vol. 3 - May 5, 2023
Blade - TBD
Fantastic Four - TBD
For past reviews, check out:
See y'all at the movies!!
Sunday, April 18, 2021
Are we there yet? Could it be real that a blockbuster season is returning? For all intents and purposes, 2021 will be the year of a comeback, albeit slowly.
Nearly 40 films are set for wide release in the next several months. Here's a viewing guide with some trailers:
Cruella - May 28
Luca - June 18
F9 (Fast & Furious) - June 25
Black Widow - July 9
Reminiscence - August 27
Sunday, March 14, 2021
Set in an idyllic realm of Kumandra, humans and dragons once lived in harmony. When a monster plague called Druun appeared and turned humans into stone, the dragons teamed up to save the world but got wiped out in the process, except one dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina, “Crazy Rich Asians”). The dragons’ essence was distilled into a glowing orb to help preserve the future of mankind.
500 years later, the once united land is divided into five kingdoms, named after key parts of a dragon – desert Tail, water-floating Talon, mountainous forest Heart, icy frigid Spine and sleek Fang. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is the Heart princess, trained by her father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) to guard the dragon gem, which also contains Sisu’s spirit.
When the clans convene, Raya is tricked by the Fang princess, Namaari (Gemma Chan, “Crazy Rich Asians”), whom she has befriended, into revealing the location of the orb. When the tribes find out, it’s every tribe for itself, fighting for the orb. The magical ball breaks and every tribe grabs each piece. Drunn is unleashed, engulfing everything on its path and once again turning humans into statues.
A half dozen years later, a grown-up Raya riding a gigantic pill bug Tuk-Tuk (Alan Tudyk) is seen traversing from one land to another, trying to find Sisu and the gem pieces. When she finds Sisu, she discovers that the revered dragon is not all-powerful and actually more on the goofy side. The shape-shifting water dragon is quickly attached to Raya's side, delivering zany one-liners and teaching moments.
Raya unintentionally assembles a ragtag team across her adventures to help her collect and unite the broken gems in order to return Kumandra into life – young porridge restaurateur Boun (Izaac Wang), baby pickpocket Little Noi (Thalia Tran) and her cute animal sidekicks, and giant Tong (Benedict Wong, “Doctor Strange”).
Fang, however, proves to be a formidable foil. The one-on-one fights between the warrior princesses look fiercely realistic. Still feeling betrayed by Namaari, Raya learns Sisu's belief in the inherent goodness of others; she has to learn to move on and trust again, putting aside individual differences. Namaari also learns about the power of trust, and unity for the collective good of humanity.
The varied landscapes are lavishly illustrated and resplendently lit, resulting in sceneries with distinct color palettes and character. The dragons soar and frolick fluidly, to the likes of “How to Train Your Dragon.” The floating market, shrimp congee, family style meals, bamboo straw hat, keris-inspired sword, martial arts and music that fuses Southeast Asian instruments are easily recognizable elements from the region.
Growing up in Southeast Asia, I couldn't recall any movies about the region that made it global. Even after migrating to the United States and living here for more than a couple of decades, it wasn't until “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018 that Southeast Asia was put on the map.
While “Raya and the Last Dragon” is set in a melting pot of mystical landscapes and composite cultures, kudos to Disney for realizing a luxuriantly rendered animation, bringing together the diversity of Southeast Asian countries. It’s reported that directors Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”) and Carlos Lopez Estrada spent time trekking through the areas to gain inspirations for the movie. The studio also utilizes Asian American and Southeast Asian talents; voice actors, writers, singers and music producers in creating the movie.
If there’s a minor reservation, “Raya and the Last Dragon” takes a very simplistic view of the morale of the story, but humans are not always black or white and the world is considerably more complex.
Despite its regional cultural focus, trust is a universal theme and it has the power to heal broken bonds and strengthen relationships. And creating a better world is not a solo venture; it takes a village.
Sunday, February 14, 2021
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Saturday, January 23, 2021
Joe (Jamie Foxx, “The Amazing Spider Man 2”), a middle school music teacher in New York likes his job, but he has far bigger aspirations and and would love to be a professional jazz pianist. When he is offered a tenured position by the school, full-time with benefits, he remains hesitant, to the puzzlement of his mother. One day his dream is coming true as his drummer friend invites him to audition for a coveted spot in a band led by a legendary jazz singer, Dorothea (Angela Bassett, “Black Panther”). Joe impresses the singer with his performance and he's granted the spot.
On cloud nine and not paying attention to where he's going, Joe falls down into a deep hole on the road. In this purgatory realm, he's floating towards the darkness of Great Beyond, which means he would say goodbye to the world before he even could realize his lifelong dream of playing alongside Dorothea and becoming a successful jazz pianist.
Determined not ending up on the Great Beyond, Joe somehow ends up in the glowing, pastel-colored Great Before, which is the realm where all the cute baby souls reside before they're born transported into Earth and born into humans. All souls are given personalities, but in order to materialize into the world of living, they must have the last piece of the ingredient, which is “spark.” Guided by counselors and mentors, the souls attend classes and try to find their sparks.
Joe meets a forever-cynical and self-doubting soul named 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has never been able to find her spark and thus hasn't been able to be be born, even as they go through the Hall of Everything and explores what kinds of activities that would would trigger 22's interest. Joe, whose jazz piano-playing has been his singular passion and being a professional player is his life purpose, couldn't comprehend why it's so hard for 22 to find something that is right for her. So much so that 22 doesn't even want to be born and can't muster any excitement of living in the human world.
With the help of Moonwind (Graham Norton), a mystic, Joe and 22 end up in New York City. New York City is sharply rendered that it's so realistic-looking. Of course, the transport to the land of living is not without mishap. Cue in body-swap antics and you'll have Joe vicariously experiences 'day in the life' of his human form through 22. Meanwhile, 22, a total skeptic, is learning and taking in the new experiences of living as a human. The good, the simple pleasures, even the mundanes and nuisances.
Seeing his life play out through the eyes of another, Joe notices things that he didn't before as he lived his life previously either going through the motion or always felt that it wasn't enough. That he wasn't enough and that if he didn't accomplish his purpose his life of being a professional jazz pianist, he would be a failure. He's also surprised by how it feels like once the lifelong goal is achieved. If jazz is his everything, how is he supposed to feel and what comes next? The movie could spend a little more time on this so it wouldn't feel a bit rushed, but as an animation, the narrative is well-understood.
Passion is great, and so is having a purpose in life, and we can aspire to do great things and work towards those. But be mindful of having a singular, all-consuming ambition. Don't go through life perpetually chasing things and not enjoying the little moments... because when you reach your destination, you will have missed the journey entirely.
While simplified, “Soul” offers a soulful and sparkly treat of being alive and the joy of living.
Monday, January 4, 2021
New year, new movies? Yes and no.... Out of the 40 most anticipated movies, 27 (!) movies are 2020's movies that have been postponed and moved to 2021.
Check out this link below for release dates, scoops and more: (please note schedules may be subject to change due to COVID-19)
40 most anticipated movies of 2021:
Here's to a better new year!
Sunday, December 27, 2020
In a year where essential workers make heroic sacrifices every day, fantasy superheroes may seem silly, but “Wonder Woman 1984” maybe just what we need.
The movie opens in the idyllic island of Themyscira with some sort of Amazonian Olympics. A young Diana Prince, astoundingly portrayed by Lilly Aspell, participates in the grueling competition with the best of them; running, climbing, self-balancing, sliding, leaping, swimming in the ocean, shooting arrows and riding in the mountainous jungle. The first to make it back to the gladiator-like arena and shoot the final arrow first will win.
While Diana can perform the acrobatic moves and endurance challenges superbly, this is where she learns the lessons of honesty and truth, “No true hero is born of lies.” Little did she know that this formative experience will vastly influence her life later on and save the world. This sequestered sequence, with marvelous landscapes and impressive feats, are memorably breathtaking that I hope a spinoff will be made about these Amazonian warriors. The end-credit scene also justifies that there's more to tell about the Amazonians' lives.
Fast forward from the World War I era of “Wonder Woman,” the movie is set in the 1984. The 1980s lends itself to a rad nostalgia, brassy and colorful. Wonder Woman's first major act here smoothly captures a jeweler's armed robbers and save a couple of little girls with a nod and a wink. It turns out that the jewelry store is a front for a back room where stolen jewels and artifacts from all the world are stored.
Diana (Gal Gadot, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Justice League”) is now an archaeologist with the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. She ends up befriending a new colleague, gemologist Dr. Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig).
Nerdy and insecure, Barbara is regularly overlooked, disregarded, dished about and harassed, and thus she wishes to be like Diana, with her effortless elegance and cool confidence. Diana though, even with all her power and beauty, can't seem to forget her first love from all those years ago, fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, “Unstoppable,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”).
One of the artifacts that arrives in the museum and under Barbara's care is a certain stone. It's shortly revealed that the ancient artifact has a mystical power. Barbara gradually transforms from a meek-mannered wallflower into a head-turner, hardened challenger and furry apex predator. Her vengeful transfiguration, while drastic, is believable. Steve's return touches Diana deeply. While there may be some ethical implications about the way he returns, digging deeper here doesn’t fit into the lighthearted mode of the movie.
Steve’s fish-out-of-water scenes, encountering modern appliances, style and technology are delightful, a reversal of Diana's foray into the human world in the first installment. There's a romantic moonlit stroll against the backdrop of the Washington Monument and a nighttime airplane ride through and above fireworks-lit skies. A surprising appearance in this ride adds a thrilling touch.
Barbara becomes entangled with Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a garish infomercial talking head and phony businessman turned into maniacal oil tycoon. His only saving grace is his love for his son. Maxwell makes a large investment in the museum in order to gain access to the magical stone. He gets his hands on it, and as it can be predicted, it doesn't bode well for mankind. Maxwell's descend into madness fits into the gaudy period and comical flair of the movie.
The story drags on and gets muddled in the middle where Maxwell's ambition leads him to Cairo, leading Diana and Steve on an intense chase with trucks and armored tanks on a desert road. A particular standout involves a flying missile and a golden lasso.
The visual effects are excellent and score triumphant. Like "Man of Steel," it benefits from Hans Zimmer's iconic touch. Director Patty Jenkins was right; this movie deserves to be seen in the biggest theater screen and I could only imagine what a cinematic event it would have been.
Without a sword and shield, the lasso is used creatively in this movie, not just for lassoing people and objects, but also the aforementioned missile, power lines and lightning. It's wondrous to see Wonder Woman gracefully soaring and flying through the skies, feeling in the wind and the air. The final fight between golden-winged and armored Wonder Woman and Cheetah is balletic and fierce.
Gadot continues to be embody Wonder Woman's essence of nobility and humanity. Despite her Goddess-like strength, her vulnerabilities are palpable in her moments with Steve and sprinting through the street with a heartbreaking resolve. A major plus about the villains on this movie is that both Cheetah and Maxwell are very human. Unlike Ares or computer-generated figures, they have flaws that are relatable. After massive, Avengers-style battles that permeate superhero movies these days, it’s also refreshing to see an intimate scale of combat and how a superhero can disarm the enemy differently. The latter is the heart of Wonder Woman.
“Wonder Woman 1984” offers both escapism and virtue lessons that resonate and uplift during this unprecedented time. There's not one of us that wouldn't wish the world to be different. Humans, however, with all our characteristics, impulses and desires are not perfect beings, and thus our wishes reflect those. It’s perilous to have attachments to something or someone, versus striving for values or ideals.
Life is full of challenges and we should acknowledge reality. While we may not always have what we want, we can always hope and strive to be better. Love, compassion, acceptance, truth and courage to do the right thing (no matter how hard) can help heal broken souls and light the world around us. What we believe, say and do make a difference.
The right movie at the right time, “Wonder Woman 1984” is Wonder Woman-personified.
Sunday, November 15, 2020
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