Friends with Benefits: A RomCom Review

There are several reasons to watch Friends with Benefits. One: Mila Kunis is hot. Two: Mila Kunis is frickin’ awesome and three: Yeah, there is also Justin Timberlake. There is also a great parade of the cameos throughout the movie and a great many exchange of funny one-liners. In its own right, Friends with Benefits is not an extraordinary masterpiece, but it is funny, and it is entertaining, and it achieves its objective of providing a 109-minute diversion from reality that audiences shell out money to see in the cinemas.

FWB stars Justin Timberlake as Dylan, a yuppie from LA who runs a popular blogsite. Mila Kunis takes on the role of Jamie, the charming and fun loving headhunter who invites Dylan to New York to interview for a position at GQ magazine. Both are great at their jobs and ultra successful in their careers but they share a similar fate in their personal lives because of their “emotional dysfunctions.” When Dylan decides to take the job, he becomes fast friends with Jamie, whom he clicks with on all levels. They have similar backgrounds, family issues, relationship issues. They get along really nicely and see eye to eye on most things. Being both out of relationships, they agree to have sex without emotional attachments and stay buddies in the process. This is where the situation starts to get hairy.

What really sells the movie, despite the generic plotline (No Strings Attached was released earlier in the year starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, which shares a similar story) is the obvious chemistry between the two lead actors. It was obvious that Kunis and Timberlake were very comfortable with each other thus making their comedic sex scenes effective instead of awkward. Their chemistry also extended to the scenes where they hang out. Their banter just appeared so natural. I liked that they effectively portrayed the shift in their relationship from friendships, to FWB and later on to girlfriend/boyfriend seamlessly without trying too hard. Timberlake’s character was a bit of an a*sh*le in some parts of the movie but somebody has to be the  idiot who comes to a realization in these types of movies, right?

JUST FRIENDS? Jamie and Dylan discuss the benefits of having sex while staying friends.

The story is not rocket science. It does not go the high road, overanalyzing relationships and sprouting a bunch of colorful dialogue that sounds really good but are quite unrealistic. Rather, it shows two flawed characters who try to get back up after each failed attempt at a relationship, realize their mistakes and learn to move forward because of each other’s support.

One really doesn’t expect a lot from watching a chick flick. Just entertainment and the occasional drama that comes towards the end of the movie around 10 minutes before the credits roll (this one did not miss out). I don’t think Friends with Benefits will be winning any acting awards for the leads anytime soon, nor will it be written down in history as one of the greatest romantic comedies ever released. But with its appealing stars, witty dialogue, and generally funky atmosphere, its a great movie to watch with friends in the cinema or on DVD. Please pass the popcorn :-)

Final Destination 5: Horror at its Goriest

When I first found out that Hollywood was making Final Destination 5, I wasn’t very excited. I was very unimpressed with Part 4 and I felt that this was just going to be another attempt to ride the 3D bandwagon. However, after watching part 5, I did a complete 360 because I have not had this much fun from seeing horror in while. FD 5 was the bomb!

Final Destination 5 follows the same plot as the four movies before it. Instead of a ____ (fill in the blank with plane crash, road accident, roller coaster derailment, or Nascar accident), a group of eight survivors from a suspension bridge collapse now have to deal with the repercussions of their ” good luck.” Nicolas D’Agosto plays the role of Sam, a guy who works for the paper but who really wants to be a chef. He is the guy who saves his co-workers (including his girlfriend) and gets them off the bus after he has a premonition of their death similar to the earlier installments.

Filmmakers seemed to have upped their game since the lame FD4, which focused on developing the 3D and making a quick buck rather than giving audiences something. Ten minutes into FD5, audiences would feel like they have survived a marathon because of the sheer goriness and brutality of the suspension bridge scene. Never have I seen any hatchet movie or horror flick that shows the same lack of mercy and thrill value as the first 10 minutes of this film. I am not a squeamish person by nature, but I was cringing and screaming with every death scene in this movie. It was that good. It was that interesting and it was that unique. It was that fun. I know a lot of people would be skeptical and say, what haven’t we seen at this point, right? But believe me, this movie will school viewers on what still needs to be learned about the horror genre.

What elevates this movie above the rest is that it was not a chore to watch. It doesn’t try to live up to the hype or its predecessors. It develops its own story and proceeds the way it is supposed to. Viewers don’t need to figure out a great mystery to get their just rewards in the end. The movie follows a basic structure and goes through it in a fast paced sequence but gives the audiences a chance to rest up and absorb the brutality of one death scene before the next one follows.

What’s great about this movie is that everybody knows that the deaths are a given but the scenes will keep audiences guessing until the very end. Before I entered the cinema, I was saying that they would be hard pressed to top the scene in part 2 where the kid got flattened on the street by a glass panel after escaping a near death experience at the dentist but again, I was proven wrong. Credit to the creative team of Final Destination 5. They managed to raise the level of horror to new heights. These guys have thought of a great many ways to get rid of their characters in grisly fashion.

But no matter how I gush about the death scenes, my favorite part is still the connection of the movie to the first Final Destination film. I really didn’t figure it out until it was staring me in the face. There were clues scattered all over the movie leading to it, little ones admittedly, but they were there. I guess the film succeeded to distract me enough from thinking, making the surprise ending doubly awesome.

Final verdict. Not for the faint hearted but great for everyone else. Regardless if you watch it on 3D or 2D, its guaranteed to be awesome! It is not to be missed. This may well be the best in the franchise, and among the best in the genre that I’ve seen. Very very cool.

The Fierce Wife: Taiwan Drama Review

I am kind of liking the shift in Asian dramas nowadays depicting women in roles that are not relegated to the typical damsel in distress. One example is the Taiwan hit The Fierce Wife starring Sonia Sui in the title role as Xie An Zhen, a simple housewife whose life revolves around her husband Rui Fan (Wen Sheng Hao) and her daughter Meng Meng.

An Zhen’s life is considered quite ideal until the arrival of her cousin from the US, Lai Wei En (Amanda Zhu). With Wei En having no place to go, An Zhen not only agrees to take in her cousin but also helps her land a job in her husband’s company. Unbeknownst to her, despite her kindness, her cousin plots to seduce her husband and steal him away from her, and she succeeds. The 23- episode drama follows An Zhen’s evolution from victim to an empowered woman and how she manages to rise from the ruins of her marriage to find her own self worth.

The drama starts off a bit rough, the storytelling a bit slow paced. However, as the episodes progress and as Wei An’s true motives are revealed, one gets hooked to the drama and begins to root for An Zhen, the kind and naive wife, who is being cheated on under her very own home. One can’t help but begin to hate Wei En, who I believe is an effective antagonist who only needs to make a face and throw a bratty snit to get the viewer’s blood pressure boiling. She is such an effective antagonist to the point that even during the time the production tries to establish the justification for her dysfunction, viewers find it hard to connect with her character or feel sympathy for her. I was also not a big fan of Rui Fan, who, instead of trying to work out his dissatisfaction with his marriage, ran into the arms of the treacherous Wei En at the first opportunity. When the repercussions of his adultery caught up with him, I wanted to dance around and celebrate for the shabby manner in which he treated his wife, who did everything to make him feel like a king.

I liked the characters of Kang De and Zhuang Zhuang, An Zhen’s siblings in law, who provided the support she needed when her world was falling apart and also provided vital comic relief to balance out the dramatic tone of the series. I especially liked the character of Chris Wang as Lan Tien Wei, the young entrepreneur who falls in love with An Zhen and helps her develop into the butterfly she was supposed to be all along. He was very cute especially in the scenes where he tries to challenge her to do better and prove to her husband that he made the wrong choice in dumping her in the first place.

I personally am not a big fan of dramas that feature married couples. I prefer the lighter romantic comedies with only a hint of drama in them. But The Fierce Wife got me hooked to it because of the story echoed the realities in many women’s lives. It inspires women to find their inner strength and shows them that with courage and confidence, they can go beyond the stereotypes and reach boundaries beyond their expectations.

And the ending, while it is not straightforward also offers a lot of possibilities for those who deserve it. A very good drama, this one. I highly recommend it. My mom finished it in three days and she could vouch for it as well.

 

Favorite Anime Classics from my childhood

When I was growing up, I watched a lot of cartoons, but some of my favorites and the ones that continue to influence me until this day were anime versions of children’s literary classics. The versions I watched mostly originated from Japan and were aired over free TV in the Philippines in the 1990s. They were dubbed in Filipino, and provided many happy memories and life lessons for children of my generation.

6. Von Trapp Family (adapted from the film The Sound of Music) — This series did not trifle too much with the original material which starred Julie Andrews and instead established and fleshed out Maria’s relationship with the Von Trapp children. The series was filled with heartwarming family values and a lot of music. Something new to look forward to every morning, whether it be Maria’s antics or Baron Von Trapp’s surliness.

5. Peter Pan (adapted from the novel Peter Pan by  James Matthew Barrie) — The animated series was very fun to watch because it put Peter Pan in the center of all the mischief against the villanous Captain Hook. Together with his lost boys and the Darling children Wendy (their mother), John and Michael, Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up provides a foil to each of Hook’s plans to capture him. I especially loved the Filipino dubbing of this series and the character of Hook’s right hand man Smee whose best line was Opo Kapitan (Yes, Captain). The general tone of the series was magical. It inspires children to accomplish the impossible.

4. Cedie (adpated from Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett) — This series basically shows how a family who has been suffering from wounds of the past is united because of Cedie, the little lord who captures his grumpy grandfather’s (The Duke) heart and teaches him how to be more compassionate not only to his mother, the daughter in law that he does not approve of, but also towards the people working in his court.

3. Sarah, the Little Princess (adapted from the novel A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett) — Perhaps one of the animated classics replayed at least five times in different timeslots because of its overwhemning success in ratings, Sarah, the daughter of a rich miner, touches the hearts of viewers when she sudddenly becomes an ophan and is forced to work as a maid in the boarding school of Miss Minchin, the villainess of the piece. Sarah, despite her privileged background does her best and manages to survive her new status in life with the help of her new friends and and her innate kindness. Sarah is definitely a poster child for positive karma as the ending will prove.

2. Judy Abbot (adapted from the novel Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster) — The series follows the life of Jerusha “Judy” Abbot, a spunky orphan who has a knack for getting into trouble. Judy gets the opportunity to go to college to pursue her dream of becoming a writer with the help of one of the trustees of the John Grier home (where she grows up) whom she refers to only as Daddy Long Legs. The series chronicles the adventures of Judy in school as she grows up and deals with adolescent issues, living in poverty, falling in love. All of these she confides in her letters to her mysterious benefactor, whom she finds out in the end is someone who is no stranger to her.

1. The Dog of Flanders (adapted from the novel A Dog of Flanders by Marie Louise de la Ramee ) — The original novel was written  in 1872 about a boy Nello and his dog Patrasche, but the story would speak to generations and generations to come as the one story that touches the hearts no matter what language or medium. The story is set in Belgium and illustrates the struggles of Nello, a poor boy who lost his parents at a young age and lives with his grandfather. Due to poverty, Nello does not go to school and sells milk for a living with the help of his dog Patrasche, an abused dog whom he rescues and becomes his best friend and companion in the years ahead. I cried buckets over this series and it seemed that there was no episode where I did not shed a tear for this innocent soul who was saddled with responsibility so early in life, and was forced to deal with hardships and the cruelty of those who are above his station. I was moved by the genuine love that Nello had with his sickly grandfather and his dog, his never give up attitude, and the sacrifices that he had to go through — hunger, persecution and people’s inability to see through his poverty to discover his artistic skills. Patrasche’s loyalty to his master until the very end is also very touching and contributes to the emotional impact of the entire series.

What is common among these cartoons is that they teach children (and even adult viewers) lessons about becoming better persons. They provide entertainment but at the same time a means for viewers to understand society and how life is not always as it is supposed to be, but how it can be better and how even the actions of one person can effect change. They are fraught with morals  gives children a finer understanding of literary classics, sometimes even inspiring them to pick up the original material which gives them an even bigger insight into the stories.

What I like about these cartoons are that they have meaning. They affect something integral in people that make them unforgettable even after years, decades. A difficult feat to accomplish but there it is. I just wished that they continued making more of these types of animes because even as I like the adventure and action in most cartoons nowadays, its refreshing to return to these animated series that are deeply rooted in character building and inspiration for the viewers.

Originals vs Reboots

A poster of the 2010 reboot featuring Avatar and Terminator's Sam Worthington

When I first saw the Clash of the Titans 2010 version, I didn’t like it. I thought it was an inferior reboot of the 1981 original featuring Harry Hamlin as Perseus and Laurence Olivier as Zeus, which I incidentally watched when I was in high school sometime in the 90s. My first complaint was that the reboot deviated too much from the original mythology and worse paired up Perseus with Io, who based on Greek Mythology is Perseus’s great great great aunt if not his great grandmother (Check out this chart if you don’t believe me) . The horror! Second sin was in making Pegasus black, which kind of for me deducted from air of magic that a white winged horse presents. Third, the glittery armor worn by the gods of Olympus. Don’t get me wrong. The filmmakers cast the gods beautifully but the shiny armor is kind of distracting. As I kept complaining on the way home, my brother called me on my bluff. We purchased a VCD copy of the original and compared the two version with fresh eyes.

The 1981 Perseus and Pegasus vs the Kraken. Truly, aside from the uneven transitions and the linear editing, including Pegasus’s cardboard wings,  I still liked the original better, although admittedly it suffers in comparison to sheer bad-assness of the new version. But perhaps that’s mythology buff in me speaking. I chose the original because it had the cuteness of Bobo the Owl and the gods looked like and behaved like they were supposed to — not battle ready but clad in their togas living a life of languid luxury above the clouds, watching over the humans and trifling with their existence as if they were playthings. Considering the technology in the 80s, I would have to say that the movie succeeded in interpreting the material in the best that they can during the period. When I first watched the film in high school (the movie was about a decade and a half old already at this point), it still managed to amaze me and entertain me. When I saw it again for the second time in VCD last year (the movie was 29 years old by this time), some of the magic has been stripped from it, I admit because today’s standards are higher but it still held its own versus the updated version.

Who are you more afraid of? 1982 Conan?

When I watched the Conan the Barbarian reboot last week, I was wondering whether or not I should quit watching remakes of the classics. Although superior in terms of special effects and violence, I thought the remake lacked the vital essence that made the original the spark that catapulted the Governator to superstardom. To be fair, I also purchased a VCD of the 1982 version to compare the two movies, but my original opinion did not change. The original was better than the reboot because the story made more sense. The original version saw a young Conan witnessing the destruction of his village and the slaughter of his people, including his parents by the cult general Thulsa Doom. Together with other children, Conan is sold to become a slave and later a warrior — forced to kill of be killed, thus developing his lack of regard for human life. He is later freed by his master and embarks a quest for revenge to end Thulsa Doom’s reign of terror. The updated movie presented the young Conan as battle ready and bloodthirsty even before he hit puberty.

... or his 2011 counterpart?

The reboot, in my opinion, was too violent which lacks not only a moral lesson but also a relateable hero. If there was anything the original had going for it was that it had a lead who, although at the time had limited acting skills performed his action scenes with a vengeance. Leave us not forget that Schwarzenegger did the movie in the wake of his Mr. Universe win so he was at his peak physical level. Still, he behaved more like a caveman rather than a barbarian but it was a close enough performance. The new Conan had a one-expression actor grunting his displeasure in every scene and an unremarkable cast of villains who sneer and smirk and slit throats every other scene. Ho hum. Nothing we haven’t seen before.

Now, I’m not discounting that some reboots may be better than the the classic. Captain America was great, as is the Dark Knight. The X-men prequel added something to the franchise.  Superman was passable but no way close to the Christopher Reeve classics, and the Hollywood adaptations of Asian horror have been mostly lame, except maybe the first The Ring. So, the rule of the thumb should really be to leave it alone if you’re not going to improve on it, or am I wrong?  Don’t fix what ain’t broken. But then again, maybe is just me.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: A Belated Review

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a 2010 Walt Disney release that is loosely based on a scene in Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse, as a sorcerer’s apprentice attempts to clean up the castle of his master with the use of magic. You might remember this scene as the one with the extensive orchestra scoring and cleaning tools in complete chaos. As it so happens, there is also a poem by Goethe in 1797, Der Zauberlehrling from which the Disney classic was based.

Anyway, the 2010 edition features big name superstars like Nicolas Cage (Balthazar), Monica Belluci (Veronica) and Alfred Molina (Hovax) as three of Merlin’s apprentices, to whom he taught his greatest secrets. Unfortunately, Horvax betrays his master and the wicked sorceress Morgana kills him. In order to prevent Morgana from performing a ritual called the Rising, where she stands to gain power over the deceased Morganians and take over the world, the remaining apprentices Balthazar and Veronica battle Morgana. In order to save Balthazar, Vernonica absorbs Morgana’s spirit into her own body so that Balthazar may trap her into an object called the grimhold (which looks like a Russian doll) until the Prime Merlinean, the only sorcerer strong enough to destroy Morgana once and for all, is found. Centuries later, Balthazar meets 10 year old Dave Stutler, an unlikely candidate for the job but one who was chosen by Merlin’s dragon ring as Merlin’s successor. But it would be another decade before Dave and his master are reunited to fight Horvax, Morgana and her army of dead Morganians to save the world.

The Sorcerer’s Apprenctice is the third time that director Jon Turtletaub has worked with Nicolas cage, whom he collaborated with on the National Treasure franchise. It’s no wonder that Cage was tapped for this role because he brought the character of Balthazar Blake — his loyalty to his master, his torment for his lost love, and his genuine affection for the 20 year old Dave (Jay Baruchel) — to life. Cage delivered his dialogue with ease and confidence that one does not doubt why he was chosen by the great Merlin to find the Prime Merlinean and be his mentor. Alfred Molina provides a great counterperformance to the Cage’s protagonist, delivering to the screen a sense of danger and at the same time an affinity to Balthazar borne out of years of friendship.

As always with a Disney presentation, the special effects and the scoring was flawless. The story was presented in a fashion that holds the audience’s attention for its 109-minute run. The only weakness I saw in the movie was the performance of Jay Baruchel, who is known for his nerdy and geeky roles in the past. It would seem that Baruchel simply took on a page from his book and went on nerd mode, unconcerned about how his performance would affect the dynamics of the movie. At times, the character got so annoyingly dense that audiences would get the urge to smack him in the back of the head just so he would try to listen to Balthazar and understand what is at stake. Most of the time, instead of helping, he becomes the dead weight that Balthazar had to carry with him throughout the mission. While he had his moment in the end, it was too late in the game as all sympathy I should have felt for him was already lost.

All in all, discounting my slight complaint, the movie was quite good. I was glad that I didn’t see it in the cinema though.

 

Shutter (Thailand)

If there was any figure in Asian horror who could give The Ring’s Sadako a run for her money, it would have to be Natre of Shutter. This 2004 Thai film is in my opinion, one of the best horror films in Asia to date not only because of its scary female lead but because of the general air of creepiness that is consistent in the entire movie. It is guaranteed to haunt even the most hardened horror fanatic way after the movie is over.

Shutter’s plot revolves around a young photographer Tum (Ananda Everingham) and his girlfriend Jane (Natthaweeranuch Thongmee) who attend a reunion with Tum’s school buddies and accidentally hit a woman with their car on their way home. Opting to run rather than check if the woman survived the accident, the couple is haunted by supernatural events in the following weeks that they believe is connected to the woman they left for dead. Unbeknownst to them, the haunting is actually linked to a dark secret from Tum’s past, and as the story progresses, the spirit grows stronger and more aggressive. The couple is left with no choice but to get to the bottom of the mystery in a race to save their lives,  with Tum’s gang already picked off one by one, dead from unexplained suicides.

Shutter was a slow starter. The early part of the movie was devoted to a lot of dialogue and establishing that there was indeed something weird going on. The first part tackles folklore about spirits and their connection to the living and generally how to set their souls to rest and it got kind of boring. But then, the mystery started to unfold. Clues were given for the couple to follow, and the movie began to come alive with gusto. The secret is revealed gradually and Tum and Jane start connect the events to Tum’s old flame Natre, a vengeful spirit who is out for revenge for an unknown offense.

The movie’s brilliance lies in its strategic use of pregnant pauses, which is punctuated by scenes with great shock value. The scoring is also very strong as it subtly provides the tones for the scenes. It is mostly quiet and eerie and crescendos as the horror escalates, adding to the chill factor that the supernatural events depict, making the audience’s feelings consistent with what is being shown on screen.  As for the cinematography and the setting of the film, it is very creepy and one would have to think that no one in their right mind would willingly go to the places that the leads go to alone at night, so they are actually in for whatever is in store. But this too, is a great touch for the filmmakers as they do not set up for the predictable route. I saw the film three times and I still get a jolt every time.

Shutter is a combination of old school and new school.  The story approach is very new school while the effects are pretty classic. The special effects are far inferior compared to Hollywood but it manages to deliver the same whopper to its audiences by utilizing graphic depictions of blood and gore, as well as excellent make up. Leave us not forget the stars of the movie, who delivered the emotions of sheer fright with an abandon that leaves no room for vanity. Perhaps, it was the combination of all these that made for such a great scary movie.

As the final conclusion unfolds, goosebumps are completely guaranteed. Sad to say, the Shutter Hollywood remake (2008) did not hold a candle to the original.