Insurgent: Movie Review

Insurgent Film PosterI was very impressed by the film adaptation of Divergent in 2014, that it came naturally for me to wait for the sequel with bated breath. Besides, after reading the book, I was sure that it would be just as badass as the first one.  After all, it was the most action packed of the three volumes so to say that I had great expectations about Insurgent would be an understatement.

After the attack on Abnegation and the division of Dauntless, Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James) and the rest of their group seek temporary sanctuary from Amity, but they’re not fitting in as well as they should seeing as the group has their own internal issues to deal with. It doesn’t take long for Erudite to assume control within the walls, seeking out Divergents and using them for an experiment to unlock the message left for society  by the founders. As chaos ensues within and outside the walls, Tris wrestles with her own demons – dealing with the death of her parents and her friends, trying to get her act together as war looms among the factions.

Its been a while since I’ve read the book and I think it was a good thing for me because I didn’t dwell too much on the comparisons between the literature and the adaptation. I still noticed though that filmmaker Robert Schwentke (Flight Plan, R.E.D) and writers Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback took a lot of creative liberties in trimming down the Vernica Roth’s novel to accommodate the film viewers’ shorter attention span.

In a way, it was a good call because the book really delved into the backstories, but on the other hand, I felt like the filmmakers edited too much, and left too little to develop the characters and the story as a whole.

While the execution was good, I felt like the movie dwelled too much on Tris alone that the other characters served as mere backdrops for her personal battles. Don’t get me wrong. I love Shailene Woodley and believe that she is a charismatic and talented actress. I may have even mentioned in my earlier posts that I actually prefer her acting to Jennifer Lawrence (No offense, J-Law), but without a substantial establishment of her relationships with fellow Dauntless members, or Amity, or Candor, it felt like a huge disservice to the story of Insurgent, which really highlighted the roles of the characters, what drives them. The book also depicted a clear picture of the bond that was established among the Dauntless warriors and their loyalty to one another, their friendship and their fragile alliance with the Factionless.

In the movie, what’s left of Dauntless were depicted as mere warm bodies needed to win a war while the Factionless were illustrated as a bunch of thugs who enjoyed bullying people because they hated the world.

Unfortunately, it seemed like there was a rush to get from Point A to Point B of the story — as if filmmakers were excited to get to the simulation part, because it felt so proud of its technically sound CGI rendering, which I’m sure the graphics team worked hard on. Still, I felt like it took too much of the film’s time.

Still, there were standouts. Managing to break through the limited wiggle room was Miles Teller as Peter. Let me just say that this guy is so talented. When he wants people to hate him, he can make audiences curse him to the ends of the earth but when he wants to show vulnerability, he can turn on the charm that one can almost forget what despicable thing he did in the first place. Theo James needs no further effort to be cool. He just needs to appear on screen and smolder and all is well in the world. His chemistry with Shailene is one of the most consistent strengths of the franchise. While Kate Winslet stepped up her game as the villain Jeanine, Ansel Elgort got the short end of the stick with Caleb’s short presence. His arc had better development in the book and made better impact. He got robbed of opportunity, in my honest opinion.

The film also overdid the graphics in this one, no matter how well executed they were. It seemed like most of the time, the scenes were part of Tris’s simulations even when they were not. Kudos though to the action sequences. They were not just cool, they were well thought out and executed, especially the brutal hand to hand combat scenes.

All in all, I think filmmakers oversimplified Insurgent and the film was poorer for it. It relied too much on pizzazz over investing in character and story development which would have helped the franchise for the remaining two movies. It was such a waste because there was a lot of material and a lot of potential to explore but these opportunities were squandered by the decision to put style over substance. While I wouldn’t say that I hated the film, I didn’t love it either. And that’s such a shame because I should have.

John Wick: Movie Review

John_Wick_TeaserPosterAdd another name to the list of movie characters you don’t want to mess with.

John Wick (Keany Reeves), a retired assassin who recently lost his wife to a lingering illness is trying to move on with his life in peace and quiet, in the company of his wife’s final gift to him, a puppy by the name of Daisy. An unfortunate circumstance crosses his path with his former boss’s son, a douchebag by the name of Iosef (Alfie Allen, Game of Thrones) who invades his home to steal his car and kill his dog. Enraged, John dusts off his gear to hunt down the arrogant buck and make him pay for his crime. Meanwhile, Iosef’s father, Russian mob leader Viggo (Michael Nyqvits) takes out a $2 million bounty for John to keep him from his objective.

Its too bad that John Wick didn’t get as much promotion as many other action blockbusters because for a fairly simple plot, it was able to come out with a rather kickass movie.

Sure, it wasn’t perfect. I personally felt that there was too much of a build up for Wick’s character, making him more of an urban legend than a man, especially in the beginning. The first 20 minutes or so of the movie was devoted to following John around while he mourned his dead wife but it was pretty understandable given that they had to stretch the film’s very basic story into an hour and a half movie. I felt like the filmmakers tried to push the drama too much which made the movie kind of lopsided, yet at the same time, it served its purpose of justifying John’s vendetta.

There were a lot of things about this film that I thought were pretty cool. First, the concept of paying with gold coins. Then, there was the exclusivity of the assassin’s club and third, the idea of making “dinner reservations.” A lot of movies have tried to depict assassins as a cool and sophisticated bunch but this movie takes the organization to a whole new level.

The film’s bread and butter was of course, its fight sequences. Kudos to the guys who choreographed the action in this movie. Each move was precise and on point, and at times, it seemed like John was just giving his fellow assassins massages —  with bullets. While the film mainly revolved around John and Viggo, the characters of Marcus (Willem Dafoe) and Winston (Ian McShayne) were also standouts without even trying. Too bad Peter Mensah, who played the badass Oenimaeus on Starz’s Spartacus got stuck with a receptionist role. I would have liked to see him do battle, as well.

There were also some great cars featured in this movie, mainly John Wick’s vintage ’69 Mustang. Too bad most of the vehicles didn’t make it to the finish line. I mourn the destruction of these great rides.

All in all, I liked the fact that they didn’t make John Wick out to be superhuman but rather just a guy who really really knew how to kill people really well. True, it was fairly more violent than 70 percent of movie releases by Hollywood, but it was darned entertaining. It also got me thinking how cool it would be to pit John with Taken’s Bryan Mills. But that’s just wishful thinking.

Feng Shui 2: Movie Review

fengshui-posterThe 40th Metro Manila Film Festivals is rife with follow ups to popular horror franchises and this year, among the entries is the sequel to one of the most successful Filipino horror movies of all time, director Chito Rono’s Feng Shui. The sequel, unlike other franchises, took its sweet time to develop and 10 years after the original’s release, Kris Aquino’s character Joy Ramirez returns to the big screen to end (?) the reign of the cursed Bagua that took her family a decade ago.

Lester Anonuevo (Coco Martin), is a young man from the squatters’ area trying to support his alcoholic mother and make ends meet by whatever means possible. He is hired by a Chinese family to steal a mysterious item from the Taoist temple for a fee and he completes the job without any incident, except that he took a peek at the item (the cursed bagua) before turning it over to his employers. And so begins the new wave of good luck and subsequent horror caused by the raging spirit of Lotus Feet. This time, the stakes are higher as Lotus Feet is able to strengthen her powers by taking one of her kin in her killing spree. Now, all the surviving owners (past and present) must work together to put to rest the curse of the bagua.

There was a reason the original Feng Shui movie was so good. And that was because it managed to tap into the Filipinos’ innate nature to believe in anything that will bring them good luck (the reason why many Filipinos engage in good luck rituals on Chinese New Year), and because Chinese tradition is so closely linked to Filipinos because of the sheer number of Filipino Chinese community in the Philippines.

When director Chito Rono came out with the story of the bagua that took its victims based on their Chinese zodiac, it was an immediate hit because not only could viewers relate to the tale but because the story was so strong that the excellent execution of the horror was just a bonus.

In the 10 years that followed after Feng Shui’s release, the film was able to build such a solid following that nobody in the audience of the second movie needed an explanation on the mechanics of the Lotus Feet curse, and this worked well for the sequel as it didn’t need too long of a sequence to connect the two movies. Everybody was on the same page from the moment they entered the cinema. Everybody knew what to expect and it felt familiar — like visiting an old friend after 10 years.

Suffice to say, the first film was still better but the second movie was no laggard in serving up the scares. What I liked about the movie was that it remained consistent with the first that you could watch them one after the other and still feel like they’re of a similar vein.

It also chose its moments, building up and shocking the audience time and again. While the death scenes in the first movie were much more obvious in their connection with the Chinese zodiacs, Feng Shui 2 did make up for it by killing off people in style. It also did not overdo the CGI, and used good make up and effects that made deaths more credible. Still, there were some scenes that were more comedic than menacing without intending to but more than anything, it made the film more entertaining.

What’s great about Feng Shui 2 was the inclusion of Kris Aquino in a more subdued version of her character. As part of the Feng Shui legacy, she owned her scenes but made sure to give the floor to Coco Martin, the main star of the movie as much as possible. Mr. Liao (Joonee Gamboa) was also given a much lengthier and substantial role in the sequel and I really enjoyed his narrative way of speaking (I felt like Panday was going to appear any minute).

Of course, as with the first movie, there were product placements of the brands that Kris Aquino endorsed but this time around, they were more tastefully done and more subtle in their inclusion.

All in all, Feng Shui 2 was a great sequel to the 2004 horror hit. While it failed to win big at the awards, it was able to hold up the franchise and turn up a solid and entertaining horror film that brought the story full circle, ending it on a positive note.

As Above So Below: Movie Review

AsAboveSoBelowIn As Above So Below, Perdita Weeks stars as Scarlett, a scholar obsessed with finding Nicholas Flamel’s infamous philopsopher’s stone to continue the quest that drover her father mad. Roping an old flame George (Ben Feldman) into doing Aramaic translations for the lead she found, she, along with documentary filmmaker Benji (Edwin Hodge) employ the services of Papi (Francois Civil) and his group to navigate the catacombs of Paris, where there believe Flamel is buried along with the stone of immortality.

I’m really not a big fan of found footage cinema. The shaky cinematography makes me dizzy and it affects my appreciation for the movie itself. For As Above, So Below, I didn’t mind the documentary type cinema as much because the shots were tolerable and it didn’t affect my overall view of the film.

While AASB may seem like another knockoff of the descent and certainly wasn’t the first movie to use the Paris catacombs as a setting for a horror movie, I must credit the writer director John Erick Dowdee for at least stepping up the story by not using the “drunk teenagers looking for a thrill” formula. At least, the story was now a bit more legitimate because the characters were looking for something much more substantial than kicks. The characters who were cast for the film also pulled their weight and delivered solid performances although it was really hard for me to relate, or even empathize with the character of Scarlett.

From the very beginning, Scarlett’s single mindedness, which may seem admirable for some, struck me as selfish and brash. She didn’t improve as the film progressed, as it grew more obvious that she didn’t care for anything except for being proven right. She manipulated George and got him in a lot of trouble, left him when things got tough, and expected him to be at her beck and call, forcing him into going underground even when she very well knew why he didn’t want to go. If she was my friend or old flame, rest assured that I would have let her rot before I helped her with anything. George was too nice (and too gullible).

I liked that parts of the film were actually shot in the real Paris catacombs. It gave the film a really claustrophobic feel that enhanced the suspense factor. The story was also great because it had an air of mystery about it that compelled audiences to think about the clues and figure out for themselves what was the catch in finding Flamel’s stone.

On the downside, the film was a bit slow for a horror. It wasn’t boring but the real action and bloodshed only started an hour and a half into the movie, and this time in between was used to confuse the audience with the odd events beneath the Parisian streets. To its credit, once the supernatural aspect was revealed, it tried to make up for lost time by making the pacing go faster. I’m still on the fence about the resolution though.

All in all, As Above, So Below was not as shocking, creepy or scary as its predecessors in the genre, although it held its own as a shaky cam experience. It had an interesting premise though that landed it slightly higher than the mediocre horror feature. Besides, it always interesting to listen to Frenchmen blowing a gasket or using American swear words.

 

The Maze Runner: Movie Review

the-maze-runner-posterI was very excited when I learned that James Dashner’s The Maze Runner trilogy  was going to get the film treatment, more so when I discovered that they were casting some of my favorite young actors like Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones, Phineas and Ferb) and Kaya Scodelario (Skins UK, Now is Good). After watching the movie, though, I felt that there was a lot that was missing. The film didn’t quite deliver on the hype it built up in the months leading up to the release.

Thomas (O’Brien) wakes up in with no memory in the company of a bunch of boys living in The Glade. The place operates with each of the Gladers performing specific tasks like a small community. But unlike any regular place, the Glade is surrounded by secrets, mainly as it is connected to a giant maze, in which mechanical monsters called Grievers reside. When the first and only girl is sent to the Glade shortly after Thomas, he feels a connection to the newcomer, and senses that there is a higher purpose to their arrival.

The Maze Runner was a well written book but since it is part of a trilogy, it only manages to tell the first part of the story. The film made sure to stay faithful to the book for the most part and interpreted the book in such an amazing way that each detail seemed to be lifted from the literature, from the Glade to the Maze. Kudos to the CGI team as it was obvious the majority of the movie was shot on green/blue screen.

What I felt that was lacking from the movie was the connection between the characters and the characters’ connection to the audience. In the book, there was a great relationship built between Thomas and the Gladers, particularly Newt, Minho, and Chuck but in the movie, it seemed that all the focus was on Thomas and all the rest of the characters were just gravy. It was such a shame that the characters were not given a bigger chance to shine because the teen that they cast as Minho (Ki Hong Lee) was really very charismatic as a a hero and embodied his literary counterpart really well. As for Newt, my favorite book character, I felt like his film version got the shot end of the stick because the script did not allow for Brodie-Sangster to display the levelheadedness and bravery of the character that made Newt special. Chuck, in my honest opinion was a miscast because Blake Cooper looked to be too old to be that vulnerable. Chuck needed to be smaller and more innocent looking. In the book, he followed Thomas around everywhere and idolized him but in the film, aside from one moment, there was nothing significant that connected them, which made Thomas’s devastation in the end a bit of a overreaction.

I think Gally’s character was the most watered down among all the Gladers. He was neither a bully or a leader and made for an uncertain villain.

While I believe that the proper editing of the source material is essential in making for a successful film adaptation, the filmmakers just simplified most of the events in the book yet failed to establish the essence behind them. Because of this, it lost much of the impact of what the maze truly stood for.

All in all, The Maze Runner relied too heavily on the effects to provide the adventure part of the story and forgot that it had a cast of really strong young actors at its disposal too. I hope filmmakers does better in the Scorch Trials because as it stands, the Maze Runner was a pretty underwhelming beginning to a supposedly action filled trilogy. And with the amount of movies vying for the same market, the sequel should step up its game or become one of those generic movies that everyone just forgot.

Mockingjay Part 1: Movie Review

the_hunger_games__mockingjay_part_1__fan_art__by_phoenixpx-d6ul9fzI must admit that when I heard that the studios were breaking down Mockingjay, the final installment in the Hunger Games trilogy into two movies, I was a bit skeptical as to how it was going to be done. Mockingjay was not longer than Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and did not have that much of material to spread into two films. Still, because Lionsgate did such a great job with the Catching Fire movie, I was compelled to check out the first part of the finale.

After the Quarter Quell ended with the rebels extracting Katniss and some of their allies from the games, Katniss wakes up in District 13, a district that many have believed to be decimated by the first war. She learns that after her act of defiance at the games, the Capitol retaliated by bombing District 12 and the remaining survivors are at being harbored by President Coin, the leader of 13. Because of her strong connection with the people in the districts, Katniss is asked to become the symbol of the revolution as the Mockingjay. Still worried about Peeta, who was left at the Capitol along with Joanna and Annie, Katniss strikes a deal to lead the revolution in exchange for Peeta’s safe return. But knowing President Snow, he does everything in his power to keep the rebellion from gaining control and if he has to kill a couple of thousand people to do it, so be it.

Catching Fire was leaps and bounds better than The Hunger Games but Mockingjay Part 1 had a different appeal. It was great in the sense that it felt like as the franchise progresses, the filmmaking evolves along with it. Whereas in the first movie, there was still a hint of innocence in some of the characters, that innocence and optimism that was tested to its limits in the second movie, and the third installment makes no bones about its quiet maturity.

The feel of the movie in itself was more serious, darker and more intense, and in this sense, it was more in line with the grittier depiction of war in Suzanne Collins’ book. As homes are destroyed, families divided and the people in the districts becoming more oppressed, Mockingjay makes no apologies about raising the stakes with powerful performances by its lead stars coupled with excellent filmmaking from Francis Lawrence, who also helmed Catching Fire. I think having the same director who understood the essence of the source material was a great asset in the filmmaking process as Lawrence was able to bring vision and consistency to the remainder of the franchise, same as what David Yates did for the Harry Potter movies.

While there were times that I thought Jennifer Lawrence was over-emoting as Katniss, I must admit that in the moments where she needed to shine as the leader of the rebellion, she did so with such intensity that no one would wonder why she is one of the youngest Oscar winners. I’m glad Phillip Seymour Hoffman was able to complete this installment before he died because he brought so much to the table as Plutarch Heavensensbee, the gamemaster, who knew how to play everyone. And the best part was he did it with such ease that it felt so natural. On the other hand, Elizabeth Banks was the perfect comic relief, yet, she provided a sense of wistfulness to the movie which was refreshing given the heavy content of the film. Woody Harrelson just kills it everytime and I’m interested how Josh Hutcherson tackles Peeta going to pieces in the next installment.

Among the great strengths of the movie was great character development – Gale was obviously being set up for what will happen in the final movie and while there was nothing much for his character in this installment, Liam Hemsworth delivered a moving performance (well, as much as the material would allow). I felt like Julianne Moore was not the best choice for the role of President Coin. She’s probably one of the best actresses in Hollywood and I love her but I felt like someone with a sterner look and a more rigid approach would have suited the role better.

The film had great buildup to the revolution. There were lots of cool scenes leading up to the attacks and I especially loved the tree climbing lumberjacks in District 7 and Les Miserable-lesque attack on the dam that supplies electricity to the Capitol. The scoring also helped set the mood of the story, and helped build the suspense when it was needed.

As expected, Mockingjay wrung out every part of the material that could be fleshed out and milked the source material for even the most minute detail, even those that the book did not expound on. It’s a good thing for fans of the book as Mockingjay followed the material quite faithfully. In doing two movies, there is little room for omission and plenty of space for embellishment so fans will have to see for themselves what will happen in the last film.

All in all, I think The Hunger Games franchise just keeps getting better with each installment and Mockingjay is so far the strongest film in the set. It’s a good indication for what’s to come and I hope that the final movie does not disappoint seeing as how the momentum is at its peak.

At the Devil’s Door: Movie Review

devils-door-1280At the Devil’s Door is a supernatural horror story that shows people just how bad choices can mess up one’s life and a series of it could seriously screw one up, especially if it has anything to do with the devil.

In 1987, 17 year old Hannah White (Ashley Rickard), a rebellious teen, falls in love with a guy she met in California and gets talked into playing a game with her boyfriend’s uncle in exchange for $500. Despite being weirded out by the oddness of the game, she completes its conditions and finds herself exposed to a supernatural being who wants to use her as a vessel for its sinister deeds. Fast forward to the 2000s, real estate broker Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is asked by a couple to sell their house as soon as possible because of their financial troubles. Upon inspecting the house, she stumbles across Hannah and more weird things ensue. When something happens to Leigh, her sister Vera (Naya Rivera)  investigates to find out the truth behind the mystery.

Most critics have basically given At the Devil’s Door a thumbs up because of the excellent performances of its female cast members and I totally agree. Ashley Rickards managed to portray the troubled teen in a different way than her usual Jenna Hamilton from MTV’s Awkward. Naya Rivera broke out from her Santana (Glee) persona to deliver an empowered female character and Catalina Sandino Moreno, while she had the shortest role among the three managed to evoke empathy among the viewers because of her obvious love for her sister. It started out great with a gradual build up and executed the supernatural scenes with a control that did not give out too much but still left a lot to the imagination. The film also had great continuity and the flow in the way it transitioned from different timelines. I liked that it picked the right moments to break out the scares and proceeded cautiously with every scene, building up on the suspense gradually.

However, while there was a great potential in the film, I felt like there was something lacking in the basic premise of the story that should have made it stronger as a horror. It had sympathetic characters, it had ominous music and a creepy house as a setting and even the demon was well made. Yet, the fact remains that there wasn’t a lot of substance to the story and most of the movie was just stretched out to make the ironic connection between Vera’s original lack of interest in building a family and the how she eventually found one.

What really irked me was the sheer stupidity in some of the characters actions like why would a girl take orders from a creepy stranger just because her boyfriend told her to? Why would a husband and wife  leave their baby to an obviously unstable babysitter, or what the requirements were to become the devil’s vessel? I just wished screenwriter/director Nicholas McCarthy had made that clear. I believe that had he done this, the story would pack a lot more punch than it did because as it stands, some parts were fairly predictable. All it would have taken was a little more tweaking in the script.

All in all, I was a bit frustrated about what didn’t happen for At the Devil’s Door, more than anything else. I believe that it played safe when it would have made much more sense to push forward and its a shame about the wasted potential. It could have been an awesome awesome horror but it chose to box itself in. Still, the girl in the red raincoat was an excellent touch, visually.