December 31, 2013.

This blog is now closed. After three years and 311 posts, I have decided to end this blog. I have enjoyed watching the films, reviewing them, and interacting with global readers.

If you are interested in contacting me, you can do so by commenting on any of the posts. The blog will remain live on the web.
Thank you to all the readers for your comments, ideas, and thoughts. They were helpful, stimulating, and enriching. This is Alene, signing off.

December 31, 2013

Rocky 1-5, Rocky Balboa (1976, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1990, 2006)

When it's over, six films and 634 minutes later, Rocky Balboa’s story continued to be inspiring. It was a journey worth taking and especially special since I watched these films with my two boys, who are both fans of boxing. I grew up watching Slyvester Stallone write, direct, and star in the series that spanned a decade. The first film remained the best, about a no name small time boxer named Rocky (Stallone), who gets a chance at the championship against the reigning champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). There was so much emotional power to the first film, that each film that followed built on the characters and after the 6th film, I saw Rocky come full circle as a man and a boxing legend. This was why I wanted to write this review as a series, rather than individual films. It was one of the better rags to riches then back to rags story in film history. The series was a testament of self-endurance and preservation, about fighting for what Rocky believed in and about what was meaningful to him. It touched on family, friendship, loyalty, and even revenge (Rocky IV) against Russian champion, Drago (Dolph Lundgren). The cast remained the same, which lent to the consistency of the films, and truly, an important element to their success. Talia Shire as Rocky’s wife, Adrian, could have been cast differently, but eventually, I could not see another actress portraying Adrian. Adrian was Rocky’s foundation, his rock, and Shire brought the necessary sensitivity and strength to make her character a champion's wife. Burt Young as Paulie, Adrian’s brother, proved to be a thorn in Rocky’s side as well as a confidant, bringing a mixture of frustration, laughs, and admiration. Burgess Meredith as Mickey, Rocky’s coach, served to be the nuts and bolts Rocky needed to succeed as a man and a boxer. My children really liked Apollo and were sad to see the character’s death. Weathers brought attitude and flare to a character that would have otherwise been annoying. Stand out scenes, memorable music, and flawed characters made the Rocky franchise a winning saga, a firm reminder to fight the good fight and never lose sight of what you believe in.

My rating: 5 out of 5

Mortal Instruments: The City of Bones (2013)

When it's over, this film had a bit of everything supernatural. There were witches, warlocks, demons, vampires, werewolves, and Shadowhunters. The last species was created by writer Cassandra Clare in her best selling young adult novel series, The Mortal Instruments. Clary (Lily Collins) is a normal girl who discovers she is a descendent of an ancient race that are half angel and half human. When her mother goes missing, Clary is befriended by Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), a handsome Shadowhunter who helps her find the key to unlocking her past, some of which are better left unknown. I enjoyed this film, because everything moved well, and there were just enough action and pauses to keep me entertained and informed. The romantic interludes between Clary and Jace were a bit juvenile, but considering the film was targeted at teens and early twenty-somethings, the tender scenes were tolerable. The film touched on the relationship, but never dwelled on it, and perhaps this was one of the reasons why viewers were divided in their emotional responses toward the film. The filmmakers stuck with the storyline, instead of the romance. I think this was a smart choice. The visuals and special effects surprised me. I was expecting low budgeted CGI and poor acting, but this was not the case. The effects and set design were well thought out and when combined with a promising young cast, the film had a good pulse. I especially liked the effects done on the demons, the ones summoned by rogue Shadowhunter, Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), in the final act. The fight choreography was well played throughout the film, in particular, the lengthy sword play between Jace and Valentine. I had a fun time with this film, and I think it was mainly because I did not read the books.  

My rating: 3.5 out of 5

Empire State (2013)

When it’s over, the downfall of this potentially good story was the lack of good characterization and poor casting. Chris (Liam Hemsworth) and Eddie (Michael Angarano) are two childhood friends who decide to rob an armoured car depository to make ends meet, financially. What drew me to this film was the promising premise, the heist element - the idea of the how it was accomplished and for what reason and whether the robbers would get away with it. The film had these elements, but it had no heart, nothing that made me care about the characters. Hemsworth was just so-so, not leading man material. Angarano was aggravating and irritating to watch. His portrayal of wise-ass Eddie was a huge turn-off. Since the film claimed to be based on a true story, I was not sure if it was the character or the actor who made me want to smack Eddie. Dwayne Johnson was the NYPD officer investigating the heist, and if I was not persuaded by the story, I was definitely urged on by his presence in the film. Little good that did, since he was only in a handful of scenes, and none of which were memorable. Emma Roberts played Nancy, the waitress, who should have been Chris’s love interest, but ended up lost in the shuffle of random scenes. Originally set in the 1980’s, the film was not. There was nothing that made me feel I was in that decade. And if there was, it was too small for me to catch or remember. The film's only plus was the build-up to the end, the unknown element of how it was going to end and how they were going to get away with the heist. But, the ending proved to be weak and disappointing, and the film, not worth recommending at all, even if you are a fan of the cast. 

My rating: 2 out of 5

2 Guns (2013)

When it’s over, 2 men, 2 W’s - Washington and Wahlberg, and under 2 hours make this action film decently enjoyable. Every few years, Hollywood comes up with a buddy-cop film, which pairs 2 law enforcement officers with different styles, attitudes, and skin color. For 2013, it’s 2 Guns. DEA agent, Robert Trench (Denzel Washington,) and naval intelligence officer, Michael Stigman (Mark Wahlberg), are undercover operatives working to capture a powerful drug lord, Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos). To do this, they try to rob Greco’s bank and steal his money, but instead, end up stealing millions from the CIA. What follows is a string of dead bodies and a lot of double crossing. The film has some interesting twists, which keeps the viewer on edge, but not the chemistry between the leading men to make the film memorable. Unlike buddy films like Lethal Weapon, Men in Black, and 48 hours, 2 Guns does not have that love and hate bonding, which is crucial to making the comedy and relationship work onscreen. Both actors deliver fine performances, but I am not sold on their pairing. I did like Bill Paxton as top ranking CIA agent, because he acts like a loaded weapon ready to go off any second. His character adds unexpected conflict. However, I did not like James Marsden as Michael’s boss, because his good boy image makes it hard for me to accept him as a backstabber. I think Marsden is a versatile actor, but he is wrongly cast here. Still, if you like action films with plenty of ricocheting bullets, then you will enjoy this film, but do not expect anything more than what it is – 2 men with 2 guns.

My rating: 3 out of 5

December 6, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (3D - 2013)

When it's over, I liked it, but I didn't love it. The story continued where Thor (2011) and The Avengers (2012) left off. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must sacrifice everything to battle an ancient race, known as the Dark Elves, whose leader is set on bringing darkness to the universe. The main cast returned for this second Thor installment, but they did not get the development they deserved. Generally, the idea of a sequel is not only to move a story forward, but also to help the returning characters grow. In the case of The Dark World, I felt the characters had not evolved. Thor remained much the same. There were no prevalent changes in his character. Thor’s three loyal Asgard warriors, Fandral, Sif, and Volstagg (Zachary Levi, Jaimie Alexander, Ray Stevenson), had less presence in this film than the previous, which was a shame, since we got to know Thor previously, through their eyes. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) seemed passive, and I expected more from the feisty scientist and Thor’s love interest. Perhaps some scenes showing her willing to fight to survive would have helped. Instead, Foster was a helpless damsel in distress. I thought Loki (Tom Hiddleston) got the most development, and Hiddleston was fantastic. I loved watching his mischievous ways unfold. I despised him and relished his naughtiness at the same time. The visuals were great, and the unrelenting action never allowed for a dull moment, but its thrills were at a price. The fast pacing made the story move too fast, racing from beginning to end, leaving little opportunity for small scenes to become great. A perfect example would be the Asgard funeral(s), which took, maybe, five minutes onscreen. More thought, time, and emotional punch should have went into this critical scene, because it set in motion the actions Thor and Loki would take to claim their revenge and justice. Lastly, what happened to the love story, the chemistry between Thor and Jane? Their kiss or would be kisses felt staged. I did not get that sense of ‘Wow’ as I did in the first film. They acted more like friends than two people in love. A good sequel, but not great!

My rating: 3.5 out of 5

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013)

When it's over, Sea of Monsters is a monster disappointment. I tried to give this series a chance, I really did, but this sequel is even worse than the first film. Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) and his friends travel to the Sea of Monsters, aka The Bermuda Triangle, to find the magical golden fleece. Their perilous journey is met with evil forces, as other half-bloods turned bad also want the fleece in order to unleash the powerful Kronos from his slumber. There are five books in the original Percy Jackson series written by Rick Riordan. The first film, The Lightning Thief, is decent and introduces the characters, and I was hoping this sequel would continue the characters’ and story’s development, but it fails on all levels. How is it possible to have a weak story when there is such good source material? The filmmakers only have to follow the story as it unfolds in the books. The seed of the problem is that the story is becoming more “loosely” based on the books, which hurts the film in a major way. Poor performances do little to engage the viewer or strengthen the story development. Lerman is a good actor, as demonstrated in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He just makes a lousy Percy Jackson. The action sequences lack the tight choreography needed to make them look believable. Plus, I am surprised a film that relies heavily on CGI fails to take advantage of the possibilities technology has to offer. Perhaps, for budgetary reasons? To be completely honest, the whole Percy Jackson series would work better as a television series, giving it the time it needs to develop. For young audiences, this film may be a fun adventure, because it has plenty of action, but all of it is low key. It will also incite an interest in mythology, which educationally speaking, is always a bonus. But for older children, the lack of thrills will be a complete turnoff.

My rating: 2 out of 5

The World's End (2013)

When it's over, the title has a double meaning, but that's as deep as this film gets. After 20 years, five friends (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsang), revisit their hometown to fulfill a failed pub crawl – drinking at 12 pubs in one night – which ends at a fabled bar called The World’s End. The task is not as easy as it seems, when they realize their old stomping grounds are inhabited by robots in human form.  What follows is a lot of decapitations, severed limbs, and blue blood.  There are some funny moments, mostly derived from silly behavior and dark British humor. If you are a fan of Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), this film is a must-see, as the actors re-unite in their third screen outing to fight for the future of mankind. The World’s End is a departure from the previous two films with the inclusion of more special effects, blending a mixture of science fiction and the post-apocalyptic world. The fight choreography delivers the comical edge as it is meant to do. There is even romance to hook in the female audience. Alas, it cannot compete with Shaun, and I don’t think it tries to. It does stand decently well on its own, though. If you want a fun film to pass the time without too much depth, Pegg and his mates will keep you smiling to the world’s end.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5

November 24, 2013

The Butler (2013)

When it's over, what I remember most about the film is Forest Whitaker’s meaningful performance as Cecil Gaines, an African American butler who serves eight presidents during his tenure at the White House. The story spans several decades, including the tumultuous times of racial segregation and the Civil Rights movement. There has been much controversy to the film’s accuracy, since it is inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen’s life. The key word is “inspired.” I am not familiar with Allen’s life, so I went into this film as a fictitious story, without any preconceptions. I am glad I did. The story has a lot of emotional texture, and for this, I really enjoyed the film. Perhaps this is where the lack of accuracy falls into play. Perhaps, there is a need to alter facts to strengthen the story. At every stage in Gaines’s life, he encounters conflict and inner struggle, which is at the core of the story, which keeps the story interesting. I do not see this film as merely a story about a man who goes through turbulent times and of how he deals with those challenges, but rather, a story about a man who takes great pride in his occupation, while serving white employers, somewhat ironic to the time period. The fact that Cecil chooses to spend more time at the White House than he does at home supports this idea. Cecil is not an angry man. He is not hateful or resentful. He does not hold a grudge against his white employers, even when his son is treated with cruelty on camera by order of the government. However, his older son, Louis (David Oyelowo) believes the complete opposite. Louis joins the Black Panthers, a revolutionary socialist party, and demonstrates his opposition to segregation openly at protests, landing him in jail on several occasions. Louis’s actions are emotional triggers for Cecil, who has to nod obediently when the presidents question him about his son in the headlines. On the home front, Cecil’s relationship with his wife (Oprah Winfrey) crumble through the years, adding another layer of personal struggle. Cecil’s journey is filled with twists and plummets, and what is interesting is that Cecil’s demeanor remains unchanged. Is this a sign of perseverance, strength, indifference, conformity? I cannot be sure, but watching the man's life unfold is an emotional experience almost parallel to Forrest Gump (1994). Like many of his previous films, Director Lee Daniels leaves the window open for interpretation and much food for thought, even controversial debate.

My rating: 4 out of 5