Transformers: Age of Extinction

Transformers 4 PosterRating: ★★★★★

Forget about the title “Best Action Director of All Time”; Michael Bay is King of the World. “Transformers: Age of Extinction” is a spectacle of sight and sound, of genius and art, of expression and imagination. It is everything we hope for in a giant alien robot action movie, but pumped with steroids, marinated in Bay Sauce and stretched to infinity and beyond.

It is the sight of half a dozen towering robots who chase and punch and shoot and talk trash at each other – sometimes in that order, sometimes in a random loop, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes in a simultaneous loop in different orders, and sometimes all of the above, all the time.

It is the sound of “dialogue” written by “screenwriter” Ehren Kruger, overlapped by the kinetic clashing of metallic entities, overlapped by the crisp explosions of everything that occupies the background, overlapped by heavy things banging on even heavier things, then finally overlapped by dialogue reacting to the things overlapping the initial dialogue.

Michael Bay

King Bay sitting on his throne

It is the genius of incorporating a “new element” in the trailer for each of the three sequels which are essentially and almost literally the same movie, where we get a stomping LEGObot in “Revenge of the Fallen”, a drilling Wormbot in “Dark of the Moon”, and finally hurtling Dinobots in “Age of Extinction”, which proven by box office records is more than enough for the price of an admission.

It is the art of sneaking countless sensual shots of sensually-dressed women in a movie I assume is meant for pre-teens, featuring not one not two but three attractive women who, despite their petite look, has more fat than talent in their body, whose names are Megan Fox, Rosie-Huntington Whitely, and Nicola Peltz, whom I imagine have all done more than just audition to get some of their roles, but I could be wrong.

It is the expression of Michael Bay’s wettest of wet dreams, which are highlighted but not limited to: the fastest of high-speed chases, the lowest of low angle shots, Robot Porn, running explosions, backflipping cars, face cannons, human-sized grenades, fire breathing, laser shooting, karate chopping, struggling actresses that need a lot “guidance” and anything that goes “Boom!” “Swoosh!” “Roar!”, and in some instances, and I’m not kidding here, “phrgpudijaihgacmlx!”

Bay’s ejaculation lasts 165 minutes, so better reserve the first row.

Transformers 4 Lockdown

It is the imagination of Industrial Light & Magic, whose employees spent hundreds and hundreds of hours constructing about five Transformers with a coherent design, a spaceship that looks nothing more than a flying junkyard (no offense to junkyards) and one generic Transformer design multiplied by fifteen, then hundreds of hours of  overtime were again spilled by these souls to make the Transformers destroy each in a matter of minutes, spread across by thousands and thousands of quick cuts, which will remain incomprehensible to the human eye for millions and millions of years to come.

I liked “Age of Extinction” in the sense that viewing it inspired me to revisit all of Roger Ebert’s pieces pertaining to the franchise, and reading him has always been a bliss, or a silver lining, depending on the movie. Early in my reading, I pleasantly discovered that a handful of his observations describe this particular installment so accurately that I might as well copy-paste them here. Because if there is anyone in this planet who deserves the Roger Ebert Treatment, it is Master Bay.

Roger Ebert

“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.” – Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

“There was no starting out slow and building up to a big climax. The movie is pretty much all climax. The Autobots® and Decepticons® must not have read the warning label on their Viagra. At last we see what a four-hour erection looks like.” – The Fall of the Revengers

“Finding success in a Michael Bay film is like finding the Virgin on a slice of toast, but less rewarding.” – Intro: “A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length”

“Those who think Transformers is a great or even a good film are, may I tactfully suggest, not sufficiently evolved. Film by film, I hope they climb a personal ladder into the realm of better films, until their standards improve. Those people contain multitudes. They deserve films that refresh the parts others do not reach. They don’t need to spend a lifetime with the water only up to their toes.” – I’m a Proud Brainiac

Beats Audio

“Age of Extinction” has more unforgettable moments than the overrated, elitist products of last year like “12 Years a Slave”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and even “Gravity”. Consider the spellbinding moment when the self-absorbed scientist played by Stanley Tucci materializes a BEATS speaker from alien technology. And who can forget the end of the spectacular chase sequence when Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager crashes in a BUD LIGHT truck? Or how about that nail-biter when a Pterodactyl Transformer *Swooshes!* down a building and almost crush a bus that’s very clearly sponsored by VICTORIA’S SECRET? And lastly, what kind of “Transformers” movie would this be if it doesn’t have a shot of a building being torn apart with a SAMSUNG billboard watching in terror in the upper left portion of the screen?

Such masterful framing, King Bay. Although if those greedy producers weren’t choking your artistic ways, I’m pretty sure you could have included Coca-Cola, Pizza Hut, Marlboro, Apple, Sony, and Dairy Queen somewhere in your masterpiece. Quite frankly, some of your frames had “Free Space” written all over them.

Optimus Prime

Optimus Prime is the movie, I am the Dinobot

Walking in the cinema, I had no idea that the 7:10PM screening I attended last Wednesday was going to be a special event. About a fourth into the film, a 5.6 magnitude earthquake shook the cinema for at least a full minute. Almost half of the full-house audience walked out in panic, others in caution. I stayed because (1) I’m not sure of the minimum magnitude required for a refund and (2) I really wanted to write this review in hope that someone would read this and embrace it as their silver lining.

In the instance that the earthquake was much stronger and authorities advised the audience to evacuate, I would have probably complied and walked out of the theater, but it won’t be primarily because of that damned earthquake.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Days of Future Past PosterRating: ★★★★☆

The opening shot imagines an apocalyptic future. New York is devastated and hopeless, and the first people we see are lifeless ones being dumped from a truck. A miserable crowd of humans and mutants slowly march with blank faces, possibly towards their execution. A pile of bones cover the earth, where more rot is surely buried underneath.

Meanwhile, a desperate group of survivors retreat in a ruined monastery. Knowing that they will soon be caught, the group sends one of their friends in a last-ditch effort to fix what’s become of the world. The odds that the plan will succeed? Slim, but what other choice do they have? That they sit and wait behind tainted windows suggests that what they are in is less of a mission than it is a prayer.

If you’ve ever wondered how comic book superheroes would fit in a painting of The Holocaust, well here it is.

I walk in most Superhero Movies with an almost jaded attitude – thanks to “Green Lantern”, “Man of Steel”, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, “Thor: The Dark World”, and so on – but the dark, unconventional prologue of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” automatically elevates it from its comic book counterparts. It’s starts with a statement and ends with a bang. Even the scenes of exposition have a pulse. The hype, ladies and gentlemen, is legit.

Days of Future Past

Time travel is the group’s final measure to amend history, and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the only candidate that could survive the trip. So back in time he goes. He wakes up fresh from a one night stand; if he was sent back a few hours later, the movie would have an R Rating. Just an example of how time can really change things, but back to the story we go.

Similar to the previous installments, we spend about a fourth of the film being introduced to the mutants, their superpowers, how they can help with the mission, and so on and so forth. In my review of 2011’s “X-Men: First Class”, I observed that the movie’s fatal flaw was drawing itself away from the interesting, important relationship between Charles (Professor X) and Eric (Magneto) to develop irrelevant, annoying supporting mutants like Banshee (the one who can cause ear cancer) and Angel (the one with throat cancer).

Mystique in Days of Future Past

In “Days of Future Past”, the primary characters get the screen time they deserve while the secondary mutants are limited to being cool special effects machines. Amongst the newcomers, runner-up goes to Blink, a sneaky lady with teleport portals while the crowd favorite will undoubtedly be Quicksilver, the gray-haired teenage rebel with an appetite for speed. (I refuse to name the unfortunate Aaron Paul movie).  This chill kid played by Evan Peter provides the single most entertaining, inventive, memorable sequence in the entire film when… but why spoil it for you? Rather, I’ll just pause and wonder why Marvel is busy financing a dozen other sequels instead of getting Quicksilver a film of his own.

Viewers who know their science-fiction will link the film’s use of time travel and robots with that of the “Terminator” trilogy. Comic Books Amateurs like myself thought that “Days of Future Past” got its idea from “Terminator”, but Fanboys were diligent in clarifying that it’s the other way around, since the comic book from which this film is based on was released way back in 1981. I highlight this because of my admiration of the Sentinels, whose unstoppable force reminded me of the T-1000. Both are sadistic shape-shifters that can take a lot of beating first then win later.

The number and strength of the Sentinels are great set pieces yes, but they also pose a real, genuine threat to our heroes. We see a lot of mutants die brutal deaths, and as generic as it looks on the surface, I found myself unusually involved in the climax of the “future” side of the story.

X-Men GIF

Our desperate group of survivors is on the brink of their last stand. Will their prayer be answered or will they, like their fallen friends, also end up being dumped on the dirt? Bryan Singer began his film so brilliantly that it would be a shame to let it end with a salute to Michael Bay. He does not disappoint. What has characterized the “X-Men” franchise is the opposing ideologies between Professor X and Magneto on how they think mutants should live in a world that is not ready for them. This is what decides the film’s outcome. Not by who punched harder or pulled the trigger faster. Here is an approach unheard of in the Marvel Universe. After more than a decade of remakes, re-imaginings, reboots, sequels and spin-offs, I think they’re finally starting to get the idea.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 PosterRating: ★★½☆☆

What do we get after Sam Raimi’s three “Spider-Man” films released in a span of six years? “The Amazing Spider-Man”, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”, “The Amazing Spider-Man 3”, “The Amazing Spider-Man 4”, a spin-off starring Venom, a second spin-off about the Sinister Six and probably a TV series, half a dozen video games and a cameo at “Glee”. Cause why the hell not.

As unnecessary as it felt, Marc Webb’s 2012 reboot showed great potential for improvement with its better casting and enhanced special effects, but its chances at soaring was crushed by the bastards at SONY who downsized the elements that really worked in order to structure future installments. And though this scheme has been true to pretty much all the Marvel movies, it is most abused with this reimagining of Spider-Man.

On a positive note, the parallel stories about struggling student and rebellious superhero can be quite compelling; it’s the set-ups in between that ruin the experience.

So the sequel is here, and with a record-setting running time for a Spidey Flick of 142 minutes, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is just a bigger example of what made its predecessor an avoidable disappointment. Unfocused and uneven, the film juggles the contrivances of the mystery behind the fate of Peter’s parents, the planting of characters that would eventually form the Sinister Six, the introduction of Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper) as the next plot twist, and a couple other subplots that I either missed or forgotten about.


The Amazing Spider-Man 2

What I do recall is my fascination for Oscorp, a multi-billion-dollar corporation that has produced more super villains than my country’s Supreme Court. On the previous “Spider-Man” film, the crippled Dr. Curt Conner morphs into The Lizard in a quest to be whole again. Here, the friendless nerd that is Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) evolves into Electro while the dying Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) decays into the Green Goblin. Does anyone in Oscorp know what a background check is? And why is Gwen Stacy still working there? Did she forget that her co-employee-turned-monster killed her Dad?

Loneliness erupts into violence in Electro, whose bluish glow makes him look like a crossbreed between Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze and the towering blue humanoids in “Avatar”. After plunging into a tank of mutated electric eels (Damn it, Oscorp!), Dillon gains the power to cast explosions of electricity and deliver cheesy one-liners in the process: “It’s my birthday! Time to light my candles!” *Zap, Zap!* Max Dillon’s transformation is rushed by the numerous subplots, making him a stock villain instead of a sympathetic character. He greatly expands the film’s scale (this is the biggest New York production ever), but the action he provides only make a cool trailer, not a captivating film.

Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy

Notwithstanding, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” has strokes of visual excellence, all of which are executed through the abilities of Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) himself. His first appearance, where he swings along New York skyscrapers in POV, evokes genuine exhilaration. The special effects gives weight to Spider-Man’s swift movements, which causes the audience to feel the pull, drag, and momentum in his every swing, then gravity does the rest. Director Mar Webb presents us with the most convincing Spider-Man footage to date, and his skill and enthusiasm is evident. That the scenes of exposition are so dull suggests that Webb himself is restrained by SONY’s intent to stretch the franchise until 2018. At age 30, how long can Garfield continue to play the web-slinger who had just graduated from high school?

Behind all the exposition and special effects is a likeable couple in Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). And of all the onscreen couples in the Marvel universe, the team of Peter and Gwen is the only one that doesn’t feel conventional. Their romance functions as an independent story rather than a device to complete the comic book blueprint. Every time Garfield and Stone share a scene, the film brightens up. Maybe it’s because the two are dating in real life. Maybe it’s because they are younger compared to other Marvel couples and the target audience identifies with them the most. Or maybe it’s because I just find Emma Stone so darn adorable.

Gwen Stacy GIF

Either way, a scene near the end will strike an emotional cord unknown to moviegoers who only watch films in the same wavelength as this one. It’s a brave decision, impressively executed, and it’s the film’s most memorable moment.

So 2004’s “Spider-Man 2” remains to be the best flick of the franchise. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” had the director and actors for second place, but the Hollywood disease has dragged it to a spot only ahead of the embarrassing “Spider-Man 3”. That won’t stop people from buying tickets to it I’m sure, and that’s all fine. I suspect that people will walk in wanting CGI mayhem and walk out asking themselves the question: “When will we get to see a nice little love story starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone?” I know I did.

Casino Royale

Casino Royale Poster

Rating: ★★★★½

I remember the first time I saw Casino Royale. Seeing Daniel Craig for the first time with his short cut hair, his lean muscular body and his ape-like jumping motions were odd to me. In some manner, I perceived it as an outrageous blasphemy to Bond films. I grew up seeing James Bond as a man who was smooth and relaxed. He always had an escape plan, and he appears to be a step ahead of his megalomaniac counterparts.

I was constantly being badgered by friends of mine saying that this was an exceptional Bond film, so I went home and gave it another chance. Gradually, I noticed that this Bond film really grew into me. I started to appreciate the rebirth and transformation of this template character. The opening scene done by Martin Campbell was somehow borrowed from the 40’s gangster films with its canted shots and grainy black and white feel. It was a detour from the formula it normally operates in which was Bond goes to bad guy’s lair, Bond’s cover gets blown, Bond shoots a lot of people and blows a ton of stuff into bits and he escapes by the skin of his teeth (normally he inserts a pun during the getaway).

Casino Royale

When Bond gets back into the office, he talks to M after sending him to another mission to investigate and shoot people. (I often wonder how he made his after-action report).

Here we see Bond as a rookie, being recently promoted to his “00” status, M perceives him as a reckless liability to the service. He’s tasked to track down a group of terrorists trying get funding from a poker game. I don’t play poker, nor do I understand the little nuances that make a good poker game, but I do understand that if Bond loses, terrorists and genocidal African people are gonna be richer because of Bond’s mishap with his bluffs. Judi Dench has been granted more dialogue and teeth unlike in the previous films where she was just paid to worry and bark orders at other MI6 agents. Bond gets to have his fair share of women in this movie, one is a replica of Penelope Cruz and the other is Vesper Lynd, a sarcastic accountant from the Royal Treasury keeping an eye on Bond’s cash played by Eva Green.

The Bond franchise does drive around with this common argument with superhero movies: you’ve got to have a good villain, a guy that didn’t come from a box you ordered from 1-800 HENCHMEN, a guy as good as the articulate and unbelievably mad Mr. Silver in Skyfall, who reminds me a lot of Christoph Waltz’s “The Jew Hunter” from The Inglorious Basterds. Here it was an OK villain; he goes by the name of Le Chiffre, sufficient in playing his role in the grand scheme of things, no world domination and rule-the-entire-planet-Earth type of deal.

Daniel Craig as James Bond

Casino Royale showed us that Bond is a man. He bleeds, he makes mistakes he expresses genuine love I have never seen in an espionage thriller and suffers the consequences. There’s a scene that involves Bond saying how much he loves Vesper, and of all the Bonds, he’s the only actor who could pull this delicate and sincere line without making anyone grin or laugh in the movie house.

After much thought and reflection, I’ve come to a conclusion that Casino Royale has to be one of the best Bonds ever made. And as for Daniel Craig, he’s does the Bond franchise an irrefutable tribute. But I just have to say, Sean Connery does puns and one liners really, really well.

The actions scenes here are superb, far from the evidently rehearsed explosions and fist fights demonstrated by the ones before it. Daniel Craig and Martin Campbell have done an awesome execution of unpredictable fight scenes like the one involving Bond throwing a pistol at the face of the bomb maker he was after. Not only that, he unexpectedly smashes through walls and smacks a guy’s forehead on a bronze bust. I believe that this movie would appeal to people who were tired of the Bond formula that has been going on for years. On the other hand this would be hated by people who do not really care about Bond’s humanity, I used to be one of those and I deeply regret it.

One last thing, I realized that the accounting and applied sciences department of MI6 must’ve been pissed with Bond losing and damaging so many of Her Majesty’s property.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

G. I. Joe: Retaliation PosterRating: ★★☆☆☆

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a no-brainer of a movie. If a supernatural force beyond understanding urged you to like “The Rise of Cobra”, then it is likely that you will enjoy the sequel just as much. Bless you. However, if you hated the 2009 film at least half as much as I did, then you should be smart enough to avoid its 2013 follow-up. Besides, I’m pretty sure that you’ve long decided on whether you’ll see this or not since it’s already been out for almost three weeks.

Sigh. I shouldn’t be writing this review. It’s almost 1 in the morning and I have to be at work in a few hours. (Damn it! I have to be at work in a few hours!) So what gives? You see, movies that are as preposterous as “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” are the most fun to review. And, dear reader, when a movie like this is released, I cannot resist. Roger Ebert specialized in reviewing movies that are dumb beyond belief. I write this in further dedication to his spectacular life.

For the 15th time, Channing Tatum reprises his role as Channing Tatum. He isn’t around for long through as he is quickly replaced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the film’s lead hero. The Rock (The Tooth Fairy) makes a better action star than Channing Tatum, which doesn’t really say much for The Rock, since Justin Timberlake and even Jay Leno would also make a better action star than Tatum. With over 20 movies in his resume, Tatum’s career highlight so far is playing a stripper in “Magic Mike”. Is it about time for the 32-year-old non-actor to take a long, honest look at himself?

Channing Tatum and Dwayne Johnson in G.I. Joe: Retaliation

The majority of the Joes are wiped out early on, leaving the fate of the world in the hands of Roadblock (The Rock), Flint, and Lady Jaye. The latter two Joes provide the film with its face value, especially Jaye. She is one of those sexy characters who can avoid all levels of suspicion by simply keeping her head down and her boobs up. We’re lucky she’s on our side. They are later joined by General Joe Colton, effortlessly played by Bruce Willis, probably because he doesn’t care. Colton supplies one of the two entertaining scenes in the film by touring us to his seemingly normal suburban home that has more firearms and ammunition than the entire Philippine Army.

One of the few returning cast members from the original film is Storm Shadow, the gravity-defying ninja with an awkward weakness. Storm Shadow’s first sequence establishes him to be an invincible warrior who can withstand almost all sorts of beatings. He suffers a major electrocution and an explosion big enough to blow up a McDonald’s. No worries. He walks it off like any other ninja would. Later, in the film’s climax, four or five box crates are pushed against him. He gets knocked down. Say what? Poor Storm Spirit. Two more box crates and he would’ve died.

Movies within the same category as “Retaliation” makes its living from advanced gadgets and weaponry. And while this sequel runs on action and adrenaline, its use of technology is utterly joyless and anticlimactic. Consider the sequence when Cobra is rescued from imprisonment. A cluster of robot fireflies is sent to the prison. Think about it. Millions and millions of dollars and hundreds and hundreds of hours must have been spent in the creation of such a complex device. I had high hopes for its capabilities, but what do the robots do the moment they reach the prison gates? They explode. Say what? Whatever happened to firing a rocket launcher? Is it me, or did the evil mastermind Cobra spent millions just to blow up a gate?

Cobra and Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe: Retaliation

The scene doesn’t even end there. Firefly, the villain played by Ray Stevenson, not the exploding robots, drives his motorcycle full speed towards the prison’s thick, maximum-security entrance. Seconds before Firefly collides with the wall, he dislodges himself from the motorcycle, causing the motorcycle to do some dislodging on its own. The vehicle, which turns out to be a model far advanced than what it appears to be, separates into about six different pieces. It strikes the wall at full force, and explodes. While I sat motionless and exhausted inside the theater, I imagined Michael Bay, sitting inside a different theater, watching the same movie, saying to himself: “Challenge Accepted”. Oh, dear.

As the extremely wealthy Cobra is released from his bondage, so does his master plan is revealed to us. Are you ready? Seven armed satellites have been positioned above seven countries. Each satellite holds a bomb. A push of a button can annihilate half of the human race! The Joes must act fast! To defeat Cobra and save mankind, Roadblock and his team must… but wait! How much money did Cobra allot for this project? Where did he build the seven satellites and seven bombs? Where did he get the manpower that made this all happen? When did he find the time to print Cobra Flags and Cobra Banners to display outside the White House? I don’t have the exact numbers, but I’m pretty sure that Cobra has the most expensive “Take over the World” budget in movie history. If Cobra just waited a couple more years and saved up, he could have just bought the world.

One last thing: how did those bomb-satellites reach the orbit without getting noticed? Did Cobra commence take off during NASA’s lunch break?

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises PosterRating: ★★★★☆

Christopher Nolan influenced a rare and astonishing phenomenon back in 2008: He united Critics and Fanboys in glorious, peaceful accordance.  Few would argue with the notion that “The Dark Knight” is the greatest superhero movie ever made. No other comic book movie even comes close. None. To compare “The Dark Knight” with lesser films like “Thor”, or “Captain America”, or “The Amazing Spiderman”, is like comparing Michael Jordan with Kobe Bryant. Why even bother?

But it seems that the overwhelming success of “The Dark Knight” has placed Nolan in an interesting position. His masterpiece left a hungry audience with rising expectations, which is a reasonable effect. Wouldn’t it be weird to walk in a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” and expect the second greatest superhero movie ever made?

Whether this closing chapter is better than its predecessors is not a major concern. All three Batman movies are exhilarating and memorable, and it can be said that they belong in a league of their own. As an artist who is constantly propelled to challenge our minds, Christopher Nolan adapts the superhero genre but does not conform to its traditions. He constructs a dark and ominous world that’s very close to our own, a world separated from the detached, happy-go-lucky playground occupied by the heroes of “The Avengers”.

Gotham is not merely utilized as a canvass for fighting and a backdrop for explosions. Nolan perceives the city’s citizens as more than just curious onlookers or helpless victims. He understands that their knowledge and opinion of Batman greatly affects his actions and limitations, and Nolan puts this principle to good use, especially during the moral chaos instigated by The Joker in “The Dark Knight”. The scale of the series is vast and involving. That the story requires the presence of Real Actors (Morgan Freeman, Michael Cane, Gary Oldman) reveals that there is more to see here than trivial action. In an age where Michael Bay has repeatedly hammered our brains to a pulp, Mr. Nolan has been diligent in rewarding us with movies that give us a jump start.

Tom Hardy as Bane

So Nolan’s Batman Trilogy is an enormous triumph, but, contrary to my previous paragraphs, I am here to review an individual movie, not a trilogy. “The Dark Knight Rises” gave me conflicting emotions as I found myself standing between the line of Satisfaction and Disappointment. I felt satisfaction in the fact that I just saw the finest summer blockbuster of 2012; disappointment slowly emerged as I acknowledged that, out of the three Batman films by Nolan, this was the most flawed and problematic. So much of the movie could have been so much better.

There is a swarm of characters here – old ones, new ones, unnecessary ones, dead ones… You name it. The tragedy is that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and other key characters are robbed of quality screen time in order to develop new supporting characters that only function as nonessential plot devices in a convoluted script. Take, for example, the addition of a suspicious philanthropist named Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). What’s a girl like here doing in a movie like this? Here’s a rule I’d like to propose: Anyone who claims to be a philanthropist in a comic book movie is a Plot Twist waiting to be revealed. Why did Nolan feel the need to invest a lot of time and effort for a twist so apparent and insipid? His films have always been ambitious, but this is his first movie where I got the impression that he may be trying too hard. Maybe the insane hype that “The Dark Knight” left him with a lot of pressure.

And now we move on to Bane (Tom Hardy). His opening sequence, which is one of the film’s most spectacular moments, establishes him as both freakishly strong and extensively intelligent. His immense physique, fearsome and menacing, makes him overqualified for “The Expendables”. His master plan, to annihilate Gotham City via nuclear explosion, forces the troubled and defeated Bruce Wayne to revive his alter-ego, despite the bad publicity. Both Hero and Villain were mentored by Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), but we are warned by the always concerned Alfred that Bane may be too much for Batman to handle. Imagine a villain so powerful that he gives Batman a year’s worth of physical punishment in five minutes. He reveals himself to be a monster of no mercy and sadistic humor when he dumps the half-dead Bruce in a hellish prison just for the lulz. No doubt Bane is an effective villain, but he doesn’t make up for an entertaining character. His intimidating presence wears off in the later scenes, and the movie eventually discards him completely in order to highlight needless twists.

Bane and Batman

I mentioned earlier the threat of a fusion bomb. We are informed that the bomb is set to detonate in, if I’m not mistaken, five months. This incredibly long countdown causes countless of exchanges between characters where they update each other, and the audience, regarding the bomb’s state. “Three months ‘til detonation!” “We have two weeks to stop that bomb!” “Twelve hours left! We have to do something!” “One hour to go before that thing goes off! We don’t have much time!”

This causes the suspense of the threat to die down. One element of the plot is delayed so the slower parts of the story could catch up. Can a heavily injured Batman make a full recovery and defeat Bane if the bomb has a countdown of 45 minutes? Try to recall the ferry sequence in “The Dark Knight”. Because the passengers of the two ferries only have 15 minutes to decide, the suspense is magnified, the action is immediate, the possibilities are many, and the moral issue is fascinating. As we sit in eager anticipation, we can easily visualize The Joker blowing up both of the ferries because everyone else chose to do the right thing. Can we really imagine the city of Gotham as a giant pile of ash?

Does my review of “The Dark Knight Rises” feel like a negative one? If yes, then I should make it clear that the flaws are forgivable; the movie has a lot more things going for it than against it. I enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone who wants their intelligence to participate in the theater. We don’t get a lot of Summer Blockbusters with a brain in its head. I predict that it will reach the billion dollar milestone in the box office. The DVD version, once released, will also sell millions and millions of copies, for it will feature those magic white words that should be able to decipher the mysteries surrounding Bane’s dialogue.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games PosterRating: ★★★½☆

As the early minutes of the movie unfolded, it seemed to me that its principal premise was assembled by prominent ideas that came before it. When the story reveals to us that young men and women would have to slaughter each other for survival’s sake, we cannot help but be reminded of the infamous Japanese cult classic, “Battle Royale”. And later, when we learn that the bloodshed is to be controlled and televised by a game master, “The Truman Show” comes to mind. We can sit here and try to draw parallels between these different worlds, but no. Any discussions regarding the film’s possible influences would end in useless futility. “The Hunger Games” is independent in its desires and ambitions. It has a life of its own.

This adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s bestseller takes us to a dystopian future where the North America of today has become, in a word, kaput. Wars have destroyed democracy, and out of their wreckages the nation of Panem comes into being. The poor and powerless are distributed in the destitute 12 Districts while all the douchebags and oddballs can be found in the thriving, dominating Capitol. I like how the movie ignores the common vision of how people in the future dress in bland costumes. The citizens of Capitol have fascinating taste; their daily lives are spent with hairstyles and clothing that would startle cosplay addicts. The fashion trend there is so perplexing that if Lady Ga Ga lived during that era, she would easily blend in.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss EverdeenThe rulers of Capitol exercise their superiority against the 12 Districts through The Hunger Games, an annual event that features teenagers, weapons, murders, and live television. (Disturbing, yes, but not as disturbing as that TV show about the Kardashian folks.) Here is how the event goes: One boy and one girl from each district are randomly selected. Once drafted, the chosen district members, called Tributes, are brought to the Capitol. That they undergo special training is not really a surprise. What intrigued me were the movie’s subtle examinations regarding both ends of reality television. How much of a Tribute’s identity is sincere when it is broadcasted through the lens of the media? Where do the viewers of The Hunger Games find the entertainment in its mindless violence?

The story starts off with the happenings leading to the 74th Hunger Games. Most of our attention is focused on District 12’s Katniss Everdeen, who is impeccably played by Jennifer Lawrence. The movie demonstrates patience in the way it builds the Katniss character. Before she is thrown into the game’s deadly arena, we are given a chance to study her thoughts and memories, fears and feelings, strengths and weaknesses. As the movie progresses from District 12 to the Capitol, we realize that she’d rather be with a bow and arrow than with a camera and an interviewer. Though she is at first shy and awkward, she makes her way in the hearts of a number of people. When she finally steps foot in the arena, we see her more than just another participant in a televised bloodbath.

Katniss Everdeen and Peeta MellarkWhile the movie was still in the process of casting, I heard rumors that my love, Saoirse Ronan, was one of the actresses that were being considered to play Katniss. Without thinking of actress/character compatibility, I rooted for her. And now that I’ve seen the film, I realize that the role was made for Jennifer Lawrence. Ms. Lawrence is slowly becoming one of those tremendous talents that should always be aiming for high challenges. She played Mystique in last year’s “X-Men: First Class”, but that character didn’t deserve Lawrence. (If you’ve seen her in the excellent “Winter’s Bone”, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.) I’m glad that they chose a real actress to play Katniss. Imagine if Katniss was portrayed by Selena Gomez or Vanessa Hudgens. LOL.

I mentioned earlier that two Tributes are selected from each district. Katniss is joined by the sympathetic Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson); he specializes in camouflage and cheesy dialogue. His special feelings for her have remained hidden for years, but The Hunger Games have provided him an opportunity to finally express his love. Teenagers will be teenagers. A romance is expectedly developed. Most girls will disagree with me on this, but I thought that the romance was far too overworked. To attract a bigger audience, the movie sacrifices a lot of its compelling content in exchange for more common ones. If you’ve read my review of “Real Steel”, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Another downside in “The Hunger Games” that isn’t exactly the fault of the filmmakers is the movie’s exaggerated hype. It’s a satisfying movie, but it won’t match the impossible expectations set by its fanatical fans. Lower your standards for “The Hunger Games”, and you should have a jolly good time. On a similar note: Lower your standards for “The Dark Knight Rises”, and you should enter Movie Paradise.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Sherlock Holmes 2 PosterRating: ★½☆☆☆

It was in 1887 when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first began to author Sherlock Holmes, a fictional detective that would later be regarded as a treasure by the literary scholars of then and now. A hundred and twenty-two years pass by, and the concept of the Holmes character has been reduced to a business strategy, thanks to Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” of 2009. The detective has been given a modern makeover, and now shares many attributes similar to your average ass-kicker. Pity.

Nonetheless, my rule to view each film with an open mind allowed me to enjoy Ritchie’s adaptation as an action film with an unabashed marketing advantage. I was humble enough to admit my admiration for the 2009 movie, rewarding it with a positive rating. It was possessed with great energy and crazy humor, much of which was contributed by an ecstatic Robert Downey Jr. But this incoherent and sloppy sequel is a jab to the senses, doubling the madness while forsaking the few charms that occupied the original. Vapidly designed as nothing more than an overcooked version of its successful predecessor, “A Game of Shadows” is an annoying attempt at a second run at the box office.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes 2Good ‘ol Sherlock is just one of countless other victims that has fallen under the greedy hands of 21st century Hollywood. Production studios have this obsession of scavenging for iconic brand names and turning it into a blockbuster movie. Heck, they couldn’t care less about staying true to the source material. All they’re aiming for is the darn title. Warner Brothers, for example, borrows the beloved name of Mr. Holmes, uses it as their film’s title, and overshadows most of Sir Arthur’s content with an exhausting assault of special effects. With strategies like this, those studios have a guaranteed hit. A most recent example of this formula will be released later this year: “Battleship”.  And so we have arrived to that sad time where Hollywood has started adapting board games. The story? Aliens… yes, aliens… have arrived to blow up our planet, or something, and it’s up to a few naval ships to save the day. Hey, either I missed an update on the board game, or Hollywood has done it again.

Back to “A Game of Shadows”. Late 19th century London is being devastated by numerous bombings. The purposes are unclear and the perpetrator is unknown. Holmes suspects the crimes to be the work of Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), an intelligent conspirator with connections to weapon-making companies. Holmes investigates, and the plot thickens. And then it thickens some more. And then it does some more thickening until it becomes thicker than, say, Madonna’s make-up. That’s a lot of plot. Conversations between characters are mostly recitations of joyless exposition, which are only broken up by Ritchie’s stylishly senseless special effects. Ritchie has a talent for fun, snappy dialogue, but the plot leaves very little room for any of it.

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock HolmesToo bad. There is a quick stretch in the movie, inside a speeding train, that had achieved a balance, where Holmes is caught in a battle between an army of bullets and an outburst from a newly married Dr. Watson (Jude Law). Things become livelier, and funnier, when Holmes has to simultaneously deal with his professional and personal life, and Watson’s wife could have been a great addition to the adventure. My hope for her participation diminished right about the time where she gets thrown out of the train halfway into the sequence. She survives the fall, causing several injuries to the plot.

I wish the “A Game of Shadows” had sidetracked more from the plot to Sherlock’s dealings with Watson’s marriage, much like how first movie sidetracked to his flirtatious encounters with the gritty Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). But no luck. (Spoiler Alert!) The film’s predecessor benefited much from Ms. Adler’s presence, and this sequel thanks her by killing her in the first half hour? (End Spoiler) What a waste. Why not just throw her off a train, so they could bring her back for the inevitable Sherlock Holmes 3?

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Mission Impossible 4 PosterRating: ★★★★½

I cut to the chase when I say that “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is the best action movie of 2011. Not much of a statement, you might think, since trash like “Battle: Los Angeles” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” were released in the same year. But whatever. I felt a shy satisfaction while viewing it. I thought that my growing cynicism, thanks to the two movies above, had deemed it impossible for me to cherish another explosion, but all is not lost. There is sophistication in its silliness and spectacle in its set pieces. I urge every fun-seeking movie-lover to see it in front of the big screen. (I heard the IMAX version is wonderful.)

The latest “Mission: Impossible” flick is a triathlon of stunts, escapes, chases, and shootouts. A lot of them are performed, dangerously, by Tom Cruise himself. At age 49, you would think that the guy would welcome the expertise of a stunt double, but not today. That’s really Cruise hauling his own ass. And there’s a lot more ass-hauling here than your average action movie, but the bombardment is backed up with ambition and artistry. What places the movie in a high order within its class is its mindset to surpass expectations. It always manages to add an extra layer of oomph and finesse in each section of its screenplay.

Tom Cruise and the Burj KhalifaConsider the part where Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team are to intercept a crucial meeting at the world’s tallest building: the Burj Kalifa of Dubai. Before any intercepting could be done, their farcical computer genius, Brandt (Simon Pegg), informs them that they must break into the control panel and retrieve the building’s codes. Any other screenplay would have just ordered our heroes to pick some locks and get it over with. But this particular screenplay, written by Josh Applebaun and André Nemec, raises the bar to exhilarating heights. When I learned that Hunt must scale the outside of the towering skyscraper, my fear of heights stared straight into my soul. During the movie’s most glorious moments, there is a terrifying image of a dangling Tom Cruise that would make even Spiderman pee his pants. Suspended thousands of feet in the air, he inches his way through a room with nothing but mechanical “Sticky Gloves” that may or may not be low in battery.

The same form of ingenuity can be said for many other instances, like the scene where the objective of Ethan and Brandt is hindered by a guard at the end of an empty hallway. Instead of just tranquilizing the poor bastard, the two utilizes a device of technical trickery that erases their visibility. In another sequence, a typically standard chase in the streets is granted a fresher tone and look when a pesky sandstorm decided to arrive just to follow Tom Cruise’s path. I’ve heard that some paparazzi can be quite annoying, but this sandstorm’s a real jerk.

Tom Cruise, as Ethan Hunt, in a SandstormCompared to the previous installments, the plot in “Ghost Protocol” is rightfully less complicated. From what I gathered, there is a mad Russian (Michael Nyqvist) whose intent is to launch a missile that would start a nuclear war. What he plans to do after the world is obliterated, I do not know. I bet he doesn’t know either, but let’s continue. This triggers countless fights for a briefcase that contains the codes for the launch, but this is all for props. I couldn’t care less if that darn briefcase contained, say, the secret recipes of Pancake House. Hey, as long as the briefcase produces great action, and as long as the action is done well, count me in.

The action in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is not just done well – it is done beautifully. I praise the cast and crew for their discipline and imagination, but I especially want to praise the incessant dedication of Mr. Tom Cruise. In an age where baby-faced pretty boys are appearing here and there, a veteran like Cruise resurfaces. Covered in sweat, ash, and a little bit of sand, he gives these recruits a good reminder of what a real action star is supposed to be. Children like Taylor Lautner should take notes.

Real Steel

Real Steel PosterRating: ★★★★☆

As soon as the first of many electrifying robot battles in “Real Steal” went underway, I found myself instinctively recalling old memories that I didn’t know I still had. I remember how I used set aside furniture in the living room to create space for an arena. I would gather my toys in that arena, and our gang would have some fun. I thrashed them all around, pounded them against each other, and flung them against the ruthless ceiling. Things would be cooler if my stuff could do more than just withstand nonstop hammering, but it was a restriction that my imagination couldn’t handle.

“Real Steel” is the giant robot action movie my inner child has been waiting for. It demonstrates deep affection for its robots by investing in aesthetic qualities that similar movies are indifferent to. Each machine is skillfully designed. All the robots enjoy such a specific shape, physique, color and theme that we can identify any of them upon sight. And because professional boxers were motion-captured to generate the mechanical fights we see on screen, the movements between these visually appealing robots are authentic and in harmony. Here is a good example of a special effects movie that doesn’t depend on computers to do all the work.

Real SteelThe world in “Real Steel” has reached a time where man is no longer permitted to box. The roars of the crowd appear to like the replacement of human fighters: huge, towering robots that are assembled to disassemble their challengers through brute force. Robot boxing has become so popular a sport that we see it being held in vacant alleys, dark warehouses, and luxurious stadiums. This is the kind of sport that I would prefer to watch from afar. You do not want to be in the front row, uninsured, when one of those massive robots gets tossed out of the ring.

So the renewed sport has proved to be profitable, except for people like Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), one of probably many boxers who ended up broke. Now Charlie himself has taken a shot at the sport, but his lack of funds and experience is not helping him.  “Real Steel” is the blending of the Underdog Story and the Robot Action Movie. Try to imagine Rocky Balboa outside the ring while he gives commands of combat to The Terminator. The action sequences in “Real Steel” are exciting because we are given the rare opportunity to cherish them. The robots brawl two at a time in the contained space of a boxing ring, achieving a level of control and comprehension that’s beyond the ADHD disability of Michael Bay and his defenders.

Dakota Goyo and Hugh JackmanAn element in the movie that might have been overdone is its attempt to maximize human drama by giving Charlie an 11-year-old son he didn’t know of until now. Their relationship is diligently developed, which gives significance to the robot fights. But even though the father-son relationship needlessly stretches the film to a long 127 minutes, I stay true to the thought that cheesy characters are better than no characters at all.

“Real Steel” is based on the highly-acclaimed 1956 short story, “Steel”, by Richard Matheson. I’ve read that the source material has a more serious, thoughtful approach to the struggling boxer who has been cast out by machines. The movie adaptation has converted the original story into a more common premise, because the more familiar a story is to the public, the more likely they are going to see it. Sad, but that’s just the way things are.

Numerous fans of the original Matheson piece are afraid that the shallow, but nonetheless fun, movie version will hurt the reputation of “Steel”. I don’t believe that this is the case. Any publicity that will cause a broader awareness to “Steel” is good publicity. Oscar Wilde makes a good point when he said: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”