Movie Review: ‘Star Wars’ IV, V, VI & VII

WARNING: SPOILERS AHOY, ESPECIALLY FOR EPISODE VII. TURN BACK NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET. GET YOUR ASS TO A CINEMA AND COME BACK AFTER YOU’VE SEEN IT. I WILL NOT BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE RUINATION OF YOUR VIEWING EXPERIENCE. 

AHEM.

I’m going to come out and say that I’d never watched the original Star Wars trilogy, and so it was no big deal whether or not I watched Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, just like watching the second trilogy was no big deal (in my defense, I was 8 years old when Episode I came out and I wasn’t yet very particular about art by the time Episode III hit theaters). 

But my dad was insistent that we watch that first Sunday after the release date (“You write science fiction, you should be a fan!”), so in preparation for Episode VII, my sister and did a marathon watch of the first trilogy the day before. In glorious VCD. (We didn’t bother with the second trilogy because we don’t even have copies.)

Episodes IV, V, and VI

Original-Trilogy-Cover-Art
Image from Port-Haven.com

Episodes IV, V, and VI follow the typical trajectory of the Chosen Farm Boy discovering his true origins and innate powers, in true Hero’s Journey fashion. He develops those powers with the help of a Wise Old Mentor, all in the service of rescuing a scrappy and attractive space Princess. Along the way, he also gains some friends in the form of the Dashing Smuggler and his hairy first mate, loses his Wise Old Mentor, shows that he’s a damn capable pilot, and blows up the World-Ending Weapon of Doom–thereby pissing off the Dark Lord. He spends the next two movies further developing his powers, losing a hand, losing the Princess to the Smuggler (totally okay because she turns out to be his long-lost twin sister, so that’s a relief), falling into trap after trap, losing his second Wise Old Mentor, leading the Resistance, discovering that the Dark Lord is his father, refusing to join the Dark Side, and celebrating with everyone after the second World-Ending Weapon of Doom is blown up, thereby bringing about the downfall of the Empire.

I make it sound like I didn’t have enjoy watching the trilogy with that summary, but the truth is, I did. The original trilogy is a ball of fun and adventure and despite the no-nonsense Princess Leia being put in that infamous slave bikini, she goddamn strangles Jabba the Hutt with the same chains he clamped around her limbs. It was probably pretty groundbreaking–though it didn’t quite get everything right–in terms of feminism and diversity in the 70s. I think that if I’d seen it at a younger age, I’d be a pretty big fan today.

But I wrote the summary of the first Star Wars trilogy in such a manner because I wanted to point out how much the movies (Episode IV, in particular) adhere to the usual tropes. In that sense, however, I think Episode VI is superior to the first two in terms of trope-breaking: for one, Luke is not the Big Damn Hero who blows up the second, larger Death Star (that honor goes to Han Solo and everybody aboard the Millennium Falcon). Luke also doesn’t have a Big Damn Showdown with either Darth Vader or Emperor Palpatine–he already had one with the former in Episode V, so another would’ve been redundant. Lastly, Luke’s most heroic act in Episode VI is on a whole other level with his most heroic act from Episode IV: whereas he blew up the first Death Star in the first movie, he decides that his father is worth saving and actually hies on over to the the second Death Star to help him back into the light. He believes this even while being tortured by Force Lightning. Luke evolves from a whiny farm boy with Zac Efron-good looks, immense talent, and no impulse control to a guy who didn’t age well but looks and acts so damn cool in his black suit, has mastery of his Force powers, and believes in the goodness of the guy who killed Obi-Wan Kenobi, the guy he mourned more than the uncle who raised him.

I did have a few problems with some aspects. The political situation of the Empire wasn’t very clear, for one–yes, they blew up Alderaan, but apart from that, were they allowing slave trafficking? Over-taxing its people into deep poverty? Banning free speech? Taking entire planets by force? What was it that compelled them to build a Death Star in the first place if most people were already under their rule? What tyranny was the Resistance fighting against? And did they realize that there would be a pretty gaping power vacuum if they sunk the Empire and didn’t have an alternative leader?

And a few quibbles: why does everyone allow the other side to track them to their damn bases (Princess Leia already mentioned the tracking to Han Solo, but they did zilch about it afterward)? Why did the Resistance name Luke Skywalker a commander when he has no tactical experience in battle apart from blowing up the first Death Star (which is completely different from a land or sea battle on another planet)? And why the hell didn’t the Empire vary their architectural plans for the Death Star a.k.a. why is there another small hole that functions as an Achilles’ heel?

All told, however, the first trilogy did a pretty good job of getting me excited for Episode VII.

Episode VI

star-wars-force-awakens-official-poster
Image from StarWars.com

Apart from viewing the first trailer more than a year before the release date, I steered clear of any and all news and bits of information about Episode VII. Therefore, I didn’t know what to expect of this movie–except perhaps, everyone might break into song, as befitting a Disney movie.

The story begins thirty years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire. Jedi Master Luke Skywalker is missing and everyone is searching for him–including his sister, Resistance General Leia Organa, and the pro-Empire cult called the First Order. A map of his location falls into the hands of Ace Resistance fighter pilot Poe Dameron, who in turn hides the map in his BB8 unit and puts up a brave fight before he is captured by Dark Lord-wannabe Kylo Ren of the First Order. The BB8 ends up with Rey, a young Jakku scavenger, while Poe is freed by ex-stormtrooper Finn. Poe and Finn’s comandeered TIE fighter crash lands on Jakku and Finn finds himself in Rey’s company. Their adventures begin when the Jakku post they meet at is bombed by the stormtroopers and they escape on a rickety old ship called the Millennium Falcon–which is being tracked by its former owner…

There’s a fine line between paying homage to source material and actually copying everything about it. At first, the movie was walking the homage line with the Millennium Falcon and the fact that BB8’s journey in a way parallels that of R2-D2. But as it went on, I got the sneaking feeling that it was basically the plot of Episode IV rehashed: the planet-sized Death Star (forgot what it was called, sorry) destroys a planet, this time the one that housed the Republic; the Resistance storms the First Order base while a small group (Han, Chewie, and Finn) infiltrates it to not only take it down from the inside, but rescue a captured Rey; Rey witnesses the death of her father figure at the hands of Kylo Ren; Poe’s squad takes down the planet-sized Death Star by bombing a weak point in its design–all before it can fire at the star system of the rebel base; Rey and Kylo Ren have a lightsaber showdown.

Which is not to say that, like with its predecessor above, I did not enjoy Episode VII. In fact, I’d say that I’m a fan of the movie at this point, and it’s thanks in large part to deuteragonists Rey and Finn.

I love that Rey is a competent mechanic and decent pilot–there is nothing of the whining or angsting found in Luke or Anakin. She is not afraid to show her insecurities or her fear and thus, these do not bog her down, especially when it’s time to get down and dirty (with the exception of the incident at Maz Kanata’s castle).

I love how Finn alone among all the stormtroopers has lasted this long, even if it’s because he turned his back on the cause. I also really like the bromance blossoming between him and Poe (hahaha–let’s face it, those two have far more chemistry than Finn and Rey). I love how he managed to hold his own in a fight with Kylo Ren; even though Ren eventually slashed him unconscious, he still managed to cut the guy.

Episode VII also managed to address that power vacuum I mentioned earlier. The politics are more developed and contemporary. What I mean by this is that the First Order has parallels with both the Nazis and ISIS in terms of goals and hierarchy. And in terms of cultural politics, it’s pretty awesome to see a woman as the (not at all sexualized) Chosen One, a black man as deutragonist and potential love interest (not shipping this one because see Finn and Poe above), and a couple of Asians as minor characters.

My takeaway from this movie: I’d watch the sequel; the Skywalkers should not be allowed to have children EVER because they tend to dictate the fate of the Galaxy with their Force sensitivity; someone should tell Kylo Ren that his grandpa turned to the Light Side before he died; Han throwing that gangster henchman to the squid beast kinda renders the whole morality root of the “who shot first” argument moot; and someone needs to fire the Death Star engineer and all their descendants, pronto.

Movie Review: ‘Aladdin’

Aladdin. Image from Amazon.
Image from Amazon.

Aladdin is special to me for being the very first Disney movie I ever watched, and perhaps the only one I–according to my parents–would cry at the end of, as I apparently wanted them to rewind the VHS tape and play it again. I couldn’t tell you what I saw in it over 20 years ago, of course.

Considering that I watched it for the first time as an adult recently, I can tell you what I think of it now: despite some plot holes and glaring problems in the geographical and cultural setting, Aladdin is a rollicking, hilarious, romantic, and progressive (for its time) cartoon.

Summary from IMDB:

When street rat Aladdin frees a genie from a lamp, he finds his wishes granted. However, he soon finds that the evil has other plans for the lamp–and for Princess Jasmine. But can Aladdin save Princess Jasmine and his love for her after she sees that he isn’t quite what he appears to be?

It was extremely difficult for me to summarize the plot of Aladdin without going into great detail as to what happened in the beginning. I think that this is because Aladdin’s turning point, that of meeting Genie and trying to win Jasmine’s hand as a prince, doesn’t occur until a good one-third into the film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I enjoyed the somewhat tuneless preamble leading up to the second Cave of Wonders sequence.

You know what else I enjoyed? Aladdin and Jasmine, from start to finish. I feel like there is no other Disney movie where the chemistry between the hero and the heroine is this strong. Aladdin turns into a real goofball when it comes to Jasmine, so much so that I can feel a goofy smile growing on my face whenever they’re about to kiss or when the “A Whole New World” number came up. Even if the next two films and the animated TV series weren’t as good as Aladdin, I’m glad Aladdin and Jasmine got that much material and screen time to further develop their relationship; they are by no means perfect and they often have misunderstandings, but that’s just part of their charm.

Image from DisneyScreencaps.com
Image from DisneyScreencaps.com

Jasmine herself is a pretty admirable character, perhaps the first example of the naive-but-fiery-and-capable-princess trope. She can’t handle a bow like Merida or a sword like Mulan, but she’s every bit as willing to fight to protect what’s important to her like Nala, and even as willing to trick her way into achieving her aims like Megara and has all the sexuality of Esmeralda. I may have wanted to be her when I grew up.

The film–in glorious 2D that’s all but disappeared from mainstream US animation–has a rocking color palette that isn’t at all shy about going from warm to cool undertones from one scene to the next. Appropriate when you consider that the “A Whole New World” sequence is basically a preview of the settings of future Disney movies, like Hercules and Mulan. I also very much enjoyed how Carpet was animated–it takes a lot of skill to be able to draw a rug that can express its emotions without any voice acting. Plus, its pattern was beautiful.

Speaking of voice acting, Robin Williams in his turn as the Genie was especially stellar. Scott Weinger does a pretty good job as Aladdin, too.

I did have to wonder, however, about some plot points. Why Jafar didn’t just attempt to marry Jasmine in the first place if he wanted to take over Agrabah so much? He clearly had the resources–the snake staff–to do it, and if he’d done that in the first place, he’d have had access to enough resources to storm the Cave of Wonders, or else to discreetly detect Aladdin’s presence in the marketplace.

It also bothered me somewhat that you couldn’t tell at a glance if you were in India, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. (The palace and Jasmine’s attire has some Indian influences, the marketplace is more Arabian souk–and I’m probably getting too technical on this, but wasn’t the original Aladdin story set in China?)

I was also thinking the whole time I watched the Sultan, how did this happy-go-lucky guy who doesn’t take anything seriously get to lead a whole country? I mean, Jasmine was so upset when she thought that Jafar had had Aladdin beheaded, and he thinks that talking to both parties as mediator is going to appease either one? And yet, it’s that same quality of the Sultan’s that finally allows Jasmine to choose Aladdin as her husband, so I guess it’s all good…?

Maybe I wouldn’t have enjoyed Aladdin as much if I’d first come to it as an adult, but who cares? The bottom line is that it gave me so many feelings and I’m still singing out “Prince Ali, fabulous he, Ali Ababwa” at random times throughout the day.

Movie Review: ‘Cinderella’

Warning: SPOILERS AHOY.

Well, that was adorable.

Before I watch any live-action Disney film, especially one that’s a retelling of a retelling, I always make sure to lower my expectations first–not because I think the film is going to be bad per se (although Maleficent was pretty…meh), but because there will be inevitable changes to the story that may not sit well with me. In other words, I’m still willing to be surprised even as I hold up the 1950’s Cinderella cartoon alongside this most recent incarnation.

2015’s Cinderella, despite being the millionth retelling of the beloved Charles Perrault fairy tale, will surprise you if you let it.

The official poster. Via IMDB.com.
The official poster. Via IMDB.com.

I had doubts about casting Downton Abbey‘s Lily James as Cinderella (Ella in the movie) when I saw the trailer, but those quickly faded. She brought equal parts breathiness, naivete, and also quiet strength to the role. Some will no doubt pan her for her lack of fiery ass kicking, but these days, we seem to forget that there are many different types of women and that even those who can silently and steadfastly hold their own against the odds deserve time in the spotlight.

I may be biased because Cate Blanchett is one of my favorite actresses, but I truly could not hate her in the role of the Wicked Stepmother, Lady Tremaine. I was too busy admiring 1) her fashionable and occasionally avant garde (for the movie’s era) wardrobe with its deep green, black, and gold palette, and 2) how she manages to exude spite coated by a layer of grace, and most of all, jealousy toward Cinderella without ever truly explaining herself during their confrontation in the manor’s attic. Especially after revealing her backstory and motivation via the fairy tale mode, I thought, “aw, she’s just doing everything she can to survive, albeit being bitter the whole way.” Definitely an improvement from the rigid sternness of the cartoon Lady Tremaine; however, I felt that there was another note that her characterization lacked, thus hindering Lady Tremaine from becoming a truly complex character. Can’t put my finger on what it is, though.

It helps that Richard Madden has a charming smile, but I really enjoyed his portrayal of Prince Charming (or “Kit,” as he so adamantly calls himself as the Captain and Grand Duke interrupt his meeting with Ella in the forest with a “Your Maj–“). It might actually be more to the credit of the scriptwriters, now that I think about it: compared to the cartoon Cinderella, this prince has speaking lines, a personality, and most of all, humanity. Plus, I loved how he suddenly removed his disguise just as the Captain and Grand Duke were arguing about the one other maiden in the Tremaine household–my breath literally caught during that scene. (But did he seriously have to sit down for three seconds when Ella ran from him? I mean, my gosh.)

I wasn’t so sure about Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother when I saw the trailer, given her the quirky darkness I’ve come to know her for, given her previous roles (Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter movies, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). I mean, she can put the “boo” in “bippity-boppity-boo!” But she managed to retain her quirkiness and her gift for deadpan humor while still keeping in tone with the rest of the movie (and in a glittery white cake of a gown, too). Not saying that her Fairy Godmother was better than the 1950’s Fairy Godmother (who had the most personality out of anyone in that cartoon, I think), but hers was an interesting rendition.

I must admit, I expected Kenneth Branagh’s direction to be more like the Shakespeare-esque overtones of Thor (2011)–but that’s not what happened in this movie at all. Plus, the slapstick, language jokes, and the witty one-liners hit me in all the right places (“I can’t drive, I’m a goose!”–it’s funnier when heard onscreen). Branagh has improved significantly from that first foray into film direction.

The set pieces were beautiful (that carriage!) and the costumes could be out there and even ahead of their time (Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe, for instance) without being distracting. I also like how there’s a color palette and sometimes even patterns for each character in the movie (just look at Cinderella’s step family). I did have a slight, inconsequential dislike for Ella’s default blue house dress. (Better than the cartoon Cinderella’s dress, but I mean, her parents must have had her wear other dresses when they were alive, right?)

I had a few issues with some aspects of the cinematography, particularly how the camera would cut and fade to another angle as Kit and Ella walk together in the palace gardens. I also got kind of dizzy watching them dance.

The writing and the storyline surprised me on the whole. There were also a few plot tweaks, mostly at the end, that echoed 2002’s Ever After (Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott) in terms of politics. What didn’t sit well with me was how Kit’s father the King had to die in order to give Kit more humanity and depth; apart from this, I’m not sure what else that death accomplished. Tangentially, nearly every parent in this film died of an illness, making me think that Kit’s first order of business as king should be to investigate the source of this mysterious parent-killing disease. (Yeah, it was understandable with Ella’s parents, but the King, too? That’s too much in one movie.) But these are minor things.

What I really like about this adaptation is how Ella herself was given a backbone. “Have courage and be kind” is a message that could easily drown in this dog-eat-dog world, and I like how this was given more emphasis–Kit himself remarks to the Captain (Nonso Anozie) that he was more drawn by her kindness and goodness than her beauty (“Although she is beautiful,” he says). Ella even defies Lady Tremaine at some point, demanding to know the cause as to the older woman’s cruelty. When Kit finally asks her, before he fits the glass slipper on her foot, who she is, I at first thought it off that she introduced herself as Cinderella instead of Ella, given that reflection on how much Ella’s step family had “transformed her into a creature of ash.” But upon talking it out with my sister, I realize that this was just the right note–2015’s Cinderella is not a movie about breaking your shackles and claiming your freedom. It’s about staying true to who you are and believing in goodness and fairness despite the bitterness of the world.

One final note about the relationship between Kit and Ella. James and Madden really brought the two to life with their onscreen chemistry, and I love how the script took pains to somehow equalize Ella and Kit in terms of strength and humanity, station in life be damned (I just don’t like how they had to kill off a character to help in this). This is something I feel that a lot of media does not do well, or else I am not watching enough movies or reading enough books. They helped me to see that, no matter how many times I watch or read a Cinderella retelling, I will always hold my breath and my heartbeat will always flutter during the moment when Cinderella catches the prince’s eyes across the ballroom floor. 2015’s Cinderella is probably one of my favorite versions yet.

Via FilmRacket.com
Via FilmRacket.com

Movie Review: ‘Godzilla’

Image from Warner Bros. Pictures via GMA News Online

Spoilers ahead.

I want to tell you that 2014’s Godzilla is,  as a film, as massive as the rather stocky creature on the screen. I thought it was going to be smart, visually arresting, and character-driven just as last year’s blockbuster kaiju movie Pacific Rim was.

But sadly, it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun to watch, however.

After an amazingly cool opening credits scene littered with old footage of nuclear explosions and Godzilla sightings in the 50s, we zero in on Japanese scientist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, Inception) and partner Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins, It’s a Wonderful Afterlife) arriving at a humongous mine in the Philippines in 1999 (to which I promptly snorted and said, “We have something that big lying around here?”). Serizawa and Graham investigate what caused a collapse in the valley floor; they go underground and discover a gigantic skeleton and what I would not have had to look up on Wikipedia as egg pods if only the lighting had been a bit brighter.

Meanwhile, the first Brody family is going about its respective schedule in Tokyo–Ford to school and parents Joe (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad) and Sandra (Juliette Binoche, Paris, Je T’aime) to the Janjira Nuclear Power Plant. Something huge causes the plant to collapse, taking Sandra and life as the father and son know along with it. Worst birthday ever for Joe, and it marks the end of the first act.

Fifteen years later, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick-Ass)  is reuniting after 14 months away on duty with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen, Liberal Arts) and son Sam in San Francisco. However, he is unceremoniously called away again by the American Embassy in Japan, as Joe has been arrested for trespassing in the quarantine zone where they both used to live and needs bailing out. Joe is rambling about how Janjira has been covering up the true events behind the collapse of the power plant and claims that he will soon figure out the truth if he can just get to their old house and retrieve the data on his floppy disks.

Eventually, they both get caught and discover that the old power plant site is now the site of a huge scientific experiment, at the center of which is one of the egg pods from the Philippines. The thing hatches into a giant flying cockroach (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object, or MUTO), which promptly wreaks havoc with the electricity and infrastructure for miles. It sends a mating call to the other egg pod, located in Nevada, which hatches into an even bigger (but wingless) cockroach with a glowing egg sac. But before you start thinking that this movie isn’t about the giant lizard himself, Godzilla is also spotted, and he is intent on subduing the mating pair. End of the second act.

Meanwhile, Ford is desperately trying to get back to his family in San Francisco, and he gets into all sorts of mayhem along the way–including a suicide mission whose goal is to use a nuclear bomb as bait for the nuclear-feasting roaches. That basically ends the third act and the entire movie, and it is as rushed and crammed in as it sounds.

When you combine that with cheesy dialogue (“Joe, I’m not gonna make it. You have to live for our son”), indie film-style lighting, how nobody ever detects massive moving creatures whether the power is out or not (how does no one not notice a giant flying bug dropping a submarine in the middle of Hawaiian mountains?), and how much more screen time the MUTOs got than Godzilla himself, the movie sounds like a bummer.

Worse still is how the solution to the problem of three giant creatures breaking everything appeared to be, if I understand Serizawa correctly, “Sit there and let them have at it.” Essentially, that was a similar solution to the problem of a Martian invasion in 2005’s War of the Worlds, but I can’t help but feel that the latter established the human helplessness better.

There’s also the problem of the worldbuilding. Pacific Rim did a great job showing what a world that continually deals with kaiju attacks might look like. Yes, in Godzilla, it shows what is presumably the first time that kaiju attack humans on a large scale; but there are no news reports about the rest of the world might be sending reinforcements, or experts going on TV and speculating about the origins of the creatures, or even a bland, 30-second long montage about how people might pick up the pieces in the wake of such widespread destruction. Godzilla, presumed dead, suddenly wakes up and slinks back into the sea while everyone cheers, end of story.

But this is not a character-driven movie, I’ll give it that.

And somehow, after watching the movie, I couldn’t stop comparing it to Pacific Rim. I think it’s because of the original anti-nuclear war message of the original Godzilla movies (which I so wanna watch now), a dissonant but rather strange soundtrack, and how the people behind this incarnation of the gracefully lumbering kaiju didn’t even attempt to adapt that message to contemporary times (meanwhile, I don’t know if it was just me, but Pacific Rim made a great correlation between kaiju and natural disasters, and what the world powers are doing about these in the form of technology [the mecha suits]).

But there were some very good moments in Godzilla, such as the use of the power outages to convey suspense. Best moment: Ford is sitting in the darkness of a stopped civilian train in Hawaii, the lights come back on, and suddenly, the giant flying cockroach is worrying the tracks ahead of them. I was actually willing to let go of how nobody heard the damn thing coming in the darkness when it’s pretty loud with the lights on.

I was also pretty amused when the two roaches finally met and ate each other’s faces kissed. *INSERT NOW KISS MEME HERE*

I also liked how the brought back Godzilla’s glowing blue fire and how he practically vomited into the female MUTO’s mouth in order to kill her (and promptly fell asleep afterward).

And I appreciated how Ford went back into the MUTO’s lair and made all the eggs explode. That is probably the single smartest thing any character in this movie ever did.

All in all, this entire movie made me realize that I prefer a plot/narrative that needs fleshing out than to the cheesiness of 1998’s Godzilla. Don’t get me wrong, that was one of the movies of my childhood and I will always feel nostalgic whenever I see it, but…they barely did anything with Godzilla (except him pregnant, which was weird).

So, in the hierarchy of Western kaiju movies:

  1. Pacific Rim (2013)
  2. Godzilla (2014)
  3. Godzilla (1998)

I guess it doesn’t bode well that I need to keep comparing it to other movies to assess my own reaction to it. I did laugh in some parts, but I don’t think I was supposed to laugh at all. If you are simply looking for pure kaiju smackdown (with terrible lighting), then the 2014 Godzilla is your movie.

Movie Review: ’47 Ronin’

Image taken from BlackFilm.com
Image taken from BlackFilm.com

You see that poster? Do not let that poster fool you. In no way do that tattooed guy or the iron-clad samurai have the big parts the poster implies. This is the tale of the 47 ronin…or the 46 ronin and the half-Japanese demon played by Keanu Reeves, who seek revenge for their slain master.

The movie opens with a young Caucasian boy, Kai, running through a forest. He collapses in a little brook and is soon found by Lord Asano Naganori (Tanaka Min), daimyo (feudal lord) of the province of Ako, and his group of samurai, led by Oishi (Sanada Hiroyuki). Lord Asano takes Kai in despite Oishi’s attempt to kill the boy for his apparently demonic nature. Kai grows up an outcast in the long shadow of the palace of Ako and its samurai, loyal to Lord Asano and in love with his daughter, the Lady Mika (Shibasaki Kou).

Fast forward several years, Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and rival daimyo Kira (Asano Tadanobu) come to visit Lord Asano. During a demonstration between the best samurai of the two lords, Kai is further cast out after impersonating a samurai. In the evening, through dark magic, Kira’s Witch (Pacific Rim‘s Kikuchi Rinko) tricks Asano into assaulting Kira, resulting in the Shogun ordering the former to commit seppuku (stabbing himself in the gut, an honorable death). The Shogun pronounces Asano’s samurai as ronin and orders them not to come after Kira on pain of death, then pronounces Mika engaged to Kira so that strife will not grow between her lands and his. After the Shogun leaves, Kira orders Oishi thrown into a pit.

One year later, the story really begins.

Normally, any dramatic adaptation of the 47 Ronin story will fall under a special body of work called Chushingura. But if I were Japanese and had any say in what goes on in Japanese culture, I wouldn’t include Carl Rinsch’s directorial debut in that body of work. Why?

It’s not just because the very presence of a white guy (I don’t care if they called him half-Japanese and half-English, his accent’s still American) skews the whole “To know the tale of the 47 ronin is to know all of Japan!” thing. Granted, as the movie progresses, Kai shares the screen with Oishi, even backs down a little at some parts (a feat for a Hollywood film). It’s that you can tell right off the bat which parts were probably insisted on by Hollywood film producers (who may have thought that American audiences need a white guy to relate to for a movie about another culture to be interesting) and which parts were true to the source story–and I’m willing to bet that you can tell which part dragged the story down.

Look, I love fantasy. The wonders of computer animation never cease to amaze me, and this movie delivers on that. The evil liveliness of the Witch’s silks, as well as every other manifestation of her powers–be they reptilian or insectile–is proof enough of this. Props also to Lady Mika’s out-of-this-world kimonos, as well as the tangle of galleons making up the haven of pirates (who don’t spend more than 10 minutes onscreen). In short, the movie is not lacking in spectacle department. But beyond spectacle, what has it going for itself except for well-choreographed fight scenes and a very strong source story that needed no embellishment?

47 Ronin would have been cool if it wasn’t trying to be too cool.

Movie Review: ‘The LEGO Movie’

The first teaser. Image from Warner Bros Pictures.
The first teaser. Image from Warner Bros Pictures.

Everything is awesome–this movie, especially.

I was feeling purely cynical toward it, at first. It seemed like The LEGO Movie was going to be a promotional movie for an amazing toy I grew up with that didn’t need a movie to boost its sales at all. I was thinking that the plot was bound to be mildly entertaining, at most.

Except, not only was The LEGO Movie intelligent, awesome, interesting, and special; it managed to be funny without relying on innuendo, poop jokes, and slapstick.

We begin with Lord Business (Will Ferrell) , extremely tall and evil overlord, who steals a superweapon called the Kragle from the volcanic lair of the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). Vitruvius makes a prophecy: one day, a being called “The Special” will find the Piece of Resistance, which will disarm the Kragle forever, and s/he will become the most awesome, special, most interesting person in the universe. The Lord Business takes out Vitruvius’s eyes, but whatever.

8 1/2 years later, construction worker Emmett (Chris Pratt)–who has never had an original thought in his life–is going about his awesome, ordinary day to a T when he meets Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) at the site. Through sheer stupidity, he stumbles (okay, falls) upon the Piece of Resistance in a hole way below ground and gets it stuck to his back. What follows is a wild ride through several LEGO worlds with Wyldstyle, Vitruvius, Batman, Uni-kitty, Benny the Space Guy, and Metalbeard the Robot Pirate. They are hounded all the way by Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), who will have his own important part to play at the final showdown with Lord Business and his Micromanagers.

My only concern with The LEGO Movie is that its funniest scenes may have already been played out in the trailers. I was expecting to laugh really loud along with a theater full of children–and I did, just not as much as I thought I would.

That said, I cannot think of anything remotely terrible to say about this genre-savvy film. Stunning graphics resembling stop-motion animation appear to do anything from pyrotechnics to tossing waves of the sea, the music is awesome and as stuck in my head as the Piece of Resistance is to Emmett’s back (“Everything is Awesome” by Teagan and Sara, featuring The Lonely Island), the humor is clean and silly, the characters are endearing–there is just no one you can really hate in this movie (but my ultimate favorite has to be Vitruvius)–and the simple quest story that so riddles the great epics of the world really carries the day, thanks to some pointed satire. I love the way this movie turns the entire quest narrative on its head toward the end.

The movie even goes off on a metafictional tangent, too–I am usually jarred by animated features that suddenly cut to real-time, real-life footage of people, as if the entire animated world we just saw wasn’t real or is less important (Happy Feet somehow suffers from this). But The LEGO Movie pulls this off rather well; the story in the real-world runs parallel to that of the LEGO world–they feed off each other, even.

There’s also an endearing “message” about creativity and practicality, of going with your gut and following instructions. It turns out, you need a combination of both to save the day and to make anything wonderful.

All in all, The LEGO Movie reminds me of my childhood and its best days. Anything that is capable of that is worth a second, third, and umpteenth viewing.

And if you are still unconvinced about parting with your hard-earned money to see this wonderful little flick, I give you the blooper reel.

Movie Review: ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’

Spoilers and Tolkien geekery abound. 

I didn’t exactly fall in love with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. As the first of a trilogy-that-should-not-have-been, it was so obviously padded by both material from the appendices and scenes completely made up by Jackson and the screenwriters. The music was great, the acting was more than many Hollywood movies could ever ask for (I mean, that rendition of “Riddles in the Dark” felt like a coming home to me)–but so much of it was, for want of a better term, fanfiction. And they were so obviously feeling their way around–I’d never complained about the length of a movie before Journey.

So I wasn’t going into The Desolation of Smaug with very high hopes. And then I read my cousin Nico Parungo’s review, then edited Misha Lecaros’s review of it. The former had never read the books and the latter had. Two good reviews from entirely different viewpoints had to mean something, right?

(Answer: Yes, yes, they most certainly do.)

Image taken from IMDB.com
Image taken from IMDB.com

This second installation of The Hobbit trilogy picks up (almost) right where the previous movie left off. The Company is already halfway or more to the Lonely Mountain, though they have to get through a shapeshifter, a relentless troop of Orcs, a kingdom of haughty Elves, and men both sleazy and honorable first–and between all that, crazy barrel rides, spider attacks, Gandalf disappearing on a secret mission, a looming threat in Dol Guldur, poisoned arrows, and Elves both smitten and jealous. And when they do finally get to the mountain, they find that the dragon Smaug is more than what they bargained for.

Okay. I still don’t agree with resurrecting an Orc who should have died during the great war of Dwarves and Orcs (die, Pale Orc, die), but I’ve long accepted that a movie adaptation of a book is a completely different animal from the book itself. Rare are the movies that follow their source books faithfully, and even with those, a few visual liberties needed to be taken in order to fit the medium (I’m looking at you, Catching Fire and the first two Harry Potter movies). And considering that one, The Hobbit is a slimmer book than any of the Lord of the Rings books and two, this is the closest all us Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales fans are gonna get to a screen version of the aforementioned books, it’s totally understandable that material from the LOTR appendices were added for the fleshing out of the storyline. The difference between Journey and Desolation is that the former is like Bilbo using Sting for the first time in the Misty Mountains and the latter is more like Aragorn wielding Anduril on any occasion.

Indeed, it seems that Jackson, the cast, and the crew are all treading with surer footing. The pacing is just right, the dialogue not as useless (Fili: “If there is a key, there must be a door!”–straight out of Legolas a.k.a. Captain Obvious’s book), the action scenes are more fun than tedious–only Peter Jackson will think of slaying Orcs while jumping barrels–and plotlines both canon and Jackson-made are more deftly woven together (I mean, I don’t feel so bad about watching Azog strut his stuff onscreen even though he should, by all rights, be dead).

The humor has also gotten a whole lot less slapstick (though there’s still plenty of that to go around) and a whole lot wittier. From a double entendre between Kili and Captain of the Mirkwood Guard Tauriel to Legolas insulting the Dwarf Gloin’s family (which, incidentally, includes his future best friend Gimli), we’re definitely looking at a more put-together script, whether the jokes are to your taste or not. There is, thankfully, less of Radaghast’s antics (and by association, way less bird poop).

There is a romance now, too. I wasn’t going to like Kili and Tauriel at first, though interviews between Journey and Desolation alerted me to their existence. I thought Tauriel would have been better suited to Legolas, and besides, every flirtatious scene between the hot Dwarf and the beautiful badass Elf made my sister and I stick out our clawed hands in silent OH GOD WHY WHY WHY. But then, the chemistry between Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lilly was so palpable and I am, for some reason, a goner when it comes to sappy lines uttered in some elevated form of English, so there it is. I am trying very hard not to like them as both a couple and as individuals, considering how I feel that this will only end in tears, but I am failing miserably. And I guess it adds more tonal variety in an already action-packed film.

Things start to get a little more serious as well, beginning from when Kili takes a poisoned arrow to the leg. I didn’t realize it until I watched him stagger from the pain, but it was rather unsettling that all 13 dwarves of the Company (plus Bilbo and Gandalf) escaped any serious injuries this far into the trilogy when Frodo almost dies of jab from a Morgul blade in the first third of The Fellowship of the Ring. I also liked Gandalf’s scenes in both the tomb of the Ringwraiths and in Dol Guldur–here we have a 7,000-year-old Wizard, more powerful than most creatures on the face of Middle Earth, and yet, he can still be thrown back by a bunch of Orcs. Somehow, showing that they’re not all invincible takes away a little more of the cartoon-y, picaresque caricature quality of 14 tiny beings and a wizard on a quest to reclaim gold from a dragon. They are made more human this way, even though none of them really are.

Kudos to the acting chops of Martin Freeman (Bilbo) and Richard Armitage (Thorin). With simple gestures and deceptively simply facial expressions, both of them convey the sense of falling into corruption: the former due to the Ring and the latter due to Dwarf greed. Thing is, considering how this is going to tie into LOTR, we all know who’s going to fall faster.

Luke Evans (Bard), Evangeline Lilly, and of course, Orlando Bloom, are welcome additions to the cast. Thing is, Lilly seems to have a default face, whether she’s being interrogated by Thranduil (Lee Pace) or saving Kili from a poisoned arrow. Orlando Bloom has gotten visibly older, and not to mention, is playing a very different sort of Legolas this time around. His nose actually bleeds and his hair becomes a mess! I both dread and can’t wait to see the incident that will turn him into the smooth-haired, marble-faced Legolas we all know and love from the LOTR trilogy.

And lastly, a word about the music. Howard Shore never fails to deliver with his wonderful orchestral compositions–I just can’t remember that particular scene when the violins really stood out, it might have been when Bard was sneaking the Dwarves into Lake Town. But it was Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire” that really stole my heart this time.

The amazing thing about this movie was that I never once thought to myself, “Where is this going to end?” It was only when Smaug momentarily transformed into a golden dragon that I thought, “Oh shit! It’s going to end there?!”

I already wish it were December 2014, even though I know I’m prolly gonna have to dole out the tissue alongside the popcorn.