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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

"Fantastic Beasts", a darker and hair-raising, but very busy sequel of extraordinary depth, imagination and powerful secrets.
"Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" is a movie that left me breathless and stunned. Here is a sequel to a prequel that had me entranced from the floating, zoomed-in Warner Bros. logo with the luminous and ominous score courtesy of the great James Newton Howard to its stupendous cliffhanger ending that had me excited for the next adventure. There are a couple of movies like that this year that had left me with a glowing smile on my face, this one is certainly it. It's very hard to explain the plot(s) without ruining the secrets for your experience. But let me elaborate as much as I can about it. As we know from the first film, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them", a dark force was terrorizing the Wizarding World. We finally get to meet him in the flesh. That dark force is none other than the notorious Dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald (played to menacing perfection by Johnny Depp). The movie begins with a captivating chase on a magical coach (with thestrals, to be exact) that turns into Grindelwald's escape. Meanwhile, Newt Scamander (the charming Eddie Redmayne), the magizoologist, has been called upon on a very secret mission by Albus Dumbledore (the wonderful Jude Law) that also leads to what the other characters want as the story progresses. That would be the young boy Credence (Ezra Miller), who not only is finding his own identity, but is also the uncontrollable force known as the Obscurial. As Grindelwald starts to gather more followers for his preparation to rule over the Wizarding World and the No-Maj world, each of the characters including the Goldstein sisters, Tina (the delightful Katherine Waterson) and Queenie (Alison Sudol, a genuine heartbreaking presence), No-Maj Jacob (Dan Fogler), the Maledictus known as Nagini (Claudia Kim), Newt's schoolmate, Leta Lestange (the amazing Zoe Kravitz) and Newt's Auror brother, Theseus (the intimidatingly remarkable Callum Turner) will make their choices and decisions that will lead them to more unexpected territory than they (and we) never imagined. As a 17-year fan of J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World, it's amazing to see what J.K. Rowling as a screenwriter can come up with next. There are clues and secrets and twists and turns that will tie in to the "Harry Potter" universe. (Believe me, my face lit up like Christmas lights on a tree when I saw Hogwarts again.) But what's important about this film, beautifully directed by David Yates with awesome cinematography courtesy of Philippe Rousselot, is that it's a movie of extraordinary depth, imagination, and secrets that you have to see for yourself. Some critics has said that this movie has too many characters and too many plots running around the place. I consider this to be folly, for this is a crowded movie, a magically entertainingly crowded movie about the characters that we always loved going on more darker and different directions than before and the events that they follow will lead them to what they will become as the stories continue. This is a magical movie. It's darker than the first, but still has its sense of magic and humor and its love for the choice-making characters (good and bad) and the production design by Potter vet Stuart Craig are remarkable, followed by the sensational costumes by Colleen Atwood. It's tough for a sequel to pull you in again without repeating the formula that made it so successful. What J.K. Rowling and David Yates has done with the "Fantastic Beasts" films is that it blends and grows into something more grounded but captivating us with its own magical appeal. The first film was the set-up, this one continues the set-up, but adds some pay-offs into the mix. It's definitely worth your time and effort to see this can't-miss experience and keep some of those secrets to yourself. (By the way, loved the giant Chinese beast known as the ZouWu: Menacing, but with a good heart)

Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg + Ernest Cline = Pure Pop Culture Fun! Wanna Play?
For someone who has grown up with some of Steven Spielberg's films whether it's suspenseful and intense ("Minority Report", "Jaws"), shocking heart-grabbers ("Saving Private Ryan", "Schindler's List"), made from the heart stories ("E.T.", "Hook", "The Color Purple", "The BFG") and of course, purely fun spectacles ("Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park", the "Indiana Jones" films), It's safe to say that Spielberg is the master of filmmaking. So imagine my delightful surprise when I found out that he decided to take on Ernest Cline's pop culture bonanza "Ready Player One". As it turns out, after seeing Spielberg taking on real-world dramas like "Bridge of Spies" and "The Post", the movie version of "Ready Player One" is Spielberg's return to the fun, good-hearted blockbusters we all know him do so well and he has managed to craft an even better adaptation of the book that I would've expected, imagined and thought of. Set in Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045, the story is about Wade Watts (the appealing Tye Sheridan), a timid young kid who hides from his trailer home known as "the Stacks" (In which trailers that stacked from the ground upwards one after the other) and enter into the virtual reality world known as the OASIS. A world created by the late James Donovan Halliday (the excellent Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, one of Spielberg's regulars) and Ogden Morrow (a terrific Simon Pegg) where you can be anyone you want and do anything you want. Before he died, Halliday created an Easter egg in the game in which the winner will win his entire fortune of half-a-trillion dollars and control of the OASIS. So, Wade, known as Parzival in the OASIS, along with his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe) and his first crush, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Art3mis (the feisty and energetic Olivia Cooke) goes on a extraordinary quest to look for the egg once they have to pass three missions and collect three magical keys. But there are other people, like the IOI (Innovative Online Industries) and its ruthless leader Nolan Sorrento (a appropriately slimy Ben Mendelsohn), his sinister sidekick F'nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen, a wowzer) and bounty hunter i-rOk (an comically smarmy T.J. Miller) would do anything--really, anything-- to get to the egg first so they can control the future for their own sake. It's a lot to take in, but Spieiberg knows what he's doing in terms of delivering an visually exciting adventure on such a grand scale with a lot of Easter eggs that we need to keep more than an lookout on. There's some clever nudge-nudge, wink-wink's to "Back to the Future", "Alien", "Gremlins", video games that we used to play or currently being played and there's even a sequence set to Kubrick's "The Shining" that is a dazzler to experience, even in 3D. What's even more impressive about "Ready Player One" splits the line between the virtual-reality world (which was done with Motion-Capture Animation) and the real world. Screenwriters Zak Penn and Mr. Ernest Cline himself manages to keep the spirit and the heart of the book intact, but also creates some genuinely exhilarating sequences, cool surprises, warm human moments and slyly quirky humor that it's hard to resist the moment you step into the world of the OASIS. Even some of the characters including Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao) gets some dimensionality than we expect. "Ready Player One" is pop-culture fun from start to finish. Much like the book, a lot of people will love it, some will hate it. But the real amazing thing of this film is that audiences will get to experience Spielberg make movie magic again and much like Halliday's Anorak, he lures us into this world as if he is the creator of the OASIS himself. It's awesome seeing the man at work and the movie rocks because of that. Game on, Gunters! Game on.


Give a standing ovation to "Wonder": This movie is full of...well, wonder.
Have you ever felt like you were the same as everybody else, but you were also different from the world? 10-year-old Auggie Pullman will tell you that while he feels extraordinary on the inside, outside, he doesn't feel like that. He feels lonely, invisible to everyone around him. I guess, maybe we all feel like that sometimes. Maybe we're outsiders trying to leave a mark on the world, just like Auggie. Which is why "Wonder" appeals to the underdogs in all of us. This beautiful book, which came from the riveting and honest imagination of author R.J. Palacio, has touched the lives of millions of readers of all ages (I'm one of those readers). Now, with the help of co-writer/director Stephen Chbosky (Author/screenwriter/director of one of my favorite tales, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower", Co-writer of Disney's astonishing live-action remake of "Beauty and the Beast"), I can't imagine anyone, kid or adult, ever being disappointed with this endearing adaptation of a beloved book that has great messages of never judging a person by their looks and to always choose kind, which is something that we all need to learn from in this day and age. With convincing prosthetics and makeup that makes look nearly unrecognizable, the wondrous Jacob Tremblay from "Room" and "The Book of Henry" is brilliant as Auggie. He has Treacher-Collins Syndrome (a craniofacial disorder) and has survived 27 surgeries. After being home-schooled for half his life by his mom, Isabel (Julia Roberts. still luminous and radiant as ever), he is sent to public school for the first time, with a little help from her, his dad, Nate (Owen Wilson) and his sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), who has always been there for him. As soon as he goes to school, he immediately gets picked on and bullied because of his appearance. Some kids, including Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and Summer (Millie Davis) accepts him for who he is. Even some of the staff, including English teacher, Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs from "Hamilton") and the principal, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) cares for him. But some, including bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar), don't like him. As the story progresses, we get to see the different perspectives of each of the characters, family and friends, who will leave an impact in Auggie's life in moments that are good and bad. Only then, Auggie will unlock the power of acceptance and friendship in order for him to truly find his place in the world. "Wonder" is a tough-minded film that reminded so much of how I used to love the classic family films I grew up with. A movie that doesn't dwell on special effects, talking animals or a big budget, but has deeper thoughts and real themes that enthralls the inner kid in all of us. It's moving, funny and tenderhearted in an authentic way that shows us that we have to see through the eyes and soul of another person, rather than seeing what that person looks like. It also helps by having a great writer/director and a terrific, well-chosen cast (including poignant turns from Danielle Rose Russell and Nadji Jeter, who plays Via's friend and first love, respectfully and a brief cameo from Sonia Braga as the Pullmans' grandmother) who care for this story that it never goes over the top with the emotions and it never goes down a conventional, melodramatic and saccharine path. Every moment of emotion fits like a puzzle and convincingly flows in every scene. Auggie said, "We all deserve a standing ovation at least once in our lives." I say, we should all give a standing ovation to both book and movie of "Wonder", because like its characters that gets their moments of pure humanity and, of course, dear little Auggie, this story is a wonder. I will never forget this movie and I hope that families around the world who have always wanted to stand out from the crowd, no matter how different they are, will do the same.

Wonder Woman

You'll be seeing lots of colorful wonders when you're with this Wonder Woman
For the past 76 years, Wonder Woman has been such an iconic female character in the DC universe. She always proves that if men (superheroes included) can fight against the darkness, the women can do it too. With her sword, shield and Lasso of Truth, she fights for what she believes in and is always there to help those who are weak. Now the time has come for Wonder Woman to make her way to the big screen for the first time ever and the results are phenomenal. And if you remember Lynda Carter stepping into that costume and saving the day in the classic '70s show, then you will definitely remember Isreali sweetheart Gal Gadot as the feisty, tough and big-hearted superheroine. After her scene-stealing debut performance as the Amazonian princess in the flawed, but totally entertaining "Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice", I say it's about time that a female superhero gets her chance to shine in her own film. After a year in waiting for this movie to come out, I can say this with a happy heart, this movie is the ride that definitely lives up to the hype. Deftly directed by Patty Jenkins, who gave Charlize Theron an unforgettable performance--and an Oscar---as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster", "Wonder Woman" embraces its origin story with enough humor, heart and stunningly choreographed action sequences that it never drags or sags, it just comes alive in a real colorful way. Born in the all-female island of Themyscira, Diana (Gadot), daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), has always wanted to be a warrior just like her mother and her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). In the years that followed, Diana has been training and preparing for action, but discovers that she has powers that are astonishing. Next thing we know, a young soldier named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) lands on the island and Diana is exposed to a more darker side of human nature where bullets are ripping out of their guns and lives are lost. Steve manages to warn these ladies that war is coming (the World War, in fact) with highly impossibly created weapons invented by Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and General Lundendorff (Danny Huston). So Diana leaves her paradise home and travels to London with Steve to fight and to find the one God that actually caused it (I think you know what I am talking about). Part of the fun and heart of this movie is watching Diana exploring and learning about the good and dark side of life. As war causes pain, casualties, and emotions, they can sometimes bring us hope that the world can change, even if it's not as better as one would expect. Along the way, Diana and Steve got the help they need in some unlikely characters including Steve's smart assistant Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), a Scottish sharpshooter named Charlie (Ewen Bremmer) who is struggling with PTSD and a master of disguise named Sameer (Said Taghmaoui) as they fight their way into enemy territory with lots of surprises left in store for them. After the superb "Man of Steel", and the flawed, but somewhat good "BVS" and "Suicide Squad", "Wonder Woman" is the DC film I've been waiting for. Here is a rousing, colorful and heartfelt adventure that has big laughs, cool action, characters that you can actually root for and a climax that may be as typical as one might expect from a superhero movie, but it's filled with more emotional power that some might not see coming. The cast that Jenkins has managed to put together, including the awesome David Thewlis in a pivotal role you have to witness for yourself, is amazing. I've always been a fan of Chris Pine's work, following his best performances in the brilliant "Hell or High Water" and the "Star Trek" films. The cocky demeanor that he brings to Captain Kirk is actually quite useful in the role of Steve Trevor and he has an real undeniable chemistry with Gadot. Plus, the screenplay by Allan Heinberg gives us dialogue that crackles with sly humor (Most of the hearty laughs comes from Sameer, Etta and of course, Diana & Steve) and a lot of exposition that creates a more streamlined plot that is more reserved for a film like this. To end this review, let me say something about Gal Gadot. It's not easy to fill the shoes of Wonder Woman that was once inhabited by Lynda Carter. But she makes it look effortless and puts a lot of hard work into the character. She gives such a remarkable and endearing performance as Wonder Woman and I think this is the one that might actually make her a big star and the character that I can't wait to see again. She's wonderful. So is the movie.

Get Out

Jordan Peele's audacious directorial debut is not only the first great movie of 2017, but a movie that makes you think
It's very hard to describe a movie like "Get Out" without spoiling the secrets or the fun that makes the movie subversively dazzling and audaciously triumphant. I even had the decency to watch this movie without having to see the trailer. But knowing the premise right away, I knew that this was an unusual kind of horror movie, one that actually makes us think about ourselves once we leave the theater. Watching it in a crowded movie theater, I haven't seen a movie this stunning that made an audience feel uneasy since last summer's surprise hit (and my favorite horror movie of that year) "Don't Breathe". The opening scene sets up the premise immediately and then it'll come back to you later in the film because of the idea of it is surprising. The idea of an African-American being introduced to your significant other's parents and the fear of suburban life for a black male kicks off when photographer Chris (the wonderfully expressive British actor Daniel Kaluuya) asks his girlfriend, Rose (a remarkable film debut by Allison Williams of the HBO series "Girls") before they go to meet Rose's parents for the weekend: "Do they know I'm black?" She says no, but she did say that her father would've voted for Obama for his third term. Once we get to meet Dean (the incomparable Bradley Whitford) and Missy (the calm and comforting Catherine Keener), Rose's parents, they really do seem like really wholesome parents. After a few subtle, but very offhand remarks that Dean says (including that Obama line and also about Jesse Owens), you get the sense that something weird is slowly starting to go down. Even the happy, friendly maid Georgina, (Betty Gabriel), the groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Rose's brother Jeremy (a eerie performance by Caleb Landry Jones) are acting quite odd. Even the relatives and friends Dean invited are making Chris and Rose feeling uncomfortable. Then that's when the shift start to change and Chris might need some help for his friend, a TSA Agent named Rod (Lil Red Howery, a showstopping comic performance) to uncover some secrets. This is where I stop and tell you who the real star of this movie is. This movie, of course, marks the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, one half of "Key & Peele". Here he had the audacity to make a horror/comedy with social themes that a lot of people are still talking about. What people should take away from this are the themes of white conservatism, how black lives really do matter, and how most people ignore the rules of society and prefer to live their lives the way they think they should. White it's sublimely scary and, aside for a brief moment, not over-the-top gory, it's wickedly funny as hell. Most of that humor, which Peele is known to do on the "Key & Peele" show, comes from Rod, especially in a pivotal scene with a social moment interwoven into it when he tries to tell someone about Chris' situation, but no one believes him. Plus the score by Michael Abels, the editing by Gregory Plotkin, the production design by Rusty Smith and the cinematography by Toby Oliver are phenomenally first-rate. "Get Out" is the first great movie of 2017. It plays its game straight and the movie weaves its powerfully scary spell on you. And, to my surprise, it kept me on the edge of my seat and refuses to reveal its cards to us until the right moment when it starts to get a little queasy for us, the audience members. And in this day and age, we needed a movie like this that encourages us to stay woke. Something also tells that I'm looking forward to see what other tricks Jordan Peele has up his sleeve. This isn't the traditional horror movie you always prefer, it's an original horror movie with a feeling and a savvy social side to match.

Rogue One

"Rebellions are built on Hope!"
When "Rogue One" was announced, I was a bit nervous about how this one turned out. First, after last year's "The Force Awakens", I was so thrilled to come back into the world of "Star Wars". But, did they need to excite us again for a standalone movie set in this universe? Second, the movie had a troubled production history. To be fair, it seemed like it was necessary (or not, depending on what you think of it) to bring "Rogue One" to the screen. And the results are stunning. Gareth Edwards, who directed the low-budget "Monsters" and a big-budget "Godzilla", was the right choice to take on a standalone "Star Wars" movie. It turns out that the story is set between the events of "Revenge of the Sith" and "A New Hope". And there are a lot of clues that will remind us of what is to come in Episode IV (The big clues are the best ones). A long time in a galaxy far, far away, we discover some amazing new characters, some great wonders, and a rebellious wit and heart interwoven into the stunning action sequences. Felicity Jones is wonderful as Jyn Erzo, a feisty rebel who, as a child, saw her father (Mads Mikkelsen) being corrupted by the power of the Empire to build a very dangerous and legendary weapon. (I think you what this one is.) Now, in her later years, she becomes part of the Rebel Alliance in order to steal the plans of this planet-destroying weapon. Joining them are Captain Cassian Andor (a superb Diego Luna), a Imperial pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), a blind kung-fu monk, Chirrut Imwe (the awesome Donnie Yen) and his trusty companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and K-2SO (the incomparable Alan Tudyk, in motion-capture form), a Imperial Robot whose memory was erased and was made to serve to the rebels. Of course, she also get help with a message that sent to her mentor, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). And of course, we have to keep a lookout on our baddie, the specialist of the Imperial Weapon who knows no mercy. That one is Orson Krennic (the fantastic Austrailian actor Ben Mendelsohn, bringing some sharp villainy). Now, I can't reveal the rest, but you will see how this rebel force brings the heat as their plans are set in motion. "Rogue One" is crazy fun and sensationally surprising from start to finish. It's visually exhilarating and the action sizzles with enough energy to punch us into hyperspace. And there is quite an strong emotional side to it. Is it a perfect "Star Wars" movie? Not quite. Sometimes the movie does show its stitching and the exposition does get in the way of the development of the characters. But the universe is alive and constantly surprising us every step of the way. As I'm prepared to wait for Episodes VIII and IX and its standalone Han Solo movie, the "Star Wars" series knows that there are more stories to tell. Being the first of their standalone films, this has the opportunity to explore a different side of the rebellion in which we haven't seen anything like it before. But more or less, there are plenty of opportunities to pull some facts from the mythology of "Star Wars" and expand it further. When that happens, I'll be there waiting for it. It definitely sums this wonderful line by Imwe: "I'm one with the Force and the Force is with me."

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

J.K. Rowling works her magic again with these "Fantastic Beasts"
For the past 15 years, I've always been a devoted follower of J.K. Rowling's phenomenal Harry Potter series. The 7 books and the eight movies based on them have worked its magic on me all the way through. Now, in light of the worst election most of us have experienced, who knew that Rowling had the magic touch to bring me back to the Wizarding World that I knew and remembered. But it wasn't any book, it was a tiny textbook that made the largest leap to the big screen. In "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them", the Wizarding World was more colorful and alive as ever. It even helped too, since this is Rowling's first ever screenplay, she knew this world better than anyone ever could. Set in 1926, the movie follows British "magizoologist" Newt Scamander (the amazing Eddie Redmayne, Oscar-Winner for "The Theory of Everything") as he travels to New York. Once he arrives, things get a bit hairy, thanks to a classic switch of suitcases with former war veteran Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler in a sensational performance). When Jacob accidentally opens Newt's suitcase filled with these fantastic beasts, Newt, along with the help of ex-auror of the MACUSA Headquarters (America's version of Ministry of Magic), Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, a spellbinder) and her spicy sister, Queenie (a fetching film debut by Alison Sudol from the band "A Fine Frenzy"), searches for his precious beasts all around New York. But there is terror reigning supreme, as a dark force will cause the war between the Wizarding World and the No-Maj (American term for "Muggle", non-magic folk) world. Not even the leader Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and the auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, very menacing) of MACUSA or the Barebones, a Second Salemers group led by adoptive mother/conspiracy theorist Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) or her abused son Credence (Ezra Miller in a chilling standout performance) could do anything to contain it. This magical first chapter of a soon-to-be 5-part film series brings back director David Yates (who has directed the last four Harry films) and producer David Heyman (who produced all the films) and production designer Stuart Craig. And yet, like Newt's magical case, the world is more expanded in ways we couldn't even imagine thanks to those three. What's also interesting about this movie is that it is more adult than the previous films. The social and sometimes political themes of fear, isolation, loneliness, abuse and love are presented in a more mature way. While it's playful and enchanting at times, it's also not afraid of showing us the dark side of the Wizarding World. Rowling has delivered a phenomenal first screenplay and her trust in director Yates was a very natural choice. The characters were original, well-developed and perfectly cast, the magical creatures including a thieving Niffler, a vicious Swooping Evil, a striking Thunderbird and a charming Bowtruckle are indeed fantastic, the look of the film is marvelous and the music by James Newton Howard is pitch-perfect. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing this movie again, so as a fan, I can look back at some of the details that will lead to the amount of extraordinary events in the Harry Potter books that most people will miss out on. It's a first-class stunner in many ways, a pure-blooded fantasy that dazzles with wonder and charm. So far, the magic is back and it definitely needed me to believe again. This is the beginning of a whole new world that I can't wait to see once more.

The Girl on the Train

A terrific psychological thriller of secrets and voyeurism with a fearless performance by Emily Blunt
Rachel Watson is a down-on-her-luck British woman living in New York who is a bit of a trainwreck. Her husband left her and married his mistress, she drinks and blackouts in despair and she likes to get a look by peeking through other people's life when she rides the train. This is the simple idea of "The Girl on the Train". Now, like millions of readers who have devoured this book, I have read the Paula Hawkins novel in which this film is based on. There have also been a lot of comparisons to "Gone Girl", another book/movie that also dealt with the psychology of women. "Gone Girl" was more superior, because it had such a wickedly humorous bite and it was ferociously masterful. This movie and the book doesn't have any of that. What the movie does have is Emily Blunt, who is giving such a fearless performance as that girl who sees almost everything through that train that she, along with some terrific acting from a splendid cast, beautiful but bleak cinematography and a haunting score courtesy of the great Danny Elfman, makes the movie work a lot more than the book would. (More on that in a moment.) Anyway, after one drunk night, Rachel (Blunt) wakes up to find herself an unreliable witness in a mystery involving a young woman, Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) who went missing in that same night. It turns out that Megan used to babysit the daughter of Rachel's ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Giving the fact that there is some time missing from where she was at, Rachel tries to figure out what happened on that night, while trying to solve this mystery. So far, there's no one to trust. Not even Megan's husband, Scott (Luke Evans) or her therapist (Edgar Ramirez). The more reasonable one is Detective Riley (Allison Janney), who is very suspicious of Rachel. Now, I admired the book, but I couldn't connect to each of the characters, plus the twist at the end was sort of obvious. But here's how director Tate Taylor (of the wonderful "The Help" and the electric James Brown biopic "Get on Up"), screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (of "Secretary" and "Chloe") and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen managed to do: They made the movie even better than the book, which is a rare thing. I got to be involved with the story more because these characters are flawed and we see the danger of what happens when someone starts to snap when some secrets are being spilled out in the most inopportune moment. Plus, you have Emily Blunt in your movie, which makes it work even more, even when you feel like you're being lost in the confused suburban melodrama of it all. And the twist at the end doesn't feel very obvious with a surprising additional character added into the mix. The three women are terrifically played as icy, complex and sometimes troubled women and each of their stories do connect, even if you didn't notice it. Blunt is great, Bennett gives such a stunning, breakout performance and Ferguson is subtly effective. Of the three amazing male leads of the story, the best of the three is Luke Evans, who gives a searing performance as a man who is looking for answers involving his wife and the frustration that comes out of that seems palpable. And I'm always glad to see Allison Janney in a movie and I'm happy to follow her anywhere. I'm also happy to report that if you like the book, you'll like the movie. I found it intriguing, mysterious and sometimes twisted. Even if it didn't reach "Gone Girl" status, that still doesn't make this a good thriller. What makes this movie a good thriller is the fact that everybody has secrets, good and bad. Some bad secrets should be forgotten, not mentioned or revealed. And sometimes, secrets, especially when you see things from the train, can get you into a world of trouble.

Don't Breathe

A old-fashioned and eerie thriller that is bound to leave you breathless
Now this is what I'm talking about. "Don't Breathe" is a simple, but very energetic home-invasion horror thriller that has chills and thrills. Plus, no cheap jump scares found here, just pure horror done the good old-fashioned way. And it also provides a few twists that are so shocking, they will leave you speechless. This is Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez's follow-up to the ultra-gory, but stylish and thrilling "Evil Dead" remake. Here, he takes a more relaxed approach with less gore and more storytelling. Set in Detroit, the movie follows Rocky (Jane Levy), a young girl who is trying to get herself and her little sister out of here, along with her boyfriend Money (It Follows' Daniel Zovatto). Rocky's friend is Alex (Dylan Minnette from last year's "Goosebumps"), whose dad works at one of those security companies. Their plan to end all plans, of course, is to rob the house of a blind man who has a huge sum somewhere and they will be on their way. It turns out that this blind man known as "The Blind Man" (Stephen Lang) is a war veteran and is a lot more skilled than they think he is. He knows every corner, frame and room of this house and he is certainly not afraid to strike. But he also has a few things lurking in that house. Now, this is where I stop, because the rest I want you to see for yourself. The way how this movie was designed is through the old-fashioned techniques that most filmmakers haven't used in a while. Alvarez uses tracking shots, sound and a great deal of foreboding to keep us on our toes and to make our hairs stand on end. Credit must given to cinematographer Pedro Luque, production designer Naaman Marshall and three editors for knowing how to pull us in through style, substance and restraint. It also features one of the best scores I've heard since "Gone Girl" and that is the unsettling and eerie score courtesy of Roque Banos, who seem to have taken a few pages from the Reznor/Ross guidebook. I think one of the most memorable characters ever created in my opinion is "The Blind Man". Stephen Lang, who has played villains before, makes this character subtly effective and very terrifying. He doesn't say a lot (nor does he should), but with those piercing eyes, a magnetic presence and the way he walks with no mercy and no fear, Lang carries this challenging task on his shoulders and runs with it. There's no need to question his loyalties, because you can't tell if these characters are good or bad. Jane Levy, who worked with Alvarez on "Evil Dead" and gave such a fearless performance in that film is even more convincing this time. She and Dylan Minnette are great at conveying fears with their eyes and trying not to make any sounds while walking in the dark. I'm certainly not going to forget this movie. I haven't reacted to a film this stunning since David Fincher's "Panic Room". Both films do give a very claustrophobic feel of what's it like to be trapped in a house. But "Don't Breathe" gets the upper hand because someone knows how to take that fear and cranks it up to 11. You never know what you're going to expect and you don't know how it is going to turn out, but it takes a big dive and it's not afraid to go all out. Here's a very subtle response from me: It's bound to leave you breathless.

Suicide Squad

This squad brings the heat and they're the bad guys
Back in March, there have been a lot of shock and awe from people that "Batman V Superman" was a bit of a disappointment. I didn't think so, but I was hoping that the DC Extended Universe was starting to get better because we have "Justice League" and "Wonder Woman" coming out next year. But right now, we'll make do with "Suicide Squad". This movie has also been on the negative end for critics, but I found it to be a stylish and thrilling comic adventure with some nice standout performances courtesy of Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis and Joel Kinnaman. Now I'm not gonna reveal some of the secrets of this movie, but I'm willing to give you a heads up. Following the events of "BvS", Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) decides to come up with an idea to hire the worst of the worst villains in order to take down more evil bad guys. We actually get to meet them. First, there's Deadshot (Will Smith), a contract killer with a heart of gold. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a man with a dark past and a power to shoot fire out of his hands. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who lives in the sewer of the prison and most definitely look like a crocodile. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a goofy Australian schemer who uses his boomerangs. And, of course, my favorite, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who has been under the spell of her favorite boy toy, the dangerous Joker (an underused but winning Jared Leto) and is not afraid to vex and irritate people. Along for the ride is soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and his bodyguard Katana (tough Karen Fukuhara) as they try to take down pure evil. I liked the energy, the dark humor, and the vivid colors of this wild and crazy film written and directed by David Ayer (writer of "Training Day", also written and directed "End of Watch" and "Fury"). But sometimes you get kind of confused as to where the story takes us and we don't get to know at least some of the characters including Slipknot (Adam Beach) and the Enchantress a.k.a. Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne). But in its own sloppy, choppy and messy way, I found it terrifically entertaining and funny as hell. Also if you loved or hated "BvS", you'll probably have the same reaction for this movie. Me, I liked it better than "BvS" and I also expect to see more of these DC characters and this extended universe. Plus, there are a lot of good surprises in there.

Me Before You

It's time to live boldly with Will & Louisa in this terrific feel-good love story
It's really hard for me to not spoil the surprises of a movie like "Me Before You". For general moviegoers, they'll be expecting another love story about two people who fall in love until one of the characters has a dark secret that could tear them apart. For fans of the book, they will love the fact that it's incredibly faithful to the Jojo Moyes novel (See "The Fault in Our Stars", "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" and other true-to-the-book movies for details), but they will also get so much more out of it. I recently read the novel last month before the film came out and I found the book affectionate, funny and surprisingly uplifting. I think the key to any book-based movie is to find the right actors to have not only good chemistry, but to make sure that audiences will remember the characters in their hearts. Boy, have they lucked out with two immensely charming actors in this terrific film. "Me Before You" tells the story of Louisa "Lou" Clark (Emilia Clarke), a 26-year-old happy-go-lucky woman who has been trying to find the right job to support her working-class family. That is until she unexpectedly finds one by working as a caregiver to Will Traynor (Sam Claflin). Will was "The Man", that guy who had everything at the palm of his hands until an motorcycle accident left him an quadriplegic. Now he's sarcastic, bitter, moody and thinking of really dark thoughts. How did his heart turn to ice? Anyway, Lou refuses to be put off by a man who lost everything and gave his friends and everybody, as Lou calls it, "the (crappy) treatment". Suddenly, it starts off being an antagonistic relationship to a rather healthy one as Lou, with the help of her sister, Treena (Jenna Coleman), tries to help Will understand that life is definitely worth living for. And, yes, they do start to fall for one another, until Will has that secret that could end it all. I like the movie, but I do have a couple of minor problems: The first one is that the movie is not exactly as deep and sometimes dark as the book was. However, I give it points for letting the book and the movie asks the two questions: "Can you fall in love with a person but disagree on what their opinion of life is?" and "Can that same person change your life, even when it's least expected?" The second one is that first-time feature film director Thea Sharrock moves the film a little too fast without giving us a moment to understand Will's plight and Lou's cheerful earnestness while trying to get to the best parts of the story. But those problems did wash away with the help of Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin. Clarke, best known as the Mother of Dragons on "Game of Thrones", should've been a breakout movie star with that last Terminator movie. Here, that title suits Clarke well as the character of the quick-witted but sometimes vulnerable Lou. Claflin, in his first movie outside of "The Hunger Games" series, has the most challenging role, so far. But he is remarkable as the stubborn but sincere Will. Their chemistry together is amazing. The supporting cast is also good too, with Janet McTeer and Charles Dance (also from "Game of Thrones") as Will's parents who are constantly worried about him and his safety, Stephen Peacocke as Will's nurse, Nathan, Matthew Lewis (Hello, Neville Longbottom) as Lou's boyfriend who is completely uncomfortable about Lou's job, Brendan Coyle and Samantha Spiro as Lou's parents and there's also a really funny cameo from the "absolutely fabulous" Joanna Lumley. Credit must be given to Jojo Moyes, who adapted her terrific book to the screen (she also wrote the sequel book "After You") with some witty dialogue, tender emotion and sometimes dealing with real themes, although it's not as deep as the book. "Me Before You" is a simple story, sure. But while it probably won't be in my top 5 of the best love stories ever, I still found it to be in the same old tradition of tearjerkers, the one where you laugh, you cry and you'll come out feeling good. By the way, it's a lot better than "The Choice".

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2

Another Big Fat Greek Wedding...14 Years in the Making
The Portokalos family are that kind of family that joins the Parthenon of best movie families ever. A lot of us who are not Greek and come from different backgrounds can sometimes relate to this family. They are the kind of family that are big, loud, overbearing and sometimes obnoxious, but it's a lovable, wise and real family. That was part of the appeal of the genuinely funny and sincere "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" 14 years ago, which is still the #1 romantic comedy of all time, by the way, and it worked even more this time in the sequel to the surprise box-office hit. Here is a sequel that feels more natural than a simple cash-grab. It's a movie that brings back everybody (and I do mean, everybody) for another big fat Greek wedding, while also dealing with more situations that will surprise and even move your family. It's also the movie where I knew what was going to happen, but I didn't know how it will affect me in the end. In the first movie, we followed Toula, a 30-year-old Greek-American woman who got her life together and fell in love and ultimately married a non-Greek named Ian, which shocks her father, who wanted her to marry a Greek boy and make Greek babies. And, of course, in the end, Toula and Ian has a daughter. Now, in "MBFGW2", which takes place 11 years later, that daughter named Paris (now played by the delightful Elena Kampouris) is now growing up and is sort of fed up with her extended family constantly smothering her everywhere she goes and she really wants to go far away from her family. In the meantime, Toula (Nia Vardalos) and Ian (John Corbett) are struggling with their 17-year marriage. Are they missing the spark? Or is Toula busy trying to convince her daughter that she is making the wrong choice? The answer to that is quite an honest one. Since it's called "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", who's getting married? Well, turns out it's Toula's parents, Gus (Michael Constantine) and Maria (Lainie Kazan). When they were married 50 years ago, their marriage certificate was not signed. So that means everybody in the family comes back including the always reliable Aunt Voula (the hilarious Andrea Martin), sexy and feisty Nikki (Gia Carides), sincere Athena (Stavroula Logothettis), earnest Angelo (Joey Fatone) and muscle-bound Nick (Louis Mandylor) as they prepare for the biggest, fattest and Greek-est wedding since the first one. The success to these movies is the strong semi-autobiographical writing by Vardalos. Her screenplay to these two movies are filled with hilarious one-lines and visual gags that are sure to be quite memorable with people who've seen it more than once and sharp dialogue that can remind you of what your family used to say. But it's also honest (sometimes to a fault) and authentic. This wonderful ensemble cast is still remarkable and the charming chemistry between Vardalos and Corbett still resonates with me. Director Kirk Jones (taking over from Joel Zwick) who has dealt with an ensemble team before in "What to Expect When You're Expecting" and "Waking Ned Devine" keeps the brisk pace moving forward and makes sure that every single character gets their moments, including the kooky but endearing Mana-Yiayia (Bess Meisler), while filling the screen with enough hilarity and heart that all of us can remember the first time around. Sometimes movie sequels are viewed as "companion pieces". I don't usually use that term a lot, but "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" serves as a satisfying companion piece to the original. For one thing, it's great to see this family again because, for me, it feels like they haven't even left. They are still the same as they were before. They may have changed a little, but they are still who they are. Sometimes, I wished my family was like the Portokalos family. Do you think of the same question?

The Choice

The Least Surprising of the Nicholas Sparks Books-to-film Adaptations...but still worth watching thanks to the two leads
Forgive me for saying this, but I'm a sucker for love stories. I'm more familiar with the Nicholas Sparks brand because I remember the first time I actually got involved with his stories and that was "A Walk to Remember". It's been 14 years since that wonderful movie and 17 years since his first book-to-film being "Message in a Bottle" and it seems that the Sparks brand is still going and so far, he has written 18 books with one more coming out later this year and 11 of his books has been translated to the screen. The 11th is the more recent one and that is "The Choice". Now, I'll be honest. We know where this stuff is going, we know that it's predictable and we know where the twists are at. Still, "The Choice" is an impressive movie and what made me chose this movie are the two stars that made me smile and care as two characters who have two separate choices to make in their lives. After she made a terrific lead turn in one of my favorite surprises of 2013, "Warm Bodies", the always luminous Teresa Palmer keeps that star shining even brighter as Gabby Holland, a young nurse who moves to North Carolina and is the next-door neighbor of Travis Shaw (Benjamin Walker), a veterinarian who is a fun-loving party animal who hangs out with his friends and loves to drive girls crazy. Their friendship immediately starts off on the wrong foot when Gabby's dog gets pregnant and she blames him for letting his dog impregnate her. He asks her out, she rebuffs him. Mainly that's because she has a boyfriend in Dr. Ryan McCarthy (Tom Welling), who goes out of town. Also Travis gets blind-sighted by Monica (Alexandra Daddario), the girl his friends call "the boomerang". Anyway, he takes a liking to her, even though she "bothers" him, and then their friendship turns into something more than that. Then, in the tradition of Sparks, a tragedy happens and Travis and Gabby has to make two different choices. For Gabby, which man does she want to wake up with the next morning. For Travis, it's something a little more personal that I can't reveal. Usually, I stick around for the third-act of any Sparks movies to find out what happens next, but the third-act of "The Choice" is very obvious and somewhat dry. Like I said, we know what happens throughout the story, even if the final effect turns out to be something a little different. But what saves the movie and that last act are the magnetic chemistry of Palmer and Walker. Even though they may not match the magic of Noah & Allie, Landon & Jamie, Luke & Sophia, John & Savannah....and so on, Travis & Gabby are appealing, flawed and earnest people. They do argue with one another most of the time, but there is a lot of love there for the rest of the time. These two actors have it, especially Walker (remember him as "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"?), who shows a lot of emotions that shows up right in the final act. The movie also gets some solid support from Maggie Grace as Travis's sister, Stephanie and Tom Wilkinson, still superb as always as Dr. Shep, who is Travis's dad and also a veterinarian. It's also not afraid to show some humor in there too. Whether you think it's intentional or unintentional, well, that's your choice. I like the movie and the actors, so that's my opinion. However, I think that Mr. Sparks should try something a little more original and unpredictable. I know there's a reason why he's called the master of romance because he does appeal to the women as well as the hopeless romantics. He does produces some lavishing productions, though. I'm only hoping for it and I'm just saying.


Never underestimate the imagination of a few powerful books..."Goosebumps" is spellbinding family entertainment
You know the expression "kids like to be scared nowadays"? Well, let's just say that there was one author who knew how to whip up one...no make that over 100 stories that would scared the living #2 out of kids as well as their parents. That was the "Goosebumps" series written by R.L. Stine. Personally, I have read some of his books as well as growing up with the "Goosebumps" T.V. series back in the 90's. But I never would've thought that they would be interested in turning it into a movie. I was concerned that the filmmakers would pick a story and translated to film, because there are so many "Goosebumps" books. Wisely, with the help of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (of Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" and "Big Eyes"), who wrote the story and Darren Lemke (of "Jack the Giant Slayer" and "Shrek Forever After") who studied the blueprints of Alexander & Karaszewski and turned it into a screenplay, they came up with the clever idea of not having one monster, but over 50 of Stine's monsters (or unless I counted it wrong) in one movie, but with an original story to go with it. That's what made this "Goosebumps" movie for me an exciting experience. The story is one you heard of before, but spun in a witty and fresh way. It follows a teen named Zach Cooper (the incredible Dylan Minnette) who, after the loss of his father, moved from New York to Madison, Delaware with his mom (Amy Ryan, Oscar nominee of "Gone Baby Gone") who is the new principal of his new school. Once he arrives, he becomes friends with next-door neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush), but is quickly shooed away by her dad, Mr. Shivers (Jack Black) who warns the young boy to stay away from both of them. One night, things do get a bit bumpy and Zach and his new friend Champ ("Super 8"'s scene-stealer Ryan Lee), who was "born with the gift of fear", to investigate what's going on. Who knew that Mr. Shivers had a secret of his own that made people stay away from him? He happens to be R.L. Stine himself. Anyway, the two friends discovers the manuscripts of "Goosebumps" and Zach unintentionally opens one of them, releasing the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena. Now with some of the monsters, which includes lawn gnomes, ghouls, The Werewolf of Fever Swamp, a giant praying mantis, The Invisible Boy (voiced by Black) and a ventriloquist's dummy---sorry, puppet named Slappy (also voiced with such uproarious zest by Black) who serves as our main antagonist, leaping off the pages of their books, it's up to our four heroes to put them back into the books before Madison will become a real "Horrorland". In the tradition of movies of the 80's and 90's like "The Goonies", "Gremlins", and "Jumanji" (also add "The Spiderwick Chronicles", and "Zathura: A Space Adventure", if you have to), "Goosebumps", directed by Rob Letterman, is a fun family movie that is hilarious, charming and wonderfully thrilling with plenty of good old- fashioned scares that is not too scary, but scary enough for kids ages 9 & up. The adults who know or don't know about "Goosebumps" will also enjoy it and will get to savor in Jack Black's over-the-top funny and warm performance, reminding us with movies like "Shallow Hal", "School of Rock" and the "Kung Fu Panda" movies what an amazing comedic and tender presence he has. The three kids are quite impressive and likable, which is good. And even the superb supporting cast (including the always hilarious Jillian Bell as Zach's boy-crazy Aunt Lorraine, Timothy Simons and Amanda Lund as the two most dim-witted police officers in movie history and an underutilized Ken Marino as the coach who nearly hits on Principal Cooper) doesn't hurt, too. Plus, the screenplay provides some really funny insights (and in-jokes) on the "Goosebumps" stories, Stine making a few off-handed comments about "Steve" King: "I've sold way more books than him, but no one ever talks about that! Ever!" and delivering some solid one-liners, some of them come from the lovable, but wimpy Champ. I hope we get to have some more family films like this. Usually, we don't get a lot of smart live-action family films that aren't rude, sloppy or reaching for masochistic pain. It's a very good thing that "Goosebumps" belongs in that category because we all have to pick up a book one day and get lost in the world of imagination. That's what we all need, that's my philosophy. Plus, it's nice to be scared by something as classic as this. And, as Mr. Stine pointed out, every great story has a beginning, a middle and a twist. This is one of the best family films of 2015.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

The Ultimate Battle Between D.C.'s Finest Superheroes Finally Arrives
I'll be very brief about this, because this movie has been on the negative end for some critics. But say what you want about it, because despite its problems, the second film in the DC Extended Universe "Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice" is incredibly entertaining. Sure, it's loud, it's big, it's overlong, over-scored and sometimes overstuffed with characters and plot points, but I didn't care. I was enthralled by the experience of seeing two of our best DC superheroes in a vicious battle beyond anything else. Now, I'm going to try my best not to spoil it, but let me see what I can remember. Set after the destructive event that led to a very controversial choice involving our Man of Steel, everyone is thinking this: Is Superman a threat? Or is he the savior? One thinks of that first question. Ben Affleck is a nice choice to fit into the Batman suit as well as playing the playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne. He's very hell-bent on getting rid of Superman mainly because of that disastrous event that changed everything for him. Superman a.k.a. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is very conflicted about his decisions and wonders if he is both. He remains in love with his fellow Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), still a very feisty one, and she sees that he is a good man. And then there's Lex Luthor, played with such madcap zest that will make people love it or hate it by Jesse Eisenberg, who would also love to see Superman fall. And you know how villains are, they always carry a secret that could at least bring one of our heroes down. Another addition to the mix is Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman (A wickedly awesome Gal Gadot from Fast & Furious 4-6), the Amazonian princess who will probably steal Batman's heart and help save the day. The fight between God and Man (Thus the first part of the title, by the way) will arrive soon and it's very intense, but it's also quite an emotional one that will lead to some very unexpected surprises. I had a good time with this movie. Sure it might turn people off, but it's very epic and very stunning throughout. Director Zack Snyder (of "300" and "Man of Steel") and screenwriters Chris Terrio (of the Oscar-Winning "Argo" with Ben Affleck) and David S. Goyer (of the "Blade" trilogy, "Batman Begins" and "Man of Steel") kept me on the edge of my seat with some startling secrets (some will lead to the two-part Justice League movies), terrific characters and heartfelt moments that I am sure that comic-book fans would definitely approve. It still doesn't have much joy and humor than the previous efforts, but I guess it's worth it. Plus, the action is insanely good, so that helps, too. As I mention before, Affleck is terrific to watch as Batman. But is he the best Batman since Christian Bale, Michael Keaton and, to a great extent due to his upcoming Lego adventure, Will Arnett? I will give it some time to think about it. But I still think Cavill is the best Superman since the late Christopher Reeve, Adams is quietly convincing once again as Ms. Lane and Jeremy Irons is fantastic (as usual) as Batman's butler, Alfred. Plus I have to mention some nice supporting work from Holly Hunter as Senator June Finch, Diane Lane as Clark's adoptive mom, Martha, Tao Okamoto as Lex's assistant Mercy Graves and Harry Lennix as Secretary Swanwick, who knows a thing or two. This is a purely exciting film. I hope that the next films of the DC Extended Universe doesn't disappoint, because something tells me that was a warm-up in order to get ready for the "Justice League" films. But I'm pretty sure that when I take a look back at "Man of Steel" and this movie, there are some clues as to why these chain of events happen to set up the story. But at least, I was fully aware of what was going to happen but didn't know how it was happening. The hype is real. We should start believing in it.


This is Gonna Be One Twisted Valentine's Day Gift
Confession: I have a very limited comic book experience. I just learn about these Marvel or D.C. characters from either my 17-year-old uncle or my knowledge from traditional comic-book movies and animated T.V. shows. The best comic-book movies I always connected with the most are the X-Men saga. I've been a fan ever since the first movie directed by Bryan Singer came out 16 years ago. (Currently waiting for "X-Men: Apocalypse" to come out this Memorial Day.) But this is quite new to me when I heard that there is a "Deadpool" movie actually happening. Last time I heard about "Deadpool", I first saw him in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", which I liked but it was the rotten apple of the series. He was, of course, played by Ryan Reynolds, who made the most of his very small role until... (see the movie or not and see why all of us were so disappointed.) Anyway, me being the reluctant one, I didn't think a "Deadpool" movie would work. Guess what, it's the one all of us comic- book or non-comic-book nerds are waiting for. So why did I warm up to "Deadpool"? Well, for one thing, this guy who dresses up in a red suit is the kind of hero we haven't seen in a while. A man who shoots first and says a few wise-ass things after that. He's also known to break all types of walls (first, second, third, fourth and I'm pretty sure there's a fifth one) and he doesn't give a *bleep* about everything. As played by Reynolds, he seems to be the perfect choice for an R-rated and unbelievably unconventional Marvel character. So, how does this movie work? Well, it starts off with the ridiculously inventive opening titles done in Deadpool's way plus a killer action sequence on a highway. Then it's the origin story of "Deadpool" which is quite a surprising one. We get to meet Wade T. Wilson (Reynolds), also known as "The Merc with the Mouth" and maximum brute force. He also finds his "Pretty Woman" (see what I did there?) in Vanessa (Morena Baccarin from "Spy", "Gotham" and "Homeland"). There is a massive flaw in this system, in which he has cancer. Making sure he doesn't lose her, he signs for a experiment that should help him be cured of cancer. Turns out poor Wade made a deal with the devil, or in this case, Ajax (a stunning Ed Skrein who is obviously a doppelganger for Nicholas Hoult, also known as "Beast" from the "X-Men" series) for an experiment that goes horribly wrong leaving his whole body scarred. Now, all Wade needs to do is get revenge on Ajax and once he puts on the Deadpool outfit, it's all good to go. But standing in his way though are two members of the X-Men: Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (feisty Brianna Hildebrand). "Deadpool" is (and has to be) the best R- Rated unconventional superhero movie of its kind since the original "Kick-Ass". It has the right to make fun of the superhero genre and be super cheeky, clever, dark, funny and incredibly bloody. It even wears its heart and the R-Rating on its sleeve, for example, there's a sex scene with Deadpool and Vanessa, set to Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl" that pushes the boundaries to anything I've ever seen. Plus, the bone- breaking, blood-spurting action is about as inventive as one could possibly ask for. Plus, Deadpool also has a tendency to talk smack about everything from the studio that's releasing the film to the X-Men to Wolverine and the actor playing him and even the actor that's playing Deadpool. Although I wasn't a fan of "Van Wilder" and I only warmed to him when he was in great movies like "Definitely, Maybe", "The Proposal", "Smokin' Aces" and "The Change-Up", I like Ryan Reynolds and he's very good here. Scratch the "very good", he's electric in the role of Deadpool. His foul-mouthed, fast-paced and earnest deliveries of certain lines are sure to be quite memorable. And even though there are times when we just want him to shut up, you can't put him down because we like Deadpool and we certainly want him to get the girl. He's also helped by a really cool cast including Morena Baccarin who provides the heart and soul of gold in the love story part, T.J. Miller, who I also like, is pitch-perfect as "the comic relief" (in Deadpool's terms, not mine) Weasel, Leslie Uggams as Uncle Al, who is wise, blind and caring (not in the traditional sense) and M.M.A fighter turned movie star Gina Carano is lethally badass as Angel Dust, who is more stronger than Mr. Pool and Colossus all combined. Props has to go to first-time director Tim Miller (from the world of visual effects) and screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick of "Zombieland" for letting this animal go loose in wild, big and cool ways that breaks the usual types of stuff we usually see in most superhero movies and for giving Reynolds an opportunity to get comically crazy and go out blazing with a high chord, like he always does. Deadpool is actually the first movie of 2016 that unabashedly lives up to the hype, mainly because we weren't expecting something quite like this. I don't know if we will have something like this again, but hey, at least it was awesome, right? You'll have a blast, trust me and bring some chimichangas while you're at it. It's the perfect and most twisted Valentine's Day gift you'll give to your significant other. Oh, and one more thing, this movie is not for the faint of heart, the squeamish and certainly not for kids.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

The Legend of Katniss Everdeen
Before I went to see "Mockingjay: Part 2", I took my little time re-watching the first three installments of "The Hunger Games". I remember being very excited to the first "Hunger Games" after reading all three books. My main thing when it came to movies based on books is that it had to be done right. It definitely seemed like the odds be ever in our favor because it became a big hit for Lionsgate and producer Nina Jacobson. Year after year after year, I never wanted to miss a single "Hunger Games" film when it came out at the movies. Now my mission is complete and the powerful story of Katniss Everdeen comes to an end in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 2". Now, beware for what I am about to tell you because this is a grim, emotionally gripping and thrilling finale that already had me hooked. It's quite better than "Mockingjay: Part 1", to which some fans were disappointed by it (not me, okay, maybe a little), and even though it doesn't reach the epic quality of the first two films, it's safe to say that this is the best finale of a series that's more human and thought-provoking than any YA series out there. Part 2 of "Mockingjay" begins immediately after the events of Part 1. After a brutal attack caused by her love, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) due to the "hijacking" by the always subtly vicious President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Katniss (the always phenomenal Oscar-Winner Jennifer Lawrence) has reached her breaking point. She vows to take down Snow and the tyrannical Capital. Teamed up with Commander Boggs (Mahershala Ali), Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Finnick (Sam Claflin), Katniss seems ready to go, but it's not an easy way to get there. The entire city is booby-trapped with pods. Some are terrifying (like the unforgettable Lizard Mutts), some are disturbing (like floor mines) and some are definitely tricky (like thick black oil and machine guns). As the movie progresses, Peeta joins in, still messed up, and Katniss and the Squad 451 team has discovered that they are in a real-life war, where, as always, there are shocking casualties and no easy way out this time. I guess, we can say that they are played for pawns again and it turns into "the 76th Hunger Games", as Finnick reminds us. Throughout this fast-paced movie, it's less humorous and more darker and intense than the previous films. But it's more mature, more stronger and it's quite unflinching when its socio-political issues are shown to us in some moments. Katniss remains the Mockingjay, which is quite similar to Jennifer Lawrence who has become the real Mockingjay. They both have been plucked from obscurity and reached for something big by being what people really want from them and they do succeed at what they do the best. Both director Francis Lawrence and star Jennifer Lawrence (no relation), unsurprisingly, are the keys to making this remarkable series work. (Gary Ross did a fantastic job directing the first one). But I've been saying too much about them in my reviews of the films, let me give some support to the rest of the team. Props has to go to casting director Debra Zane for finding this excellent all-star team. From Woody Harrelson as Haymitch to Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket to the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee to Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin to Jena Malone as Johanna Mason to Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman to Natalie Dormer as Cressida and to, of course, Willow Shields as Katniss' sister, Prim. Everyone (well, not everyone) has their moments here and we get to say goodbye to these beloved characters and worlds that Suzanne Collins created. In the last installment, the stakes are higher than they have been before and Katniss will be tested in different ways that will lead her to make a choice or two that will change the dystopian world of Panem. Plus, it avoids the conventional happy ending and leave us with sparks of hope, even though "there are much worse games to play". What an amazing series. What a terrific finale. To quote Effie Trinket, "Breathe it all in, Katniss. This is all for you."

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

The Force is ALIVE!!!
It took me a long time to write reviews again, which is fair, because I have been going through a bit of a block lately. Since it's the first day of a new year, I guess it's fair that the first review I write of this year is last year's (actually, it came out three weeks ago) biggest hit. To be honest, I didn't expect "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" to crawl deep inside my brain and bring me back into the world of space that I remembered when I was a kid. Mainly, because I lost touch of it for a while. I wasn't born in 1977, but I remember seeing two of the three original "Star Wars" movies with my dad when it was re- released in 1997. Now after re-watching all 6 episodes of the Star Wars saga after seeing "Force", I realized that this was a world (or worlds) I couldn't leave behind. So, what's new this time? Well, Disney took over Lucasfilm, George Lucas is still retired, and it looks like the beginning of the new trilogy can definitely return to the flavor of the much-loved original trilogy (the prequel trilogy still remains quite divisive among fans). Now taken over by J.J. Abrams (director of "Star Trek" and its following sequel), "The Force Awakens" is a wonderful, exhilarating, funny, triumphant, sometimes tragic and beautifully imaginative adventure that reminded me and a lot of people who have already seen it how much we've loved and missed "Star Wars". We cheer for the heroes, hiss at the bad and we feel for the ones that are in-between. Plus, we get to experience worlds that Lucas and company has created 39 years ago and it still remains as vibrant and colorful and thrilling as ever. Whether you missed out or live in a cave (I don't think you're one of those people, because you've already seen the movie more than once), let me try to explain a bit of the plot without spoiling it. Set three decades after the events of "Return of the Jedi", a fellow Jedi that we all know and love has disappeared and the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is hell-bent on finding him and getting rid of him. Meanwhile, we get to meet some impressive new characters. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger from Jakku who has been for looking for her family ever since she was a little girl. Finn (John Boyega from "Attack the Block") is a Stormtrooper who has been ripped from his family and has been sent to kill but manages to turn the other corner, as it is. Finally, there's Poe (Oscar Isaac from "Ex Machina" and "Inside Llewyn Davis") who's a pilot. Oh, wait, there's also a new droid on the scene. Its name is BB-8, who is quite friendly and helpful in every way. Joined together quite late in the process, they team up with returning characters Han Solo (Harrison Ford), General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and, of course, our favorite Wookie, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) in order the find the missing Jedi and to take down the First Order led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Our mo-cap superstar Andy Serkis), Ren and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, also from "Ex Machina"). I was ever so reluctant to see another episode of "Star Wars", but after seeing it, it renewed my interest in the world of both filmmaking and "Star Wars". It looks as if Abrams has accomplished what Lucas did in the past, recreating the magic as if it still existed. Characters, galaxies, secrets, epic battles and plentiful twists and turns that never diminished of what Lucas had envisioned before. The only glue that remains as a big piece of the puzzle is the always unforgettable score done by John Williams. With the iconic opening theme and a few additional themes added in there as well, Williams once again creates another bit of lightning in a bottle. Nothing moved me more as I got to see Solo and Leia together again, as well as our original droids, C-3PO and R2D2. (Mark Hamill is also in here as well, but I can't reveal where he's at.) Plus the new characters are brilliantly cast. Newcomer Daisy Ridley is a star I definitely should keep my eye on. I even liked her chemistry with John Boyega, who is both heartfelt and humorous at certain turns. We don't get to see much of Poe in the movie, but Oscar Isaac brings a warm and dashing impression. But the standouts are definitely Adam Driver who brings a lot of terror and emotional depth as Kylo Ren and (obviously) Harrison Ford as Solo. This character that we loved for so long is charming, energetic and ruggedly laid-back as ever and Ford continues to make that character totally rewarding. This is a movie event I will never forget (next to "Jurassic World", it's easy not to overlook this). All I can say is this: I can't wait to see what Rian Johnson (director of "Looper" and "Brick") and Colin Trevorrow (director of "Jurassic World") can do with Episodes 8 (coming 2017) & 9 (coming 2019), because this is a fantastic saga that shouldn't be forgotten. The "Star Wars" saga still remains a amazing group of films that if you watch from the very beginning (I always start with Episodes I-III then Episodes IV-VI), you can see that the story still connects one way or another. I certainly hope to see this movie again. Probably because I want to pick up on some of the hidden secrets that are hinted at. Also, I want to be overwhelmed by the amazing visuals, memorable characters and incredible worlds. Another ingredient to add into this is that the Force has been passed down from one generation to another. With "The Force Awakens", it just shows that the force is definitely with us, forever and always. And I'm glad that I got to be a part of it again.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

"Will You Follow Me...One Last Time?" Of course, we will
4 books by J.R.R. Tolkien. 6 films. 2 trilogies. And they were made by one director. Plus, it took 17 years to create these films. Has there ever been a time in which Peter Jackson needed to take a break? After creating "The Hobbit" trilogy, maybe he can. In one of the quieter moments of "The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies", Bilbo Baggins reminisces to Thorin Oakenshield about their journey that led them to the Dwarfs' Kingdom of Erebor, but also "The good, the bad and how lucky I am that I made it home." There is a lot to remember in the final Hobbit film, especially in the entire Middle-Earth saga. There are moments of light humor, thrilling action sequences that includes marvelous special effects as well as some awesome orc and goblin beheadings, powerful drama and of course, the enchantment that started with the imagination of an amazing author and an amazing filmmaker as well. In "The Battle of The Five Armies", the best of "The Hobbit" films, the stakes are high and our hobbit Bilbo along with our heroes are faced with deadly obstacles, not to mention that they discover something a whole lot more that could change Middle-Earth forever and will also lead into the events in "The Lord of the Rings". Now, of course, "The Battle of The Five Armies" immediately picks up right where "The Desolation of Smaug" left off. Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the Dwarfs has unintentionally let the dragon out of its cage. Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) has left Erebor, and now terrorizes Lake-town. What happens to him and Lake-town is an astonishing sight to witness. Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellan) was captured by The Necromancer now revealing itself as Sauron and is now discovering that Sauron has built up an Army or two lead by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) and his co-hort Bolg (John Tui) so they can cause and create hell on Middle-Earth. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the remaining dwarfs including Kili (Aidan Turner), Fili (Dean O'Gorman) and Bofur (James Nesbitt) has survived the attack on Lake-town. And the Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace) wants nothing more but to reclaim his own treasure. In the kingdom of Erebor, as predicted before, Thorin "can't see beyond his own desire", as he is suffering from Dragon-Sickness. Bilbo and the Dwarfs slowly starts to notice it, which leads to Bilbo to commit one fateful act to save Middle-Earth. If only that would be the case. Then, it leads to the subtitle of this film, in which Orcs, Men, Dwarfs, Elves and Eagles fight to the death in the ultimate battle of good vs. evil in the entire trilogy. Being the shortest of the entire Middle-Earth Saga (It's only 144 minutes), "The Battle of the Five Armies" has moments in which the characters realizing that something is worth fighting for rather than each other. They also commit (and sacrifice) themselves to find their place in this world. Because Jackson has a knack of creating the world of Middle-Earth with breathtaking special effects and a big cast, the films give each of the actors their moments to shine even if their moments are not as big as the others. For example, look at Martin Freeman. He caught my eye, surprisingly, as the lead in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and now, with the help of "Sherlock", the first season of FX's "Fargo" and with "The Hobbit" trilogy, he's becoming an top-notch, A-list star. His performance as Bilbo through these three films is remarkable, creating humanity as well as developing a surprisingly emotional side to him. I guess you can say he is becoming more like Bilbo, as well. Armitage's Shakespearian-like Thorin is scary-great. He creates a incredibly tragic character who slowly starts to care more about the journey, his kingdom, the Arkenstone and the gold, rather than the people guiding him on that quest, until he sees the dangers of falling into what his father and grandfather has done before, even when he says he doesn't want to be like them. Plus, it can be the last time we see some of the returning regulars like Ian McKellan as Gandalf the Grey, Cate Blanchett as Lady Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman the Wise and Hugo Weaving as Lord Elrond as they strike back and make magic one last time. But, as I stated before, the supporting players like Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Ken Stott (as Balin), Graham McTavish (as Dwalin) and Ryan Gage (as the slimy and greedy Alfrid) add a lot more sting and more emotional depth to their performances. "The Battle of the Five Armies" brings back some of the magic and greatness of "The Lord of the Rings" mainly because it adds a bit more substance to the films and it also moves in a more quicker pace. Plus, the action is more intense, the drama is more emotional, the love story between Kili and Tauriel is more stronger and there is some quirky humor snuck in there even when the tone has gotten more darker. These movies captivated me for so many years and it's rather fitting to say farewell to the cast and crew for bringing Tolkien's world of Middle-Earth to the screen with the last installment of the series. Like "Harry Potter", "The Chronicles of Narnia", and "The Hunger Games", their stories will (and have) become classics and once you viewed or read "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" as one equal, it all connects. Sometimes the best one is the last one worth waiting for.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

The Mockingjay Lives
In the very beginning of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1", 17-year-old Katniss Everdeen has been through a hell of a lot. She went through two Hunger Games, her love Peeta has been taken by the Capitol and as witnessed later, she sees that her home District 12 has been destroyed by no other than the sinisterly wicked President Coriolanus Snow who has kidnapped and brainwashed poor Peeta in order to call off the radical rebellion that's happening against the dystopian world of Panem and to get rid of the cause known as the Mockingjay. So far, it totally seems that we're closer to the end of an amazing series. The tone gets very dark, the political ideas and serious themes are more thought-provoking and it's surprisingly different from the previous two. Gone are the stunning arenas and colorfully bold costumes and it adds in a more darker (or gray-ish) palette and a few key elements that makes the first part of the third and final book of Suzanne Collins' marvelous trilogy a gripping and strong, if not better, addition in the series. The always wonderful Oscar-winning Jennifer Lawrence takes Katniss to new heights. She's broken, haunted, tormented by nightmares and still suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She's confined in an underground bunker known as District 13, run by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore in a solid performance). Coin is unsure about Katniss, seeing that she is still suffering after the events in the Third Quarter Quell in "Catching Fire". Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles) insists that she still has to be the Mockingjay. It's a simple logic: Show the rebellion that she is still standing and fighting until the end by filming propaganda (or "propos") videos. Take the scene in District 8, after a airstrike sent by Snow (Donald Sutherland), she speaks from the heart knowing that the rebels won't surrender that easy after that event. Still, Katniss is ripped apart by many things. She still cares for Gale (the incredible Liam Hemsworth) who's ready for the revolution to happen, but her heart belongs to Peeta (a heart wrenching and soulful Josh Hutcherson), as mentioned that he is the Capitol's puppet or just saving Katniss from devastation. But she is saved by her mom (Paula Malcomson) and her sister, Prim (the adorable Willow Shields). Also joining in the ranks are another broken victor Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), Katniss' mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who is now sober and still very helpful, Cressida (a wickedly cool Natalie Dormer from "The Tudors" and "Game of Thrones"), a filmmaker trying to capture as much as she can with Katniss in the middle of all this along with her camera crew, a wheelchair-bound Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) who communicates with transporting video signals and crashing it through the Capitol and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a smart deviation from the book, who does not like being in a world full of gray jumpsuits but comes around eventually. Taking apart the final book in a series and turning it into two movies doesn't really seem necessary (it worked out before with "Harry Potter" and "Twilight"), but returning director Francis Lawrence of "Catching Fire" and screenwriters Danny Strong ("The Butler", "Game Change") and Peter Craig ("The Town") with adaptation by Suzanne Collins herself manages to keep the film moving at a slow but breakneck pace to give us some deep insights in the world of Panem, expands its scope a bit more, and getting us really connected and involved with the world while staying true to Collins's book and changing and fixing some of the weaknesses of the book. There's not much action this time around (there's only two big set pieces), but it's deeply rooted in the story and characters and the human drama behind it works its way though our minds. And again, the movie and this franchise wouldn't work if it weren't for Jennifer Lawrence. She makes Katniss a wounded, vulnerable, but strong and charismatic heroine that's joining in the ranks of strong females such as Lisbeth Salander and Hermione Granger. In a surprisingly sweet moment, she belts out a signature moment from the book, "The Hanging Tree", a bluegrass-type of song. When she sings, we immediately feel it and we see that she becomes a beacon of hope for the rebellion. I know it's only one half of a movie but it's only half good when it ends with a thrilling climax involving a rescue mission and a striking cliffhanger that leads our way into the finale. What will the final film bring to the table? I don't know. But if you're thinking with a groan or a relieved sigh for next year, make sure your homework is prepared and you got enough information so that you won't be lost in the system. Since it's the calm before the storm, "Mockingjay: Part 1" may not have a whole lot to take it all in, but it refuses to back down and stands up for the revolution and the power of changing the world one day at a time.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson breathes fire (and makes more magic) in the middle chapter of The Hobbit
Just as I predicted, a middle chapter, like "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire", that manages to be better this time around. As we all know back in 2012, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (or "snooze", if you didn't feel like sitting through another Middle-earth journey), we got to know Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, Thorin Oakenshield and the dwarfs as they go on their quest to destroy the vicious dragon Smaug and to reclaim the dwarfs' homeland of Erebor. As if we didn't know, but giving the fact that it is based on one whole book by J.R.R. Tolkien (Author of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), the first part of the three-part series took them on unexpected adventures and it felt kind of natural to see it come to life. Now we enter with "The Hobbit 2" or as we like to call it "The Desolation of Smaug" and thank Durin for Peter Jackson for bringing us a spectacular adventure that is magical, epic and sharp as a sword. Continuing on their Quest, Bilbo (the always reliable Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the dwarfs, including Balin (Ken Stott), Kili (Aidan Turner), Fili (Dean O'Gorman), Dwalin (Graham McTavish) and Bofur (James Nesbitt) are hiding from killer Orcs including Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) and their Wargs who wants nothing more than Thorin's head on something. Gandalf (The always remarkable Sir Ian McKellan) joins too, but goes away to search for more clues involving The Necromancer along with Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). Along the way, as they make their way back to Erebor, Bilbo and the dwarfs encounter some wickedly dangerous spiders, Mirkwood Elves, including returning regular Orlando Bloom as Legolas and Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, and also traveling in a town full of Men called Lake-town before trying to reach the almighty dragon known as Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). When they go back to Erebor to find Smaug and the Dwarfs' heirloom known as the Arkenstone, you wouldn't believe me when I tell you that it's one of the most spectacular moments ever brought on film. Here's the thing: You have to wait 108 minutes of that to get to see Bilbo meeting the dragon. Other than the meeting with Gollum and a rather nasty run-in with three trolls, Bilbo seeing Smaug is one of the more iconic passages from the book. And Peter Jackson brings it to life, proving once again that he is a visual genius who refuses to back down and let the special effects, no matter how brilliant they are, tell the story. "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" surprised me from beginning to end. It had to, despite the fact it's 8 minutes shorter than the first film and I still happen to be one of the skeptics who believes that 1 book does not create a trilogy of films. But having seen both of the films, I actually realized that, so far, they are not that bad. It breathes the story a bit more and the characters happen to grow a bit more stronger and the films tends to get a bit more darker while it happens to be lighter than "The Lord of the Rings". And while I admire Bilbo's bravery, Thorin's stubbornness and courage as well as developing some impressive leadership skills and Gandalf's wiseness (even though he has limited screen time than the rest), it's the supporting characters that gives "The Desolation of Smaug" a bit more sting, like Bilbo's sword. Lilly's Tauriel, a new addition to the film, is feisty, strong and rebellious and she's got a crush on Kili. Bloom as Legolas is awesome and is always good with a bow with arrows. Mikael Persbrandt drops by as Beorn, a skin-changer, a character I remembered very well from the book. And Stephen Fry commands his scenes as the likable but very corrupt Mayor of Lake-town. But for me, the scene-stealers are Lee Pace who is excellent as the Elvenking Thranduil, Legolas' father and Luke Evans (from "Immortals" and "Fast and Furious 6") who delivers a exceptional performance as Bard the Bowman, a character very expanded from the book, but amazingly, it works. I hope that everything falls into place when "The Battle of the Five Armies" hits theaters later this year and that it does not disappoint Tolkien enthusiasts and audiences who are so desperate to know what happens next, when it ends with a few wickedly stunning surprises and a cliffhanger so stunning that proves that when the time comes, all Hell will break loose. I'm so relieved that "The Hobbit" has managed to get an upgrade this time with the second chapter, and it's not just because of the awesome special effects, but those who love the story will get to see that there's a bit more heart and soul and that the magic of Middle-earth is not going anywhere. Plus, you get one cool barrel ride and some good Orc decapitations to go along with it.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Katniss Everdeen, Girl on Fire, returns with a bang in Francis Lawrence's pulse-pounding adaptation of Suzanne Collins' 2nd book in "The Hunger Games" trilogy
As we know last year, "The Hunger Games" became a surprising hit, introducing us to Katniss Everdeen, a female character who is strong, vulnerable and brave. And it made a movie star out of Jennifer Lawrence, who was the perfect choice to play Katniss. But some people (and fans) weren't pleased with the first film, mainly they thought it wasn't as strong as the book and that the shaky-cam wasn't suitable for this material. I thought that director Gary Ross did such a great job with the film, and luckily, I was very excited for the second installment. In the rare tradition of sequels that are better than the first film, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" joins in. This is a film that is more complex, more mature, more thrilling and more emotional than "The Hunger Games" and it's a magnificent adaptation of Suzanne Collins' 2nd book in the trilogy (soon to be four films) that will leave audiences breathless. In "Catching Fire", Katniss (Recent Oscar-Winner Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have survived last year's Hunger Games and are scarred from that experience, but President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is not pleased. When he visits Katniss in her home at District 12, he gives her an ultimatum: Convince the dystopian world of Panem that the (acting for the cameras) love between them is real during their Victory Tour or war will be coming. After their victory tour, in which most of the people in Panem are forming a rebellion against the Capitol, Katniss just wants to stay in District 12, hunting with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who have feelings for her, and to keep her mother and sister Prim (Willow Shields) safe. Snow wants to get rid of Katniss now that she's the voice of the revolution, but Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a better idea: Put her and Peeta back in the arena for the 3rd Quarter Quell (75th Hunger Games) with previous victors who are "all experienced killers". Some of those victors includes wise Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and nutty Wiress (Amanda Plummer) from District 3, fierce Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) from District 7 and handsome, but arrogant Finnick Odair (a charming star-making turn by Sam Claflin from "Snow White and the Huntsman") from District 4. As they make their way to the arena that are filled with excellent surprises (wonderfully shot in Hawaii with IMAX cameras), Katniss and Peeta wonder do they have to survive again in order to trust someone or are they just another piece in their games. This is a great opportunity to have a new director in Francis Lawrence (director of the fun "Water for Elephants" and "I Am Legend") who has a more relaxed approach than Gary Ross and he and Oscar-winning screenwriters Simon Beaufoy ("Slumdog Millionaire") and Michael DeBruyn a.k.a Michael Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine") manages to be faithful to the book but understands the themes of fear, hope, life, love and survival and combines them together so that it could resonate with any one who can relate to it. He even gives the cast also including returning regulars Woody Harrelson as Katniss and Peeta's mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, the PR agent of the Capitol, Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, host of Capitol TV and Lenny Kravitz as Katniss' stylist, Cinna, astonishing performances. Mr. Lawrence (not related to Jennifer), who will also direct the last two films based on the third book "Mockingjay", also gets some help from the returning regulars: exhilarating music composed by James Newton Howard and marvelous production design by Philip Messina and new additions: vivid costumes by Trish Summerville and beautifully photographed by Jo Willems. It's rare to have an amazing actress who can capture a leading character that is memorable and unforgettable, but also can carry us all the way throughout this series. And Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant at capturing Katniss, this time as a tortured soul who will do anything to survive. It's a wonderful blockbuster that is intense and intriguing, but also has a lot of heart and soul. You definitely wouldn't want to miss a pulse-pounding moment of it.

The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola's quirky film about five teens who will steal anything to get their 15 minutes of fame
We know who these kids are. Five teenagers sneak into a house of a famous celebrity and sneak away with lots of jewelry, clothes, shoes, cash and even other accessories including a gun, drugs and a box full of watches. As Frank Ocean says in the end-title track of Sofia Coppola's 5th film "The Bling Ring", these are "super rich kids with nothing but fake friends". However, they weren't really super rich but they were trying to get by by being a part of the Hollywood limelight. Based on actual events and from the Vanity Fair article "The Suspect Wore Louboutins" (and later a book) by Nancy Jo Sales, this is a ridiculously stylish, fantastic and quirky film about five teens (4 girls and 1 boy) who are so bored with their normal high-school lives and decides to steal everything from the houses of Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox, Rachel Bilson and yes, even Lindsay Lohan in order to get their 15 minutes of fame. Set in Calabasas, California, this movie follows awkward gay teen Marc (marvelous Isreal Broussard) who moves from Indian Hills to Calabasas because he didn't fit in with the crowd. That is until he becomes friends with Rebecca (stunning Katie Chang), a girl who dreams of becoming a big fashion designer. Can I also say Rebecca is also a bit of a kleptomaniac? For her, having to survive high school and hang out with friends at clubs and at parties, it's just not enough for her. So, Rebecca becomes the ringleader in this scandal in which they steal from the rich celebrities and just give it...to themselves. Joining in are hip-hop-loving, gangsta-speaking and drugged-out party girl Chloe (dazzling Clare Julien), and also Nicki (the always lovely Emma Watson) and her friend Sam (sensational Taissa Farmiga, Vera's sister) who are stuck in their other world thanks to Nicki's New Age mom (The electric Leslie Mann). However, with every scandal, there lies a price and a consequence to pay for your actions in order to be a part of the Hollywood lifestyle once they continue to steal from the celebrities' houses whenever they're not around. "The Bling Ring" stings. And it should sting, mainly because Sofia Coppola, as a writer and director, knows how to create characters that we should love, hate or just both. But here's the thing, these teens are flawed. Do we care about them or do we just laugh at their debauchery or do we have the guts to stand up and say that it's the parents' fault for making them do this? It is kinda hard to answer that question, but Ms. Coppola (daughter of legendary filmmaker Francis Ford) sneaks in another question: do we feel sorry for them? And amazingly, that's a yes. But mostly, it's not afraid to make us laugh at them, because everyday for the kids, it's like sneaking into the mall after hours and stealing all the good free stuff that all the other celebrities have. The performances are amazing, besides Watson, Farmiga and Mann, some of the cast are newcomers and they are quite convincing every time you see them and they hold our attention. Watson, in her second film after Harry Potter, is, as always, sublime to watch. Donning long brown hair and with a convincing So-Cal accent, she captures Nicki mainly because she strikes while the iron is hot and she affectionately have a intelligence about her. Look at the beginning scene when she talks about how she believes in Karma and would like to run a country for all she knows and tell me that's not real enough for you. As a fan of Ms. Coppola, it is amazing that she uses digital photography with help from the late Harris Savides and Christopher Blauvelt to create a colorful, but somewhat bleak world that separates the teens from their luxurious lifestyles to their time at home, covering up all the evidence or lying to their parents about it. There are lots of things to talk for a movie that is filled by sharp bravado and electrifying firepower. Maybe the kids (wherever they may be) that inspired this story should learn something: It's not safe to sell yourself in order to get what you want, because in the end, it's only going to get you into more trouble. I urge you to see it and maybe, just maybe, you get to be a part of their world and see how in the end, crime does pay when you steal from so many celebrities. "The Bling Ring" is a terrific treasure.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Move over, Twilight! Abraham Lincoln is making vampires look cool again
Who knew that our 16th President of the United States had a secret life that nobody (including your friendly humble reviewer here) knows about? And who knew that a movie called "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" would actually be a wickedly cool action/horror movie that has a surprisingly quirky sense of humor as well as a warm heart? Whether if you knew so much about Honest Abe or if you've been dozing off during History Class, this movie might put you in your place if you're looking for something special to watch whether it's on Halloween or the night before your history exam. Directed with visual gusto by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian genius that brought us 2008's "Wanted" and produced by one of my favorite filmmakers, Tim Burton, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" follows our title character, played marvelously with star appeal and charm by Benjamin Walker, before he became the president that created the Emancipation Proclamation. He's a young lad seeking revenge on the vampire that killed his mother when he was a kid. Only then, he will need some guidance from a stranger named Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) who teaches Abe how to destroy vampires. (Don't forget, Henry is one, too.) His mission is to destroy every vampire he sees including his mother's killer, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), its leader, Adam (Rufus Sewell) and his sexy enforcer of a sister named Vadoma (Erin Wasson). They have a part to play by creating a nation full of vampires. Whenever he's not around slaying vampires with his silver ax, Abe develops a sweet relationship with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who will become his future First Lady, but even if he has to keep his profession secret from her, especially becoming the president we already know the history of, it's only a matter of time for him to save our nation before it would be at its end. As one of two movies of 2012 that tells the history of Honest Abe, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is one of those vampire movies that, unlike "The Twilight Saga", makes vampires cool again. It's not meant to be taken seriously, even though it's half a true story, it keeps a straight face by not trying to make it go over-the-top. The action sequences are spectacular and wildly original (two of my favorite ones are the chase with stampeding CGI horses and the climatic one with the train on the burning train tracks), the look of the film is fantastic, bringing a lot of grit and beauty to a action movie that has bite and the cast is just perfect, which also includes Anthony Mackie as Abe's childhood friend, Will, Jimmi Simpson as shopkeeper-turned-friend Joshua Speed and even an unbilled Alan Tudyk stops by for a few scenes as Stephen A. Douglas. Even the villains doesn't get to sneer or go over-the-top, except for one. Not to mention, the screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted the movie based on his fantastic best-selling novel, has a lot of wit and some funny one-liners. For example, when Henry asks what kind of weapons Abe like to use for killing vampires, he says that he's not very good with shooting irons, but he adds this: "But I was a rail splitter." It's a thrilling, funny, sometimes gory, and intense bloody adventure that's well worth looking at more than once. Plus, does this movie that has a vampire throwing a horse at our hero say "no" to you?

Man of Steel

In Krypton, the "S" may stand for Hope, but here on Earth, it still stands for Super
Superman has been an international icon for so many years. It's was too hard to believe when we read the comic books and saw his origin story coming to life right in front of our eyes and we marveled at the illustrated images and the power of him saving our world. Since Superman has just turned 75 this year, we started to think, do we need another Superman movie? Well, let me think: We had the serial films back in the 30's and 40's, then we had the late Christopher Reeve when he starred in all four Superman films from 1978 to 1987. (The original remained the best.) Then, next thing we know, Superman came to T.V. with Dean Cain stepping into the suit, then we had an origin story about him before he was Superman which was the series "Smallville". Then, in 2006, director Bryan Singer brought us "Superman Returns", which didn't do so well. But not to fear, I think the new Superman is something we might need after all. Which is why I decided to go for "Man of Steel" and in a way, it feels fresh and modern but borrows some of the formula from "Batman Begins" (The director of that film and the 2 sequels that followed is Christopher Nolan, who produced this movie), thus making it darker, grittier and surprisingly enough, has pure heart and emotion. Most of that mainly comes from the inspired casting of Henry Cavill, a British actor I remember very well from Showtime's "The Tudors", for creating a rather conflicted Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent. And whether he's ragged, rugged and/or being a normal guy, he carries a lot of charm and has the heart and soul to actually carry the movie on his muscled shoulders and that's just a start. We get to witness Superman's story from the beginning in Krypton, when his father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe, fantastic) arriving to see his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) giving birth to Kal-El. Then, as the story progresses, Krypton comes to an end. But, Kal-El on the other hand survives and resides in Smallville, Kansas under the alias Clark Kent. His two adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) are in the process of finding out who he really is, which is something he's been wanting to find out as well. Then as he grows up, he worked in a series of odd jobs as a fisherman, a bartender and even a waiter at IHop. Then he definitely discovers his true calling and his answers when he discovers a ship that was sent from Krypton that landed right here on Earth. This also attracts General Zod (Michael Shannon), who comes up with a plan to unleash Hell on Earth by building a new Krypton and to get rid of Kal-El, who turns into....well, you get the idea. "Man of Steel" doesn't exactly carry as much humor and fun as the Christopher Reeve films, but it takes itself seriously and I salute Zack Snyder (of the 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead", "300", "Watchmen" and "Sucker Punch") for creating an exciting ride that's fast-paced, energetic and heartwarming, filled with amazing special effects that doesn't overcrowd the story. He even gives terrific performances from an exceptional cast including Amy Adams as reporter Lois Lane and an ideal one at that, Laurence Fishburne is incredible as Perry White, Lois's boss at the Daily Planet, Costner and Lane as the Kents are brilliant and they have moments that will immediately tug at your heartstrings and Michael Shannon makes General Zod one of the best villains I have ever seen since Heath Ledger's The Joker. (D.C.-wise, of course). I must even give special props to Dylan Sprayberry as the 13-year-old Clark and Cooper Timberline as the 9-year-old Clark, for trying not to overplay the situations that Clark had to go through and trying to find his identity, but still comes out strong into the person he will become. As for Cavill, he definitely is a star on the rise. I know that even he can't top Reeve, but I admit that he is the best Superman since Reeve and he fits into the suit very well. I wouldn't be surprised if I've seen people from age 10 to 95 going to see it and coming out amazed, but have their own different opinions of it. My opinion is this: The "S" is not quite super yet, but it does stand for "Superb".

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