FlixChatter Review: Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

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It’s been nearly a month since I saw this film, but I’m still thinking about it. In fact, I was just telling a friend over coffee this weekend how the more I think about this film, the more I like it.

The story revolves around Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton in an art-imitating-life sort of a role as he’s famous for playing Batman in the late 80s/early 90s. Riggan is a has-been actor, most famous for playing a successful comic-book franchise, Birdman. But instead of opting to take an easy paycheck out of the fourth installment of the franchise, Riggan attempts to reinvent himself and reclaim his past glory by directing/starring an off-Broadway play. Not a light undertaking, especially when one problem after another starts popping up, threatening to grind his play to a halt. It also doesn’t help that Riggan is still haunted by his Birdman character, literally, who constantly berates him in his dressing room.

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The way Alejandro González Iñárritu frames his story is captivating and unequivocally surreal. The camera is told from Riggan’s point of view and the camera often follows him in one long, continuous take. From the cramped dressing room through the narrow corridor all the way to the stage, the film takes place mostly in the confines of the theater’s backstage. The neon sign of Phantom of the Opera is often visible in NYC’s Theater District across Riggan’s theater, one of the things that grounds the film in reality amidst all the surreal elements. Slipping back and forth between reality and fantasy, and often blurs the line between the two, the film manages to keep me entertained and engaged throughout.

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It certainly helps that all his actors perform with equal dexterity. Nice to see Edward Norton get a role worthy of his talent. He’s a method actor who’s a bit of a diva and his on-and-off screen antics are fun to watch. There’s an amusing brawl backstage between him and Keaton that’s worth the price of admission. Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and Emma Stone all provide memorable supporting role, with Stone perhaps having the flashiest part as Riggan’s daughter. Her performance, especially memorable for her heated monologue, has already earned her a Golden Globe and SAG nomination. Even Zach Galifinakis, an actor I never quite warmed up to, was quite good here as his often-hysterical theater producer. British actress Lindsay Duncan has a small but important role as the critic who could potentially make or break Riggan’s career.

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The real star here is Michael Keaton in a welcomed come-back role as a leading man. I’ve always been a fan of the underrated actor as he can deliver both serious, menacing and comical performance convincingly. He gets to do both here in equal measure as he truly embodies his character. He’s a natural in the more um, batty scenarios, but also genuinely sympathetic in the quieter moments that display Riggan’s vulnerability. Perhaps the fact that he has a similar personal experience helps him in the role, so it’s definitely inspired casting here that works wonderfully for the film.

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This is Iñárritu’s third film that I have seen so far. It could very well be my favorite and one I don’t mind seeing again. He strikes a perfect balance between drama and humor, at times hilarious and off the wall, and others heart-rending and poignant. The film’s a not-so-subtle mockery of Hollywood’s preoccupation with superhero franchises – and some of the real-life actors who’ve been in them– but yet it’s not done with disdain nor contempt as it’s all part of Riggan’s personal story. The movie also provides an interesting commentary on social media and how that affects celebrity culture in this day and age.

On a technical level, Birdman is simply phenomenal. The stunning and unique camera work make you think ‘how did they do that?’ without being too distracting. The percussion music isn’t really my style but it works in the context of the film. Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar for his astounding cinematography work for Gravity, will likely get another nom for this. I read somewhere that he shot this without artificial light due to space constraints of the cramped theater.

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I have to admit I still don’t know what to make of that WTF finale that seems deliberately left open for interpretation. It certainly makes for a fun discussion afterwards and it’s been fun reading all kinds of theories about it. I won’t say another word on it as it’s best that you discover that for yourself. Despite all the bizarre scenes and all its dream-like eccentricities, the film somehow still feels personal and human, even relatable in a strange way. No surprise that Birdman‘s become the critical darling of the year and has been raking a bunch of nominations left and right. I for one think the accolade is well-deserved as Iñárritu pushes the creative boundaries of story-telling to a new level.

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Have you seen Birdman? Well, what did YOU think?

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FlixChatter Review: EXODUS: Gods and Kings (2014)

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Sir Ridley Scott maybe the most inconsistent successful film director ever, he first burst into fame by directing Alien in 1979 but made two big budget misfires a few years later, Blade Runner and Legend. He came back into prominence again in 1991 with Thelma & Louise, but the rest of his work in the 90s were mostly forgotten. Not until 2000 when he finally became an A-list director by making Gladiator and many of his films in that decade were very successful. He’s now back with another big budget period epic adventure, but unfortunately I think it might be one of his worst films.

Before I go into the review, I would like to note that I’m not a religious person so I don’t know the story of Moses, heck I’ve never seen The Ten Commandments so I went into this movie with zero knowledge of the subject.

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In the Egyptian city of Memphis, the film introduced us to Moses (Christian Bale) and Rhamses (Joel Edgerton), they’re preparing to go into a battle and getting a blessing from King Seti (John Turturro) who also happens to be Rhamses’ father. Right away we get the feeling that there’s some kind of animosity between Moses and Rhamses and the King seems to have more love for Moses than his own son. During the battle, Moses saved Rhamses’ life and this somehow made him resent Moses even more. In the said scene, Rhamses was so offended he even considered killing Moses. After defeating their enemies, both Moses and Rhamses were heralded as heroes back in their hometown. Again King Seti seem to be more impressed with Moses than his own son, later on he told Rhamses to go and check up on a close by city because some of the slaves aren’t behaving. Not expecting to receive this kind of menial task from the king, Rhamses was not happy. So Moses volunteered to go instead. Upon arriving at the city, Moses met with the elders of the slaves including its leader Nun (Ben Kingsley). It’s here that Nun confronted Moses and told him that he’s a Hebrew and needs to lead his people to freedom. Of course Moses didn’t believe a word of what Nun said. I think anyone who’s familiar with the story probably already know what’s going to happen so I won’t go deeper into the plot of the movie.

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Scott is known for being a perfectionist when it comes to how his films should look and here again his film looks spectacular. Shot natively in 3D, the effects were very immersive, but unfortunately he only included some few WOW 3D effects. So save yourself some money and see it on 2D instead. I haven’t mentioned about the plagues and the Red Sea parting scene because even though the effects were great, I wasn’t so into the movie so I didn’t even care about them. Aside from the visual aesthetics, the movie itself was kind of mediocre. For the first hour or so I thought this was made by a amateur director. The story narrative was all over the place and the editing was even worse. I’m quite sure we’ll get the inevitable longer “Director’s Cut” version when it comes out on video. I’m not quite sure of what he’s trying to say about the main leads, especially Moses. He started out as some kind of a non-believer but then out of nowhere became this savior who only answers to God. Maybe because I’m not familiar with the story and also a non-believer, I just didn’t buy into his transformation. For those expecting to see a Gladiator or even Kingdom of Heaven action style, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The movie contained one big action sequence but the marketing folks did a good job of promoting the movie as this non-stop action/adventure.

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There’s been a lot of controversies when it comes to the cast, the filmmakers decided to cast mostly Caucasian actors in the lead roles. Truth be told, many of them look kind of ridiculous with heavy tanning and make up, especially Joel Edgerton. Personally I don’t have any issues with the casting, I mean this is a $140mil Hollywood produced movie and they need to cast some well-known actors to get their money back. Controversies aside, most of the actors were pretty good in their respective roles. This is a Christian Bale‘s movie since he appeared on the screen 90% of the time. Even though I thought the role was poorly written, Bale did what he could with the material. Edgerton was also good playing the “villain.” I don’t think I’ve seen him in any other movie except the atrocious Star Wars Episode 2. Here he played a pretty menacing character and he even outshone Bale in a couple of scenes they appeared together.

I’m pretty sure Sigourney Weaver must’ve been quite upset when she sees the final movie since she appeared on the screen for only about 5 minutes and spoke about 5 lines of dialogs. I’m guessing most of her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Ben Kingsley did a fine job as this Yoda kind of role. The oddest person in the cast here is Aaron “Jesse” Paul, he played this sidekick to Moses and I just thought he’s way out of his elements here. Another bad casting is John Turturro, he looks ridiculous in the weird make up and spoke with a weird accent that I wanted to laugh when he appears on screen.

For all the bad casting, writing and directing, the worse crime this movie committed was that it’s so boring! I actually dosed off a couple of times during the screening. This was yet another misfire from a director whose career may need to come to an end. I can forgive the bad editing and writing if the movie was entertaining, unfortunately it’s just a bad movie that can’t be saved even though it looks so good.

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Have you seen Exodus? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: WILD (2014)

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Based on a memoir of Cheryl Strayed, a Minnesota native, it’s no surprise the TCFF screening last month was packed and there were a long line at the RUSH line trying to get tickets to the sold-out showing. As someone who haven’t read the book, I was intrigued by the female-driven story and was expecting to be entertained as well as enlightened. Alas, I got neither.

This movie is like Eat, Pray, Love 2.0 where a white woman in the midst of a life crisis decided to go on a journey of self-discovery. Now, instead of traveling the globe, in the mid 90s Cheryl hiked the 2,663 mi (4,286 km) long trail of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), all by herself. So the first act was quite amusing as we watched the petite Reese Witherspoon struggling to even carry her ginormous backpack twice her size and struggling to figure out how to put up a tent, cook a meal and so on. The film tells us in flashbacks who Cheryl is and how she ended up taking up such an extreme adventure. She went on such an arduous trek without much preparation, I mean the PCT is such a challenging terrain even for most experienced hikers. It seems that Cheryl went through life in a similar reckless manner, prompted by the death of her mother, played by the always affable Laura Dern.

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Though her family was poor, Cheryl’s mother was always there for her and she had such a sunny outlook on life even in the most dire circumstances. Her mother’s death from lung cancer wrecked the already-fragile Cheryl and her life went on a downward spiral. She drank, did drugs and slept with any willing man, even in a dirty alleyway. It’s no surprise her humiliated husband divorced her and even she didn’t fault him for doing so. In fact, her last name ‘Strayed’ was made up by Cheryl herself after the divorce, perhaps to signify her lost and philandering ways?

Witherspoon pulled all the stops in portraying Cheryl’s ‘warts and all’ persona, which includes posing nude, swearing up a storm, and pretty much anything we don’t expect from *America’s sweetheart.* But that’s the thing, I felt like the actress tried too hard to shed her ‘good girl’ image here, yet I feel she didn’t quite go far enough. For one I think she still looks too beautiful even sans makeup, never once did I believe her as a desperate person reaching her wit’s end. Some have said it’s a bravura and transformative performance but to me it looks superficial and bait-y, because she didn’t immerse us or make us empathize with the character.

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Perhaps an actress with a better range (like Cate Blanchett or even Emily Blunt) might’ve suited this role better. Other than Witherspoon and Dern, there are no other performances worth talking about. I only noticed Michiel Huisman as a guy she hooked up on her journey as I recognized him from some Game of Thrones stills, but he wasn’t given much to do than looking hunky.

The film itself also tried too hard to tug at my heartstrings that it felt manipulative. That is if you weren’t overwhelmed by the repetitive and at times jarring flashbacks to the point of ad nauseam. It’s worth noting that this is Jean Marc Valèe‘s follow-up film after the critically-acclaimed Dallas Buyer’s Club which was nominated for an Oscar, and the script was done by acclaimed writer Nick Hornby (About A Boy, An Education). Great pedigree to be sure, if only I had been more impressed by the result.

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The cinematography by Yves Bélanger of the PCT is perhaps the only thing I admire about this film, I mean it could double as an advertisement for the scenic trail (oh and for REI too, with its blatant product placement). Though the running time was under 2-hours, I felt like it went on for ages and I never felt more relieved to see end credits appearing on screen! I don’t mean to be so down on this movie, I suppose the themes of self-empowerment and perseverance are quite inspiring, but in the end, Cheryl Strayed remains emotionally distant to me.

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Have you seen WILD? I’m curious to hear what you think!

David Mamet Double Feature – Part 2: Spartan (2004)

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Greetings all and sundry!

DavidMametThis is the second part of the David Mamet Double Bill. If you missed it, check out the review for The Spanish Prisoner (1997) from last month.

Spartan begins without fanfare in the hills and forests of what could be Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Bragg, North Carolina or Benning, in Georgia. As a group of elite multi service elite “candidates” endure day long, often changing exercises for selection into Delta Force. Overseen by a quietly confident Val Kilmer in.

SPARTAN (2004)

SPARTAN2004PosterMr. Kilmer’s “Been There. Done That” pedigree as Master Gunnery Sergeant, Robert Scott seems to be something of a lower tier celebrity at the event. And is sought out by Ranger candidate, Curtis (Derek Luke). And Marine Recon candidate, Jackie Black (Tia Texada), whose specialty is knife fighting. Might keep them in mind. Should the need arise.

That need arrives soon after a telephone call to Scott to be at a certain back road intersection to await a helicopter. To who knows where? Which turns out to be Boston. For a meeting with the Presidential Secret Service detail. A few nameless. faceless political fixers and the President’s Press Secretary, Burch (Ed O’Neil). Who is not long on details as to the current snafu of the men assigned to protect the President’s step daughter, Laura (Kristen Bell) screwed up their shift change. And created a window of opportunity for the Harvard student and wild child a chance to slip away to taste some of Boston’s night life.

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The responsible agent is interrogated and left alone for a moment. Time enough to dig out his his back up piece and take his own life. A major scale altercation ensues with lots of finger pointing and arguments, As Scott is taken aside by Burch and basically given Carte Blanche to track down, find and return the errant daughter.

Scott agrees and slips into a Secret Service uniform jacket and tracks down the few leads available. An older professor. And a rather flaky boyfriend. The boyfriend is braced trying to break into Laura’s mailbox and reveals little. Except that Laura had bleached her signature red hair and headed solo to the seamier, less friendly clubs in town. Scott returns to brief Burch as Curtis shows for backup. Burch gives Scott and Curtis forty eight hours to perform this minor miracle before Laura is noticed missing from classes Monday morning. And a press conference will be required.

The two head off to one club to talk to the bartender. Then the owner, Jerry. Who has better things to do past closing time. Scott exits. Waits and confronts Jerry. Bounces him off a chain link fence. Then a Dumpster, before breaking his arm to get the proper response to Scott’s monotone, “Where’s the girl, Jerry?”

It seems Laura left with some other girls to a down low brothel with connection to human trafficking. Burch tightens up the timeline. Should Laura’s bleach job start revealing red roots. And the bad guys finally figure who and what scale political leverage wedge has been delivered unto them.

Scott, Curtis and a detachment of agents raid the joint. Separate the girls. Corner the madam and gets more leads to follow. A call from a pay phone is traced to an unlikely location. To a beach house in the Hamptons used as a way station for selected chattel. Scott and Curtis arrive down beach from their objective. Scouting ahead of a larger contingent. Curtis takes a sniping position as Scott finds an entrance to the tumbled down shack. Scott finds three armed bad guys. Two Russian. One Middle Easterner. Curtis takes out one through a window. Scott wounds the others and another twist is added. The girl is missing, but left evidence of her being there. Has either been sent, or is en route to who knows where?

Further investigation reveals a name as well. A Lebanese national name Tariq Asani. Who’s in federal custody on kidnapping and sex trafficking charges. And is due for re location along with a felon facing lethal injection. Some heavy duty sleight of hand in the form of a faked gas station robbery allows Scott to off the annoying and useless con facing the needle. Worm himself into Tariq’s confidence in exchange for the prisoner’s sudden freedom. And come up with a final location. Dubai.

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Burch and company are briefed in on Scott’s progress. And Scott heads off to the Hamptons to ask some questions of family staff and house keepers. Finding pay dirt with divorced, older wife and Laura’s mother (Deborah Bartlett) and her Secret Service protector, (Anne Morgan). Who reveal that her husband used Laura’s being at Harvard as a cover for his sexual proclivities. And pulled the protective detail off his step daughter!

Armed with this ammunition. Which could easily upset an upcoming election. Scott is dissuaded by continuous news reports of The First Daughter and professor drowned while sailing off Martha’s Vineyard. Submerges deep off the grid. Wisely spends a large cash advance to recruit Sgt. Jackie Black. Arrange for their transit to Dubai. And the delivery of a large shipping container as a Base of Operations. Plus a chartered flight out to Paris. Before making a final attempt to bring his principal back.

I’ll leave it right here to retain the integrity of spoiler territory.

Now. What Makes This Film Good?

Certainly one of Mr. Mamet’s “busiest” projects. With changes in location too many to mention. Though with a core cadre of character actors doing more than holding their own. As they talk around the problem(s) and objective(s) at hand with some, but not an excessive amount of the writer’s trademark profanity. Chief amongst them, Ed O’Neil and Mr. Kilmer. With the former adding dry gravity to his words. While the latter adds occasional humor to offset by his matter of fact, intimated, sometimes intimidating use of force.

It’s also intriguing to see the ingenuity, coordination and wherewithal of the invisible alphabet soup of the military’s vast covert operations capability. Which can dialed up and brought to the fore. With very few being any the wiser.

Cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia shows a flair for medium range and occasionally shadowy close ups. Taking advantage of Boston’s grimy offerings, And tight, claustrophobic and forgotten back rooms. Then flipping the script with tight and crowded, dusty, sweaty sand stone California sets substituting for Dubai. Solidly backed up by lighting, electrical, sound and stunt crews too numerous to mention.

What Makes This Film Great?

A solid and well detailed look and feel (With the aid of former Arny Command Sergeant Major and Delta operator, Eric L. Haney) at what would later evolve into CBS’s and Mr. Mamet’s television series, ‘The Unit’. With Val Kilmer leading the charge admirably before basically falling off the map. Basically playing someone who is not a “thinker” or “arranger”. But a “shooter”. The guy those in charge send out to negate obstructions and fix things. Hopefully, without accumulating too many arrows in his back!

And in this arena. Mr. Kilmer excels. With a straightforward attitude. Sometimes offset with a dash of charm when required. Backed up by a solid percussion. brass and synthesized soundtrack led by Mark Isham to twist tension through the tale’s compact 107 minutes.

Spartan2004_BillMacyVery high marks also for Mamet stalwart, William H. Macy. Who excels as political Presidential protector, Stoddard. Who doesn’t make his presence known until the film’s final moments. But the wait is well worth the effort!

Author’s Note: Spartan is available in its entirety on YouTube. As well as associated clips and interviews.


Check out Jack’s other posts and reviews


Agree or Disagree? The Floor Is Open For Discussion.

FlixChatter Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

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This film is what you’d call a quiet suspense type of film, brimming with unsettling tension throughout even when there’s barely any action going on. The film starts with the two pro-wrestling brothers Dave and Mark Schultz (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, respectively) as they practice in a gym. It gives us a glimpse into the relationship of the two of them and how Mark is a doting older brother to his rather tetchy younger brother. It’s also apparent that Mark is the better wrestler, though both are Olympic champions. The film then takes us into the process of how Mark ends up living in the large estate of millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) who wants to coach Mark and his team for the 1988 games in Seoul.

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Carell underwent quite a physical transformation for the role, wearing a prosthetic nose and made up to look older. But not only that, he also altered his mannerism and even tone of voice that he’s barely recognizable here. To say he looks creepy is an understatement, and the whole set up certainly gets under your skin. Both Mark and John are two people who have been living under someone else’s shadow, which feeds into their insecurity, anxiety and in the case of John, paranoia. I actually read the story of this case prior to watching the film, but it didn’t ruin the experience for me as it’s more of a character study than a plot-driven film. The story focuses mostly on the odd and unsettling relationship between Mark and John for the first two acts, but by the time Dave becomes part of an unlikely trio in the third act, things got more sinister that lead to an eventual tragic event.

There’s a homoerotic undertones between Mark & John that’s deliberately kept vague. It’s left up to the viewers’ interpretation as to why later on Mark act as if he was betrayed, that it must’ve been something that cuts really deep for him to go 180 in his behavior towards John. I remember feeling as if I missed something here and it’s a bit frustrating. There’s also very little dialog in the film, which can be used to great effect, but that at times I feel that the film is a little too austere to really be emotionally engaging.

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This is the kind of film that truly rely on the skills of each actor and the three leads are more than up for the task. Carell obviously is the revelation here. Comedians can often be quite effective in serious roles and I know Carell has dramatic chops when I saw him in Little Miss Sunshine. But he took it up several notches here, displaying disquieting menace and creepy demeanor I’ve never seen before. Tatum’s good here in a taciturn role and you could say it’s quite a transformative performance for him as well as I’ve never seen him looking so dour. Ruffalo is a reliable actor and his character Dave is definitely the character I sympathized most here. Miller calls him the heart of the film despite him having the least screen time out of the three. He’s a natural choice for playing someone who’s got a thousand best friends, as Dave is revered on the wrestling and cherished by those who knew him. Vanessa Redgrave‘s appearance is basically a cameo but it’s a key scene that show how much John is so desperate of his mother’s love and approval. I’ve mentioned in my interview with the film’s director that Sienna Miller as Dave’s wife seems an unlikely choice but I think she’s fine in the role, though she wasn’t given that much to do until the finale.

Bennett Miller‘s direction style is so matter-of-fact that it sometimes feel like a documentary. But yet I feel it’s lacking a sense of time as I’m not sure when things happen from the time the characters first met to the time the violent incident occurs. For example, I read about the 48-hour standoff between John and the police, but in the film it felt more like 48 minutes. It also suggests that John’s mother’s passing directly led to the brutal finale, whilst in fact the two events are years apart. The slow pace also feels tedious at times, especially in the first act, and apart from a couple of amusing scenes, the mood is somber and grim throughout.

I must say that as much as I admire Foxcatcher, it’s not an enjoyable film and far from being a feel-good film. It’s one of those films one appreciate but not necessarily love as I couldn’t quite connect with any of the characters. Still, I’d recommend it for the amazing performances of the three main actors and it’s quite a fascinating tale of an American tragedy involving one of the country’s wealthiest and most prominent families.

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Has anyone seen this film? I’d love to hear what you think!

November Blind Spot: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

RebelWithoutACausePosterI chose this film because for some reason I had never seen any James Dean film. It seems that some of Hollywood’s legends have escaped me, as I had just seen Marilyn Monroe’s and Bette Davis’ films for the first time recently. It’s also my first time seeing Natalie Wood, though I have seen her previously in various clips of West Side Story. Strange that both leads died tragically and prematurely, in fact, Wood’s drowning death is still unsolved to this day. Per IMDb, two other cast members also died under tragic circumstances: Sal Mineo was stabbed to death whilst Edward Platt committed suicide.

This film was nominated for 3 Oscars (including 2 acting nods for Wood and Mineo) and ranked #59 amongst 100 Greatest Films by AFI in 1998. Even before seeing the film, I’ve seen what Dean looked like in his iconic white t-shirt and red leather jacket. I wonder though if he had become such an influential cultural icon if he hadn’t died at the peak of his career at the young age of 24.

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The one thing I noticed right away as the film opens with Dean’s character Jim Stark lying drunk on the street is that he’s way too mature to play a high school teenager. Sure enough, I learned later that he’s already 24 when he got the role. Yet somehow Dean’s able to capture that brooding teenage angst that becomes his signature performance. No doubt even today’s young male actors wants to imitate Dean’s style and swagger that one either has or doesn’t. But Jim’s not smug nor cocky, there’s actually a layer of vulnerability about Jim and all that malaise stems from a deeper longing that’s left unfulfilled.

This films isn’t just a commentary on the foibles of youth but I think it has a good message for parents, especially parents of teens who desperately need guidance as they navigate the complexities of their young lives.

“What do you do when you have to be a man?”
– Jim repeatedly asks his father

Jim’s parents are in constant fights that often ends with his mom winning the argument. In fact, it’s shown time and again that his dad just can’t stand up to his domineering wife. Early in the film, one of the cops (played by Edward Platt) actually sympathized with Jimmy whilst he was booked at the police station. For a while I thought he’d be a good mentor for him but then he sort of disappeared for most of the film.

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There’s an interesting relationship between the school bully Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) and Jim who’s his target. The switchblade fight following Buzz slashing Jim’s car’s tire is wonderfully-filmed and packed with tension. I read that the actors wore chain mail under their shirt as they used real blades during that scene. What’s interesting is that for being called a *rebel*, Jim is actually a really nice guy who wants to do the right thing. Even when Buzz called him ‘chicken,’ something that really aggravated him, he’s still able to control himself instead of going completely berserk as I’d imagine a lot of teens would do under the circumstances.

[Spoiler alert – in case some of you still haven’t seen this one]

Now, what does baffle me is the bit involving the tragic car accident that killed Buzz. His jacket sleeve got caught in the car door handle which prevents him from jumping out of the car before it goes over a cliff, but wouldn’t you think that he can still hit brakes as soon as he realizes he can’t open the door? I don’t know maybe I’m missing some crucial piece of info here. Were the stolen cars been rigged so that the brakes don’t work??

[End of Spoiler]

In any case, that’s a small quibble in an otherwise intriguing drama. I have to admit though, if it weren’t for Dean’s performance, I don’t know if the film had been as interesting. He’s definitely the best thing of the film even though I’m not as captivated by him the way I was with other Golden Age actors, especially Gregory Peck. I do get his appeal however, there’s something so beguiling about that devil-may-care attitude and those chiseled cheekbones & piercing eyes are certainly matinee-idols material.

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Natalie Wood on the other hand, seems miscast here as the supposedly wild teenage girl Judy. I read that director Nicholas Ray initially didn’t feel right about casting her either. Plus some of the scenes of her with her dad comes across as creepy and bizarre to me, I’m really not sure what that’s about. I wonder if someone feistier like Elizabeth Taylor, Dean’s co-star in Giant, might’ve been a better fit. Sal Mineo (who looked a lot like Ralph Macchio) is quite good as John aka Plato, a forlorn young boy from a privileged family who idolizes Jim. Plato’s looking for a father figure and somehow he finds that in Jim who obviously is lacking an adequate parental figure himself. Right from the start, there’s a strange parallel between the two as Plato was also arrested the same night as Jim. Given the strict Hays Code at the time, the homosexuality factor is never mentioned, but it’s glaringly obvious that Plato has a thing for Jim. Two other performers worth mentioning here is Jim Backus who played a key role as Dean’s father and there’s a very young, baby-faced Dennis Hopper in a small role as one of Buzz’s inner circle.

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The third act is both tender and intense. Knowing that they’re hunted by Buzz’s friends, Jimmy and Judy’s romance blossomed as they hide out in an abandoned mansion. There’s an odd threesome going on between Jim, Judy and Plato as they sort of acting out a fantasy of being a family, with Jim & Judy as the parents and Plato as the child. I really had no idea what’s going to happen in the finale, a lot of scenarios are playing in my head as to what’ll become of Jim. I’m not going to spoil it for you but I found myself quite moved by Dean’s impassioned performance. If I wasn’t sure about Dean’s appeal initially, by the end of the film, I totally got what the fuss was about him and why he’s become such an icon. It’s really too bad he died so young and I can’t help thinking how eerie it is that the film that he’s best known for contains a scene of a fatal car accident.

Overall Rebel Without A Cause is a well-crafted piece with beautiful, evocative cinematography by Ernest Haller (who won an Oscar for his work in Gone With the Wind) that somehow helps convey the mood of a given scene. Even seeing this six decades after its release, there’s a timeless quality about it as the social themes are still relevant that today’s teens can relate to. Having seen this, now I’m curious to check out Dean’s other films, I think I will put Giant in my Blindspot list next year as I also need to see a Rock Hudson film.

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Check out my previous 2014 Blind Spot reviews


So have you seen Rebel Without A Cause? I’d love to hear what you think!

FlixChatter Review – Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (2014)

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I saw Mockingjay: Part 1 on opening night and I hate to admit it, but I was a bit disappointed. Granted, in my opinion, the source material wasn’t as engrossing as the first two books, but, still, I had such high hopes going into the film. Director Francis Lawrence came into THG series with such gusto, partly because he had something to prove, given the criticism of the first film. In Catching Fire, the storytelling was tight and engaging – almost leaving no room to catch your breath and leaving you on the edge of your seat. However, with the return of his sophomore film in the series, it fell short and felt flat. Here are my gripes…

SCS Pandemic
SCS or Shaky Camera Syndrome has got to stop. When done well and/or in moderation, it’s slightly annoying. But, when the majority of the film makes you feel like you’re on a Tilt-A-Whirl, it’s A) very distracting from what’s actually happening on screen B) makes me want to vomit and C) very annoying. I get some DPs want to make you feel like you’re in the action, but this is an adaptation to a YA novel – not Saving Private Ryan. The only reasons I’d actually want to feel like I’m in the film is if Daniel Craig is starring opposite me in the next Bond film, or it has anything to do with Jamie Fraser. Then, yes, throw me all the way into the film.

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Pacing
In my opinion, splitting the last novel in to two films was a mistake. It could have been easily attainable as one solid film. The first 45 minutes of the film is almost a complete snooze-fest. I was growing restless and I could hear my fellow audience members constantly shifting in their seats as well. Create some drama! You’re in a technically advanced district who’ve survived underground in a bomb shelter. That’s some pretty good material. Nope. Everything is bland, lackluster and efficient. Even Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) looked bored. Which leads me to my next point…

Lighting
I understand Katniss and gang spend a majority of their time underground, but the lighting was atrocious. In some cases, you could barely see the actors and their expressions because of 1) SCS and 2) poor lighting. Again, this district has created a self-sufficient system, throw some pizzazz into the environment!

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Miscellaneous gripes
I had some major eye roll moments and one was the unveiling of Katniss’ Mockingjay suit. By right, she is a strong heroine, who thinks for herself, is handy with a weapon and actually cares about casualties of war. HOWEVER, “they” still felt the need to sexualize her by creating a molded breast plate. Seriously? It completely defeats the purpose of who Katniss is and what she stands for. Although, the rest of the suit is pretty sick. 

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Mockingjay, both the film and novel, brings a bit more insight to Gale and Katniss’ convoluted relationship. Gale is finally a contributor in the story, rather than a spectator. Regrettably, there’s something different about how Gale appears on paper versus film. I never realized this before, but Gale, or Liam Hemsworth, is a rather pathetic character. I had an epiphany last night and likened him to Chewy from Star Wars. He’s a big lug who isn’t very useful, causes problems and awkwardly hovers over Katniss. What’s more is, Gale makes Katniss feel bad about how she deals with her PTSD. Wow, Gale, you’re a regular stand up guy.

Alright. I’m done moaning and groaning. Now, on to what I did like.

Julianne Moore
When it was announced that Julianne Moore would be playing President Coin, I was skeptical. However, I thought her performance of the cool, collected and secretive leader was spot on. At first she appeared to be sympathetic to the horrors Katniss faced, but as the film went on, she slowly started to reveal her true colors. Everything about her portrayal completely reflected the collective attitude of the ominous District 13. Coin makes tough decisions and doesn’t apologize if a few people get hurt along the way. She’s a dictator, through and through, and will do anything to see the perseverance of her people.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman with Julianne Moore

Comic relief
As heavy as THG films are, I’m always pleasantly surprised by the snippets of comic relief thrown in. Effie, who doesn’t actually appear in District 13 in the novel, is essentially a POW in the film. So, it was a fantastic move to involve her in the story. Effie (Elizabeth Banks) somehow manages to downplay the atrocities and hardships surrounding her, and make minor issues, like clothing, hairstyle and makeup seem like the biggest problems in the world.

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Plus, you get to see her wearing a jumpsuit. It’s worth it. I just LOVE her! Another happy surprise is the inclusion of Buttercup the Cat (the right one). On cue, she hisses at Katniss during the perfect moments, and provides comedy only a cat can bring: trying to catch light from a flashlight. And, obviously, it wouldn’t be a true HG film without the witty, playful banter between Katniss and Haymitch.

Okay, so obviously the movie wasn’t all bad. I’m just calling it like I see ‘em. I remember when I left the cinema last year there was an unmistakable buzz and energy from the crowd. Not so much this time around.

This film was a means to an end to prepare the audience for the epic conclusion…next year. My favorite film is still Catching Fire but we’ll see how everything comes together for Part 2!

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Have you seen Mockingjay Part I? Do you agree or disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts! 

FlixChatter Double Reviews: Beyond the Lights & Begin Again

Neither one of these two indie films were even on my radar but I’m sure glad I got to see them!  Beyond the Lights is currently out in select theaters and Begin Again are now available on VOD.

Beyond the Lights 

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The first time I learned about this movie was when I saw a photo of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in full S&M getup with purple hair and I thought, is that the actress from Belle? I absolutely loved her in that movie so she’s definitely the main draw for me to see this.

The film introduces us to the protagonist Noni Jean when she’s in her early teens. Raised by her driven & ruthless single mother Macy (Minnie Driver) who took her to various talent contests, it’s apparent that failure is not an option for her. Fast forward over a decade later, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has blossomed into a Rihana-like pop star on the brink of superstardom. She’s just won a Billboard Music award as part of a hip-hop duo with Kid Culprit (played by real life rapper Machine Gun Kelly). Noni is seemingly at the top of her game, being touted as a hot new artist with fans and paparazzi and throng of fans hot on her trail. But the pressure of fame drives Noni to the point of self destruction, as the more famous she becomes, the more she feels invisible. Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), a young cop who’s assigned to be her security that night saves her just in the nick of time. ‘I see you,’ he says, and somehow that gives Noni just enough hope in her to keep going.

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Noni and Kaz are inevitably drawn to each other, and it’s no brainer that the two end up together. Some people compare this film to The Bodyguard but I honestly never thought of that movie the entire time I was watching this. For one, the relationship between the two characters are more on equal footing as Kaz isn’t technically working for Noni here and Noni herself isn’t quite in the same level as Whitney Huston’s character who’s already reached superstar status.

Though at first glance this film may appear as a romantic drama, it’s actually so much more than that. Yes there are romance and romantic scenes, but it’s all part of Noni’s journey of self-discovery and being able to stand on her own two feet. It’s also a commentary on the image-obsessed music industry that exploit female sexuality to sell records. The outfits that Noni wear in the movie would make even Lady Gaga blush [or maybe not], there’s one particular outfit where her upper body is only covered by a string of chains and nothing else. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that Noni is metaphorically and literally in chains, the fact that she’s always in the shadow of her rapper partner and is also controlled by her mother within an inch of her life.

BeyondtheLights_StillsBy the same token, Kaz’s life is in a way also controlled by external influences who push him for a political career. He’s also got an ambitious police captain father (Danny Glover) with his powerful allies and the pressure is getting to him as well. It’s an interesting parallel life story but the movie is more about Noni, which is truly the beating heart of the movie.

Mbatha-Raw is astounding in yet another career-making performance that shows her acting chops and versatility. Noni requires a tremendous physical as well as emotional commitment from the actor, and the British actress totally owned her role. I certainly hope she’ll get some kind of recognition come award season and that Hollywood continue to cast her in prominent roles. I also love the casting of Minnie Driver here, who I think is an underrated actress. Though I don’t agree with Macy’s actions, I don’t see her as a *villain* and the film does give us a glimpse into her character’s motivations.

The film itself is not perfect, there are moments that feel awkward or too schmaltzy. Pacing also feels a bit off as some scenes feel more drawn-out than they should be. The scene of Noni & Kaz on the plane makes me cringe, and Nate Parker‘s constant shirtless scenes also feel gratuitous that it made me laugh. That said, I’m impressed by Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s direction and the story kept me engaged and fully-invested in the main character. Last but not least, the music is definitely the highlight here, thanks to Mark Isham‘s emotive score. The song Blackbird holds a special meaning to Noni and by the time she sung a rendition of it towards the end, I wanted to get up and cheer for her!

This film seems to be under most people’s radar but I really hope that people would give it a look. I know I’d readily watch this again and the soundtrack is definitely worth buying!

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Begin Again

BeginAgainBnrThis movie wasn’t even on my radar until fairly recently, and I haven’t seen Once yet which was Director John Carnet‘s critically-acclaimed debut. Well, I like Carney’s storytelling style and he’s assembled a great cast to tell the story.

Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, a distressed record producer of an indie label who’s been having a very bad day. Clashing with his business partner that leads to him losing his job and feeling estranged from his ex-wife and teenage daughter, he ends his day at a bar to drink his woes away. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley‘s Greta is nursing a broken heart having just split from his musician boyfriend and was dragged to perform a song by his BFF in attempt to cheer her up. Well it’s not exactly a meet cute, but you know that their encounter somehow would change their lives profoundly.

BeginAgainStillsThe film is told partly in parallel between the two characters, giving us a glimpse into their lives and how they intersect. The acting felt so natural and right away I connected with the two leads and their journey. This might be one of my fave Keira Knightley‘s performances and nice to see her portraying a plain and relatable girl, a role she seems to relish and have fun playing. Ruffalo is a reliable and charming actor and he’s just so likable and endearing here even at the moment of a life crisis. He embodies an artistic and idealistic guy who can *see* and feel music so deeply and he’s so convincing at it. The film took us on a ride with Dan & Greta sharing music on their iPods and hanging out together around NYC (which could double as the city’s tourism video). Music is infused throughout the film and so there are lovely musical moments here. Two of my fave scenes are featured in this week’s music break, but there’s also a fun one when the group play on a rooftop.

I LOVE the spontaneity and adventurous spirit as Dan assemble a group of amateur talents to make up a band for Greta and the recording process in various places – in an alley, rooftop and even a subway station – is fun to watch. This movie is so enjoyable and engaging that I even tolerate seeing Adam Levine playing a douche bag (convincingly, natch) but I have to admit he’s pretty decent here and I could see why they cast him. James Corden and Hailee Steinfeld also lend memorable supporting roles as Keira’s BFF and Mark’s daughter respectively, though Catherine Keener is a bit underutilized. Overall though, this is Dan and Greta’s story and both Ruffalo and Knightley shine in their roles.

The finale isn’t tied up in a neat little bow which I think gives the story even more poignancy, the way Roman Holiday was to me. Of course parts of me want a happy ending, but the more I think about it, I like it the way it is and there’s a genuine element of surprise when things don’t go as you expect it. I can’t recommend this movie enough, and trust me folks, you won’t be disappointed!

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Have you seen these films? Well, what did you think?

Interstellar on IMAX 70mm VS. Standard 70mm

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Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar is now in theaters and it might be the most divisive film that I could remember in a long time. Some loved it (including yours truly), some didn’t care for it and others just thought it’s way too long and/or boring. That’s what great about films, we all have different opinions about them and if we all like the same thing then the world will be quite boring.

Since Nolan is a huge proponent of film, Paramount and Warner Bros. decided to release the film in 6 different technical formats, it maybe the first time in history that Hollywood studios had released a film in so many formats. Here are the different formats the film was released in:

  • IMAX 70mm with aspect ratio switching between 2.39:1 and 1.44:1
  • IMAX Digital with aspect ratio switching between 2.39:1 and 1.90:1
  • Standard 70mm with constant aspect ratio at 2.20:1 (my favorite aspect ratio and I use it for my mini home theater)
  • Standard 35mm with constant aspect ratio at 2.39:1
  • 4k and 2k Digital with constant aspect ratio at 2.39:1

As you can see the studios spare no expense when it comes to pleasing Nolan and of course us the paying customers. Since I saw the film on IMAX 70mm and standard 70mm, my review will only cover the two formats and which I think is the better viewing experience.

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I first saw the film on IMAX 70mm, Nolan shot over an hour of footage with IMAX cameras and I think this might be the best IMAX presentation I’ve seen yet. Although I have to admit that some early scenes bothered me with the quick switching back and forth of the different aspect ratios, thankfully that problem went away as the film progresses. To me digital presentation cannot match 70mm’s bright and vibrant color, the contrast and black levels were so much better too. I forgot how much I miss seeing film’s texture since so many movies today were shot and presented in digital form. Two sequences in the film that just blew me away were the tidal wave in the water planet and when they tried to dock the space ship to the main one, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who have yet to see the film but for those who saw it, you know which scenes I’m referring to.

[Ruth’s note: I found this photo posted on a tweet that seems appropriate to include on this post]

Seeing those sequences on the tall 7-story screen and bright color of 70mm, I felt like I was in the movie with the actors. With so many scenes ripped right out of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, I now know what it must’ve have been like seeing Kubrick’s masterpiece for the first time on the big screen back in those days.

Another reason why I love seeing this film on IMAX is the loss-less surround sound. Nolan mentioned that he really want the audience to be part of the movie so he and his sound designer created the most immersive surround sound I’ve heard since Gravity, it’s really too bad that he didn’t use Dolby Atmos for this film. I’m planning to see this film again on IMAX 70mm because it’s truly was an experience.

So a couple of days later, I’ve decided to go see the film again, this time on a standard 70mm screen. For anyone who wants to know more about 70mm, you can go here. Alas, their website is horrendous looking, but I got in touch with the site’s owners and told them I’m willing to redesign it for free, so once I have some downtime from my full time job, I’m going to redesign that site and it will look much better! Anyway, back to 70mm, the format was quite popular back in the 50s and 60s, some of the epic films from those eras were filmed in this format including Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, Patton, Cleopatra and much more. Heck even Quentin Tarantino will shoot his new flick The Hateful Eight in 70mm, so I can’t wait to see that.

The local theater here in MN is one of the only 9 in the whole country that’s currently projecting Nolan’s picture in 70mm so it’s definitely a treat to have experienced it. Also, I haven’t been back to this theater in over 20 years because they stopped showing films in 70mm. Unfortunately though, the viewing experience wasn’t as immersive as it was on IMAX. The smaller 2.20:1 screen didn’t really give the visual grandeur like on an IMAX screen but I still love the rich color and brightness of 70mm. Also, this 70mm theater uses an old DTS surround sound and it just couldn’t hold a candle to IMAX’s lossless surround sound.

InterstellarIMAXSo my recommendation is if you want to see Interstellar like it’s meant to be seen, please see it on a true 70mm IMAX and if there’s a standard 70mm theater near you, you might want to check it out too. Of course I understand not many people are able to see it on these formats since there aren’t a lot of IMAX and 70mm theaters around. Nolan said in an interview that if the audience felt like they were part of an experience in his film then he succeeded, that I totally agree with. Sure the film has its flaws and some of the scientific mumble jumble didn’t really make a lick of sense to me but it’s still one heck of a ride.

Final Scores:
IMAX 70mm 5 stars out of 5
Standard 70mm 4 stars out of 5

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So which format did you see Interstellar in? Are you a fan of seeing films on IMAX?

FlixChatter Review: Disney’s Big Hero 6

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I had never even heard of this film before until I saw the first trailer with a robot resembling a fluffy Pillsbury doughboy and I was immediately won over. My pal Prairiegirl who isn’t normally into animated features suddenly couldn’t wait to see the movie. There’s something so captivating about the big, puffy marshmallow creature and its backstory definitely appeals to both my brain and my heart.

The film starts out with two brothers, Hiro (Ryan Potter) and Tadashi (Daniel Henney), as Hiro’s participating in a back alley robot fights in a town called San Fransokyo. Tadashi thinks Hiro’s just wasting his genius potential with all fun and games, and he takes his younger brother to the robotics lab at his university. There Hiro’s introduced to Tadashi’s brainiac pals: Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), Fred (T.J. Miller)… and Baymax. He may look like nothing more than a big fluffy toy, but Baymax is actually an advanced personal healthcare bot that’s been Tadashi’s passion project for years. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your pain?” Baymax asks in his soothing mechanical voice, and he won’t deactivate until the patient is satisfied with his care. Tadashi hopes that his creation will help millions of people some day.

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The lab visit inspires Hiro to want to enroll at the school, and he worked tirelessly to come up with an imaginative thing on his own to wow Professor Callahan (James Cromwell), head of the robotics program. Just as Hiro reaches a milestone with his own creation of microbots, the film soon takes a tragic turn at the university. It’s following a personal loss that Hiro forms an unlikely friendship with Baymax, who in turns help him find out just what really happens at the university expo that night.

The second and third act of the film pretty much become an action adventure as Hiro gets help from Tadashi’s friends to find out who took Hiro’s microbots. These swarms of tiny robots that can link together to form any kind of shape/arrangement is evidently something that can easily be manipulated for both good and bad purposes. Now, I didn’t know Big Hero 6 is based on a Marvel comics until after I saw the film. So that explains the superhero-flavor of the action sequences, and the quirky band of heroes definitely remind me of the Guardians of the Galaxy team, yet another lesser-known Marvel heroes. The third act with all the high-flying adventure is beautifully crafted, but it also feels a bit too frenetic and familiar. I have to say that it’s the hilarious moments between Hiro and Baymax that truly made the movie for me. The scene at the police station and a set of plastic tape featured in the trailer is even more hilarious!

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I kind of wish the movie spend more time with Baymax in his um, birthday suit as it were, he’s far more adorable than when he’s wearing a protective metal suit that makes him look like a bloated Iron Man. The process of getting him into the suit is absolutely hilarious though, but just the way Baymax looks lends itself to slapstick hilarity, especially when it’s running out of battery. It’s a hoot to watch just watching the thing move or do simple things such as walking up the stairs or cuddling Hiro’s fat kitty. It also provides for genuine emotional moments that doesn’t feel forced at all. He’s programmed to heal and he more than delivers in terms of both physical and emotional remedy. As I’m watching it, I’d want my own personal Baymax. His big fluffy hug alone would guarantee to boost your morale no matter how crummy your day’s been.

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Disney’s done it again. In the past five years, it seems that they’ve managed to somehow match Pixar in crafting a story that’s not only highly entertaining but with a high emotional quotient as well. I have to say this is one of the most fun I had at the movies this year, rivaling The Lego Movie early in the year. The 3-D visuals are incredible – the quality of animated features these days have been amazing and it just gets better and better. The aerial view of the city in the flying sequences are jaw-dropping-gorgeous and worth seeing on the big screen.

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I love how the story inspires kids to explore their imaginations and relish their youthful creativity. But it’s how much it appeals to the heart that leaves a lasting impression on me. Altruistic notion is not uncommon in the age of superhero stories, yet when that moment appears here, the sense of loss feels all too real. But then again, I’ve found that animated features can be as poignant and moving as any live-action dramas, if not more.

Kudos to directors Don Hall and Chris Williams for making a character that’s so easy to root for, and a movie that’s both delightful and inspiring. The voice cast are great too, and they’re refreshingly diverse as the ethnicity of the characters have been changed from the comics version. I could easily watch this again and I don’t mind seeing the sequel that’s surely to follow. So Baymax, I’m definitely VERY satisfied with your care :)

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Have you seen this one? Did you enjoy it as much as I did?