Movie: Captain America, Civil War

"Captain America: Civil War"

Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” finds Steve Rogers leading the newly formed team of Avengers in their continued efforts to safeguard humanity. But after another incident involving the Avengers results in collateral damage, political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability, headed by a governing body to oversee and direct the team. The new status quo fractures the Avengers, resulting in two camps-one led by Steve Rogers and his desire for the Avengers to remain free to defend humanity without government interference, and the other following Tony Stark’s surprising decision to support government oversight and accountability.

When I watched The Avengers: Age of Ultron, I was a little underwhelmed. Although I did enjoy watching the film, I had notes throughout on what I would’ve have done (storytelling-wise) that could have made the film better. But, now that I’ve had a few months to have some perspective on how I felt about the film, I understand that I was coming from a place of high expectations. The first Avengers film struck me speechless, and I was expecting the same for Age of Ultron. That was unfair. So when I first saw the trailer for Captain America: Civil War, I told myself to manage my expectations.

The Captain America films has been my favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The First Avenger was an amazing film that perfectly told the story of the classic Captain America and made it palatable to modern viewers. The Winter Soldier topped that by twisting expectations, and delivering the most non-superhero film that starred a superhero. In both films, the cast of characters had been manageable. There were only a handful, and each one of them played an integral part in telling the story. And then here comes Civil War with the problem that truly plagued the second Avengers film: an overly large cast with rich stories that remain untapped. Each one bursting to tell their own journey.

Civil War served them all well, without forgetting the fact that this is a Captain America film. That this closes his trilogy.

And what a closer it is. (Seriously. The film’s last shot? Not counting the after credits? It gave me goosebumps.)

I don’t know how many times my jaw dropped watching this film. The fears and questions I had while watching the trailer were all explained away, and most of the stuff that internet people have been concerned about made a lot of sense for me. As the credits rolled, all I could think of was this: I didn’t have to manage my expectations at all. Because while Civil War is no Winter Soldier, the film is still a solid Captain America film. And that is what’s important, right?

Civil War has more superheroes than either one of the Avengers films, but each one plays out their part and stays in their lane. A few breakout as scene-stealers, but none of them steals the movie from Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan. Not even Robert Downey Jr., who tones down his Tony Stark to give his most somber portrayal of the character since he was first handed the iron helmet. And it works.

Everything works.

There have been a lot of reports that it’s Spider-Man who people will remember from watching this film, but I disagree. Spider-Man is set-up wonderfully, yes. Tom Holland does give a nuanced take that balances the drama of Tobey Maguire’s version with the levity of Andrew Garfield’s take on the hero. But this is not his film to steal. He serves a purpose, and one of his scenes actually underlines the movie’s theme without being blatant about it. His scenes still pushes the Captain America story forward, while providing a break from the film’s serious tone. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely still leaves Spider-Man’s story to whoever will be writing the webslinger’s own film.

As they do for the Blank Panther who makes quite the splashy entrance, and yet doesn’t overpower the strengths of the other characters.

The writers and directors Anthony and Joe Russo must be commended on using characters that haven’t been established yet to further the plot, without making the plot about them. They serve their purpose, but their own stories are purposely left out for their own films, without making moviegoers feel like they were shortchanged with these characters.

And I love how they use the absence of certain characters to push the story even further, to make the characters more three-dimensional.

But the best part of the film is how the number of superheroes isn’t overwhelming. Which… If these are the people working on the next two Avengers films? I think we can all rest easy, because we’re in good hands.

Captain America opens today in the Philippines. And I would like to thank my friend Chris Cantada for inviting me to the premiere of the film last Monday, April 25.

And, obviously, I didn’t get into the nitty gritty details of the film. I keep having to check myself that I’m not dropping spoilers by accident. But, if you’ve already seen the film and want to discuss it with me, hit me up in the comments. (This also serves as a warning to other readers to not read the comments section, if you don’t want to be spoiled.)

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Book: The Shadow Men

"The Shadow Men"

From Beacon Hills to Southie, historic Boston is a town of vibrant neighborhoods knit into a seamless whole. But as Jim Banks and Trix Newcomb learn in a terrifying instant, it is also a city divided–split into three separate versions of itself by a mad magician once tasked with its protection.

Jim is happily married to Jenny, with whom he has a young daughter, Holly. Trix is Jenny’s best friend, practically a member of the family–although she has secretly been in love with Jenny for years. Then Jenny and Holly inexplicably disappear–and leave behind a Boston in which they never existed. Only Jim and Trix remember them. Only Jim and Trix can bring them back.

With the help of Boston’s Oracle, and elderly woman with magical powers, Jim and Trix travel between the fractured cities, for that is where Jenny and Holly have gone. But more is at stake than one family’s happiness. If Jim and Trix should fail, the spell holding the separate Bostons apart will fail too, and the cities will reintegrate in a cataclysmic implosions. Someone, it seems, wants just that. Someone with deadly shadow men at their disposal.

The Shadow Men starts strong. Authors Christoper Golden and Tim Lebbon dive right into the premise of their novel, and our protagonists don’t wait around before taking action. And, this is a good thing, I didn’t even realize until after I finished the book that the entire story happened in just two days. Suffice to say: a lot happened, and there was no point in the novel where I paused, annoyed or otherwise, because of long pauses in action just to deliver exposition.

The clincher? The Shadow Men actually had a lot of exposition to cover. Especially since it had to establish two other Bostons existing with the one that’s supposedly in our world. But authors Golden and Lebbon are such experts at their craft that the exposition is delivered with the action–something you would think is more common in action novels, especially popular ones, but you’d be surprised.

But The Shadow Men‘s strength in delivering the action is also its one weakness. With so much happening, there were times that I had to go back and reread certain passages because I was starting to get confused. That, and there were moments when the action felt repetitive. Get caught. Run. Rinse, and repeat.

Aside from (just) one instance of this though, The Shadow Men is a stellar book. It ranks as my second favorite Hidden Cities novel, following the London-based Mind the Gap. It pulls no punches, never dilly-dallying when it comes to hitting the plot points, which had the effect of making readers (me, specifically) feel the adrenaline coursing through the characters–leaving us breathless.

I use the term “summer blockbuster movie” a lot when it comes to the I Am Number Four books, because of its penchant to prioritize action over character development and still remaining very entertaining. Following this logic, The Shadow Men would be something akin to an “epic movie” in which the action serves to make the viewers’ pulses race, as much as it pushes the characters to develop.

The Shadow Men came out in 2011. No other Hidden Cities book came out again after this. I hope that it’s because Golden and Lebbon are still looking for the perfect city and the perfect story to continue their series, and not because the publishers don’t want another one. Because I want another one.

Book: Where Futures End

"Where Futures End"

Five Teenagers.
Five Futures.
Two Worlds.
One Ending.

One year from now, DYLAN develops a sixth sense that allows him to glimpse another world.
Ten years from now, BRIXNEY must get more hits on her social media feed or risk being stuck in a debtor’s colony.
Thirty years from now, EPONY scrubs her online profile and goes ‘High-Concept.’
Sixty years from now, REEF struggles to survive in a city turned virtual gameboard.
And more than one hundred years from now, QUINN uncovers the alarming secret that links them.

Five people, divided by time, determine the fate of us all. These are brilliantly connected stories of one world bent on destroying itself and an alternate world that just might be its savior–unless it’s too late.

In the future, who will you choose to be? And how will you find yourself before the end?

I was excited when I first started reading Where Futures End. The first story, Dylan’s development of his ‘sixth’ sense that allows him to see and enter an alternate world, wasn’t very original–but it was very engaging. Sure, Dylan was a character that we’ve met time and again in many fantasy adventure novels, but there was something in the way author Parker Peevyhouse wrote him that makes you want to see him get his happy ending.

And then his story suddenly ends.

Brixney’s story was strange. Original, yes– But also very familiar in our social media-obsessed world. Again, we get a character worth rooting for, and a predicament you want to see unfold.

And then her story suddenly ends.

I’m starting to feel restless. What is the author’s purpose in cutting the stories off? Why aren’t they being allowed to flourish? We’re being given promising beginnings with no middle, and no end– But then, I remember: the book blurb promises a last story that would link all of these vignettes.

The third story with Epony was more self-contained. A short story that had a clear beginning, middle, and end. My need for a satisfying story was quenched–even if the story itself wasn’t as good as the first two. And then when the fourth story with Reef ends, I’m starting to feel that my enjoyment of the book was diminishing.

Still. No matter. The final story promises to link all the stories together. I tell myself that it will work out, probably, because why else would people be saying the story was good. I started to hold on to the promise of the book blurbs. Of people saying the book was good–

And then I read the final story. A story that was supposed to link all the stories together. And it does, yes. But the stories were already linked in the first place. Reef’s story was spurned on by Epony’s. Epony’s by Brixney’s. Brixney’s by Dylan’s. And yes, technically the book didn’t lie when it promised an alarming secret that links all five stories.

But it’s a horrible link. It doesn’t tie up the stories together. They remain vignettes of half-realized premises that never became whole. Except the third story. And as I turn the final page, I find myself asking if the gimmick of linking these stories with a last story was realized because the author couldn’t find a way to wrap up the individual stories. That she couldn’t push the story forward to a satisfying conclusion.

Because the book ends and I don’t get the point of it all.

Because the book ends, and the weakest story in terms of originality and characterization suddenly becomes the strongest for actually having an ending and character growth.

Because the book ends, and all I want is the chance to go back in time and stop myself from buying it. Or, at the very least, warn myself not to expect anything from it. Can I do that? Can I go back in time and stop myself from hoping that this book would give me any satisfaction?

Book: Crystal Keepers (Five Kingdoms, Book 3)

"Crystal Keepers"

Cole Randolph still can’t believe the way his life has turned inside out. Stuck in a strange land far from his home, he has found his friend Dalton and has survived the first two kingdoms of the Outskirts, but none of that has prepared him for the magnetic highways and robotic bounty hunters of Zeropolis.

Ruled by Abram Trench, the one Grand Shaper who stayed loyal to the evil High King, the government of Zeropolis uses advanced technologies to keep tight control. Luckily, the resistance in Zeropolis is anchored by the Crystal Keepers–a group of young rebels with unique weapons.

On the run from the High King’s secret police, Cole and Dalton hope to find more of their lost friends and help Mira locate her sister Constance. But as their enemies ruthlessly dismantle the resistance, time is running out for Cole to uncover the secrets behind the Zeropolitan government and unravel the mystery of who helped the High King steal his daughters’ powers.

In Crystal Keepers, we finally get a story that feels original and not a retread of a previous adventure. As Cole and our other journeying protagonists enter the kingdom of Zeropolis, we’re treated to a world unlike we’ve seen in previous Brandon Mull novels–a technologically-advanced one.

The change of milieu really helps the storytelling feel fresh, as the checklist of things that need to happen author Mull employed in Rogue Knight doesn’t pop up here. The adventures are new, as are the dangers–which makes Crystal Keepers a page-turner. You don’t have an idea what’s going to happen next.

Now, I don’t know if this was a case of lowered expectations, but I really enjoyed reading the third installment off the Five Kingdoms series. Crystal Keepers feels action-packed without being overdone, and the pacing is slow enough to let the characters breathe and process what’s going on around them.

What I like best about this book is the fact that the writer is finally coloring in the characters that have, so far, only been mentioned and not seen. We’re starting to see how perception plays into the story, and how not everything is as black-and-white as previously thought. And yet, although a few chapters is given to the ongoing main arc, it doesn’t feel like a big break from the book’s own story line. It’s still pushing the book’s plot forward while pushing the bigger picture.

With the introduction of new characters, the ones we’ve been traveling with since the first book also come off a little better. To be honest, in Rogue Knight, our protagonists were starting to grate on my nerves. So the addition of new personalities and voices were very welcome, to water down my annoyance at the constant bickering between Cole and fellow traveler Jace.

There were still a few parts of the book that I wasn’t fond off–parts that felt obvious foreshadowing and device-planting. But on the whole, they didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the book. And I highly doubt that the intended readers of the series would be too discerning about obvious plot devices.

All that said, there is one twist that I’m still on the fence about.

In the first two books, there happened to be a great unexplainable being that’s causing mayhem in whatever kingdom they were in. Beings that turn out to be a personification of the princesses stolen powers. I was on the look out for the same device here, in the third book, but it didn’t appear until the last few chapters.

And, no, I don’t mean that it didn’t appear physically until the last few chapters. I mean that there was no sign of it at all until it needed to be the big villain.

Now, on the one hand, I really liked how Brandon Mull tried to change it up and not repeat what he did before. But, on the other hand, I’m not a fan of a third-act reveal of an enemy that needs to be defeated; one that the book needs to end big at that.

I guess I’ll just have to hope that this doesn’t happen again in the remaining two novels off the Five Kingdoms series.

I’m crossing my fingers.

Book: Remembrance, a Mediator Novel

"Remembrance"

All Susannah Simon wants is to make a good impression at her first job since graduating from college (and since becoming engaged to Dr. Jesse de Silva). But when she’s hired as a guidance counselor at her alma mater, she stumbles across a decade-old murder, and soon ancient history isn’t all that’s coming back to haunt her. Old ghosts as well as new ones are coming out of the woodwork, some to test her, some to vex her, and it isn’t only because she’s a mediator, gifted with second sight.

From a sophomore haunted by the murderous specter of a child, to ghosts of a very different kind–including Paul Slater, Suze’s ex, who shows up to make a bargain Suze is certain must have come from the Devil himself–Suze isn’t sure she’ll make it through the semester, let alone to her wedding night. Suze is used to striking first and asking questions later, but what happens when ghosts from her past–including one she found nearly impossible to resist–strike first?

The Mediator series was one of the things I really enjoyed reading back in high school and college; mostly because of the heroine who wasn’t always heroic and the supernatural element that, for the most part, wasn’t very complicated.

When I found out that Meg Cabot was following up the Princess Diaries wrap-up Royal Wedding with a new Mediator book, I was ecstatic. And then I started reading the book.

I guess I should learn the lesson of managing expectations. Again.

The Mediator series, for the first four books, were very short novels aimed at Young Adults. At the time, when you say a book is intended for the teen audience, it wasn’t very long. But, I’m guessing, when Harry Potter‘s length increased alongside its popularity, and people didn’t mind; the publishers must have realized that they didn’t need to limit the number of pages of a young adult novel. A good story will have teens reading, no matter the length of a book. So when the last two Mediator books came out in 2004 and 2005, the book was no longer restricted by a small number of pages.

Both Haunted and Twilight flourished with the additional pages. Meg Cabot was able to flesh out her characters more, and made Susannah Simon’s world more immersive. Which is why, when I picked up Remembrance, I was excited to crack open the book immediately. It follows the thickness of the last two Mediator books, and the synopsis at the back promised a great adventure.

A third into the novel though, I was asking myself–Why wasn’t anything happening? In the decade that passed, has Meg Cabot lost hold of Susannah Simon’s voice? Where are her friends? Why is she so hung up on just Jesse and herself when she was able to juggle having a social life on top of school and being a mediator before?

Things started picking up when Susannah finally moved on from being self-centered to start dealing with her ghost situation. From that point on, Remembrance started to read and feel like the old Mediator novels. Which brings me to ask:

Did the Mediator novels work in the past because Meg Cabot was restricted to a certain number of pages? Were they structurally sound and well-paced because the author wasn’t allowed to ramble on and on for fear of running out of pages to tell her story?

Maybe.

But what about Haunted and Twilight? Were they flukes? Or has Meg Cabot gotten used to writing her protagonists one way? As very talkative and very self-centered? Then again, the remaining two-thirds of Remembrance is good, and very reminiscent of Mediator books past. So was the first third just an example of an editor failing to reign in the writer’s meandering thoughts?

At the end of the day, I did still enjoy the book. And I still would like to see more of Susannah Simon, her stepbrothers, and the rest of her ghost-hunting crew. But, here’s to hoping that when a next time does arrive, we won’t be subjected again to a rambling first act that actually subtracts from the protagonist’s likability.

Book: Moriarty

"Moriarty"

Days after Holmes and Moriarty disappear into the Reichenbach Falls’ churning depths, Frederick Chase, a senior investigator at New York’s infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency, arrives in Switzerland. Chase brings with him a dire warning: Moriarty’s death has left a convenient vacancy in London’s criminal underworld. There is no shortage of candidates to take his place–including one particularly fiendish criminal mastermind.

Chase is assisted by Inspector Athelney Jones, a Scotland Yard detective and devoted student of Holmes’s methods of deduction, whom Conan Doyle introduced in The Sign of Four. The two men join forces and fight their way through the sinuous streets of Victorian London in pursuit of this sinister figure, a man much feared but seldom seen, who is determined to stake his claim as Moriarty’s successor.

Three years ago, I wrote that The House of Silk was Anthony Horowitz’s best work–even if it didn’t feel like a proper Sherlock Holmes novel. Which was fine, because at the end of the day, it was a fun read.

I wish I could say the same for Moriarty.

It took me two weeks to finish the book, putting the book down after every chapter because I just couldn’t muster enough interest to continue reading.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that none of the characters are familiar nor likable. I mean, Frederick Chase comes off very dumb for a supposed senior investigator, and Athelney Jones is trying too hard. And they don’t feel like fleshed-out characters, especially since they keep name-checking Sherlock Holmes and John Watson every chance they get.

But even if you replace Athelney and Frederick with Sherlock and Watson, I don’t think it would make any difference. The whole story itself doesn’t feel right; as if it overstayed its welcome.

And then there’s how the novel was wrapped up. I don’t think I’ve ever been this worked up about how a book ended. And not in a good way.

I mean, I’ve already suspected that there were external forces at play in the sidelines of the story. But the way it was revealed felt like a forced a-ha moment. It took away whatever good will I had left for the novel.

Moriarty is a very disappointing read.

Movie: Everything About Her

"Everything About Her"

Powerful but ill-stricken business woman, Vilma Santos navigates her complicated relationship with her caregiver, Angel Locsin and her estranged son, Xian Lim in this story about acceptance, love and forgiveness.

I wasn’t really planning on watching this film, so I didn’t have very high expectations coming in. And, to be completely fair to the film, I actually enjoyed the shenanigans as Vilma Santos tried her darnedest to be Meryl Streep in Devil Wears Prada, and Angel Locsin served her best Andrea (Anne Hathaway’s character from the same film). They both didn’t quite meet their goals but they were, at the very least, entertaining.

Then Xian Lim entered the picture, and everything went downhill after that.

Now, again in the spirit of fairness, it wasn’t completely Xian Lim’s fault. His character was all over the place, and that blame would either go to the writer, the director, or whoever was cutting the film. At least, that’s what I was telling myself until Xian’s big dramatic scene came. And I couldn’t stop laughing.

It was that bad.

Thankfully, the laughable acting is limited to two scenes. Both with Xian, true, but he wasn’t bad throughout the movie. Just with two very important, very dramatic scenes. Although, again with the fairness, it must not have been easy to find motivation for a character who doesn’t seem to have a reason for doing anything.

Which brings me to the biggest problem Everything About Her has: it focuses more on style over substance. Giving more weight to dialogue that can be quotable quotes instead of staying true to who the characters are. And what the viewers are left with is a convoluted mess of a film whose premise became as murky as the characterization of the main characters.

You see, the film is supposedly about a very hard, very independent woman who suddenly has to rely on a nurse whose method of taking care of someone is to be as familiar with them as possible. So she could cater to their needs before they even know they need it. Along the way, they’re supposed to find in each other someone that had been missing in their lives for so long: a child for the hard woman, and a mother for the nurse.

Now, had Xian Lim’s character been relegated to a supporting role, I think the film would have been better–more whole. As it stands, the film really was very entertaining and very clear prior to his characters arrival, as I already mentioned above. But his inclusion really throws the whole film askew. It was one thing that you don’t actually understand why he comes in in the first place, but he also complicates the Vilma-Angel relationship in a bad way. Because suddenly, it has to contend with a romance angle.

And it doesn’t work. Mostly because you never believe for a second that Xian is falling in love with Angel. And then there’s the fact that the film doesn’t really allow their romance to blossom because it’s more interested with the abandonment issues the three suddenly have.

Yes, it’s sudden. Because although the film begins with Vilma and Angel being well-rounded individuals with no hang-ups, the minute Xian enters the picture, they suddenly have issues about being left behind. And Vilma’s character suffers the most from this because, for the first part of the movie, it’s implied that she’s the one who had done the unintentional abandonment! And then, with Vilma suddenly being dependent on her need to be loved by a son who is being more of a diva than the diva the film’s title is referring to, Angel suddenly develops her own abandonment issues–that could’ve introduced and explored better had the romance angle never happened at all!

To top it all off, the film boasts of an amazing cast of supporting characters who, I feel, were all wasted because they weren’t given more to do. Michael de Mesa as the only friend of Vilma’s hard-to-love character could’ve also served as a sounding board for Xian’s character whose motivations were never clear–because the actor wasn’t that strong to convey it on his own. Nonie and Shamaine Buencamino’s presence in the life of Angel Locsin’s character was so negligible, she could’ve been an orphan raising her host of siblings on her own. Which is a shame, because in the three scenes Nonie and Angel had together, you can see the promise of a wonderful father-daughter relationship that could’ve been explored more, to highlight the journey Angel’s character is supposed to take.

But, no. We have to contend with being force fed Xian Lim’s character instead. Who, had he been given a clearer motivation, could have worked as a third main character. But he wasn’t. So he ruins the film instead.

I could probably go on further about the things I didn’t like about Everything About Her, so I’ll stop now. Let me just say that if you’re going to watch for Vilma and Angel, you won’t regret the ticket price. They deliver solid performances, even amongst the confused story-telling. But if you’re watching for any other reason? Lower your standards. Like, by a lot.