Showing posts with label 2 stars. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2 stars. Show all posts

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017) manages to break free from Reboot Island

Kong: Skull Island 2017 Movie Review
Warner Bros. Pictures
We all know a cat supposedly has nine lives, but how many does an oversized ape have? It's a question Hollywood keeps asking whether movie goers want the answer (as much money as the studios can pummel out...) or not. So far there's been nineteen versions of the behemoth known as King Kong, and the latest edition Kong: Skull Island lands right in the middle as an amusing, but not entirely original flick.

This version is set in the 1970s with a government organization called Monarch investigating ancient myths and entities. Its leader William Randa (John Goodman) recruits a team of scientists and military men on a expedition to an exotic island where he believes evidence of prehistoric animals exist. The group abruptly encounters Kong among other beings that are not too happy about mankind disturbing the peace.

Among the otherKong movies, the action is where this one really stands out. Kong makes his introduction as massive silhouette enveloping a fiery sunset playing tennis with the crew's helicopters. The first several minutes he's on-screen is a completely wild ride, and his presence never wanes from there on. He doesn't dominate the movie by himself as an unpredictable mix of giant spiders and lizard-beings hint that there's much bigger forces at play in how this island operates. Even though the creatures might be CGI, the epic choreography and cinematography in subsequent fight scenes are visually awesome and offer some gorgeous set-ups, something that is often missing in similar movies.

While Skull Island's monsters are more than flat effects, its actual humans lack depth. The ensemble has a typical variety of tough guys, wanna-be feminists, nerds, and "red shirts" who are at least a little engaging, but they also fall a little too easy into tropes. The leads with Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and Samuel L. Jackson occupies most of the screentime, but nothing really comes out of them except their sympathetic or vengeful attachment to Kong. Hiddleston and Larson are subtle heroes/adventurers, but don't have a lot of oomph compared to other stars in this genre. The guns-a-blazing schtick is mostly left to Jackson, whose arc drags on a little too much. They aren't entirely lovable or hateable, but just there to watch.

For any type of performance one might expect to stand out, John C. Reilly as a long-lost World War II pilot living among the island's native tribes easily wins all of the attention. He's so out of the loop on the changing times and desperately trying to get back to the real world, managing to be funny and endearing. Even smaller characters like Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and San Lin (Jing Tian) as geologist/biologist hang out in the background for the most part, but I still really enjoyed them. If a sequel were ever to be made, it'd be interesting if they can be and do more than what they're offered here.

Outside of the action, Skull Island also remodels itself by not focusing on a big, not-so-bad ape running wild on New York City streets, and letting him reign supreme on an isolated paradise. Kong is a mere protector for other exotic creatures from underground monsters called Skullcrawlers - there's a hierarchy in this environment, one that our scouting crew ultimately disrupts. The allegory of humans overestimating that we own everything we set our sights on, or think that things out of our realm are naturally dangerous, is very subtle. There's even vacant nods and connections to the highly criticized U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war that offer a little depth that some characters lack. The use of beasties are special-effects driven, but it's fun to see what's churned out, and watch Kong acting more than a circus animal or destructive monster on display in his "previous roles".

Hollywood is made up of so many remakes these days, it's hard to keep them straight. Kong alone has twenty movies under his massive belt, but Skull Island isn't the worst of its kind or the worst that this ongoing franchise has come up with. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts manages to make an adventure that's not in your face nor entirely forgettable. The cast and script could've been a little bit more polished, but there's some entertaining elements at bay that helps it escape from Reboot Island.

Rating: ★★½
Have you seen Kong: Skull Island? What did you think?

Friday, August 18, 2017

Baby Driver (2017) skips a few beats

Baby Driver 2017 Movie Review
TriStar Pictures
Through the social media grapevines and tv spots, Baby Driver rode a 100% approval rating on RottenTomatoes to become of the most anticipated movies of the year. Though the headlining cast and being familiar of director Edgar Wright's filmography made the action-"musical" sound interesting, there was a slight hesitation to jump and go see it. That was until the first six minutes were released by Sony on YouTube, of which I become easily obsessed with.

Essentially, the movie opens with Baby (Ansel Elgort) having successfully driven a heist crew out of danger from the police. His accomplishment gets him one step closer to working off a debt from a mob boss (Kevin Spacey). The final few jobs Baby has to deal with get more chaotic and unpredictable, ultimately putting his own getaway skills to the test to protect his family and new girlfriend.

In so little time, so much unfolds. First, the bombastic song that hits as Baby sits in his car, as the robbery gets more chaotic. And, then the pow of unbelievably smooth editing and cinematography as the cast tears up the streets. Wright's ability to wrap such a fast-paced action scene in tension hits all of the right notes. It's hella awesome, implanting an unforgettable adrenaline rush and raising the bar for what's to follow.

As great as the movie opens with this chase, it feels like a misplaced scene compared to the rest of the movie. Wright essentially kicks the movie off with a 0 to 60 sequence, and then strives to go back to the starting line to set up the characters. Somewhere along the way, and I have trouble putting my finger exactly where, the movie winds down pretty-average roads for an action flick, not really reaching for the originality its hailed for.

Essentially, in the first job, a complete synchronicity works not just with the production, but also the characters. The crew is all on the same page, so they can get the job done - get in, ruffle some feathers, and get out to snatch the big dough. They might not all like or know each other, have their suspicions about each other's personalities, but nothing's a big deal to put a hitch in the plans. Never working with the same crew twice, Baby must later contend with wild cards like Buddy (Jamie Foxx), whose unpredictable nature entertains at first, and then wears out its welcome. The further we follow the tragic reasons Baby's always listening to music and how the heists land him in hot water, the less engaging it is. The music selection and action scenes remain incredible, but the conflict drags on and on.

The cast holds up well with Ansel Elgort bringing a different kind of heart-throbbery from The Fault in Our Stars, alongside the ever-impressive chameleon Lily James and CJ Jones as Baby's deaf foster father. Baby's closest relationships are what makes him interesting, while his foes nicely played by Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and breakout star Eiza González don't give bad performances. They just happen to be in the back half of the story that's the weakest. Everyone is able to sing in their own way, despite the story stalling to reach the finishing line.

Undoubtedly, Baby Driver starts out on a high and never takes its foot off the gas  The cast hold up in places, but the story isn't perhaps worth the hype it received. Without question, Wright lays a lot out on the table. Knowing his filmography from the zombie-tastic Shaun of the Dead to the comic book indie Scott Pilgrim vs the World, his passion project is a smooth infusion on the technical side. The movie never settles as a pure action flick, mixing in elements of comedy, romance, and even sometimes coming across as a noir-on-crack. Baby can make a heart skip a few beats, in good ways and bad.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen Baby Driver? What did you think?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Dunkirk's (2017) heart speaks louder than its action

Dunkirk 2017 Movie Review
Warner Bros Pictures
Director Christopher Nolan has made a stunning career of delving heavily into themes and into the minds of his characters. Frequently, he often centers his stories on time, manipulating its synchronicity and complexity to amplify the drama. Unlike his previous movies languidly exploring his protagonists' psyche, Dunkirk dives right into the heart of a historical event with a surprising, different approach, letting the action do all of the talking.

In May 1940, during the early years of World War II, the Nazis swept through Europe pushing thousands of British, French, and Belgium soldiers to the beaches of Northern France. To avoid being completely wiped out by the Germans, the Brits led an evacuation from the seaside city of Dunkirk. Military vessels were struck down by bombs and torpedoes at every turn, making it far from an easy feat to turn over thousands of fighters to the next battlefield.

To cover the event unfolding on land, in the sea, and up in the air, Nolan splits the story into three points of views. A young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) joins his comrades on the shore trying to escape on rescue boats. As they dodge attacks from every side, a civilian boatsman Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) races to shore to rescue whoever they can, and a Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) surveys and shoots down enemy bombers from above. Peril permeates over the course of a week, a day, an hour, as hope remains a distant dream on the horizon.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Working Girl (1983) spins the Cinderella fairytale in the workplace

Working Girl movie review
Photo Credit: Working Girl / 20th Century Fox
Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) may not have an ivy league education, but she knows her value - a hard worker, creative, determined and a team player. Unfortunately, as a Wall Street temp, these qualities are taken advantage of by chauvinistic co-workers to treat her as a prostitute and to get overlooked by her bosses. Finally, when she's had enough, she risks everything to strike out on her own by posing as a high-end executive Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) to make a business deal with a handsome investment broker Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford).

Though cliche and a little imperfect, Working Girl is a Cinderella story sprinkled with workplace sexism. McGill wants more than anything to prove her worth, share her ideas without a co-worker taking the credit and simply move on up the latter. Her age, gender and lack of former education hold her ambition hostage. In the most drastic ways like dressing up in her boss's clothing and setting up meetings with executives out of her professional league, she becomes her own fairy godmother. Women can be successful in a few different ways: stepping on people to stay atop the ladder, playing the game, or accepting their lot in life; using fashion, contacts, and an open ear as an opportunity to make their stamp.

The script isn't perfect, but it's a fun little romp to see who or when someone will catch onto Tess' extreme scheme. While posing as her boss, she has insatiable chemistry with the ever-charismatic Jack and tries to dodge other increasingly suspicious employees. Time isn't on her side as she cleverly pushes her ideas to the finishing line but risks people finding out she's just a secretary.

I’m not going to spend the rest of my life working my ass off and getting nowhere just because I followed rules that I had nothing to do with setting up.

Right away, Tess feels relatable, someone (a woman) who wants to work without involving sexual politics. This is primarily accomplished by Griffith as Tess; she's very subtle as a comedienne, quirky, and a fresh face that even now one would be interested in watching out for. You can see where she gets it as the daughter to Tippi Hedren, and Griffith's daughter Dakota Johnson carries the mantle now. As a second generation movie star, Griffith shares great chemistry with Harrison Ford whose dapper charm still holds up in the charisma department like hunks Clark Gable and Cary Grant.

Alongside Griffith for the ride is Sigourney Weaver, kinda unlike audiences have seen or are familiar with her before i.e. kicking ass and taking names in Aliens. Here, as Tess' boss and frenemy, she doesn't have a problem with stepping on people to get to the top, but she isn't entirely villainous. It's fun to question whether she is a true mentor to her protege or looking out for herself. Weaver is funny and sharp, and as usual, her character is not one to cross.

While the cast and story may be a little timeless, the movie is also a shocking refresher of the eighties era it's trapped in. The production design, and in particular, the costumes, are an astounding walk down memory lane, even if you didn't live through the era personally. The ginormous desktop computers, shoulder-padded suits, overwhelming perms, and gaudy make-up all come back to delight or horror.

Thirty years after this movie was released, equality in the workplace hasn't been fully achieved. The movie rightfully earned Academy Award nominations for its ladies: Griffith, Weaver, and Joan Cusack, as well as Best Picture and Director, and won for Best Original Song. Though elements of Working Girl might be outdated, but its scrappy heroine is funny, relatable, and elicits a serious case of go-getting.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen Working Girl? What did you think?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Rome Adventure (1962) offers a languid visual treat

Rome Adventure movie review
Photo Credit: Rome Adventure / Warner Bros.
New England librarian Prudence Bell (Suzanne Pleshette) resigns from her school after she's criticized for recommending a racy book Lovers Must Learn as part of the curriculum. Yearning for independence and navigating the art of love, a cruise to Italy introduces more courtships than she expected - Albert Stillwell, a nerdy student of Etruscan history, older perfect Roman lover Roberto Orlandi (personally my favorite), and a perfect hunky All-American Don Porter (Troy Donahue).

As a melodramatic journey of 1960s morals about love, sex, and chivalry, Rome Adventure is a picturesque romantic drama. Trailing the ingenue through her experiences, the movie travels at a leisurely pace. Using Europe as a captivating backdrop, Bell weaves in and out of the nooks of crannies of not only the country but desire, attraction, and friendship.

Beyond the geographical and human eye-candy of the male co-stars, Suzanne Pleshette is absolutely charming, and hard to believe with her grace and maturity, just twenty-five years old. Not experienced in love or romance, her character learns a lot about herself as an individual and as someone else's half, which makes her relatable. She's challenged to re-evaluate her self-value passed pure sexual attraction, a glamorous wardrobe, or an ethereal sophistication. Pleshette's doesn't necessarily give a powerhouse performance, nor does the direction really call for it, but her subtle expressions convey so much, it's hard not to be completely hypnotized by her presence.

Though Bell's earnest dalliances are fairly predictable, she shares a variety of camaraderie and courtships with all of her encounters. The chemistry  that absolutely sizzle on-screen is between Pleshette and Donahue. So much so, it's not hard to believe they married in real life after filming wrapped, though their off-screen relationship only lasted eight months.

Besides Pleshette, the production design makes up for the story's languid pace. Every frame captures the rich landscape of Italy, Switzerland, and other European landmarks allowing the cinematography to completely take you away. Someone get me a travel agent and tell them I want the Rome Adventure tour. As well, the costume design is to-die-for. No matter how unhurried the movie might be, Bell's summer getaway prudently plants the same ideas that Italy can be the place to fall in love.

Contrary to the title, Rome Adventure doesn't have an exciting bone in its body. The story is, by all means, a steady, old-fashioned drama topped with a little bit of humor and sexuality. But the leading lady and production is what will sweep you off your feet.

Rating: ★★☆
Similar movies: Under The Tuscan Sun
Have you seen Rome Adventure? What are your thoughts?

Friday, December 23, 2016

La La Land (2016) lacks that little something extra

La La Land movie review
Photo Credit: La La Land / Summit Entertainment
Every city shimmers with stars trying to outshine their hardships. Making dreams comes true isn't easy, but the aspirations people hold offer a long forgotten hope and determination hidden underneath the daily grind. As is the centerpiece of Damien Chazelle's musical-drama La La Land.

Set against the vast landscape of Los Angeles, Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress working on the Warner Bros. lot serving as a barista to film stars. Every chance she has the striving starlet heads out to an audition and faces the grueling cycle of rejection and perseverance. When she meets Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist, they grapple with getting by and pushing each other forward.

Straight out of the gate, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are a charming duet. Having worked together in two films before, they share an undeniable camaraderie that translates to the big screen. Together and separately, they speak so much to the struggle and glory of abandoning a day job when everything they do may be in pursuit of their dream. Their characters' relationship adds a gradual weight of questioning themselves and each other. Dancing and singing, loving and fighting, they create relatable characters and deliver earnest performances.

Another delightful and unexpected character is Los Angeles. Every location like Mia's apartment or Seb's bar is more than a backdrop; it teems with energy, hope, validation, success, failure. Efforts by the costume, cinematography, and music make the city absolutely electric. Between brushes with celebrities, old landmarks tarnished and celebrated by modernity, and the cast's trepidation and excitement to put themselves out there over and over again, there's so much life bursting beneath Hollywood Hills. California dreaming may be the setting here, but it also gives everyone a new chance to think of their own little corner of the world and how it gleams with ambition and longing.
You've got the glory, you gotta take the little heartaches that go with it. - Singing in the Rain
Though the acting is delightful and the story brims with touching highs and lows, critics' comparisons that this movie completely resurrects the musical genre once led by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, is a little misleading.

Chazelle's bittersweet championing of artists for La La Land is drastically different than his unabashed hit Whiplash, not just in style but also somewhat in quality. While the latter may not be considered an official musical, Chazelle's ability to express sacrifice and abuse between mentor and student through jazz with tight editing in an intense pace is masterful. Here, Chazelle channels 1950s Tinseltown but his attention to detail doesn't feel as sharp. The musical sequences start as imaginative but grow repetitive by just dropping a spotlight. Though the film references are neat for movie buffs, and it's totally impressive to create a modern musical with original songs instead of adapting another Broadway hit, some touches feel like an aesthetic choice; some seem deliberate, some seem random, and the mixture misses opportunities to flesh out the tone he's aiming for.

Unlike Michel Hazanavicius' vision with The Artist to recreate a silent film, Chazelle shines his attention much more on Sebastian's quest than MGM spectacles via Busby Berkley, Vincente Minelli, or the studio system in general. And this does a disservice to Mia whose journey becomes a little too befuddled by the audition-rejection machine. Her devotion to storytelling, an one-woman show, and admiration of film or its icons beyond the occasional Ingrid Bergman poster and takes a gradual backseat to all things jazz.  This isn't to say that there aren't nods to Old Hollywood at all, just that her love of acting or movies or creating characters doesn't speak volumes the way I thought it could. What really blooms with nostalgia is Justin Hurwitz's animated score and how the production uses 'old' and 'new' film styles to share the character's struggles - even if it doesn't hit all the right notes.

Ultimately, the film's retro elements emulate the characters' expectations while reality is much more of a contemporary drama.

Mia and Sebastian's joy and pain spring about in whimsical declarations and somber melodies, a dance among the stars to whistled musings along a pier at sunset. Their hopes and doubts are illuminated with bold sets and vibrant costumes a la Singing In The Rain or American In Paris. When reality interjects with sacrifice, rejection, and facing failure, the movie tones down on those cinematic sensations. 'Cause the unfortunate drawback of our desires is that sometimes reality is nothing to sing about; people have to make ends meet or live up to their own expectations. Dreams lift us up, and reality can grind us down harshly. Both avenues are engaging, but it does feel like there is more drama than musical.

Much like the vintage film factory where average Joes and Janes toiled away to be in showbiz, La La Land draws on conflict and compromise of dreams. Life may not be as easy as it looks in the grand movies we lose ourselves in, but sometimes seeing it through Technicolor glasses goes a long way. Chazelle celebrates creatives with Stone and Gosling delivering buoyant and warm performances. Though Chazelle's musical-drama left me inspired and deeply contemplative, it's not as tightly constructed as his previous work. It does, however, leave goosebumps, butterflies, and a lasting impression to the fools who dream and the mess we make.

RATING: ★★
Have you seen La La Land What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Sully (2016) struggles to stay afloat

Sully movie review
Photo Credit: Sully / Warner Bros Pictures
It's often said that everyday heroes aren't born, they're made. With years of experience and dedication behind them, gut instinct or intuition manages to override logistics. When a miracle trumps all the odds, it's easy to be skeptical or to think it's blind luck. All of this culminated with an on-screen adaptation of true events about Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) landing his passenger flight on the Hudson River to save everyone on board, and the attention it received as the Miracle on the Hudson.

Brought to life by veteran director Clint Eastwood, Sully is a combination of the events leading up to this unexpected landing and the aftermath. The story touches on a bit of everything like Sully's past his post-traumatic stress after the crash, the world's frenzy around his heroics, and his pragmatic ability to handle the press.

Though the movie is in experienced hands, it's not very clear what Eastwood's intention is. He certainly builds a heart-pounding recreation of Sully's flight from take-off to the landing, but other parts of the movie tries too much to be a biopic while capturing the insurance investigation he faces from the airline. Scenes dealing his shaky life at home feels cold and distant compared to the detail of Sully and the first-responders' actions bringing hope to New York City after 9/11.

Fortunately, Hanks makes the film take flight. His Sully is fairly pragmatic and dedicated to his job. Nothing of what he, his crew or the passengers survived could be trained for. Yet his entire career of transporting millions of people around the world and thousands of flights is judged on 208 seconds, and the experience he has to make the necessary calls. It's truly astounding and frustrating when he comes under fire for saving more than a hundred people as the inexplicable outcome is challenged as a fluke. Hanks is profoundly polished as Sully balances his worry of having failed his crew and the passengers, and the odd fad of becoming famous for what he did. It's one of his sharpest performances to date.

Hanks isn't entirely on his own. Every actor or extra like the first-responders, host of skeptic insurance agents, and his legion of admirers feel authentic. Aaron Eckhart as First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, in particular, has a refreshing sense of professional camaraderie as he and Sully's rapport is humorous and amiable. Despite dramatically re-enacting the whole incident from take-off to crash and the consequences, every scene feels sincere and avoids being over-the-top like many 'disaster' flicks.

Sully is a fitting addition to Eastwood's string of films focusing on All-American figures like J.Edgar, Jersey Boys and American Sniper. The story itself is fascinating, especially for those who remember the incident on the news but wasn't quite sure of all the details. Hanks' performance and the Miracle on the Hudson is an inspiring, distinct reminder of the human spirit, even if Eastwood's vision struggles to stay afloat.
Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen Sully What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Nice Guys (2016) draws very, very nice laughs

The Nice Guys movie review blog
Photo Credit: The Nice Guys / Warner Bros. Pictures
With so little classic detective stories being made today, director Shane Black carved a niche with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang nearly ten years ago. Taking the classic detective story, Black arms his dry-humored scripts with great unlikely pairings to the buddy cop genre.

This time around, Black sets his investigative comedy in the late 1970s. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a drunk widow raising a teenage daughter Holly who runs into Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a hothead enforcer who packs a serious punch. Literally. As a trio, they try to solve a case of a missing girl which slowly unravels the L.A. porn industry.

Similar to Black's previous pairing of Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer, Black's casting of Gosling and Crowe seems entirely mismatched at first. Then over the course of the movie, their chemistry and timing prove itself. Gosling seems to be a really popular actor with younger crowds and old, but I hadn't found a specific role that really caught my attention. He appeals to me more off-screen than on, but here, he does a great job with most of the physical comedy while Crowe is more subtle, landing a few funny lines here and there. Together, they share great timing and ease as two bumbling guys who are simply in the wrong place, wrong time but ready to solve a crime.

Though the story and main Gosling/Crowe duo are engaging, Angourie Rice as Holly truly shines above the rest. As the highly inquisitive pre-teen jumping the gun and outsmarting the adults around her, Holly could've come across as forced. But instead, she is really kick-ass.She is great at taking down the bad guys but doesn't lose her empathy. When the mystery continues to unwind and keep us guessing, she proves to be the sharpest one of the bunch and showcases a lot of heart a la classic fictional icon, Nancy Drew. Holly is easily one of my favorite characters of the year.

Black is a proven success, even a cult one, with these types of movies. The only potential downfall here is the foundation he's already established. There's nothing wrong with experimenting with old roots, but when the story and characters are really delved into, a lot of it feels almost identical to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With the boost of another unlikely cast, he delivers another nice round of comedy and suspense, but the plot can feel a little deja vu and lose momentum towards the end. Even if the movie feels slightly repetitive, The Nice Guys is definitely entertaining and very, very nice.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen The Nice Guys? What are your thoughts?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Demolition (2016) can't fix its own foundation

Photo Credit: Demolition / Fox Searchlight Pictures
Workaholic Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) struggles to express his grief after his wife dies from a tremendous car accident. Unlike his in-laws, or his own parents, even co-workers, Mitchell just can't connect with his loss. Suppressing his pain seems to be the immediate answer. He throws himself into work and then is caught up in a friendship with a customer service agent Karen (Naomi Watts) he started writing letters to when the vending machine at the hospital didn't work.

In 2014 director Jean-Marc Vallée's exquisitely adapted author Cheryl Strayed's Wild to explore the weight of her mother's death as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Just two years later with a similar premise, Demolition is simply a weaker version of its predecessor.

Vallée's second take on bereavement focuses on a protagonist realizing the cage he felt trapped by in his marriage - almost like he wouldn't realize how much his life was in shambles until she was gone.

Mitchell and Karen's connection breaks open up an honesty about why he doesn't handle his spouse's death like the people around him. Did he really love her, or did his life just fall into place without conviction on his end? Nuisances he didn't pay attention to like a leaking refrigerator slowly explodes into him taking down entire houses. It's a subtle exploration of his own psyche to take life apart and put it back together.

However, Mitchell's escapades resonate from shock or denial at first. Weirdly, as Mitchell blasts and bulldozes his way forward, sympathy for him loses its steam. Julia simply doesn't have any layers to her as his wife - the center of his turmoil. She is merely a ghostly backdrop, and eventually, becomes one big cliche. Halfway through the film, knocking down everything in his path becomes repetitive rather than having something profound to say.

To his credit, Vallée knows how to design an incredible atmosphere. He splendidly uses music to explore Mitchell's gradually intense memories he can't let go of. Cinematography and editing by Yves Bélanger and Jay M. Glen, respectively, is vivid and polished. All three make the film extraordinarily smooth. And, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers another memorable performance. So does other established cast like Chris Cooper, Naomi Watts, and the blazing introduction of Judah Lewis. However, for all the emotional and physical dis-assembly Mitchell undergoes, the film has glaring cracks in the foundation that can't be fixed.

Rating: ★☆☆
Have you seen Demolition? What are your thoughts?

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Allegiant (2016)

Imperfect human nature resorts to chaos. Chicago's remaining leaders Evelyn (Naomi Watts) and Johanna (Octavia Spencer) wage war to protect the remaining population's best interests left behind by Jeanine's violent ruling. Tris and her co. venture outside their city's barricades and discover the truth behind the faction system: the Bureau of Genetic Welfare uses pure test subjects like Tris to correct human weaknesses and fortify a perfect genetic disposition. All is not what it seems in this "safe haven".

The next leg of the Divergent franchise journey plants us further way from the prequels than anyone could've imagined. Unlike the first two series where Tris was challenged to find out what it means to be Divergent and how it's a blessing, here she simply lacks drive. More incited wars don't outrage her. A new nemesis's dubious priorities fail to illicit alarm. She's more inviting to settling down outside of Chicago without real motivation to do so. Tris has suffered and sacrificed in the face of her city's adversity. Yet in her own biggest hour of need, she surprisingly isn't passionately engaged to the outside world or its lasting ramifications. Shailene Woodley doesn't do a bad job, but she is capable of giving a deeper performance. Considering the premise hinders on her to look beyond what society expects, the film's fault is Tris not conquering anything memorable.

While Tris isn't the starring player in this third installment, her counterparts are. Four is the one responsible for all the action and emotional turmoil. In recognizing his home falling apart at the seams and knowing instinctively the Bureau is not what it seems, he goes on his own quest without Tris (but for her) and it's still interesting. Theo James has natural charisma and turns a typical muscle head/love interest into a vulnerable and bad-ass male lead.

In addition to Four's solo mission, family, friends, and rivals gain more layers too. Though Tris isn't a force of nature like she was in the past, her friends have room to seek redemption, deepen friendships, or lead a revolution even if it's not the best choice.

Allegiant isn't all bad. Even in favoring the films much more than the books, major plot threads were mashed together with successful pacing. The script may not satisfy book loyalists. But I was surprised by how much of they original material was kept in tact. The film seamlessly splits between two main characters and locations, which keeps the story refreshing. Like its predecessors, the production design remains inventive. Utilizing special effects to tie the futuristic Chicago to its deserted surroundings, the film is still eye-catching.

As much as I liked Allegiant, it does suffer the same fate of many young adult first-parters. One book provides enough material for one adaptation. But the studios are obsessed with making a cash grab and split a book into two parts. Like The Hunger Games' Mockingjay, they want to lure audiences to wait for the "good or better stuff".  It would be best if studios utilized all of what a book offers and throw it full force into one worthy epic conclusion. Ultimately, we have one more movie to go. Ascendant is completely unknown yet exciting territory. Hopefully the series rises victoriously over the finishing line, not limping across it.

Rating: ★1/2☆

Friday, March 18, 2016

Obvious Child (2014)

Photo Credit: Obvious Child / A24
An unapologetic comedian Donna Stern airing her personal obstacles in joke-form - everything from drunkenness, breaking up with her boyfriend, her unplanned pregnancy, and subsequent abortion.

In the leading role, Jenny Slate is entirely natural in giving a beautiful and unadulterated portrayal. She owns the show by exuding such a raw vulnerability with both comedy and when her character is in a true crisis. It's one of my favorite performances in recent history.

Matched with Jake Lacey as her more composed and quieted counterpart, their relationship is an oddity in the romantic genre. Their companionship takes their one night stand and gradually grows into an unexpected crossroads. They both have great charm and wonderfully easygoing chemistry.

The relevant debate on abortion, pro-life, and pro-choice aren't funny nor does the film make Stern's circumstances out to be humorous, though Slate is downright hilarious. The script and story aren't necessarily new, but the film is funny, thoughtful, and poignant while touching on a widely debated issue.

Not everyone will agree on Stern's choice, but many women will connect with her unplanned pregnancy and the choices afterward as well as couples and young adults. The story is approached in a personal, realistic, and unaffected way that makes the film memorable and light-hearted enough to be considered a comedy more so than a drama. In a very impressive feat, director and writer Gillian Robespierre successfully creates a much raunchier, slightly mature Juno for the 20-something crowd.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen Obvious Child? What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How To Be Single (2016) fails to tap into singlehood potential

How To Be Single movie review Oh So Geeky blog
Photo Credit: How To Be Single / Warner Bros Pictures
February is a go-to month for Hollywood to release movies about love and relationships. Taking a break from the Nicholas Sparks' norm, and truly awesome Pride and Prejudice and Zombies adaptation, was a more modern comedy How To Be Single starring Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, and Leslie Mann.

Putting her long-term relationship on pause to ensure no part of her own identity is left untapped Alice (Dakota Johnson) explores the freedom of being single. Helping her navigate a new world of flirtation and one-night-stands is a workaholic sister Meg (Leslie Mann) recognizing her desire for motherhood, and Robin (Rebel Wilson), a non-stop partying and unfiltered coworker.

How To Be Single is more funny than romantic, and the credit goes to its leading ladies.

Johnson had a tremendous breakthrough last year 50 Shades of Grey, and she's steadily establishing herself as a versatile and natural talent. So many women have been in Alice's shoes - single and going through all the wrong relationships to figure out what she really wants? She really gives a nice protagonist to relate to and root for. On top of that, Johnson is endearing and has a natural quiet nature, which organically bounces off of Wilsons' wild ways.

Speaking of which, the surrounding cast lends a nice camaraderie. Wilson, whose built up an impressive persona as a genuinely funny and blunt best friend, gives the most eccentric performance. It's always funny to see her take physical comedy to new heights without it being over-the-top or see her on-screen personality become too annoying. Also, Mann has become a veteran of this genre, making well-rounded characters in the midst of modern-day mayhem of man-boy husbands/boyfriends. Here it's nice to see her as a single lady wanting a different future for herself with kids that may or may not be without a man. The women in the film are first independent, and second seeking a substantial relationship. Though I'd say Wilson provides most of the laugh-out-loud, everyone lends to the film's upbeat nature.
"If Tom texts you wait four hours to respond.
And if you use an emoji I will tit-punch you."
As much as I liked How To Be Single for the cast and overall message, it's hard for me to wholeheartedly recommend. My only qualm is that at face-value the title doesn't fit the story. Alice's relationship going in all the wrong directions takes a bit too much of the running time.

In fact, Meg at one point shades entertainment like Sex and the City because they focus too much on self-proclaimed single independent women spending all their time hunting down men and depending on their love for validation. Though Alice is given a bit more of a try-and-try-again way of finding what's right for her, How To Be Single does too much of the same SATC thing. Her attempt to understand singlehood by being in relationships almost usurps her actual singlehood.

What I liked the most is that it's not a romantic comedy pushing an agenda - like the regular guy who can't get a girl yearning to just sleep with the girl-next-door but not really appreciate her, or women "daring" to try to balance it all, etc. Instead, How To Be Single feels quite judgement-free, which is perhaps the film's greatest strength next to the cast. Alice, Robin, and Meg provide different layers of what women in want and aren't shoved into boxes that don't work for them.

The women and men aren't harshly judged for their approach in relationships. You can be single and party the hell out of life. You can be single for most of your life and realize that’s not something you want anymore. You can commit to someone/not enjoy one-night-stands but not lose sight of yourself as an individual. The film doesn't cap a limit on what it means to be single i.e. if you are a lone person, you are not automatically sad, anti-social, or an old maid waiting to be discovered half-eaten by ravaged dogs a la Bridget Jones' worst fears. There's no right or wrong way to be single or in relationships. That in itself is refreshing, even if some of the movie's qualities have been done before.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen How To Be Single? What are your thoughts?

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Age of Adaline (2013)

The Age of Adaline could've been a great female version of the hastily simplified The Time Traveler's Wife or the magnificent The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Something strange happens in Hollywood when a romantic drama dealing with time travel or time itself is in the works. Somewhere between idea and script to the final product, once interesting characters and stories try too hard to be unique from the rest of the pack.

Adaline (Blake Lively) was struck by lightning after a brutal car crash giving her the power not to age. Living carefree through the Prohibition, this new ability is a blessing more than it is a curse. Over the coming decades, she remains twenty-nine forever. Living discreetly from suspicion and on the run, a chance encounter with Ellis (Michiel Huisman) may show her the kind of life she's been missing.

Elements from different films affect each other via choices by the director, production designer, studio, etc. Instead truly using the power of its cast and the story, the making of the film seemed to convinced with trying to it as unique as possible. When looking at the film's inspiration for its production over several years (which included overhauls to the script and changes with directors), I was surprised to learn that Amelie and Network was the film's prime sources.

Amelie is a light and airy adventure, using side stories of the protagonists' neighbors and friends to unfold her own adventure of discovering love. Adaline utilizes flashbacks in much of the same sense showing her in the present and in the past. But instead of putting Adaline at the forefront of her own life, the flashbacks disrupts the flow of her story. And, Network is centered on an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our time and the political powerful medium of television. Narration is used through to describe the main character and pivotal moments of his arc. This aspect was used for Adaline as well, but often it felt random, popping up in places to explain the 'scientific nature' of her condition rather than just letting it all play out naturally.

There's nothing really wrong with using contrasting parts of films to make something new, but this combination simply doesn't fit. I would feel less disappointed by the film if it had a thinner love story or protagonist to work with. But it doesn't. Adaline has a lot going to juggle. For decades she doesn't let anyone close to her. She's outliving her friends and children. She has a steady job as a librarian, but we're alluded that she consistently moves between cities to avoid being "found out". Little pieces of her history are laid out like breadcrumbs, but it doesn't come into a whole narrative: it's fleeting, even distant and convoluted rather than intimate and layered. If the film was told without the pizzazz of time-jumping and unnecessary narration, it could've add much more continuity.


Blake Lively elegantly creates an intriguing heroine with Adaline. Even though she has the inability to age, she doesn't let anything hinder her experiences, wisdom, or intelligence. The McCarthy witch-hunt stamped her with the fear that if she allows anyone close to her, they'll become suspect of her lack of aging and might see her as a science experiment or freak rather than a real person. Even though she lives her life in fear of being found out, she spends her life the best she can: reading, learning languages, and traveling. Maybe it's just the hermit in me, but I found this to be a dream life (but with the aging). I loved Lively's refreshing ability to be vulnerable, complex, and dignified. Even though Adaline has lived through it all, can read situations and people instantly, she wasn't about anyone up. She's just naturally one step ahead of everyone.

Except Ellis. If there is one person who really challenges Adaline to open up, it's him. He is so unlike all the other men who have tried to be romantically involved with her. Having managed to acquire his millions early in his life, he lives rather free but not in an egotistical or arrogant way. He's quite the charmer and a respectful one at that. He doesn't want to toy around with her heart but open it up. Like Adaline, he is a true old-soul and has a very youthful energy to match her contained lifestyle. Together, from their style and personalities to temperament, they bring a classy mystique to the 21st century, even a timelessness. Their romance has all the potential for being epic, and in some ways it is if not for the film's faults. It's almost electric, like they were struck by lightning for each other.

The Age of Adaline is a beautiful film in many regards. Floating through the decades, the production and costume design mixes modern and vintage seamlessly. Every setting and Adaline's costumes transport you back to another era and makes you forget you're in the 21st Century. Even though the story is set in present time, it feels otherworldly. In contrast to other time-travel films that beckons us to see how time is so fleeting, Adaline challenges us to think about having all the time in the world but no one to spend it with - until the right one comes along. Lively and Huisman's chemistry makes the notion come to life. It's like they were made for each other in this movie.

I really wanted to love this one more. Unfortunately, as great as the cast, production design, and character Adaline was, the movie's too hindered on being stylish. With its pros and cons, the film stands on its own and away from other time-travel related flicks. Give me a few weeks and surely I'll be aching to watch it again. Maybe I'll like it a bit more, but there's also a nagging feeling of being just as frustrated by what could've been. But there's a part of me that wishes I could back and save The Age of Adaline.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Crimson Peak (2015) casts romance out of horror

Photo Credit: Crimson Peak / Universal Pictures
Set in the early 19th century, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a vibrant aspiring writer penning ghost stories. Her work is turned down by possible publications with editors suggesting to add a twist of romance, something she won't adhere to. When a mysterious aristocratic inventor Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) lures her into a whirlwind romance and marriage, she is whisked away to his and his sister's (Jessica Chastain) mansion after her father's death. But, there is terrible secret surrounding her new home and life. Edith's mother visited her as a ghost with a warning to beware of Crimson Peak. It is one that she does not heed until it is too late,

Like Cushing's novel, director Guillermo del Toro's highly anticipated gothic film is not about the horror, but romance. It's hard not to fall in love with the extraordinary detail of this world exploding with color and detail. The golden and bold hues of Edith's home before Crimson Peak is like a dream-like utopia. Her costumes and home are filled with warm oranges, almost like looking at her life with rosy colored glasses as we are too. In contrast, the slab of a castle sits on a wintry slope slowly slinking into a red-clay oblivion, illuminated with grays and sharp blues. Though not a horror or scream fest, del Toro creates a creepy and beautiful false sense of security for his heroine and audience.

Crimson Peak is all about the supernatural but not really. His ninth film is a haunting exploring redemption. Edith learns about the darkness of someone and then keeps on loving them. Thomas and Lucille are trapped by their pasts, and Edith is caught in the crossfire. Her natural curiosity and warnings by her mother inspire her to lurk deeper into the shadows of their dismal home that is literally bleeding with secrets. Ghosts and supernatural phenomena are more of a catalyst rather than a tool to scare; they're creepy and visually stunning but not necessarily "jump out of your seat" terrifying. It's a dark, enchanting fairytale with an aura of fear occupying such an opulent setting.

The cast here all provides some wonderful work. Mia Wasikowska is wonderfully spunky as Edith. She brings a natural charisma as a charming and innocent ingenue. When the stacks seem up against her, she is easily someone to root for. And, Tom Hiddleston makes that both a difficult and easy task. One gaze at him and it's not a struggle to understand how easy it is to be swooned by his mystery, no matter how a puzzle he may seem. (He also just looks really great in period clothing, and yes, we see his butt in a romantic-entanglement scene.) Jessica Chastain gives an exciting and gruesome performance we haven't seen before. Her transformation as Lucille is one that won't be forgettable for a while.

Crimson Peaks' has some cracks in the foundation - mostly to do with the studios' marketing. Posters and trailers promoted Guillermo's work as more horror than romance. While the film is creepy, it's not similar to the gore-fests horror movies are like these days with. In night vision handy-cam, CGI phantoms don't grasp an unsuspecting mother or father from behind and whisk them into a dark hallway. A scary doll isn't sitting in the corner casting possession over a house. Instead, the story is purely a romance with a ghost story at its center. It's not about surprise scares but suspense, but is it enough suspense without killer thrills is up to anyone who sees it.

Personally, I loved the story and the characters. My biggest wish that some of the phantoms such as Mother and cast a bigger spell and impact to the story, but it's a fun ride nonetheless. The production is truly spell-binding, and the experience is creepy at best and a little unfrightening at its worst. The movie suffers mostly from the studios' failure to market it well. There is a fine difference between gothic horror and romance, and Crimson Peak achieves the latter. If anyone goes in expecting the former, they're bound to be disappointed. I was spared that confusion and really loved it.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen Crimson Peak? What do you think?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Before We Go (2014) segues Chris Evans from actor to director

Photo Credit: Before We Go / RADiUS
Alex (Chris Evans), a trumpet player, collides with Brooke (Alice Eve), an outsider who has been robbed. After failing to catch her train home, she reluctantly teams up with him to track down her belongings amidst the New York City that never sleeps. As time passes, revelations of their lives and insecurities rise to the surface bringing out an attraction in each other.

Life sometimes really stinks. If you're going to struggle, it's best to find someone you can compatibly struggle with. Before We Go centers around this romantic notion, but its hopeful ideal works against itself.

Alex is pretty damn charming. I mean, he earns the Mr. Nice Guy award for the year. Nothing deters him from trying to help Brooke, and his intentions to be at her side doesn't come off in a lecherous way. He is trustworthy, a bit broken from a past relationship, and a hopeless romantic at heart. Alex could have come off as too saccharine to be believable. Like his simmering performance in Snowpiercer, Evans brings a solid sincerity to his character. To be honest, I don't care who you are, if you have a pulse you like Evans. He comes across as charming as hell off-screen, so he has a rare thoughtful presence on-screen too.

On Brooke's end, she is wonderfully stubborn, cautious, and also tenacious and passionate, and Eve brings those qualities out with assurance. She emits a lot of valid skepticism towards a stranger's kindness in the middle of the night in a dangerous city without money or a place to crash until morning. She has a lot of issues in her own life boiling to the surface, and at times that solidifies her on-edge emotions. It's refreshing that Brooke didn't just put all of her faith into someone who could have taken advantage of her.

Alex's wide-eyed personality doesn't necessarily mesh with Brooke's. This allows for some tension between them but it's not exactly the kind of tension that is scorching off the screen. Her distrust of Alex remains for far too long. Her behavior becomes off-putting after a while and eventually weakens that lightning-caught-in-a-bottle connection. After he proves himself to be an authentically kind person, her guarded behavior becomes uninteresting.

First-time director Evans utilizes this film as a directing class, and he captures some genuine, emotive performances while also serving as the lead actor. Placing his interest behind a project he personally connected with; that experience of having a connection or date that changes your life, there is a personalized attention to how the characters open up to each other. As much as I feel like I've seen this kind of movie before, he conducts a nice, refreshing ambiance. It's a sweet and genuine production, but it just doesn't rise to the occasion on the romance front.

What's difficult, unusually, is not really having the patience it takes to withstand the will-they-or-won't-they ploy work out.  Two people dancing around each other's attraction through a metropolitan city as an awakening to their own pasts and fears is always an attractive watch. Several obstacles bring these two closer together, but at points it seems like their union is a bit forced. Crafted by four writers, their culminated experience doesn't add enough weight from I'd expect with so many names attached to the script. The performances are fine but that chemistry just misses the mark.

Evan's first feature film is not embarrassingly bad. Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise is an obvious similar film. Before We Go comparably draws on the same easy-going atmosphere of a duo passing the breeze. A hindrance to his directorial debut is the line drawn in the sand between the main characters early on that hangs around for too long. The film is charming for a hopeless dreamer because it has some lovely, if not cliche moments, but the impact may not be as strong from similar films.
Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen Before We Go? What did you think?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) shines

Under the Tuscan Sun movie review
Photo Credit: Under the Tuscan Sun / Buena Vista Pictures
Under The Tuscan Sun (2003) brings a chick flick heroine learning something she's always known, or just figured out: men stink. Publicly loathed writer Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) divorces her adulterous husband, and on a whim, becomes the owner of a dilapidated villa in Tuscany.

It's certainly a fixer-upper, and so is Maye's life. She understands and yearns that there is more to life than settling for a broken heart, but she doesn't know quite where to start. Charismatic, and one of the best modern leading ladies around, Lane is wonderfully charming as she makes new friends, rebuilds her villa, and undergoes a slight whirlwind romance. But her transformation doesn't focus on filling the void of one lost relationship with another, but regaining her own self-confidence and forging a different life for herself.

While Lane shines, and quick appearances by Sandra O and Kate Walsh, the script is a bit blotchy. The start of Mayes trek to Tuscany and some of the relationships Mayes builds are quite cliche. Perhaps the performer who suffers the worst is stage veteran Lindsay Duncan, who plays the less elegant, more eccentric Brit who is trying to hold onto her attractiveness offers too much kookiness and not enough elegance or substance. Her character may be my only big qualm about the film.

Mayes' journey centers on stepping out of bounds to adapt a new life. She wants a home, instead of a house; something that is filled with family, and not just the opposite sex. The movie is not typically about her hunting for men in a new country but recovering from marital infidelity on the other side of the world. The location itself is an exotic character supporting Lane. Every frame of her villa, the countryside, and beach is beautiful and makes me feel like I'm on vacation.

Overall the story strongly reminded me of Eat, Pray, Love about author Elizabeth Gilbert who treks the world to gain her own inner peace. Both movies are rewarding for those who don't mind motivating women stepping out of their own world to discover other priorities. I would even counter the former is offers a more heartfelt performance by its star Diane Lane than Love's Julia Roberts.

Some chick flicks grow dated with age, and though it's only twelve years old, Under the Tuscan Sun is a pleasing romp through the "women's film" genre. Though the adaptation of the same novel name is (supposedly) far off-key in its fictionalization, director Audrey Wells crafts a splendid rom-com. Humbly, and with great charm, the film reminds us that sometimes it does a person good to rebuild our lives one relationship, as well as one room, at a time.
Rating: ★☆
Have you seen Under the Tuscan Sun? What do you think?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

This Is Spinal Tap (1984) goes to eleven for authenticity

This is Spinal Tap movie review
Photo Credit: This is Spinal Tap / Embassy Pictures
Mockumentaries are a difficult genre to pull off. It's difficult for a studio or director to successfully parody a person or event without becoming too much of a farce itself. Not many are able to get passed an audience's lie detector. Director Rob Reiner earned all the respect and acclaim in the world for making This Is Spinal Tap, even if it isn't an instant favorite of mine.

Following a fictional British heavy metal band called Spinal Tap, a crew documents the groups' contention as their recent U.S. tour starts to come apart at the guitar strings. It's your typical decline of a rock band with a story centered around their new album failing to gain sales, rapidly canceling tour dates, and their antics on-stage/off-stage.

Comedy itself is a hard thing to define; how do you describe what makes you laugh. With Spinal Tap, for me, it's the ridiculous amount of small details is what makes this flick an understandable classic. Backstage interviews, the band getting lost on their way to the stage from their dressing room, and a huge mix-up with the proportion of the stage set design are little hysterical moments that add up to why it's funny. While the jokes weren't always a laugh riot, the genius lies in how genuine the band comes across.

While the performances may not reap the benefits of Oscar praise, Reiner's work is a solid reminder that not every classic is going to garner Academy gold but it can earn the respect of other industries. During its initial release, the film failed due to moviegoers lack of familiarity with the band, having thought it was a real documentary. Music legends like Ozzy Osbourne and U2's The Edge swear it gimmicks their life to a tee. That is some real kudos to the authenticity of the film, its cast, their creativity, and talent.

Though I am not a fan of the 80s, especially it's music, the songbook was impeccably ridiculous. Never again will you hear some of the most ridiculous lyrics every pieced together, and think "Yeah, that sorta fits the era". It's also the type of movie that if you can quote it, you've established yourself as an official movie buff - and there are plenty of memorable one-liners.

As much as I give kudos to the movie and its impact, the film is comical but somewhat lags. Having filmed hundreds of hours worth of improvised scenes, what Reiner collects for his final version still maintains its legendary status. However, not every joke or scene is particularly funny. My attention waned when some of the bands' key players seem to ramble on incoherently (as is the actor's gimmick) and the jokes were less spot-on. The dry humor has its hits and misses.

Not that this hurts the film in any huge way, just that those not familiar or care about the 80s era/rock bands might not be attracted to watch this. I could count myself a member of both groups but was always intrigued by the movie and finally felt the need to give this one a chance. I'm glad I did; it was insanely clever but also a bit blah.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen This is Spinal Tap? What did you think?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Insurgent (2015)

For a teenage-dystopian film in a sea of teenage-dystopian films, how does it stand out from the crowd? As a person, how do you accept your individuality in a world that shuns your differences, or in Tris Prior's case hunts you down? Insurgent addresses these ideas as it reunites us with the franchise created by author Veronica Roth.

Civilians of a futuristic Chicago are sorted into a faction system based on five virtues; honesty, amity, selflessness, bravery, and intelligence. Heroine Tris Prior, who defies the norm by qualifying for more than one faction, is on the run from the power-hungry leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) trying to eradicate those similar to Tris. The clash between an immeasurable hero and the society that can't confine her will inadvertently unlock secrets about the fate of their secluded world.

Taking us back to the Divergent world established by director Neil Burger in 2014, director Robert Schwentke separates this sequel from its predecessor. Every sequel gets a much grander stage than its prequel, and the sets, special-effects, and costume are not just familiar from what we've seen before but are improved upon. Amplifying its special-effects  and packing in much more gunfire, the action-packed scenes balances an empathetic portrait of Prior and delivers enough interest for the next installments - for readers and non-readers alike. With Schwentke attached to the next two installments, I look forward to how this world is going to grow.

While the film holds up in adventure, it also succeeds in bringing to light an individual defying the stereotypes of her society's enforced conformity. Like a million similar heroes we know in books and films, Prior is in search of accepting her identity. Defined as defective by the world, her evolution is not degraded or dumbed-down by other characters telling her who she should be. Instead, she is figuring it out for herself and that is the main draw. Though some of the script is not entirely organized, Priors' defiance of categorization is satisfying and rewarding as a viewer.

A great credit for the authenticity of the leading lady is Shailene Woodley. For such a young actress, she remains a versatile and intriguing talent. Equally, her main counterpart Theo James, continues to be a refreshing partner as her character's love interest, Four. Their relationship is not about coddling each other or playing cat-and-mouse with each other's emotions, which has tarnished the young adult genre. Together and alongside so many other members of the cast, the actors boost each other's performances and characters. Even if the story is centered around Prior, the film does not selfishly hold Woodley hostage to be a one-woman show. Everyone gives validity to their role whether it's leading or minor.

As a reader of the series, my only main con is that the translation of the world-building could have fared better. This is something I struggled with even when reading the novelsso the films are not necessarily to blame. The script does improve upon the motivations of Jeanine's hunt for divergents from the first film, however it can still feel disordered at times. While I truly look forward to Allegiant Part 1 and 2, part of my gripe towards the YA genre overall is that one story takes four movies to complete. Is this a fandom I love to be apart of? Sure, and each Divergent installment feels like its own stand-alone film. However, it's the in-between sections where I start to feel impatient towards the studios' prolonged cash-grabbers.

The Divergent Series is not trying to compete against the untouchable pedestal that has been emphatically (and wrongfully, in my opinion) gifted to The Hunger Games franchise. Instead the films are constructing their own world and heroine as best as possible. Compared to other aspiring series that were complete bombs due to horribly weak scripts or non-interest by audiences, Roth's series is managing to carve out a name for itself. The success of the series may not be in its ability to create a franchise-making logo of a bird encased by an inferno but the praise-worthy showcase of a layered heroine, visual aesthetics, and talented cast.

Rating: ★ ★

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Holiday (2004)

Home is where you want to be during the holidays spending time with family and loved ones. For Amanda (Cameron Diaz) and Iris (Kate Winslet), that's certainly not the case. Desiring to separate themselves from their previous, heartbreaking relationship, Amanda discovers Iris' home on an home exchange website. Temporarily switching residences for the holidays, Amanda settles down in Iris' cottage in London, and Iris jettisons to a Hollywood mansion.

A California-girl to the inth degree, Amanda is a movie trailer editor who "chases" away her selfish boyfriend to cheat by her work ambitions and seemingly inability to cry. In her middle-of-nowhere cottage, attraction knocks in the middle of the night in the handsome, bookish form of Graham (Jude Law). Her manless vacation quickly turns into an exciting and emotional romp without all the drama she's used to in Hollywood. Hopeless romantic Iris takes advantage of her sweet Beverly Hills digs by befriending a legendary Hollywood writer living next door, and a music composer friend of Amanda's. She's not looking for love, and this home-away-home allows gives her time to become the leading lady of her own life.

With the movie split into two different stories linked by one common scenario, The Holiday does sadly feel a little like two different movies; an endearing, consistent tale of a woman discovering to be the leading lady in her own life (Iris), and two awkward people sorta talking themselves into constant sex, and perhaps, love (Amanda). Director and writer Nancy Meyer's delivers a pairing that by films' end is quite adorable overall, but the story division between for her leading lady doesn't split equally.

Though cute and comedic in her own way, Diaz's story doesn't necessarily flow. Her potential relationship with Iris's brother Graham feels more like the entire production is convincing themselves and us that their romp will work rather than letting it breathe naturally. The dialogue itself, her relationship with Graham beings as an awkward, drunk-feuled romp, and as fine-looking individuals as they are, we can never really shake out the image of Law and Diaz not really exuding chemistry.

Having been more known for dramatic roles, Winslet truly shines as Iris; a woman trying to find the gumption to be her own person, develop friendships out of the love spotlight, and tell off the guy who doesn't appreciate her at all. Like her co-stars Jack Black and Eli Wallach, she is funny, endearing, and steals the show. All aspects of her story transition smoothly and doesn't feel forced, and it's so refreshing to see her as a lovable, contemporary character (not that she doesn't earn empathy in more dramatic roles) who lets love flow naturally into life rather than dragging herself into another unwanted relationship.

The heart of the movie, and Iris' story, is what's most attractive about The Holiday. When you change your scenery, you may increase the odds of transforming yourself, widening your circle of friends, and your chance of falling in love with someone you probably would've have never met. Without the miserly scrooges, or tempting fate to see what life would be like without you, Meyers takes two leading ladies and opens their characters up to the possibility of what life can be like elsewhere during the most joyous time of year. It's filled with a lot of Christmas charm, and Winslet's performance is enough to cause merriment for days afterwards. Though entirely not up-to-par with the scripts' cohesiveness, it instills enough entertainment to make me want to revisit it again....next year.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Magic in The Moonlight (2014)

Magic in the Moonlight movie review
Photo Credit: Magic in the Moonlight / Sony Pictures Classics
Skeptic Englishman Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is the world's greatest illusionist; known for his transcendent work on stage as Chinese conjurer Wei Ling Soo. He knows all the tricks of this world and the afterlife - which he is convinced doesn't exist.  A young, alluring American clairvoyant Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) and her mother have charmed their way into the heart of a rich matriarch wishing to make contact with her late husband. When a lifelong friend of Crawford offers an opportunity to debunk her talent, Crawford is eager to expose her as a fraud.

Magic in the Moonlight is so easy to fall in love with at first glance. Crawford's dalliance and a stern refusal of optimism or any suspension of disbelief is so palpable, it's easy to be disarmed that there is always a master pulling the puppet strings of life. Baker's charm and magnetism allow us and Crawford to fall head over heels for her powers while simultaneously guessing if she is for real. Portrayed by Firth and Stone, they deliver a blossoming friendship that challenges each other's beliefs and grows into something more.

Their character's relationship is so much like the process of film-making and what a movie needs to be believable. Like the magician who rehearses his tricks to perfection, the director must successfully emote what is on the page into a production that is believable and successful. On the part of the audience, it takes a fair bit of open-mindedness to accept the invitation to fully escape from their own lives and follow the story that lies ahead. The exceptional cast, whimsical production, dreamy setting of 1930s France, and drool-worthy costumes makes it hard not to feel yourself swooning.

Director Woody Allen's earlier work centered on relationships & life in Manhattan is a favorite among film fans more than his recent movies - though I'm not so conflicted about his study of love, lies, nostalgia, and deception by dipping into the past and jaunting to dreamy European destinations. From his recent filmography of the past few years, Midnight in Paris is one of my favorites of all time. Whimsical, light-hearted, and wonderfully cathartic, the cast and production weave a story about a Hollywood writer who escapes the present moment by indulging into the 1920s. Bringing back his love of France, history, and the idea of rationality versus fantasy, Magic in the Moonlight could've been a repeat successful story if it didn't seem so rushed.

Even though the effort of production and the intention of fantasy must condense together smoothly to pull off, the work behind the magic becomes more obvious than it should.  As believable Firth is as the ultimate skeptic turned believer, at times he looks out of place and lost in terms of fitting into a scene. Stone becomes the more majestic character and presence turning in an intoxicating and charming performance. Primarily, Crawford's defiance of seeing is knowing, and vice versa gradually loses its luster towards the third act, where the script seems to drag itself to the finish line rather than leaving us on an ethereal note. Some of the technicalities blow off the spells that is transfixing and entertaining.

On the note of the age difference between Firth and Stone, and the possibility of a brewing romance between them, there isn't anything to write home about. Their chemistry is light-hearted and doesn't detract from the story. What undermines the movie moreso than the debate of the leading stars' ages is how their relationship loses its ease; sometime it feels like Crawford is talking himself into a relationship rather than letting his feelings form naturally. This is not the prized way - at least in my eyes - of winning any woman's affection. But, this is a Hollywood fantasy after all.

The questions that kept presenting itself to me though was: does a movie really have to blow our socks off in order to be considered worth our time? Can we like something that is imperfect, and not brilliant, and not consider it a guilty pleasure, but just a movie with faults that we do still really like?  Reason versus love is how I'd describe my affair with Magic in the Moonlight. I felt I should really dislike this movie because so many other reviewers did, even with agreed acknowledgement of the pros and cons. With the awareness of knowing the movie's shortcomings, I wondered in the grand scheme of how we bloggers and reviewers rate films, if it was still okay to like something that isn't mind-blowing, and sorta rested on simple, brief examinations of two character's beliefs that didn't try to wow us with epiphanies or emotional catharsis.

The latest film by Allen is not perfect. It's third act and script could of have used more polishing. What is redeeming about the movie is that the stars are worth their weight in gold. Firth pushes us to believe the universe and its grandeur is a menacing machine of hard work and tears, while Stone enchants us to dip our feet into the unknown. Even if somewhere along the way, the idea of the story falls a bit short, it's enjoyable for the most parts. Magic in the Moonlight could've used a bigger leap of faith into the unknown instead of clinging to the cliffs of logic.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen Magic in the Moonlight? What did you think?