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

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Musical Chairs (2012) final scores are admirable

A young Bronx-bred studio handyman Armando (E.J. Bonilla) aspires to be a dancer. When Mia (Leah Pipes), the studio's star performer is involved in a car accident, her dreams of a dance career are dashed. Armando befriends her, and as they fall in love, team up with other patients at the rehabilitation facility to compete in a New York City Wheelchair Ballroom Competition.

Director Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan) produces a charismatic film of young love and persevering when life throws a curveball. Starring E.J. Bonilla and Leah Pipes, Musical Chairs is a feel-good romance in which to escape. Both actors radiate charisma and delightful star quality. As the ambitious Armando, Bonilla exuded captivating passion as an enthusiastic young man transforming a tragedy into dreams. And, Pipes as his counterpart is eloquent and vividly expressive as her character grows from her life-changing ordeal. Together, their performances transcend the film and are a promising duo illuminating the film's ambition.

Next to the performances the film most succeeds with its music, the romantic escapism, and its message on the emotionality of dance. Inviting and upbeat, Seidelman compiles a charming cast to transport the audience to a world where life is managing to find the beat to your drum. Part of its romantic escape is perhaps forgetting about the logistics of such a life-altering accident that would leave you immobile from the waist down. In the film world a cast of characters confined to wheelchairs train for a ballroom championship competition in a matter of weeks defies a bit of realism. The most connective and enjoyable scenes are shared when the characters are training; particularly Armando and Mia whose relationship is tested by her adaptability. The emotional connection carried by Armando and Mia drives the film to a poignant ending wherein the final scores aren't as important as their achievement of not giving up.

The story runs smoothly, however, cannot avoid a few cliche hiccups here and there. Like an Old Hollywood musical some of the conflicts are too conveniently ended for happy-go-lucky results. The script felt limited in terms of effectively showcasing the vivacity of New York City's melting pot of characters, and seemed to a bit to determined to recycle cinematic stereotypes. A shining performance by Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) delivers as Chantelle - who is a transgender woman falling in love with Armandos' old-fashioned uncle. However, Cox's strong heartfelt performance was presented in a finite view of her struggles. Although the supporting cast was indeed engaging, their storylines were trite.

Helmed by two fine rising actors and eccentric supporting cast, Musical Chairs should as a cinematic buoyant expression rather than a documdrama on disability. On that note, I found it quite enjoyable and worth a watch despite its script issues. Focused as an inspiration take on moving through the upswing and downbeat of life, this movie certainly achieves its goal of drama and dreams with appropriate cheeriness.

Rating: ★★☆

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Insurgent by Veronia Roth

By the looks of my previous review for Divergent by Veronica Roth (the predecessor to this book), it would seem that I would not touch the rest of the series with a ten foot pole. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, because a girl crush for Shailene Woodley commenced followed by a decent adaptation, I somehow felt compelled to put myself through continuous torture. So, here is my review of Insurgent.

Picking up where the last book finished, our heroine Tris and her beau Four have ended the first round of drug-induced simulations where Dauntless (brave faction) were brainwashed to commit mass genocide against Abnegation (selfless faction). On the run from Jeanine Matthews, head of the Erudite faction (intelligence), the lovebirds and company escape to Amity (peace faction). Their next move is to discover why Matthews is hellbent on capturing the Divergent - society members like Tris and Four with special traits that make them immune to her mind-controlling substances. (Go with me on this!)

In a future dystopian world, Chicago is the main setting for Roth's story. Fenced in to incorporate five dramatically-different factions, the personality traits seem straight out of Harry Potter Sorting Hat with the characters' adventure taking notes from The Hunger Games. Part of me was grateful that my wish was fulfilled for the sequel to develop it's worldbuilding. Understanding how the science of the technological advancements, and a few of the actually unexpected plot twists, was by far the most improved aspects of the book. By far this was the best improvement to the story (as well as the necessary character development included below).

However, the other part of me wished the writing technicalities lived up to the worldbuilding.  Most of all the prose seemed to repeat itself. I can't count how many times Tris was at "the edge" of crumbling to pieces to symbolize an emotional breakdown or a stone sat in her stomach to emotionalize guilt. Dangerous situations in which the characters found themselves on the "brink of new information that could solve everything" usually lapsed into a catch-up meet and greet in every faction. New characters were often introduced within a few pages that would go on to reappear later to help out Tris in some way. The story would pause, let Tris break down, reignite her fears and determination - then presto, the goal of discovering why Matthews was trying to implement the serums would be back on track.

A major issue I had with Divergent was the dialogue which was cringe-worthy and the inability to tell characters apart - because of the lack of diverse communication. All of the characters' personalities ranging from younger teenagers to adults continued to collide into snarky sarcastic behavior. For a series about intrinsically different personalities, everyone sounded the same. A rolledex of the same insults and comebacks seemed to appear every other page. "Whatever" signified the end of a cutesy quarrel. Two characters that came from the same faction would mock each others' similar traits - repetitively. Tris and Four would gravitate towards honest believable exchanges before the dialogue would return to mush. Relating back to the prose, which did provide more than several chapters of substantial consistent storytelling and exposition, the written tone felt like Roth was capable of accessing deeper material but didn't or wouldn't flush out.

What made the story perhaps the most beneficial was Tris Prior continuing to be a truly refreshing dystopian leading character. I can often see Prior verus Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) are the subject of debates for best leading heroine of the modern YA age. For me, Tris wins hands down. Inhabiting three of the five personality traits that make up the futuristic Chicago; selfless, brave, and smart, Tris is multifaceted in that she makes her own decisions by her own emotions and doesn't do so with the hopes of gaining her loverboy's approval. For the strict confinements that are offered in the setting, it's pretty awesome that she is capable of being more than a one-dimensional character - which everyone else seems to be. There's a constant struggle of standing up for herself and being brave for others in the most dramatic of crises.

Furthermore, I found Four to be a well-developed boyfriend/leading male character. What I find most frustrating in YA fiction is that couples run together on the same dependence trope; giving each other ultimatums, making it seem like the other person's love is all they have to live for. Sometimes they are forced to be so in love they lose their own identity. With Four and Tris, there is a magnetic friendship that blooms into an adolescent romance. Tris is not constantly wondering if what she does or says will lose the attraction he has for her. Four and Tris' emotions and decisions are separate, and where they collide in understanding each other's motives and their violent, chaotic circumstances. But rarely does Four hold Tris emotionally hostage, which makes their relationship an even better partnership.

Divergent was by far one of the most challenging reads to undertake in a long while. Its story and characters seemed so foreign to me, the mega-phenomenon this series has grown to be failed to live up to the hype. With Insurgent, and now thoroughly engrossed with the movies and characters, the world-building factor and main character's evolution was satisfying, even if the writing failed on so many levels. Perhaps even moreso, the material made me question if this story was worthy of three books to reach its conclusion. Is the material strong enough for me to sit through a reading of the third and final book Allegiant? Unlike my first review I truly may just wait for the movie.
Rating: ★ ★

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Book vs Movie: Divergent

book vs movie divergent by veronica roth

Set in a dystopian Chicago, the city has been broken up into factions sparked by an old war. The separation of society based on different virtues - Abnegation (selfless), Dauntless (brave), Candor (honesty), Erudite (intelligence), Amity (kindness) - is meant to be the new world's pathway to peace. At the ripe age of sixteen teenagers must choose an official faction and leave their old life behind. Beatrice Prior, the main protagonist of the series, is a member of Abegnation navigating her way through the Dauntless world. However, there is more to her selection ceremony results that force her to realize she doesn't belong in this new compartmentalized society. She is Divergent - a member of the factionless that can't be mindlessly controlled by the government.

Based on the worldwide phenomenon by Veronica Roth, let me be the first to say that I didn't have high expectations for the film adaptation. My book review can be read here, however, let me summarize that I thought the film wouldn't be worthy of anything except to see Shailene Woodley and Kate Winslet. However, my expectations were proven wrong. Director Neil Burger (of the forcefully cerebral Limitless) accomplishes a fun entertaining young adult flick.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Book vs Movie: Catching Fire

Book vs Movie Catching Fire review
As a reader of The Hunger Games series, but not a passionate enough fan to call myself a "tribute", Catching Fire was my favorite installment of Suzanne Collin's trilogy. Our fictional heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), and her romantic companion Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson), have defied the Capitol's ruling that only one winner can survive their yearly games where competitors fight to the death. Her perseverance and rebellion becomes a symbol of hope, not something President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is willing to stand for.

As victors, Everdeen isnow  forced to realize that winning is more complicated than merely surviving the games. As a regulation for the winners, she must live outside her home of District 12 and mentor future gamers for the rest of her life. To stop another rebellion on his hands, and to end the reign of Everdeen as an inspiration, President Snow summons Everdeen, Mallark, and twenty-four former veteran victors to compete in another round of his homicidal games.

I liked the first movie. Despite the use of the shaky cam and cutting important sequences out of the first adaptation, director Gary Ross created an atmosphere I felt was gritty and raw. When director Francis Lawrence was named to helm Catching Fire, I remained still excited to see what he would make of it.

No doubt the second book tackles more than a new creative vision. By trying to cover more than Everdeen and Mallark struggling with their relationship, the film includes more backstory and undertones of Snow and his new game-maker's plans to annihilate the country's heroine. The practice of showing us how the games were created and manipulated behind the scenes was used in the first film showing, but here it didn't add definition to Everdeen's story.

Even though I finished the series more than a year ago, and know the characters' fates, it was a struggle to feel invigorated by the film. In terms of story and character development, Catching Fire was underwhelming. The bigger scope of the film created distance from the gravity of Everdeen's circumstances and it lost a bit of the story's unpredictability. With steadier cinematography, it's almost like the entire film was harnessed to the ground and never took flight.

In terms of performances, Jennifer Lawrence was never my imaginary interpretation Everdeen. My mind doesn't only accept what I saw her as, but I feel like her acting is unsatisfying. Contrary to John Hutcherson as Peeta Mallark, I feel like she is a blank canvas that knows what to emote but doesn't necessarily have a backstory behind her emotions. When it's her cue to scream, cry, grimace, smile, etc. she does it well but not with conviction. Throughout the film, her well-documented off-screen personality seemed to show through more than the character we saw in the first film.

Digging deep, fleshing out, and making us care about the characters may be where the director loses the ante of this second film. Woody Harrelson as Haymitch falls into a campy personality as the alcoholic mentor. Donald Sutherland pops up as President Snow to emote the strict power of the Capitol. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the new game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee pretty much phones it in. The acting in general doesn't push boundaries that make me terribly excited except few actors were cast in the right parts and that's about it.

When re-entering the arena, Everdeen essentially has her pick of allies that are older, a bit deranged, and some definitely not reliable. Few of these supporting characters have limited screen-time but make a strong impact. Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) was one of my favorites, and I felt he accurately interpreted being more than a pretty face through sarcasm, protectiveness, and heartbreak. Jenna Malone as the uninhibited sly Johann Mason is a complete wild card. You never know if you can trust her or if she'll take an opportunity to screw you over, and Malone balances this with having nothing to lose - which is exactly what Mason is all about.

While J. Lawrence continues to shine in both fans and critics' eyes, Elizabeth Banks returning as Effie stole the show. Her character's fluffy personality leads us to believe that she is blinded by the Capitol's violent corruption. Slowly, Effie comes to a heartbreaking realization that her friends are going to die and the games are no longer meager entertainment. Passed being dolled up in Capitol Couture and her luxurious lifestyle, she wears the biggest facade of everyone. Banks superbly translates Effie's epiphany about the deadly reality her friends are facing and her own little rainbow-colored bubble she tries hides in.

The second half of the film establishes Everdeen's journey and political gambits of a Victory Tour that riled up the nation more than subdued it. Teaming up with Peeta, and her pick of the litter with allies, she is thrust into an entirely new arena with reconstructed obstacles. Reading the book, I was so interested in how this would turn out on-screen. As the characters venture on an island shaped like a clock, every hour pours out different challenges such as ferocious monkeys, a toxic fog that makes skin boil, and flocks of birds that mimic loved ones being tortured. If you step over one hour into another, a force field blocks you from escaping until the hour is over.

One of the things that the movie successfully heightens moreso than the book is the visual world of the arena. It's bigger, bloodier, more unpredictably cruel and savage. Besides Everdeen's bow and arrow or more simpler techniques of hunting, technology (mostly in the third book) is a blur to me. The prose isn't laid out in a way that is digestible to see. The movie's interpretation was most dramatic and hair-raising. It inhibits the senses and the environment becomes even more of a threat than her competitors and sketchy allies.

The first film defined Katniss as the unexpected symbol of hope. The second film's script lacked to formalize the importance of her well-being; not only as a solo character but what she means to the resistance as well. As a reader who knew the series' ending almost a year ago, this sequel didn't inspire me to ask how does Katniss dares to move forward. The production itself has the story, costumes, sets, and fanbase, but it took the edge out of guessing how this will end. A change in director was by all means meant to inject new life into the series but I fear it kept it flat. Overall, the movie is an honest adaptation. The story just doesn't tread far enough passed the epic blockbuster scope it was given. More or less it floats on the girl on fire phenomenon but doesn't charges a battle cry forward in support for her.

Winner: Book
Book: ★★★
Movie: ★★