Showing posts with label film. Show all posts
Showing posts with label film. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Black Panther (2018) Reigns Supreme in the MCU

Photo Credit: Marvel Studios
When a new movie enters the Marvel Cinematic Universe, critics expectantly hail it as a game-changer before it even hits theaters. Facing a mountain of expectations and pressure to deliver, sometimes the final product isn't worth the excitement or gets lost in the shuffle among all the other pending projects. As one of its most anticipated movies of the year, Black Panther had a lot to overcome. Entertaining, socially relevant, and engaging, the long-awaited film soars to the occasion and conquers the predictable MCU hype.

After his father's passing in Captain America: Civil War, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must claim his throne as the King of Wakanda, a technologically-advanced African utopia that's shielded itself from the outside world. The transfer of power is challenged as his country questions hiding their innovation and culture to protect themselves in fear of being conquered. His journey is further caught in the crossfire when a black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and special-ops agent Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) aims to tip Wakanda out of the shadows whether the nation is ready or not.

As kings of separate courts on a road to self-discovery, Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan lead the story with intensity, passion, and heart. On the one hand, T'Challa is of noble birth, but to guide his people means facing his role model's darkest secrets that puts his own reign in jeopardy. Though he's earned his place on the throne, his decisions about his country's future will ultimately mirror the kind of person he wants to be, a shift that possibly dismantles the cherished legacy his father built. But he has to do right by his heart and what's best for Wakandans everywhere.

In his opposition, Erik Stevens grew up on the streets of Oakland, California; lost and forgotten he was formed by the corruption and oppression. He's not so much a villain, but someone who's left to think that destroying the world is his only option for justice. Hailing from opposite sides of the world but facing similar obstacles makes their feud so much much more than good versus evil; it's a search to do right by themselves and their people; how a system and its leaders has the power to build or break its people; to be seen, validated, and integrated into the world. It's the kind of story superheros often pursue but also become so formulated and repetitive. Here, they feel less invincible like we know masked crusaders to be, and more powerful by showing their humanity in its many different layers.

The film's cast is one of the most solid ensembles to come. Together and individually, as a family they bring their own brand of emotional and physical bad-assery. Rarely do action films harness the power of one headlining lady, let alone several. Here everyone gets to shine, working together for the greater good: Danai Gurira as Okoye, a traditionalist general of the all-female special forces of Wakanda; Letitia Wright as T'Challa's effervescent sister and innovative backbone of Wakanda's scientific and technological advancements; Lupia Nyong'o as Nakia, an undercover spy trying to will Wakanda out of its old ways. Together and individually, they are smart, clever, protective, passionate, generous, funny, vulnerable, and ready to kick-ass. They are a few highlights (including Angela Bassett, Forest Whittaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis) who bring an enthusiastic, fierce vibe to the T'Challa and Erik's clash.

Like Patty Jenkins and DC's monumental step-forward with Wonder Woman, director Ryan Coogler brings everything to the table. As a superhero movie, Black Panther is vibrant, rich, funny, action-packed and an emotional rollercoaster ride. Sure, it's fun to just go to the theaters and just enjoy a good popcorn-worthy showdown. But what truly elevates an entertaining, fulfilling story is the elements it weaves throughout. Black Panther packs great storytelling, intense fight sequences, and a wicked sense of humor, into a superhero movie. But it's not just a superhero movie.

Echoing Batman's Gotham or Superman's Metropolis, Coogler lets us Wakanda burst to life in gorgeous costumesindigenous traditions, and the advanced technology it thrives on. Its soundtrack blends beautiful African tribal music with hip-hop and R&B, playing with the vibes of ancestral homages and modern music. Beyond delivering representation and long-deserved diversity, the story solidly weaves issues of race and blackness, political diplomacy, cultural differences between rich and the poor, and an identity for minorities that has been ignored and suppressed for too long. Black Panther is a fun ride, but its power also lies in blending reality into fiction, using storytelling to tell some potent, necessary truths. And, it's done with a deep well of passion that pours onto the screen.

In the same vein that all of the right cards had to be in place for Wonder Woman to receive her own feature film, Black Panther finally claims its throne. Why did it take so long? Because the industry is still stuck in its own web of what they think sells. A lot of films have come along to slowly but surely crack the glass ceiling - Get Out knocked it out of the park. Wonder Woman proved complex female heroines are important. And now, Black Panther has shattered expectations. The rest of 2018 has a lot to live up to. Long live the king.

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen Black Panther? What did you think?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

I, Tonya (2017) is Pure Gold

Photo Credit: Neon
For nearly twenty five years, the complicated rivalry between figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan took the world by storm. In 1994, obsessed news outlets and the public tried to call the shots of how Harding attacked her fellow competitor to stay on top. Now, this time solely focusing on the former, I, Tonya ambitiously sets at least one side of the story straight.

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was raised by her ruthless, narcissistic mother LaVona (Allison Janney) to be the best figure skater in the world. Determined and hard-working, she manages to become a U.S. Champion on her way to Olympic glory. Then her abusive husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and his lame-brain friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) clumsily attempt to out her biggest competitor Nancy Kerrigan by whacking her in the knee. The attack instigates a worldwide scandal spiraling Harding’s fall from grace.

Taking a page out of Tonya’s book to be unpredictable and unvarnished, director Craig Gillespie’s film is not your typical biopic. More of a tell-all from Tonya and her family’s perspectives, the movie plays with different sides of the story because there never is just one. The movie is narrated by the four main culprits involved throughout Harding's life - Harding, LaVona, Jeff, and Shawn. As they describe their versions of events, history isn't concerned with looking back and over-fictionalizing  what happened. Nope, this movie's all about letting the people directly involved have the final word.

Through a wicked ride of comedy and drama, Harding is painted differently than how we might remember her. If one is looking for a catfight on ice, the movie is going to disappoint. Harding's life leading up to the incident and afterwards is depicted in a no-holds-barred, flipping her reputation as the victimizer against Kerrigan and showing her own experiences as a victim of domestic abuse. Delving into the normalized abuse Tonya suffered by her mother growing up, and then her husband, Robbie as Harding often breaks the fourth wall in the middle of being attacked or insulted, describing to those watching what's going on, how she feels and why the cycle continued. It's not the most typical or sensitive way to display what she went through growing up, but it's pivotal in showing how desensitized Harding had become to these normalized cycles and how big of a hit her self-worth ultimately takes.

By pushing herself out of her dysfunctional family, Harding is a scrappy warrior. As the film dives into the absurd, letting you be a spectator to her downfall and addressing how the media portrayed her, its offbeat style also creates empathy for her; to understand the purpose of skating as her Achilles’ heel; how she gets her self-worth from skating, how her ambition is a refuge and curse. The movie is wildly successful in its ability to be heart-wrenching and uncommonly funny. But never it never entirely absolves Harding for what happened to Kerrigan, nor uses any of the film's violence for cheap laughs.

What ultimately carries I, Tonya is the cast lead by Margot Robbie. Playing Harding from fifteen to forty-seven years old, the native Australian completely throws herself into the role from the mid-western speech to the second-hand make-up and costumes. As an actress, and a vital producer to the film and ensuring the movie was sensitive yet candid, Robbie creates a palpable image of Harding - a white-trash underdog who’s unvarnished personality didn’t fit the golden ice princess image. The film’s style has a lot going on, and Robbie manages to ground the audacious portrayal into something believeable. With her, the supporting cast Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, and Paul Walter Hauser, morph what would be caricatures into real-life people that you really can't believe actually exist.

A big hand goes to the screenwriter Steve Rogers in balancing Harding as both a victim and victimizer; she was a bystander to her husband’s crime and also complicit in it. The film covers a lot of ground like class in America, the value of a person’s image over their talent, and a woman determined to break free. His writing bends and curves all over the place but never jumps the tracks.

Interestingly, as the movie focuses on Tonya more than Kerrigan, a lot of critics wonder what the latter thinks - especially since Harding serves as a producer and I, Tonya’s has been collecting accolades in Hollywood. It’s easy: she’s moved on and living her life. Even though the movie does not glorify and limits showing Kerrigan’s perspective, much of the social commentary about her  comes across as a projection of long-overdue sympathy. Considering that the movie explores society's judgement on them both, it's interesting to look back and see them both treated like a sideshow in this major circus; Kerrigan also became a salacious scandal, soon not living up to critic's expectations, with her attack being made into parodies and getting called out her on her own mistreatment to other skaters. It makes me wonder if we’ve moved beyond a place in cinema to explore people who are flawed and don't live on an imaginary pedestal that everyone is perfect; or that maybe the expectation for the movie was to pit two women against each other in a superficial feud.

I, Tonya is not a straight-forward investigation of ‘Who dun it’, trying to cleverly re-imagine who is the real culprit of attacking Kerrigan. The movie’s a true-crime soap opera, digging into a scandal that divided the world, the dark underground of figure skating, and a woman picking herself up from her bootstraps skates. The story swerves in-between being funny, dysfunctional, and dark, but as crazy as it gets, it never loses sight of Robbie as the star or the Harding as the story; it's pure gold.

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen I, Tonya? What did you think?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Third Time's Surprisingly The Charm for Fifty Shades Freed (2018)

Fifty Shades Freed movie review
Universal Pictures
Once upon a time author E.L. James penned a Twilight fanfiction that spiraled into a worldwide phenomenon known as the Fifty Shades trilogy. After cashing in a billion dollars at the box office over the course of three installments, the finale Fifty Shades Freed surprisingly ends on a confident note.

The Greys's love is on the line once again as Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) happily ties the knot to complicated-is-an-understatement Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). But not everything is good in kinky paradise. Surprises are in store for the newlyweds as an unplanned pregnancy uproots their attempt at a vanilla relationship, and Ana's former boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) returns to hijack their wedded bliss.

Breaking free from Sam-Taylor Johnson's impressive yet awkward Fifty Shades of Grey, and James Foley's stilted sequel Fifty Shades Darkerthe journey here is as smooth as its going to get. Writer Niall Leonard and Foley team up once again to helm the story and up the ante in the eleventh hour just enough to save two love birds who are idolized by their author and readers from being totally forgettable. Unfolding a slew of excitement at a solid pace, the action and romance surprisingly strives for 'a climax' fit for its fandom.

Leading the way in her final curtain call, Dakota Johnson gets her power back. Ana no longer tiptoes around Christian's issues as she becomes  more than pleased to challenge him for independence and her own desires at every turn. Chemistry still lingers between Johnson and her partner-in-the-red-room Jamie Dornan, but the latter is somewhat left in the dust as their characters' relationship morphs from his twisted psychosis to two hearts meeting in the middle. The couple are united in their love enough to deal with all matters kinky-sex-related or not, but it's ultimately Johnson's funny, vulnerable and bold transformation that matters most. She's finally given a fuller opportunity to grow the quirky, experimental ingenue into a strong-willed, fierce woman calling all the shots - Mrs. Grey Will See You Now if you dare.

Despite the fans holding onto being entertained for the final time, Freed's biggest flaw stems from its home studio leaving everything to the last minute. With a major lack of promotion and any industry-led interest, Universal didn't camouflage how quickly they wanted to unload the finale off of its slate.

Fifty Shades Freed doesn't have time on its side, barely hitting an hour and forty-five minutes to explore its fanfiction origins. Compared to its predecessors lingering at two hours each, the first awkwardly strayed from being a truer adaptation and the second had nothing going on except a humpathon, Freed isn't given the luxury of letting the story the build. Surely the production and costume aesthetics carried on from Darker are just as impressive here, but any standout moments are difficult to savor. Even the supporting cast making up the Greys's clan of family and friends, who were never more than appearance-makers before, are too fleeting to have a purposeful impact. Packed with action, comedy, and erotica, the script doesn't waste a single scene squeezing in as much as it can, but the film's pace is rushing towards a finishing line with nothing on its tail. One can only imagine what the cutting room floor looks like, leaving the series's true admirers to cross their fingers for an extended DVD for a fuller movie. Blink and you might miss the theatrical alternative.

Though fans forgave what critics and naysayers considered to be cinema sins, the Fifty Shades's road has been bumpy, to say the least. But let's be honest, Fifty Shades was never for the haters. The story was understood and beloved primarily by its readers and author.  From being inspired to try kinky sex with their own spouses to readers understanding abusive relationships, or just being curious about the books and starting discussions, there's still power in a story that hooked millions of women, who cherish and know what the characters mean to them. For them, it'd be silly and lazy to ignore the importance of this sensation written by a woman for women, something that is still severely lacking in Hollywood and even if the results are imperfect. The fact that its heroine goes out with a bang matters just as much.

Outside of its inner circle, Fifty Shades Freed is another one for the books and fans who will surely enjoy themselves. Foley manages to squeeze what's left of the original material for its worth with a script aiming to tie up all the loose ends. Even if it's comforting that third time's the charm, it's a shame the trilogy didn't have this kind of gusto from beginning to end. For even the most casual fan of its actors like myself, there's no denying the trilogy had a shaky start and middle, but for the ending, Freed finally manages to get it right.

for readers: ★★★
for me:★★☆
for everyone else:☆☆☆

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Get Out (2017) Defines What The Horror Genre is All About

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
Horror movies are a great opportunity for people to confront their fears, either imagined or real. Putting bigotry at the center of his stunning debut, director and writer Jordan Peele churns out a smart, scary, and relevant thriller with Get Out.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is about to meet his girlfriend’s family for the first time in their secluded home far from the city. There's a slight catch: Rose Armitrage (Allison Williams) is white, and didn’t tell her parents that Chris is black. Though she tries to reassure him that everything will be fine, Chris discovers a disturbing family secret that shows their true colors.

Ignorance and prejudice permeates all the time on the news, social media, and everyday life. The system has us so conditioned to treat people as if they’re invisible for simply trying to live their life like anyone else, except for what they’re stigmatized against: their gender, sexuality, religious preferences, and more specifically here, the color of Chris’s skin. To racists, in this case the Armitrage family, it’s the definitive feature. Chris becomes a featured attraction at the family get-together; he's on display for the whole world (us) to see, but also invisible to this family who views him as commodity, to be taken advantaged of. 

Brilliantly, Peele uses social and racial fears, being the outsider, to trap us inside the house with Chris as his girlfriend’s family downright don’t know how to treat him as a human being other than for his skin color. They try to be colorblind but can’t see beyond a person’s skin. They think people are special tokens of wokeness, inserting culture to prove they're 'down' with others who are different than them. They think to insert points of the other person’s supposed culture is to be seen as inclusive; everything they try to do to not seem racist is actually racist. While there are a few good jump-scares throughout, its Peele's acknowledgement of systematic racism, white girl womanhood (I'm a white woman and trying not to be fake-woke here), appropriation, slavery, police brutality, and interracial relationships that offers the real suspense and horror. He weaves imagery and metaphors throughout that movie that are never too obvious to be obnoxiously on the nose or too subtle to be overlooked to create a terrifying atmosphere.

For everything Peele packs into the movie, it has a definitive balance of not drawing the lines between audiences, to not inundate people of color with experiences they've already had or alienate white audiences. Its ambition is empathy, like any other movie, to put you into a character's shoes, identifying with being 'the other' and how that plays into the collective whole. With a fairly unrecognizable cast at the helm, Peele churns out amazing performances with his actors. Commenting too much on the stars might give too much away, so Daniel and Allison are sublime, carrying the movie with a supporting cast that offers the right amount of hostility and creepiness.

Mixing Guess Who's Coming to Dinner with Hitchcockian suspense, the writing and direction of Get Out is downright brilliant. Easily, the movie feels claustrophobic because it subtly drops us into Chris’s shoes, letting the story mirror society. It divulges horror to re-affirm the terrors Peele and people of color experience, allowing satire and symbolism to call out the absurd real world. Stunningly building suspense, the story feels like it’s going in one direction, only to turn the tables around and venture elsewhere, making you feel like there is no escape. Peele's honest work here exposes that how too many people never do.

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen Get Out? What did you think?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Battle of The Sexes (2017) Proves Equality Is Still Worth Fighting For

Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Like athletes on the field laying it all on the line, sports movies have to have a certain finesse. They strive to capture the underdog versus the champions-that-can’t-be-beat, setting audiences on the sidelines to witness the push-and-pull of who deserves to win. Uplifting and compelling, directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes is one of timeliest movies to come along, showcasing one of the biggest matches in tennis history and exploring the importance of perserverance.

In 1973, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) began a revolution for pay equality when she discovered herself and her fellow teammates weren’t getting paid as much as their male counterparts. Starting their own women’s tournament sparks an exhibition for Wimbledon Champion turned hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) to make women's lib a laughingstock. Along the way, King discovers more than the power of her voice and talent on the court, but also an attraction towards a hairstylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) despite being married. King's defiance against playing by men's rules and Rigg's display of misogynistic showmanship kicks off a match for the ages.

In life, every day, we see how society splits up opportunities between genders, sexuality, religion, and race. There’s a hierarchy of respect that trickles down from those born with privilege or power and those without. Similar to A League of Their Own which reinforced female baseball players keeping America’s past-time alive during World War II, and Hidden Figures shining a light on women of color helping to send astronauts into space, Battle of the Sexes spotlights the making to one of tennis's biggest matches. Ignorance can be life and cinema's greatest villains, creating the tension here between Riggs's chauvinist exhibition and King feeling pressured to keep her attraction a secret and be a leader to women's rights. Their feud grows as we see them off the court, juggling drama to keep the story engaging and serving inspiration as a real game-changer now and in the future.

At the center of the movie is its leading cast. Having watched Emma Stone evolve between being a comedienne to dramatic star on the big screen, her performance here as King is one of her best so far. Beautifully mirroring her Oscars speech when she won Best Actress in La La Land, she hasn’t stopped growing as a performer and stepping out of her comfort zone, and that’s evident in how much she loses herself in this role. King is as vulnerable as she is strong-willed, allowing her to be scared of the second-hand homophobia and realizing her attraction to women, as well as being confident but doubtful of her ability to beat Riggs; to earn a victory for women at the time. Stone's main counterpart, Steve Carell as Riggs, is likable and funny, except for what he believes in. He's able to play a bigger-than-life personality to draw support in their match, but also ground down his personal issues like a floundering marriage and gambling addiction. He's not too over-the-top that his promotional escapades cashes in on the gender issues at the time. As much as King and Riggs are pitted against each other, the scripts engages in showing both of their strengths and weaknesses.

Considering the current climate of inequality, especially Hollywood right now, it’s bewildering that one of cinema’s better takes about a gay woman fighting to be respected has been widely ignored so far. A definite case can be made that the movie overlooks pivotal aspects of King's sexuality, but that longtime analysis of fact versus fiction is the same issue most biopics can't escape, and this one doesn't fare too badly. Some say the movie was too lighthearted and also contained too much plot, but for a two hour movie, it's the right length to see the main players' problems and saving most of the action for the big showdown. There's no missing the beats about who, what, when, why, and how the match between King and Riggs is set, and that's sometimes all a movie needs instead of stacking the deck so full it's hard to follow or heavy-handed.

Battle of the Sexes starts with King's stand for equal pay, and in the end her perseverance becomes about earning respect for herself and other female players; being treated as an equal is as important as being paid the same as our counterparts. As the years wore on, she became the first female athlete to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Honor, and continued to fight for gay rights and Title XI. Meanwhile, Riggs accepted his participation in the second-wave women's movement becoming good friends with King for the rest of his life. That said, as inspiring as King's resolve is, it's difficult for Battle of the Sexes to not feel a little dated because the fight for equality is ongoing. Sometimes in this age we want to keep history in the past because it shows us how little the needle has moved, but it's necessary to be reminded of how some defied the norm. That's how small stances ultimately turn into great achievements. And we need everyone to make it happen.

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen Battle of the Sexes?
What did you think?

Sunday, January 7, 2018

mother! (2017) sinks under its own ambition

Photo Credit: mother! / Paramount Pictures
It's difficult to have survived 2017 without hearing of mother!, a movie drawing critical acclaim as a masterpiece to Worst Movie of the Century. Often layered with symbolism and metaphors, director Darren Aronofsky doesn't err on the side of caution. Completely untamed, here he strives to weave a story about humanity, God, and mother nature (my interpretation at least) that's less worthy of the title's exclamation point and more of a question mark that fails makes waves.

mother (Jennifer Lawrence) is rebuilding a beautiful house as her poet husband Him (Javier Bardem) struggles to find his next big inspiration. As she strives to make a paradise for him and satiate his zapped creative energy, nothing seems to be good enough - her devotion, attention, love, and care. When strangers visit in the middle of the night inviting war, barbarism, and a cultlike devotion, Him and their unwanted guests bring with them the end of the world as she knows it.

Dubbed as a psychological thriller, even a horror film, Aronofsky threads a foreboding sense of genuine suspense in the beginning. Utilizing a script he wrote in five days, Aronofsky impressively packs in a lot of detail in a short amount of time. When the story strictly centered on mother's dynamics with the house, Him and his consuming attention he feeds off of their visitors, the story looms with confusion and anxiety: Who are these people? Why is Him so attracted to them so easily? What makes mother so apprehensive to their presence? But as the story moves further into the second and last act, Aronofsky adaptating the characters into bigger ideas (Him as God, mother as mother nature, the first two strangers as Adam and Eve) escalates to the point where you stop wondering what point he's trying to make and start questioning what the heck you're watching at all.

Blurring the line between interesting easter eggs, and plastering biblical references at every turn, Aronofsky succeeds better when he isn't trying so hard. mother, anthropomorphized by Jennifer Lawrence, dresses in fine, earthy clothes, and flints between being confused, horrified, or physically abused to the point of no return all in the name of her selflessness to provide for others. Him is obsessed with creation and validation by the masses, of which both will eventually become greedy and consumed by their own egos. In trying to mix the characters in with the setting, mother's house, aka Earth, polluted on, flooded, has blood spilt on it (to say the least), there isn't a specific focus with any one of the messages he's trying to tell: the muse and the arrogant artist, our unrealized fears about the environment and how we treat it before there's no going back, or the pain people inflict upon each other in the name of something higher. There's so little intrigue infused into the story at the halfway mark but so much going on on the surface, Aronofsky's ideas are actually rather thin.

mother! isn't meant to be a horror film in the sense of typical crime dramas or the supernatural haunting the living. The film is meant for us to consider climate change and how we treat mother nature as if she was a person. But Aronofsky throws so much at the wall, his real message doesn't necessarily stick, unless one wants to sink down into the allegorical rabbit hole. Throughout all of the chaos and heavy-handed symbolism, there's no real thrilling or lasting aspect to Aronofsky's or Him's madness. Which leaves the film with an unapologetic graphic violence without a consistent tone or message, so much so that its shock value loses any deeper meaning he started out with.

To helm his absolute rollercoaster, Lawrence's commitment to her director's vision is palpable, and it might be the best performance of her career since Winter's Bone, but even then, it's bothersome that her contrasting perspective and judgement of mother seeps into the role at times and loses the essential connection one needs to have because the film is from her point-of-view. Her supporting cast doesn't fare much better: Javier Bardem feels out of place as the other lead, while Michelle Pfieffer, Ed Harris, and the Gleeson brothers are in the most intriguing part of the movie, they are also unmemorable.

Technically, there are things about this that are a marvel. Its sound design by Jóhann Jóhannsson is brilliant, having no instrumental or lyrical soundtrack to set the pace. The camerawork focuses on its lead Jennifer Lawrence for a good 66 minutes of 121 minutes, of which the cinematography had to be in sync with the actress. It's also stunning how they staged the action inside the house with everything from raves and dinner parties to hostage situations, cults, and warzones.

Sometimes one movie is the culmination of everything a director has been building for their entire career. Usually, I'd feel excited about this kind of boldness, to take motifs, common plots, and techniques over the years to deliver something that beats out their previous work. Instead mother! feels wildly forgettable, perhaps something Aronofsky needed to get off of his shoulders, and only a select few are going to stand by what he wanted to say. His latest obsession is a mishmash of what makes him known as a controversial auteur, only this time if he wanted to go for shock value, he should've gone back to the drawing board too.

Have you seen mother! What did you think?

Friday, December 29, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) Is More Than Just a Replica

Photo Credit: Blade Runner 2049 / Warner Bros. Pictures
For thirty-five years Blade Runner fans have waited for the next chapter of director Ridley Scott's cult classic. His grim noir world focused on a future 2019 where LAPD officer Deckard (Harrison Ford) retires replicant slaves (androids) who have gone rogue against their human masters and ends up falling in love with one of his targets (Sean Young). After audiences were left wondering the whereabouts of humanity and its android population, its sequel Blade Runner 2049 succeeds at being more than a replica.

Set in 2049, the world has continued to fall into economic and enviromental despair as a genius with a godlike complex Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has reinvented replicants with a shorter lifespan and wired to obey their masters. Agent K (Ryan Gosling), one of the newest models, is tasked to "retire" older rogue versions like Deckard. When one target sets K off on a quest against Wallace's corporation, he's bound to discover a dangerous truth about himself and his own kind.

While the original film and all of its uncut versions toyed with the notion of whether or not Deckard and Rachael were replicants or not, and a deeper philosophical meaning of what it means to be either, 2049 carries a much-heavier weight about love, humanity, and the soul. Establishing a steady history in film with intrigue and science-fiction, director Denis Villenue's vision dips the story back into its futuristic roots and manages to pull off an impressive, complimentary follow-up. (This review contains spoilers - read at your own risk!)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Is Not the Sequel We Were Looking For

Star Wars The Last Jedi movie review
Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
In 2015, Disney brought back George Lucas's Star Wars with ambitious plans to churn out films until 2020. Following a long-awaited ten years after the prequels disappointed the masses, Star Wars: The Force Awakens renewed the beloved franchise to a solid, mixed reaction. Leaving its sequel with a lot of questions to answer, The Last Jedi had one job to do, and unfortunately, didn't get it exactly right.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS. Please return when you've seen the movie.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

My Cousin Rachel (2017) is the Victorian-horror-romance we need

My Cousin Rachel 2017 Movie Review
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Based on the novel by Daphne DuMaurier, director Roger Michell creates a spellbinding Gothic horror that fits our every period-drama need. In the beginning, the story seems like an open-and-close of murder, but languidly turns into a tale between an unreliable narrator and a Victorian femme-fatale.

Observing from afar, a young man Phillip (Sam Claflin) becomes suspicious about the torrid affair between his cousin Ambrose and companion Rachel (Rachel Weisz). When his revered fatherly figure dies rather quickly and under mysterious circumstances, Phillip declares justice for his loss but instead finds himself down a path Ambrose took: falling under her spell.

So rarely does a Gothic horror movie plant a very simple idea in our heads, but My Cousin Rachel sparks us to ask did she or didn't she, and then makes us question our choice every step of the way.

From the beginning, Phillip's beliefs about her guilt and wanting to make her pay for his relative's death is easy to side with. What he knows or assumes about Rachel from his loved one's letters about her as a "torment" and his worsening his health is all we need to believe she may be guilty too. When she shows up on his doorstep, her compelling presence, only wanting the best of everything for him, makes it difficult to gauge whether she's working his emotions to her own benefit or if she's as innocent as she could be. Lacking in any romantic relationships himself, he's overwhelmed by her femininity and prowess, easily squashing the vengeance he held so firmly. But as Phillip grows increasingly obsessed with his newfound love, nearly vying for ownership over her, it becomes harder to see Rachel as a murderess casting revenge, and more of a free spirit not wanting to be possessed by anyone; unfortunately, caged in by societal rules.

One thing is almost certain: their love affair will end in catastrophe, but along the way, the story asks who the culprit is. The story starts out concerned if Rachel murdered Ambrose, and slowly begins mirroring a possibility of how their relationship grew troublesome. At once Phillip and Rachel can be hopeful, joyous, and splendidly over the moon about each other, but then on a dime turns extraordinarily spiteful and malicious. At every turn, Rachel never escapes the unyielding paranoia Phillip has cast on her, or she cast on herself. For both of them, the question we started out with of who killed Ambrose turns into who is the victim and the manipulator.

To make this work, the leads had to be very special. From big adaptations The Hunger Games and Me Before You to smaller productions like Their Finest, Sam Claflin rarely does no-wrong. Phillip required someone who was dashing and broken, skeptical and selfish, and Claflin offers everything his character needs to believe in his convictions whether they're wrong or right. To build his downfalls, by the same token, Rachel Weisz captures an enigmatic spirit for Rachel. In no time at all, one can't help but be warmed by her spirits, sympathetic of the quickly forgotten notion that she too lost Ambrose, guilty for casting her innocence aside too soon, but also left questioning her intentions. Throughout her career Weisz's managed a myriad of complex roles, slipping under the radar as one of the best actresses in Meryl Streep's league. Together, they make an hypnotic, complicated duo.

Melding the story and performances with the direction and stunning cinematography, My Cousin Rachel adequately fills every gothic-romance fanatics's needs. If a scene is cast in a meadow, one can't help but feel the breeze and freedom the outdoor gives. When set inside the house, it's quaint by claustrophobic. Every frame evokes that moody, unrequited stay in a haunted house waiting for the skeletons to come out of the closet. As an author DuMaurier has always been ample material for Hitchcockian-like films, and Roger Mitchell rekindling one of her stories delivers the ambiguity she delved into to make a visually and emotionally pleasing puzzle.

My Cousin Rachel proves to be a compelling mystery, a rare chameleon as a whirlwind love affair, and an identity crises for its leads. Thriving on paranoia, the who-dun-it elements work seamlessly for a first viewing, and subsequently inspire you to seek what you might've missed before. Aided by fascinating actors, a capable script, and beautiful cinematography, the movie dispenses a daunting ballad of horror and romance.

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen My Cousin Rachel?
What did you think?

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Story of 90 Coins (2015) charmingly explores the promises of love

When we in fall in love, we tend to make a lot of promises. But what happens when love itself can't be kept? Director Michael Wong makes his directorial debut with The Story of 90 Coins, a beautifully composed short film exploring the complexity of falling in love - how it is a commitment, the fresh spark between two people, and the complications of regret.

Wang Yuyang (Han Dongjun) wants to be with Chen Wen (Zhuang Zhiqi), an aspiring fashion designer, for the rest of their lives. But she doesn't feel the same way. At first, he makes a promise to prove his love to her for 90 days. Every time they meet he gives her a coin. At the end of the deadline, if she still feels the same way they will merely use the coins to toast each other farewell. Otherwise, they'll eventually use their collection to get married. Along the way a relationship blossoms and the promise of the coins falls away. But Chen isn't fully committed in the relationship as he is; she's aiming to own a house in the city and take her fashion career to the next level, thus calling into question what happens when love needs to be more than a promise.

For a film that runs less than ten minutes, it's simple and straightforward as well as absolutely charming and sweet. While jumping into this world, the production design lusciously takes the frame of a theatrical motion picture. Han Dongjun and Zhuang Zhiqi are captivating leads as they explore their characters similarities and differences. It's easy to feel everything they do throughout the highs and lows their on-screen relationship.

It's difficult not to walk away from this story without harboring a lot of feelings to ruminate. The coins act as their "in" for falling in love and marking the wonderful memories they made. A promise of love is alluring and might lead to a grander experience, but relationships also require understanding and engagement from both sides. The parallel of Yuyang and Wen falling in love and growing apart tugs at heartstrings in all of the right places.

The film fills in a lot for nine and a half minutes, which works for and against the movie's favor. As simple and poetic as the simple piano score by Wei An is, at times it felt distracting and repetitive, taking me out of the journey portrayed by the actors. The other issue belongs slightly to the script which crops up a lot of questions about the couple without feeling like they're properly answered. The story itself could've used a bit of fine-tuning in terms of conflict or exploring more of the disconnect between Wang and Chen. Depending on where your heart lies on whether or not the couple should stay together, the ending can feel abrupt. But otherwise, there's so little significant downfalls to pick on.

As a directorial debut, The Story of 90 Coins is an impressive short film. Wong and the cast have earned top prizes at prestigious festivals around the world since it premiered in 2015. Having previously been an art and creative director in advertisement, there are influences of that industry throughout, but the short still manages to be remarkably well-rounded. Speaking to the complications and joys of falling in love, the story is truly touching with two talented leads and gorgeous production design. To watch The Story of 90 Coins, it's available on Vimeo.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you watched The Story of 90 Coins?
What did you think?

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?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Their Finest (2017) reminds us of the power of cinema during the worst of times

Their Finest 2017 Movie Review
In cinema and television, the war genre often showcases men departing for the home front, while their mothers and girlfriends waited for them to come home, and not much else. Historically, as their loved ones left for the battlefield, predominantly women, children, and the elderly were left behind to keep the economy going and their spirits up, and fill in empty spaces left behind in the factories, military bases, sports fields, and entertainment industry. Outside of a few different movies and tv shows that come to mind like Land Girls or A League of Their Own, it was a delightful, refreshing surprise to find Their Finest.

During the Blitz in London, a young talented copywriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to turn "slop" - the women's angle in film - into uplifting and informative morale boosters for home and abroad. Working alongside a fellow screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), she is inspired to weave a tale out of the battle of Dunkirk with a troupe of misfit actors.

Based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, the fictionalized heroine here was inspired by real women behind-the-scenes. Often uncredited for their contributions on-and-off-screen, Their Finest shines a light on important, forgotten figures behind the scenes who were tasked with bringing entertainment to the masses during World War II.

When the world seems to be at its most bleak, it's tough to consider living as normally as possible. As a small-town girl carving a career for herself and becoming an influential voice driving England's propaganda machine, Gemma Arterton leads the movie with a lot of grace, steely grit, and determination. Cole is talented, hard-working, curious, independent, and yes, falls in love, all while bombs are in striking distance and air raids are conducted nearly every night. As she develops her skills as a writer, and learning about love and life through the creative process, her talent gives way for a loving, supporting cast to also find their role in the war - an aging thespian (Billy Nighy), all-American soldier (Jake Lacy), headstrong agent (Helen McCrory), among others. Evans as the original author, and Gaby Chiappe as the screenwriter, creates a refreshing ingenue in the war genre, and it's impressive how the film celebrates a variety of female voices and manages to be an ensemble.
Cinemas were closed briefly at the beginning of the war as there was a fear they'd be dangerous, but they opened them again because people wanted to go."
- Gaby Chiappe
Popularly known from her Oscar-nominated movie An Education, director Lone Scherfig charmingly creates another splendid period drama of a young woman trying to find her place in the world. She's also incredibly inclusive to the grim realities everyone was facing at the time without romanticizing this set of characters and what they were striving to create. Alice Normington's production design, Charlotte Water's beautiful costumes, and  Rachel Portman's score bring a quaint quality, it's refreshing from the violence this genre often depicts.

Sometimes directors and studios get caught up in making these films bloodier and action-packed, believing the conflict will have a bigger emotional impact. But sometimes they miss out on offering other points-of-views of these eras that can reinstate that the human spirit to live and create is also valuable. From cramped offices, sparce tenements and open countrysides, a spark of life and community is trying to muddle through as best as possible. In watching Cole's first project get underway from beginning to end, it's wonderful to see a movie about making a movie celebrating why we still go to the movies: to escape and be entertained, to see another side of humanity, to find order when life seems out of control.

Truthfully, the most perplexing part about Scherfig's film is figuring out what genre it really belongs in. Critics are quick to sell it as a romantic comedy, but I believe it's much more of a typical war-drama. Its aesthetics might be lighter than what we're used to, but the central story focuses on the creative nature of storytelling with World War II primarily used as an important backdrop. Cole's romantic relationships aren't exactly torrid love affairs, nor is the mishaps of filmmaking packed with lol-worthy moments. And the movie isn't a downer in terms of violence or conflict. (Unfortunately, though, for many, loving or hating the movie hinders on one shocking death that's hard to talk about without spoiling. I fell into the former category.) In all, I felt Scherfig strikes a balance between the realistic conflicts of World War II and a light-hearted, tenderness from her cast.

In truly harrowing times, people find a way to come together as communities, uplifting each other's spirits and creating something new that might last longer than they will. It's splendid to be a reminder that despite everything going on around us, we have and can always still use a little cinema magic. Their Finest steps out of the box from what we normally see in the war genre, and with a splendid cast, delivers a swell story displaying no matter what, the show can still go on.

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen Their Finest? 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.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) chokes on its aspirations

Jyn Erso Rogue One Movie Revew
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
With Princess Leia ruling the original trilogy and Rey holding up the mantle for The Force Awakens as girl power icons of the galaxy, Rogue One offers another brave warrior the opportunity to give fans a new heroine to aspire to. Renegade Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is called upon by the Rebel Alliance to steal the plans for the Death Star, and in doing so, finish her family's attempt to bring down the Galactic Empire.

Like the Star Wars movies that came before and will come after Rogue One, the immersive journey relies heavily on ordinary people, Jedis or not, to vie for light, humanity, and goodness against the darker forces threatening the galaxies. This prequel (to A New Hope) relies heavily on Erso to bring a deeper meaning to the cause, but unfortunately, the production and lead character just don't have the force on their side.

Erso has all the makings of a compelling insurgent, but her journey is surprisingly incomplete. Since the space-opera saga is not particularly new with lone heroes destined for greatness, Erso's estranged relationships recycle other similar arcs created over the years. The story itself doesn't commit to original or unique moments besides the basics: Erso is an orphan, henceforth the Death Star must be stopped. As if aware of the movie's ending before giving it away, the production goes through the motions, plucking Erso in between moments of her past to the current cause, and fails to develop her identity in the galaxy.

On the page Erso must've been truly fascinating to helm such an important part of the series, but unfortunately, she's not portrayed in the best light. Felicity Jones serving as the leading lady falls very flat. Perhaps this criticism could be pointed to Gareth Edwards's direction, but Jones struggles with her bearings almost every time she's on-screen. From delivering dialogue to letting the meaning of Erso's determination come across, Jones is often unmotivating, lacking the much-needed chemistry with her castmates. (Other actresses like Emmy Rossum or Jenna Malone could've been much more interesting casting choices.) After quite a few particular dull "rousing" speeches, it's difficult to believe she's the one other warriors want to follow into the battlefield; that presence of a misunderstood loner turned leader isn't there.

Even though Erso isn't as interesting as she could've been, background players for the Rebel Alliance and Galactic Empire have a chance to be the real stars. For the former, we have Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe, Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook and Alan Tudyk does a sensational job voicing the sassy droid K-2SO. Together, they create the humorous, heartfelt band of misfits and warriors needed to anchor us to the good side. For the latter, we have Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, the Director of Advanced Weapons Research who pretty much acted by himself against extras and a creepy CGI incarnation of Peter Cushing. If you're looking to rally for one of the two teams, these guys give the emotional pull the movie deserves.

The script doesn't help by jumping between the Empire, the rebellion, and Erso. The first hour feels as if Disney needed something to fill the gap between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, and rushed to deliver this faster than the Millenium Falcon in hyperdrive. So many familiar and new places and characters are supposed to be woven together as if we naturally know everyone and everything in the Star Wars world, but rough edits and hasty dialogue rarely unites the story on the same plane. Parts of the production are wonderfully unique like the muted colors and vast cinematography, and composer Michael Giacchino is a welcome addition to challenging what a Star Wars soundtrack can sound like. What truly makes Rogue One exciting is the final battle against the Empire. Smaller characters and unexpected cameos have some amazing moments to shine and pack a punch. The non-stop action and heartbreaking sacrifices instill all of the feels and entertainment to correct what doesn't initially work. Taking over as the real showstopper, the second hour puts everything on the line and catapults the story into a fascinating finale.

Rogue One isn't the Star Wars adventure I was looking for. As an essential part of the resistance, Erso doesn't compare to her counterparts as much as she could've. If it wasn't for the movie's climatic finale offering the exciting and tragic connection to A New Hope, a lot could've been lost with this prequel. Either from a direction or studio standpoint, Gareth Edwards didn't break free from the other 'prequel-sequel-reboot' mode Disney's churning out. As if Darth Vader had his hands around the production, this installment chokes on its aspirations.

Rating: ★½☆☆
Have you seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story?
What do you think?

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Circle (2017) is too square to spark excitement or thought

The Circle 2017 Movie Review
STXfilms / EuropaCorp
Set in the not too distant future, the Circle is on its way to ruling the world; think Google meets Facebook on crack as a global empire in charge of our personal and professional business. Mae (Emma Watson) takes us into the company, as a new skeptical employee who becomes more motivated to share her life for the greater good. It's not long before she's usurped into TrueYou, an initiative to share her human experience without an iota of censorship. Logging into weekend activities to stopping human rights threats with frowning (sending emojis) to tyrants makes her more popular, but is it worth being tracked and used as a piece of data instead of a person.

The story doesn't too sound too far-fetched when we consider how social media and the internet is used every day from building brands off our personal adventures, to sharing parts of our private lives with strangers to acting as warriors for certain issues. Adapted from the novel by Dave Eggers, The Circle could certainly ask a lot of interesting questions about technology and how we use it, or it may be used against us, but fails to make a convincing, even entertaining case about the line between transparency and privacy.

At first, Mae's connection to the Circle seems safe enough. As a customer service rep, she has to keep her numbers high, even though her work ethic is monitored by all of her co-workers. And then the Circle's campaigns start pushing invasive agendas like streaming their user's lives 24/7 and inciting witch hunts using GPS and smartphones. No one really knows what it's like to live on their own as we're all connected like a cult with no escape. But instead of pushing the promising thriller of the book, Mae's descent comes across as TEDX talk on QVC.

In part, it's difficult to separate Emma Watson's conscientious, notoriously private reputation from the character. She hits a fair stride in the beginning when Mae isn't fully convinced in what the company has to offer, finding their "voluntary" participation laughable and crazy. But when Mae's increasingly comforted by her millions of followers, the story doesn't know what to do with her motivations. At one moment, she expresses that her biggest fear is unfulfilled potential, but her ascent to the top and trying to make the Circle better, thus a more dangerous Big Brother, doesn't feel layered or motivated by any deep drive.

Unfortunately, the script doesn't set up anyone or anything to stand in Mae's way. As creators of the Circle, Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt are pretty much Steve Jobs stand-ins, making the rounds every half hour to pitch a flashy idea that benefits the greater good but robs people of their individual identity. They aren't treated nearly as bad as other actors: Mae's parents, played by the late Bill Paxton and Glenne Headley, offers emotional stability outside of her work life, but Karen Gilliam as Mae's workaholic best friend is nowhere to be seen. The ever charismatic John Boyega has huge ties to overthrowing the Circle that could've easily upped the ante (as would Gilliam) but is so underused, it's embarrassing. Almost all of her connections could offer tension because they're similar or contrast what she's doing with the Circle, but none of them are used to their advantage.

When a book is adapted to the big screen, it's expected for characters and scenes to be left on the cutting room floor. What's not typically expected is that the adaptation goes out of its way to stay neutral on an issue that could have hard, defined lines. The stakes never effectively rise despite a number of people affected by the Circle through Mae, so the whole movie comes across as a long episode of Big Brother.

The Circle comes across as a day-in-the-life movie, going through the motions of its heroine risking autonomy to be loved, if even that. The story tries to illuminate the lack of divide between reality and what we portray online but fails to incite drama or excitement. Instead of a thought-provoking Orwellian thriller, the movie is so square, our real world is scary enough on its own.

Rating: ☆☆ 
Have you seen The Circle? What do you think?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Colossal (2016) smashes monsters and humans together in the weirdest way possible

Colossal Movie Review
Some of the best monster movies aren't just about gigantic creatures causing mayhem and wiping out cities, but people who aren't what they seem or are struggling to clean up their own disasters. When both manage to face-off against each other, it can make for a crazy, powerful combination.

Unemployed writer and alcoholic Gloria (Anne Hathaway) struggles to admit that her life is an absolute trainwreck. After her boyfriend kicks her out, she retreats to her hometown and reunites with a childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). When viral footage exposes a Kaiju creature in Seoul mimicking her actions and behavior, she's finally forced to face the issues wreaking havoc on her as an adult.

Having gone into this gem not knowing a lot of the story's surprising twists, it's difficult to talk about what I love and disliked without spoiling the best and most important parts.

Something I can say, without hesitation, is that the leading lady is absolutely stunning. As a sharp, layered and fiery character, Gloria is a refreshing, beautiful mess. Tangled in drunken stupors to the point she blacks out or sleeps all day, it takes something otherworldly as well as human for Gloria to see how life has gotten so damn bad. Once she realizes her connection with the Kaiju creature, and what means in stopping both problems both at home and abroad, Gloria's determined to pick herself up no matter how many time she gets knocked down. Hathaway hasn't stepped out of the spotlight, but this is by far and away a hugely welcoming return for her. She gives a marvelous grounded performance, always keeping Gloria funny, endearing, and down-to-earth.

Blending different ideas into a comedy-indie-monster-flick, Colossal is one of the most polarizing movies to break through in a long time. Some fans love every aspect of it, while others feel Gloria's journey of discovering the root of her problems a little too forced. For me, the story genuinely resonated, but the script's own uniqueness comes gradually out of left field, which can make the ending feel a little dragged down. While the premise seems familiar enough, director Nacho Vigalondo infuses a lot of different ideas to create something that entertains and makes you think.

More metaphorical and supernatural than a big studio blockbuster, Colossal is one giant step away from the monster movies we typically think of. No matter how much I loved the performances, the story spends as much on its special effects and showy battles, as it does the character's strive for understanding and sobriety. Gloria's link to Seoul never seems to be exactly what you expect, showing that some of us can turn into the worst and best versions of ourselves. Going from indie to unassuming romance to unexpectedly destroying those assumptions, the fight between human and monster is ultimately an epic, bad-ass showdown.

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen Colossal? What did you think?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Pitch Perfect (2005) falls flat on its girl power promises

Pitch Perfect lacks girl power
One of the things that excited me about Pitch Perfect was its reputation as a feminist movie. From the trailers and posters I had seen, I intuitively felt like I knew what the movie was going to be: singing and girl power told with a humor that left a lot to be desired. Finally jumping on the bandwagon, I honestly tried to keep an open mind. But nothing really prepared me for the onslaught of mixed messages.

Taking centerstage, rebel queen Becca (Anna Kendrick) wants to be a DJ more than anything. After she begrudgingly accepts her father to pay tuition for college as a backup plan, she joins an all-girls acapella group that's trying to recover from major embarrassment at a prestigious competition. With different ideas and musical styles, she knows she can lead them to victory. But in order to help them to success, she has to earn her spot alongside other newbies and learns that being by herself isn't as necessary as she thinks it is.

For its leading lady, the story sails along as she moves from a loner closing off everyone around her to finding her voice and place in the Barden Bellas. The group itself is filled with misfits just like her, reaching for success everyone hopes to achieve. But knocking down the movie's awesome music and hit-and-miss comedy is that the rest of the girls don't fare in originality or depth.

Everyone around Becca exists to reassure us what trope they represent. The girls might not need men to sustain them, and refreshingly, a majority of their musical prowess is about hitting those high notes and making their dreams come true. As much as that empowerment shimmers with inspiration, supporting characters weaken that united front because they're one-dimensional stereotypes: the ugly dorks, the tomboy, the slut, the fat one, the rebel, the control freak, the lesbian, the ice queen, the kooky foreigner. The movie is not as inclusive as it thinks it is. The proof is in the posters.
Pitch Perfect thinks it's a lot smarter than it is in showing how girls are treated differently in college and the arts than boys. Double standards run rampant with the club's rules to plant cringe-worthy innuendos. While Kendrick gets to play her role as deadpan as possible, her peers are exaggerated caricatures with glimmers of "normal" quirkiness. For instance, the girls aren't allowed to have sex, or even show interest in boys, or they'll be kicked out, except for one girl who sleeps around and everyone openly considers her as a slut. The beacon of eccentricity Rebel Wilson fabulously plays Fat Amy, but she really doesn't do anything besides point out her own weight so the controlling, perfectionist, skinny chicks don't. As the white female characters are backed into skinny, fat, or sexy corners, the minorities aren't treated better as ice queens, kooky foreigners, and the lesbian who comes onto everyone whether they want it or not.

Annoyingly, the movie doesn't know how to make the characters funny without making them gross, raising the question of why female-driven comedies try to be ten times raunchier than men. As the all-boys acapella groups naturally act dorky, selfish, shy, awkward, etc., the girls are forced to make uncomfortable puke and sex humor seem relatable. For every down-to-earth connection or moment between the girls, the writer employed word-vomit dialogue that felt random and induced second-hand embarrassment. Given that this is an all-female led movie in and about entertainment where boys run the show, it would've been nice to see more originality, smarter risks, and deeper sentiments.

In its better moments, humor and heart find their place. At its core, the women are sarcastic, determined, ambitious, loyal, and headstrong, and do their best with the roles they have. Their journey doesn't pit themselves against each other or use others as rungs on the ladder to a-ca-success. In Kendrick's favor, the adorable cups song put her on the map, and Becca is a great role model. Her story is packed with a lot of layers, but it would've been nice if the group had the same vulnerability and growth.

To be honest, Pitch Perfect is fun, if you can look pass a lot of problems, and I can see myself watching it if happens to be television. (But I'm hesitant to see the sequels since I've heard the characters don't get better). The sisterhood and camaraderie of the group give the cast some material to do the best they can, while the musical sequences are purely catchy. Ultimately, if Glee and Mean Girls didn't throw up all over the story, its potential might not have fallen so flat.

Rating: ★½
Watch instead: HeathersMean Girls
Have you seen Pitch Perfect? What do you think?