Wednesday, July 29, 2015

REVIEW: PAPER TOWNS

Though this isn't as impressive because most handlers of a Tumblr account have likely achieved this as well, I'm very proud to say I've read nearly all of author John Green's work; I'm missing a short story he did for the compilation book "Let it Snow: Three Holiday Romances." Green's work, like I'm positive his countless YouTube projects, are compulsively enjoyable. He combines awkward teenage realism, highlighting hilarious situations that might be mundane otherwise, but in his hands come out swimmingly, with ultra cool characters the teenagers and other who read his work aspire to be. Maybe it's Hazel Grace Lancaster, brought to beautiful life by Shailene Woodley in last year's ultimate date movie The Fault in Our Stars. (I always sing the title to the tune of Coldplay's "A Sky Full of Stars" for some reason, and now that you've read this maybe you will, too.) Maybe it's the titular Alaska in "Looking for Alaska," an enigmatic vixen who might share a little DNA with our (pro? ant?)-agonist of Paper Towns: one Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Even though some of Green's main characters are typically straight white males (it's so nice seeing minorities getting a spotlight in mainstream media) they all have wonderful kinks and twists to them that prevent them from being the dreaded white bread hero that has no discernible talent or personality but seems to have countless friends and a will they/won't they love interest. That certainly isn't the case for Quentin "Q" Jacobson, a complex "loser" of sorts with two misfits as best (only?) friends, Radar (they don't explain it in the movie but he's called Radar because he vaguely resembles the character Radar from "M*A*S*H.") and Ben, who I had some problems with in the film that I'll get to later. Though Q does well academically, the life ahead of him is unsure. The only thing he knows for sure is that he has always been in love with neighbor Margo, the adventurous, spontaneous firecracker that brings him along for one amazing night...and then vanishes.

"This is gonna be the best night of your life" best summarizes the character of Margo, a truly great Green creation that might easily be the best things about the film.  Cara Delevingne might just be perfect casting, as Woodley was for Hazel Grace. Surely on the route to movie stardom after capturing social media adoration, Delevingne was quite perhaps a better Margo then the one I had in my head while reading "Paper Towns," which I still consider to be one of the funniest books I've ever read. An unexplainable "it" factor might be enough to sum it up, but that does an injustice to what she brought to the role. With those mischievous eyebrows, rebellion seems to coarse through her being, a smirk alone could cover either immense boredom or puckish flirtation. If TFIOS couldn't garner Academy attention, I'm not sure if any Green adaptation can, but in a perfect world Delevingne would be a contender.             

Nat Wolff, fresh off playing the eye-sick Isaac in TFIOS, which I didn't think he quite landed, brings a great case to see him lead more films as Q. Armed with an almost defeatist grin, like the fact that he knows all of these great things happening to him won't be for much longer, Wolff isn't afraid to let you see an uglier side of this character, which pops up in its final act. The character of Ben has polarized me a bit. While the intention may be to gross out the audience with some of what he says, Ben alternately isolated and pulled me in at various times of the movie: though that may speak to an unsteady character development by the writers or Austin Abrams, he did ultimately come out as the most relatable character in the film.

Radar had a line in the novel that made me laugh out loud for nearly a minute, and though his family still has that hilarious quirk that I'm glad was deemed fit to be in the film, he doesn't bring as much to me as what he did in the book. In some ways I was glad to see him as the movie's moral compass, a straightforward geek enjoying finally having a cute girlfriend, Angela, who thankfully was included more here because it develops Radar's character arch a little further. Halston Sage has a few solid scenes as Lacey, but the character more or less remains the same as she did from the novel: an unobtrusive inclusion in the quest of these young men. I would've liked to see her develop a little more.

The best part about Green's book, besides the frankness of his characters and their spurts of devil-may-care attitude, was its unpredictable nature. "Will he find Margo?" is a real question with a capital Q. What happens in the final act is still a solid enough mysttery to where I believe if I hadn't read and adored the novel I still would've found it a fresh and truthful ending. I'm resolute in my belief to not throw in casual spoilers, but I want to discuss the ending so badly, as it does indeed differ from the novel in certain respects. Box-office numbers and critical polarization may not make Paper Towns the follow-up Green screen adaptation TFIOS was, but it more than deserves to stand on its own two feet. Its depictions of teenage interaction are mostly genuine, its soundtrack alternative and optimistically youthful, as Green's characters nearly always prove to be. Fans and fresh faces will enjoy Paper Towns, a film where you alternately relate and sit admiringly at the screen, thinking that perhaps its not too late to have a best night of your life, even with someone or something so alluringly elusive.

Rating: 2.5/4 stars

Sunday, July 19, 2015

REVIEW: INSIDE OUT

I hate to say it but the last time Pixar really delivered the magic to me as they usually do was half a decade ago! With two other friends, fresh out of middle school, I remember being relatively close to the front of the theater for Toy Story 3. When you're a millennial growing up in daycares, you've knowingly or unknowingly watched the Toy Story franchise alone at least 15 times a year. Maybe I couldn't rattle off the script verbatim like some can, but if you sit me down and ask me to explain the entire plot of the original to you, I think I could. That's how deeply ingrained Pixar and its cavalcade of wonderful films is in my blood, and although their last offering, the prequel Monsters University was cute, it nowhere near held a candle to the charm of the original, and even though this will date me I saw it in theaters when I was five.

We all know Cars 2 was clunky, and you either loved, hated or just weren't affected by Brave despite the typically lovely animation. I was in the latter, which makes my absolute love for their new venture Inside Out a delight to see Pixar returning to the breath of fresh air it was, even when it was on its third movie in a well-loved franchise. In a noteworthy Facebook post I scrolled through, it read something along the lines of "Pixar's Thought Process" and underneath said "What if toys had feelings?" and "What if bugs had feelings?" and "What if cars had feelings?" Rats, robots, the monsters under your bed, Pixar takes familiar notions we're all familar with and turns them on your head. For this film the post read "What if feelings had feelings?" I'm so glad they asked.

This is the film to beat for the rest of 2015 folks. It's that good. Pixar has harnessed the magic sometimes it forgets it has and completely makes you forget about its offerings that maybe haven't landed so well as a Toy Story. We're thrown into a world of literal imagination, where a bulk of the film simply takes place in one setting: the mind of pre-pubescent (or shall I say poo-bescent) Riley, your average American girl, if a little on the shier side. Then again, what is an average American girl, or an average girl for that matter? In their own magical way that fills even someone who hasn't even left his teens yet with nostalgia, Pixar shows the "mechanics" of how our minds work, with anthropomorphized emotions running the show. All five emotions bring such, well, JOY! to the picture, but especially Amy Poehler as Joy, really anchoring the movie and keeping the audience engaged.

Her cohorts are Fear, Disgust, Anger and Sadness, the maybe not so desirable emotions that filled and controlled all of us as we were growing up. In so pitch perfect casting it's kind of scary, Lewis Black (which if you've seen any politically-tinged stand-up of his is the epitome of profane anger) is perfect as mini-brick Anger, and Mindy Kaling, channeling Kelly from "The Office" so well as Disgust really makes you wish there was an Oscar for casting directors. There's so many wondrous, colorful and truly innovative decisions at play here I couldn't attempt to rattle them all off.  So I guess you'll just have to see it for yourself. Though it may not be as kid-friendly as say Nemo or The Incredibles, it certainly will speak right to the adults and teens in the audience. Don't be afraid to let it take you over with emotion.

Rating: 4/4 stars

Monday, July 13, 2015

REVIEW: ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

Movies rarely hit as close to home as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl did for me. This summer alone I'll have written three movies for the tiny "production company" my friends and I have been building and working on for years. Though we don't put in the almost Pixar-worthy effort characters Greg and Earl seem to, employing stop-motion animation and Star Wars-esque miniatures to get the job done, I certainly relate to the passion they put into their parodies, such as 2:48 Cowboy instead of Midnight Cowboy.

Book to film adaptations always get nerds nervous, unless you're Shrek, Lord of the Rings or To Kill a Mockingbird, but that's a short list. It's great when young adult authors can make the jump from page to silver screen themselves, as Stephen Chbosky did, directing/adapting his Perks of Being a Wallflower to huge success three years ago. Jesse Andrews was able to adapt his novel, and it's been reported he and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon were close. While that movie because I was still in the midst of fighting my everyday high school tribulations, this film hits me even harder because of the character's struggle with getting into college, losing friends and navigating social circles. Post high school life is chock full of all three. I'll have to say, when 2055 and I'll be middle-aged, I'll watch movies like MEDG and laugh nostalgically, knowing a lot of that is behind me.

But I've never had it as hard as Greg. Instead of being the social outcast, in a very cleverly done voice over device (which one may resent later on in the film, but no spoilers!) the movie opens with Greg narrating his survival tactic of camouflaging himself into all cliques...unless you're a popular pretty girl. Then Greg's a modest mouse, waiting to get stomped on by a moose, which the movie visually demonstrates wonderfully. He doesn't even consider his closest friend a friend: Earl Jackson, who I wish the movie would've devoted more time to. Greg's turmoil and the chronicling of his new friend Rachel's cancer struggle is what the movie mostly consists of, but with a blunt, placid friend like Earl I'd love to see how he got to be like that and maybe his struggles.

That aside, along with the lovely Katherine C. Hughes as popular, pretty moose Madison, (who finally brings something new to the cute girl out of the nerdy guy's reach by the way), Greg begins to find out who he is, and what path he decides to take. I don't need to read the book to know Andrews didn't reinvent the wheel with MEDG. You don't have to in a genre picture. Just bring something fresh. And freshness is brought. Along with some great camerawork from Chung-hoon Chung that gives the high school scenes an alive, visceral feel, the three leads and most of the supporting cast come ready to deliver. Thomas Mann is a refreshing addition to the aforementioned nerdy guy archetype, R.J. Cyler debuts strongly as Greg's compatriot Earl, and Olivia Cooke perhaps brings the most nuanced performance of the film as titular Dying Girl Rachel.

Cancer "sucks," as Greg says when his mother (Connie Britton) delivers the news. That statement is the approach of the movie, never letting things dip into sentimentality; it's too self-aware. Let's all be honest: this movie likely was green-lit after The Fault in Our Stars proved a hit, but in a way MEDG is the anti-TFIOS. Not that's horrible, but in the sense that it refuses to let the subject matter overwhelm the story at hand of two teenagers coming of age in vastly different circumstances. And I have to say it even tops the John Green-inspired script of TFIOS  in terms of comedy: this movie is hilarious, and I don't bring out the H-word for just any comedy. The post-history teacher-soup scene with Greg and Earl rivals the acid trip Schmidt and Jenko take in 21 Jump Street. Come to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to laugh, to cry, and maybe be a little frustrated at times. But if any f-word summed up high school and the journeys we all have to take to become ourselves, it's frustrating.

Rating: 3/4 stars

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

REVIEW: JURASSIC WORLD

Being out of school doesn't always mean you're free of homework. When it was announced that the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park franchise was coming out, I knew everybody would be talking about it. And when I realized that America's (current) favorite movie star Chris Pratt would be in the lead, I knew I'd have to see it. I had previously watched the original Spielberg, Oscar-winning classic at the age of 14, unfortunately a little too old to be completely captivated by it, like if I'd have watched it when I was an impressionable 8 or 9. I was still impressed with the astonishing special effects, something the 90s wasn't always known for. But I am no fool, and for five years had heard how the sequels left...well, a little to be desired. In short: The Lost World is overlong with too much Goldblum (I know, but it's possible), story and Julianne Moore talking a mile a minute. JPIII was a very enjoyable, short ride, but its characters were silly and it didn't aspire to much. Homework completed. I'd say respectively a C and a B- to the sequels.

So how does Jurassic World make the grade? You have to up the ante. This is the vision Richard Attenborough's (RIP) John Hammond had in the original: a beautifully envisioned park where resurrected dinosaurs can roam free while humans interact. Cue every sitcom cliche ever saying: what could possibly go wrong? Even with the gorgeous Bryce Dallas Howard's futuristic haircut and Chris Pratt's pecs, there's somehow still margin for error.  Claire (Howard), the director of Jurassic World, invites her nephews (both stock characters you do end up rooting for in the end) to her theme park. The boys' parents are (apparently, because not much is shown to back it up) are in the midst of a divorce, and super smart Gray and super teen-angst Zach come to enjoy their aunt's invitation. We also meet Owen Grady, a velociraptor trainer whose running into problems with Progress (yes a capital P because isn't progress and change always the villain in movies?) in the form of Vincent D'Onofrio's Hoskins.

So was Jurassic World's highest box-office opening of all time warranted? (Also I feel bad for them because that reign will end as soon as The Force Awakens opens in December). I would say so, because it fits that definitive blockbuster mold Spielberg himself helped create with Jaws. While, like I say, I had minor problems throughout, the characters are a little stock, though Chris Pratt could play a variation of Star-Lord and I don't think I'll ever get bored with him. But the movie itself is an amusement ride: don't think too much about it, you're in it with tons of people, and there's massive spectacle to behold. The special effects are stupendous, and when that original John Williams JP score kicks in movie lovers and fans of the original will find their nirvana. While it does take a little while to get things moving, that's just because they have so much to establish since we haven't visited this franchise in over a decade. Colin Trevorrow, whose Safety Not Guarunteed I enjoyed as a little indie gem, and I'm sure his massive team behind him finds a balance of human drama and fantastical dinosaur wonder. In other words, unlike John Hammond, he can make dinos and humans mix just fine. You'll like this ride.

Rating: 2.5/4 stars

Friday, May 22, 2015

REVIEW: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

What a lovely day to be a film buff. In fact, what a lovely year to be a sci-fi nerd of any kind. When there's big fare like George Miller's return to the "Mad Max" franchise in three decades with Fury Road, blockbusters like Age of Ultron and indie side dishes like Ex Machina, a nerd's palate is sure to be quenched. Of course, these are just appetizers until the mother of all science fiction franchises releases its long awaited film near Christmas, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. Until that sure to be Oscar winner is released, Fury Road will be a fine placeholder, and a perfect shot of adrenaline for movie buffs familiar with Max or not.

I binge-watched the two sequels leading up to this movie, The Road Warrior and  Beyond Thunderdome. Both were enormous servings of adrenaline and creativity, especially the latter, which might've been my favorite until I walked into the theater, anxiously awaiting the start of this film, as EIGHT TRAILERS passed before me (sorry Entourage, I'm just not that interested in you). The movie wastes no time setting up the atmosphere, with Tom Hardy doing the most talking in this movie he's going to do in its duration, in that interchangeably, vaguely European brogue of his that's somewhere between a grunt and a rough groan. Max is a prisoner of Immortan Joe in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is Earth, a man who rules the desert by briefly letting loose water onto his subjects, though he warns them "not to get addicted to it." Charlize Theron, playing Furiosa, takes Joe's five prized "breeders," beautiful, fertile woman forced to produce his offspring, and speeds off in a massive oil rig. Nux (Nicholas Hoult), wants to prove his worth to Joe, and, taking his blood bank of energy with him (Max), all set off to track down Furiosa, kill her, and salvage the breeders. And that's pretty much it. Complex storytelling is not a problem in this reboot.

In fact, my only problem is, and that's why this movie gets docked half a point, is Max. Tom Hardy is still great in the role, don't get me wrong. But there's so many questions we have. I've read Miller said that the audience got three movies worth of backstory but...is this a reboot? A continuation? Who are the people in Max's troubled visions? I know the character of Max Rockatansky is supposed to be this speak softly and KILL EVERYTHING type of antihero, but give me a little more substance to work with. Especially stacked up against co-star Theron, who's hardcore heroine can now be added to the very small list of female action heroes people automatically will think of (and yes, it does include Ripley and Sarah Connor). She has her weak moments, certainly her strong moments, and her nubbed arm and greased war paint face just portray an immensely interesting character. Give me a spinoff!

But why should the average, casual moviegoer see Mad Max? To get their minds blown. The movie isn't necessarily the two hour car chase some are calling in it. But the action so rarely lets up it...and let's be honest, that's rare in an action movie. There are always scenes in one, sure. The major three big battles between bad guys. But not since...well, The Road Warrior, has so much heart-pounding action been crammed into a two-hour running time. There's just sand in George Miller's world, so when there's an explosion you feel it, and see it in all its glory. Shots are sped-up to keep up with the frantic, kinetic tone Miller is looking for. The special effects are practical and ludicrously entertaining, the score appropriately in your face, the cinematography spectacular (and subtly beautiful, look out for those gorgeous blue night scenes). Miller, at age 70, gives the most adrenaline-soaked, freshest action movie to have come out in years, I can truly say there's nothing like it I've seen. Why has he been making Happy Feet movies for the past decade or so? I don't know. But I do know whatever he does next will have me singing and tap dancing to the theater like one of his penguins, because what a day, what a lovely day it'll be when we all get to see the sequel to one of the best movies 2015 has to offer so far.

Rating: 3.5/4 stars

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

REVIEW: EX MACHINA

If you've stepped outside in the past month, or have consumed a beverage, gone on the internet or have generally been alive in the year of our lord Joss Whedon, then you will know another little robot movie has been getting quite the buzz. While that review is coming out in the next week or so, I'd like to serve up to you a little side dish of cerebral intelligence, a smaller movie that's gotten rave reviews and an expanded release date: Alex Garland's directorial debut Ex Machina.

Other movie critics have been very discreet in revealing the plot summary, but...I don't think so. This movie doesn't have a Fight Club type twist, but maybe if you don't think too hard about what the "twist" could be it'll come as a surprise to you. So I'll go ahead and give you the skinny: Domhnall Gleeson's Caleb is an intelligent programmer who works for Oscar Isaac's Blue Book, a Google-esque search engine, wins a lottery and is selected to come visit the reclusive genius. They meet and Isaac's Nathan begins to tell him about a creation of his that may change the world: an artificial intelligence robot that he wants Caleb to test out. All he has to do is determine whether the AI has truly evolved past its robotic creations, and can emote real human feelings.

I think that's a good place to leave off, to get the eager movie-goer's tongue wagging. I avoided trailers like the plague because I expected that big twist, but from what I hear they're deceiving. This is probably the studio's way of marketing a really quiet, thoughtful sci-fi movie pushed forward more with dialogue and big ideas than explosions and gunfights. Little violence occurs, it's all (gasp) characters interacting with each other and discussing, mostly, the idea of artificial intelligence. And while you don't get as much backstory as you do with Caleb, Isaac certainly has the movie's most interesting role. Here's a boy genius (he developed the code for Blue Book when he was 13) who has probably an equivalent of money as Mark Zuckerberg who's grown up lonely, possibly burdened by an intelligence and now he takes it out on himself with drink. Gleeson gets the job done as Caleb, but his performance is could use a little more energy at times. Sometimes he's too calm, and even an advanced programmer like himself would be freaking out at the chance to go an eccentric billionaire's mansion to test out his new toy that's going to change the face of technology.

It is Alicia Vikander who has the breakout role here, as Ava, Nathan's creation who slowly begins building a relationship with Caleb. She doesn't just stiffen her joints and look out at the world with dead eyes. She feels like an automaton acting like a human, like it's inches away from her reach. Speaking of breakthroughs, I need to end this review with a discussion on what might be my favorite part of this movie: the score. Not since The Social Network have I been so engrossed in music, there are parts where Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's pulsing electronic soundtrack had me gripping my armchair and nearly sweating with anxiety over a cinematic moment. Like the film itself it's light and futuristic in one scene, and heart-pulsing intensity in the next. If you just like music buy the soundtrack to Ex Machina, if you want what is sure to be one of the year's best science fiction think pieces, go see the movie before it disappears.

Rating: 3.5/4 stars

Monday, April 13, 2015

SPECIAL REVIEW: TIMBUKTU

In my last review, I spoke of my desire to jump at the chance to go to another film opportunity at my college. I'm very happy to say that I was able to: the French Club funded a quick day trip to Charlottesville's Paramount Theater, where Abderrahmane Sissako's latest film Timbuktu was screening. For Oscar enthusiasts like myself, the name struck out as being nominated as one of the five best foreign language films at this past Academy Awards! Sissako himself was there, and while I would've loved to hear him talk about his film my group was on a strict time schedule. I can confidently say that this was my first Mauritanian film experience, but that probably goes without saying.

Timbuktu, though its narrative structure is not solely driven
on a particular set of characters, concerns the impact a group of Muslim jihadists has on the very remote titular city. Primarily it involves the affairs of Abdelkerim and his wife Satima, their two small children and their herd of cattle. The jihadists slowly and, to the misfortune of the natives, effectively begin instilling their radical beliefs and extreme policies. That means women must cover themselves entirely, including a fish saleswoman who speaks the audience's thoughts: "We've already had to cover our heads, how do you expect me to sell fish with gloves?" In the film she is taken away, and hardly seen after. This is the face of those who stood against the oppression.

One of Timbuktu's more colorful characters
Abdelkerim is a herder, until one day something happens to his cows, by the way of his sweet, task-handling son. That leads to a much more serious incident, that gets Abdelkerim imprisoned by the radical militia. Sissako is clear to show us that, through all of these muddied politics, ultimately actions will always produce consequences, and the good guys certainly do not always win. This is no fairy tale of rebellion in a time of Ukranian conflict and Syrian massacre, this is reality. Abel Jafri plays the protagonist Abdelkerim, with a nurturing, fatherly touch. Though in one scene his point is repeated ad infinitum (though that may be script issues on Sissako's side) he truly does care for his wife and children. Their home is set up in a very desolate desert land, far isolated away from any nearby communication. One of the film's best scenes is when Satima (Toulou Kiki) gives the frostiest of cold shoulders to the jihadists who simply just come to stop by (aka harass) and see how things are. She and her daughter wash her hair the entire scene, and don't respond unless asked an interrogative question. Though it's small, it's the resilience you end up rooting for, since rebellion in these sort of environments seems to get squashed fairly easily.

While at the Oscars it went home empty-handed, this was not the case at France's equivalent of the Oscars, the Cesars. It nearly had a full sweep with seven out of eight awards won, including wins for its gorgeous, sweeping cinematography and its memorable, mood-setting music. What interests me is that it picked up no acting nominations: perhaps because the film has such an authentic feel to it the actors just seem like natives being filmed, going on their day to day lives and trying not to be affected by the jihadists. I enjoyed it, and even though the ending is jarring, there's a lot of substance Sissako puts into something a little over an hour and a half. The man has a lot to say. (And I wish I could've heard him say it!)

Rating: 3/4 stars