Movie Review: The Bling Ring (2013)

January 18, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Despite critical acclaim, I haven’t been a big fan of Sophia Coppola’s earlier works, such as The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation, both of which I felt were somewhat overrated. Her latest (written and directed), The Bling Ring, is based on the true story of a bunch of self-entitled rich kids in LA who break into the homes of famous people such as Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson, and Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr. Apart from Paris Hilton, however, the other stars refused to take part in the film and archived footage was used instead.

The film features an impressive cast headlined by Emma Watson, who shines as the bratty and care free Nikki, with Vera’s sister Taissa Farmiga (from American Horror Story) playing her more naive younger sister Sam. These two are the biggest names, but they are really supporting characters, with the parts of the ringleaders taken up by the manipulative Katie Chang and the central protagonist Israel Broussard, the only male member of the gang.

The Bling Ring is categorised as a satirical black comedy, though it certainly felt a lot more like a semi-serious drama with just a sprinkle of satirical laughs. It’s really about how shallow and stupid these wannabe celeb rich kids are, thinking they could actually get away with something so brazen, but also about how ridiculously bad the security is at the homes of Hollywood celebs! Seriously, most of the time the kids just waltzed right in!

The performances are strong, but there is a strange distance about them that makes it hard to really get under their shallow facades. I felt like I was just watching a bunch of silly kids doing silly things while thinking it’s really cool, without ever really caring for them or what they were doing. They felt one-dimensional; I didn’t get to know them, nor did I want to. Part of the blame has to go to Coppola’s direction, which didn’t stand out for me, and failed to deliver the substance I had been hoping for. Maybe it was an impossible task to accomplish, given that the source of the story is essentially limited to news clippings, but even for a brisk 90-minute film (which was probably already stretching the material) it felt like more depth and insight could have been achieved.

In the end, The Bling Ring came across as superficial as the characters Coppola was trying to portray. Maybe it was too nuanced for me to get, but I didn’t find it particularly funny or engaging. It was an interesting idea to tackle and the performances were stellar, but more had to come from the characters since we knew from the beginning what they were doing and what ended up happening to them.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: We’re the Millers (2013)

September 1, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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We’re the Millers is another one of those crude comedies where the idea is way way way better than the actual film itself.

Jason Sudeikis (from Horrible Bosses and Hall Pass) is a low-level drug dealer who gets into some strife and accepts a job from Ed Helms (of The Hangover fame) to be a drug mule importing marijuana in from Mexico. To limit suspicion from border authorities, he enlists the help of a stripper (Jennifer Aniston), the local runaway (Emma Roberts, niece of Julia) and the neighbourhood geek (Will Poulter, whom you might remember from the second Narnia film) to disguise themselves as one big happy family on vacation.

It’s a premise that holds a lot of potential, but We’re the Millers squanders most of the opportunities with uninspiring jokes and bland storytelling. Instead of witty, edgy stuff, what we ended up with was a lot of sex and genitalia/body part-based jokes telegraphed from a mile away. Even if you haven’t already seen them in the trailers, many of the laughs are so obvious you can sense exactly when they are starting to set it up and can predict when and how they will deliver it.

Granted, there are some decent moments, mostly involving the geek kid and some random moments of improv (as seen in the outtakes at the end), but most of the jokes in this film elicited barely a chuckle from me. I smiled from time to time but did not laugh out loud once. Occasionally amusing but not particularly funny is how I would describe it.

The narrative progression was also disappointing because it was so cookie-cutter. We have the set-up: four people from different walks of life who are thrown together for a common purpose. We are told they don’t get along, but we know they inevitably will by the end, with a few life lessons about selflessness and doing the right thing learned along the way. Nothing unexpected, nothing surprising.

I’m pretty indifferent about him as an actor, but I think Sudeikis was a good choice to play the immature guy who refuses to grow up. He had a bit of that Ben Affleck-in-Argo floppy hair going on at the beginning but settled well into the goofy husband role as soon as he got that stiff haircut. On the other hand, I wasn’t so hot on the selection of Ed Helms to play his drug lord, as small of a role as it was, because to be honest I’ve always got these two guys confused either each other.

Ed Helms, Jason Sudeikis

My lack of passion for Jennifer Aniston as an actress is well documented, and her performance in this film did nothing to persuade me to change my mind. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with her (and she seems like a wonderful person by all accounts), but I just don’t like…whatever it is about her I don’t like. She’s really the only character with any brains in the movie, but still, I didn’t like it. And I have no idea why she’s trying so hard to shed her good girl image by playing a stripper (who gets an opportunity to do her thing) not long after she did the whole sexual deviant thing in Horrible Bosses. It’s her prerogative, but it doesn’t feel authentic to me.

Emma Roberts is pretty in a girl-next-door kind of way, but she’s given the least to do out of all four main characters. She’s your typical naive runaway who likes the wrong guys and likes to swear. That’s it. A lot more effort is put into Will Poulter’s character, and he clearly steals the show as the affable geeky virgin, though even he feels kinda cliched. That said, he is still by far the best thing in the movie.

So as you may have gathered, I’m not overly enthused about We’re the Millers. It’s less irritating and offensive than films like The Hangover and Horrible Bosses – where everything is constantly loud and obnoxious — but it’s also a lot more bland. I didn’t like it and I didn’t hate it. All I can say is that I guess there are far worse ways to spend your time if you have 110 minutes to spare.

2.5 stars out of 

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 11

August 26, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Safe House (2012)

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Denzel Washington plays an ex-CIA operative who turns rogue and becomes an international criminal who, unsurprisingly,  appears to be more than meets the eye. Ryan Reynolds plays a low-level CIA agent who is tasked with looking after Denzel when the latter is captured and brought to a South African safe house (hence the title. Disaster strikes, and Reynolds is thrust into a dangerous situation in which he must figure out who he can trust in order to discover the truth behind everything.

It’s the type of basic premise we have seen dozens of times before (albeit with slight variations) — where a decent but relatively inexperienced guy out of his depth is paired with a slick professional and there is a big conspiracy waiting to be unveiled (is this considered a huge spoiler?).

I don’t mind these movies per se, but I’m a bit sick of the whole “Denzel is so cool” routine we seem to be getting in just about every film we see him in these days. You know, charismatic, super cool under pressure, extremely gifted in firefights and hand-to-hand combat, acts like he doesn’t give a crap about anything but cares deeply about doing the right thing in accordance with his own principles. As for Reynolds, I’m assuming he just played exactly the same type of character in RIPD (which I haven’t seen yet but will).

Look, Safe House isn’t bad — there’s intensity, action, suspense and a few semi-predictable twists here and there — but there is nothing that makes it memorable or stand out. In fact, I had forgotten a lot of the details and had to give myself a little refresher on YouTube and Wikipedia just to write this review. The performances are solid, but I didn’t like how the action sequences were edited with those quick, choppy cuts that prevent you from seeing exactly what is happening.

On the whole just an OK thriller that fails to live up to its full potential despite Denzel and an all-star cast that also features Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

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I swear I still intend to get to the acclaimed book on which this film is based, written by Stephen Chbosky. I’ve heard so many people rave on about the book that it would be an injustice for me to ignore it. Interestingly, the film version is directed by the author, who wrote the screenplay as well. Usually it’s a recipe for disaster to place so much of a story in the hands of a single person, but in this case it was complete justified because The Perks of Being a Wallflower turned out to be one of the best coming-of-age movies I’ve seen in a long time.

Charlie, played by Percy Jackson‘s Logan Lerman, is a high school freshman dealing with a traumatic loss from the year before. Shy and withdrawn, he is a wallflower, someone who observes but is never really part of the story — until he meets step-siblings Sam and Patrick, played by Emma Watson (Harry Potter) and Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin), who accept him as part of their group.

Without going into too much more detail, this is a story about the loss of innocence, friendship, falling in love, loyalty, betrayal, and all those things many of us go through as we grow into adults. With full control over the material, Chbosky delivers an extremely genuine and heartfelt story told through a sensitive and delicate lens that I’m sure will be easy for many teens to relate to and conjure up a deep sense of nostalgia in adults. It’s hard to explain except to say that I connected with this film more than I thought I would and that I fully believed in the story from start to finish. Yes it is sentimental in parts but not overly so.

I’m astounded that Chbosky has only previously directed one other film, in 1995. The tone and atmosphere he creates in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is masterful and reflects just how in command of the material he is. He must also be credited for eliciting the best performances I have ever seen from Logan Lerman and Emma Watson. Let’s face it, Percy Jackson and The Three Musketeers are not the best films for a thespian to show off their acting talents, but Lerman is unbelievably believable as the mild-mannered Charlie who is immediately likable but is also clearly holding onto something that prevents him from opening up. Your heart goes out to him. The only complaints could be that he is not quite young-looking enough to pull off a freshman or that he is too good looking to play such a loner.

As for Emma Watson, wow. I always thought she was the most talented out of the Harry Potter trio, but here she completely sheds the shackles of Hermoine and gives us the best performance of her career. The same can be said for Ezra Miller, whom I thought would forever be trapped in my nightmares as the horrific Kevin (from We Need to Talk About Kevin, one of the best movies of 2011). Here he is a completely different character as the giddy and affable Patrick and totally made me forget that he butchered a bunch of kids in his previous role.

In some ways, The Perks of Being a Wallflower might oversimplify or even glamorize some difficult issues in adolescent life, but for me it’s a small flaw in an otherwise brilliant motion picture.

4.5 stars out of 5

PS: I’m almost doing The Perks of Being a Wallflower a disservice by reviewing it as part of a four-film movie blitz, because it deserves a solo review of its own. But I am lazy and I can’t be bothered.

Deadfall (2012)

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A stylish crime drama of intersecting subplots that feels strangely complicated but is actually very straightforward.

Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde play a pair of siblings on the run after a casino heist has gone horribly wrong. For some reason they must split up so they could reach their goal of making it across the Canadian border under blizzard conditions, kicking off a string of violent events and coincidences that eventually all comes to a head in a climatic flurry. The film is powered by an A-list cast that also features Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), Kate Mara (House of Cards), Kris Krisofferson, Treat Williams and Sissy Spacek.

I found Deadfall a difficult film to grasp because it seems to be moving along confidently, taking the audience in several directions seemingly without aim, but there is actually an underlying strategy all along to pull all the strands together by the end. But at the end of it all, I said to myself, “Is that it?” Despite the intrigue, I was left wondering what the fuss was all about.

That said, I was engaged and kept wondering what was going on through the majority of the 94-minute running time. I suppose you could call it dark, character-driven film, but then again I didn’t really care for any of the characters. Could it be described as a B-grade movie masquerading as an A-grade movie because of its sound technical efficiency and the super cast? I dunno. I can’t decide whether I liked the film, disliked the film, or if I am just indifferent about it. Meh.

2.5 stars out of 5

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

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Every now and then comes along a really interesting idea for a movie and the execution is nearly good enough to pull it off, but for whatever reason just doesn’t quite get there. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley, is such a film. It starts off brilliantly and has its fair share of genuine laughs and oddly comical moments all the way through, but unfortunately it loses steam halfway through and drifts towards a rather disappointing final act.

The film starts off with the announcement that the world, as we know it, is coming to an end. A giant asteroid is coming to Earth and there’s no Bruce Willis to save us. With just three weeks until impact, the world is understandably flipped into chaos (with drugs and suicides and looting and guilt-free sex dominating), but at the same time there are many lost and lonely individuals out there who have no idea how they are going to spend the last few days of their lives. Steve Carrell, whose wife leaves him in the opening scene, is one of them, until he meets Knightley, who had just broken up with her boyfriend and has no chance to see her family in England one last time.

Seeking a Friend could be described as a road trip comedy-drama, but it’s really a fascinating imagining of how the world would react if everyone thought they had just days to live. Would you keep working in your job because you have nothing else better to do? Or would you stay with family and go have beach BBQs all day? Or will you go crazy and break every law you can think of, just for the sake of it? A lot of the things depicted in this film, as random and outrageous and hilarious as they are, strangely ring true. I laughed often and hard, especially early on.

I’ve never been a big fan of either Carrell or Knightley, so I was shocked to discover that I really liked both of them in this. Despite the age gap (51 to 28), they had a comfortable rapport and a sweetness to them, and the resulting banter was sharp and clicking.

However, perhaps feeling like it cannot be a pure comedy with no emotion (given it is the end of the world, after all), the film starts to become more personal and begins venturing into light melodrama, regretfully sucking out its earlier charm. The closer it got to the end, the more flat and uninteresting things got. Some of the attempts are indeed poignant, but frankly I just wanted more laughs.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2D) (2011)

July 20, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

At last, 10 years after the first film and 4 years after the book series ended, the Harry Potter film franchise is no more.  As expected, there was a ridiculous amount of anticipation for the eighth and final movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (let’s call it DH2), and though I consider myself only a moderate fan of the series (both book and film), even I was very excited at the prospect of watching the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort on the big screen.

It’s not often that a franchise lasts for this many number of films and manages to maintain a certain level of excellence all the way through.  So is this final film the best of the lot?  Kind of.  Not really.  Yes and no.

Part of the reason why it’s so hard to review this film is because it’s impossible to view DH2 as a standalone film.  You can’t even really lump it with DH1, which I thought was nothing more than a pretty set-up for the grand finale.

In terms of excitement, DH2 is undoubtedly the best of the series.  After a small but slow build up at the beginning, the remainder of the film races at you at full blast.  It’s everything you could have expected from a finale that has been gradually building up for 10 years.  The extended siege on Hogwarts rivals some of the biggest fantasy epics in cinematic history (some may disagree but I think that includes Lord of the Rings).  It’s thrilling, visually stunning and wonderfully executed (thanks to director David Yates) and acted (especially Alan Rickman as Snape, who really held this franchise together for all these years).  Heck, even the trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson put on quality performances (a far cry from their debuts).

Accordingly, in a way, I guess you could say that splitting the final book into two films was justified (apart from financially), because despite the 130 minute running time, DH2 was never boring (unlike DH1).

On the other hand, DH2 wasn’t a complete story, and as such, must be viewed in light of everything that came before it.  If you haven’t read the books, seen DH1 or even the sixth film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, you can forget about it.  I’ve read all the books and seen all the previous films but even I struggled at times to remember/piece together what was going on.  Characters came and went without introduction and the majority of the secondary characters were reduced to fleeting cameos.

Of course, this is a film that can be enjoyed by anyone because of the marvellous action and special effects — despite some frightening scenes for the kiddies — but I believe to appreciate everything and feel the full emotional impact of the finale you have to be a ‘true’ fan (ie, one of those hardcore nutters that dressed up and camped outside the cinema).  Hence for me, a mid-tier fan, DH2 couldn’t have been more than just a ‘very good time’ that was fun to experience but lacked a deeper connection.

This is why I still think the franchise would have been better served had DH1 and DH2 been combined into one kick-ass 3-hour+ epic that got rid of all the fluffy ‘time fillers’ so we could enjoy the full story of the Deathly Hallows in one sitting (I know some places screened the two films back-to-back, but the combined running time of 4 hours and 36 minutes is waaaay too long).

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed DH2.  Despite its shortcomings — some unavoidable and others not — this was a fitting conclusion to a magical, consistently high standard film franchise.

4 stars out of 5

PS: My favourite book and film of the series is still the third one, The Prizoner of Azkaban.

PPS: I intentionally watched this one in 2D, and I’m glad I did.  I’m at the point where I am starting to wonder whether I should even consider watching a 3D movie ever again.  Dark, uncomfortable, and most of the time 3D adds nothing positive to my film experience.  I don’t get the fuss.  And judging from this article, looks like I’m not the only one.  That said, I am surprised by the number of people supporting 3D in the comments section.

PPPS: A bit of a spoiler, so read on only if you’ve seen the film or read the book.  Remember how the book had this controversial ‘epilogue’?  Well the film includes it, and as expected, it also sucked.  One of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen.

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part I) (2010)

November 24, 2010 in Movie Reviews

I am what you might call a bandwagon Harry Potter fan.

I have never been into the series as much as the fanatics, but I have followed the hype and read all the books (I think starting from when Goblet of Fire came out) and watched all of the movies.  I thought they were all pretty good, more enjoyable than your average book or film, but nothing I would put in my ‘all-time’ lists.

Nevertheless, I found myself excited to see the first part of the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (let’s just call it HP7), directed by David Yates (who also did HP5 and HP6) and with a screenplay by Steve Kloves (who has adapted all seven books).

So far, reviews have been rather mixed.  For Potter fanatics, the first half of this final film is everything they could have hoped for and more, not only because the film is beautifully shot but also because it is more faithful to the source material due to the extra running time.  For non-fans, HP7 probably comes across as a boring (because of the extra running time), confusing (because it assumes knowledge of all previous films/books) money grab (well, because it is).

For me, a relatively minor fan of the series, HP7 leans more towards the former than the latter, even though all the negatives mentioned above are present.  Much like HP6, the film is incredibly dark and bleak (visually, stylistically and in terms of plot), but probably even moreso because Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is finally back and is out to destroy his nemesis Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and all those who stand in his way, including Harry’s best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson).  With only half of the book and 146 minutes to play with, Yates has created a finely paced film that is more in-depth than the previous efforts.  There is more time for character development (particularly the relationship triangle between Harry, Ron and Hermoine), and thankfully, the once-were-babies actors have developed into fairly decent thespians.  Radcliffe, Grint and Watson all put in their best performances of the series.

The action sequences are also as good as anything we’ve seen before.  Of course, there’s the marvellous special effects, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that, unlike the previous six films, this one takes place almost entirely outside of Hogwarts, giving us a glimpse into the other parts of the Potter universe.

On the downside, truth be told, there really wasn’t a need to break the story into two parts.  HP7 (the book) was not even the longest of the series, and could have easily been squeezed into a single film with a 2.5-3 hour running time.  This would have meant a faster, more exciting film than what we’ll end up with, without the boring bits in the middle.  Speak of which, there were a few slow parts.  When I read the book, I remembered there was a long chunk where the kids were wandering around the countryside not knowing what they should be doing — I found that a bit slow in the book and it wasn’t that much better in the movie.

Moreover, non-fanatics ought to brush up on their knowledge of the series before watching the film.  If you go and watch the seventh film of a series without having watched any of the preceding six, then you deserve to be confused.  However, even as someone who has seen all the movies and read all the books, I had trouble remembering certain characters and their complex histories.  Bear in mind, the last book was released 40 months ago and the last movie 16 months ago.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only one!

But perhaps the most disappointing thing about HP7 is the ending, which I suppose was impossible to please fans anyway.  It ends on a relatively tame note that felt somewhat anti-climatic — even though it does promise A LOT for the next one.  For me, it felt kind of empty having gone through 146 minutes and not having even touched any of the really good stuff in the book.

When it’s all said and done, HP7 is another fine addition to what will already go down in history as an excellent, consistently high-quality film series.  It gives the fans what they want, which is lots of Harry and his world, with a bold promise of better things to come.  It is difficult to rate it as a standalone film because it isn’t, but taking all things into account, HP7 is still a enjoyable ride.

3.75 stars out of 5!

PS: Did I mention I’m so glad this movie was only released in 2D?

 
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