Movie Review: The Longest Ride (2015)

August 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I’m as shocked as you. The Longest Ride, the 10th Nicholas Sparks film adaptation, isn’t vomit-inducingly bad. In fact, it might just be the best Nicholas Sparks film since The Notebook.

Petite blonde Sophia (played by Tomorrowland‘s rising star Britt Robertson) follows her college sorority sisters to a bull riding event in North Carolina and meets the gentlemanly rider Luke (Clint Eastwood’s son, Scott). A natural attraction develops, but as a young woman with aspirations in the art world, Sophia is from a different world to the thrill-seeking Luke, and besides, she has secured an internship in New York that is set to commence in a couple of months.

For some contrived reason, the two also meet a mysterious old man named Ira (played by Alan Alda), who for another contrived reason starts telling Britt the story about the love of his life from back in the WWII era. The young Ira is played by Jack Huston and his girl is Charlie Chaplin’s real-life great-granddaughter Oona Chaplin.

So as with many of Sparks’s stories, The Longest Ride is a passionate love story that spans multiple generations and features an impossibly dashing, considerate, perfect man. It has old people, saccharine dates, romantic letters, contrived obstacles that get in the way of true love, and of course trips to the hospital. It’s a well-worn template, but a damn effective one judging by the fact that we’re now into double figures.

If they ever make a biopic about Sparks it should be titled What Women Want, because he seems to certainly know exactly what some members of the fairer sex demand. I think I’ve started to figure it out — it’s a man who is not just charming, handsome and ripped but also driven, annoyingly persistent, romantic, caring and always madly in love with you and only you until the end of time. In other words, it’s a man who doesn’t exist in reality.  It’s the same conceit that made Twilight and Fifty Shades commercial successes. Whoever creates a female version of the same character for a male audience he would be vilified, but a male version means $$$.

That said, The Longest Ride is less manipulative and cringeworthy than I expected. The opening scenes of when the young lovers meet had me worried, though as the story slowly progresses you start to get the feeling that these characters may be more “real” than they’ve been in any Sparks film for a long time. Some of the more emotional interactions, as ashamed as I am to admit, got to me.

Some of the credit has to go to the solid performances. Robertson and Eastwood do have chemistry and might be the better looking couple, though the romance between Huston and Chaplin’s characters is the stronger and more heart-string-tugging of the two. It’s supposed to be a secondary story that allows the core characters to reflect on their own lives, but in my opinion it overtakes them and becomes the heart and soul of the movie.

I didn’t really care for the bull riding aspect of the story. Like the way some people don’t get boxing, I don’t get bull riding. Why anyone would risk death and/or serious pain to stay on the back of an animal for a few seconds is a mystery I will probably never understand. I will say though that inserting bull riding into the romance is at least a little different and adds an old-fashioned, Americana charm to the film that I didn’t mind.

The Longest Ride is vintage Sparks in that it is corny and schmaltzy and a complete fantasy. It is also predictable, though, without giving too much away, not as predictable as some of Sparks’s other efforts, especially in how he decides to bring the story to a close. It’s not a conclusion I liked, but at least it doesn’t go down the exact same bittersweet path as some of his other films. And look, Sparks’s movies are the opposite of a box of chocolates — you always know what you’re gonna get — and in this case the quality of the chocolates are better than usual. What I’m trying to say, against my better judgment, is that I quite enjoyed it.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Age of Adaline (2015)

August 18, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Age of Adaline, about a beautiful woman who suddenly stops ageing, is one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen this year. I liked it from a big picture perspective, but if I start to think about the specifics it starts to creep me out a bit.

Blake Lively plays Adaline Bowman, a young widow and single mother who suddenly stops ageing at the age of 29 after an accident. Being unable to have  a lasting relationship with anyone apart from her daughter (Ellen Burstyn), Adaline is afraid to love and basically lives like the Cullen family from Twilight, using fake names and moving locations periodically to avoid being recognised.

It’s a fascinating concept filled with intriguing possibilities, but The Age of Adaline barely touches on any of them so it can focus solely on love. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially if the execution is as effective as it is here.

The story centres on Adaline’s relationships with two dudes — a young one played by Michiel Huisman (best known as Daario from Game of Thrones) and an old one played by Harrison Ford. I won’t divulge more than that except to say the dynamics are really weird; some might go as far as to call it plain wrong. Such is the problem with a woman who doesn’t age.

The best way to describe this film is a fantasy romance. It has a fantastical feel to it in the vein of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but it’s also a melodramatic love story that channels Nicholas Sparks. Not as cringy, of course, though it has the same type of sweetness and longing and regret Sparks is renowned for.

It’s a movie that relies on coincidences and promotes the idea of fate. It ignores what should be extreme awkwardness so it won’t get in the way of the “magical” vibe of the love story. There is even a narrator who talks like he’s reading from a children’s story book, explaining to us — in semi-scientific and semi-magical terms — precisely what is happening to Adaline’s body.

The result is a strange but also strangely satisfying experience. Full credit to Blake Lively for arguably the best performance of her career. I’ve always only seen her as Serena van der Woodsen from Gossip Girl, and this is the first time it feels like she has completely embodied a different character. It’s not easy playing someone who looks young but is old at heart, but she’s good enough to make it convincing, even when starring opposite a heavyweight like Burstyn who is 54 years older than her in real life.

Ford also puts in one of the best performances I’ve seen from him in years. I knew he could do brooding but I had no idea he could do yearning old man so well. Huisman, by comparison, is good-looking but isn’t charismatic enough to convince me that he would be capable of being the one to woo Adaline when so many others have failed.

At the end of the day, The Age of Adaline is a fable about mortality that doesn’t tell us anything new or better than what others have done before it. It’s also fantastical and absurd, though it’s hard to deny that there is a dreamy sweetness to the tale that tugs at all the right heart strings. While It may fall short of captivating, I found it entertaining and romantic enough to be enjoyable.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Her (2013)

February 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are) is one of the most interesting and exciting filmmakers around, so I was really looking forward to his latest, Her. And no, contrary to popular belief, it’s not an Arrested Development spin-off film about…

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Nominated for three Oscars (Best Picture, Original Screenplay and Original Song), Her is a riveting, poignant and strangely poetic sci-fi drama about a divorced man (Joaquin Phoenix) who dates his artificially intelligence-powered computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). I was sceptical initially and thought it might be gimmicky, or worse, silly, but I really should have had more faith in the genius of Jonze (writer and director) and the brilliance of Phoenix, who proves again that he’s one of the most talented actors of his generation.

Like the best sci-fi stories, Her doesn’t require an introductory slab of exposition to explain to us the world the film is set in. It’s presented, as-a-matter-of-factly, from the very first scene about Joaquin’s wonderful and highly unusual job, with other features of this futuristic/alternate reality gradually leaked to us, piece by piece, throughout the rest of the 126-minute running time. Such is the mastery of the storytelling that you don’t question the logic of its universe — you just accept it, and soon, you believe it.

The world Jonze paints in Her is not apocalytpic or dystopian, nor is it really more alarming than most of what we already see today. People’s lives or interconnected with their mobile devices, which are linked to (what I assume are Bluetooth) earpieces and microphones, and spend all day conversing with their operating systems, which they can order to do effectively everything we do on our smartphones right now, and more. When we see Joaquin on the subway or walking down the street, there is very little human interaction as everyone is immersed in their down little digital world. The message is clear but subtle.

I found this world incredibly sad, but at the same time I envied how convenient life had become. Seriously, wouldn’t it be great to have an operating system you can talk to, who is tailored to your needs can sort through your hard drive on your behalf, can give you recommendations on what to see or do, write and send emails as you dictate, laugh at your jokes, or even just be there for you when you feel like you need someone to talk to? Eat your heart out, Siri, you piece of crap.

In many ways, the opening of Her reminds me of one of those awesome episodes of Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits I used to enjoy so much as a kid, with shades of that wonderful Charlie Booker British series Black Mirror. It takes a simple idea from our present world — in this case our increasing reliance, dependence and even obsession with computers and computerized gadgets — and applies a clever and satirical twist to it. But as the film progresses, Her shuns the cliches and exceeds those types of stories (which often have some sort of chilling ending) by becoming a genuinely touching story about a man’s — and reflectively, our own — desire to connect with other people in this increasingly hi-tech age.

It feels strange to say this about a relationship between a person and a computer, but Her is surprisingly romantic. I would go as far as to say that there are times when the film comes across as eerie, but the core of the romance itself never feels creepy. Credit has to go to Joaquin Phoenix for a skilfully restrained performance that makes us believe, first of all, that a person can have feelings towards a computer, and more importantly, in the mixed emotions that come from it. The voice performance of Scarlett Johansson is also incredible. As recognizable as her voice is, it didn’t feel like I was listening to Scarlett Johansson the actress, but rather, the computer operating system known as Samantha. But more than that, I cared about her as a person, which helped me understand why Joaquin’s character did too.

I also had no idea that the film features so many other big names such as Amy Adams, who plays Joaquin’s longtime friend, Chris Pratt, a work funny work colleague, Rooney Mara, as Joaquin’s ex, and Olivia Wilde, a blind date. All of them have their purpose and are memorable in their own way but don’t take steal the limelight from the central romance.

The film is a little too long, with the third act losing steam as Jonze winds down the storyline to find a suitable ending for his protagonists. But on the whole, Her is a sci-fi near-masterpiece that’s sweet, wise, smart, and filled with really creative and cool — albeit disturbing — ideas about the future that aren’t too far-fetched for us to believe that it could soon become a reality. Strictly speaking, I’d say I was probably impressed with Her more than I enjoyed it, but it’s without a doubt one of the finest motion pictures of the year, a film anyone who has ever experienced social loneliness or smartphone addiction can relate to.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

February 12, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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For some time now I have heard about this “amazing” French movie, Blue Is the Warmest Color, about the relationship between two lesbian lovers.  The film was an unanimous choice for the Palme d’Or from the official jury of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and critics raved about the performances, and yet it was largely overshadowed by the hype over the explicit sex scenes, and later, the controversy over the complaints against director Abdellatif Kechiche made by the film’s two stars, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. And so I checked out the film with a healthy mix of curiosity and scepticism, though I never expected to end up being blown away by the experience. For once, they were right: Blue Is the Warmest Color is an amazing film, one of the best love stories ever depicted on screen.

For starters, let’s not tiptoe around the lesbian theme — some people might be uncomfortable with it for whatever reason (and indeed I had my own reservations about it, believing that it could have just been a gimmick or exploitative) — but honestly, I was so emotionally invested in the characters and their relationship that by the end their sexual orientation became completely irrelevant. The emotions and heartbreak were so agonisingly real that I almost forgot I was watching a film, and I couldn’t believe it when both my wife and I uncontrollably teared up. (What is this salty discharge?)

Based on a graphic novel of the same name, Blue is the Warmest Color begins with high school student Adele being a normal adolescent trying to fit in with the crowd while discovering her sexuality. Two chance meetings — the first of which was just a glance on the street — with blue-haired artist Emma (Lea) changes her life as the two start a love affair which we follow over the course of several years.

It’s not the typical fairytale or whirlwind romance we’re accustomed to seeing in Hollywood films. It’s sometimes passionate, sometimes emotional, sometimes painful and sometimes banal — like real life. And it’s all very raw. But it’s precisely because of that the relationship comes across as genuine and believable, and before you know it you are sucked into their world and into their hearts. The fact that it’s a lesbian relationship does provide some additional friction — such as meeting parents and dealing with the attitudes of bigots — but it’s really no different to other relationship challenges experienced by other couples, gay or otherwise.

It’s a 3-hour film that doesn’t feel like one, an impressive feat given that it’s not action packed or a Lord of the Rings-esque epic. Every long conversation, every longing glance had my full attention, and I was almost sad when the credits started rolling. The length is important because the film does a particularly fantastic job of depicting how feelings can change over time, and the vulnerability, isolation and loneliness people can sometimes feel even when they are supposedly in a loving relationship.

The performances have been lauded and rightfully so. Both actresses are phenomenal and it’s not surprise that they received the Palme d’Or along with the director. Newcomer Adele, as the younger of the two, gets to express more emotion and delivers a powerhouse performance that should have earned recognition from the Academy this year. Lea, who was in Inglourious Basterds and stole Owen Wilson’s (and my) heart in Midnight in Paris, is more mature and reserved, but she’s equally good as the ying to Adele’s yang. Both are straight in real life but you could have fooled me into believing otherwise after seeing the emotions in their eyes in a few of the film’s key scenes.

The sex scenes have received a lot of attention for their graphic nature (apparently it’s aided by “prosthetics” and “effects”) and criticised for being unrealistic and too long. I understand the need to exhibit their passion, but I do agree that they are a bit “too much” and unnecessarily long. Seriously, outside of porn, is there a need for a single sex scene longer than 10 minutes? I mean, I found it educational and all (I was like, “so that’s how they do it”), but I highly doubt shortening the scenes and toning them down a little would have much of an effect on the emotional impact of the film overall. So yeah, I found it gratuitous. As for unrealistic? Heck, how would I know? All I know is that the same could easily be said for most straight Hollywood sex scenes.

Notwithstanding that one minor complaint, Blue is the Warmest Color is an outstanding film, a seductive, beautiful and breathtaking coming-of-age story about not just the discovery of sexuality but about finding out who you are and what you want in life. If you’ve ever fallen in love or had your heart broken then you need to see this film. It might crush your soul in the process but it’s a powerful experience that’s well worth the cost. One of the best films of the year and the best romance I’ve seen. Period.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Before Midnight (2013)

January 17, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It usually takes me a little while to get around to reviewing a movie after watching it, but I’m making an exception for Before Midnight, the third and final installment in Richard Linklater’s brilliant 20-year trilogy. Continuing the story of its predecessors, 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset, this one follows Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s characters Jesse and Celine on a holiday in Greece, which not only provides closure after the cliffhanger ending in the second film, but also brings us up-to-date with what has happened to them and their relationship over the past decade (which I won’t spoil here).

I loved the first two films and of course I loved this one too. Hawke and Delpy, both of whom worked on the screenplay with Linklater, are just the best on-screen couple ever. The chemistry between them was amazing 20 years ago and remains amazing now, but it’s also evolved and matured as they’ve aged. As a result, their interactions feel so genuine and so full of raw emotion that when watching the film I often forgot they are not a couple in real life.

The astounding thing about the Before trilogy is that every film is similar on paper but completely different in terms of themes and emotional impact. All three about the relationship of Jesse and Celine. They are all dominated by conversation about love and life, sometimes about deep things, sometimes about trivial things, but always traversing engaging topics. They are each set in a different city (Vienna, Paris, and now the Peloponnese in Greece) and feature long walks that show off their beautiful scenery.

Before Sunrise, however, was magical love story about two young people making a real connection, whereas Before Sunset, which I thought was even better, was all about the pain of missed opportunities and wondering what could have been. On the other hand, Before Midnight (which many have mistaken for a horror film title, by the way), is about the harsh, and often heartbreaking realities of what happens after the happily ever after, and asks us whether the struggles and disagreements and sacrifice are, perhaps, what true love is ultimately all about.

In many ways, Before Midnight is the by far the most cynical of the three, but it is also the most down to earth. As beautiful as their one night in Vienna was 20 years ago, a relationship cannot just be about one night. There are countless forces working against couples in the real world, from children, to ex-partners, to work, and so forth, not to mention that the nature of the relationship itself can change drastically over time. It may have felt at one stage that Jesse and Celine were meant to be together forever, but after all this time, are they still truly in love? Are they still passionate about each other? And what is the nature of that love, that passion? That is what the film explores, and it does so with incredible direction, performances and dialogue.

One of the opening sequences, a 12-minute, single-take conversation between Jesse and Celine as they drive past the beautiful Greek countryside, is a perfect illustration of why this trilogy is so special. Another one of my favourite scenes (apart from the climatic and perfect ending) has Jesse telling the other men staying with him at the Greek villa the contents of his novels, which evoke clever parallels with the film trilogy. Unfortunately, Before Midnight inexplicably missed out on the Golden Globes completely apart from a single nomination to Delpy, and it will be interesting to see if it gets any nods at the upcoming Oscars.

Granted, Before Midnight will not be everyone’s cup of tea. While it is occasionally funny, it is at times also difficult to watch. People who haven’t seen the first two films will definitely not appreciate it as much because they don’t know the characters as well (which is why you should definitely see them in chronological order), and could find some of the conversations bordering on pretentious or unnecessarily sexualized. But if you were caught up in the magic, like I have been since Before Sunrise, you’ll understand who these flawed people are and appreciate that you are watching the memorable conclusion to what is without a doubt one of the best — if not the best — dramatic trilogies of all time.

4.5 stars out of 5