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

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

December 25, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Why is Jennifer Lawrence so awesome?

Finally, back to the cinema! I had been dying to watch The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment in the trilogy, since the credits started rolling on the first film, which I thought was a brilliant adaptation of a fine book. Expectations were especially heightened given that the second book is my favourite of the entire series.

My first impression of Catching Fire is: very good again, on par with the first film in terms of execution and remaining faithful to the source material, but falling a little short of my lofty expectations. In many ways, it’s simply an extension of the first film (despite replacing director Gary Ross with Francis Lawrence, who did I Am Legend and Water for Elephants), with the same structure, mood and tone (unlike the first few Harry Potter movies where each installment was like a standalone adventure), a tale that has no real beginning and no real end, which I’m sure affected the overall experience.

No time is wasted in setting up the premise this time as audiences are presumed to know the kind of world the film is set in and what the characters just went through. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has returned back to District 12 along with co-winner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and live in the almost ghost town-like winners village previously inhabited by the only other District 12 winner in history, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). The trio are about to embark on a tour of the country to celebrate their victory, but the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), fearing that Katniss is becoming the symbol of a potential uprising, wants her dead. If you didn’t get any of that, chances are you’ll need to brush up on your Hunger Games knowledge, because there’s no spoon feeding of information this time around.

While the story is a continuation, it does go into more depth and explores their world and history in more detail. The characters are fleshed out more and relationships and alliances are questioned and tested. And don’t forget, there is that semi-love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), which is played out with a minimal amount of cringe (at least when compared to Twilight). The love story is a key part of The Hunger Games, but it doesn’t dominate it, and we can all be thankful for that.

What I love about the book, which the film follows closely, is the clever way in which (I suppose I should say spoiler alert here) the story finds a way to bring Katniss and Peeta back to the Hunger Games arena again without making it feel like a rehash. The stakes are raised, the dangers are magnified, and the creativity of the head gamekeeper (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is on full display. We are comforted by the return of familiar characters and excited by the addition of intriguing new ones, each with their own eccentricities and backstories and all appearing to be hiding a secret or two.

 

Unfortunately, the time in the arena is relatively short, or at least it feels that way. I complained about the overlong set up in the first film and I make the same complaint again here. It’s actually worse this time as the amount of real interaction between Katniss and her enemies feels quite limited, whereas the time out of the arena — the preparation, the training, the political posturing — felt much longer by comparison. And even though her foes this time are much more formidable we don’t get to see them nearly enough, especially after they have been hyped up beforehand.

One other complaint I have is the ending, which was incredibly exciting and cliffhangery in the book but came across as somewhat anti-climatic in the film. It was rushed, strangely, given by that time the film was already pushing 2.5 hours, and didn’t do enough to set the stage for the final chapter.

On the whole, there is still a lot to like about Catching Fire. For starters, Jennifer Lawrence is as awesome as ever, and this time she is joined by some really impressive names such as the aforementioned Hoffman, as well as Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone and Sam Clafin as a surprisingly good Finnick Odair. Returning stars such as Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz also make their mark without stealing any of Lawrence’s thunder. The second film in a planned trilogy is always tricky, but for the most part Catching Fire delivers with its star power, intriguing visuals and engrossing storyline. I do think the script may have followed the structure of the novels perhaps too closely — resulting in some of my gripes — and could have benefited from a less linear narrative structure, though when all is said and done it’s a solid effort and an enjoyable 2.5 hours of drama and action. I just think it could have been better.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I’m lowering my expectations substantially for the next two installments . Yes, they are also splitting the final book, Mockingjay, into two parts, damn moneygrubbers.

Movie Review: The Hangover Part III (2013)

June 30, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Hangover Part III is a misleading title because, unlike the first two films in the series, there is no hangover involved. Everyone is, for the most part, sober, meaning the film is not (thankfully) rehashing the old formula where a bunch of guys wake up from being so drunk that they have to retrace their steps to figure out what on earth happened the night before. What Part III is, in effect, is a heist film, and I’m not quite sure if that is a good thing.

In the “epic finale” to the Hangover trilogy, the Wolfpack’s past catches up with them and they must help a gangster (played by John Goodman) track down insane escaped prisoner Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong). The Wolfpack spends the majority of the film running around trying to break into places and doing stupid stuff. Instead of trying to figure out what happened the night before, they are trying to figure out how to stay alive. It’s different to the formula that made the original such a huge hit, but after the vitriol that followed the second film, it was indeed time to make a change.

For me, the problem with Part III is that it’s still just not that funny. Most of the laughs, which are extremely hit-and-miss, still come from two sources — Zach Galifianakis’s mentally disturbed Alan, and the crazy and over-the-top antics of Ken Jeong as Chow. Both of these characters are essentially one-trick ponies. Alan does and says stupid, infantile and random things, and Chow is just nuts. You may get a couple of giggles here and there if that’s your thing, but the act gets old in a hurry. And if you already had enough of both of these guys after the two previous films, then chances are you’ll hate this one.

On the positive side, at least the plot is different to its two predecessors, and because of that there is an element of freshness. But even as a heist film, it’s still not very good. The ideas and the action are all rather stale and offer no genuine excitement. I guess it’s hard to get excited when you never really cared about any of the characters.

Now keep in mind, I wasn’t one of those people who fell madly in love with the original Hangover, which was an instant hit lauded for its outrageousness and comedic sting, and more or less made the careers of Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis (and to a lesser extent Ed Helms and Ken Jeong). I didn’t find it particularly funny apart from some unexpected Ken Jeong moments, and he got on my nerves after a little while. The second film was a disaster and one of the worst films of 2011. It was offensive and painfully unfunny.

So in comparison, I suppose Part III isn’t too bad. It’s better than the second film by default but lacks the explosiveness of the original, which I didn’t find that great either. It’s just a barely passable comedy, and only if you really like the stars.

2 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Fifty Shades Freed’ by EL James

January 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Fifty Shades Freed

Fifty Shades Freed is the perfect title to the third and final book of EL James’s 50 Shades Trilogy. After struggling with to get through this book for months, I can finally say, “I have been freed!” Freed from one of the worst pieces of crap I have ever read.

You may ask why I would read something I find so horrible — and trust me, I have asked myself that question several times — but the Fifty Shades trilogy is actually an excellent lesson in bad writing and how to avoid it. I may not be a good writer, but I sure know terrible writing when I see it. This is not to say James is necessarily a bad writer. As Anne Lamont wrote in Bird by Bird, almost all writers start off with shitty first drafts. All of Fifty Shades is, essentially, is a shitty first draft. It could have been pared back,  fixed up and improved significantly with two or three (most probably more) rewrites, but instead, we were given the product in practically raw form. And it’s ghastly.

I had tried to defend the first two books of the series to some degree, but I simply cannot think of one redeeming feature about this one. The first entry, Fifty Shades of Grey, was at least fresh and had some interesting dynamics as our protagonist, Anastasia Steele, is courted by the enigmatic, impossibly handsome and super rich Christian Grey. The second book has the couple reconciling after a brief break up and then has them “getting to know each other” a little better, before ending with a really bizarre epilogue that foreshadowed the rise of a nasty villain in the final book.

Well, this so-called villain turned out to be completely pathetic and incapable of generating any tension whatsoever. He/she was a completely different person to the character that James had described and depicted in the first book and a half. It just made no sense at all. Even when this villain made a final appearance for the “climax” it was still incredibly lame, and again, made no sense at all. I can’t say too much without giving away the “twists”, but whole thing made less sense than Mulholland Drive multiplied by Primer.

To insult readers further, instead of explaining why a certain part of the story didn’t make sense in the aftermath of the climax, James added an “author’s note” at the end and inserted an additional conversation to fudge the plot back into coherence. Unfortunately she needed another dozen authors notes to explain all the other stuff that remained inexplicable.

Enough with the villain, who is, to be fair, only a tiny part of the book. The majority of Fifty Shades Freed is still devoted to the unbearably saccharine relationship between Ana and Christian. I tried my best but I just couldn’t find anything real about their relationship, their emotions or their personalities.

Ana loves Christian so much and Christian loves Ana so so much. They can’t live without each other despite their respective flaws. Christian is so unbelievably beautiful and domineering and rich and a sex god. Ana can’t believe how lucky she is. Women can’t stop making passes at her man and she can’t stop rolling her eyes at them. James keeps telling us the same things over and over, rubbing it in our faces and shoving it down our throats — for 1,500+ pages.

But having them constantly and repeatedly tell each other how much love is in the air doesn’t make us feel that love. In fact, the more times they said it (almost every second page, really) the less convinced I became. To James’s credit, she does tone down the pointless email conversations and the inner goddess/subconscious gymnastics that irked me so much in the first two books, but to be honest I still had to regularly break out the speed reading I learned in high school (which had not been utilized for fiction in more than a decade) just so I could get through the worst sections.

As for the sex — there wasn’t a whole lot, and what was left behind lacked the passion of the earlier entries in the series. If Fifty Shades of Grey was all hot and heavy between two horny teenagers, then Fifty Shades Freed is like an old couple who have been married for 60 years and lost their libidos long ago.

Without arguably the best part of the novels working its magic, Fifty Shades Freed was more or less a fantasy diary that simply went on and on aimlessly and kept rehashing the same things. I don’t remember ever reading something so repetitive and tedious. There probably was an attempt at plotting, but it sure didn’t feel like it. The efforts at creating tension were horrendous — SPOILER ALERT — with the car chase and kidnapping the most laughable examples.

To top things off, at the very end of the book there is a retelling of the first encounter between Christian and Ana — but this time, from Christian’s perspective (I believe it was attempting to mirror what Stephenie Meyer tried to do with Twilight until it was leaked online and she scrapped it). If there was ever any charm to this Christian fellow, James’s misguided attempt at his male voice pretty much destroyed it. Instead of remaining this enigmatic, tortured soul with a heart of gold, Christian Grey turned out to be, as feared, an obnoxious prick with only one thing on his mind.

Good for James and the millions she has raked in, but personally, I’m just glad it’s all over.

0.5/5

Book Review: ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ by EL James

November 28, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

There are significantly fewer reviews of Fifty Shades Darker, the second book of the Fifty Shades Trilogy by EL James, than its predecessor. My guess is that the reason is the same as why sales of the trilogy have dipped noticeably after the first book: readers stopped being titillated by the erotica and got sick of the Twilightesque melodrama and bad writing.

As for me, after powering through the first 150 pages of Fifty Shades of Grey (review here) with ease and excitement, I am saddened to say that the rest of the series has thus far been a chore to get through. I began reading Fifty Shades Darker immediately after the first book, and even though I had a lot going on in between, it still took me a full four months to complete.

(By the way, this review is going to have spoilers for those who haven’t read the first book, so be warned.)

Fifty Shades Darker picks up almost right where Fifty Shades of Grey left off — the young, recently deflowered Anastasia Steele (based on Bella Swan from Twilight) is devastated because had just broken up with her young billionaire lover Christian Grey (based on Edward Cullen from Twilight) over her belief that she can never fully satisfy his sadomasochistic desires.

We were left thinking that the spanking, nipple clamps and anal beads were going to be a deal-breaker for these two star-crossed lovers, but for some inexplicable reason they are back getting it on by chapter two as though nothing ever went wrong in their relationship and all problems have been forgotten.

I don’t get it either, but rest assured that the young couple is less tormented by each other in this second book and more by external forces who want to keep them apart.

In a sign that James’s planning and structuring has improved, the story feels slightly less “roaming” and has identifiable story arcs this time. There’s Ana’s sleazy boss who continues to hit on her, Christian’s “Mrs Robinson”, the woman who “saved his life” but turned him into a freak in the bedroom, and some skinny-ass looney girl who used to be one of Christian’s subordinates and can’t get over him. These stumbling blocks appear intermittently throughout this 544-page (paperback) epic to offer some breathing room from the passions of the central characters and to inject some much-needed tension and suspense.

The writing is also generally better, with improvements addressing some of my worst complaints from the first book, but on the whole it is still messy and occasionally downright amateurish. On the bright side, James has cut down on her reliance on mundane email correspondences (that go on for pages and pages without purpose), the constant blushing, cocking of the head to one side and the repetitive descriptions of Christian’s unbelievable beauty — though I suspect the reason is because James got sick of writing these things over and over as opposed to a conscious decision to pare back.

Hanging around, however, the unbearable references to Ana’s “subconscious” and her “inner goddess”, which still drive me up the wall every time they start doing backflips and other acrobatic crap (which is probably at least a hundred times). They are not the same thing, by the way, because she sometimes refers to them both in the same sentence. And call me pedantic, but how can anyone be CONSCIOUSLY aware of what their SUBCONSCIOUS is thinking or doing is beyond me.

You can also almost tell from reading the book when James begins and ends a session of writing because she goes through phases where certain terms are used repeatedly and excessively. For instance, she goes through chunks of the book referring to Christian as “Fifty”. Maybe I’m being a dick here, but I can’t imagine anyone thinking it is endearing to nickname the love of their life a “number” representing their psychotic behaviour and bi-polar tendencies (well, maybe apart from 50 Cent).

Another interesting style change is James’s decision to cut back on the sex scenes, even using the “fade-to-black and skip to next scene” technique we often see in PG movies. It’s a catch-22, really, because when I was reading the sex scenes I was like, “Man, this is so boring and repetitive, I wish she would just skip it”, and when she skipped them I was like “Man, why am I reading this book if she’s skipping all the good parts?” — before realising how unfair I was being.

You can also tell that James has been experimenting after reading too many commercial crime thrillers. Bearing in mind that the series is otherwise told entirely through a first person narrative from Ana’s perspective, the introduction to the novel is inexplicably written in first person through the eyes of Christian when he was a child — and it’s an insignificant piece of information that gets little attention for the rest of the novel. Even more bizarre is the sudden turn to third person narrative for the final pages of the book, from the perspective of a character who has, up to that point, been little more than an annoying, inept nuisance, but is for some reason set up to be the major villain in the final novel. Your guess is as good as mine.

Strangely, despite all my bitching, I actually think Fifty Shades Darker is, on the whole, no better or worse than its predecessor. It’s a different kind of novel that does some things better and other things worse, is more consistent but has less highs and lows. The series has kind of transformed since the first book, much like a relationship. It started off hot and heavy but its mellowing and become more about the emotional connection than the physical one. For some readers, that might be refreshing, and dare I say, rewarding.

There are three problems, though. One, people started reading the book because of the erotica, and the erotica is not that exciting anymore. Two, the relationship has never been very interesting or believable. And three, the book is way too freaking long.

2 out of 5

PS: Yep, reading the third book now.

 
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