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Magic in the Moonlight

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Colin Firth’s expression on the poster was exactly how I had felt upon seeing the trailer for the latest Woody Allen film. Upon viewing, it looked very Woody Allen-esque, with not a lot to stand out from the crowd. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Allen hits another home run with Magic in the Moonlight. Sure, it’s no Blue Jasmine, but Magic has plenty of charm and wonder to keep you invested, with great characters and many memorable moments.

Magic in the Moonlight stars Colin Firth as Stanley/Wei Ling Soo, a British performance artist. Stanley is sent by an acquaintance to the Catledges, a rich American family, who have fallen under the spell of a mystic named Sophie (Emma Stone). The setup is all very quick, and doesn’t provide much reasoning given our limited knowledge of the characters at this point in the film. Stanley’s job is the unmask Sophie and expose her as a fraud, but professional complications get in the way as he has trouble exposing Sophie’s secrets.

You’ll just want to roll with the premise, as the conflict starts very quickly, but going along for the ride is half the fun. Firth is excellent as Stanley, the dark cynic in the magical trance of the Catledges. His chemistry with the much younger Stone is surprisingly pleasant, and the two shine whenever they are on screen together. Stone however, steals the show. The séance scene is absolutely hysterical, and Stone flexes her comedic witticisms in full force. The rest of the cast is, unfortunately, forgettable and underdeveloped, save for a feverish Jackie Weaver as grandmother Grace.

All of this breezes along at a brisk pace, typical of a Woody Allen film. The film loses some steam towards the end, and I thought the film would end multiple times before it did. Despite a few too many scenes at the resolution, Magic in the Moonlight never overstays its welcome, and the ending is quite memorable. Definitely not the worst Woody Allen film, but far from the best, Magic in the Moonlight is worth your time, due in part to Firth and Stone but also in part to its witty sense of wonder and enchantment.

 
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Posted by on August 4, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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Boyhood

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If you’ve heard the buzz around Boyhood, you know then that it isn’t quite your typical film. Beginning in 2002, Richard Linklater cast a young boy named Ellar Coltrane to participate in an experimental film, following the life of a boy named Mason. In Boyhood, what plays out is Mason’s years from when he is six years old up until when he turns 18 and graduates high school. We see Mason’s young life with his mother and sister Samantha. We see his mother jump around from husband to husband. We see Mason’s relationship with his father. We are casual observers into the extremely detailed boyhood of this young kid.

And it’s quite a wonder seeing everything unfold on-screen. We see every gritty detail of Mason’s young life. This wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for Linklater’s ability as a writer and director. Such a unique film demands such a unique structure and storywriting. A good example of Linklater’s style comes whenever Mason examines his mother having a conversation with another man. The film then will jump in time, to when she is married to this man and Mason is in another stage of his life. It offers a unique way to push the “narrative” (if you will), without ever feeling jumpy or confined.

As you can probably tell, Boyhood isn’t entirely about Mason. It’s also about parenthood, adulthood, and much much more. Patricia Arquette is brilliant as Mason’s mother. She is just as prominent and well-developed as Mason is, and she is an integral part to both his and his sister’s lives. You see the pain in her eyes after a fight with her husband. You also see the joy she can express when Mason graduates high school. Arquette’s wide range of acting ability is on full display here, and it’s quite a show. Equally as impressive is Ethan Hawke as Mason’s father. Hawke has become Linklater’s star lately, and while he isn’t on-screen for very long, when he is he shines. Hawke’s character undergoes a unique development, and his follows a path that the viewer might not expect.

At 165 minutes long, Boyhood doesn’t waste a single minute of screentime. Each scene has its purpose, whether it’s Mason’s first beer or a fight with his stepfather. From the moment you step into Mason’s world, you are entranced. This is in part due to Linklater’s sense of time and place. You’ll hear popular songs from that point in time, and you’ll see and hear about worldly events. In one scene, Mason’s dad goes on about the War in Iraq. In another, Mason’s stepfather is discussing 9/11. It’s such a modern movie that uses good sense of time to enhance its storytelling and draw the viewer in even more. It’s also bitingly funny, and the dialogue is on-point at times.

Linklater’s risky experiment pays off here in Boyhood. By appealing to the viewer’s nostalgic heartstrings, Linklater offers a glimpse into the life of a young boy. It’s not for everyone, but Boyhood should be commended for trying something totally different, and the payoff is simply sweet.

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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Obvious Child

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Obvious Child is a perfect vehicle for the star-in-the-making Jenny Slate. The SNL alum delivers a brilliant film with Obvious Child, which will hopefully paves the way for more unique and less formulaic romantic comedies. Both expertly written and brutally and honestly funny, Obvious Child seems less concerned with agendas and more concerned with honesty in its characters, and this elevates it above standard fare.

Donna (Jenny Slate) is a stand-up comedian who has been recently dumped and lives in a bookstore in New York. Not the prettiest portrait, but it’s something that we’ve come to see a lot of lately in modern media – more honest portrayals of young adult life with shows like Girls and Broad City and movies like Frances Ha. 

After a one night stand with a man named Max (Jake Lacy), Donna finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, just in time for Valentine’s Day. She seeks advice from her friends and her parents, and ultimately settles on having an abortion.

What’s great about Obvious Child is its no holds barred, carefree attitude. It plays like a romantic comedy, but not in the traditional ways. It tackles tough issues like abortion and young adulthood, but it does it in a more honest and open way. Donna is a very well-written character, and follows an interesting arc throughout the film. Along the way, she faces many internal struggles with her relationship with Max, and she must decide if she wants something more. She’s an interesting character study for a new 21st century kind of woman.

Jenny Slate is the perfect actress for Donna. With her quick one-liners and self-deprecating standup comedy, Donna isn’t your traditional heroine. But the character created by Robespierre is a likable and unique woman, both independent and non-hesitant. Excellent supporting roles from Gaby Hoffmann and Gabe Liedman round out Donna’s posse, and the film features many memorable moments between Donna and her roommate. A brilliant scene comes when Donna first finds out that she is pregnant, and talks with her roommate Nellie about her personal experience with her abortion.

Obvious Child is a great first work from director Gillian Robespierre. A standout performance from Slate solidifies her as one of the finest actresses in recent years, and I hope to see more from her in the future. At part times honest, and at others carefree, Obvious Child is the perfect summer indie.

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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22 Jump Street

22 Jump Street

22 Jump Street is a hugely entertaining sequel, thanks to some brilliant writing and more great work from Hill and Tatum

If there’s one criticism I have about 22 Jump Street, it’s that the movie feels too similar to 21 Jump Street. But is that really a complaint? With 22 Jump Street, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The LEGO Movie) have created a massively entertaining ride, with more antics from the characters we love, and better performances all around.

This time around, they’re going to college. Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it before. As Ice Cube says at the end of the first film, in which the two went undercover at a high school, the tables have been turned and they’re going to college now. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) must once again go undercover at MC State to bust another drug operation, this time called WHYPHY (work hard? yes. play hard? yes.)

What worked with 21 Jump Street works again in 22 Jump Street. The excellent characters of Schmidt and Jenko are once again paired to make a hilarious and charismatic duo. Their personalities clash once more, but in a different way than the first film, and they get into even more crazy shenanigans than before. This includes having a shootout in the university library and busting a Spring Break beach party. 22 Jump Street always keeps you on edge, wondering what will happen next. While the plot is pretty standard and similar to the first film, you’ll want to stick around because you love these characters so much. New characters such as Zook (Wyatt Russell) and Mercedes (Jillian Bell) feel right at home within the crazy cast. Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) is also in rare form, delivering some of the film’s best moments.

This is a testament to Hill and Tatum, who put so much work into creating these characters. Jenko settles into the football team, and makes friends at a fraternity, while Schmidt performs slam poetry and does many walks of shame. Hill and Tatum are in top form. Their chemistry is better than ever, making 22 Jump Street a hilarious buddy comedy. Try not to laugh when Schmidt does slam poetry to impress a girl, I dare you.

What makes 22 Jump Street feel special is its self-referential attitude and countless meta jokes. Police chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) essentially explains why this movie was made within the first 10 minutes, saying “no one cared about the Jump Street reboot, but you guys got lucky.” It’s a funny way to be self-deprecating and hilarious at the same time. It plays to the audience’s intelligence, rather than making them feel stupid. Other references are more subtle, like when Schmidt keeps asking about the film’s budget. It all plays into a very interesting and unique humor style. While there are plenty of raunchy jokes (right in the crack), the film’s best come from its self-referencing.

So, now for the all-important question: is 22 Jump Street better than the original? With its meta jokes and its excellent characterization, 22 Jump Street is a rousing success, and matches the original in sheer humor. But the plot feels too similar to the original. While this may be a fault in the film’s format, a few more twists would have been appreciated. Still, 22 Jump Street is a hilarious ride, one definitely worth taking.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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Neighbors

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Neighbors has no right to be this funny – But it delivers thanks to charismatic lead characters and a host of gags and jokes.

Seth Rogen may have fallen into his niche, delivering solid hits like This is the End and Pineapple Express, but Neighbors still shows that the funny man has something to prove. Thanks to its charismatic lead actors, Neighbors isn’t a boring old comedy. Instead, you get a refreshing, original, raunchy as hell crowd pleaser that succeeds in almost every aspect.

The “family vs. frat” tagline serves as excellent marketing for a clear and understandable premise, but there’s more going on here than one might think. Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), new parents, get in over their heads when a frat house moves in next door. While the frat, led by Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco), parties hard, Mac and Kelly just want some sleep for their newborn. What escalates is a full-blown war, where nothing is off limits.

But amidst all the pranks and the parties, Neighbors is more complex than its surface. Unlike other R-rated comedies, Neighbors has well-developed characters. Mac and Kelly are parents with clear motivations, but they’re not those boring hard-ass couples who have no fun. They both party hard with the frat, and when they eventually go to war, nothing is off limits for the two parents. This includes setting up the frat vice president with the president’s girlfriend, and launching fireworks out of the house.

This craziness is a compliment to both Rogen and Byrne’s acting ability as well as their on-screen chemistry. Rogen may not have the acting chops of the rest of the cast, but his delivery is on-point. Most surprising is Byrne, who showed that she can be funny with Bridesmaids. She is the breakout star of the film, showing that a new mother can be just as hardcore as a fraternity. Zac Efron also surprises in one of his first comedic roles. His charismatic president personality kind of comes off as a caricature, but that’s the point of these characters.

Even the frat brothers are well developed. Pete’s desire to do well in school and Teddy’s dreams to make a name for himself give these characters some depth more than just as pranksters. Neighbors has no need to give these characters depth; the film is funny on its own. But it does, and the payoff is excellent. One under appreciated scene stealer comes from Ike Barinholtz as Jimmy, Mac’s coworker. The The Mindy Project star finally gets his first time in the spotlight, and now he’s definitely one to watch.

Neighbors is a party worth checking out. The jokes and visual gags are outrageous, the acting is stellar, and the characters are much better than they need to be. It’s not changing the comedy game or anything, but it’s the funniest film of 2014 thus far, and you’ll be laughing about some of these jokes long after the movie ends. At only 90 minutes, you won’t want to leave Neighbors, and that’s a testament to what a true comedy should do.

 

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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It’s tough to say, but The Winter Soldier is Marvel’s best film to date, due in part to its accessibility, making it enjoyable for just about anyone.

I don’t consider myself a die-hard Marvel fan. I enjoyed The Avengers, and I like Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man trilogy, but I haven’t followed any Marvel lore or read any comics. That said, I loved Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Rather than requiring the viewer to have extensive knowledge about Steve Rodgers and the eclectic band of S.H.I.E.L.D. workers, the Russo brothers have made an enjoyable, first-rate action thriller that anyone can enjoy. The Winter Soldier is on par with great espionage movies like James Bond and the Bourne trilogy. The plot is easy enough to understand and still fun to enjoy, the action sequences are top-notch, and there is a coat of polish glimmering the film that wasn’t present in films like Thor or The Incredible Hulk.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up where the first film left off. Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is now in the present day, and faces the challenge of adapting to the 21st century lifestyle. His culture-shock experience is fun to watch, and makes for interesting dialogue. When an internal threat in S.H.I.E.L.D. is exposed, Captain America, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) find themselves on the outside. The new face of S.H.I.E.L.D., Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) takes over. All while this is happening, the Captain traces the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), the Soviet’s answer to Captain America, leading into a corporate conspiracy on governmental internal ops in Washington D.C.

All of this is very fun to watch. Everything unfolds at a pace that is appropriate for all viewers, Marvel fans or not. That’s their biggest victory with the film. Unlike Thor 2, The Winter Soldier is immediately accessible. I could see my parents enjoying this film. The tone of the film is also great; part Cold War espionage thriller, part Superhero flick, The Winter Soldier blends these elements into something greater, and it’s a thrill to watch it all unfold on screen. Twists and turns, conspiracies everywhere, The Winter Soldier has you on the edge of your seat. It’s never predictable, and always surprising.

I will say that I’m still not convinced that Chris Evans has 100% settled into the role of Captain America, but he definitely feels more comfortable this time around. Some cheesy dialogue calls to mind the patriotism of the first film, and even though you might cringe, it’s all in good fun. Scarlett Johansson has a considerable amount of screen time as Black Widow. Rather than use her as a sex object like typical Johansson fare, the relationship between Cap’n and Black Widow is strictly professional. They don’t feel the need to display their affection constantly, and Black Widow herself is quite a formidable force. Anthony Mackie also appears as the Falcon, someone I am not familiar with, but he performs well enough as the typical sidekick role. We aren’t given much backstory into his character, but I hope he makes appearances in the future. The Winter Soldier himself is a great villain. Unlike the Mandarin or Malekith, The Winter Soldier’s secret identity isn’t revealed until halfway through, and it never feels like a cop out. Like any good villain, he feels like a considerable foe for Captain America, one that matches him or even surpasses him in physical force.

Supporting roles from Cobie Smulders, Toby Jones, and Frank Grillo round out the rest of the cast. They play minor characters that die-hard Marvel fans will recall, and for the most part they get the job done. Robert Redford, in his limited screen time, performs well enough as the new S.H.I.E.L.D. leader, but I’m not sure if he’ll be remembered in years to come.

The Winter Soldier has an array of satisfying and visually stunning action sequences. The great pace settles itself with slow, information-gathering scenes, and intense action set pieces. The choreography is stunning; fist fights have genuine weight to them, and the fights feel real, despite it being a superhero film. Sparks fly over the screen, the sound editing is first-rate, and it all has the coat of polish that only Marvel can deliver.

The Winter Soldier might be Marvel’s best film to date. It successfully blends multiple genres and transcends the superhero stereotype into creating something enjoyable for any audience. The cast of characters is interesting, the plot is full of twists and turns, and you’ll leave the theater satisfied. It made me excited for what Marvel has up their sleeve for the rest of Act II.

 

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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Divergent

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It’s no ‘Hunger Games,’ but Neil Burger’s ‘Divergent’ is still miles ahead of traditional YA fare

Careful of over saturating the YA film market, film studios have to be careful of making their movies too similar. You know the image: the dystopian sci-fi world in ruins, headed by a strong female protagonist who overthrows the government. What worked for The Hunger Games feels stale in Divergent. As a fan of the books, I enjoyed the attention to detail and the plot changes they made, yet Divergent simply isn’t different enough, with pacing problems and character underdevelopment everywhere.

Divergent is an adaptation of the popular YA book series written by Veronica Roth. The book features a dystopian Chicago, where citizens are separated into five factions based on their values and test results. You don’t get much detail into the ‘why’ of this world, but that will be saved for later movies. For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend Divergent unless you’re a fan of the books or you enjoy dystopian fiction. It isn’t for the casual viewer. The film does a poor job of making things clear, and this plays directly into the character development, or lack thereof.

Tris Prior is an interesting and strong candidate for the female heroine, but actress Shailene Woodley simply isn’t given enough to work with here. She’s great in the pathos-heavy emotional scenes, and while both she and love interest Four actor Theo James are good actors, the paltry script doesn’t showcase their acting capabilities. James is left to cliche love story lines akin to a Nicholas Sparks novel, and at other times he plays the quiet, too cool for school guy. The great lines are reserved for Kate Winslet, who plays autocratic leader Jeanine. She’s a chilling and formidable villain, one who will help define the future adaptations. It’s almost worth seeing just for Winslet alone: she’s that good. Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, and Zoe Kravitz round out the rest of the kids, and they perform well enough. Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn star as Tris’s parents, who also aren’t given enough good lines to work with, despite their acting muscles.

Characters aside, Divergent is good at world-building. You’ll keep asking questions that you don’t get answers to. This is a testament to the film’s gorgeous visuals. As a resident of Chicago, I loved seeing landmarks such as Navy Pier and the Marina Towers on Lake Street. A zipline scene down the Hancock Tower is one of the best scenes in the film, capturing the essence of the movie and the thrills that come with being Dauntless.

Another problem with Divergent is its pacing. The first 2/3 of the film is a snooze, proving to be too introductory. The Choosing Ceremony is no Hunger Games Reaping, and the Dauntless training scenes drag on too long. The final 1/3 of the film, however, is brilliant. The plot comes together for a great finale, all choreographed by great fight scenes, thanks to some gorgeous cinematography and stunts. Director Neil Burger seems to understand what he’s getting into, and he sets the tone well for Insurgent and Allegiant.

Divergent is no Hunger Games, but it’s also no Beautiful Creatures or Mortal Instruments. With a plot that will keep you asking questions, and a great and intense finale, Divergent is quite a thrill ride. But with weak characters and an over-introductory tone, don’t expect greatness from the start.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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