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Insurgent

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There’s a good movie hidden somewhere inside Insurgent, but it struggles to come out. All of the pieces are there, with nice action sequences and some solid performances, but whatever is left of a plot is simply fraying at the edges. The result is a sloppy film, that feels cobbled together, with little narrative cohesion. It’s not a misfire, but the Divergent series is turning out to be quite the snoozer.

Insurgent picks up where Divergent left off, with Tris, Four, and the rest of the Dauntless rebels escaping the city to gather allies for the attack on Erudite, led by the nefarious Jeanine. I’m a fan of the book series, and while I thought Insurgent was by far the weakest, I didn’t think it was this weak. Director Robert Schwentke and his screenwriting team have made significant changes to the core material. Normally I don’t mind when things are changed for a film adaptation, but some of the changes are straight up bizarre, and make no sense in the overall narrative. They added a “box” that only divergents can open as a sort of “one ring” for the franchise, but this is ridiculous and only serves purpose to show Kate Winslet’s acting strengths.

A few other changes make Insurgent feel less like the second of a trilogy, and just more of the same from Divergent. In The Hunger Games’s second film (a book adaptation done right), things are changed, but they ramp up the action, romance, and drama to make an altogether more thrilling film. Insurgent is just a snoozefest sometimes. There isn’t a sense of urgency, so vital in the novel, that is just absent here. Random characters popping in and out only never to be seen again, plot inconsistencies, a ridiculous ending. Man, this movie just did not make any sense. I’d almost recommend not reading the book and seeing it as a non-book reader. Seems like Roth took out everything that made the books special for this film adaptation.

Like I said, though, Insurgent isn’t a total flop. The pieces are there, they’re just scattershot. I love the ideals that being divergent represents, and both the book and film series hit these themes well. Seeing Chicago all torn up allows for some cool imagery, and all of the five factions have their own unique flair. Take Amity for instance: a farm village run by kindness. Contrast it with Erudite: towering technological fortresses and stoicism. The five factions are very cool and very unique, and the film retains the best parts of what made the first film so great.

Acting this time around is good, not great. Shailene Woodley, whom I loved in the first film, doesn’t have as many good moments here. She has some badass action heroine scenes, to be sure, but nothing that makes her performance anything but standard. Same with Theo James. I left the film feeling like their chemistry had worn off significantly. The key to romantic pairings like these in young adult films is to ramp up the heat each film, and Insurgent is a missed opportunity for the both of them. The rest of the supporting cast is similarly average. Kate Winslet is solid like always, Miles Teller is the film’s only comedic grace, Ansel Elgort is boring as all get out. Talented performers all of them, they just don’t have much to work with.

This makes me worry for Allegiant, which is ridiculously being split into two parts. The Divergent franchise needs to get back on track, fix the structural messes, ramp up the chemistry, and just make things more interesting. Insurgent is one more plot hole away from being a disaster, but right now it’s simply watchable. It’s pretty short, some cool visuals keep things interesting, and I guess I could say I was intrigued all the way through. But this movie could have been a hell of a lot more.

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Cinderella

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Kenneth Branagh’s live action adaptation of Cinderella is almost too perfect. Anthony Lane of The New Yorker put it well, saying, “Indeed, there is barely a frame of Branagh’s film that would cause Uncle Walt to finger his mustache with disquiet.” This is great news for fans of Disney and fans of the universal love story between Cinderella and Prince Charming. It also reassures that Disney is on top of their game with their new trend of adapting their classic animated films into live action stories. Cinderella is the best of these so far, as it’s more focused on retelling the story than reimagining it.

Unlike Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, Cinderella is a pure retelling of the tale, not a gritty reimagining. While this allows for limited narrative flexibility, Branagh inserts his own take, permitting a unique directorial feel that focuses distinctly on what makes Cinderella the classic love story it is. We begin with Ella’s childhood, her parents’ deaths, and the cruelty endured by her evil stepmother and stepsisters. For the most part, the beginning of the film is schmaltzy in all the Disney ways. It reminded me of Saving Mr. Banks in its cute storytelling and optimism. From here we delve into her encounter with her fairy godmother, her attendance at the royal ball, the glass slipper incident, you know the rest.

It’s not fair to call the film predictable, because we all know the story that stands the test of time. But the key here is the script from Chris Weitz, which is chock full of good visual imagery and characterization for the characters we love. Even everyone’s favorite villain, the evil stepmother, has a nice character arc.

Like I said, Branagh’s direction is on point here. Beautiful production design lends itself to some outstanding visuals. From lush forests to beautiful castles, Cinderella is a feast for the eyes. Costume design is incredible from acclaimed designer Sandy Powell. The film is brimming with the trademark “Disney magic” that was most recently on display in Into the Woods. Excellent cinematography helps create these signature magical moments, from the beautiful fairy godmother transformation to some exciting moments between Cinderella and the Prince. Naturally, there isn’t much “excitement” in the traditional sense in Cinderella, but Branagh makes it happen.

Obviously the film is nothing without its performers, and the film delivers, allowing some great background actors a chance to shine. Featuring star-making turns for both Lily James and Richard Madden, best known for their roles on Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, respectively, the film gives them the opportunity to show their talents. James’s performance is subtle, with great characterization from great scenes between her and her father. She’s a low-key natural performer, whose performance grows on you. Her cute expressions and sheer optimism are enough to put a smile on anyone’s face. Madden is also charming as the titular prince. Chemistry is key here, and Cinderella is full of it.

I expected a bit more from Cate Blanchette as the evil stepmother, however. She’s evil to be sure, but I almost wanted more from her. Her passive aggressive tone and over-the-top lines grew a bit tiresome towards the end of the film. Maybe I’ve been desensitized, and was expecting a more evil performance, but perhaps that isn’t in the film’s nature. Her character arc, though, is one to watch, with a great scene between her and Ella at the film’s conclusion.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Cinderella at its core. It’s a cute, memorable, fashionable film, with eye candy and memorable performances abound. There aren’t many narrative surprises, but Branagh’s direction is nothing to disregard. He keeps the film exciting (and under 2 hours, no less), which is more than could be said for the snoozefest that was Alice in Wonderland. It’s a perfect family film for young girls, as well as a great date movie (moreso than Fifty Shades). If this is the latest trend in live-action renditions of our favorite Disney classics, then sign me up for more.

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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House of Cards Season 3

The third season of Netflix’s first original hit, House of Cards starts to show its flaws, but the show remains as engrossing and rich as ever. When we last saw ruthless politician Frank Underwood, he had successfully pushed President Walker out of office, and Underwood is now running the nation. Should we be concerned or confident?

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While the season starts out a bit rote, and it takes some time for Frank and his wife Claire to settle into their new roles, we eventually kick into high gear by episode 6. The way I see the season, it’s split into two very different segments. The first focuses on Frank’s dealings with Russian prime minister Petrov (sound familiar?) concerning sending support troops to Israel. Petrov is a fascinating character, neither a hero nor villain, played with chilling insanity by Lars Mikkelsen. An early episode finds his visit to the United States getting very awkward as everyone gets intoxicated, leading to some hilarious moments. In the meantime, Claire, newly appointed on the council of the United Nations, faces opposition from both Frank and his opponents as she fights to get support for ground forces in Israel. In the backdrop, Frank is pushing his first big move as president, his program America Works, which aims to get Americans back to work.

That’s already a lot, and we’re dealing with a lot of information early on. House of Cards has never been for the casual viewer, and this season remains so. Those not sensitized to the wheeling and dealing of Washington should stray far away. The show can get a bit muddled, but showrunner Beau Willimon creatively blends emotion and pathos with these plot devices, making things bearable.

That said, the first couple episodes of the season are a bit rough around the edges. Half of the premiere is spent with Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Underwood’s former chief of staff, and his recovery after being assaulted by Rachel, whom he has been trying to keep quiet since season one. A plot that should have ended last season is overstaying its welcome big time here. Doug is an extremely unlikable character, and while House of Cards is full of those, its simply hard to root for him. His scenes pale in comparison to Frank and Claire’s, and his character is just boring. They should have wrapped up his story early on and kept it that way, instead of dragging it out every episode until an unsatisfying conclusion. A visit from his brother does little to make things interesting, and you’ll be waiting for his scenes to end. Thankfully, it looks like we might be back to the Doug we know and love for the next season.

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But Doug isn’t the focus here, it’s all about Frank and Claire. The sixth episode marks a turning point for the couple, as their trip to Moscow to free a protestor goes south. This causes a rift in their marriage, and from here until the finale, the show delves deep into their marriage as Frank battles for reelection and Claire ponders purpose in her career. Now the cracks in their marriage are starting to show, and it isn’t pretty. Claire has always been my favorite character, and she gets some killer scenes in season three. Robin Wright continues to grow and deepen Claire’s character, making her the most interesting of the bunch. Claire finally begins to question her work and her ambitions in the second half of season three. Are they a result of her own knack, or because of her husband’s position in power? It’s an important question that such a political couple like the Underwoods must ponder. By the end, Claire makes up her mind in a polarizing finale, leaving for what should be a riveting season four (should the show get renewed, and why would it not?)

Kevin Spacey brings his A-game as Frank, molding a character so deep and complex that there isn’t much to go forward with. A side story involves a journalist coming to the White House to write a story about Frank’s new America Works program. But it quickly diverges into a personal piece about Frank and his upbringing. This leads to some excellent scenes where we get to see how Frank really ticks. In short supply this season are Frank’s fourth-wall breakings, fan’s favorites. It’s disappointing, but it’s a logical progression as Frank loses grip on those around him. One of the best scenes in the season comes when Frank is debating with his fellow presidential candidates, Heather Dunbar (below), and Jackie Sharp, House majority whip. It’s a wonderful sequence, shot with intensity, as each candidate makes their claim and gang up on each other.

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House of Cards is a beast of a show. There’s always so much going on that it can be difficult to process, but one of the best produced and shot shows this decade. Cinematography is top notch like always, writing is exhilarating and at times darkly humorous, and the acting is flawless. While the season falters a bit early on, season three is at its best when it delves into the Underwood’s marriage. It paints a portrait of a modern political marriage, with great feminist themes in Claire’s story and a somber childhood tale of Frank’s. This season feels like a gap season – fewer calculated shocks, more slow-burn thematical elements, but at its core it’s the same – an irresistible soapy political drama, one that continues to prove why it was made for the binging model.

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2015 in TV Reviews

 

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Kingsman: The Secret Service

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From the moment a man gets sliced into two pieces, we know Kingsman is not your typical action film. Directed by Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass), Kingsman is one of the most playful, just straight up fun movies I’ve ever seen. With whip smart humor and hilarity at every turn, Kingsman is less focused on telling an intricate story than it is making its audience die of laughter, and for the most part, this pays off.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (kind of a mess of a title) is based on the comic book of the same name, and it definitely shows. The film has such a playful sense of violence, and it knows exactly what it wants to be. While the first 30 minutes are nothing groundbreaking, we get some good exposition as we are introduced to Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a Kingsman agent who is looking to recruit a new agent. He finds this in Eggsy, played by newcomer Taron Egerton, whom he takes under his wing and mentors him through a set of training exercises. Their goal is to stop Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a man hellbent on controlling the population through a violent chip embedded in cell phones. It’s a silly plot, but this is the kind of the film that lends itself well to something like this.

The plot is completely engrossing from start to finish. Despite a few narrative twists that feel a bit strange towards the end of the film, Kingsman is a ride from start to finish. The film never takes itself seriously to warrant important life lessons or social messages, because it’s too focused on being a blast throughout. And it is. With stylistic editing and ridiculous over-the-top violence, Kingsman isn’t your typical James Bond spy movie. Think Tarantino mixed with Kick-Ass and The Hunger Games with a little bit of Jason Bourne thrown in. It’s fun as hell.

With Colin Firth on top of his game, the rest of the cast is kind of overshadowed, but that’s a minor complaint. Firth is always great at playing the smarmy British mentor, with his quick lines (Manners maketh man) and his spry youthfulness. Jackson, too, is great here. For once he isn’t yelling over everyone else, and he’s actually playing a different character. His hilarious lisp will have you laughing hard, and there’s some legitimately good chemistry between Jackson and Firth.

And I haven’t even talked about the church scene yet. There is so much in Kingsman that blows you away, from a great exposition scene in a pub to a beautiful skydiving sequence, but the scene in the church where Harry takes out hundreds of citizens while under the influence of Valentine’s drug is simply astonishing. In what looks like completely one take, Harry flips over pews, fires from his umbrella, and delivers lethal punches right and left. It’s a joy to watch. It’s an action sequence with a great sense of place and an equally great sense of humor, and it’s one of my favorite action scenes in a long time.

Kingsman is a delight. With twists and turns in its engrossing plot and actors on top of their game, Kingsman is the rare film in the genre that doesn’t let the plot overtake its hilarity. There’s no shoehorned romance, and it’s structure is unlike any other. Director Vaughn has made a smart spy thriller, one that turns conventions upside down, and makes you expect the unexpected. Let the inner high schooler in you shine and take in Kingsman, because you won’t regret it.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Oscars 2015: Best Supporting Actor/Actress

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The supporting acting categories this year have been a bit predictable, with the frontrunners being very clear throughout all of Oscar season. While the winners definitely deserve the prize, what’s more interesting here is who didn’t get in, and further raises questions about how to categorize an actor as lead or supporting as part of an Oscar campaign. This is something that has bugged me about the Oscars as of late, and although I’m more irked by the screenplay categories, supporting roles can be seen as something worth discussing in terms of classification.

Best Supporting Actor: The Nominees

Edward Norton, Birdman

Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

Robert Duvall, The Judge

In a role that has netted him critical acclaim, best supporting actor seems locked up with Simmons. He is terrifying in Whiplash. It’s a turn that comes so late for the veteran actor, who hasn’t had a role like this before. For the rest of the nominees, their place hasn’t been so secure. Edward Norton seemed like the only lock when we were talking about this five months ago. He is the closest we have to a runner-up. Ethan Hawke received a big push from Boyhood‘s continued success late in the year, and Robert Duvall managed to squeeze in for a great role in an okay movie. The Foxcatcher acting categories continue to frustrate me, but it’s here where I would have thrown in Steve Carell, who could have campaigned for either. Ruffalo is great, though, so I’m not complaining. Absent from this category is Miyavi, whose turn in Unbroken could’ve diversified the list. One of the Selma men, too, either Tom Wilkinson or Tim Roth, could’ve had a shot as well.

My Predictions: Best Supporting Actor

Should Win: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Will Win: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Could Win: Edward Norton, Birdman

Should Have Been here: Miyavi, Unbroken

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Best Supporting Actress: The Nominees

Emma Stone, Birdman

Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

Laura Dern, Wild

Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

As far as supporting actress is concerned, this one is a bit more interesting. Here we have a diverse list of nominees spanning young and old, from unrecognized movies as well as acclaimed ones. The frontrunner here of course is Patricia Arquette, whose time and dedication to her role in Boyhood should net her her first Oscar. This one, too, is pretty much locked up, with Emma Stone as a potential spoiler. If the Academy goes Boyhood-crazy come Sunday (and they definitely could), Emma Stone could walk away with the statue. For the rest of the list, they went pretty predictable with Kiera Knightley, for a performance in a movie I loved that I wasn’t blown away with. And of course we have to throw in a Meryl Streep for balance. Surprising is Dern, whose screen time is very limited in Wild, but she gives a great performance nonetheless. I was expecting them to throw in Rene Russo instead for Nightcrawler, or keep with the Globes and nominate Jessica Chastain.

My Predictions: Best Supporting Actress

Should Win: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Will Win: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Could Win: Emma Stone, Birdman

Should Have Been Here: Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year; Carrie Coon, Gone Girl

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2015 in 2015 Academy Awards

 

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Oscars 2015: Best Actress

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Poor Rosamund Pike. Any other year she would win by a landslide, and I’m not just saying that because Gone Girl was my favorite movie from last year. She is straight-up chilling as Amy Dunne, in a film that deserves more recognition. But I’m not going to get beat up about it (Pike will have her chance), because the actress who will no doubt win is simply amazing.

The Nominees:

Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

This category is pretty much locked down, with Julianne Moore emerging quickly as frontrunner. Her performance is great, and she definitely deserves it (five Oscar nominations and not one win yet!), but let’s all appreciate how excellent this list of nominees is. Rosamund Pike was this year’s breakout star, and I’m sure she’ll score down the line. But the overall lack of nominations for Gone Girl is surprising (that’s a story for another day). She’s my pick to win, but I had a hard time choosing between her and Witherspoon, who commands her role as Cheryl Strayed in Wild, another one of my favorites from 2014Witherspoon has won before for Walk the Line, so I’m guessing they’re giving her a break this year. Surprising addition is Marion Cotillard for the Dardennes’ fantastic Two Days, One Night, which I finally got the chance to see. Spoiler: she’s great. But this list of women is great because every character is a powerful female, which I definitely appreciate. Last year was great for well-written female characters, and I’m glad they are getting their due.

My Predictions:

Should Win: Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

Will Win: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Should Have Been Here: Honestly, this list is perfect as is

My Personal Nomination: Jenny Slate, Obvious Child

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2015 in 2015 Academy Awards

 

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Oscars 2015: Best Actor

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While three of the acting categories are pretty much guaranteed at this point, Best Actor still remains interesting. Here we have a showdown between young and old, two snubbed nominees who deserve to be here, and one lone wolf who could have gone supporting. But overall we have a great list of men who gave great performances last year. Here’s my breakdown:

The Nominees:

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Michael Keaton, Birdman

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

This is a very good list of nominees, but there a few startling omissions, chiefly David Oleyowo and Jake Gyllenhaal. I’m a bit surprised that Steve Carell made it in for Foxcatcher, as he could have gone back and forth between Supporting or Lead, and edged out say, Robert Duvall. But I’m glad he’s here, considering all the buzz he received last year that seems to have faded. Bradley Cooper is also a surprising nominee given the lack of previous nominations for American Sniper, but the Academy fell in love with the film and Cooper’s performance. I wouldn’t discount Cumberbatch or Cooper at this point, honestly.

But this is a race that will boil down to young vs old, between Keaton and Redmayne, both first time nominees. Redmayne has been picking up awards right and left for his performance as Stephen Hawking, which is well deserved. But if I could choose, I’d give it to Keaton, a veteran who delivers his best performance ever in Birdman.

My Predictions

Should Win: Michael Keaton, Birdman

Will Win: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Should Have Been Nominated: David Oleyowo, Selma

My Personal Nomination: Jack O’Connell, Unbroken

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2015 in 2015 Academy Awards

 

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