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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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Fresh Off the Boat

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What a delightful show this is. ABC continues to flesh out their Wednesday night lineup with Fresh Off the Boat, based on the life of restauranteur Eddie Huang and his childhood as an Asian-American family growing up in Orlando. The show is inventive, funny, and like the title implies, it’s fresh.

As an Asian-American growing up in the 1990s, Eddie struggles to fit in. His struggles at school are instantly relatable, as he is alienated because of his lunch selection and latches on to the hip-hop craze. This structure has been done before, giving us a central character while the family is mostly a supporting cast, but Fresh Off the Boat works because of its great characters and solid script.

The kid who plays Eddie, Hudson Yang, is greatly endearing. He’s funny, embarrassed by his parents, but proud of his heritage despite the scorn it brings him. His brothers, Emery and Evan, don’t have much to do in the pilot except crack some jokes, are also interesting enough to be well-developed characters. So many sitcoms like these struggle to find a balance and sometimes fall into the trap of the kids overshadowing the parents (Black-ish), or the parents overshadowing the kids (The Goldbergs). A middle ground (Modern Family) is difficult to find, and Fresh Off the Boat definitely finds it. It remains to be scene if it will hold this balance, but right now it’s refreshing to see the show strike this chord.

Eddie’s father Louis, has moved the family from Washington D.C. to Orlando so he can pursue his dream of operating a restaurant. It’s a small framing device that works wonders in giving the show its theme. Louis constantly references the American Dream. Despite the outdated concept, it works because of their Asian-American background and Louis’s infectious charm. Randall Park, fresh from The Interview, is stellar as Louis. His smile steals the show as he tries to make his restaurant successful.

But it’s Jessica, played by Constance Wu, who does most of the heavy lifting. She nails every scene that she’s in, getting the best lines and best plots. The scene where she meets the neighborhood roller skating moms is absolutely hysterical. Her naivety and stubbornness acts as a foil to Louis’s optimism, and right here we have a great pair of parents who I am excited to see every week.

Fresh Off the Boat is the first Asian-American-led sitcom in over 20 years. That’s insane. It’s an important show for an important time. Shows like Black-ish and Transparent may be funny stories, but they are important ones. The show deserves all the praise it’s getting for offering a hilarious take on growing up in the 1990s, but it deserves even more praise for featuring a family who is both proud of their race, but aren’t defined by it. It’s a fearless show, and I can see it tackling some important stuff down the line. While I’ve been burning out on Black-ish (I can only take so much Dre), Fresh Off the Boat fills that hole. It isn’t groundbreaking on a sitcom level, but on a cultural level, you bet it is.

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2015 in TV Reviews

 

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Ranking the Best Picture Nominees

Every year there are notable omissions, but this year’s Best Picture nominees are a pretty fair bunch. Predictably so, every film deserves to be there, but there can only be one winner. Without further ado, here’s my personal ranking of all eight Best Picture nominees.

8. The Theory of Everything

James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking biopic is about as by-the-books as they come, but it’s still a great affecting look into one of the most influential men in the scientific world. Propelled by an outstanding performance by Eddie Redmayne, the film delves deep into his marriage with Jane, played by the excellent Felicity Jones, and how his disease affected their life. It’s your typical well-done British biopic, but don’t let the biopic cliches keep you away.

7. Selma

I’m shocked that David Oleyowo isn’t being recognized for his work as Martin Luther King Jr. This film couldn’t have come at a better time, too (and would’ve gained a lot more traction had screeners been sent out). It’s relevant, poignant, and resembles a time not so different from the one we are in now. Ava DuVernay handles the film with delicacy, but she isn’t afraid to pull back the curtain and show us the behind the scenes look at blacks’ fight for voting and equal rights. Her direction is impeccable, with great attention to detail and sweeping moments.

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel

While not as charming as his last feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel seems like the culmination of everything Wes Anderson has done thus far. With all of his signature quirks and quips, the film is a joyride from beginning to end. It’s a hilarious tale that never lets up, bolstered by Ralph Fiennes’s charismatic Gustave H. Beautiful cinematography and production design solidify Anderson as one of the finest indie directors of his time.

5. American Sniper

The biggest box office hit and most controversial film of the bunch, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is his best film since Unforgiven. A brutal look at the life of Chris Kyle, a sniper in the Iraq war with over 200 confirmed kills, American Sniper goes deep into Kyle’s psyche, showing the harrowing effects of war. It’s a moving yet tense film, with scenes back home juxtaposed with breathtaking war scenes. Bradley Cooper flexes his muscles as Kyle, offering a performance that asks so much of him and lets him deliver on every level.

4. Whiplash

The “little indie that could,” Whiplash is a treat. It’s a tense psychological glance into the pursuit of perfection, and what you sacrifice for it. What’s great about Whiplash is that it never succumbs to music indie drama cliches. This is a movie that is supposed to make you uncomfortable, and it sure does thanks to JK Simmons’s performance. The best villain of the year, his creative insults and brutality scare the viewer, but they don’t scare Andrew in his pursuit to be an excellent drummer, and he’s sure to gain the recognition he deserves come Oscars day.

3. The Imitation Game

The trailer for The Imitation Game makes it seem like this year’s The King’s Speech, and in many ways it is. It’s Weinstein’s darling, a British biopic about an influential man in history who overcame obstacles, but the similarities stop there. The Imitation Game avoids what made The Theory of Everything just okay by trusting its performers and interweaving plotline. There aren’t any wasted scenes, every scene is carefully calculated, like Turing himself. It’s very well-directed and scored, but would be nothing without Benedict Cumberbatch, who turns in a beautiful and remarkable performance that gives the film the emotion needed.

2. Birdman

Birdman is insane, and I love it. The film never misses a beat and is firing on all cylinders for its two hour run time. Innaritu gives the film such an infectious rhythm that you’ll be tapping your feet the whole time. Michael Keaton delivers the comeback of the year as Riggan, a washed up actor staging a Broadway play. It’s a reflection of Keaton’s career while also being something completely new. Supporting roles courtesy of Emma Stone and Edward Norton keep it afloat, and Birdman features my favorite sequence of the year: Riggan parading through Times Square in his underpants.

1. Boyhood

By now you’ve definitely heard of Boyhood’s 12-year shooting time span, and how Ellar Coltrane literally grew up on screen. While many are dismissing its gimmick, there’s no denying the beauty behind Boyhood’s simplicity. It’s such a low-key, unique film that is a wonder to watch unfold on screen. Boyhood stresses the importance of those moments that define us, that make us who we are, and it’s the best coming of age tale this century. Linklater’s attention to detail helps him nail those moments with little details, quirks, or a line of dialogue that we know is important. Boyhood will be different for everyone who watches it, but the universality is what unites every viewer. Whether you’re Mason, his sister Sam, or his mother (the amazing Patricia Arquette), everyone can relate in a different way. There’s such beauty in its universality that it almost transcends the limitations of film. We might even forget we’re watching a film and not a child’s home videos. What Linklater has done is fantastic, and it sounds impossible, yet the script allows the film to grow just as its protagonist does, delivering one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen.

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Posted by on January 25, 2015 in 2015 Academy Awards

 

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Still Alice

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“I wish I had cancer,” confesses Alice Howland, as she expresses her frustration with her growing Alzheimer’s. In Still Alice, the beautiful and affecting adaptation of the book by Lisa Genova, we experience Alice’s disease not as a handicap, but as a bold affirmer. It’s a daring and beautiful film, that is both delicate and genuine. A game-changing performance from Julianne Moore keeps the character Alice afloat, as we see the damage being done both physically and emotionally.

As the signs of Alzheimer’s disease continue to afflict Alice, we see the effects it has on both her and her loved ones. In one scene, she flubs up her words at a lecture. In another, she quizzes herself to remember a series of words after 10 minutes. But these don’t stop the disease from doing its worst. Director Richard Glatzer employs smart filmmaking to remind us how awful Alzheimer’s really can be. Some great allegories in the script and some excellent visual imagery paint us the scenario around Alice’s disease. It’s precise filmmaking with great attention to detail.

Some comparisons have been made to typical Nicholas Sparks novels, and while I think those comparisons are just, they don’t quite have the same layers of complexity that Still Alice does. We see what goes on in Alice’s head, as Julianne Moore’s outstanding performance keeps us engaged. The look of lostness on her face, the shaking of her hands, her verbal blunders are all on display here, highlighting the frustration that Alzheimer’s patients and their loved ones have. Moore is simply a revelation. I wasn’t sure about all the awards buzz she was receiving prior to seeing the film, but she deserves every last ounce of it. Moore deserves her (first!) Oscar for this role, one that solidifies her as a classical talent.

The rest of the supporting cast fares well. Kristin Stewart is a marvel as Alice’s daughter Lydia, who takes care of Alice the most. The two have a special bond, with scenes that are tough to watch but ones that I’m sure many will relate to. Lydia has been shaped by her mother, and I’m sure it is hard to watch that bond fade. Stewart is quickly growing into one of the finest actresses of her age, and she nails the role. A miscast Alec Baldwin, unfortunately, takes up a bit too much screen time as Alice’s wife. I have a hard time separating Baldwin from his work on 30 Rock, so he seems a bit too distracting amidst all of the genuine talent onscreen.

The best part about Still Alice, though, is its optimism. A great scene about two-thirds of the way through the film finds Alice giving a speech at an Alzheimer’s association. With brilliant camera work and a sweeping score, it’s a doozy of a scene. This is Moore’s Oscar reel right here. But this scene is beautiful. It handles Alzheimer’s with such delicacy and passion that you’ll walk away feeling simply inspired. A big theme throughout Still Alice is memory, as a few flashbacks to Alice’s youth remind us of that, and as Alice struggles to hold on to the memories it’s riveting to watch. Still Alice is a beautiful reminder that we should cherish every moment. Brilliant direction and great performances across the board result in a resounding win, a film that everyone should see, young or old.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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