Saturday, February 7, 2015

WILD

Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern

"Wild" is based on an inspirational bestseller. The story of Cheryl Strayed who decided  to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail, alone. It was triggered by the death of her beloved mother and to exorcise her personal demons such as addiction, divorce and her desperate descent into debauchery.

The plot veers all over the place with continuous flashbacks that presented her 'former' life where we see her interact with her family, friends and strangers. Along with her hiking adventure where nothing really happens, pretty much long stretches of rough, rustic landscape. Honestly, I was expecting her to be eaten alive by some wildlife or worst be killed by other hikers, yes it was my morbid mind taking over the plot. I guess she was lucky, the PCT is fairly safe for first time hikers.

So naturally, the entire film is focused on a single character portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in an entirely non glamorous role. I am amazed her petite frame was able to carry that huge backpack through such rugged terrain. Her youthful appearance might have been a disadvantage as I saw the real Cheryl looked much older. 

But Reese's nuanced performance is note worthy given that most of the time she is out there on her own without any human interaction. Laura Dern gives terrific support work as the single mother who faces many odds but continues to be a source of strength and inspiration to her children. 

I can't help but compare it with another film about self-discovery, "Into the Wild" which was modest in its interpretation yet had more depth in depicting the tragic story of another hiker. 

"Wild" doesn't have the same spiritual appeal but it is still a good case study and a powerful account about determination and self improvement. But by the end of the film, Cheryl doesn't solve all her problems, it leaves room for a sense of uncertainty which is just fair as life itself is full of unpredictable moments.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

GRAND PIANO

Elijah Wood, John Cusack,
Don McManus, Kerry Bishe

"Play or Die"

The apparently ageless Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznick, a famous pianist who returns on stage after a prolonged absence. 5 years ago, he developed stage fright and had a mental block thus failing to complete his late mentor's most famous composition piece.

Wracked with nerves for his comeback concert, he finds a note on the musical score sheet which says "Play one wrong note and you die!" He falls victim to a sniper who communicates through an earpiece and demands that he complete the impossibly difficult piece/composition on stage.

This same premise has been done in past movies like "Phone Booth". Both share the idea of a 'victim' being watched by a sniper who forces him to adhere to his demands. Although it is not as claustrophobic as the Colin Farrell starring thriller, "Grand Piano" is still ridiculously far-fetched. But good camera work, a streak of dark humor and some well edited tension filled moments make it watchable. Yet towards the end, the tension fizzles and becomes downright preposterous.

The best part of the film are the musical pieces that Selznick skillfully showcases on stage. It helps that he is played by Elijah Wood whose facial expressions convey many different emotions. He is suitably jittery as he tries to overcome his stage fright as well as try to extricate himself from this unfortunate dilemma.

It is an intriguing concept to bank on yet it fails to deliver as the true motive falls flat and loses its tone.

Friday, January 23, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER

Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

"One Bullet can tell the Story"


Clint Eastwood gives us the story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in US military history. Even though it is basically a biography about his exploits in the four tours of duty he served in Iraq, the film itself didn't give out such a vibe. It still felt like any normal film about the effects of war on a person who is trained to kill enemies and justifies it as serving his country.

Bradley Cooper is in full character form, even growing a bushy beard to resemble the late Chris Kyle. It is just unfortunate that he is best known for his role in the "Hangover" franchise. So his reputation as a serious character actor is a bit tainted even though he has been consistent in putting out credible performances. The fact that he has been nominated thrice for various roles should silence the critics.  

As Chris Kyle, he succeeds in bringing forth the sniper's strong sense of patriotism and his private battles to the screen. A deeply complex character that has witnessed the horrors of war yet once he is home from his tour cannot adapt to 'normal' life. Surely, it can be traced to PTSD yet somehow I got the impression that Chris Kyle was over zealous and took his sniper duty to heart and he felt more comfortable in a war zone than living, normally.

As expected in most war movies, women usually take a back seat. Sienna Miller as Taya Kyle is in a thankless role as a nagging wife who does not understand or chooses to deny that her husband has PTSD. But based on interviews with the widow of Chris Kyle, she strikes me as loving wife who was totally devoted to her husband and their family. Surely she had flaws so I wonder if she approved of Sienna Miller's portrayal of her.

Going back to the film, technically it is well directed. The tour of duty scenes are authentic and it does convey the horrors of  war. More specifically that the role of a sniper is relevant and quite important and it is a case of 'killing the enemy than being killed'.

But I can't say the same for the scenes depicting his life back home, they were quite amateurish. Plus using a doll to pretend it is a real baby is simply unforgivable, something you don't expect from a Clint Eastwood movie! Yes it is quite obvious, goodness!

Monday, December 29, 2014

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU

Jason Bateman, Jane Fonda,
Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Timothy Olyphant
Corey Stoll, Rose Byrne, Dax Shepard

"Welcome Home.
Get Uncomfortable."

This film takes off after the patriarch dies and the grieving widow (Jane Fonda) wants all her children to come home for the burial. This sets in motion a dysfunctional family set up where siblings who haven't really kept in touch with each other nor with their mother are now stuck in one big house.

There are a few enjoyable moments. The emphasis is on 'few'. But it is all mostly sanitized, safe way to show how the adult kids lives get complicated as past loves, current frustrations and their shortcomings come to fore. But problems which tend to be mostly self-involved as it is wont to happen in this selfie obsessed times. 

The problem with a plot that has an ensemble cast (even if they are composed of good actors) is not all the characters are given enough narrative. Too many characters and side plots and it gets to the point where it all becomes one big mess and quite maddening. They should have really just focused on the characters played by Tina Fey and Jason Bateman as they were the most interesting among the siblings. 

"This is Where I Leave You" mostly works in part due to its good casting of credible actors like Jane Fonda, Tina Fey and Jason Bateman. It was nice to see them interact as family members with many predictable yet not too serious problems. But as dysfunctional family dramedy goes, I've honestly seen worse depictions of this popular genre.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

BOYHOOD

Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette,
Lorelei Linklater, Ellar Coltrane

"12 Years in the Making"

Aside from the fact that director Richard Linklater ("Before" trilogy) willingly took twelve long years to film this movie, there isn't much to rave about, really. So I don't really understand how it managed to get the critics nods and garner all the nominations for the best picture category in all the major awards.

"Boyhood" tells the story of Mason who we first see as a 5 year old boy until he reaches 18 years old. He grows up in different households as his mom isn't so lucky when it comes to maintaining her relationships.

Granted that it is a cinematic feat and a lifetime endeavor for its director, having to see the same actors evolve through the years without much conflict would qualify for me more as a documentary than a movie. It won't even be a reality show since those have more drama for our own good yet they are addicting to watch, don't you agree?

Sure it is a unique concept of filming a movie over 12 years with the same cast. But unless you got a very good story and a strong plot to begin with it, it just ends without any impact where nothing of note ever really happens. Except for the visible fact that the kid grows up right before your eyes from a cute little boy to an ordinary young adult.  It deals with how Mason relates with his divorced parents, his older sister as well as the various guys who become his stepfather(s) and the world in general.

But still Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke's performances deserve recognition. As the divorced parents of Mason, they provide support and proper guidance for the son to grow up, for lack of a better word, decent. He is basically a good person with no vices or strange hang ups. He is just as normal as can be.

Seeing Ethan Hawke visibly age and coming into this frequently absent father role is great. He gives a credible portrayal of any divorced father who is trying to be a better parent. Patricia Arquette may not be a big star but she has always been a steady actress. Here as the mom who is not perfect (nobody is perfect, anyway!) but continues to be the best mother she can be given her various limitations, she is impressive.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

BEGIN AGAIN

Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley,
Adam Levine, Catherine Keener

"You're Only as Strong as
Your Next Move"


John Carney, the director of the much acclaimed indie movie "Once" presents us with a similar story but with better actors and better songs. I have to admit I didn't really like "Once" for the acting skills of the leads were a major turn off. Yes, granted that he got non-professionals to play the roles but still it didn't move me as much as I expected it to.

Well good thing that "Begin Again" had Mark Ruffalo in it and even though the plot is a bit predictable, his mere presence made it all worth while. As the title implies, it is a movie about second chances and the opportunity to make wrong things, right.

After Dave (Adam Levine) lands a major record deal with a label in New York, he and his music songwriter/girlfriend Gretta (Keira Knightley) move to the Big Apple. As it usually happens, Dave gets eaten up by the fame, glory as well as infidelity and shortly after leaves Gretta all alone. Literally and figuratively since Dave has hooked up with someone else and Gretta now faces a lonely existence in a city where she hardly knows anyone. Except for one musician friend named Steve. He manages to convince her to perform her song at a small gig.

Coincidentally, a down on his luck, music executive portrayed by Mark Ruffalo named Dan is in the audience and is immediately captured by her raw talent. Dan is not really in a good place, he has been disgraced at work and he has to deal with a cheating wife. Yet he believes he has found the next best new artist in the person of Gretta and he goes all out to record, market and promo her single.

The film showcases their encounters and adventures as they record her song in various sights in the city that never sleeps. Their conversations are polite and they maintain a professional relationship throughout their sessions. Even as we see them dealing with their personal life in the sidelines. 

I like how they were able to maintain a platonic relationship even though there was a certain attraction between them, they never acted on them. Their chemistry was evident but it was good they took the unconventional route and didn't end up as a couple. They both have some deep personal wounds that needed time to heal and it is just right they maintain a good working partnership without the trappings of romance hindering their goals.

It was refreshing to hear Keira Knightley' singing voice and watch her playing the guitar. Although it wasn't a strong tone, she still kept it in tune. Adam Levine from the Maroon 5 band was authentic in his portrayal as basically a jerk. He sometimes gives out that vibe even though we all know that his antics on "The Voice" are mostly scripted. Mark Ruffalo is a much underrated actor but he can do no work in my books. I've always been a big fan of his work both as an actor and a vocal advocate for climate change and the protection of the environment.

I liked "Begin Again" better than "Once". It kept things as real and realistic as can be. A film about moving onward despite numerous challenges which can bring anyone down yet choosing not to quit  but to face them, head on. In the process, a renewed mind, body and soul emerges and suddenly life doesn't seem as dim as we anticipated it to be. 
 

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