2018 Summer Movie Review: Puzzle

 

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Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) becomes Robert’s (Irffan Khan) new jigsaw puzzle partner in the Sundance hit Puzzle. (Source: Philly.com)

Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald has come a long way from playing the lover to Ewan McGregor’s Renton in Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting. With about 50 acting credits to her name, she often plays the role of the mother or wife. While everyone can recognize her voice as Merida in PIXAR’s Brave, her impressive resume includes Gosford Park, Finding Neverland, Nanny McPhee, the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, and the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.

In Puzzle, in which it premiered at Sundance in January, the charming actress is back playing the role of the mother and wife. This time, she takes center stage! Under the direction of Marc Turtletaub (producer of Little Miss Sunshine and Loving) and written by Oren Moverman (whose screenplay for Love and Mercy is one of the best of this decade), this delightful little film will definitely earn attention from those who want to take a breather from those blockbusters.

A remake of Rompecabezas, the 2010 film from Argentina, Macdonald plays Agnes, a housewife living in the Connecticut suburbs with her selfish husband Louie (David Denman) and two teenage sons–Gabe (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns and Brad’s Status) and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler)–who are unsure about their futures. Every day, she works around the house. In the opening scene, she sets up her own birthday party–from putting up decorations to baking her own cake). She mysteriously gets a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle as one of her gifts. One day, alone, she decides to work on the puzzle. Normally, it would take days to finish a 1,000-piece puzzle. For Agnes, she finishes it in a matter of hours.

After learning about a puzzle store in New York City, she heads on the train to the big city to buy more jigsaw puzzles. There, she sees an ad from the wealthy Robert (Irrfan Khan, Life of Pi), who’s looking for a puzzling partner for an upcoming tournament in Atlantic City. When these two strangers meet for the first time, Robert is impressed by Agnes’ given talent. The more they learn about one another, they begin to place the pieces to their lives.

Of course, the jigsaw puzzles play out as a recurring metaphor for self-discovery. Turtletaub and Moverman both put it together beautifully. This is certainly Macdonald’s finest moment. She plays the mother who loves her family, but is clearly living in the past. She wants to escape her rough lifestyle to pursue her dream in solving jigsaw puzzles. When she meets Robert, they both realize they have more in common than they would expect. For Robert (wondrously played by Khan), an immigrant from India who becomes a world-class inventor, he is so excited to meet Agnes. We see the two evolve into something special. Agnes’ independence and Robert’s warm, subtle humor are what makes Puzzle shine. As Robert says, in one scene, “When you finish a puzzle, you know you have made all the right choices.”

The movie is far from perfect. While it drags at times, Denman’s Louie is viewed more as a father prototype, who works at a local car garage and loves to go fishing. Some viewers might be disappointed due to the lack of montages of Agnes and Robert placing the puzzle pieces together. Puzzle is a subtle, feel-good movie showcasing a slice of life. It’s nothing entirely special and it doesn’t end summer with a bang, but I’m glad I went to see this.

3/4

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2018 Summer Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman

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Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) are assigned to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in Spike Lee’s new joint, BlacKkKlansman. (Source: Vox)

Hearing the story about a black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s sounds too good to be true. No one can direct a movie like that than Spike Lee, whose 1989 controversial film Do the Right Thing became his first monster hit. It showcases the racial tensions during a stifling summer day in Brooklyn. The tone shifts almost seamlessly–from straight-up hilarious to unflinchingly powerful. The situations the characters get into couldn’t be more relevant than in today’s society.

Over the course of 30 years, he directed what many people consider to be some of his greatest films–He Got Game, 25th Hour, and the brilliant heist film Inside Man–as well as some failures–Miracle at St. Anna, Chi-Raq, and the remake of Oldboy. Spike joins with three other writers and producer Jordan Peele (Get Out) to create BlacKkKlansman, another film relevant to current events.

The year is 1979. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, the son of Denzel) becomes the first African-American detective for the Colorado Springs Police Department. He begins to work in the filing cabinet upon hire, in which he finds boring. Until, one day, he gives a call to the local Ku Klux Klan, led by David Duke (Topher Grace), after finding an ad in the newspaper convincing readers to join. He poses as a white racist, due to the dismay of his co-workers. He joins with with the more experienced Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who is Jewish. Together, they decide to take down the KKK.

Never have I seen a movie this year that would make me laugh so hard one minute, and send chills down my spine the next (once the movie was over, everybody left the theater speechless). Spike shifts the tone–from humorous to dramatic–constantly throughout. His unique visual style and phenomenal soundtrack–ranging from James Brown to Emerson, Lake and Palmer–come to excellent use in a setting like this.

Washington couldn’t have been a better choice to play Stallworth, the humble, smart, doesn’t-take-shits-from-anybody police officer, sporting the short afro and ‘70s-era attire. He takes a lot of risk during his investigation, he would get into trouble every step of the way, even if he told his new girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) about the whole situation. He and Driver work off each other so well together when they infiltrate the Klan, with Driver’s Flip posing as Stallworth. Grace, who looks so much like the actual David Duke, showcases his typical offbeat personality while delivering a performance that will grow on people for days after seeing it.

BlacKkKlansman may not win everyone over. This is one of those movies, however, where it’s going to spark discussion for many years to come. It’s funny, powerful, haunting, and timely. It definitely deserves a lot of attention during Oscar season. Well done, Spike!

4/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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Juliet (Lily James) and Dawsey (Michiel Huisman) walk on the beach getting to know each other’s story in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (Source: Irish News)

After its premiere in the UK back in April, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society received a warm reception throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand. That’s due to its charming, old-fashioned portrayal of how a tiny English island suffered so much during World War II. The residents are given a new light when a stranger arrives.

Four months later, it finally graces the small screens in the U.S., where everyone can enjoy the heartwarming tale in the comfort of their own home after browsing endlessly on Netflix. Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) provides more than a typical history lesson.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, the movie is set in 1946. It has barely been a year since World War II ended. London is feeling optimistic about the future. For author Juliet Ashton (Lily James), smelling fresh paint on doors suggests a new start. She’s trying to get another big break after writing humorous columns about life during the war. One day, she receives a letter from a farmer named Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones), a resident of Guernsey, an English island on the Normandy coast.

While her publisher Sidney Stark (a deadpan Matthew Goode) suggests her to write about literature, Juliet sets sail to the tiny island after becoming so intrigued by learning about a secret book club developed when Guernsey was occupied by Nazi Germany as a way to avoid curfew (the movie opens up in 1941, where the members are caught by the Nazis, and must come up with an excuse). She receives a warm welcome by the group, and they tell their stories about the island and the disappearance of its founder Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay, Downton Abbey), in which the residents refuse to speak about.

The German-occupation of Guernsey (and Jersey) has rarely been depicted in film. Newell and three screenwriters including Kevin Hood (Becoming Jane) do such a wonderful job providing a fictional yet authentic interpretation of the events that unfold, carefully bouncing back and forth between 1941 and 1946. With Zac Nicholson’s gorgeous cinematography, the Devon coast Guernsey is used as the backdrop for Guernsey, which he tries to avoid it looking like a travelogue.

Fresh from showing her inner Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Lily James is no stranger to period pieces. From Downton Abbey to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to War and Peace to Darkest Hour, she has a long career ahead of her. Again, she proves she’s more than a pretty face. She delivers another delightful performance as Juliet, who understands how much the Guernsey residents have suffered over the years. Because of this, she’s also getting over a tragedy of her own. She leads a gifted cast of colorful characters including Tom Courtenay as postman Eben Ramsey; famous for his cooking his bland potato peel pie, Katherine Parkinson as gin-maker Isola Pribbey, and Penelope Wilton (another Downton Abbey alum) as Amelia Maugery, who gather around in a circle laughing, reading, and discussing primarily the books of Jane Austen and the Brontës. They reluctantly accept Juliet’s offer to write a book about them. “Our Friday-night book club became a refuge to us,” Dawsey says in a letter to Juliet. “A private freedom to feel the world growing darker all around you, but you only need a candle to see new worlds unfold. That is what we found in our society.”

While it might drag every now and then, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (“Crikey, that’s quite a mouthful,” says Sidney) tells a fascinating story about something I knew very little of. Book fanatics and history buffs will most certainly get something out of it. This romance contains enough mystery to carry through. The best Netflix original film of the summer!

3.5/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Eighth Grade

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Kayla (Elsie Fisher) struggles to get herself out there in Bo Burnham’s impressive directorial debut Eight Grade. (Source: AZ Central)

Famous for making funny songs on YouTube and short video bits on Vine, 27-year-old goofball comedian Bo Burnham put together probably the best stand-up special of the century with Netflix’s Make Happy. Not only was it funny, it also had a poignancy I never expected from a stand-up special. He illustrated his points through music (pre-recorded and live). For instance, he did his own take on today’s country music in a typical country singer’s voice and points out their cliches. The lyrics couldn’t have been more accurate.

He is this generation’s national treasure!

Premiering early this year at Sundance, Eighth Grade marks Burnham’s directorial debut. It captures the awkward stage of adolescence seen through the eyes of a middle-school girl. There is no other movie that feels more authentic and heartbreaking than this movie.

Set during the last week of middle school, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is a shy and quiet 13-year-old who spends most of her time on her iPhone or making inspirational videos on YouTube that receive little or no attention at all. The opening scene (reminiscent to the beginning of Annie Hall) involves her talking about how “being yourself” can be very difficult. As she rambles on, we see the camera zoom out until she says her signature sign-off, “Gucci!”

Because she spends more time on social media than in the outside world, Kayla struggles to make friends with her classmates and become part of their conversations. When she lives her single father Mark (Josh Hamilton)–the mother left the picture a long time ago–she is confined in her own little world even sitting at the table while her dinner is getting cold. The audience sees Kayla survive her week leading to graduation and hopefully develop a relationship on her crush Aidan (Luke Prael, resembling Timothée Chalamet).

Seeing this movie, I could easily relate to what Kayla has gone through. I was shy and quiet who would get picked on by my peers to no end. The only escape from the real world was from either Facebook or uploading movie reviews on YouTube (which gained more attention than I thought). However, I managed to have some great friends throughout middle school.

15-year-old Fisher couldn’t be more perfect as the upcoming high-school freshman trying to gain self-confidence, no matter how many failed attempts she tries to put herself out there. In an early scene, she gets invited to a pool party, hosted by the popular student Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere). Once she enters her house in a green one-piece swimsuit, she stares outside the window watching the other kids having a good time. For poor Kayla, however, she feels isolated from the group. She soon takes a deep breath and, in one long shot, we follow her into the pool.

There isn’t a movie that came out this year like Eighth Grade. Burnham brings enough humor and sorrow through his razor-sharp screenplay and wonderful direction. The scene at the campfire where Kayla’s dad tells her she is proud of her is hard not to fight back tears. While the movie is rated R for “language and some sexual material”, the MPAA suggests children under 17 to be accompanied by an adult. This is a perfect film for teenagers! I hope Bo Burnham makes more realistic and funny films in the future. One of the year’s best American movies!

4/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Film Title: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Young Donna (Lily James) sings with The Dynamos in the sequel to the 2008 sleeper hit Mamma Mia! (Source: Variety)

Based on the popular stage musical, the 2008 sleeper hit Mamma Mia! was a campy, silly, and harmless yet somewhat enjoyable film. It featured a great cast singing their own renditions of ABBA’s greatest hits (as well as some overlooked ones)–some good and some bad–on a beautiful island on the coast of Greece. The classy yet overhyped Meryl Streep was the heart and soul of the movie. Ten years later, the original cast are back in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. They join other talented actors to sing, dance, jive, and have the time of their lives. The sequel is like a B-side of a vinyl record. Nobody asked for another one of these movies, but if there is one surprise to come out this summer, it’s definitely this one!

This movie is a prequel/sequel; going back and forth between 1979 to the present day. One year after the events of the first film, Donna (Meryl Streep) has passed away from…who knows what? Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is struggling with her marriage with her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper). She invites her relatives to the grand reopening of the villa, under the management of Señor Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia), on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi dedicated to her mother’s memory, while unaware about the arrival of an estranged guest (Cher).

Meanwhile, in flashbacks, the audience learns how young Donna (Lily James) graduated from Oxford University with her friends Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies). She decides to travel around Europe where she falls in and out of love with three handsome beaus–Swedish sailor Bill (Josh Dylan), Irish architect Sam (Jeremy Irvine), and English banker Harry (Hugh Skinner)–who would become Sophie’s possible fathers (Stellan Skarsgård, Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth, respectively). To tell their story, they sing and dance the night away.

A sequel might not have been the most necessary, but it’s interesting to see how the story started and continued after the original, where Sophie’s actual biological father being left ambiguous. Being a fan of ABBA, how hard is it to resist?

James made a brief singing debut in the 2015 remake of Cinderella, where she sang a snippet of the English lullaby “Lavender’s Blue” and the famous “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” during the credits. She also sang a little in last year’s action film Baby Driver. This movie, however, features the performance of her lifetime.

Her spectacular performance captures the bubbly, energetic and optimistic spirit of Streep, with her long, curly blond hair and infectious smile–not to mention, amazing singing voice. It’s hard not to smile and tap your toes during her delightful rendition of “When I Kissed the Teacher” in the opening scene at her Oxford graduation. From that moment on, she’s on fire! She joins along with a talented young cast; particularly Irvine, in which I’m surprised to see him deliver another good performance seven years after War Horse.

It’s a shame Brosnan doesn’t have the same beautiful voice as Irvine’s. I still can’t get over his botched rendition of “S.O.S.” from the original. Thankfully, he doesn’t sing a whole lot–with the exception of “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper”, but that’s with the entire cast. Other than that, the song covers in this movie will have you dancing in the aisles–from the hilarious rendition of “Waterloo”, set in a Napoleon-themed restaurant in Paris, to a seductive version of “Why Did It Have to Be Me?”, set on Bill’s sailboat.

Writer/director Ol Parker joins Richard Curtis to bring forth some really funny moments–as well as some great one-liners, too–and really emotional ones. Robert Yeoman (a frequent collaborator of Wes Anderson) brings forth gorgeous cinematography–I particularly love the editing trick where the camera pans away from one character and cuts to another (i.e. the “One of Us” sequence).

While I smiled through the whole movie, it did have its fair share of narrative flaws. For instance, do we really have to know Bill has a twin brother? There are times in which the film feels forced and rushes a bit. Nevertheless, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a rare sequel that slightly outshines the original. The spirit of Streep still remains intact. Be on the lookout for cameos by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.

Also, thank God for Cher and her version of “Fernando”!

3/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Mission: Impossible – Fallout

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Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) hangs on the edge in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. (Source: The Hollywood Reporter)

The popular Mission: Impossible series, based on the television show that aired from 1968 to 1973, has come a long way since the 1996 original. Audiences weren’t expecting a spy thriller that required them to pay close attention. Tom Cruise makes a perfect protagonist in Ethan Hunt, who would eventually go to new heights. Due to the film’s success, five sequels were made; using a different director in each of them to generate a different style.

Mission: Impossible II is a typical popcorn flick from director John Woo. It is ridiculously stupid, but it still kicks ass. To be fair, Cruise’s hair is easily the best character in the entire movie. Mission: Impossible III goes back to serious mode. And it marks J.J. Abrams first feature-length film. The handheld camerawork and the constant close-ups definitely show it’s an Abrams feat. However, the series has improved with both Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, with clever writing, brilliant sets (Hunt scaling the Burj Khalifa probably being the most memorable in the series), and awesome characters. Not to mention the technology evolving and becoming more advanced. Christopher McQuarrie has taken over for Brad Bird as the director of the most recent two entries. With Fallout, he returns to bring another terrific thrill-ride (with a brain) to the silver screen.

After a failed mission, Ethan Hunt (Cruise), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) race against the clock to disengage three nuclear bombs containing plutonium, used by a terrorist group known as The Apostles–the predecessor to The Syndicate, led by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Along with CIA agent August Walker (a mustachioed Henry Cavill), the IMF must prevent mass destruction, or else they will be disavowed.

The cast brings great work into their performances. From the comic relief of Pegg’s Benji to the suave nature of Rhames’ Luther to the fierce energy of Ferguson’s Ilsa and Cavill’s Walker to the slyness of Alec Baldwin’s Alan Hunley, Tom Cruise’s Hunt will always be the heart and soul of the franchise.

Cruise never ceases to amaze me; not only with his acting abilities (particularly Hunt’s spy knowledge), but he risks his entire life to perform his own death-defying stunts. On the verge of 60, he’s still in incredible shape. Whether it would be running and jumping off rooftops, doing a HALO jump–in one long take!–during a lightning storm (rendered through CGI, of course), riding a motorcycle through the streets of Paris, or chasing the villain through the mountains of Kashmir in a helicopter, he can do it all!

Speaking of action sequences, the helicopter chase is the best you will see all summer. With McQuarrie’s clever use of camera angles, fast-paced editing, gorgeous setting (kudos to Rob Hardy’s cinematography), and Lorne Balfe’s thrilling score, it makes for one white-knuckling moment that I will never forget. This movie also contains the most brutal bathroom fight, some of the most intense chases, and so much twists and turns.

Fallout is everything a Mission: Impossible movie should be: edge-of-your-seat suspense, a sense of humor, and thoughtful storytelling. Not only is it the best in the series since Ghost Protocol, it’s easily the best blockbuster of the summer. Fingers crossed for more M:I films.

4/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Leave No Trace

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A father (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) try to find their way home in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace. (Source: The Atlantic)

Remember a quirky little movie from 2016 called Captain Fantastic? It starred Viggo Mortensen as a father of six. They have been living in the forests with their vintage bus for who knows how long. Once the mother dies, they step into a scary place known as the “real world.” Earning its cult status since it premiered at Sundance, Mortensen saves that uneven movie from being a total disaster.

Eight years later, Leave No Trace marks the return for writer/director Debra Granik after 2010’s Winter’s Bone, which introduced Jennifer Lawrence into stardom. It might have a similar concept to Captain Fantastic (considering they are both set in Pacific Northwest), but this is a much superior film.

Based on Peter Rock’s novel, My Abandonment, Will (Ben Foster) is an Army veteran suffering from PTSD, who lives with his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, in her first major role) deep in Forest Park, just outside Portland, Oregon. There is always something to do; they gather kindling to make campfire, read books, play board games, and cook food. They keep tarps overhead and sleep in sleeping bags to keep warm. The only time they go into town is when Will sells his prescription drugs to earn money for groceries and propane.

One day, Tom spots a jogger. Soon enough, the authorities separate them for questioning. Tom is placed in a detention center for young girls. Will struggles to answer true/false questions on the computer. Together, they struggle coming terms with a new environment.

Who knows why Granik waited so long to release another movie. But–she picked the perfect time to release this movie. Along with co-writer Anne Rosellini, she never shies away from her love of rural America (Winter’s Bone was set in the Missouri Ozarks) and nature. Kudos to Michael McDonough’s cinematography, the vibrant greens of the forest invite the audience to a different world that Will and Tom live in. There are no villains in the story at all. The authorities and Social Services treat the two with respect. Eventually, they help them relocate to place they might call home.

From 3:10 to Yuma to Hell or High Water, Foster has never been better as the demanding father learning her daughter the ways of survival. He must learn how to live with a roof over their heads. While he prefers to head back to the forest, Tom, on the other hands, resists living in this new environment. Unlike most kids her age, she never relies on a cell phone to communicate. She walks to a farmhouse nearby where she meets a boy who participates in 4-H meetings. She makes prized possessions such as a seahorse pendant necklace and miniature toy horses. McKenzie’s performance is truly one-of-a-kind, and one to look out for in the future.

With its PG-rating, Leave No Trace is a mature story about father and daughter living in a society unlike their own, which will more likely appeal to teens and adults. It’s subtle. It’s powerful. It’s intense. It’s devastating. It’s one of the year’s best films!

4/4