2018 Summer Movie Review: Puzzle

 

puzzle-msn

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

Advertisements

2018 Summer Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman

blackkklansman-vox

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: 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

mi6-hollywoodreporter

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

leave-no-trace-atlantic

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

2018 Summer Movie Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

ant-man-the-wasp-imdb

Scott (Paul Rudd) and Hope (Evangeline Lilly) suit up in Ant-Man and the Wasp. (Source: IMDb)

Ant-Man was one of the funniest films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, despite the ordeal with filmmaker Edgar Wright. It features one of the funniest actors in Paul Rudd as an awkward criminal fighting crime wearing a suit that makes him become the size of an ant. While the narrative brings little to nothing new to the table, its fast-paced humor, wonderful action, and funny characters makes it such a sleeper hit.

Rudd and co-stars Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, and Michael Peña reunite with director Peyton Reed to give another hilarious, fun ride in Ant-Man and the Wasp.

After the events of Civil War, former criminal Scott Lang (Rudd) struggles to be a good father to his fearless daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). One day, he reunites with Hope van Dyne (Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas). They learn about how Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) disappeared in the quantum realm in 1987. They help together to create a quantum tunnel to save her. With the help of Luis (Peña) and his security crew, the tiny heroes suit up while the “Ghost” (Hannah John-Kamen) and black market tech dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) are on their tails.

I cannot picture a better duo than Ant-Man and the Wasp (the first MCU film to feature a female character’s name in a title). Rudd and Lilly play off each other’s roles almost to perfection. Their interactions are almost impossible to hold in your laughter. Not to mention when Luis tells his stories with the funny narration (some of the best parts of the first film). It’s definitely not without its heart and wall-to-wall action. The chase through San Francisco showcases the breathtaking and funny special effects. Since 2008, these movies have gotten better with its visuals. Ant-Man and the Wasp is a great follow-up to Infinity War. It will be a quick eight months once Captain Marvel arrives.

3.5/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Film Title: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) trains Blue in a flashback in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. (Source: Variety)

I enjoyed the first Jurassic World, which became one of the highest-grossing movies of 2015. Not only did it have good actors and fun suspense, I found it to be a touching tribute to the wonderful prehistoric world Steven Spielberg brought to the silver screen 25 years ago. However–some distractions did kill its magic. Not to mention the ridiculous moment when Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire runs around in high heels (as if they were sneakers). She goes on the run again, this time, in black boots, in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the latest from director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible). Of all the blockbusters coming out this summer, this might be the most disappointing one so far.

After the dinosaurs wreaked havoc in the scientifically-advanced theme park, the owner Claire Dearing (Howard) and Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) arrive at the abandoned Isla Nublar to save the remaining dinosaurs, despite the U.S. Senate ruling against the operation. Along with Zia (Daniella Pineda) and Franklin (Justice Smith), two members of Claire’s dinosaur protection program, the group notice the island is going to be wiped out by a volcanic eruption. They later learn about Eli Mills’ (Rafe Spall) plan after saving the genetically-engineered dinosaurs.

This movie, now becoming one of the highest-grossing films of this year (hitting over $1 billion worldwide), does have its moments. The scene on the island during the volcanic eruption early one is one of the best action set pieces you will see this year; with its gorgeous visuals (the dinosaurs look as great as ever), tension and Michael Giacchino’s thrilling score. The climax of the film really showcases Bayona’s talent as a filmmaker with its dark, Gothic atmosphere. But–if the best parts of the movie are the first and last acts, that’s not a good sign.

While Pratt saves the movie from being an absolute mess, the cast is trying way too hard in a story containing very little humor and a darker atmosphere. It’s basically a carbon copy of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, with Mills (who is a stereotypical villain) making the most powerful dinosaur on the planet while planning to relocate the dinosaurs with the help of Gunnar (Toby Jones). With little to no surprises, characters making stupid decisions, and the stupid twist involving Mills’ daughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), it falls short from being good. While not the worst in the franchise, it’s better than Jurassic Park III.

2/4