Violet & Daisy (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are a pair of teenage assassins and best friends who live together. They are supposed to have time off but after seeing a magazine advert which features their idol’s new fashion line, they accept a job offer to earn enough money to purchase a dress. However, their latest hit is unlike anyone they have encountered prior: he wants to get killed and, preferably, as soon as possible.
Written and directed by Geoffrey Fletcher, “Violet & Daisy” attempts to create a contrast by embracing the messy and the saccharine, in terms of the violence inflicted by the girls and their innocence, respectively, but it does not work because the characters are vapid. There is more emphasis on the supposedly cool thing put on the screen rather than a true careful attention to detail—a slow burn study of two girls who, while on the job, experience a fissure in what appears to be a close friendship.
The razzmatazz of the visuals distracts more than entertains. While some work beautifully, like Violet standing on a pile of corpses on the bathtub while taking a shower, scenes involving shootouts are boring, predictable, and pointless. The point-and-shoot approach gets tired real quick when guns are the only weapons used to kill. This might not have been a problem if the material suggested that violence was not meant to be fun or enjoyable. Clearly, with so much effort and energy put into how a person should be shot, what we are supposed to take pleasure in is seeing bullets immobilizing a target.
The acting is clunky and forced. While Ronan and Bledel acting like really young girls made me somewhat uncomfortable—and perhaps that is the point—the one-note acting from the latter is most frustrating. Bledel’s delivery often falls flat especially when her character is supposed to exude a certain level of menace. When those moments come around, as hard as I tried to get into it, I kept noticing a performer who has memorized her lines well. What is missing is the necessary emotion—a precise thunder of angst—to allow the scene to blossom and make it believable.
James Gandolfini, playing their curious target, stands head and shoulders above the leads. He is the only one who seems to have a complete idea about the type of character he is playing. He can have his eyes closed and still deliver intensity. I sensed more danger with his character than I did the two assassins. Halfway through, I wondered if the picture might have been stronger if it had been told through his point of view. There seems to be a lot going through his head even when he is just sitting on a chair and reading the newspaper.
On top of performances that leave a whole lot to be desired, the screenplay does not provide the lead characters with appropriate depth. “Violet & Daisy” is supposed to be thriller with some dramatic elements. An ounce of complexity, in the least, is to be expected. As a result, for the most part it looks and feels like a knockoff of Tarantino-like picture that leads with quirky dialogue combined with a healthy dose of violence minus all the fun and ingenuity.
The Conspirator (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Seven men and one woman were arrested for conspiring to assassinate the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. Abraham Lincoln was dead and the government wanted someone to bury in order for the nation to be able to move on, not just from mourning and sorrow, but also to a new era in which the Civil War was history. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), manager of a boarding house, was accused of being a conspirator in the assassination led by John Wilkes Booth. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a veteran lawyer, came to her defense but almost immediately appointed young and reluctant Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). Johnson knew that if he led the defense, Surratt would have no chance because Johnson was also from the South. Aiken, at least initially, was convinced she was guilty. Based on the screenplay by James D. Solomon and directed by Robert Redford, “The Conspirator” was a well-crafted courtroom drama about the scarcity of justice in a nation that felt terrorized to the core. I admired the film’s insistence on tackling difficult questions. It offered us answers from many points of view but it was wise in highlighting the fact that the so-called truth is irrelevant if the stage is plagued with bias. Aiken was an interesting character because he had a difficult task in separating his beliefs from his duty as a lawyer. McAvoy was quite good in the role. Although he looked a bit young, there was ferocity in his eyes when he witnessed something unconstitutional and downright immoral. As a former soldier in the war, he thought he had seen it all, but he learned, in a subtle way, that bureaucracies had its share of traps and subterfuge. It was fascinating to see him adapt and at times even fail. The picture was shot beautifully. During the courtroom scenes, I was transfixed in the way the light emanated from the windows and how it landed on clothing and people’s faces. Smoke and dust blurred certain images but it was so natural that it made me feel like I was in the room. However, there were a few distracting elements that took me out the mood. I felt as though the pace of the rising action was diminished by the flashback scenes when Mary still had her freedom. The flashbacks were somewhat unnecessary because it took away some of the mystery that surrounded Mary’s allegiance. I got the impression that Redford wanted to humanize Mary just a little bit more when he really didn’t need to. Furthermore, Justin Long, as Aiken’s friend, and Alexis Bledel, as Aiken’s romantic interest, were miscast. Their styles of acting were distractingly modern. I felt their struggles in adapting to the film’s specific time period. Regardless, “The Conspirator” contained powerful messages about patriotism. Watching the film, people can and ought to learn that a true patriot is not someone who cries hardest in times of terror or grief; a true patriot is someone can see past the overwhelming feelings and commotions, someone who is loyal to the concept of what is fair.
The Good Guy (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Alexis Bledel once again plays an ambitious and smart young woman who was torn between two guys who worked on Wall Street. Tommy (Scott Porter) knew what he wanted, wasn’t afraid to act on his impulses, a sweet-talker and a womanizer. On the other hand, Daniel (Bryan Greenberg) was socially awkward, did not have much luck with the ladies, but his insight made it difficult for anyone to not fall head over heels with him. Due to some unforseen circumstances, Tommy enthusiastically took Daniel under his wing and tried to make Daniel be more like a cutthroat businessman than a poet who wore his heart on his sleeves. I enjoyed the movie because it was an observation of modern relationships set in an urban area but I felt like it did not take enough risks. I loved that Greenberg’s character highlighted the theme of the film in which he mentioned that his favorite book was “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen because it was about false first impressions. Although the lead characters had clear dominant personalities, I found subtleties in them and I was interested with what was about to happen among the relationship between the girl and the two guys. I wished that their strained relationship was explored more and that the picture had less scenes of Tommy and his friends (one of which was played by the amusing Aaron Yoo) teasing each other and trying to pick up women in bars. I was also interested in one of the guys who worked on Wall Street who said he valued his wife and children more than his job and money. Greenberg had one scene with him which I thought was handled well because they found similarities in each other but it ultimately felt superficial because it wasn’t further explored. Written and directed by Julio DePietro, “The Good Guy” had the right ingredients to make a solid movie about character studies because I came to understand the protagonists’ motivations. But there were far too many scenes that did not need to be in the final product and not enough scenes that should have made it in. It also needed a bit more edge because there were times when the picture reached an emotional plateau. I could easily relate to the characters because even though they were out in the real world, they were still young and trying to figure out who they really were when with friends, with a special someone, or when forced to look at themselves when they had nobody else to turn to.
Post Grad (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Directed by Vicky Jenson and written by Kelly Fremon, Alexis Bledel stars as Ryden Malby, a recent college graduate who planned out her entire future well before high school. (Which isn’t really a stretch from her very lovable character Rory Gilmore on “Gilmore Girls.”) Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go as planned when she found herself being unable to get a job because of the fierce competition in the job market. This movie had the potential to be really good because of its modern way of approaching one of the most common questions of recent college graduates: Will I be able to immediately get a job after college? I thought the first twenty minutes was strong because it dealt with that particular issue head-on. It may not be incredibly realistic but at least it tried to be relevant. However, the deeper we got into the picture, the movie suffered because of bad writing and the material easily succumbed to eyeroll-worthy typicalities. Ryden had to choose between her kind-of boyfriend (Zach Gilford) who was torn between law school and music and the exotic guy next door (Rodrigo Santoro) who seemed to have his life together, deal with her eccentric and sometimes funny family (Michael Keaton, Jane Lynch, Carol Burnett), and question where her future was heading. All those distractions certainly did not distract me from the fact that the writer ran out of creative and meaningful ideas to really tackle the issue of unemployment after college. I liked the movie best when it focused on Bledel’s struggle in trying to define her career and encountering her rival (Catherine Reitman) from time to time. It’s a classic case of having emotional intelligence (Ryden) versus lacking one (her rival); it was so frustrating to me because the elements of making a smart movie were there but the writers didn’t take full advantage of putting them together in an insightful manner. I felt insulted that the film threw clichés right at me. I couldn’t care less about the kinda-sorta boyfriend and the sexy guy next door because if I wanted to watch a movie about that, I’d probably go see a film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. I couldn’t care less about the family either because their side stories didn’t add up to anything. The performances were mediocre at best but I didn’t mind much because I was more concerned about how it was going to approach the main issue. For a character who was supposed to be prepared to face the world (with enthusiasm to spare), the movie felt unprepared to discuss the real issues. The writer and director should’ve assumed that smart people would see this film. Maybe then they would’ve challenged themselves not only to challenge us but also inspire.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This sequel is arguably just as good as the original mainly because of the exotic locations and earnest acting. Two and half out of the four storylines worked for me: Amber Tamblyn’s pregnancy scare and her fear of everyone leaving her someday, America Ferrera’s accidental acting gig and her fear of growing distant from her friends, and half of Alexis Bledel’s lost love (Michael Rady) in Greece. I usually love watching Blake Lively (and I did love her here) but the storyline involving archeology and her grandmother felt forced. Every time the film would focus on her so-called life challenges, the momentum of the picture slowed down tremendously. As for the part that didn’t work for me regarding Bledel, it mostly has something to do with her acting. This was also a problem in the first film but whenever she’s about to cry, it feels really forced to the point where it’s borderline laughable. I can read it in her eyes–her questioning about whether she’s exuding enough tears and emotion. Out of the four, acting-wise, I think she’s the most dispensable. However, there’s something about this movie’s energy that kept me interested. I believed that the four leads really were college students because of the way they talked to each other and the questions that they raised (and eventually answered) when no one was around. Even though I’m not the target age group, I could relate with some of the girls, especially Tamblyn’s serious and introspective persona (not to mention her love for movies), because I have gone through the fears of losing one’s high school friends when I moved on to college. Overall, I’m recommending “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2” because it has nice life lessons and the actresses are interesting to watch.