Baby Driver (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Unabashedly an exercise of style over substance, Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” commands an uncanny ability to engage despite a plot with a familiar template. It does so, for the most part, through movement: the way the camera glides over well-choreographed action sequences featuring car smashes, how it switches between faces of people sharing an increasingly tense dialogue, the manner in which it jumps into and out of fantasies and memories. And supporting this technique is the ever-present soundtrack, a delicious stew of genres from artists like Queen, T. Rex, The Commodores, all the way to The Detroit Emeralds and Barry White.
Ansel Elgort has finally found a character that fits his rather limited acting style. He plays Baby, a getaway driver with tinnitus who must constantly listen to music in order to maintain focus on whatever is at hand. Baby does not say much which plays upon the strength of the performer; Elgort has presence even when simply standing in the background. Here, he has found a way to exude a cool aura that makes us want to get to know his character. However, when Elgort is required to speak, there are times when certain words and lines sound a bit mumbled which, I suppose, fits the character because of the relentless ringing in his ears.
Aside from “The Fast and the Furious” installments, modern action pictures involving heists and car crashes tend to look the same: grayish, wet, brooding, characters sporting miserable looks on their faces. But Wright’s picture is the opposite: it is colorful, the sun is shining, characters command their own personalities. Sometimes they end up surprising us. Particularly interesting to me is the revolving crew of robbers (Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, Flea, Lanny Joon) led by a well-dressed man named Doc (Kevin Spacey). These big personalities being stuck in a room and having to endure one another’s presence because they have a common goal is like shaking a pop bottle. Keeping in mind that the work is inspired by classic and modern heist flicks, one of them has got to be the central villain. I had fun trying to guess which one it will be.
The picture could have used more heart—and I am not talking about Baby missing his deceased mother or even his romance with a cute waitress (Lily James). A fresh choice would have been to explore the relationship between Baby and his foster father who is mute (CJ Jones). While the two share a few scenes that are almost moving, the writing does not offer enough depth when it comes to this relationship. As a result, scenes meant to tug at the heartstrings later in the picture feel forced at times.
There is a certain swagger, rhythm, and wit to this picture that I wish other filmmakers would notice and draw inspiration from. The scene before the opening credits is so impressive, so jubilant, yet so precise in terms of what it wishes to show the viewers, we recognize right away the kind of picture it is going to be: an unceasing displays of look-what-I-can-do and look-what-I-can-get-away-with.
Divergent Series: Allegiant, The (2016)
★ / ★★★★
This is yet another movie where it goes to show that the filmmakers can have access to all the special and visual effects in the world but if there is a lack of imagination, strong ideas, or even a smidgen of common sense in the writing to create a convincing and involving story, the project is highly likely to go down in flames. “Allegiant,” the third picture in the increasingly soporific “Divergent” series based on Veronica Roth’s novels, is the weakest entry yet.
The picture makes no effort to fix the many problems that plagued its predecessors. It is merely a boring, long-winded march to a predictable semi-conclusion. I am horrified there is another installment because it gives the impression that this universe has nothing left to offer in terms of intrigue or entertainment. Young adults, who are the main audience of the film, deserve much better than this balderdash masquerading as a teen dystopian future.
All the more apparent here is that the main character, Tris (Shailene Woodley), is far from a fascinating heroine. It is possible that the source material is to blame, but the screenwriters—Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper, and Bill Collage—have the duty of making her multidimensional, someone who we can stick by and root for. Instead, Tris is as bland as tap water; in the previous films, she is supposed to be special because she is a Divergent and in here, it is because she is “genetically pure.” The writers fail to turn these labels into more than just words or concepts. Why not show us exactly why Tris is a standout among the rest instead of constantly pelleting us with such nonsensical branding?
I felt bad for Woodley because she is a good performer, especially in more dramatic roles. Here, we see a glimmer of effort being put into her part, notably scenes where she must connect with another character. She has such expressive eyes and her whole being glows.
However, notice how the exchanges barely last more than thirty seconds. Observe how the language is so simplistic, there is nothing to digest. These are not how real people speak to one another in real life—let alone in a situation where you are fighting for the survival of your world. In actual, day-to-day conversations, there are emotions, implications, suggestions, and the like. There is conflict in just talking with one another. Here, the dialogue is so passive, the actors could have been replaced by robots and it wouldn’t have made a difference.
I choose not to provide a summary of the plot because it does not seem to matter at all. I would like to give the writers and filmmakers a pop quiz in order to see if they themselves know what’s going on with the story. I question their understanding because what should be central strands are treated as secondary, tertiary details are introduced somewhat for about fifteen to twenty minutes and then forgotten completely. Meaningful character development is thrown out the window altogether. It’s a disaster.
Seemingly directed by Robert Schwentke without using his eyes—or brain—“The Divergent Series: Allegiant” is an exercise designed to determine who in the audience is willing to endure the most torture. I sat through it only because I have a rule about watching the entire picture prior to writing a review. If you cherish your time, good mood, and energy, steer far, far away.
Men, Women & Children (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” is an attempt to look at our relationship with the internet and how it has come to define our lives in the past decade or so by focusing on a small American suburb. While the picture commands an interesting and relevant premise, it is not a successful picture. Not only is the running time too bloated—a surprise given there are multiple subplots worthy of exploration—but characters, especially in the latter half, are reduced to clichés. For a movie that tries to tackle a modern subject, it is not forward-thinking enough.
The varying strands are all cautionary tales. Perhaps most fascinating is Patricia (Jennifer Garner) who makes it her mission to protect her daughter, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), from the dangers of social media. She is convinced that if she learns every password, keeps track of every keystroke, and knows about her daughter’s location at all times, Brandy will be safe. Patricia is so busy keeping up that she fails to realize that she has a good daughter and her “protecting” is doing more harm than good. Garner plays the mother with fervor but stifles the emotions just enough to prevent the character from turning into a caricature.
A curious but undercooked character is Allison (Elena Kampouris), formerly a fat girl who lost a lot of weight during the summer. She has anorexia but she is admired by her friends for “looking for beautiful.” Boys even want to sleep with her now. Each time the focus is on Allison, I could not help but think about Lauren Greenfield’s excellent but not widely seen documentary called “Thin.” That movie understands eating disorders at its core. On the other hand, this film, for the most part, makes it look like Allison’s eating disorder is about wanting to be liked rather than having an irrational obsession to restrict.
Weaker still is the strand involving a married couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) who are bored with each other and so they use the internet to hookup with strangers. We never understand why their marriage is stale. Instead, we watch them on the couch looking bored and sort of mentioning about how often they had sex years ago. Many of their scenes come across almost farcical—situations that are easily found in bad comedies. Don and Helen are not characters but stick figures. I would rather have learned more about Kent (Dean Norris) and Donna (Judy Greer), a father with a depressed son (Ansel Elgort) and a mother with a daughter craving stardom (Olivia Crocicchia).
To get us into the mood of its characters, the picture is shot in warm, pale light especially when a scene is taking place at night and indoors. This is an elementary approach but the way it is done here is most inelegant. We notice the technical elements because the drama is not completely captivating.
Lastly, given its subject of the internet’s ability to affect all lives, I was surprised to not have seen more diversity in both casting and characters. By the end, one gets the impression that this story is only about white, middle-class, heterosexual people. Them being more or less the same contributes to the screenplay running out of steam just before the halfway mark.
★★ / ★★★★
Dystopian Chicago is divided into five factions: Erudite for the intelligent, Amity for the kind, Candor for the honest, Dauntless for the brave, and Abnegation for the selfless—each believed to serve a specific function to maintain peace and order. Young men and women take an aptitude test and the result of the exam gives each participant an idea which faction he or should should join. Typically, a person falls under one category. However, in rare of circumstances, a person may be considered a good for fit more one than one group. These are called Divergent and they are considered a threat to society.
Based on the novel by Veronica Ruth, though “Divergent” offers an interesting premise, it is a problematic picture largely because its exposition is expanded to such an extent that it becomes increasingly clear that it is a movie that never stops beginning. When it does hit its stride eventually, some time after the hour-and-fifteen-minute mark, the film is halfway over and supporting characters that are potentially worth knowing remain on the side. As a result, the material ends up offering very little substance—especially to those, like myself, who have never read the series.
Suspense is absent for the most part. Let us take a look at Gary Ross’ “The Hunger Games.” There is a sense of build-up with scenes that lead up the The Reaping. Silence is utilized in such a way as to highlight the oppression endured by the protagonist’s long suffering district. Here, because the screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor fails to place heavy importance in what is about to transpire—the very thing that will propel the story forward, it feels as though taking the personality-based exam is a piece of cake. Although Tris (Shailene Woodley) is nervous about taking the test, I found myself watching rather passively rather than in anticipation.
Deaths occur later in the picture—which is now expected with films of this type. I wanted to know more about the friends Beatrice has grown close to in her chosen faction (Zoë Kravitz, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Christian Madsen). What about her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), who joined Erudite, a group that wishes to gain power and control over the city? What are his experiences like at that camp? And when Beatrice and Caleb left home, how did their parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn) cope? These are not deep information about the characters but they are necessary for context.
Instead, we get an abundance of scenes surrounding so-called training: jumping off trains, hand-to-hand combat, target practice… Relatively boring junk, not to mention unconvincing. In my eyes, two of the “leaders,” Four (Theo James) and Eric (Jai Courtney), do not actually lead. They do a lot of standing and looking stern. They are not shown helping the recruits on how to hone their techniques and improve their performances. An exemption is when Four comes up to Beatrice and gives tips—but it is only because he is romantically interested in her. The charade is superficial, obvious, and cheesy—only there to appeal to people whose definition of sexy is outward gestures.
I enjoyed Kate Winslet’s presence as the Erudite leader. She elevates the material because even when her character is not saying a thing, we can tell immediately that she is someone of importance. It is in the way she stands, the way she walks, the way she looks—or not look—at others who she considers to be below her. However, Winslet does not have very many scenes. She did not have a chance to turn her cold character into someone with more substance, a villain with more to her than verbalizing her goal to maintain “peace.”
Directed by Neil Burger, “Divergent” is a mildly entertaining movie that offers standard action behind a premise that should have had more depth. If one were looking for shootouts at the end, one would likely be satiated. If one were looking for romantic glances and flirtations, one would likely walk away swooning. But I am not looking for standard; I am looking for something that attempts to set the bar—or at least meet it. In this respect, the film is a major disappointment.
Fault in Our Stars, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hazel (Shailene Woodley) has a pair of lungs that is not very good at being lungs. Her thyroid cancer, diagnosed when she was thirteen, has spread downward over time so liquid tends to accumulate in her breathing organ. Thus, she is required to haul around an oxygen tank that will enable her to inhale and exhale with ease.
Attending a support group for cancer patients, one she insists on not attending but does so anyway in order to make her parents feel better, Hazel meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), an osteosarcoma survivor. The cancer was once in his right leg so the doctors decided it had to go in order to save his life. The two have no idea of the love—one that goes beyond cute and romance—that they are about to share.
Based on the acclaimed novel by John Green, “The Fault in Our Stars” is, for the most part, an effective drama about teenagers who have or have had cancer. There is an honesty to the picture that is absent in many other movies that feature characters afflicted by the devastating disease which makes it head and shoulders above films of its type. Pair the quality screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber with a relevant topic—a young person dealing with one’s mortality—and what results is a work with a high level of pathos while elegantly balancing romance, tragedy, and comedy.
The lead performance is outstanding. When I heard news that Woodley would be playing Hazel, I knew she would be perfect for the role because in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” and James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now,” she has shown that she is not a one-dimensional performer. I feel she has very sad eyes. The longer the camera stares at them, sadder moments are amplified while lighter moments create a fascinating, magnetic contradiction. We always wonder what Hazel is thinking which is exactly the point because even though she may not admit to it verbally, she is afraid to die. In one important scene, she describes herself as a grenade. In some ways, she is.
I wish I can say the same about Elgort. Gifted with angelic good looks, the actor tries to embody the very charismatic Gus and match Woodley’s natural intensity, but he consistently comes up short by comparison. Notice that in some scenes, his character has a limp; in others, it is absent completely.
Some missteps are less elementary. When certain lines are better delivered by relishing every moment, he tends to rush which gives the impression that he is nervous. Perhaps he was intimidated by his more experienced co-star, I do not know for sure, but there are times when he took me out of the moment instead of further getting me into it. Still, Woodley and Elgort do share believable chemistry.
It shows a taste of how scary and ugly cancer can be while still being mindful of its target audience. Keep in mind that the picture is not a documentary about how it is really like for a person to have cancer, but there are enough details to keep one engaged. For instance, it gives us an idea of a routine a cancer patient might have—constant doctor visits, the amount of pills to be consumed three times a day, attending support group, always being watched closely—and how the disease can dig its claws suddenly and let go, for the time being, just as abruptly.
For the most part, its approach is to focus on the emotional struggles of its characters. Best exemplified is the relationship between Hazel and her mother (Laura Dern). Although Elgort is not able to match Woodley’s subtleties, Dern hits the right spot every single time. There are moments when I wished that the story would focus more on the fears shared between a mother and her child.
Dern proves to be a great conduit. She allows those who have never been a parent to feel some of her character’s struggle of being a mother who wants to cherish every moment with her daughter just in case the good days are numbered while at the same time allowing Hazel to live her life the way she wants it. And that means giving her daughter some space, some freedom.
Directed by Josh Boone, “The Fault in Our Stars” is appropriately titled because less discerning eyes can go into it and be convinced that its flaws are negligible, that it is so-called perfect just the way it is—and that is all right. But in my eyes, even though I enjoyed the picture as a whole, there are enough miscalculations to draw a difference between a truly engrossing experience every step of the way and that of a work which requires a bit more fire and polishing in order to set a standard.
★★ / ★★★★
Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz), having been homeschooled until her deeply religious mother (Julianne Moore) was forced to send her to school, gets the shock of her life when she notices blood coming out of her while showering in the girls’ locker room. In total fear that she is dying, she screams for help but instead of her peers trying to help her out, they laugh at her confusion. Chris (Portia Doubleday) even goes as far as to record the incident and posts it online for the rest of the school to see. Carrie becomes a laughingstock. Chris gets suspended and is out for blood.
Is Kimberly Peirce’s remake of Brian De Palma’s “Carrie,” based on the novel by Stephen King, a necessary one? No, it is not. However, it does not mean it is without anything worthwhile or entertaining to offer, from a pair of characters with surprising human elements to them to gruesome deaths that left my mouth agape.
Despite special and visual effects being allowed to run amok, Gabrielle Wilde and Ansel Elgort, playing a popular high school couple who grow to care about Carrie, steal the show. There is a humanity to Sue and Tommy that not even the title character possesses. Because Sue feels guilty for contributing to Carrie’s misery, she convinces Tommy to ask the shy girl to the prom. Though Tommy insists on taking his girlfriend, taking Carrie is not a chore because he knows—and we know he knows—that his alternative date is a person of substance. If this had been a straight-faced high school drama, I would have been equally engaged—perhaps more so. I like it when teenagers who happen to be popular in high school are given some depth; it is too easy to put a target on their backs. The paranormal aspect, in some ways, functions as a distraction.
Floating books, levitating beds, and other psychokinetic displays are a bit overdone. This comes at a cost. For instance, during the first scene, Carrie’s powers are already front and center: objects moving by themselves, lights flickering when the girl gets upset. The story is set during modern times. Are we really supposed to believe that no one is able to put two and two together? That is, that Carrie has special abilities?
This piece is critical because Carrie is supposed to be an outcast. However, if I had seen someone moving objects using his or her mind, I would want to be his or her friend. In other words, the picture, despite being connected to paranormal phenomena, lacks logic. Therefore, it might have been better off having Carrie’s powers start off in subtle way and then a gradual escalation until the famous prom scene.
The final twenty minutes had me engaged. I found it amusing that even though I knew what to expect, I remained excited to see certain people getting their comeuppance. Still, though Moretz does a good job portraying loneliness and fear, she never achieves the necessary level of menace to make a real fearsome character. What makes Sissy Spacek such a great Carrie in the 1976 version is that we completely buy her as someone who is vulnerable but slightly dangerous, perhaps even off-kilter. The gap in performance is so vast that it is like comparing a flustered kitten to a lioness.
“Carrie,” based on the screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is light entertainment if nothing else is playing or if one is doing chores around the house. There is a sweetness to what Carrie and Tommy come to share but nothing else is especially noteworthy.