Tag: emma stone

Zombieland: Double Tap


Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)
★ / ★★★★

If your idea of entertainment is unadulterated boredom then Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland: Double Tap” is a winner: a lazy, low energy, soporific sequel to a predecessor that embodies none of these qualities. It is astounding that although there is a ten-year gap between the original and the follow-up, the ideas served here are tired and maddeningly cliché, rotten, the actors hamming it up to create a semblance of a good movie. I felt embarrassed for their efforts; they are character actors stuck in a third-rate material. It is clear that the picture has no reason to exist other than to make money. To say it is a waste of ninety minutes is an understatement.

The introductory scene shows some promise. Colombus (Jesse Eisenberg), via narration, acknowledges that since we last spent time with them a decade ago, zombies have specialized and a few have evolved. Each type is given a specific name based on the undead’s characteristics, particularly the manner in which it hunts. But this potentially fresh idea is dropped almost immediately and picked up only when convenient—when it is desperate for an action scene. Instead, we are bogged down with lame dialogue—most of them expository—about the importance of sticking together, of family, of home being where your loved ones are. Dave Callaham, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick’s screenplay appears to be confused when it comes to their target audience. Did they mean to impress those with IQ lower than 70?

Every time the material attempts to explore family dynamics among Colombus, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), it is a challenge to prevent closing one’s eyes because none of the connections ring true. For example, the father-daughter relationship between Tallahassee and Little Rock is forced and awkward on two fronts: there is no chemistry between Harrelson and Breslin—the latter at times coming across like she doesn’t even want to be in the film while the former, almost recognizing the lack of enthusiasm from his co-star, recompenses for their shortcoming as a unit by exaggerating an already hyperbolic character—and the screenplay never provides a warm, touching, or curious moment between the two characters prior to their relationship being challenged.

Another example is Columbus and Wichita’s would-be romantic connection: it is dry and purely circumstantial. Like Harrelson and Breslin, Eisenberg and Stone lack chemistry—this time the romantic variety. I suppose the idea of opposites attract is meant to be humorous, but what they share is consistently one-dimensional. Wichita is always the straight man, Columbus the bumbling bungler. The writing fails to let the audience see—or discover—what Wichita sees in Columbus, vice-versa. It is without question that interpretations of these characters are detached from the previous film. And so the whole thing comes across as a charade.

Even zombie attacks are nothing special: the undead appear and they are shot either in the distance or pointblank. Observe how these sequences are edited like a music video. The reason is because fast cuts and other flashy, in-your-face techniques are meant to establish a veil of energetic razzle-dazzle when, in reality, unfolding before us is just another shoot ‘em up. Substitute zombies with bad guys in suits and nothing is changed on the fundamental level. I felt especially insulted when a character would yell out zombie types (“Homer,” “Hawking,” “Ninja”—introduced during the opening scene) when one is encountered instead of allowing us to discover ourselves which version is in front of us. It zaps away the already minimal tension.

“Zombieland: Double Tap” is not made for smart people. It is made for the undead audience, those who prefer to have everything spoon-fed or explained for them. There is no excitement, no suspense, no thrills, not even one good scare. I did not feel as though the filmmakers felt confident or passionate about their material. If they did, they would have put more effort in elevating the dialogue, making sure that the relationships ring true, ensuring that the action is creative or surprising. If the bar is this low for the series, I hope it stays dead. It is an insult to everyone involved.

The Favourite


The Favourite (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

As an admirer of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ palate for the bizarre, I found the period comedy “The Favourite” to be impressive only during the second half, when fortunes have been turned upside down and inside out. It is then we get a chance to observe characters attempt to wriggle themselves out of very sticky situations, to scoff at them, to laugh at them, to consider their unhappy fates to be both ironic and well-deserved. It is clear, as he has shown in his previous pictures, that Lanthimos’ strength lies in looking at human nature through fractured lens and within those tiny crevices is a chance for us to see ourselves and ponder over the world around us.

The first hour is a waiting game as the initial moves of a long chess game are executed. I found them not uninteresting but not superbly inspired either. I liked the casting of Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah, in charge of governing state matters given that Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is almost always plagued with illness, and Emma Stone as Abigail, Lady Sarah’s cousin whose family has fallen on hard times and so she asks for employment within the estate. Weisz and Stone navigate the barbs of the warring cousins with a certain grace despite the ugly and delicious schemes. Meanwhile, Colman plays a queen who is so pathetic nearly every time we see her and yet the seasoned performer hits a different and fresh note with vigilance and purpose.

Despite the stellar performances, however, I found the machinations of early plotting to be rather generic. For instance, Lady Sarah’s nature of possessiveness and thirst for maintaining power is established right from the moment we meet her. And so when someone younger than her, certainly more likable, moves into the palace, her response is predictable. The same goes for the smart new resident who yearns to climb the social ladder. The standard writing is alleviated by performers who find ways to wrinkle the vanilla characterization. And take away Lanthimos’ proclivity toward awkward camera angles and habit of lingering at a shot for an extra second or two—sometimes ten—the content, at least during the first hour, is not all that special. The exposition is something I have seen from countless period films. The main difference is that the characters make no qualms about expressing their most inappropriate thoughts.

But when the consequences of Lady Sarah and Abigail’s competition is finally brought out to light, it becomes wonderful entertainment. The audience is not required to feel sorry for any of the players. However, we must understand them in order to have a more robust appreciation of double-edged ironies. With the exception of one figure, everyone else is proven to bite off more than what they are able to chew. They are convinced they are so intelligent and so experienced in navigating their way through labyrinthine gambles, the joy comes from seeing their big plans explode in their faces. Lanthimos, with his penchant for well-timed close-ups, ensures to capture the most minuscule facial expressions, at times in succulent slow motion.

The darkly funny farce “The Favourite” might have befitted from bolder screenplay decisions right from the get-go. One can argue that because the content is already for an acquired taste, it might have been stronger work overall had the writers been kind enough to spare us the usual motions and go straight for the jugular, to splash blood on posh, royal costumes.

The Croods


The Croods (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

The Croods is a family of survivors. As a unit, they have managed to avoid getting trampled on, eaten, poisoned, or falling to their deaths. Having an intact family is a great feat considering what had happened to their previous cavemen neighbors.

However, times are changing. Tectonic plates are on the move yet the patriarch, Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage), insists that they continue hiding in a cave. After all, staying away from danger has worked in the past. But when Grug’s curious daughter, Eep (Emma Stone), meets Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a young man who has advance knowledge, like how to make fire, her new friend just might be the key to prevent their extinction.

“The Croods,” directed and based on the screenplay by Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders, surprised me because although I expected to be entertained, I did not anticipate to be moved. An early scene shows how the family hunts for food through an energetic and beautifully animated chase sequence involving an egg. When such an approach is utilized, something in the back of my brain begins to have a sneaky suspicion that the material starts on a high note because once the dust settles, the screenplay will drag. This is a happy exception.

It has a bona fide sense of humor—appropriate for children, adults, and kid-at-heart. A few of the jokes might sound a bit corny in retrospect but they do not upon delivery. But one of the main reasons why it can be enjoyed on another layer is because we get a sense of what it is like for the Croods to be a family. They do not always get along, especially the father and daughter, because, though some of them may not be aware of it, their life is slowly rotting from the inside out due to a constant fear of getting hurt or something not going exactly as planned.

Grug’s motto is “Never not be afraid.” One of the best scenes involves Grug being put into a situation where he has no choice but to move forward and take a risk. The writer-directors do a good job just showing us an image of his helplessness. There is no need to use words because we see that he is crippled by a fear he—for the most part—has created for himself. With most animated movies, filmmakers tend to think it is necessary to explain the significance of the scene that just came before. I appreciated that this one avoids that cliché.

As previously mentioned, the animation has a pleasing aesthetic. Because it has so much going on at once, it makes the eyes dance. Admittedly, I have a weakness for strange-looking creatures—animated or otherwise. Most of the creatures found here are not based on actual extinct living things but I enjoyed admiring them nonetheless. One cannot help but notice, for example, the texture of a feline’s fur, how a carnivorous flower undulates in a non-threatening manner just before the kill, or the manner by which an animal is at times given human-like emotions or responses through their eyes.

“The Croods” provides an alternative. Instead of being about the importance of friendship or being true to ourselves, it turns its attention on why it is necessary that we take a risk sometimes so that we can get somewhere we want to be—and hopefully one that is worth it. Though it does not delve too deeply within that subject matter, at least it traverses a less traveled avenue.

Aloha


Aloha (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), a military contractor who currently works for a billionaire (Bill Murray), visits Hawaii for five days in order to make an important deal with the locals and to supervise a gate blessing at an airport. A member of the Air Force, the very enthusiastic Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), is assigned to be his escort. The two soon hit it off despite Brian’s initial reluctance because his former flame (Rachel MacAdams), currently unhappy with her marriage, also lives on the island.

“Aloha,” written and directed by Cameron Crowe is a fine movie—which is not a compliment. It is too vanilla—divorced from people’s outrage regarding the casting of Stone playing a character who is supposed to be a quarter Asian—meaning there is not much flavor in the story, script, and style of direction. There are, however, highly watchable performances, particularly by Stone who is radiant in just about every scene. Cooper has a strong, likable presence, sort of like an uncle you want to hug and share a beer with, but it is Stone who steals the movie.

There is some believable chemistry shared between the central potential couple. The two eventually realizing that they feel attracted to one another does not take half of the running time which is a nice surprise because this decision makes room for other, more interesting avenues. I particularly enjoyed the strained relationship between Brian and Tracy, his ex-girlfriend with whom he had not seen for over a decade. Because Cooper and McAdams are seasoned performers, comfortable with projecting emotions under multiple wavelengths, I believed that they have history and that is hard for them even being in the same room, let alone excavating a bit of the past.

One might argue that the story does not truly come into focus. Another might claim that it is really about nothing new or deep, just a series of scenes where we follow the main character and events unfold. Neither would be wrong. What I liked, though, was the feeling of being involved in the light comedy-drama despite not having a classic story arc. For example, there is no expected villain here—which is surprising because the ex-girlfriend could have been an easy target. Another potential source of conflict could have been Tracy’s husband (John Krasinski). Instead, these two are actually likable even though there are some problems with their partnerships.

Less effective are scenes involving the military and the billionaire which comprises about a third of the picture. Those in position of power are written and played like caricatures. While it is apparent that none of them are supposed to be taken seriously, I found them rather dull and boring. Casting big names to play these men is a waste.

Although Alec Baldwin and Bill Murray have at least one scene where they are allowed to shine, neither character says nor does anything that impacts the story significantly. I argue that if these scenes were removed altogether or only mentioned, the final product would have been stronger because the material would have turned out leaner. Emphasis would likely have been on human relationships rather than a thinly plotted redemption/patriotism subplot that comes across as highly tacked on.

“Aloha” is predictable and strange tonally—the latter being a compliment. I was curious, never frustrated, with where it is going and as far as light fares go, it could be worse. Still, aside from pretty good performances from actors with whom we know we can rely on to deliver, there is nothing much to recommend here.

La La Land


La La Land (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

“How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” asks a former classmate (John Legend) who has since found commercial success in the music business to Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own bar one day. Although “La La Land,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is neither a revolutionary nor a traditional musical, it offers a highly watchable escapist romp and delivers a few welcome surprises especially in terms of what it wishes to say about reaching one’s career goals.

The film emits exuberance and the love for song and dance right from its opening sequence. A smile was drawn on my face because it dares to show a real Los Angeles—not simply when it comes to the level of traffic, the noise, and the heat that settles on motor vehicles but also in terms of the level of diversity we see on screen.

Mainstream pictures tend to show a version of Los Angeles that it still too bland and whitewashed in this day and age so it is most refreshing that a reality of various skin colors, body types, and hair textures are captured from the get-go despite the genre being a musical with fantastic elements. This first scene, clearly influenced by a memorable scene in the classic musical “Fame,” makes quite a powerful statement and it is something that I expect from an independent feature film, not a mainstream work with well-known stars—a most welcome surprise.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling share effortless chemistry, the former playing a barista on the lot of a movie studio. Mia, like thousands of men and women in LA, dreams of becoming a movie or television performer. Stone and Gosling have a certain rapport that is endearing—even the moments between dialogue command a certain tactile bond that works beautifully in both comedic and dramatic scenes. The two may not have the strongest voices to carry a musical but this should not be counted against them because they should be actors first and singers second.

Despite the actors’ excellent chemistry, the middle section is most problematic. Notice that when life-changing events are not front and center, the pacing slows dramatically to the point of plateau. The material is divided into five sections: winter, spring, summer, fall, and winter once again. Spring and summer is the blossoming of Mia and Sebastian’s romantic relationship which should be just as powerful—if not more—than the major life events that attempt to derail them from the paths they have set for themselves especially because these potential changes challenge them as a pair.

For instance, a most uninspiring scene, egregious in content and execution, involves Mia talking about her past, her hopes, and her dreams to a man she is beginning to like on a romantic level. What should have been a defining moment is shot instead like a throwaway scene—camera from a distance, two people walking in a shot together, not one closeup is employed. Not to mention Mia’s story is so ordinary, she might as well not have said anything because smart audiences have already made assumptions—correct ones at that—about her past and where she hopes to go. I grew bored of the character’s lack of interest in her own life and the lack of energy in making someone else be interested in her life. My sentiment lasted till the next season. Chazelle ought to have rewritten the scene.

“La La Land” is at its most compelling when it hones in on the sacrifices one must make in order to reach one’s dream—or at times settling for a version of one’s dream. It asks us to consider the following: if we choose to sacrifice bits of who we are in order to get a little closer to our goals, by the time we reach these goals, can it still be considered as a success when our core values have been inevitably changed by such sacrifices? Not a philosophical film by any means, the ideas are there if one chooses to ponder. And for those who would rather not think too deeply, there is colorful and toe-tapping entertainment to be enjoyed.

Paper Man


Paper Man (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Temporarily moving to Montauk was supposed to help Richard (Jeff Daniels), a writer working on his second novel, overcome writer’s block. Instead, he ends up not doing much and is interminably stuck on the first sentence that will shape the rest of his book. His wife, Claire (Lisa Kudrow), visits on the weekends and when she is away, a high school student named Abby (Emma Stone) comes over to babysit Richard and Claire’s non-existent child.

There is an effective drama about loss and loneliness in “Paper Man,” written and directed by Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney, but they are buried underneath lame and awkward attempts at humor. Though it wishes to embody a bittersweet comedy-drama about two people with a significant age gap, it fails to reach a balance and a proper rhythm necessary to convince us that whatever is unfolding is consistently genuine.

The comedic elements prevent the picture from reaching great heights. I felt embarrassed for Daniels, a very good actor, because his character is often the joke. He rides a bike that is too small for him. The camera lingers on how he struggles to make the bicycle move. He throws a party for teenagers and decorates the entire place as if he were hosting a child’s birthday celebration. The camera scans the house for flashy ornaments. The screenplay is desperate for a laugh.

One quirk that works is Richard, almost fifty years of age, still having an imaginary friend. Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds) is a superhero, cape and all, and he is there whenever Richard requires a boost of morale. Though Reynolds’ exaggeration tends to hit some bad notes, I was interested in the idea that our protagonist is so lonely and struggles so much with relating to people his age that he is willing to hold onto Captain Excellent even if the latter has hinted that maybe it is time to let go.

The central relationship is between Richard and Abby. Though separated by age and gender, they are alike in many ways. The picture dares to walk the line between a friendship and a sort of romance. For the most part, it is effective: Stone and Daniels have a way of playing upon their charm and using it almost as a defense mechanism when their respective characters are hurt by circumstances. However, I was disappointed that the screenplay takes a predictable avenue in that what Richard and Abby have is discovered by Claire—seeing them in an awkward position, no less.

“Paper Man” has great trouble remaining fresh. Though a person experiencing writer’s block and finding inspiration from a source he least expected is not new, there are moments here that ring true. It just does not seem to be aware of when to let go of a template. I liked the way Abby’s story involving a tragic loss is handled. Before she and the published author met, Abby confided with Christopher (Kieran Culkin) who eventually tells her that she is his life. Though the line may sound silly, just about anyone can tell he means it with every fiber of his being, that maybe she should be Christopher instead of Bryce (Hunter Parrish), the latter having a nasty habit of treating his girlfriend like a plaything.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2


The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

If I could put a finger on the pulse of what is essentially wrong with “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” directed by Marc Webb, it would be the bloated, lacking in priority, and distractingly syrupy-cute screenplay by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner. The experience of watching the picture is like swimming through cotton candy: delicious visually and initially full of verve but as it attempts to come off compelling or moving, a lack of real substance is revealed on our taste buds.

The first mistake is the execution of the relationship between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). While it is critical that the material explores the struggle between the two young lovers trying to stay together, it does not mean that Peter’s relationship with everyone else should be left on the sidelines to rot. Notice the lack of impact of the most important scene between Peter and Aunt May (Sally Field). It is a turning point in the film because the conversation reveals a certain perception about Peter’s father. However, it does not work because there is a lack of a convincing build-up of elements that will eventually push Aunt May to reveal what she has been keeping a secret for most of her beloved nephew’s life.

A similar problem lies in the friendship between Peter Parker and Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan). If one is feeling generous, one can claim that there are only two scenes that hint at the depth of Peter and Harry’s relationship. The dialogue mentions that the two have been good friends since they were kids but the screenplay does not do an adequate job in convincing us of the connection. One or two scenes that shows the lighter side of their friendship is not a big enough canvass for us to appreciate the eventual betrayal and the ultimate ruination of what they share. It does not help that their rivalry takes center stage in the latter half—when it is too late and most underwhelming. Still, I liked the overall chemistry between Garfield and DeHaan.

The action sequences are executed and edited with a lot of energy but I was left unimpressed most of the time. I enjoyed watching Spider-Man soaring through the sky with the aid of his powerful web (and releasing joyous hollering) but when colorful beams of electricity begin to take over most of the shot, the frames turn to an eyesore, like looking at a very busy cartoon aimed toward really young children. This made me wonder if choosing Electro (Jamie Foxx), referred to Max Dillon prior to his tragic transformation, as the central villain was a good idea.

First, the electrical engineer’s admiration-obsession over Spider-Man is not milked for all its worth. I caught my mind referring back to Jim Carrey’s portrayal of The Riddler in Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever.” By comparison, the latter performer has done a much better job in conveying a creepy mad obsession. Second, Electro’s story—the man who often feels ignored, under appreciated, and powerless—is not written in such a way that underlines his humanity in a genuine way. There is a reliance on showing quirks and behavior but not enough psychology. As a result, the villain is not really all that interesting. He glows but there is not much going on inside.

More discerning viewers will recognize that the heart of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is a young man’s quest to get to the root of his father’s secret. It is most unfortunate that the writers were not aware of this. If they were, they would have given our protagonist more substantial things to do—more specifically, a lot less mawkish scenes with his high school sweetheart and more investigation of what Oscorp Industries is really capable of and how far those in charge are willing to go with their scientists’ experiments and discoveries to remain a billion-dollar company.