The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)
★ / ★★★★
After attending a bad poetry session with Simon (Robert Sheehan), Clary (Lily Collins) notices a mysterious symbol on a sign hanging above a nightclub—one that her hand draws when her mind is focusing on something else. Hoping to get answers, she goes inside. She witnesses a man get murdered. However, no one else saw what she claims to have occurred. At home, Clary’s mother, Jocelyn (Lena Headey), begins to worry because she is no longer able to repress her daughter’s increasing power.
“The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” is yet another tired adaptation of a young adult book. Though fantastical elements are present, from witches and so-called Shadow Hunters to vampires and werewolves, there is a dearth of magic in the screenplay by Jessica Postigo and so the experience, for the most part, is one to be endured rather than to be marveled. It is crippled on two accounts: the love triangle and the conflict between good and evil. There is no escape. When it is not focused on one, it is focused on the other.
The would-be exciting action sequences get progressively worse. I enjoyed the twenty minutes or so especially the part when Clary rushes home to discover that her mother is missing… and that something else is waiting for her. But once the fantasy elements have been introduced, the action becomes muddled and confusing. The battles always occur in groups so everyone is moving at once. The film has a gothic look and feel to it so it is often dark. It is near impossible to make sense of everything is happening when there is a fight. Furthermore, it does not provide space—the camera is fond of shots above the waist or the characters within arm’s length of each other—and time to appreciate the craft and choreography put into these scenes.
So the plot deals with fantasy but must the romance be fantastic, too? In other words, there is a lack of realism in how Clary and Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), a Shadow Hunter like Clary’s mother, fall for one another. Instead of giving the two a necessary building of chemistry, there seems to have been a switch that was flipped once it is convenient to the plot. It comes out nowhere that when the lovebirds begin to get a little closer, all I could think about was the mission: Shouldn’t they be looking for Jocelyn?
Collins is a bit bland as a heroine, but one casting choice I liked is Bower. The contrast works for him. He looks like a villain with those high cheekbones and piercing eyes but his character has a nice mix of kindness and coldness—like he can easily turn against someone if the person fails to do right by him. Clary pales in comparison and when there is an argument about her being nothing but liability, given that she is not as battle-savvy as the rest, I found myself agreeing with them instead of wanting main character to prove them wrong. A fatal flaw is that the screenplay fails to prove to us why Clary is special outside of her powers. For example, Harry Potter is interesting not because he can do magic—the supporting characters can summon spells, too—but because we get a taste of his humanity through being an underdog despite his abilities. There is an important difference and it makes or breaks a potential franchise.
Directed by Harald Zwart, “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” is a lot like watching an hourglass: you know that time is passing by due to the build-up of sand but it is almost maddening because you see that the process is occurring too slowly. Given its quality, there is no reason for this film to exist let alone run for over two hours.
Stuck in Love (2012)
★ / ★★★★
Since the divorce of Bill (Greg Kinnear) and Erica (Jennifer Connelly) two years ago, the Borgens household has become an abode for serious writers. Over Thanksgiving break, college student Sam (Lily Collins) reveals that a book she had written over the summer is getting published. Bill is extremely proud but Rusty (Nat Wolff), Sam’s only sibling, sneers across the table. He has yet to publish any of his material. His muse is right around the corner, however, when he is forced to read one of his work in class—a poem about a girl (Liana Liberato) who sits several feet away but happens to be seeing another guy.
Written and directed by Josh Boone, “Stuck in Love” is full of whiny, irritating, arrogant people with bland personalities. It takes a solid premise—a family of writers who have a certain competitiveness in their blood—and minces it into a standard three-piece love story where the outcomes are easily predicted by anyone who is half-asleep.
It makes the mistake of allowing the supporting characters to overshadow those who we are supposed to care about most. A character worthy of an entire film is Louis (Logan Lerman), Sam’s classmate and a potential love interest. Like Sam, he is a writer but one that specializes in mysteries and detective stories. Unlike Sam, his life is interesting and his personality has genuine substance. He deals with illness but he is pleasant to be around. Lerman is smart to reel in some of the awkwardness and turn some of that into charm.
Equally lovely to see on screen is Kristen Bell who plays jogging-obsessed Tricia. She and Bill have sex from time to time and they have a common understanding that what they share is purely physical. Unlike Sam, Tricia is no love interest. I enjoyed her relationship with Bill because they seem to fit well as friends. One of the highlights of the picture involves Tricia helping Bill with his wardrobe prior to going on a date. It is unfortunate that the screenplay does not make full use of the friendship, to delve into it more, and build emotional resonance out of it. She appears and disappears for comedic effect.
Louis and Sam’s banters are tolerable and amusing at times, but I found Rusty and his class crush quite unbearable to watch. Perhaps part of the problem is that Wolff and Liberato share little to no chemistry. During the more intimate scenes, it feels like watching two inexperienced actors rehearsing. There is not enough rhythm or flirtation to make the scene magnetic. Rusty is supposed to be a hopeless romantic. It is feels off that the relationship bears little romance.
The Borgens’ problems are not at all deep despite the drama happening all around. Right about the halfway point, I caught myself wondering if I was supposed to care and whether the screenplay would even bother to throw a curveball that is designed to break the ennui. The point is, the Borgens’ problems can easily be solved if they just acted like real people for a change. Hold a family meeting. Person A does not want to see Person B? Tough luck. In reality, people are required to do things they might not particularly like or agree with.
The central problem is foreshadowed in the title. The screenplay is essentially stuck with a familiar formula, only occasionally colored by slight brushes of independent filmmaking. There is nothing wrong with attempting to appeal to a wide audience while saying something intelligent or insightful. The key is an elegant script that this film lacks.
Mirror Mirror (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Although Snow White (Lily Collins), whose mother passed on while giving birth to her, was trained by her father (Sean Bean) in preparation to rule their kingdom, the King felt compelled to remarry a new Queen (Julia Roberts) because he felt he was unable to teach her everything she needed to know. When the kingdom was bewitched by dark magic, the King headed to the forest to search for answers but never returned. Years passed and the Queen had taken control of the kingdom and driven it to bankruptcy. Realizing that her stepmother was unfit to rule, Snow White decided to usurp the Queen and restore her father’s legacy. “Mirror Mirror,” based on the screenplay by Jason Keller and Marc Klein, had hiccups of genuinely amusing moments but in its desperation to convince us that its protagonist wasn’t bland, the little comedic momentum it managed to gather dissipated just as quickly. Without a doubt, the most interesting characters to watch were the evil Queen and Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer), the former deliciously vain while the latter valiant and adventurous. Whenever Roberts and Hammer shared a scene, there was electricity on screen because the two seemed unabashed when it came to making fun of themselves as well as their characters. While there were infantile jokes, like bird excrement being brushed onto the Queen’s face as part of a beauty regimen and the prince licking everyone’s faces as if he were a dog, I laughed because they were so unexpected and delivered with such glee. Not always a fan of gross-out humor, I was entertained when the material asked its actors to go for the extremes. Unfortunately, Snow White was as boring as staring at a plank of wood. To its credit, however, much effort was taken to make her appear edgy. For instance, she was allowed to hold a dagger, engage in a sword fight against the prince, and utter feminist lines–dizzying at best because it was so eager to hammer us over the head about how modern it all was. Perhaps casting was responsible because Collins was almost too classically beautiful. The contrast between the actor’s look and the intentions for her character, in this case, failed to create synergy. In the end, she was just nice, but nice proved dangerously tedious when placed between vitriolic malevolence and hunky earnestness. Furthermore, the look of the film did not offer anything special. When characters ran in the woods or strutted about the palace, it felt like I was watching actors performing on set. Since I wasn’t immersed into their world, I was more keen on noticing images that did not quite fit. For instance, when the thieving dwarves, played by actual dwarfs, got on stilts to appear as giants, the ones on stilts still looked like stuntmen despite the fact that the camera kept its distance. Also, there were some shots that made me question how a character got from one place to another in a matter of seconds when the distance between the two places was at least a tens of meters. The errors proved very distracting especially during the action scenes when it was supposed to be exciting. If anything, there should have been a flow to the images gracing the screen so that the logic specific to its fantasy world would come off as believable. Directed by Tarsem Singh, although “Mirror Mirror” had its moments, the rewards were not fruitful nor plentiful enough. I couldn’t stop thinking how big a statement it would have made if the Queen and the prince actually ended up together.
★★ / ★★★★
Nathan (Taylor Lautner) was led to believe that he was any other teenager raised in suburbia: He went to parties with his friends (Denzel Whitaker, William Peltz), got into trouble for not coming home until the next morning, and had a crush on his neighbor, Karen (Lily Collins), who happened to have a boyfriend. When Nathan and Karen’s sociology teacher assigned them to work together on a project, Karen stumbled upon a website that listed people who were missing. One of the photos of the kids resembled Nathan. This instantly grabbed his attention because it explained why he didn’t feel quite right when he was around his parents (Maria Bello, Jason Isaacs). Upon further examination of the picture, Nathan noticed that he and the kid had the same shirt with a stain on the exact spot. “Abduction,” written by Shawn Christensen and directed John Singleton, exhibited solid control as it moved from soapy teen flick territory to heart-pounding possible government conspiracy. I enjoyed that even though the protagonist was capable of defending himself using boxing and various martial arts, not once was he required to pull a trigger to kill his attackers. It was interesting because although there were action sequences, I wasn’t watching an action star at its center, but an actor who had the potential of someday becoming an action star. There was a commitment and enthusiasm I enjoyed from watching Lautner. His bruise-inducing punches, bone-crunching kicks, and wild somersaults were executed with energy so I was invested in what was happening and why certain things unfolded the way they did. More than a handful of them were convenient but I didn’t mind; I was having a good time. However, the picture featured supporting characters that I wished we knew more about, particularly CIA Agent Burton (Alfred Molina), Nathan’s psychiatrist, Dr. Bennett (Sigourney Weaver), and the villainous Kozlow (Michael Nyqvist). I felt as though they were forced to take the backseat in order to make room for supposedly romantic scenes between Nathan and Karen. The material was crippled when the two traded extremely cheesy lines. For instance, as the couple shared a passionate kiss on the train, Karen claimed Nathan was a much better kisser than in the eighth grade. The response was somewhere along the lines of, “That’s because I didn’t know what I was doing back in the eighth grade.” I had to cringe; I think I even did a face palm. They were awkward enough with each other and the script didn’t help to alleviate the bad chemistry. I understood that the filmmakers needed to have less adrenaline-fueled scenes in order to allow the film to breathe, but they didn’t need to slap us upside the head with egregious dialogue and, yes, of the duo delicately holding hands and trading knowing smiles. “Abduction” was occasionally inconsistent but entirely watchable given the parameters it set out for itself.
The Blind Side (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a book by Michael Lewis about Michael Oher’s story being adopted by a rich, white Conservative family, “The Blind Side,” written and directed by John Lee Hancock, had a good balance of comedy and drama so I couldn’t help but enjoy it. In a way, the film reminded me of the movie “Precious” because it was about a person (Oher played by Quinton Aaron) who came from a terrible neighborhood and was so shut down that he barely spoke to anyone. But unlike “Precious,” “The Blind Side” is far more mainstream because, throughout the picture, as the lead character learned to open up a little bit more, it became somewhat of a standard feel-good movie with painfully obvious story arcs. However, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because the movie managed to have more hits than misses. One of its hits was casting Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a no-nonsense mother who had enthusiasm to spare. I love watching her in any role but I believe this is one of her best performances along with “Crash” because she was given more room to play with the subtleties of her character. She didn’t just rely on charisma because her Mrs. Tuohy was somewhat stern yet it worked for Bullock because there’s a certain cheekiness to the character she played. I also liked that the movie took the time for each member of the family (Tim McGraw, Jae Head, Lily Collins) interact with Oher. Head had some scene-stealing moments as the little brother who was so proud and so excited to have a big brother. If I were forced to point out a problem I had with the film, it would have been a lack of real exploration about where Oher came from. We get a few scenes of him returning to his neighborhood, meet some tough guys but that was about it. The movie mentioned his mother being involved in drugs all too briefly but I felt like we didn’t really get a full picture of Oher’s experiences in that neighborhood. As a substitute for the real source of tension, we get scenes of the mother’s friends making racist comments and some teachers giving up on Oher and labeling him as stupid. Knowing where the story took place in America, of course bigotry and prejudice will be present. I felt like those were good secondary sources of tension but the focus should have been where Oher came from as much as how the Tuohy family welcomed and accepted him. I can understand why a lot of people were inspired by “The Blind Side” and therefore obtaining a lot of hype. To be completely honest, I thought it was a solid movie but I wasn’t really moved in a significant way. Everything about it was nice but it could have used a bit more edge and less predictability.