Tag: rachel mcadams

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.

Game Night


Game Night (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

As the superficially amusing pseudo dark comedy “Game Night” unfolds, one learns quickly of its tricks and wacky rhythms. Soon enough the material begins to suffer from a case of diminishing returns. A cheeky line here and a cameo there simply aren’t enough to keep the plot consistently interesting which becomes rather convoluted especially for a mainstream comedy. Particularly disappointing is its handful of detours toward the action-comedy route. And, indeed, as expected from generic comedies that run out of ideas toward the end, the final act involves hero and villain scrambling for the gun. Actual game nights with friends prove to be more fun (and more unpredictable).

It is most unfortunate that the picture does not live up to its full potential because the cast share solid chemistry. Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman play a convincing married couple, Annie and Max, whose lives revolve around competition and, more importantly, winning. But the game of life tends to throw curveballs and we learn that they are having trouble conceiving a child. While this is a good template from which to take off from, I grew annoyed by the screenplay’s lack of intelligence, grace, and imagination whenever real emotions inch toward the forefront. Having trouble getting pregnant is utilized as the one and only tool to procure pity from the audience and we see right through it. Despite Adams’ and Bateman’s comic chops, their talent fails to elevate thin dramatic material.

The supporting cast are strong, from Kyle Chandler as the successful elder brother whom Max envies to Jesse Plemons as the incredibly creepy, single expression neighbor who no longer gets invited to game night—even though he makes it clear that he is desperate to become a part of the group again. But it is Billy Magnussen who steals the show as the dumb blonde. It is so difficult to make play an imbecile in a smart way. As Magnussen shows here, it can be done via excellent comic timing with precise facial expressions coupled with manic energy. To top it off, the performer has found a way for us to like him, kind of like a pet, even though the character does not get a glimmer of a backstory.

But the overarching game itself is not intriguing, specifically the kidnapping/“kidnapping” plot point. We are pushed through the familiar offering of supposedly being unable to tell between reality and role play, but those who have seen more than several handfuls of the most generic suspense-thrillers are likely capable of seeing through the charade. Considering that this device is utilized as the picture’s main weapon to entertain, I found large portions of the film to be a drag, uninspired, at times all over the place tonally. The very best dark comedies do not take prisoners. In this film, we get an impression that not one character is in any real danger.

At its best, however, the film evinces joyous creativity. For example, it is able to take a retro game like Pac-Man and somehow make it relevant as a chase scene that is key to the main story. Notice how this sequence is shot in a claustrophobic way—exactly like the game it is inspired by. Had screenwriter Mark Perez been able to tap into more video games, board games, and tabletop games and then written them into the plot in such a manner that makes perfect sense, “Game Night,” directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, could have been a different beast entirely.

Doctor Strange


Doctor Strange (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

Despite impressive visual effects and capable performances, “Doctor Strange” lacks the emotional depth and heft that modern superhero films now require. If it were released back in the mid-1990s or early-2000s, it would have been considered first-class, but given that the bar had been set quite high by other Marvel films, viewers with a critical eye are likely to consider the picture to be entertaining in parts but average as a whole. Written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill, perhaps the material might have been improved upon given a fuller characterization of Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), both as a fallen top neurosurgeon who decides to seek alternative medicine after modern science had failed to fix his injuries and as a believer of the mystic, eventual savior of the planet.

Pay close attention to the way people speak to one another. There is a reductive approach to the script, a nasty habit of explaining how a person feels or thinks about rather than showing and trusting the audience to be empathetic enough to relate to the plight of its characters—not just toward Strange’s circumstances but also to those around him. For example, I found the romantic interest, Christine Palmer, played by Rachel McAdams, to be overwritten. Scenes which depict the two arguing feel as though they are stripped off a bad melodrama. Good melodramas tend to have implications, the script thriving off the unsaid and long silences. Here, just about everything has to be vocalized just in case the audience doesn’t get it.

The writers’ attempts at humor feel misplaced at times. Perhaps it is because I wish so badly to be engaged with the core drama of an arrogant man unable to come to terms with his broken self that all efforts which change the tone come across rather disingenuous. Or maybe the script does not command a strong grip on the story’s identity and thus its inability to control tone effectively. Having not read Stan Lee’s comics, it made me wonder if the source material had the same type of humor or if the humor was tacked onto the film make the work more palatable, relatable to mainstream audiences. Either way, no viewer should have to wonder.

There are neat visual effects in which skyscrapers and busy streets fold into—or out of?—one another as characters battle it out using their limbs and summoned magic. There is an urgency to the chases that allows it to work in an action-fantasy film. Still, such high-level energy fails to continue once the action stops and people start talking or relating to one another. For instance, the subplot point involving Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange’s contrasting approaches—the former’s steel willfulness at following rules to a tee and the latter’s versatility to follow and bend rules when necessary—comes across as rushed and undercooked during the latter half.

Directed by Scott Derrickson, “Doctor Strange” is watchable and entertaining at times, but one gets the feeling there is more to the character and the mythology. And had the filmmakers been willing to take more risks and trust that the audience is capable of understanding the more cryptic aspects of the title character’s universe, they might have created a film that aimed to set an example rather than simply following an oft-traversed path.

Spotlight


Spotlight (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A long-term investigative group consisting of four journalists, known as the Spotlight Team (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James), in The Boston Globe are assigned by the newspaper’s new editor, Marty Barton (Liev Schreiber), to focus their efforts on finding out more about a Catholic priest who has molested children in six different parishes since the 1970s, about eighty kids in total, but no one—not the law, not the media, not the Church—did anything about it. Although the investigation starts off with one priest, discoveries are made suggesting that perhaps more people within the Boston Archdiocese knew about the sexual abuse.

Based on actual events, “Spotlight,” written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, is a powerful piece of work that does not rely on sensationalism to enrage its audience. Instead, it focuses on how journalists do their job as they attempt to expose an institution that tolerates and protects pedophiles. The drama is in how their crucial story evolves, the dead ends the investigators encounter, the people they meet and clash against along the way, and what the story means to them not as journalists but as people who, in some way or another, has or has had connection with the Roman Catholic Church.

I am most intrigued with films that show how people do their jobs. Here, the camera has a habit of simply sitting back and observing how its characters work. Parallel scenes are often run together and we are given the chance to take notice of similarities and differences between how one journalist versus another approaches a task. For instance, does the interviewer prefer to write notes? If so, does he place his notepad on the desk? On his lap? How is her posture like when she is asking a victim difficult and probing questions concerning a traumatic event? How are the questions asked: straight to the point or are extra details toyed with first in order to lessen the blow?

There is a consistent sense of urgency in the story being tackled even though we already know how it will turn out. This is accomplished through the performances. For example, when characters are speaking on the phone, even when their backs are turned away from the camera, they look almost as if they want to reach into the phone itself and grab the information right away so they can have more time to work on the other parts of their assignment. We get a sense that every piece and every minute that passes matter.

Outside of their jobs, there are two or three scenes which depict the journalists taking the story personally. The conversation between Rezendes (Ruffalo) and Pfeiffer (McAdams) about why they stopped going to church commands power. We realize then that taking their work personally makes a lot of sense because they have invested too much time and effort to expose the injustice. More importantly, they hope that by exposing such a disgusting, immoral system, people would pay more attention and demand or take action.

“Spotlight,” directed by Tom McCarthy, makes a profession that seems non-exciting (at least to me) and makes it relevant, digestible, and even suspenseful at times. It relishes details rather than avoiding them, and I stared at the screen in complete fascination.

To the Wonder


To the Wonder (2012)
★ / ★★★★

As a director I admire for taking his time to really helm a picture and consistently push the boundaries of what the cinematic medium can bring to us, it is most disappointing that Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” does not offer anything refreshing or new. It is closest to “The Tree of Life” in style but, as a whole, it comes off excruciatingly dull, almost as if the writer-director’s name is slapped onto the end credits but is actually made by an ardent but ultimately talentless impostor.

The figures on screen talk in a whispery, raspy tone to the point where it is so unnatural, clearly they are trying too hard to sound thought-provoking. Couple their bits of dialogue with would-be contemplative classical music and occasional utilization of narration to add a glimmer of context, the work ends up artificial, too controlled for what should be an enveloping experience of how it is like to be so wrapped up in being romantically involved with another. I did not feel for any of the models on screen.

Though negligible, the basic premise is this: Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in Paris and move to Oklahoma. When Marina’s visa expires, she is forced to leave the country. While Marina is overseas, Neil reconnects with a woman in his past, Jane (Rachel McAdams), whose farm is on the verge of bankruptcy. To its credit, while the set-up sounds like a sort of a love triangle, it is not.

It is not the actors’ fault that the material is so dry. The screenplay is so self-indulgent, it leaves very little wiggle room for the performers to interpret their characters in meaningful ways. I wondered why they were cast in the first place. Get an unknown face to play Affleck’s role and it would not have made a significant difference.

Many images are recycled from past Malick pictures. There is a recurring theme involving water, which symbolizes life and sustenance (in this case, of a relationship), in which similar figures, including angling and duration, can be seen in “The Tree of Life” and “The New World”–characters step in the water and their sense of being is renewed. Another involves people running or walking through wheat fields and grass, summoning “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” These are symbols of freedom, an out of body experience, and being one with nature–living things that grow directly because of the sun.

In addition, the images are repetitive. How many times must we endure looking at a man and a woman kissing, caressing, and holding hands? They are shot so slowly that it borders on fetishistic. For the lack of a better term, I found the whole thing to be sickening. Since the subject of marriage is brought up, especially from the standpoint of religion, I felt as though the writer-director has created a work with an underlying message: that in the eyes of God marriage is strictly between a man and a woman.

“To the Wonder” is suffocatingly, maddeningly esoteric. It will test anyone’s patience. There are beautiful people on screen but close to nothing is communicated. Actually, what I got from this film is less than nothing. It stole two hours of my life. And that is something I would never have imagined saying about a Malick film.

Midnight in Paris


Midnight in Paris (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

The plan is for Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) to get married in California after their mini-vacation in Paris. Gil, already a successful Hollywood writer for movies but currently hoping to break into the literary scene, informs his bride-to-be that he wants to live there for the time being because he is inspired by so many things: the magnificent architectures, the amazing art, and the histories behind them. He is even able to find beauty in the way the rain tends to cover the streets like a warm blanket.

But Inez does not want to live in Paris–end of discussion. She scoffs at the way he romanticizes the city. While walking around at midnight, something magical happens. Gil is able to walk into the 1920s, his favorite decade, and meet his idols: literary icons like F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll).

Written and directed by Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris” shows us the slow decomposition of a relationship through fantastic encounters. A lot of care is put into the central character. Though the tone is light and accessible, the screenplay is concerned about details: what Gil feels and thinks about his career and relationship, the people of the past that he is able to interact with, and, eventually, to consider doing what is necessary so he can move forward.

The scenes set in 2010 as Gil interacts with Inez and her family (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy) are both maddening and amusing. I found Inez’ side to be really annoying because they are the kind of people who buy a $20,000 chair and not feel guilty about it. Their big problems consists of silly things like which clothing are appropriate to wear at a party or if they are coming off as smart or worldly enough to their acquaintances. Still, they find a way to complain about something. At the same time, I was entertained because Gil is so passive toward them at times. Clearly, he is the conduit between our simpler worlds and the disgustingly privileged just as he is the bridge between the past and the future.

Despite the glamour, the story remains relatable. I loved the scenes when the couple are forced to listen to pedantic Paul (Michael Sheen) about the history of each landmark and artwork. Even if he is wrong, he considers himself to be right. We all know people like Paul. What is it about certain people who feel that they know or must be right about everything? Given that they encounter others with similar know-it-all personalities, do they get annoyed around each other? Even with supporting characters like Paul, I enjoyed that the script inspired me to wonder.

The midnight time jumps to the 1920s is a welcome conceit. They are shot in beautiful bright yellow glow. While the scenes in 2010 focuses on negative energy that surrounds Gil, the 1920s are positive and golden. Wilson has played plenty of good guys, but I have never seen him so likable and in command of his effortless charm. He gives Gil a certain level of humility so our protagonist approaches legendary authors and artists as a wide-eyed fan, perhaps the way we would have if we were given a chance to meet the artists face-to-face.

It is joyful meeting colorful figures like Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), and Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), but the film does not lose track that this is about Gil’s journey as a budding writer, not just a revolving door of highly influential figures. By touching them physically, discussing and exchanging ideas, as well as taking note of their flaws, Gil is able to gain a fresh perspective on how to write and edit his novel. In addition and equally important, by spending time with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), Pablo Picasso’s then-girlfriend and muse, he learns that maybe Inez needs a man who has a more polarizing personality. Life is short and we should lead a life that is deserving of us.

“Midnight in Paris” entertains in a subdued way. While the pacing is slow at times, complementing Gil’s relaxed personality, its quirks do not overshadow the emotions. Like a novel worthy of reading while under soft blankets, there is elegance in the way in sashays from one encounter to another.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Newspapers pegged anarchists as responsible for the recent bombings in Europe. Everyone was nervous that the bombings would eventually spin out of control and war among European nations would ensue. Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) suspected foul play, believing that someone smarter and more cunning was behind the terrorist attacks. When not flirting with the beautiful Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a contract purloiner of all things important, Holmes served as a friendly thorn on Dr. John Watson’s (Jude Law) side, attempting to convince his friend that getting married was tantamount to a lifelong enslavement. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” written by Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney, was a movie so intent to impress, it almost won me over despite its clunky plot and distracting–although at times impressive–technical gadgetry. What prevented me from being fully immersed in the film was catching myself sitting passively waiting for something really interesting to happen. Although twists and turns were abound, each successive surprise suffered from diminishing returns. At one point I wondered what other type of tricks it had, if any, in its bag. There were two well-executed scenes that matched the material’s ambition. First, the train scene in which Holmes and Dr. Watson had to escape from assassins sent by Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) wielded a certain level of suspense mixed with glee. Of course, given that the train had a lot of small spaces, the script capitalized on the weird sexual chemistry between the duo–some angles taken from typical pornographic positions–which I found hilarious. Second, the chase scene through the woods as Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace), a gypsy fortuneteller, evaded bullets, cannonballs, and rockets was quite inspired. I found it a standout because the slow motion highlighted the artistry of the action scene instead of merely bombarding the audience with quick cuts. It was interesting to see certain images like how a bullet scraped a tree and how loamy soil fell onto the characters after a cannonball hit the ground with great force. The scene was a nice change from boring hand-to-hand combat where choppy editing met a vague semblance of martial arts. Why wasn’t uninterrupted physical combat shown more often? Furthermore, the flashback scenes were as ineffective as the sequences where Holmes weighed how a battle would play out. By allowing us to see what would or could happen next before it actually happened, the filmmakers left no tension for us to bathe in. Both the flashbacks and fast-forwards were not used as astutely–in this case, far from sparingly–it should have in order to increase the drama. Directed by Guy Ritchie, the biggest problem that “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” suffered from was although it had a lot of fun on the outside, it needed to work on real emotions so the audiences would be more invested in whatever was going on. Since it failed to inject gravity into more serious moments, when a key character died, for instance, it felt like a mere plot convenience than a genuine loss of a character some of us have grown to like.