Comedy, Reviews

Chef

Chef

Copyright © 2014 by Open Road Films

Story
The story unfolds in a Los Angeles restaurant where Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) gets an opportunity to impress revered food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) in a new tasting menu but is disapproved by his employer, Riva (Dustin Hoffman) who requests that he stick to the restaurant’s best sellers. The chef is reviewed unfavourably and retorts via ‘Twitter’, unbeknownst the reply can be viewed publicly. The blogger returns to the diner hoping for Casper to refute his criticism with original creations but is openly humiliated instead. After the meltdown, Casper resigns and decides to start his own food business in a food truck with the encouragement from his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara). It gives him a chance to not only mend the ties between him and his neglected son (Emjay Anthony) but also as a channel for him to realise his desire is not merely a career devoid of any pleasure.

Review
Never a dull moment when food, family and friendship are the main ingredients for a savoury and delectable romp that is cooked to perfect comic timing. While the supply is not as commercially available as its other financially-proven stablemates, this indie darling stacks pretty high up with its mainstream accompaniment such as the Oscar-nominated ‘Chocolat’, ‘Julie & Julia’ and ‘Ratatouille’. As with all releases, do expect feeling warm and fuzzy upon completion.

‘Chef’ serves as an allegory to Favreau working on smaller scale projects after undertaking Hollywood behemoths starting with the whopping success of ‘Iron Man’ to the box office misfire of ‘Cowboy & Aliens’, paralleling to his fictional character quitting in a luxurious eatery for a mobile dining experience. Instead of featuring French delicacies as the main course, this road trip movie takes a Latin American route spiced up with a hot Cuban flavour.

Midway through, those mouth-watering Cubanos, a staple in Miami make their unprecedented appearance, the dour mood is flipped immediately and Casper’s journey to rediscover his passion through the reconnection with his estranged family closes on a high note. Favreau who wrote, directed and produced besides starring in this comedy has concocted an intelligent mix of believable dialogue, worthy performances from the well-rounded cast and forbearing the swelling sentimentality.

Normally, it would be prevalent in a feel-gooder like this one but Casper keeps its truck wheels firmly planted on the road via uncompromising integrity and undying love for the culinary arts. Favreau whose supporting turns have always been the comic relief is in great form as the man who has loss his sense of purpose and the determination to return on top is fiercely captured by the hulking figure he possesses yet it does not overwhelm the rest of the picture’s dynamics.

He shares the limelight from newcomer Anthony who manages to hold his own despite being surrounded with some acting heavyweights. His maturity is visibly potent and is a spirited force to be reckoned with. The father and son bond is further fortified through bubbly and infectious vibes emitting from Vergara and John Leguizamo. Also worth a mention is Robert Downey, Jr. as a hygiene freak so forthcoming and outspoken that he single-handedly outwits every one of his colleagues.

But its juiciest bits are often saved for one of these reasons: as a means to shock the bejesus out of you or as a morale booster when the going gets tough. I would go with the latter and hopefully not to give too much away, it involves ‘Twitter’, a whole lot of swearing and Platt. A cool way to connect with the under 25s and even more effective for ‘twitting’ to be a global pastime than it already is. While this may not be life changing, the chance for a molten chocolate lava cake tantalising before your very eyes should at least whet those taste buds.

Rating
Entirety: A-
Acting: A
Plot: B+

Rated R for language, including some suggestive references

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Drama, Reviews

The Double

The Double

Copyright © 2014 by Magnolia Pictures

Story
The existence of Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) goes unnoticed both personally and professionally. He is disrespected by his colleagues and superior (Wallace Shawn), loathed by his mother (Phyllis Somerville) and the woman he loves, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) is oblivious to such intentions. When newly employed James who bears an exact semblance to Simon begins arrogating Simon’s life through his confidence and manipulation, this shy outsider will now need to stand up for himself and reclaim his stolen identity.

Review
I must admit that going into this piece of adaptation from literary artiste Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I have set certain expectations of where Richard Ayoade’s interpretation will take the viewer on his examination of a brilliant mind whose incompetence to human contact is bizarre yet make for a fascinating watch. The verdict after completion is still a riveting look on the extremities one would take to be noticed but the ambiguity in its resolution is a little perplexing and leaves a lot of room for discussion.

Supposed that is the whole point; it is fodder for long and introspective conversations not meant to provide any definitive explanation rather as an outlet to bask in the merits of a thorough observation on an isolated and scorned individual. On that matter alone is almost worth the price of admission. The writing is crisp and the portrayal of said loner versus his doppelganger is both disturbing and charismatic, played out by the multi talented Eisenberg.

The entire character study is anchored solely by Eisenberg in a duality so unique from one to another, you would think that they are from two different actors who happen to share one common mug. The interactions between himself are far more lively than the insipid love story which comes off unrequited. Not much light is shed on the girl that Simon is pining for – she is not particularly a conventional beauty or even the life of the party, so why all that admiration?

It is not because Wasikowska or Shawn are incapable of emoting the proper responses, they are just not given much to do here in their limited screen time (more so for Shawn). They are fittingly reduced as support for ‘The Social Network’ star to stamp his mark on a trade he has been refining since his breakthrough in ‘Roger Dodger’. He seems faintly uncomfortable at first restraining Simon’s mousy loser but as he is pushed further to the edge, the pain and anguish gets translated more coherently.

He is positively at ease most when he is able to let loose as the smooth operator, James. There is no withholding Eisenberg for his customary fast-talking and intelligent repartee to emerge as the only redeeming qualities of a lying bully. Even with such momentum, he can still sometimes be derailed from the distracting and oddly loud score courtesy of Andrew Hewitt. It is a minor gripe if what you are seeking for is a noir-esque tale with touches of Terry Gilliam and David Lynch thrown in for good measure.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting: A+
Plot: A-

Rated R for language

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Reviews, Thriller

Now You See Me

Now You See Me

Copyright © 2013 by Summit Entertainment

Story
Four talented magicians are called upon to perform together and stage incredible magical feats in Las Vegas, New Orleans and New York. When the acts become part of a police investigation for robbing a bank in Paris and pilfering from the magicians’ sponsor, insurance mogul Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and an officer from Interpol, Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) are paired up to unmask the real motive of Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) who have also dubbed themselves as the Four Horsemen.

Review
Known for more action-oriented fare i.e. ‘The Transporter’ and ‘The Incredible Hulk’, it is comforting to note that Louis Leterrier’s expanding repertoire is not typecasting him from embarking on high concept projects such as this one. While it is respectably original and far cleverer than it has any right to be, the outrageous premise works through brisk pacing, witty dialogue and star power. Leterrier’s presentation is fairly linear to avoid confusion on the plot’s twisty turns and countless misdirection thrown at the viewer.

The inventively staged illusions are spellbinding realised by the advent of advance computer imagery. The mystery surrounding the magicians’ motives are shrouded in all that razzmatazz, it will keep you on the edge of your seat until the curtains are drawn. For a dose of reality, the film doubles as an exposé on magic being purely a tool for entertainment, a skill honed hopefully for more than just the typical 15 minutes of fame but is usually met with very little fortune.

Although it is ‘Magic 101’, the tricks disclosed by Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) provide a continued glimpse to unearth the trade secrets of prestidigitators (more concisely and specifically explored by ‘The Illusionist’ and ‘The Prestige’ previously) which have become increasingly noteworthy since David Copperfield took the world by storm in the 1970s. Freeman rarely disappoints in anything that he is in (while some may argue of his choices lately have been streamlined to repeatedly playing a different version of himself in real life).

Well, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? I do not see what the problem is if the role is acted remarkably but does not veer too far out of an actor’s zone for changeability. A good performance will remain as it is no matter how much familiarity sets in. It is disheartening then to learn that the most flawed element in an aptly released escapist fun is the lack of compelling characterisations in absorbing performances from Eisenberg, Ruffalo, Harrelson and Caine.

Eisenberg is laudably suave, Ruffalo’s boy scout has a few tricks up his sleeve, Harrelson balances an uneasy mix of kooky and mature well while obtaining Caine albeit underused only increases the overall enjoyment. Judging from the show’s profit has more than tripled its production budget, it should not come as a surprise that a sequel is already on the way. Even if it is needless, hopefully the questions which have been deliberately left unanswered will be addressed in their next escapade.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting: A
Plot: A-

Rated PG-13 for language, some action and sexual content

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Reviews, Science Fiction

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy

Copyright © 2014 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Story
After his mother’s death, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is abducted into space by the Ravagers and nurtured to be one of them. 26 years later, Quill steals an orb from Morag and tries to sell it on Xandar but is arrested by the Nova Corps when a three-way fight ensues involving Quill, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and mercenaries Rocket (Bradley Cooper) alongside partner Groot (Vin Diesel). Learning of its deadly content, Gamora convinces the rest that the orb should best be sold to Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro) to prevent it from falling into the hands of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) who has set his sights on destroying the Xandarians.

Review
What a way to jolt some life back into the box office after seven consecutive weeks of declining profits as compared to the same period in 2013. No surprise there that the biggest hits of the year have been contributed from Marvel Mania; all three properties prior average a gross of more than $700 million each worldwide but the ‘X-Men’ and ‘Spider-Man’ series are not fully owned by Marvel and the quality can be slightly erratic (the semi reboots for Professor X and co are applauded to thundering effect for crafting incredibly meticulous ensemble pieces while our web slinger’s revived fandom has been met with less enthusiasm).

One thing is for certain, if Pixar is synonymous to quality film making in the world of animation (though their record is tainted by anthropomorphic cars) then Marvel Studios is the equivalent to crowd-pleasing fantasy action from the superhero genre. It has already succeeded with the intelligently scripted ‘The Winter Soldier’ and now caps off via a new franchise-making gamble to a record-breaking opener for the month of August. Take that skeptics for ever doubting the company’s future line up! Looks like upcoming adaptations in Phase Three i.e. ‘Ant-Man’ and ‘Doctor Strange’ are in good hands.

How did ‘Guardians’ silenced the cynics and win by such a huge margin? You will have to thank James Gunn for that. Just like the previous crop of unexpected directors who did good (Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh and Joe Johnston), Gunn’s knack for juggling the fairly large cast, diverse cultural practices and political establishment set to some of the most scenic locales ever being put on celluloid is held together by a zippy script resulting in a well-oiled space romp which evokes memories from the original ‘Star Wars’, ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Flash Gordon’ classics.

Hard to believe that this is the same guy who wrote the live action ‘Scooby-Doo’ travesty in the early 2000s. There is no sign of a novice here, only a confident and buoyant auteur at work. His inclusion of a Walkman (relic by today’s standards) to drive the plot forward is moving, funny and humanises the unearthly premise. The last time a rock legend that was featured so prominently in a movie was Elvis Presley in ‘Lilo & Stitch’. In this action comedy, a chockfull of timeless songs in the 1970s and 1980s vocalised by Blue Swede, David Bowie, The Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye are used for added dimension to reveal Quill’s unpolished but no less heroic ‘a-hole’, as coined by a Nova Corps officer.

Coming off from the mega-loved ‘The Lego Movie’, Pratt is unassuming and his guy-next-door appeal easily outweighs Quill’s brash and conniving side. While Ronan’s motivations could have benefitted with edgier writing, Pace at least looks the part and is totally unrecognisable as a vengeful Kree. A feat not to be dismissed lightly when the competition is not even human. Diesel and Cooper emerge as the show’s zaniest pairing since…uh Matthew Lillard and Neil Fanning took on the roles of Shaggy Rogers and Scooby-Doo respectively (not everything in it was a disaster).

Though the talking tree only utters the now infamous ‘I am Groot’ line, what makes him so endearing is Diesel’s ability to distinguish each line tonally through his one-of-a-kind instrument while Cooper seems to be just relishing the opportunity of voicing a wise-cracking raccoon. If you cannot get enough of these bounty hunters, be sure to stay until the very end for a special appearance of another cult ‘favourite’ who made his big screen debut in 1986. Oh yeah, DC Comics, be kind of afraid, the lords of the stars have got us hooked on a feeling and it is a nice one to be in. Oversaturation? I think not. I am already gearing up for next year’s ‘Age of Ultron’.

Rating
Entirety: A
Acting: A
Plot: A-

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language

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Animation, Reviews

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie

Copyright © 2014 by Warner Bros. Pictures

Story
The Lego universe is in peril as Lord Business (Will Ferrell) has stolen a powerful weapon known as the ‘Kragle’ and is about to ‘seal’ its fate permanently as dictated by the villainous oppressor. Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) prophesies that ‘The Special’ will discover the ‘Piece of Resistance’ to stop it from ending. When Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) accidentally uncovers the hidden piece and taken into custody by Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), he is rescued by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a Master Builder adept at constructing anything without written instructions. Through the support of other Master Builders, Emmet hatches a plan to defuse the ‘Kragle’ before the world is bereft of any originality.

Review
Truthfully, when the announcement was made that a Lego movie had been green-lit by Warner Bros, it was a no-brainer that the forces behind this decision had to be driven by the mean green. Well, the primary motives are still to sell more toys (undeniably!) and build a non-existing franchise (in the making) but there is a catch; Hollywood actually wants this to be good as well. It is rare but not unheard of as concepts like these can be assembled in any direction deemed fit.

In the hands of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who also serve as scriptwriters, rest assured, great care has been taken to ensure the finished product is a fully realised ball of fun that incorporates plenty of gag references from memorable movie quotes yet unexpected in its own fresh spin to the protagonist’s journey from a nobody to being extraordinary. Just when you thought it could not get any more complex than it already is, the duo inserts a final twist reminiscent of ‘The Sixth Sense’.

Not at all chilling or disturbing like the Oscar nominee nevertheless shocking. Shocking that a toon could reverberate themes most makers will shy away. Trapped in a place where conformity is absolute and thinking differently could steer to the end of the world, it looks like a shoe-in for the ‘Best Animated Feature’ come next year’s award season. Obviously up among the crème de la crème, however, its complexity rivals more closely to Warner’s own experimental breakthrough, ‘Happy Feet’.

It is only a matter of time before this gifted pair is awarded with the accolades they deserve. I can see them doing no wrong with anything that they are involved in. ‘21 Jump Street’ was one of those rare anomalies that not only improved on its source but spawned an even more superior sequel. Wonder if ‘Battleship’ would have stayed afloat if the costly dud was handed to them? Guess we will never know. What I do know is that this adrenaline-charged tale will be incomplete without the vocal talents.

Yes, actors are a dime a dozen. With real talent, the pool is considerably smaller than what is perceived to be. The cast consisting of rising stars, character actors and seasoned performers are all wonderfully matched to their distinctive roles that the weakest link seems to be its running time (with so much going on, another 15 minutes of laughs would have been fine). Everything is indeed awesome. A self-aware satire unafraid to hurl bricks of resistance on a conglomerate-dominated milieu is atypical and is sure to inspire a whole new generation of skillful Master Builders.

Rating
Entirety: A
Acting (Voice): A
Plot: A+

Rated PG for mild action and rude humor

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Musical, Reviews

Step Up Revolution

Step Up Revolution

Copyright © 2012 by Summit Entertainment

Story
The action takes place in Miami and centres on a dance crew known as The Mob who performs flash mobs to be publicly recognised for their efforts in winning a challenge with a hefty reward. The leader, Sean Asa (Ryan Guzman) and his best friend, Eddy (Misha Gabriel) work in the Dimont Hotel and are introduced to Emily (Kathryn McCormick) who happens to be the daughter of business magnate Bill Anderson (Peter Gallagher). Bill has set his sights for a massive development project located within Sean’s community and approval to start restructuring has been obtained. With Emily’s help, the trio devises a plan to stop the event from taking place through a series of cleverly concocted flash mobs.

Review
Since these movies are still enthralling audiences all around the world (not so much in the States though), why not another one? To begin with, the series knows exactly who its demographic is for and does not stretch its credibility beyond the realm of philosophically imposing questions laced in stylish dance sequences. A more economical version of the bloated ‘Transformers’ franchise and less mechanised in nature. Or is it trying way too hard to emulate the epitome of self-importance and plunges into caricature instead?

Whatever the case may be, it stands as the most politically driven. A rather poignant question is asked early on in the film about wanting to be part of something different and the reply to that I would say is almost a resolute 100%. Almost but not quite. Still, it gets an ‘A’ for effort though. The ‘problems’ which plagued its third outing are ‘cautiously’ repeated and nearly derails the objective at hand (the drama is underwhelming and the leads’ characterisations are lazily written).

An oversight the sequel tries to coast through the charms of its leading man (Guzman) and sole veteran (Gallagher). Both ground the sometimes unbelievable situations and dialogue from descending into unwanted improbability. Utilising minimalism to convey the tribulations felt by either man (not too many of those, by the way), it gives viewers a chance to breathe, absorb and process the details amid a frantic nonetheless jaw-dropping joyride.

If you thought ‘Step Up 3’ was a visual feast, wait till the sights and sounds of Miami turn up the heat for a spanking good time. I dare you not to be grinning as wide as the Cheshire Cat once the optimistic tale is over. It could be a blur after a day or two but while it remains fresh, there is no denying that the choreographers have outdone themselves with awesome gravity-defying moves, made more alive by the use of 3D shots with no-holds-barred to the conceptualisation of each dance.

In earlier entries, the routines were usually confined to designated areas for dance. The bar is raised here from colourful performances beginning in the streets of Miami, resuming in a museum of fine arts and restaurant, followed by a protest against the demolition of Asa’s neighbourhood and finishing it off with a rousing number in a shipyard – anything that incorporates parkour is always a plus. If freedom to express is indeed a right to be heard, then ‘Revolution’ could have revolutionised a whole lot more than just some fancy footwork.

Rating
Entirety: B-
Acting: B-
Plot: B-

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive dancing and language

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