Musical, Reviews

Begin Again

Begin Again

Copyright © 2014 by The Weinstein Company

Story
A record label executive, Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is released from his company for not signing any new talent. Gretta (Keira Knightley) has just left her unfaithful boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) and is living temporarily with her best friend, Steve (James Corden). Steve drags her out to a bar where he performs for her to forget her sorrow. Coerced into performing a number for the audience, Gretta sings one of her penned songs which is coldly received by all except Dan who has been drinking after a confrontation with his wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener) about their daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Seeing the potential, he convinces Gretta to sign a record deal with him but she declines, fearing fame will compromise her beliefs as a real musician. However, she changes her mind and allows Dan to help her produce a live album centred in the open areas of New York City during the months of summer.

Review
Much has been lauded about John Carney’s previous directorial effort, ‘Once’, a musical about the music industry made on a shoestring budget and gained deservedly recognition from a win in the Academy Awards for ‘Best Original Song’, upstaging veterans Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s three-time nomination for the equally acclaimed ‘Enchanted’. Since then, ‘Falling Slowly’ has seen many renditions including Il Divo, Josh Groban and Shayne Ward tailoring to their own styles but it is ‘American Idol’ winner Kris Allen’s intimate live cover that is regarded a moving favourite by many.

Where does he go from here? Why of course to ride on the original’s victorious coattails and follow it up with ‘Once Again’, I mean ‘Begin Again’, a souped-up retelling of opportune moments in the most unexpected circumstances. While ‘Once’ depended only on its affable charm and infectious music to hoist the movie from its simplistic nature, Carney’s latest boasts plenty of star power. An intelligent move for a bigger turnout on opening day but it does surprisingly little on a creative level.

Other than the naturally shared chemistry among the main cast, the lead roles could have easily been undertaken by anyone with less acting experience (which is why I thought recruiting two coaches from reality-based singing competition, ‘The Voice’ and accomplished musicians on their own right who are expanding their gamut did not bother me one bit). In fact, Levine of ‘Maroon 5’ and CeeLo Green turn out to be much better actors than I could have possibly hoped.

True, Levine can be a lot more comfortable on screen but his personality comes through enough to even consider forgiving his infidelity towards his partner of several years. Certainly a good start as compared to Mariah Carey’s disastrous and Britney Spears’ by the numbers debuts. It is the foursome of Knightley, Ruffalo, Steinfeld and Keener who do not break new ground on what would typically be Oscar bait; all have the distinction of being nominees before.

It could be inadequate writing to character development as the strongest in the bunch, Knightley is still a far cry from her best. Carney’s focus on the wheeling and dealing of the entertainment industry and the trials of preserving an unaltered identity provide a fairly thorough insight to a struggling artiste who has to choose if selling out is the only way of obtaining artistic integrity. Praises also go to the songwriting team for delivering one helluva of a soundtrack – it will keep you grooving (and tearing) to Gretta and Dan’s journey for a second chance. And sometimes, that may just be enough to get by on a lazy afternoon.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting: B+
Plot: B

Rated R for language

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Horror, Reviews

The Purge: Anarchy

The Purge – Anarchy

Copyright © 2014 by Universal Pictures

Story
The Purge is a day set where all activities of crimes are deemed legal and sanctioned by the government as a means of population control since for the rest of the year, civilians can live peacefully in a felony-free environment. At the start of purging, a young couple, Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are on their way to his sister’s when their car is sabotaged by a group of masked men forcing them to the streets of Los Angeles by foot. They take refuge in Sergeant Leo Barnes’ (Frank Grillo) heavily insulated vehicle after stopping to rescue Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter, Cali (Zoë Soul) from being executed by highly trained and sophisticated paramilitary men. They form an uneasy alliance to leave the dangerous streets after Barnes’ car is damaged from a shootout and survive until the Purge officially ends.

Review
Despite the frosty reception ‘The Purge’ had to endure from critics and moviegoers about an intriguing idea but uneven execution, its healthy financial accumulation was enough to advance a sequel a year later. Conceptualised from James DeMonaco who was tasked with directing duties for both movies, the Ethan Hawke starrer provided a peek into the near future of capitalism governance and the consequences to the division of its society.

In a not too subtle context, the rich will only become wealthier and oblivious to the plight of the less privilege that are incapable of moving up the hierarchy and only seemed destined for terminating each other. Hence, the low crime and employment rates as mentioned early on. The potential DeMonaco could have taken was thus left unfulfilled as he restricted himself to the confinements of a well-to-do family under siege in their technologically-equipped home.

Having noticed the limitations of his 2013 feature, he has assuredly rectified the problems and presented a more politically-charged thriller to satisfy what audiences are looking for in the first place. It helps that the budget is bigger for what we are getting now is a larger view of what really goes on out on the streets when purging commences. Many aspects are still not probed into (a challenge for its shorter screen time) and the carnage could be more brutal without being too neatly packaged.

A little too polished if I may say so considering the use of dim lighting and hues of green and yellow captures the graininess precisely for a somber night. The best aspects come from the tense circumstances when the main characters have to successfully navigate in the middle of a killing spree without getting caught. Each scene is tautly edited for a consistently brisk pacing throughout the course of the show.

And this is just the icing on the cake. What comes after that is pretty shocking but does share elements from an earlier Chris Evans headlined hit, ‘Snowpiercer’. Twists after twists, it will ensure you are hooked right up to its nail-biting ending. Fresh from the heels of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’, Grillo steps up to the plate as leading man material and comfortably shoulders the bulk of the film through a stealthy and strong depiction of a man on a mission.

He is supplemented by an engaging Ejogo whose maternal and caring disposition ensures the chaos surrounding the group does not border on mockery. Together, they form an emotional connection that is relatable and genuine enough for the proceeding events to follow. It leaves with many questions for one to ponder over but if you choose to stay safe and give this a pass, then you might just miss out on a greatly improved work from an already interesting scenario to begin with.

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

Rated R for strong disturbing violence, and for language

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Action, Reviews

Lucy

Lucy

Copyright © 2014 by Universal Pictures

Story
After a night of partying, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is forced by her boyfriend, Richard (Pilou Asbæk) to deliver a briefcase containing a valuable but illegal substance known as CPH4 to Mr Jang (Choi Min-sik), the leader of a Korean mob. Reluctantly, she is made to transport the drugs along with three other volunteers. When the bag that is sewn into Lucy’s stomach is broken, she begins experiencing heightened strength and intelligence while the acceleration in brain function enables her to develop a psychic and empathetic connection to everyone around her. The now unstoppable vigilante easily exacts revenge on her assailants but knowing her cerebral capacity is reaching to its maximum, she seeks Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) through mind travel to comprehend the rapid transformation her body is facing and its side effects.

Review
Hailed as ‘the most Hollywood of French film makers’, Luc Besson’s filmography encapsulates a string of high-octane actioners that not only did big business all over Europe but had profitable runs in the United States as well. The moniker rings true to this prolific visionary since ‘Léon: The Professional’ became the first of many English language hits to transcend expectations on both sides of the Atlantic and is a turning point for youthful Natalie Portman’s meteoric rise to stardom.

Not unlike ‘The Fifth Element’ (the highest grossing motion picture from France for 16 years until ‘The Intouchables’ surpassed it in 2011), ‘Lucy’ is borne out of the same creative mold that dares to defy regular action and science fiction tropes, culminating in a pseudo-philosophical exercise of Darwinian proportions. At a trim running time, Besson opts for quick cuts, alternating between Lucy’s hostile situation and Professor Norman’s lecture.

It effectively substantiates the connection of human evolution and actual footages are interspersed for dramatic profundity. The final say of what ‘Lucy’ is trying to achieve seems to be as polarising as the audiences who were in the same showing as I am (a full house by the way). Even when the credits have rolled, the chatter came awfully loud ranging from a sensational come back for Besson to being just meh (a weakness creeping up on the 55-year-old of late).

One thing is for sure; the effort has paid off handsomely and is on track in becoming the French’s most lucrative investment to date. Although it is significantly smarter than ‘The Transporter’ or ‘Taken’ series, viewers may be taken aback by the lack of stylised hand-to-hand combat or wire-fu which is already customary by today’s standards. The thought of seeing Johansson kicking the behinds of her tormentors à la Black Widow is reduced to a Jean Grey instead.

Despite the deficiency, a proficiently orchestrated car chase resorts to set things back on course when prior events have begun meandering. The ending can be frustrating and confusing for action fans who are only there to witness Johansson dabble in popcorn fluff but the risky selection would not have worked if this bona fide actress was not 100% onboard fully from the day of her participation (it is reiterated by the director himself on her enthusiasm towards the script).

The outlandish and mythical concept is kept from unraveling into absurdity through Johansson’s potent mix of a hapless yet strong-willed heroine. Her transformation from a coerced drug mule into a godlike entity is credible and you cannot help but cheer her on when she storms into the battlefield with guns ablazing. It is what keeps the movie afloat. She will continue to be everywhere after this. I can only hope the doubters will see it for what it is in time; a scientific and spiritual overview hidden within the frames of undemanding fun.

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

Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality

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