Movie Review – Tully

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that is as good as Juno and Young Adult.

REVIEW: If there’s one creative collaboration that many were looking forward to, it’s the collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. Their first collaboration was the 2007 comedy-drama Juno. With its hip dialogue, wonderful performances and a refreshing view of the coming-of-age genre (for that time), it was a critically-acclaimed hit that was a huge step for their careers.

And for their second collaboration, they overcome the sophomore slump and made the 2011 film Young Adult, an uncompromising and funny look at prolonged adolescence that despite never achieving the success of Juno, it still showed that Reitman and Cody were a force to be reckoned with.

But after that, their recent work in separate vocations have gotten mixed results. Reitman had gone along to director the execrable romantic-drama Labor Day, which was a carbon-copy of a terrible Nicholas Sparks film adaptation. And then he directed the incredibly misguided teenage drama Men, Women and Children, a film with an interesting premise explored with such sloppy and overbearing execution.

As for Cody, she’s gone on to write other scripts for middling films like the comedy-drama Ricki and the Flash and made her directorial debut, Paradise, which was a critical and financial flop. Now the two talents have reunited once again for Tully, a comedy/drama about the difficulties of motherhood with Charlize Theron coming back into the fray. Will the film get Reitman and Cody back on their feet?

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Theron stars as Marlo, a HR employee at a protein bar company who’s just about to give birth to her third child. Her husband, Ron (Ron Livingston, fitting), loves her very much and works hard, but unfortunately remains oblivious about the demands that motherhood puts on her.

After the baby is born, her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass), offers a solution to hire a nighttime nanny to help handle the increasing workload. After a long consideration, she buckles down and decides to hire Tully (Mackenzie Davis). Performing miracles left and right, the two start to form a strong bond. But when Marlo starts to know more about Tully, things start to appear a little off…

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Does the film succeed as a commentary on motherhood as well as a worthwhile creative endeavour between Reitman, Cody and Theron? Reitman still goes for the retro-hip vibe with his use of music like Cyndi Lauper and Cody still goes for the cooler-than-real dialogue (although no “Honest to blog” lines happen) that made her popular in the first place but thankfully, it is a return to form to what they do best: showing empathy for deeply flawed characters with very little sugar-coating.

While the story sounds like a feel-good experience or something with flights of fancy, the execution is anything but. Uncompromising, acidic and funny, Tully brings a sense of duality to the story, making both the slightly fantastical and the gritty collide together at times where it might seem like a fault to the storytelling, but in retrospect, brings greater depth to the characters, particularly Marlo.

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Charlize Theron has always been a transformative actress who relies on physicality with her performances, with films like the serial-killer biopic Monster to the comedy-drama Young Adult to the action blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road and the recent spy-thriller Atomic Blonde. In the case of Tully, she gives one of her best performances in her entire career. Nuanced, fierce, vulnerable, quirky and acerbic, sometimes all at once, Theron makes Marlo remarkably human.

Mackenzie Davis, whose talents show in acclaimed shows like Halt and Catch Fire and Black Mirror and films like the psychological thriller Always Shine, have been underutilized lately, especially in Blade Runner 2049. Here in the title role, she brightens up the screen the second she shows up. Charming, energetic, lively, it’s no wonder why Marlo would get along with Tully and both Theron and David share great chemistry, particularly when the relationship becomes more intimate.

Even the supporting and seemingly obligatory characters are brought to life by both Livingston and Duplass. Livingston in particular stands out because he makes his character relatable, which is surprising considering the actions (on inaction) his character does throughout most of the film.

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The story is told quite well, with some stumbles (the foreshadowing, involving a mermaid) but the film never flinches when dealing with motherhood. One moment involves Marlo carrying her child in a baby bassinet and accidentally hitting it against a filing cabinet, which brought gasps from the audience.

While there is nothing new or original in the story itself, the film does feature a major turn in the third act that brings a whole new perspective to what happened prior, contextualizing the film in a whole new way that lends depth to the characters’ actions. But undoubtedly, that major turn is bound to polarize audiences, making them feel that it just cheapens the film’s impact on such a turn.

Overall, Tully is a return to form for both director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. Featuring great performances (particularly Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis), an unflinching and engrossing look on motherhood and a witty, acerbic script from Cody, Tully is a film worth looking out for.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Reitman’s direction and Cody’s writing capably empathizes with its flawed characters

Very funny and engrossing look into motherhood

CONS

The third act reveal is bound to polarize

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, Emily Haine, Elaine Tan
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriters: Diablo Cody

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Movie Review – Kubo and the Two Strings

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EXPECTATIONS: A beautifully realized fantasy adventure from Laika.

REVIEW: Laika Studios is an animation studio that I am not fully familiar with. Now put your pitchforks away, it’s not due to bad expectations. I honestly don’t know why I am not more into their work although without knowing, I have enjoyed their first studio film, Coraline, immensely. And reading about their other works like The Boxtrolls and Paranorman, I was interested of what they have cooked up for their latest film. An Asian-influenced fantasy film with the use of stop-motion that adapts the art of origami? And it also stars Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey as a monkey and a beetle samurai? This honestly sounds like a film I would have loved to have seen when I was a kid. Hell, it sounds incredibly appealing at my current age. So does the film live up to its studio’s sterling reputation or will it rank alongside mediocre animated films like The Angry Birds Movie and the latest Ice age sequel?

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In Ancient Japan, a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) cares for his sick mother in a village. A spirit from the past known as The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) turns Kubo’s life upside down by re-igniting an age-old vendetta. This causes all sorts of havoc as gods and monsters chase Kubo. In order to survive, Kubo must locate a magical suit of armor once worn by his late father, Hanzo a legendary Samurai warrior. On his journey, he also gains some allies in a Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) and he realizes he also has more demons on his way, like his twin aunts, whom are also phantoms (both played by Rooney Mara).

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As you can see by the pictures (or the trailer), the animation is absolutely spectacular. The sheer commitment to the animation is just mind-blowing to the point that everything you question on-screen about whether it is CGI or practical effects, trust me, it is all practical. Even the water! And the character designs are all distinct while retaining the Asian influence. I especially loved the character design of the twin aunts, particularly when the first appear in the night. It was reminiscent of ghost stories in Japan i.e Kwaidan stories. And the stop-motion animation of the monsters are endearingly reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen films, which will please adults as much as children.

Speaking of pleasing adults, the story is surprisingly thematic and mature. Venturing towards themes such as death and autonomously determining your fate with minimal sugar-coating or being patronizing to children, it fits into the story in terms of its character development like a glove, which helps the audience relate to Kubo. Even if the themes go over the minds of children, the film still provides a rollicking fantasy adventure. The action scenes are thrilling to watch, particularly the martial arts scenes. Planning and executing them had to be a pain to do, but it pays off really well, particularly in a scene where Monkey fights one of the twins on the ship out in the ocean.

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And what would it be without the characters? With such a strange Hollywood cast chosen for these fantasy characters, it’s a wonder that they work as well as they should. Art Parkinson (known for his appearances in Game of Thrones) is endearing and convincingly conflicted as Kubo, as he not only has to deal with this quest involving family conflict, but he is also going through adolescence and owning up to his destiny, and Parkinson portrays that well. Matthew McConaughey is a hoot as Beetle, a former samurai who worked under Hanzo yet his memory isn’t quite what it used to be, leading to some very funny situations.

Ralph Feinnes can play the villainous role in his sleep and with his small role as the Moon King, he suffices. Rooney Mara seems to be relishing playing the twin villains, as she seems to be quite animated (not a pun) and delightfully acidic, when you compare it to her other live-action performances. But the big standout is Charlize Theron as Monkey. Authoritative, strong and paternal to an amusing degree, she steals every scene she is in and the chemistry between her and McConaughey is surprisingly sweet despite the two never working together in the same vicinity. And it was great to hear veteran actress Brenda Vaccaro again, who delights in her small role as Kameyo.

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As for its flaws, the story may be a little bit too simple for some and the motivation for some of the villains are not really clear, hindering the ending a little bit. Also, although the character of Beetle is very funny, his comic relief antics can intrude with the dramatic through-line at times.

But overall, Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the best films of the year and I highly recommend it. With its spectacular animation, thrilling action scenes, likable characters and a great message, Laika Studios has gotten me interested to watch their other work.

Quickie Review

PROS

Spectacular animation

Likable characters

Resonant themes

Fantastic action scenes

CONS

Motivations of villains a bit unclear

Intrusive comic relief

Overly simplistic story

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey.
Director: Travis Knight
Screenwriter: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, Shannon Tindle

Movie Review – Mad Max: Fury Road

Wait…which one is Max? The ugly one?

EXPECTATIONS: An action-packed film compensating from lack of character with gallons of forced nostalgia.

REVIEW: When I first heard of this film in development, I was pumped, despite the lack of Mel Gibson. Tom Hardy was cast as Max? I was sold. Charlize Theron was cast, I was sold. George Miller came back to continue the franchise, double sold. But what made me hesitant, even recently before I wrote this review, was that continuations of dormant franchises have been very mixed, mostly disappointing. Movies like Terminator Genisys and Jurassic World were incredibly reliant on people’s nostalgia of the franchises that it comes off as lazy and derivative, and I was scared that Mad Max: Fury Road would come off as the same way. Another fear I had was that I was scared that this film would be more of  an advertisement to future films, instead of an actual film itself, like Iron Man 2 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Well, guys, I was wrong. Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the loveliest action films this year. Fuck it, probably the loveliest action film this decade.

The film starts off with a voice-over from Max (Tom Hardy), introducing himself and the story universe for those who are unfamiliar and he is, again, a broken man with his beloved Ford Interceptor, wondering in the world, with only one purpose in his mind, to survive. Until one day, he is attacked and captured by a bunch of War Boys, and he is used as a blood bag. Meanwhile, Furiousa (Charlize Theron), an Imperator for Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the leader of a city called “The Citadel”, suddenly takes off into the desert with Joe’s five wives, all played distinctively by Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Zoe Kravitz and Riley Keough. This, of course, pisses Immortan Joe off and he sends his entire army, including overeager zealot Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who is desperate to make an impression to Joe and die for ultimate glory. And somehow Max ends up in the middle of all this and he has to pick a side to survive this “family squabble”.

Now you’re probably wondering, that’s it for a plot? True, but it’s not what the plot entails that makes the film worthwhile, but how the plot is executed and exists. And director George Miller, alongside his fellow writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris have created a magnificently macabre world that demands repeat viewings just to take it all in. The vehicles, the settings, the people are all meticulously crafted (the War Rig, a truck that Furiousa is a world all on its own). Names like Organic Mechanic, Rictus Erectus and Toast the Knowing are wonderfully weird and could only exist in the Mad Max universe. Too bad Vin Diesel was taken. And unlike other film franchises, there is no set-up for sequels and the nostalgia factor is refreshingly low. Some references to the previous films are present (i.e the music box, Toecutter’s eyes etc).

Speaking of the characters, they are well-defined and portrayed and Charlize Theron as Furiousa will be seen as an icon of action heroines, I guarantee it. She portrays the mix of determination, grittiness and care with such skill that we sympathize with her as soon as we see her on screen. Tom Hardy is just as good as Theron, portraying Max as animalistic and brutally efficient, yet is incredibly closed with this emotions. Hell, he barely even speaks (despite the opening voice-over) for more than 40 minutes into the film and when he does, his accent is endearingly all over the place (how would you speak if you haven’t spoken in years?). But once we reach the end of the second act, he opens up quite a bit, speaking in actual sentences and its a testament to Hardy that he carries Max’s arc from silent animal to survivalist savior so effortlessly. As for Nicholas Hoult, his character, Nux, has the most complete character arc, from brainwashed zealot to his character’s fate, and he is surprisingly likable and even sympathetic. Never has anyone failed miserably in his duty as he does. His character could have been very annoying, especially with his overjoyed enthusiasm, but his character development, alongside the others, add emotional resonance to the story, that we actually care for them, especially from the hands of the villains like Immortan Joe, hauntingly portrayed by Hugh Keays-Byrne.

Now for the selling point, the action. It is true, that the film is almost entirely made of action. But since the story is set within a long-spanning chase, what else did you expect? The action is eye-fetchingly fantastic, filmed with wide-angle shots, clearly shot and edited and mostly done with practical effects (CGI is sparingly used), that it is a joy witnessing the beautiful chaos of vehicles exploding and crashing. Director George Miller is obviously having the time of his life, like a child with the most expensive toy-box. But what makes the action more than just beautiful chaos is the how much we care for the characters and how they are all in constant peril, changes in action film conventions (i.e none of the female characters are damsels-in-distress), the emotionally stirring music from Junkie XL (the scene when Furiousa supposedly reaches the end of the journey will touch audiences) and having just the right amount of scenes of character development. There’s even character development within action scenes themselves. In a fight scene between Max and Furiousa, pay strict attention to what the Wives are doing in the background, as their actions hint of who they are, particularly Cheedo the Fragile, portrayed by Courtney Eaton.

As for flaws, and there are few, is that there is some obvious green screen in the climax and the character of Immortan Joe could be more developed as a character. But overall, I’ve never been more satisfied watching an action film this year. Go see it.

Quickie Review

PROS
The entire cast give fantastic performances (Charlize Theron is a highlight)

The action scenes are spectacularly filmed

The story is tight, the world is infinitely intricate and it has surprising emotional power

Does not fall into action film conventions (like problems associated to females in action films)

CONS
Obvious green screen/CGI at times

The character of Immortan Joe could be more realized

SCORE: 9.5/10 (George Miller shows how action films should be done.)

Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, John Howard, Richard Carter, iOTA, Angus Sampson, Jennifer Hagan, Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer, Melita Jurisic, Gillian Jones, Joy Smithers
Director: George Miller
Screenwriters: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris