Monday, January 15, 2018

[Review} Paddington 2

2015's Paddington was an immensely delightful surprise, and thankfully, its sequel (simply titled Paddington 2) continues with that same sweet tradition, and this time it might even be better -- for this film truly is the cinematic equivalent of a warm and cozy hug.

When we reacquaint with our furry bear companion Paddington (softly voiced by Ben Wishaw) he's now well-adjusted (for the most part) to his life in Windsor Gardens. He's even taking on odd jobs in order to save up for a special gift for his dear Aunt Lucy, who's about to celebrate her 100th(!) birthday. But things go awry when the gift is stolen by a villainous con-artist (played by Hugh Grant), and poor Paddington is framed and sent to prison. From there, he must find a way out, while hoping his beloved adoptive family, the Browns (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins), won't forget him.

This lovable and emotionally-stirring endeavor gracefully carries over the irresistible charm that made the first one so great. It's marvelous. It's wonderful. And it's the proper recipe of whimsy, laughs, and heart. At times, the film even reminded me of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel with its old-fashioned quirk and playful verve. The visuals are utterly splendid, and there's a particularly exquisite animated sequence that unfolds in the form of a pop-up book -- it's awe-inspiring, really. Combine all of this with the fun, slapsticky romps of humor, the elegant musical soundtrack, the narrative's good-natured spirit, and you have a real treat for the senses and the soul.

Paddington 2 is that rare family film that delivers equal enjoyment for all, whether you're a few years old or turning 100 like dear Aunt Lucy. It's impossible not to root for. The story's life lessons are agreeable and universal -- without ever being too... *ahem* ...overbearing. The message is pretty simple: Spread kindness like marmalade. It can go a long way.

* 9/10 *

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

[Review] Insidious: The Last Key

It may come as a surprise to some, but I'm a fan of the Insidious horror franchise, especially 2015's criminally underrated and shockingly great sequel Insidious: Chapter 3. The latest installment Insidious: The Last Key picks up directly after Chapter 3, and while its flaws are more glaring this time around, it's still a decent slice of early-year frights.

After an intense (to put it lightly) flashback, we check in with the series' current (and best) main character -- the compassionate, constantly haunted psychic medium Elise (fantastically played by Line Shaye). She's now teamed up with the pun-y pair of paranormal investigators (played by Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson, who continue to add a lot of kooky comic relief to the story) for business. Eventually, Elise receives a call about some ghostly activity, and it just happens to be from the house she grew up in. Let's just say she doesn't have the fondest memories of the place. Anyhow, the crew packs up and heads out to see what's going on, and it's not pretty.

While Insidious: The Last Key explores new realms and unlocks new doors, it doesn't exactly break new genre ground. But it does use some tried-and-true scare tactics. It's hard to go wrong with creepy little ghost children darting around, demonic figures lurking in the shadows, suffocatingly dark basement scenes, and heart-stopping jump scares. With that said, there are definitely things in here that any moviegoer would question or scoff at -- like the jarring coincidences, the nearly unbearable melodrama, the head-scratching logic, the savagely cruel twists, the corny dialogue, and the clumsy exposition chunks that might as well flat-out say "In case you forgot what happened in the previous movies, here you go..."

So even though Insidious: The Last Key won't go down as one of the year's best, you can't say that you've seen many movies that feature a 75-year-old female protagonist beating up demons with a cane.

( 6/10 )

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Saturday, January 6, 2018

[Review] I, Tonya

I wasn't very old when the infamous Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan "incident" shattered headlines, but I definitely heard about it for years later -- something about a triple axel and a metal pipe to the kneecap. ESPN's great 30 for 30 documentary series covered the story in-depth with "The Price of Gold", and now, the Craig Gillespie-directed film I, Tonya dramatizes the dizzying life of Tonya Harding with sharp success -- a solid landing, if you will. It's not quite your average biopic. Not your average sporting event. And not your average character.

Margot Robbie laces up the blades and portrays the controversial figure skater, while the film's mockumentary set up glides through Tonya's rough upbringing and hostile relationship with her mother (played by greatly Allison Janney), who's quite frankly a monster, as well as the Olympian's rocky and abusive marriages, her rise to stardom, and yes -- the infamous incident (and the aftermath).

The film moves at a punchy pace, exhibiting a notable Martin Scorsese and current-period David O. Russell vibe, and it definitely does not shy away from being brash and gritty -- much like Tonya herself. And while the crazy, stranger-than-fiction story is told with vigor, the main draw here truly is Margot Robbie's fantastic performance as Tonya. She practically disappears into this role with immensely skilled grace, and she plays the character with dimension, nuance, sympathy, and memorable personality. In fact, the film loses a bit of its momentum during the stretches when the focus shifts toward Tonya's idiotic ex-husband and bumbling bodyguard (played by Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser, respectively) as they orchestrate and carry out the incident.

So, come for the bizarre narrative, stay for Margot Robbie and Allison Janney's shot at Oscar gold.

* 8.5/10 *

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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

[Review] Downsizing

What if we had the technology to shrink ourselves for the betterment of the world and for our own personal prosperity? This is the beyond bite-sized question that Alexander Payne's intriguing but uneven soci sci-fi film Downsizing attempts to explore.

Matt Damon plays the central suburbanite who becomes enthralled by the possibilities of "going small." After much deliberation, he and his wife (played by Kristen Wiig) decide to take the permanent plunge, but one big problem occurs -- his wife bails at the last minute! From there, the now hopeless schlub must adjust to his new lifestyle and discover his true purpose.

It's certainly no Honey, I Shrunk the Kids -- but the story's future-shock angle is remarkable in its own way. This is actually a fascinating, thought-provoking, and imaginative concept for a film (and in general). Think about the benefits of downsizing: You take up less space, so you're helping to reduce the worldly problems of pollution and overpopulation. And you're more cost-effective and need way fewer materials to sustain, so you'd also be wealthy in return! The film addresses these themes (albeit a bit awkwardly) as well as the political and class implications that might arise.

The story definitely takes some strange and unexpected turns as Damon's character befriends a haughty fellow played by Christoph Waltz, as well as a Vietnamese activist named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) from the other side of the small town. It's Chau who injects a new shot of life into the film, as she's easily the funniest and most warmly humane character here.

The film's oblong tone is a difficult one to pin down, but that's part of its charm. At times it feels jocular and satirical, and other times it's serious and schmaltzy. It never pretends to have all the answers either, but it definitely scratches at the surface of some interesting hypotheticals. It also has an undeniable spunk of visual spectacle to it, along with some fun gimmickry. So, I guess you could say -- Downsizing has its pluses and minuses.

( 7/10 )

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Monday, January 1, 2018

[Review] Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Ah, Jumanji -- the board-game-come-to-life classic that held a dear spot in many childhoods of the 1990s. This year's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has resurrected the ancient relic for -- not a remake -- but a many-years-later sequel, fit for modern times. And the film is exactly what you'd want from something like this: a fun, goofy, entertaining, and transportive adventure.

The plot summons four high school kids who get ahold of an old video game console and magically warp to the jungle while transforming into avatars played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black. From there, they learn that they must finish the game -- something about finding a mystical jewel and placing it in a jaguar mountain -- in order to return home. 

It's everything you'd expect: Frenzied confusion... lots of screaming and running from very large animals... stumbling through temple traps... and strategical solvings of mysteries and puzzles... Cinematically, there's also a couple of levels to it -- it's at once a fully immersive jungle quest, as well as a rousing video game template with built-in virtual attributes and features. It's quite clever actually. It gave me that same warmly nostalgic yet fresh feeling that I had when watching 2015's Goosebumps movie. 

The script is fruitful with funny, well-delivered one-liners (particularly from The Rock and Kevin Hart, who have proven to make a great team in the past). And there's an extra layer of comedy to it as the avatars essentially retain the polar opposite personalities of their original teen characters, which makes for some amusing slapstick and ironic follies. By the way, they have some awesome names too: Dr. Smolder Bravestone, Mouse Finbar, Ruby Roundhouse, and Professor Oberon. The supporting cast also sees Nick Jonas and Bobby Cannavale make some jocular appearances. 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a good time at the movies. And quite frankly, there's a good chance I'll enjoy anything with The Rock (our future president) in it. This is no exception.

( 7.5/10 )

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