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La La Land (2016)
Ooh la la! A timeless classic is born
This movie has stolen my heart! I went into this movie with high expectations, and it soared above them. Thank you, Damien Chazelle, for a movie that can be savored over and over. Thank you, Justin Hurwitz, for a brilliant score that has stayed with me and replayed endlessly in my mind. Thank you, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, for being such a great screen couple, especially in the musical numbers. From the first frame to the one that says The End, i was hooked by this tale of romance filled with one of the most infectious soundtracks i have ever heard. Not since Titanic have i cried so much in a movie. The movie is cleverly edited, and a what-might-have-been sequence towards the end is just dazzling to behold. I boldly predict that this movie with its timeless theme will remain fresh for many generations to come, and become a staple for cultists everywhere.
A timeless story of humanity pulling together
Sully is a timely movie. Watching it makes one feel proud to be part of humanity and, on the eve of September 11, relieved to know that not all planes flying in the vicinity of New York's skyscrapers have evil intentions behind them. Here is a true story about a passenger airliner in trouble, the pilot delivers an improbable landing on water that resulted in no fatalities. The air crew and passengers are cooperative and live to tell their miraculous near- death escapade. The air traffic controllers tried everything they could to avert any disaster. The first responders were quick on the scene and so efficient that the rescue mission was completed under an hour. And happily, no politician tried to claim credit or steal the thunder from these true heroes. Tom Hanks is solid as always, this time as the calm, composed, almost unassuming pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger. It may not be a showy role but Hanks nails every moment, from that of making firm split-second decisions to those of quiet thoughtful ones. Director Clint Eastwood takes us behind the scenes of this real-life drama, from what was happening within the plane to the interrogation of the pilot and co-pilot by officials, providing moments of tension throughout the movie. Even if this story is familiar to the viewer, it is still great to be reminded of how wonderful it feels when everyone involved plays his part and does the right thing. Thanks, Mr Eastwood, for a movie that is not only timely, but timeless.
Heaven Is for Real (2014)
Where there is a heaven, there will be hope
This is a film that is based on a book that is based on a true story about a boy who was transported to heaven during a near-death experience and came back to tell the tale. There will be doubters out there who wonder whether this really happened, as the boy Colton was just three years old then. I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, and just enjoy the story of a loving Christian family that was already experiencing some trials and this episode brought its fair share to them. Some Christians themselves may have problems with the story's doctrine and message, but everyone can just enjoy the amazing acting on display by the cast members. Greg Kinnear is convincingly down-to-earth as the minister father who has to take care of both his family and his church. I also liked Margo Martindale as a concerned church member, while Connor Corum gives a winning turn as the wide-eyed Colton. A solid family-friendly film that will warm the hearts of the less-cynical viewers.
Iron & Silk (1990)
An American Teacher leaves his Mark on Hangzhou
I viewed this movie 25 years ago, when it was screened at the Singapore International Film Festival. Director Shirley Sun was on hand to introduce her film, a beautifully-rendered autobiographical work made more meaningful by having the author Mark Salzman play himself. It's an engaging tale of a young American and a fan of kung fu movies, who goes to China to teach English and learns Wushu (martial arts in Chinese) in the process. The entire cast is charming, and so is the city of Hangzhou where the movie was shot. This movie would be perfect as a double feature with Ang Lee's Pushing Hands, also about Wushu and cultural differences.
See Focus more for the great supporting turns
Any movie with BD Wong or Rodrigo Santoro is always worth watching. The movie Focus has BOTH Wong AND Santoro, which makes it even more irresistible. And as a bonus, the leads are played by Will Smith and Margot Robbie, who also deliver engaging performances although their talents are wasted here. The two Oscar nominees are not challenged to act other than simply be charming. The writing is sharp and sexy, although the story is clearly a far-fetched one. This flick is meant to be mere entertainment, so don't bother wracking your mind trying to make too much sense of the plotting. I also wish that the title is a stronger and wittier one, like Now You See Me was.
Danny Collins (2015)
From a dull-sounding title unfolds a pleasant surprise
I went into this movie not expecting much, although i love the cast outright. But i was entertained throughout because this movie has heart along with its humor. Writer-director Dan Fogelman's nicely-scripted plot unfolds at a decent pace, albeit a little predictably. Al Pacino, as usual, delivers a full-on performance which includes some decent singing and dancing. He is ably supported by Annette Bening as a reluctant love interest and Christopher Plummer as his faithful manager. The icing on this cake would be the soundtrack featuring songs by John Lennon, with the numbers beautifully worked in. Too bad that Jealous Guy couldn't be included.
Into the Woods (2014)
What happens after 'happily ever after'
Into the Woods is a cautionary tale that is not for all tastes. Those who are open to new experiences will enjoy this visual feast that features familiar fairy-tale characters like Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack who went up the beanstalk. The 'woods' of the title is really a wilderness in which the characters encounter trials, temptations and times of testing. Those who survive this wilderness will come out learning about love and forgiveness.
This is a big-screen version of the Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim. The music will not appeal to all listeners; those who are not familiar with this work will either be turned off or end up as fresh fans. Such audience will likely find that the movie improves with repeated viewing.
Speaking as a long-time Sondheim admirer, Into the Woods is not among my favorite works of his (see below for that list). Nevertheless, this musical has its share of songs that I have enjoyed from the first time I heard them. My favorite, Giants in the Sky, is performed with great poise by Daniel Huttlestone, who gives Jack a commanding presence in the film. If Broadway or the West End is looking for the perfect Artful Dodger in a revival of Oliver!, young Dan Huttlestone is the obvious choice right now. Tracey Ullman is also very convincing as Jack's world-weary mother, while long-time Sondheim fan Anna Kendrick gets to strut her stuff as a Cinderella torn between heart and home.
Besides Giant, other numbers that i love include Emily Blunt's and James Cordern's It Takes Two (a delightful duet between the Baker and his Wife); Anna's On the Steps of the Palace (wistfully sung by Cinderella); Meryl Streep's Last Midnight (powerfully belted out by the Witch); Anna's and Lilla Crawford's No One Is Alone (a reassuring duet); Meryl's Stay With Me (tender rendition by the Witch); Emily's Moments in the Woods (the Baker's Wife reflecting); Daniel+James+Anna+Lilla's Your Fault (four characters blaming each other); Chris Pine's and Billy Magnussen's Agony (two dashing princes hamming it up in a catchy duet) and Children Will Listen (the haunting final number). Audiences will do well to heed the advice in the lyrics: "Careful the things you say, children will listen; Careful the things you do, children will see... and learn. Children may not obey, but children will listen; Children will look to you for which way to turn, To learn what to be... Careful before you say 'Listen to me', Children will listen!"
The opening montage that introduces the various characters is handled very well. The production design and costumes are marvelous too. Years ago, there was a made-for-TV version of this musical that may be worth checking out for comparison.
(Just for the record, my favorite Sondheim musicals are Company, A Little Night Music, Follies, Pacific Overtures and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.)
Harmless fun at best, another missed opportunity at worst
People who are not attached to the original material will find this version of Annie harmless fun at best. For me, however, this was just yet another missed opportunity. I've been fond of Annie, the Broadway musical, from the beginning. When the 1982 movie version came out, I found it a disappointment; the casting did not deliver, the story was clumsily handled, and some of the songs were changed but not for the better. This second big-screen effort was a major disappointment for me too. The only bright spot was that Quvenzhane Wallis was a slightly better fit for the title role than Aileen Quinn in 1982, despite her not having red curls and freckles. Her Annie, a foster child rather than an orphan, is more adorable than cute. The rest of the movie was an attempt to update the story at the expense of many of the musical's original songs, some of which may grow on you after a while. I do think two of the new songs should have been nominated for Oscars, namely The City's Yours and Who Am I? I actually prefer The City's Yours to the original's NYC which it replaced. However, the new storyline also took on a bit more than it could chew, and was not more engaging. The rest of the cast were okay, although some players came off as too earnest. The saddest thought is that this may mean the last attempt to make an Annie for the big screen, which will really be a big shame.
The performances kept me glued
I'd been wanting to see this movie a long time for the cast, and the performances didn't disappoint. Anna Paquin blew me away with her compelling turn as an outspoken and idealistic schoolgirl who tried to right whatever had been wronged, only to be disappointed again and again. I was never a big fan of Paquin and I'm not sure how much I really like her character Lisa in this movie, but she finally won me over and even made me sympathize with Lisa, regardless of how much or little I liked her. Other cast standouts include Jonathan Hadary (great delivery of lines), Michael Ealy (charming), Matt Damon (quietly appealing), Allison Janney (superb death scene) and J. Smith Cameron (long-suffering mother). Good support also came from Mark Ruffalo, Jeannie Berlin and Matthew Broderick. As a fan of Kieran Culkin, I would have liked to see more of him. I was only disappointed with the screenplay which, in the classroom scenes, made certain political statements that were left hanging; but that's my personal grouse. The cast alone made me glad to have watched this.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
Woody Allen at his most Tennessee Williams
In Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett is in familiar territory. She was a terrific Blanche duBois on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire. In this movie, the titular character is similar to Blanche in many ways: she is a well-heeled woman who lost her husband, and in a desperate situation, goes to live with a younger sister who is more grounded and also loved by a loud man wearing a tank top. Later, this woman is pursued by a gentleman but the relationship is stopped by a revelation. The woman then descends into further depression. This comparison is not meant to be a put-down of one of Woody Allen's best works of the past decade. We all know that the master filmmaker is a lover of cinema and is proud to imitate the works of those who have inspired him. As one who loves both the Tennessee Williams play and this latest work by Allen, i therefore had the pleasure of enjoying what is arguably an updated Streetcar. And as usual, the standout performances come from the women in his cast. Blanchett and Sally Hawkins (whom i have never really liked until now) playing different personalities light up the screen every time they are on. Here is a movie that is both inspired and topical as well.