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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.
The Conjuring (2013)
40 years after The Exorcist, here's a new classic
Like The Exorcist made 40 years earlier, this feature is based on a true story, taken from the case files of husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Although the set up is familiar enough, the execution and delivery are solid and assured in the capable hands of director James Wan. The screenplay nicely balances the drama and suspense, and unlike many other offerings in this genre, has hardly any gaps in logic. The acting is superlative; Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor are especially affecting as the wives/mothers particularly vulnerable to the proceedings. There are horror movies like Jeepers Creepers that just aim to scare and succeed in that department. The Conjuring, on the other hand, is not just about being scary but leaves the viewer gasping because what took place really happened and can happen to anyone. Let this therefore be a cautionary tale as well.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Star Trek's stunning superior sequel
I enjoyed the Star Trek reboot that was released in 2009, so much so that i thought that would have been hard to top. This superlative sequel proved me wrong. Kudos to the writers for a character-driven action screenplay that is laced with smart humor. Director J.J. Abrams nicely balances the action, suspense and drama without losing any steam in the middle but with regular edge-of-the-seat moments. The cast is a fine ensemble, but Chris Pine's standout performance as Captain Kirk confirms him as one of the finest actors of his generation. Also adding to the movie's attributes are the special visual effects, well-choreographed fight sequences and the sublime music score. A truly spectacular effort that exceeds expectations.
The Hangover Part II (2011)
A sequel that is very hard not to like
The hangover boys are back, and this time, they're in Bangkok. Sounds like a great location for a follow-up. I liked the first Hangover, though i found the story far-fetched, over-the-top and way too surreal. This sequel actually plays out more believably, believe it or not, despite a more convoluted plot. I was prepared to find fault, but i just ended up liking this movie far more than i expected. The wolf packers are as funny as ever, and i especially love the droll acting by Paul Giamatti. Ken Jeong is funny as ever, although less outrageously this time, while newcomer Mason Lee comes across as highly likable. One also can't help but grin when seeing the photographs shown during the end credits.
A time in history well worth recalling and remembering
Here is a time in history that's well worth recalling and remembering. Steven Spielberg's Lincoln focuses on the final months of the great president's life, when he worked with rivals and supporters in government to pass the 13th constitutional amendment -- that's the one that emancipates the slaves. It's a handsome well-mounted production, with the drab look reflective of the period. Once again, Spielberg extracts superb performances from his mostly celebrated cast. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays the beleaguered president as a dignified and at the same time, very human, figure. However, my favorite character was Tad Lincoln played by the young Gulliver McGrath; amid all the (necessary) conniving and manipulation taking place in the capital city, he comes across as so innocent and carefree... until the tragic moment at the end. See this movie as a lesson on how clever political maneuvering by the wily president enabled the successful passage of a controversial bill.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
An amazing, astounding and astonishing Atlas
The Wachowskis have once again come out with a mystical masterpiece, co-written and co-directed by Tom Tykwer. Cloud Atlas interweaves several stories set in different times and locations, but which turn out to be linked. It is a breathtaking experience to watch what starts out as unrelated narratives being introduced one after the other, and their respective plots then taking turns being unveiled layer by layer. This device has been employed on film before, but Cloud Atlas' intricate editing really takes the cake. Adding to the fun are the actors playing very diverse characters in the different stories. The movie is a visual delight and despite its three-hour running time, one feels the length is justified.
Life of Pi (2012)
Life-affirming tale that resonates
I should first confess that i have not read Yann Martel's novel, am not a vegetarian, and do not believe that all religions are the same. All that notwithstanding, i love this movie with the inspiring message that if life throws you lemons, make lemonade. When Indian boy Pi Patel faces taunts in school, he turns that to his advantage. When, as a teenager, he becomes shipwrecked and shares a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, he learns to deal with the situation and because he never gives up hope, he gets to be amazed by the wonderful experiences brought about by his predicament. Suraj Sharma injects his performance with a combination of innocence and tenacity, while the virtual tiger named Richard Parker is an impressive work of art. Both complement each other beautifully. The screenplay is sharp and observant, while the music score is striking yet unobtrusive. Yes, director Ang Lee has delivered yet another masterpiece.
Les Misérables (2012)
A literary classic, a stage sensation, and now -- a screen gem
I went into this movie quite determined to love it, if not like it as well. It's one of my favorite musicals, and the cast includes some of my favorite actors, so my bias is there. Well, i love it, and like it quite a bit too. It is a wonderful big-screen realization of a wonderful stage production. The cast does outstanding work, and the orchestration is superb as well. This film deserves Oscar nominations for acting, scoring, art direction/set decoration and costume design. I thought the editing could have been somewhat tighter. And i was put off by the new song that was included in the middle of the movie, which slowed down the plot development unnecessarily. In fact, i wished instead of the new song, the more enjoyable Little People number could have been used in full. Stand-out song performances included Anne Hathaway (I Dreamed a Dream), Russell Crowe (Stars), Hugh Jackman (Who Am I?), Eddie Redmayne (Empty Chairs and Empty Tables) and Daniel Huttlestone (Look Down). Those who are not familiar with the story may wish to check out the non-musical Les Miserables with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush first, before catching this musical version.
A Better Life (2011)
In pursuit of a better life
Halfway through this movie about a father and son struggling to make it in life, one is reminded of Bicycle Thief and The Pursuit of Happiness. The heart-wrenching tale about illegal immigrants also brought back memories of El Norte and parts of Babel. Oscar-nominated Demian Bichir is superb as the father who is prepared to do anything for his precious son, played by an equally impressive Jose Julian. The latter's character is at times rebellious and at times peevish, but he still comes through for his father when the situation calls for it. This is a wonderful two-character study that is as compelling as the two similar films mentioned earlier with it.