Les Miserables Review

            As someone who has no history with Les Miserables (whether it be the novel, the countless films or any of the stage productions), dislikes the musical genre and thinks Tom Hooper is one of the most overrated directors working today, Les Miserables had a lot going against it.  Despite some ridiculous directorial choices on the part of Tom Hooper, Les Miserables is quite a success.  An engaging story and a talented cast make this film soar.

            Les Miserables begins as we meet Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman), a Frenchman who is sentenced to hard labor after stealing a loaf of bread.  He is released but on parole.  When he is fortunate enough to meet a generous priest, Valjean breaks his parole and vows to start a better life.  However, this sends the strict Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) on his tail as this starts a series of events that continue through the following decades.  The film is directed by Tom Hooper and is written by William Nicholson and Herbert Kretzmer from the play by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg.

            The source material for this film is clearly powerful as it is able to survive a few missteps on the part of Tom Hooper without the film suffering.  Everything in this film is stylized to the nth degree.  Every camera angle is set to drastic lengths (including some Dutch angles for no real reason at all).  Oddly, the much talked about “live scenes” are very infrequent.  There is of course the “I Dreamed a Dream” sequence, a song with Hugh Jackman and a song with Samantha Barks, but other than that all of the other major song sequences have clear and major cuts in the middle of them.

            However, that is it for the complaining as this film has a fantastic ensemble.  Hugh Jackman delivers his best performance yet as Jean Valjean.  I think it might just be good enough to be included on the same tier as Wolverine in terms of his most iconic performances.  The man just disappears into the role and gives it his all.  His singing is pretty good to boot.  Anne Hathaway gets best in show status.  She doesn’t get much screentime but her “I Dreamed a Dream” performance is easily one of the best-acted sequences of the year as she goes for broke with it.  Meanwhile Eddie Redmayne, who has always been a consistent actor that has been unable to breakout, might have just delivered a performance that will bring him to superstardom.  Another breakthrough performance belongs to Samantha Barks as Eponine.  It’s a short role but Barks gives some added depth to it and is one of the better singers in the cast.  The most controversial aspect of the film’s cast is Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert.  Some reviewers and viewers have made his singing out to be like it actually hurts your ears.  That is further from the truth as his singing is not a problem at all.  It’s just a deeper voice than everyone else in the cast, which works because he is clearly a character that has a different view of the world from everyone else.  Plus Crowe brings a lot of gravity to the role and is the perfect foil to Hugh Jackman. 

            Despite a few problems here and there (mainly with Tom Hooper’s direction), Les Miserables turns out to be one of the better film musicals out there with the help of a stellar cast.


Django Unchained Review

            Quentin Tarantino is a wildly uneven director.  Forget about film-to-film, the amount of success in one scene in a Tarantino film can be completely the opposite of the amount of success in the previous scene.  This unevenness disappeared for Inglourious Basterdsand I was hopeful that this would continue onto his next film.  However, Django Unchained continues Tarantino’s unevenness.  Django Unchained is a tale of two films.  One is one of the best buddy cop films ever made while the other is a lame and overlong revenge tale.

            Django Unchained is the story of Django (played by Jamie Foxx), a slave who is freed by a bounty hunter named Dr. Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz).  Dr. Schultz agrees to help Django find his lost wife (played by Kerry Washington) if he helps him with his bounty hunting business for the season.  The film is directed and written by Quentin Tarantino.

            Quentin Tarantino is one of cinema’s most original voices (despite being known for taking parts of other films and incorporating them into his) and when he really finds his groove, there are few directors that can top him.  However, he rarely ever does find his groove.  That groove can be found in the first half of this film though as he creates a fun but leisurely pace surrounding two interesting characters (Django and Dr. Schultz).  All of this comes along with numerous homages and an interesting style.  However, somewhere in the middle of the film something goes wrong.  Tarantino (as he tends to do) takes himself a little too seriously as he brings the film into a more contained setting filled with monologues that think they are important when in fact they offer very little in substance.  This all leads to a disappointing conclusion where we get an over-the-top ending to the characters’ journeys.  This is not the fun, history-altering over-the-top ending of Inglourious Basterds but one that gets so obnoxious that there is a certain glorified cameo featuring an “actor” using one of the most horrendous accents to ever appear onscreen.

            As always Tarantino is able to get himself an interesting cast.  Jamie Foxx proves himself to be a sturdy lead.  His performance goes up and down depending on how good the material is that surrounds him, but he’s a solid lead to the almost constant chaos surrounding him.  Best in show in the film is Christoph Waltz as Django’s mentor.  It’s becoming clear that Waltz was born to deliver Tarantino’s dialogue.  So while this is not a Hans Landa-caliber performance it, at the very least, cements this as the best director-actor combo since Scorsese and De Niro.  Also quite good is Samuel L. Jackson as a head slave at the plantation the second half of the film takes place at, who gets a lot more to work with than the promotional campaign for the film would suggest.  Lagging behind is Leonardo DiCaprio as the villainous slave owner Calvin Candie.  It’s a solid performance but all the Oscar attention is just because he is playing a villain (an unmemorable one at that).  Kerry Washington was very good in her small screentime.

            Overlong and self-indulgent, Django Unchainedis one of Quentin Tarantino’s lesser films.


Entertainers of the Year

One of the end of the year features I look most forward to writing each year is my Entertainers of the Year post.  I get to combine television and film, and there is no set number of people I have to include on this list.  This year was especially hard to comb through all of television and film to pick the finalists.  Some very difficult questions quickly came up when I went through possible choices for this list.  Do I allow people who made the list last year to show up again this year?  Do I keep this list strictly to actors or do I include showrunners and directors too?  Ultimately, I decided yes for the former, and while I was open to including showrunners and directors, none make this list (although Kathryn Bigelow and Dan Harmon came close).  Without further ado here are my Entertainers of the Year:

4. Bryan Cranston

Bryan Cranston actually showed up on this list last year as #3.  While his turn as Walter White wasn't as engrossing this season as it was in season 4 it is still the most powerful performance in the history of television.  However, what really scored Cranston a spot on this list was his terrific supporting turn in Best Picture contender Argo as a CIA higher up.  It perfectly combined his menacing composure of Breaking Bad and his ability to pull off a one-liner that he picked up from his time on Malcolm in the Middle. Cranston also had one of the more memorable guest appearances on the final season of 30 Rock as Kenneth's stepfather.  Cranston also had small turns in John Carter, Red Tails and Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and appeared in (although I haven't seen them yet) Rock of Ages and Total Recall.

3. Jessica Chastain

Jessica Chastain was my Entertainer of the Year for 2011, and had she not won last year, she probably would have been a bit higher on this list.  While her year wasn't as all-consuming as it was last year, she did deliver two fantastic performances.  First up is Zero Dark Thirty where she played determined CIA agent Maya.  With not much to the character in terms of personality, Chastain had a major challenge in bringing this character and performance to life.  However, she more than delivered and turned Maya into one of the best characters of the year.  Chastain's haunting final scene should alone be enough to clinch the Oscar.  Back in August, Chastain also starred in Lawless.  While there wasn't much meat to the bone with this performance, she did get one major scene that not only revealed the true theme of this film but gave Chastain a real moment to shine through.  Chastain also delivered a solid performance in the Broadway revival of The Heiress and gave her voice to Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted.

2. Tom Hardy

#2 on this list is Jessica Chastain's Lawless co-star, Tom Hardy.  Like Chastain, Hardy delivered two fantastic performances this year.  First up is the one he will be the most remembered for and arguably the one that launched him into true stardom: his performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.  With nothing to use but his physicality and his eyes (thanks to the now iconic Bane mask), Hardy was able to make Bane into the most interesting villain in film this year.  There were moments where you truly felt sympathy for Bane and Hardy does not get enough credit for that.  More proof of the fantastic year Tom Hardy had came in Lawless where he had the charisma and the compelling accent to make you believe that Forrest Bondurant was an invincible legend.  Tom Hardy also starred in This Means War.

1. Jennifer Lawrence

With a year that finally made her the star that she deserved to be and two of the most talked about performances of the year, Jennifer Lawrence is my Entertainer of the Year.  Lawrence is receiving a lot of Oscar buzz for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook.  While it is a very good performance that finds her being emotional and sexy, more attention needs to be paid to her performance in The Hunger Games.  As Katniss Everdeen, Lawrence delivered a true star-making performance.  She was vulnerable yet completely stoic.  She pulled off her big moments (her reaction to Rue's death) and even the smaller ones (her visible shaking as she prepared herself for the games was one of the best touches an actor put on their performance this year).  Lawrence also starred in House at the End of the Street this year.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted Review

            In the opening moments of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, the film seems like a series going through the motions.  This was my first adventure into the Madagascar series but from what I have heard about this series from critics is that this has been a stale series from the beginning.  However, as this third film in the series moves along it slowly finds some life in it.  With a new cast of characters coming along for the ride in this adventure, there is just more to see and enjoy.

            Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted follows Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (voiced by Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (voiced by David Schwimmer) and Gloria (voiced b Jada Pinkett Smith) the elephant as they try to find their way back home to New York City.  On the way home they begin to be followed by an aggressive animal catcher (voiced by Frances McDormand) and must join an animal circus to hide from her.  The film is directed by Eric Darnell (who co-directed the other two films in the series), Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon.  The film is written by Darnell and (oddly) Noah Baumbach.

            From the start this seems to be a film that’s lagging.  This really isn’t this film’s fault, as it seems that it is just trying to pick up the pieces of a film series that never really had that many pieces to begin with.  However, as the film gets into its second half it begins to have fun.  It finally begins to introduce some interesting characters (let’s face it, there is nothing interesting about the four lead characters), and the sequences begin to become visually interesting.

            The best thing this film does, though, is that it finally gets an interesting voice cast.  No offense to Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith but they do the least interesting work in any major animated film franchise.  Luckily, the list of supporting voices this film is able to get is quite staggering.  Oddly Frances McDormand is perfect as the villainous animal catcher while Martin Short is hilarious as the main source of comedy in this film in the shape of a circus seal.  The real steals of the show though are Bryan Cranston and Jessica Chastain with almost unrecognizable voices as a Russian tiger and an Italian jaguar respectively.

            Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is able to overcome it’s franchise’s poor roots by delivering a fun adventure.


The Loneliest Planet Review

           The Loneliest Planet is one of the toughest films to watch this year.  It goes at an extremely slow pace preferring to give long looks into nature rather than showcasing action.  It showcases an innocent relationship slowly and excruciatingly falling apart, and it ends in a very unconventional matter.  Furthermore, it provides no easy answers, but that is it’s greatest strength.  The Loneliest Planet is one of this year’s best films because it asks some of the greatest questions about human nature while leaving the answers up to the viewers.

            The Loneliest Planet follows a couple (played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) that goes on a hiking trip into the Caucasus Mountains with a guide during the summer before their wedding.  On the trip the couple comes upon a situation that reveals the true nature of themselves and puts their relationship into chaos.  The film is directed and written by Julia Loktev (a Russian filmmaker who is making her first film in six years).

            While Julia Loktev’s script surely had a lot to it, this is definitely a director’s film.  In fact it is very reminiscent of a Terrence Malick film.  The style as if Julia Loktev tried copying Malick’s style without any visual knowledge of what that style is like.  As such it is reminiscent of but still feels like something new.  Loktev’s shots of the characters in nature are gorgeous and thematically relevant.  One of the main questions this film asks is what is humanity naturally inclined to do and the cinematography of this film perfectly captures that question.  Loktev also does a great job of handling the film’s big moment (the moment at which the film’s central relationship goes spiraling out of control).  It’s a shocking moment and yet Loktev makes it feel completely natural.  While Loktev doesn’t completely nail the ending, her directing prowess makes this film an interesting tale of the battle between the limits of human nature and society’s expectations.

            Loktev really lucks out with two fantastic leads.  Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg have perfect chemistry together.  He is the ying to her yang, and they play perfectly off of each other.  That is important because everything in the film depends on this relationship.  Yet Bernal and Furstenberg do great work as individual characters too.  Bernal gets the showier role and he nails these moments while still maintaining the film’s realism.  The true stalwart of the film though is newcomer Hani Furstenberg.  She has quite a few moments that require a lot of bravery as an actor and she steps up.  Additionally, the camera loves to linger on her face and it is in these quiet moments that Furstenberg really brings the performance home as she adds such an amount of subtlety.  The most important thing these two actors accomplish though is that they are able to bring their acting differences together and make it so that you can never truly prefer one over the other in the film’s relationship.  The film’s only other performance is that of Bidzina Gujabidze as the hiking guide, who pales in comparison to the performances of the other two.

            The Loneliest Planet is not going to be for everyone (or most people), but for those who like a slow burning philosophical debate this is a winner.


Zero Dark Thirty Review

            Facing numerous investigations for the CIA’s involvement with the film and almost insurmountable expectations because of it’s status as a follow up to a Best Picture winner, Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, Zero Dark Thirty, seemed doomed to be a disappointment.  Yet somehow Bigelow has crafted a film that is not only great, but, at the very least, one of the best films of the year.

            Zero Dark Thirty states in its first scene of the film that it is based off of first hand accounts.  It follows Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent, who uncovers the informal name of Osama bin Laden’s courier.  The film goes through an entire decade as it track’s Maya’s hunt to find the real name of the courier and ultimately Osama bin Laden.  The film is directed by Kathryn Bigelow and is written by Mark Boal (which is the Academy Award winning team behind The Hurt Locker).

            Kathryn Bigelow was quite simply born to direct this film.  It allows her to showcase her mastery of the thriller genre while providing an interesting portrayal of a strong woman character (one who is based on a real life CIA agent).  It is quite stunning and perplexing what Bigelow and Mark Boal (who actually did his own firsthand research into the hunt for bin Laden to make this film) are able to do with this film.  They are able to make every set piece interesting and they never overstay their welcome.  Yet every sequence is so different from the last that you actually do feel like a large span of time has passed from the beginning to the end of the film (despite not feeling that while you are sitting in your seat watching the film).
            Bigelow and Boal also do a fantastic job of tackling the subject of torture.  They display it in great detail so it can be hard to sit through at times (especially early on in the film).  However, the film never takes a side on the usefulness of torture.  Some characters in the film claim that torture is useful in their hunt and yet the key piece of information that eventually leads to the courier comes from a document given to the CIA from Morocco in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and the film makes sure to make the torture so brutal that you actually feel sympathetic for the terrorist (said terrorist is not Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, which is one of many things Senator John McCain and company are reporting erroneously).

            Bigelow and Boal also have a fantastic cast at their disposal.  Front and center is Jessica Chastain as the CIA agent who leads the hunt for bin Laden.  It’s a great character, and while it doesn’t provide many fireworks for Chastain, the cool nature of the character is what makes her so interesting (and it provides ample opportunities for Chastain to give subtleties to her performance).  Of course when Chastain actually gets something to chew on (especially in a devastating final scene), she nails it.  This film follows in the footsteps of Lincoln and Argo with a cast loaded (to unfair lengths) with talented actors.  Some of the ones who really standout are Mark Strong (as a passionate CIA leader), Jennifer Ehle (as one of the more friendly CIA officers to Maya), and Kyle Chandler (as real life CIA station chief Joseph Bradley).  However, the real breakout performance of the supporting cast belongs to Jason Clarke.  Clarke is able to steal the first half of the film as he plays a weary but go-for-broke CIA interrogator.

            Forget all of the controversy.  Just watch Zero Dark Thirty and you will be in for one of the best cinematic experiences of the year. 


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review

            It’s been nine years since The Lord of the Rings Trilogy concluded with the Academy Award winning The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  After countless behind-the-scenes problems and lawsuits, we are finally getting the long promised prequel, The Hobbit.  However, The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson saw it fit to change it into a prequel trilogy.  So does the first film in this new trilogy (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) live up to the quality of its predecessors?  Or with immense expectations, was it doomed from the beginning to be the next The Phantom Menace?  I’m happy to report that the case is far closer to the former.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is never able to find the emotional weight of the bookend installments of the first trilogy, but it is another fun installment in the world of Middle-earth.

            The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journeyfollows Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman in his younger years) as he is convinced by Gandalf (Ian McKellen returning to what will be his most iconic role) to accompany a group of dwarves in a quest to reclaim their kingdom from Smaug the dragon (a barely seen Benedict Cumberbatch in a motion capture performance).  Peter Jackson returns to the director’s chair while he and writing partners Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh return as the screenwriters.  In the remnants of what was once another vision for this prequel, Guillermo del Toro also gets a writing credit on the film.

            While based off a book that is a lot more childish in tone, Peter Jackson makes it clear that this is still one of his Middle-earth films.  The pacing, the editing choices, and even the tone (although a bit sillier than the Lord of the Rings films) are pretty much the same as this film’s predecessors.  While Jackson will come under criticism for taking this adaptation of The Hobbit a bit too literally, he still has not lost the touch of being able to make the more memorable moments of Tolkien’s books fly off the page.  A perfect example of this is the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence, which is actually one of the scarier moments of any of the Middle-earth films (can we just start giving this film series an actual name, like the Red Book of Westmarch series or something?) and yet is still able to make you feel sympathetic to a major villain from the Lord of the Rings films. 

            The one clear way in which this film differentiates itself from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is with Jackson’s use of technology.  The much talked about use of 48 frames per second was a quite interesting choice.  The negatives of the format have been exaggerated to great length.  Does it look a little funky for the first ten minutes?  Yes, but you do get used to it.  Does it make the effects work look bad? Sure I guess but it makes the effects work seem on par with films like The Avengers or Skyfall (and you don’t hear the same critics who criticized the effects work here criticize those films).  Luckily, when they really get the effects work down pat (like with Gollum) the picture quality is stunning.  That being said claims of this format making the film look as if you are attending a play are also grossly exaggerated.  It’s ultimately just a few notches above your standard HD television.  Another technology choice, Jackson made was to use a lot more CGI than he did on the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  While I would have preferred Jackson’s earlier methods, this doesn’t become a problem until a ridiculous action sequence set in an underground cavern late in the film.

            Like its predecessors, this film also has an outstanding cast.  Martin Freeman is a great lead.  He is perfect for the lighter tone of the film and his comedic timing is put to great use.  Not much more can be said about how great Ian McKellen is as Gandalf so I will just say that it was great to see McKellen get a more physical role in this film.  Richard Armitage is also fantastic as Thorin Oakenshield.  He is obviously supposed to fill the role that Viggo Mortensen had in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and he does not disappoint.  While you never get to really know all of the other dwarves in the film, Ken Stott as Balin, Adam Brown as Ori, and James Nesbitt as Bofur do get their moments.  The film also has a bunch of fun cameos, but the performance that really steals the show is Andy Serkis in a return to his most iconic role, Gollum.  Serkis gets to be much more frightening and leaves a much bigger emotional mark than he has in any of his other turns as Gollum (despite being in the film for only about ten minutes).  It is a shame that Serkis gets ignored for awards considration (because of the motion capture process he uses) because this is easily one of the best performances of the year.

            While this is easily a distant fourth in Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth set series, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a fantastic return to one of cinema’s most fascinating worlds.


Flight Review

            Robert Zemeckis has been one of the better mainstream live-action directors out there during his long career.  With a filmography as expansive enough to include Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, you have to admire Zemeckis’ work.  Well that was at least true until he got boggled down in his motion-capture trilogy (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol).  While most of these films were decent, they definitely weren’t of the quality of his live-action films and the technology used in the films quickly became outdated.  It can only be called a fail experiment.  So it is with much relief that Zemeckis has returned to the live-action format with his latest film, Flight.  Flightis a grand addition to Zemeckis’ filmography as it is gripping, well acted and ultimately poignant.

            Flight follows troubled airplane pilot, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington).  As the film begins, he boards a flight that will be doomed to mechanical failure and ultimately saves most of the passengers with a miraculous landing.  However, with six deaths on board, attention quickly turns to Whip’s alcoholic past.  The film is directed by Robert Zemeckis and is written by John Gatins (a writer who has made a career out of subpar films like Real Steel).

            With this film, Robert Zemeckis and John Gatins take a simple premise (a man whose skills as a pilot help him become a celebrity savior) and raise a lot of interesting questions with it.  Gatins is somehow able to write one of the most compelling morally ambiguous characters to hit the big screen in recent memory, and the film is able to ask questions on such topics as religion, fate and redemption.  While the film gives compelling answers to the final two subjects, it hits religion a little too on the nose (and ultimately never does anything with the subject by the film’s end).  So while this film does try to do a lot, not all of hits.  That being said, Zemeckis proves that a long stay away from the live-action genre hasn’t left him rusty.  This is one of the more visually stunning films in his filmography despite action not being a component of the film after the first act.  The way he is able to film Whip’s struggle with alcohol is quite stunning and leads to one of the more memorable scenes of the year (it involves an unlocked hotel room).

            Also helping Zemeckis out in his return to the format is a stellar cast.  With Will Smith not really focusing on his own career much anymore, Denzel Washington is arguably the only legitimate movie star we have left (and I’m not talking about the ones who are able to get the paparazzi chasing after them the most but the ones who can consistently rake in dollars at the box office).  With this film, Washington combines his movie star charisma with an extremely layered performance.  While he does get his big moments to shine, it’s the subtle moments where Denzel makes this performance shine.  Also great in this film is Kelly Reilly as a drug addict.  While her biggest role to date is only a small role in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films, she brings enough to this performance to hold her own against Washington.  There’s also a slew of small performances that leave a mark in this film whether it be John Goodman’s funny performance as a drug dealer or James Badge Dale (this guy really has made a career out of memorable one-scene performances) as a cancer stricken patient.

            Flight is a triumphant return to live-action filmmaking for Robert Zemeckis.


Ruby Sparks Review

            It’s not very often when you get a film that is written by its star.  It’s even more rare when that situation happens with an actress.  However, if Ruby Sparks is what you should come to expect from such a scenario, actresses should be given this opportunity a lot more often.  Zoe Kazan creates one of the better romantic dramedies in recent memory both on the page and in front of the screen.

            Ruby Sparks follows Calvin (played by Paul Dano), a novelist whose quick rise to superstardom has taken a toll on him.  One day he finally begins writing his next novel about a romance between a character like him and a dream girl.  However, when he wakes up the next day he discovers that the dream girl he has created has come to life.  As his relationship with the girl (played by Zoe Kazan) begins to take on a more realistic nature, Calvin must decide if he should use his power of writing to change the nature of the girl.  The film is directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the directing team behind Little Miss Sunshine) and is written by Zoe Kazan.

            Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Ferris clearly know what they are doing when it comes to directing dramedies.  They had great success with Little Miss Sunshine.  They do a great job here as well, but let’s get serious; this film (like Little Miss Sunshine) mostly succeeds on a strong script.  Zoe Kazan does a great job of handling a normally stale gene (romantic comedy).  Her script doesn’t go anywhere new, but it succeeds for many reasons. 

            Most apparent of these reasons is that it creates a lot of complex characters (something that is usually missing from your typical romantic comedy fare).  There is a lot of time dedicated to building the lead character of Calvin, and the film gets the most out of Paul Dano’s surprisingly charming performance.  The film also does a great job of actually giving time to supporting characters like Chris Messina’s Harry (speaking of Chris Messina, is he in every film this year or what?).  However, no character in this film is more complex than Ruby Sparks, and that is why this film is so interesting.  The film takes an interesting concept (of having a literary character come to life) and really goes places with it.  Does real life take a toll on such a character?  Does such a character evolve or stay the same forever?  These questions are actually explored in great detail.

            While it would seem to be an odd choice to cast herself in the film’s most important role, Zoe Kazan does a great job as Ruby Sparks.  She has the manic pixie dream girl character down pat, but she is able to handle the more dramatic moments of the film well too.

            It is also worthy commending Kazan for actually going to some dark places with the script instead of going with the usual lighter tone of the romantic comedy genre.  She actually makes you scream for the happy ending that the film ultimately delivers.

            A fantastic script and a very good performance from Zoe Kazan make Ruby Sparks a real winner.


Life of Pi Review

            Life of Pi is easily one of the most ambitious films attempted in recent memory.  As someone who has not read the book, I was stunned as the complexities this story tried to touch upon.  Ang Lee tries to tackle more than he has the capacity to do so, but this film is definitely an admirable effort. 

            Life of Pi follows Pi (played in his later years by Irfan Khan) as he recounts the events that will apparently make anyone believe in God.  Pi tells a writer of his trials at sea after he becomes shipwrecked with a Bengal tiger during his young adulthood (played by Suraj Sharma in these sequences).

            Many have claimed that Life of Pi is unfilmable, and after seeing this film I would almost have to agree.  Ang Lee is clearly a talented filmmaker and puts all he has into this film.  Still it comes up a bit short.  This happens for a few reasons.  The first is Ang Lee’s most egregious mistake.  Lee puts in a bookending sequence (surrounding interactions between older Pi and the writer) that is extremely clunky.  It really halts all momentum right as the film is beginning and distracts you from some interesting ideas the film brings up when it returns in the end.  That being said it is somewhat saved from a phenomenal performance from Irfan Khan, who somehow makes spouting out a bunch of exposition interesting.

            Another problem this film runs into is how it tries to approach religion.  The film spends so much time on religion in the earlier sections, but it is in a very broad portrayal.  With the immense beauty and dazzling effects this film showcases, this film actually seems like The Tree of Life for mainstream audiences at points.  However, as the film begins to ask other questions, what once seemed an integral part to the film (religion) takes a back seat.

            The film also struggles with introducing some more fantastical elements of the book and some of the last act twists.  The film spends so much time in what seems to be a realistic portrayal of a boy lost at sea.  However, the film abruptly introduces us to an oddly fantastical sequence that is clearly supposed to clue you in on a last act twist.  However, the shift to this sequence and the twist is so jarring that it makes you question the more realistic approach the film takes in the first half of the film.

            That being said, this film raises a lot of interesting questions and creates a very surprising and touching portrayal of a young man coming to terms with the man he is.  The acting is surprisingly impressive from a cast that features very few big names.  Suraj Sharma is stunning in his feature film debut.  The film also includes immense beauty and some of the most impressive cinematography and visual effects in recent memory.

            Life of Pi will leave you admiring such a beautiful film and may leave you asking some very intriguing questions, but there are some problematic narrative components throughout this film preventing it from being a true classic.


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