Furious 7 (2015)

Furious 7 Photo: Universal Pictures
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Kurt Russell, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Jordana Brewster, Dwayne Johnson, Djimon Hounsou, Nathalie Emmanuel, Sung Kang (archive footage)
Release Date: April 3, 2015
Directed by: James Wan
Rated PG-13 for violence and strong action throughout, some language and suggestive content

The Fast and Furious crew is back and this time around, they’ve got two baddies on their tails. The first is Deckard Shaw, out for revenge since Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and Co. put his brother Owen in a coma. The second is Somalian terrorist Jakande, who goes after them after they rescue hacker extraordinaire Ramsey (Emmanuel) from his clutches in Azerbaijan. You see, Ramsey is responsible for creating a computer program known as God’s Eye which can hack into any device on any network. As such, it can locate anyone, anywhere, anytime. Called back from their quiet lives by “Mr.Nobody” (Russell), who promises to help them stop Shaw if they keep Jakande from getting his hands on God’s eye, the Furious crew sets out once again for another ride.
Don’t worry too much about the plot. Ten minutes into the film it doesn’t really matter anymore. New director James Wan ( Saw, The Conjuring) goes for broke with the action, giving fans of the franchise exactly what they came for: death-defying (and improbable, if not impossible) stunts, expensive and powerful soupe-up cars,and gratuitous scantily clad women. The action begins quickly and doesn’t let up until the very end, making the film’s long runtime (two hours, seventeen minutes) fly by. The film does not cover any new ground either. Batman Begins featured a similar program to “God’s Eye” and “Live Free or Die Hard” featured similar action sequences. Non-fans and/or Furious virgins will most likely be left cold by this film, but Paul Walker fanboys/girls will definitely appreciate the film’s touching tribute to the late actor at the end.
Since Walker’s untimely death began during filming, his brothers Cody and Caleb were brought in to be body doubles and do voice work for him. I was impressed by how seamlessly this worked. Overall, this film does what it meant to do, no more, no less. Three additional follow-up films are in the works, which leaves me feeling uncertain. The stunts in this film teetered on the line between extremely impressive and ridiculous; I think that in order to keep the franchise going, they will have to keep trying to top themselves and they will cross over into “ridiculous” territory quickly. We will have to wait until 2017 for the final word on this.

VERDICT: See, if you’re already a fan. You will not be disappointed.

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Kids For Cash (2013)

Photo: SenArt Films

starring: n/a
Release Date: November 17th, 2013
Directed by: Robert May
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and strong language

Kids for Cash is a documentary about the eponymous scandal in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania that involved judges Mark Ciavanella and Michael Conahan. The two were accused of taking kickbacks (to the tune of $2.16 million) to send teenagers to a privately run juvenile detention facility that they had a business interest in. All told, about 3,000 kids were adjudicated as delinquents, found guilty, and sentenced to years-long sentences for sometimes trivial offenses. One of the teenagers in the movie was sent to juvenile detention for creating a MySpace page that made fun of a vice principal. Another was caught at a party where underage drinking was happening, and an officer planted drug paraphernalia in his vehicle so he could be arrested. In each case, the teen’s parents waived their right to legal counsel and were sentenced in a matter of minutes.

The documentary uses the “talking head” approach and it does so to great effect; you get to meet several families who were affected by the scandal, as well as others involved in the case (notably, the co-founders of the Juvenile Justice Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Mark Ciavarella, former President judge and juvenile judge, had once been lauded for his “Zero Tolerance” policy post-Columbine. However, studies have shown that children are not “little adults” and should not be treated as such when it comes to punishment. “Zero Tolerance” has by and large been a failure in the United States, as well, since juvenile incarceration rates continue to increase (they have been up 165% since 1990).

Both the accused, Chiavarella and Monahan, are allowed to tell their sides of the story, instead of just being demonised in vignettes and soundbites, as some filmmakers are wont to do *cough Michael Moore COUGH* Whether they deserved what happens in the end, I will leave for the viewer to decide. I will say that watching this film was an extremely emotional, wrenching experience. Many people are not aware of how the juvenile justice system works in the United States, and just how difficult it is to get out of it once one is in. This film is a must watch for every parent.

VERDICT: See. Educate yourself.

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Get Hard (2015)

Get Hard
Photo: Warner Brothers Pictures

Starring: Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart,Alison Brie, Craig T. Nelson, Tip “T.I.” Harris
Release Date: March 27th, 2015
Directed by: Etan Cohen
Rated R for sexual content and crude language throughout, male nudity, drug-related material

Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are the creative geniuses behind comedy website Funny or Die. McKay also served as a producer on this film. Those expecting something along the lines of their usual brand of humour (the requisite crude toilet jokes that resonate well with teenage boys) will be surprised by “Get Hard.” Whether that is a pleasant surprise or not… well, I’ll leave that to the viewer.

This time around, Will Ferrell is James King, a millionaire hedge fund manager convicted of securities fraud. He is sentenced to 10 years hard time at San Quentin and given 30 days to get his affairs in order. Used to a life of luxury and creature comforts, King panics: how will he survive being on the inside? He decides that he needs someone with experience, someone who can teach him the ins and outs of prison life, someone who knows how to “get hard”: the guy who washes his car every week, Darnell Lewis (Hart). There’s only one problem: Darnell has never actually been to jail. Due to his insulated, privileged upbringing, King assumes that he has. Darnell, however, is more than happy to let him believe this, as the money made from being King’s jail mentor will mean a nicer house and a better life for his family. Hijinks and hilarity ensue as James King gets daily lessons in “getting hard”.

This film is much like any other Will Ferrell vehicle: Ferrell overacts with gusto, sobbing hysterically (and hilariously) after finding out his sentence and demonstrating his penchant for physical humour and crass jokes. He is definitely in his element in “Get Hard.” Hart, a comedy natural, portrays Darnell’s bravado with ease. Unlike most Ferrell films, this one seems to be somewhat of a commentary on the way the richest people in America tend to get away with heinous crimes, while poorer people (often minorities) are statistically more likely to be incarcerated at least once in their lives. However, it doesn’t quite count as a satire. Rapper and sometimes-actor T.I. does a solid turn as Darnell’s gangster cousin Russell. The ending is rather predictable and somewhat rushed, but overall I found “Get Hard” quite enjoyable. Easily offended people will cringe at the male nudity and racist jokes interspersed throughout the film.

VERDICT: See, if you’re a fan of Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, and/or FunnyorDie.com. Otherwise, don’t waste your time.

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Home (2015)

Photo: DreamWorks Animation

Starring: Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Matt Jones
Release Date: March 27th, 2015
Directed by: Tim Johnson
Rated PG for mild cartoon action and some crude humor

DreamWorks Animation’s latest effort is the story of Oh, an alien misfit on the run for making one too many mistakes. Oh (Parsons) is a member of the alien race known as the Boov, who excel at running away from their enemy, the fearsome Gorg. When the Boov invade Earth and relocate all humans to their new home in Australia, teenage Gratuity ‘Tip’ Tucci (Rihanna) is left behind. Brought together by circumstance, Tip and Oh must learn to overcome their differences and discover what the real meaning of “HOME” is.

First, the accolades. The visuals are, for lack of a better word, fun. The candy-coloured Boov (who change colours to match their emotions) are a visual treat and will delight the children in the audience. The story, while familiar and simplistic, is surprisingly full of heart. Steve Martin is delightfully malicious as the pompous Captain Smek, leader of the Boov and wielder of the Shusher, a wooden staff with an egg-shaped stone on top used to “shush” anyone who disagrees with him. Parsons’ Oh is endearing and at times comical. The standout performance, for me, was Matt Jones’ Kyle. Adult moviegoers may remember him from his “Breaking Bad” days (he played the character of Badger). His raspy delivery and eventual transformation were just plain winning.

Now, the bad. While kids under 10 will be enchanted, adults will probably be bored. The soundtrack, which was composed entirely by Rihanna, is very gimmicky and at times does not match the film at all. As a matter of fact, Tip’s character often feels like a teenage version of Rihanna, complete with Barbadian heritage. Parsons also has a very (ahem!) distinctive voice. Coupled with the jumbled English and chirpy delivery, it can get annoying rather quickly for those not already fans of Parsons. Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez (who plays Tip’s mother) deliver passable, but not spectacular performances.

VERDICT: RENT. It will make a fine addition to your DVD library alongside “Frozen.”

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Cinderella (2015)

photo: Disney

Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera
Release date: March 13th, 2015
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Rated PG for mild thematic elements
Welcome to the era of a kinder, more diverse Disney. Thanks to films such as “The Princess and the Frog”, “Tangled”, “Brave”, and more recently “Frozen,” the archetypal Damsel in Distress is rapidly becoming extinct. Today’s Disney princess is a combination of wit, sass, charm, and independence. We are also seeing more people of color in Disney films; before, the cast was typically white. (One notable exception being “Song of the South,” a film Disney just wishes everyone would forget about.)

At the same time, Disney seems to be stuck in a creative rut. Slated for release in 2016 is a live-action remake of “The Jungle Book”, which the studio previously did in 1994. Other reboots of animated classics, “Dumbo” and “Beauty and the Beast” are in development. “Cinderella” covers no new ground, plot-wise. Save for a few minor changes (I won’t spoil them for you), this is the same story you’ve seen before: Cinderella’s idyllic country life is destroyed when her mother suddenly falls ill and dies. Her father, a merchant (Chaplin) marries a widow who has two spoiled daughters, Drisella (McShera) and Anastasia (Grainger). After he dies of an illness while away on a journey, Cinderella’s stepmother sends away the servants, and Cinderella is forced to do all the housework. While she tries her best to “be kind, and have courage” as her dying mother had admonished her, one day she breaks away from the house and rides into the woods. There she has a chance encounter with the Prince, but she does not know who he is. After this meeting, the prince decides to have a ball that includes every eligible girl in the land, in the hope of seeing her again. If you’re an adult over the age of 25, you already know how this ends.
Lily James portrays Cinderella with aplomb; she reminded me of a young, blonde Natalie Portman with her wide-eyed wonder and curiosity. As in the original film, she can communicate with animals, like her beloved mice, but there are no talking animals here: these CGI mice only make unintelligible squeaks. The chemistry between her and Madden’s prince is palpable and spellbinding. Helena Bonham Carter’s turn as the fairy godmother is all too brief; still she manages to steal the show in the little screen time she has (she also serves as the narrator.) The costumes and sets are lush and elaborate; doubtless Cinderella’s blue ball gown will spawn a thousand Made in China lookalikes to the delight of little girls everywhere. The only performance with which I found fault was Blanchett’s: though she was adept at portraying the icy cold bitterness she felt towards Cinderella, I did not find her nearly cruel enough to be convincing.

VERDICT: Kids and Disney fangirls alike will enjoy this film. However, if you’re looking for an adult version of Cinderella with bite, I recommend “Ever After” starring Drew Barrymore.

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The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (2013)

Photo: Studio Ghibli

starring: (English voice cast) Chloe Grace Moretz, James Caan, Darren Criss, Lucy Liu, Beau Bridges, James Marsden, Oliver Platt
Release Date: November 20th, 2013 (US)
Directed by: Isao Takahata
Rated PG for thematic elements, some violence, partial nudity

This visually astounding, lushly animated film from Studio Ghibli tells the story of an elderly childless bamboo cutter (Caan) who discovers a tiny princess in a bamboo stalk. Convinced that the child is a blessing from heaven, he rushes home, and he and his wife (Steenburgen) decide to raise her as their own. She grows at a rapid rate (much faster than normal) and soon befriends the neighbor children, in particular Sutemaru (Criss) , an older boy whom she thinks of as a big brother. Though she is quite content with her country life, her father has bigger plans for her: Upon discovering a heap of gold in another bamboo stalk, he decides to build a splendid mansion in the capital, where his daughter will live and train to be one of the nobility.

However, Kaguya (Moretz) does not take to princess training very well. Though beautiful and intelligent, she is very willful and is a constant thorn in the side of her mentor, Lady Sagami (Liu). Before long marriage proposals from the five most powerful men in the country begin rolling in. Princess Kaguya refuses to marry them unless they can perform impossible tasks. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that it will leave you speechless.

I recommend the original Japanese version to the English dub. While Chloe Grace Moretz is a fine actress, her voice does not suit Kaguya. Also, this film will be enjoyed by those who already like anime or Studio Ghibli’s work; those unfamiliar with Japanese culture may be confused by some of the themes. After all, it is based on a Japanese folk tale called “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” There is also a brief scene where a bare breast and nipple is shown (breastfeeding); while not seen as offensive in Japan, some parents may find this offensive. Young children may also lose interest since the film has a long runtime and there are stretches of the film where little happens. Use your best judgment when deciding if this is a good family film.

VERDICT: Worth a watch for the animation alone

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Still Alice (2014)

Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth
Release date: October 13th, 2014 (US)
Directed by: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) has a successful career, loving husband (Alec Baldwin), and three grown children (Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart and Hunter Parrish). She is a renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University. When she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, her entire world comes crashing down. As she faces losing her memories and identity, her family must overcome their differences to be there for her.
Moore’s acting is superb (she did win the 2014 Oscar for Best Actress, after all). As the film chronicles her deterioration and struggle to complete even the most basic activities of daily living, Moore’s Alice remains brave and sympathetic to the end. Though the film mostly focuses on Alice’s perspective and largely neglects the rest of her family’s, for the most part, the cast deftly overcomes this void. Husband John immerses himself in work because he cannot deal with the loss of his wife, whom he says is “the smartest woman I’ve ever met.” Icy oldest daughter Anna rather hard to read; it is not that Bosworth’s performance was lacking,she just does not have much in the script to work with. Youngest son Tom is rarely seen. Notable also is Kristen Stewart’s performance as Lydia, Alice’s youngest daughter with whom Alice is not on good terms. Though her trademark deadpan delivery, grunts, and expressionless eyes are present, the way that Alzheimer’s brings her is closer to Alice is poignant. We see her go from surly, struggling actress to devoted caregiver.
“Still Alice”‘s only flaw is the music: generic, sad instrumentals that sound more at home in a Lifetime movie. The cinematography is spellbinding. Grainy, out-of-focus flashbacks to Alice’s childhood, as well as blurring the environment when she is having an episode, really give the viewer a sense that Alice’s life is slowly bleeding away. The reality and cruelty of her illness are driven home.
Most of us do not like facing our own senility and mortality. “Still Alice” does a splendid job of illustrating this point. It’s definitely worth watching for Moore’s performance alone.


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