To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)

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Adapted from a bestselling novel; where it spent 40 weeks in the NY Times Best Seller list, comes this Netflix feature which is an adorable romance but looking past the teen loves and dramas, there is unsurprising predictability to be found.

16 year old Lara Jean (Lana Condor) daydreams about sweeping romance from the books she reads but has never had a boyfriend. Tucked away in Lara Jean’s bedroom is a box hiding letters she’s addressed to past crushes and unluckily for her they get sent out. Peter (Noah Centineo) is one of those recipients, he and L-J begin a false relationship to both make certain people jealous.

To start with, this film feels like a slight slog to get through. The acting is unbelievable and some of the dialogue feels extremely off. On top of this is the excruciating foreseeable nature of the plot, as soon as Lara Jean and Peter sign their makeshift contract it’s blindingly obvious where the narrative will end up. Fortunately, even though the story never goes somewhere unexpected, I found myself warming up to the film and characters.

Some further annoyances almost make the film something you’d regret, such as a scene in a high school bathroom that has such terrible audio laid over making the conversation sound like something from a Bad Lip Reading video on YouTube. Lara Jean’s sister Kitty is highly precocious and somewhat annoying in places but far less soul-crushing than Charles Wallace from ‘A Wrinkle in Time’. I only bring that brat up because Kitty has the same smarter sibling characteristics of CW and this streaming movie refuses to reference Lara Jean without saying the names every time…a personal gripe I know but it’s just vexing.

Other than the major issue of it being a romance that doesn’t really try to subvert expectations, the film isn’t a weak one. The central pair are a charming delight on screen and there’s some kind of comforting vibe to felt throughout this movie. The film isn’t solely about her quest to find someone but Peter becomes just as important in the way he shakes off jock imagery as he plays pretend dating with L-J.

‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ isn’t going to break the mould and I’ll likely forget I ever saw it by the end of 2018 but for the time being it’s a satisfying, if just alright teeny-bop romantic flick.

6/10

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The Darkest Minds (2018)

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Just when you thought it was safe to think Young Adult tales of togetherness, political angst and romance were over, this film powers up and hits the big screen. ‘The Darkest Minds’ does little to feel any fresher than what we’ve seen countless times before and the script is muddled and tiresome.

A lethal disease has taken the lives of 90% of children under 18; the ones that survived developed powers from telekinesis to more dangerous enhancements. 16 year old Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) is trying to hide the fact she possesses one of the more extreme powers and goes on the run with three other super-teens to try and find a place where everyone is equal and safe from children’s camps.

Of course this film proudly screams it’s producing credits of ‘Arrival’ and ‘Stranger Things’, pretending this will be a film of similar genre and calibre and it definitely misses the latter desire. There are clear echoes of the hit Netflix show and in turn ‘E.T’ here; with the group of kids walking deserted train tracks, evading vehicles on empty streets with their powers and trying to stick together against the violent motives held by government figures but none of the acting, dialogue or visuals are as exciting or tensely dramatic as in ST or E.T.

Chad Hodge’s screenplay becomes a messy shambles and seems to just repeat ideas, most likely explained better in the novel but to no climactic gain here. Conversations about factions of authorities like Tracers or League cohorts become more infuriating to listen to and Ruby just floats between running away and coming back again in what is a highly yawn inducing watch. Ruby’s powers also seem to develop and change depending on the plot needing a way out, the villain is introduced too late and is a weak adversary, it’s not even a surprising turn of events to counter balance the feeble storytelling.

Every now and then, there are some neat uses of effects; be it practical or computer generated. There’s also a short-lived but cool moment of entrapment set up in an abandoned mall. Aside from those examples and the talents of the lead female actor, this is one of those tween sci-fi dramas that thinks its premise is way more captivating and smart than it really is.

Stenberg is good I have to admit, it’s almost like she’s trying to keep her head above the water of this sinking, stinking ship and she just about manages to do so. Skylan Brooks is probably the only other performing highlight of this movie, playing the intelligent and cool Chubs. Liam, played by Harris Dickinson looks too old to be a romantic interest for Ruby and uses his forceful power to somehow make us believe these two are in love. The pairing is hugely jarring and there’s no chemistry to speak of. Lastly, Gwendoline Christie gets the Captain Phasma treatment, by being severely underused in a role that could have been more interesting and corrupt.

‘The Darkest Minds’ is boring and nothing we haven’t already seen, it even comes complete with ‘Hunger Games’ inspired hands-up-into-the-air-in-unison moment. The film seems to think they’re kicking off another YA franchise but all I can hope is that never happens.

3.5/10

 

 

Blockers (2018)

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Admittedly I wasn’t expecting much when I saw the trailer for this American comedy, but I should learn to not judge movies by trailers because this is a smart overturn on the usual laddish, adolescent sexual awakening that is found in almost every movie of this type.

With prom night coming fast, three best friends since the first day of school, agree to a sex pact of losing their virginity at the same time. Accidentally discovering this news via iPad, the girls parents do all they can to find their ‘sweet’ daughters and block them from having sex.

Kay Cannon; who had great influence behind ’30 Rock’ and ‘New Girl’, debuts as director with this female led comedy. One of the best things surrounding the feel of this film, is how pitch perfect (pun kind of intended) it is, in regards to finally toning down the boring frat boy nature of teen sex movies and seeing how the other half live, so to speak. Obviously, as a guy I can’t speak for the emotions/thoughts women go through before their first time, but it is refreshing to see something where girls go hard and still retain a genuine sister like bond.

A lot of the laughs, mostly from people around me, stemmed from the physical humour played by the adults of the scenario. I didn’t exactly laugh or chuckle very often, but I do agree that this is a fun film and the scrapes the parents end up in, however ridiculous, are entertaining to witness. To balance the comedy, there’s alright chemistry with the friends and enough behind the shift in life that happens, as the children inevitably fly the nest, as we all do. It may be obvious and not exactly refined or clever writing but it works for the target audience.

One of the girls is struggling with their sexuality and I found this a possibility to fill the film with more heart, to acknowledge all aspects of who are and who we like. It works in regards to the eventual father/daughter chat, but the moments where the film shows us the character looking at this caped beauty, arrives with mystical almost Oriental music which felt tonally off and like they’re playing this attraction for laughs. It almost harks to the Lady in Red use in ‘Dodgeball’.

There’s no doubt that this movie belongs to John Cena, who manages to squeeze overly worrying fatherhood in every look and action. It’s not exactly hilarious but it’s damn close. Leslie Mann excels as the clingy mother and Ike Barinholtz effectively annoys as the absent dad but gets his chance for predictable redemption. Angela Hayes lives another life as Julie; a girly girl who likes ‘Sixteen Candles’ and hopes for a perfect first time, played convincingly by Kathryn Newton. As a general note, it would have been good to see more of the 3 teens stories and less of the prat falls and dilemmas the parents face.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say this is a cracking comedy, but there are good sparky moments that can make you laugh and best of all, it’s an open minded film about womanhood, sex, family and John Cena having a ball.

6.5/10

Mom and Dad (2018)

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You won’t get many chances to catch your breath, whilst watching this manically charged black comedy accelerate from nought to totally bananas in the blink of an eye.

Living in a picturesque yet typically suburban American neighbourhood are the Ryan family. A household like many others, they deal with arguments, school runs and midlife crises. As their usual routine begins, we see that other parents are inexplicably murdering their offspring and it isn’t long until Brent and Kendall (Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair) are keen to kill their children.

The entire film is just downright bonkers and frankly, marvellous because of it. Brian Taylor directs this movie like he’s just drank a warehouse of energy drinks, though he does ensure to keep the laughter in measure with a couple of darker moments revolving around the murder sprees. It is clear we’re watching the director of the ‘Crank’ movies as ‘Mom and Dad’ shuttles along it’s 83 minute burst, because there’s a joyful twisted bite to almost every souped up sequence.

This is definitely one of those films where you can switch off your brain and simply revel in the madness. Saying that, there are still some interesting ideas about a pent up family going nuclear, in and around this there’s also some fantastic editing and blasting music. On the flip side, a major issue I had when watching this, was many scenes are difficult to keep up with and that’s down to the crazy cuts amongst the fighting, obviously it reflects the crazed subject of the narrative but it was a tad too much and the ending is way too sudden and weak compared to what’s been seen before.

Nicolas Cage takes a note to be a nutty father and runs with it to extreme levels of insanity and frenzied humour. I laughed out loud multiple times thanks to Cage’s over the top performance. He unquestionably steals the show with mad eyes and dialogue delivery that’s spat with self aware loony delight. Selma Blair brings a needed sense of motherly humanity in brief pangs of subdued calm, either before she turns or in great pretences of the doting mum. She also plays the deranged side with convincing attack. Anne Winters and Zackary Arthur showcase youthful confusion and fear in great measure, almost riffing Kevin from ‘Home Alone’ in their house bound terror. Winters adds expected but great teen angst to the film which is nicely rounded with a caring big sister arc.

This movie is Barmy with a capital B, I thoroughly enjoyed the carnage and the crazy plot which needs no explanation as for why. ‘Mom and Dad’ may not be perfect but it’s a rip roaring grin inducing ride.

7/10

The Babysitter (2017)

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Released on spooky Friday the 13th  this adolescent horror comedy never really gets to grips with either the horror or comedy element. It can; I guess, be viewed as entertaining at points but it’s nothing I’d rush to see again or make a friend see. It belongs where it sits – on Netflix where a late night scroll could end you up watching this tackily made brash trash.

Frequently bullied twelve year old Cole (Judah Lewis) is excited that his parents are off to a hotel because that means the babysitter will be round. He may be the only schoolkid with one, but he has a fun and good relationship with Bee (Samara Weaving). She looks out for him and they share similar interests but one night after goaded by neighbour Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind), Cole keeps himself awake to see just what it is that Bee gets up to when he’s usually asleep. The answer may surprise and shock Cole leaving him experiencing a strangely bloody night.

I knew there was a horror/blood-soaked element attached to this film but I didn’t really look into what the plot was about so I won’t spoil what happens to kick things off or what goes down but yes…wow…there’s a literal WTF moment, those very words even pinged onto the screen seconds after I’d said them aloud to myself! This is when Cole, and the audience, realise what hell may be unleashed and it certainly is unexpected.

So, I guess that element of genuine surprise is a nice touch but before that occurs, the set up of the narrative and characters feels like it’s been transplanted out of that MTV music channel vibe. It’s as if the movie is souped up on a concoction of drugs; the editing and sounds all crackling and switching speeds like the post-production crew had one too many energy drinks. There are titles on screens, random frozen snap shots of moments and a general aura that this film is trying hard to be cool.

Unlike ‘It’ or my favourite TV show of the moment – ‘Stranger Things’, the child acting in this is quite poor, especially between a trio of bullies and Cole. The actor playing Cole does get slightly better but nothing to write home about. On the note of performances, Bella Thorne as yellow costumed cheerleader Allison is cringe, you see her laughing during her ‘panicked’ reaction to the aftermath of police entering the residence. Weaving is believable and I guess I kind of bought into the change of her character but everyone feels like an over the top parody of horror films as if the writer and director are badly spoofing horrors because they don’t like the tropes they come with.

The movie begins quickly descending into mad carnage but the Bee/Cole pairing was already a maddening awkward dynamic, his boob watch and their party time spent together with Stacy’s Mom inspired pool scene felt like unnecessary gratification for the teen audience, further proven by the Weaving/Thorne girl on girl smooch. It’s not just the obvious sexual edge they try hard with, Brian Duffield the writer seems to attempt comedic tension at times but fails with both.

‘The Babysitter’ is definitely not taking itself too seriously and I get that, but that doesn’t mean I can totally forgive it for having its tongue well and truly shoved in it’s cheek. Immaturity is a word I’d use to describe the tone of this release, there’s not much in here to satisfy comedy or horror fans but I’d imagine fourteen year old lads would be happy.

Looking at the above poster, like a GTA one-sheet or visually inspired by ‘The Guest’, it’s sad to say it doesn’t hold the latter’s synth-horror or skewed drama-comedy bite, it feels more like the underwhelming and juvenile ‘Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse’. Yet with all this negative talk, I in fact found myself enjoying this 2017 film more and more, if enjoy is the right verb to use. I felt the “see you C and bye bye B” sign off is quirky and cute and I liked it. The movie switches into a semblance of ‘Home Alone’ but R rated and I actually grew to like the film as it went on, it is trashy but it’s like a stupid joyride that you know you should jump out of but want to carry on with.

5/10

Nerve (2016)

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This blue-y purple-y filled adrenaline shot of breaking rules and playing high stakes is a giddy watch, not always brilliant but satisfying and fun enough to never get bored or restless.

Single and unadventurous Venus aka Vee (Emma Roberts) is having a hard time with a university application and a boy she likes. Vee’s friend Sydney (Emily Meade) however is daring and popular online thanks to a reality mobile game that challenges players to dares for cash prizes. Vee steps up and joins the game and after joining with stranger and fellow player Ian (Dave Franco), the dares get bigger and ‘Nerve’ becomes dangerous.

Directed by Henry Jost and Ariel Schulman, co-workers from Catfish and Paranormal Activity, means it’s safe to say that this neon coloured movie has a degree of surveillance horror to it. Nothing jump scary or other-worldly but definitely alarmingly voyeuristic and technologically tense. I believe it’s not even that tense either, some places are but why I say it’s tense is because of the worrying reliance on phones and trying to keep up with the crowd that’s so real and is played upon in the film.

Like the trailer, the first two thirds are energetic, slightly funny and thrilling before subverting into a murkier horror-esque vibe. For me, that’s what annoyed me about the trailer but at least with the movie itself, the last act even with it’s quick ridding of fellow players from failing or bailing, doesn’t stride too far into the horror zone I thought it would. It’s rather interesting to be honest as we see the true side of the game come into effect. In fact, that previously mentioned energy does wonders for a film that is admittedly quite adolescent and flawed.

The notion of the game itself is quite cool but becomes a teeny bit messy in places as the movie takes us on a journey in how easily Vee jumps up the viewers ratings. Also, the intro says keep the game secret yet everyone seems to know about it and the last scene features a stadium filled with people which surely officials or cops would have seen going on. That’s just me maybe but it did bug me at times, even if the bright blue sharpness they gift New York is a welcome buzz. Oh and the use of the dark web, an obvious shoot-out scenario and teen boppy romance is a little cliche but hey, there’s fun visual flair throughout the film for distractions to that!

Emma Roberts is perfect for this role, though she can do catty very well, it’s nice to see her as the shy girl and watch her blossom into a ‘Venus’ flytrap of thrill-seeking potential. She brings a whole load of charisma to the part and it ignites well with Dave Franco; who is also fun yet mysterious as the knowledgeable and brave guy to fit into the puzzle. Emily Meade plays a wild child, loose of inhibitions and confident with looks, she’s the perfect opposite to Roberts’ Vee and gets a fun role with an element of bitchiness, fear and friendship to cycle through.

The Big Apple is the best possible place for this wild, tech filled game of dare. Roberts and Franco fill it with confidence and though there are problems and the ending is sub-par, the rest is so fun that you nearly don’t care.

7/10

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

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There’s no unnecessary action filler or forced suspense, this film stands quite nicely alone as a separate movie with a humongous political undercurrent coarsing through it. Of course it is mostly pre amble material to set the stage for what will hopefully be the big climax of it all, but it never feels boring. I went in knowing it would be a first parter, that would likely present the beginning of the major revolution and I hoped it would succeed in strong character development in the absence of spectacle and I can confirm it does.

Picking up not that far after the events of ‘Catching Fire’, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in the underground District 13. Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and District president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) want to advertise the fight within Katniss to keep the riots across the districts going and ultimately take down President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Capitol. Katniss meets new rebels on the path to raise hope and save Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).

It’s a very different Katniss in some regards. The character progression and focus is pretty effective for all figures involved to tell the truth. Miss Everdeen is a more somber broken girl than she’s ever been, her appearance in the Quarter Quell has effected her deeply and her bond with Peeta is clearly the big character push of the movie. I think this film does a good job with highlighting the reluctant hero status of Katniss and through rubbled district visits and propaganda shoots, we firmly see the way this mockingjay is born and fuelled. Peeta’s character may take sidelines in physical presence, but the film is never subtle on making it clear his presence is felt elsewhere and later on he gets a great whack of powerful character change thanks to his time in the Capitol. Thankfully Plutarch gets more to do and under his now much clearer good guy status, he thrives as a propaganda master, his job has changed dramatically but he makes this one his own as much as head gamemaker.

The new characters are a welcome fresh addition and Alma Coin is a cool opposite in presidential terms, her leadership shown as feisty rebel leader and unifier compared to the sneaky tyrant Snow. Coin also serves as a nice flip side to Katniss, both are leaders with followers, both have ideas but Coin is a more assured role with fight, politics and a huge vision. Then there’s the propaganda crew who film and record sound for Katniss’ drops in other districts. They’re a pretty blank set of characters sadly, they try to give some personalities but in this part at least, they don’t come alive, even led by the media manipulating Cressida, there’s not much substance under her tattooed skin.

Once again James Newton Howard puts together a score that never overpowers the image on screen. It’s even more of a bubbling lurking sense of dread, the rebellion and political themes influencing the music and aiding the build up tension in quite a few moments. The stairwell scene is brilliantly tense, the shocks of sound that burst in on something quite unpleasant Peeta does make it sound like a troubling horror for a few seconds. It’s a film with an obvious thread of uprising drama, smoking rubble, injured civilians and grey uniformed district 13-ers come together in a clear picture of purpose and creation of power.

Francis Lawrence captures most of the film with a generous blend of handicam and then smoother moments, though this time there is more shaky camerawork that works to desired effect of making it feel more real, more uneasy and less stylised and that needs to happen considering the more raw plot this time around. It’s a very watchable film, even if it’s quite a basic set up for next year’s finale, thanks to some much needed light relief in Haymitch and Effie, suspense of Capitol breakdowns and character study in the case of Katniss fluctuating in her role as mockingjay.

Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic. I could easily stop there but I guess I should expand. She’s a powerful and dominating actress with a talent of slipping into raspy anger, streams of tears or quirky awkward humour whenever needed. Lawrence acting an acting moment in front of what is that district’s own green screen is a great pause in the drama and gives time for comedy to shine as Plutarch, Effie and Haymitch despair at Katniss’ shocking delivery in a propaganda video shoot. Philip Seymour Hoffman has gladly more to do and makes Plutarch more interesting than his character might otherwise be. The last film he completed work on and that does paint a level of vulnerable sadness over his performance which works actually. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks are on form as per usual and deliver the right dose of funny to serious to keep their characters two of the best in the series. Josh Hutcherson has little to do, more than Jena Malone but still not a lot, yet he really breaks out the mould of pretty dull whiny sidekick at one significant moment. A growing cast but all play their part even if some are obvious uninteresting parts compared to the likes of others.

There is quite a lot of time when lulls slightly, Katniss and her repeated viewings to districts is like the tiresome whistle-stop victory tour in the previous film, a key character detail of Snow’s is lost in the exploration of the COD-like recon mission and on the whole this film does feel nothing more than a set up, no spectacle or dazzle isn’t a bad thing but it leaves you wanting more and Part 1 is a stop that needs to be made even if you know not much will happen during it.

Effective in character and subtext and even more successful in building the anticipation of what will go down in Part 2, the same time next year. A smoky shadowy teen rebellion drama that becomes a rather cool political thriller.

7/10