Tag Archives: Ansel Elgort

Baby Driver (2017)

Edgar Wright is an awesome filmmaker, but none of his films that I’ve seen — Shaun of the DeadThe World’s End, Scott Pilgrim vs The World — have ever really been at the top of my lists. Very good, funny and wacky, and usually a little different, for sure, but nothing that has truly blown me away. His latest effort, Baby Driver, could be his best movie to date, though it still didn’t quite get there for me — at least not to the extent of the astounding 93% Rotten Tomato rating that it currently holds.

We’ve seen plenty of movies centred around getaway drivers before, with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (starring Ryan Gosling) being one of my favourite movies of 2011. In a similar vein, Baby Driver revolves around the young eponymous hero of the film, played by Ansel Elgort, who seems to be just a natural at the wheel. He’s not much of a talker and he loves his music (for an interesting reason). Unfortunately, Baby owes a heist mastermind played by the wonderful Kevin Spacey, and is forced to carry out more robberies with a fascinating bunch of characters led by Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Jon Bernthal. Things get especially complicated when he gets involved with a pretty waitress at the local diner, played by Lily James.

It sounds like a typical premise and it is, but Wright is able to inject Baby Driver with a really fun, pop-corny vibe that really gets audiences into a groove. I was a little worried at the start when Elgort breaks into a bit of a dance while walking down the street, feeling as though it could be a movie that tries too hard to be “cool” and “hip”. Luckily, Wright prevented the film from straying into trite territory, keeping things light-hearted and slick without tipping over the edge — well, at least not for me.

Of course, there are plenty of car chase scenes and they are all executed marvellously along with a slamming soundtrack that seems to match each beat and shot to perfection (I wish I cared more about music in general though, that would have scored the movie a lot more points for me); however, that’s not what made Baby Driver more than just another typical heist comedy. Despite the cookie-cutter premise, the characters are wonderfully written and performed, with Elgort proving he has what it takes to be a leading man in Hollywood for years and both Hamm and Foxx standing out with a great blend of affability and menace. Lily James was fine, though her character could have offered more in my opinion, while Kevin Spacey always delivers as usual.

Another strong point of the film is the dialogue, which is sharp and snappy, and most of all it brings out the personalities of the characters. There are some great one-liners which made me laugh out loud — the film definitely passes the 6-laugh test for a comedy. There are cliches to put up with, though I felt there were enough surprises to keep the plot from getting stale. For a movie of this type, I also felt it could have been a tad shorter (perhaps 10-15 mins off the 113-minute running time).

In all, I found Baby Driver to be a fun and enjoyable ride fuelled by Wright’s crisp writing and direction and solid performances all around. Is it a little overrated? Probably, if you measure it by the critic metrics available. But that shouldn’t detract from what is undoubtedly an excellent effort that stands as one of the better action-comedies in recent years.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Insurgent (2015)

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Let’s just be upfront about this. The Divergent series is to the Hunger Games what Percy Jackson is to Harry Potter. It’ll always be the less attractive, less appealing, shittier cousin.

It might be unfair to Shailene Woodley, who might be every bit as capable as Jennifer Lawrence in playing a strong, albeit unwilling action hero, though it remains unavoidable that the two franchises will always be compared to each other.

And accordingly, Insurgent compares unfavourably to Catching Fire as the second instalment of a post-apocalyptic teen franchise. It’s not badly made, but if you didn’t enjoy the first film all that much — put me in that category — then it’s unlikely this one will change your mind about the series.

One thing the film does well is in reminding us of the story, or explaining it to newcomers, using a short voiceover that more or less summarises the premise — ie, the future world, following an extinction event of sorts, splits humans into specific groups because it helps maintain peace. Everyone is put into either Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), or Erudite (the intelligent), or they are Factionless and ostracised from the community.

Woodley plays Tris, a teenage girl who happens to be Divergent, meaning she has elements of multiple groups and therefore can’t be squeezed into any. Big deal, right? Well apparently, yes, because evildoers led by Kate Winslet want to hunt her down and kill her.

All this is explained efficiently at the beginning so there’s not a lot of confusion. From there, Tris, her loverboy (Theo James), brother (Ansel Elgort, incidentally her loverboy from The Fault in Our Stars and Mr Fantastic (Miles Teller) find themselves on the run and scheming to defeat Winslet and her goons.

They meet people like Octavia Spencer and discover that James’s mother is Naomi Watts, but the whole focus of the film is about a secret box that came out of nowhere but is supposed to hold some really important info. And guess who is the only person that can open it? Yeah, you guessed it. There’s more of those virtual reality trials they had from the first film, and you can pretty much guess what happens in the end.

The problem I had with Divergent was that I couldn’t buy the concept of a society where everyone can be categorised by a single trait. With Insurgent, it’s more about not buying this whole “box” business. It seems like something conjured up to help create a point for the story to continue, and it makes the narrative predictable and cliched.

I don’t want to make it sound like Insurgent is a bad movie, because it’s not. It’s decently made with enough passion and quality performances from quality actors. But for me it was just such a “meh”‘experience. I was only mildly interested and entertained, and frankly, it just didn’t do much for me at all. I have doubts the next part in the series, Allegiant, annoyingly split into two parts as well, will be able to change that.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

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First the book, and now the movie. I’m not big on romance, but I consider myself a fan of John Green’s young adult cancer romance novel The Fault in Our Stars. Last week I finally got a chance to see the movie adaptation, directed by Josh Boone (set to direct a new adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand) and starring rising stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as a pair of cancer-ridden teen lovers.

I went in expecting a tear-jerker and still came close to discharging some saltwater from my eyes, which is no mean feat considering I almost never cry at movies and I knew exactly what was going to happen. I don’t have a problem with films that intend to manipulate viewers into crying as long as it is done in a non-exploitative way, and I think The Fault in Our Stars achieves, and if not comes very close to achieving, that objective. The emotions come not just from the realization that young lovers will inevitably be torn apart, but arise organically from the fact that we care about them and the special relationship that they have.

Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a smart, uncannily self-aware teen living with terminal thyroid cancer. She’s already supposed to be dead, but a fictional experimental drug has miraculously extended her life for an indeterminate period of time. At one of the dreaded support groups her parents send her to, she meets Augustus Waters (Elgort) a former basketball star who lost a leg to osteosarcoma. The attraction is instant, and the two begin a sweet but doomed courtship that will take them from Indiana to halfway across the world.

I thought the book was awesome, and the film does a fantastic job of staying true to its source material. Much of the dialogue is there, the key scenes are all there, and some of Hazel’s inner thoughts are projected to audiences via well-timed but not overused voice-overs. There were some small changes, such as the cutting out of some minor characters and a clever (and arguably more effective) tweak to the ending, but for the most part the adaptation is as smooth as fans of the book could have hoped for, and kudos must go to Josh Boone in creating a tone that captures the essence of John Green’s voice and style.

Admittedly, it is difficult to transfer the love story from the page to the screen without losing something, and if one must nitpick it would have to be the loss of some of the sardonic wit of the novel. Much of it is there through the dialogue and interactions between the characters, but I guess it was too difficult to squeeze in all of Hazel’s astute observations and thoughts about the world and the people around her. But hey, I get that the focus is on the love story, and you can’t blame the filmmakers for sacrificing a bit of humour to make more time for tears.

The casting is also a bit of a mixed bag. Shailene Woodley is magnificent. I don’t know if it’s an Oscar-worthy performance, but in my humble opinion it’s as good as performance Jennifer Lawrence has given. Woodley drives the film from start to finish. She’s sympathetic but not pitiful, charming but not obnoxious, and she brings out the best of the qualities of Hazel as the protagonist.

Ansel Elgort, who incidentally played Woodley’s brother in Divergent, is solid but occasionally struggles as the love of Hazel’s life, Augustus Waters. It’s not an easy role to pull off because he needs to be attractive, witty, considerate and caring, and Elgort achieves that for the most part, though at times he fails express his emotions in pivotal scenes, opting instead for an awkward, supposed-to-be-but-not-really charming smile. But still, he’s better than Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner.

The supporting cast had some big names but not quite what I expected. Hazel’s mother is played by a rail-thin Laura Dern, who despite her excellent performance was not the actress I had envisioned in the role. Neither was Hazel’s father, played by True Blood’s Sam Trammell, who is given less to do and doesn’t deliver any more than he is given. The strangest casting choice was that of Willem Dafoe as the writer Hazel worships, Peter van Houten. Having read the book, I know the character is supposed to be fat and dishevelled, but Dafoe (despite trying to dress down) is neither, and it was hard reconciling the two in my mind. Even had I not read the book beforehand I probably would have expected more from the performance.

As it turned out, it was the lesser-known Nat Wolff (who appeared in Boone’s first film, Stuck in Love) who steals the show from the other supporting characters in his role as Augustus’s best male friend Isaac, who has already lost one eye to cancer and is about to lose the other. He was exactly how I pictured the character to be and comes across as both affable and genuine.

I can only imagine how my thoughts about the film would differ had I not read the book first, though I imagine it would still be highly positive. This is an easy film to like, with likable characters, a witty and thoughtful take on the bleak subject matter of cancer, and of course plenty of heartbreak mixed in with splashes of beauty and joy. It might still be a teen romance, but it’s a heartfelt and powerful one that does its best to avoid the cliches of the genre with rare wisdom and warmth.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Divergent (2014)

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Divergent is, by all accounts, the next big thing after Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games. It’s based on the bestselling sci-fi novel series by American author Veronica Roth and stars one of the hottest up-and-coming stars in Hollywood, Shailene Woodley. The film was a commercial success and a sequel, Insurgent, is slated for a March 2015 release.

So is Divergent the real deal, or is it yet another pretender in the vein of The Golden Compass, Percy Jackson, I Am Number Four and Vampire Academy?

To be honest, I don’t think I can make my mind up — yet. It has a fairly typical post-apocalyptic premise, in which the world — as far as we know — is essentially decimated but there are elements of extremely advanced technology, kind of like The Hunger Games.

What sets the premise apart is the introduction of the idea that all human beings can be categorized into one of five factions: Abnegation the selfless, Amity the peaceful, Candor the honest, Dauntless the brave, and Erudite the intelligent. When someone turns 16 they are given a personality test which tells them the faction they belong to, though they are still given the freedom to choose whatever they want. Once you choose a faction, however, you are there for life.

Say what? I hear you say. Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me either. First of all, how can humans only have five personality traits? Second of all, how can a person be deemed to have only one of the traits? Thirdly, what is the point of the test if you get to choose whatever you want anyway? And lastly, how does any of this help create a more peaceful, more organized and more advanced society?

Anyway, our teenage protagonist, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort, who coincidentally plays Shailene’s lover in The Fault in Our Stars — awkward!) reach that age whenthey have to undergo the test and pick their faction. But of course there’s a twist — we find out that Beatrice is “special”! She joins a faction regardless, and the first half of the film revolves predominantly around her group training to become a badass, and the budding romance she develops with a team leader (Theo James). Later on, stuff inevitably happens, leading to a climactic showdown in which — you guessed it — only Beatrice can save the world.

When I put it that way, Divergent sounds like a pretty stereotypical teen/sci-fi flick, not all that different from The Hunger Games or Ender’s Game, both of which have similar plot points and progression.

Having said that, I still found Divergent to be a surprisingly entertaining and engaging experience (especially during the tense and exciting training sequences). That can happen when you have an $85 million budget and a first-class production team and cast.

Neil Berger is a solid commercial directors proven track record in making test intelligent thrillers such as The Illusionist and Limitless. And regardless of the future of this franchise, Shailene Woodley is poised for big things. Despite her age (22), she has a remarkable screen presence, which she uses to carry the film from start to finish, and she also has this face that’s not immediately attractive or appealing, but somehow grows on you as her personality starts to shine through. Most young actresses would be thrilled to be called the poor (wo)man’s Jennifer Lawrence, but in Woodley’s case it would be an insult. She’s for real. (And while we’re at it, Beatrice Prior is a good enough character to not be called a poor (wo)man’s Katniss Everdeen either.)

English actor Theo James won’t be getting hype like the Twilight boys because his character is fairly lame and secondary, but he does what he can with limited material to work with, and Zoe Kravitz, Lenny’s girl, adds some sass as Beatrice’s closest friend. Ansel Elgort is decent, but he doesn’t have much screen time. The rest of the supporting cast is A-list, with Kate Winslet playing a key government official, Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn as the parents, and Jai Courtney as a faction member, with minor characters portrayed by the likes of Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson and Mekhi Phifer.

The problem with the film lies ultimately in whether you can stomach the illogical premise. Most sci-fi films have plot holes and things that don’t necessarily make sense, but in many cases audiences can look past the flaws as long as the film works within the confines of its own rules. The Hunger Games, for example, had several issues with logic, though nothing stood out to the point where the whole film was at risk of collapsing. With Divergent the situation is a lot more iffy. We get what the premise is trying to say about free will and how people tend to be judged and grouped by appearances or a single characteristic, but when it fails what I like to call the “smell test” you have to ask yourself whether you can accept anything else in the story.

I haven’t read the book, but perhaps the author did a better job of fudging the premise than the movie did. In any case, given that there’s more to come in the story that might provide some much-needed explanations and context, I’m going to withhold my judgment for the time being. In reviewing Divergent as a standalone movie, however, I admit the premise did bother me, perhaps not to the extent that it ruined the film, but it certainly tempered what would have otherwise been a solid first entry to a series capable of competing with the Hunger Games franchise.

3 stars out of 5