Tag Archives: Rooney Mara

Lion (2016)

I hopped on the Lion bandwagon long before I even saw the movie. I remember stumbling across a “Dev Patel movie” trailer on YouTube months ago and was immediately taken aback by how well he nailed the Aussie accent (yes, way better than Meryl Streep!). The true story premise was so intriguing that I just couldn’t wait to watch it, and the anticipation then went through the room when I found out it was one of the 9 films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this year.

And so I finally managed to watch Lion the other day, and it was just as beautiful and emotional as I imagined it would be. Perhaps not quite as good as I hoped it would be, especially considering its reputation as one of the best 9 films of the year, though I would still definitely recommend anyone with a heart to check it out.

Directed by Garth Davis in his feature debut, Lion tells the remarkable true story of an impoverished five-year-old boy named Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar)  from a small village in India who is accidentally transported on a train to more than a thousand miles from his home and is eventually adopted by an Australian couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). More than 20 years later, Saroo, now all grown up (and played by Dev Patel), begins to use Google Earth in an effort to find the home and family he had long lost and almost forgotten about.

As one would imagine, Lion is a gut-wrenching yet heartwarming tale full of sadness, longing, and ultimately inspiration. It’s one of those films that is just as powerful and impactful even when you know the ending. Expect to cry buckets of tears, especially if you are a parent who has ever feared losing a child, or in Nicole Kidman’s case, an adoptive parent in real life. That said, it’s not like director Garth Davis intentionally tries to milk tears out of his audience — it’s simply the effect of the story itself.

Of course, the film would not have worked as well without the amazing performances, starting with the little kid, Sunny Pawar, who comes across as believable as you could possibly get in a situation like that. Dev Patel shines in his best role since Slumdog Millionaire and is well-deserving of his Oscar nomination, though it’s a little bit of a shame that they chose to put in the Best Supporting Actor category as opposed to Best Actor in order to boost his odds. Nicole Kidman is also as good as she has ever been, and I’m admittedly not the greatest fan of her work.

Interestingly, Davis chose to tell the story essentially in two chronological parts — first telling the child’s story in its entirety before telling the adult’s version — as opposed to starting off as an adult and using flashbacks. I personally think it worked quite well this way, because the first half of the film is definitely the stronger half. That sense of fear and “oh no” from seeing a child’s life change forever before your eyes and the struggles he went through before getting adopted is some really heavy stuff, and using flashbacks to tell that part of the story wouldn’t have done it justice.

Conversely, it also meant the second half of the film wasn’t quite as impactful. My concerns on how they were going to depict the Google Earth search turned out to be unfounded as they did it in a way that was not boring at all, though even then, it felt as though there was no enough material to sustain half a movie. For me, the interesting part was Saroo’s inner torment from leaving his brother, mother and sister behind and his struggles with identity, but the film put too much attention on this love story with an American character played by Rooney Mara, which I thought wasn’t really necessary for the story at all. I would have rather the movie focus more on Saroo’s relationship with his father and troubled adoptive brother (Divian Ladwa), two areas that weren’t fully fleshed out. As a result, there were some scenes in the second half that I found plodding.

Flaws aside, Lion is still an incredibly uplifting and powerful film. The fact it is a true story amplifies everything even further. While it is not exactly subtle, the film deserves credit for finding the right balance between empathy and entertainment, drama and melodrama. I think it’s an even better film than Slumdog, certainly deeper on an emotional level and with greater resonance.

4.25 stars out of 5

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but even after watching Kubo and the Two Strings, I had no idea it was a stop-motion animation movie. It was only when I saw a short featurette of the movie on YouTube a week later that my mind was blown. They did all that? I guess you could say it’s a testament to the incredible hard work and dedication of stop-motion animators and filmmakers, or if you want to be cruel, that it’s a waste of time because technology has advanced to the point where computer animation is basically indistinguishable.

Anyway, Kubo has been hailed as one of the best animated motion pictures of the year for being original, visually spectacular and funny. I decided to go see it because my son started begging me to take him after he saw a trailer with a giant monster and a sword. As I’ve repeated ad nauseam, animated flicks are usually not my thing, and with that in mind, I have to say Kubo was a slight disappointment for me solely because of the high expectations.

Though it’s produced by American stop-motion animation company Laika, Kubo is set in ancient Japan and tells the story of the eponymous boy who lives in a seaside cave with his ill mother. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) can play this musical instrument called a shamisen (literally “three strings”), which can magically bring origami to life. He uses this skill to tell stories in the village to make ends meet. Of course, something dramatic happens to spark Kubo’s quest out into the world to find three magical items, with a talking Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and giant Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) by his side. In his way are his two aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara) and the evil Moon King (who else but Ralph Fiennes?).

It’s an adventure film filled samurai sword action, cool monsters and family drama. I suppose in contrast to all the animation sequels we tend to get these days, it’s fair to call Kubo original. But for someone who grew up on anime and manga like me, the story is par for the course.

My main problem with the film, however, is that it didn’t make a whole lot of sense from a narrative or logic perspective. Yes, fables don’t always necessarily make perfect sense, though for me the contrivances of the plot took me out of the film a little bit. The humour was fine, but I didn’t laugh that much, and the twists were quite easy to predict too, so I never found myself really impressed by the film apart from the visuals.

I sound more negative than I intend to be, because I actually thought Kubo was very good. The animation is seamless and the details in both the characters and the sets are absolutely incredible. Watching the featurette certainly improved my appreciation of what a tedious and momentous task such films are to make. I’m merely saying that I was not as blown away by the film as many others were (97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 84% on Metacritic).

My two sons had different reactions to the movie. My elder son (4.5 years old at the time) loved it, especially the creatures, while my younger son (3 years at the time) found some the scenes frightening. Indeed, some of the characters had scary designs and the darker moments were quite eerie, so parents should keep that in mind when deciding whether or not to show it to younger children.

Ultimately, Kubo and the Two Strings is still worth watching simply for the amazing stop-motion visuals and the refreshing concept. Those who enjoy samurai swords and quest adventures should also find it enjoyable because the action sequences are well choreographed and the creature designs look really cool. But as with all films, keep expectations in check, or you might reach the same conclusions about it as I did: Not a disappointment as a film but disappointing relative to high expectations.

3.5 stars out of 5

Pan (2015)

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Pan, unfortunately, was a self-fulfilling title. Getting panned with a 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes was bad enough, but I’m sure getting panned by audiences in taking in less than US$130 million worldwide on a US$150 million budget (sans marketing costs) hurt even more.

So why was Pan such a critical and commercial flop? Did it deserve to be? Well, for starters, I just don’t think Peter Pan, in the modern superhero and video game era, is really as much of a draw as he used to be. And secondly, the film was a little “meh”. It’s never boring but never quite as magical as it set out to be.

Designed as a prequel to the classic Peter Pan story we know (the one with Captain Hook, Wendy, the Lost Boys, Tinkerbell et all), Pan is about how a young orphan named Peter becomes the boy who could fly, never grows up and all that.

The film actually starts off quite well, creating a sense of time and place as well as a rebellious and adventurous spirit. Newcomer Levi Miller is a solid choice as Peter too, not just looking like Pan we’ve seen in cartoons but also giving off the vibe of a star in the making.

As expected, the scene later shifts to Neverland, where we are introduced to some new and familiar characters such as Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and a young man by the name of James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), who still has both his hands at this stage.

And so begins a rollicking coming-of-age adventure that moves at a frantic pace, with lots of running around, explosions, flying pirate ships, mermaids and fairy dust. Theoretically, this sounds like the movie should be a lot of fun, but I never got into the story like I thought I would.

Part of it is because the story simply isn’t that interesting and feels eerily familiar to other Neverland films of the past, even though it’s supposed to be different because it’s a prequel. The “chosen one” narrative doesn’t add much freshness either. On the whole, the storytelling from director Joe Wright lacked the intrigue and depth to match all the colourful visuals and busy action.

The other reason the film didn’t work for me was the excessive reliance on special effects. Most big movies these days are stuffed with CGI, but they usually aren’t as overwhelming as they are here. As soo as the movie moves into Neverland, it’s as though everything you see on screen apart from the actors is computer generated. And it’s not that it’s done poorly, it’s just that it dominates to the point of being distracting. I had the same feeling during some of the busier action scenes in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it felt like I got that for nearly 2 hours straight in Pan.

Despite these two major problems, Pan isn’t quite as bad as it’s made out to be. The performances are solid across the board, and they all seem to understand the kind of vibe the film is trying to achieve. We’re talking disappointing mediocrity, not a colossal stuff-up like say the Fantastic Four reboot (which is also better than its reputation). And let’s face it, no one was really getting super excited by this film or expecting it to be fantastic, so I don’t get all the hate. I suspect the decision by Wright to have people singing Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit in one of the pivotal scenes was so sacrilegious that it skewed the overall perception of the film. I agree it’s a bad choice because it ruins the sense of time, but if you take that out, I bet the vitriol wouldn’t have been as acidic.

2.75 stars out of 5

Carol (2015)


I was, in all honesty, dreading Carol a little bit before I watched it. Despite the famous director (Todd Haynes) and superb cast (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, both of whom are up for Oscars in a couple of weeks), it seemed like one of those slow, boring movies I could find myself dozing off in. The word of mouth I’ve been privy to has been polarising — some said they regretted watching it, while others lamented why it was snubbed for the Best Picture Oscar.

And so I am kind of shocked to say that I actually really liked Carol. Perhaps not to the extent that I feel the movie was snubbed by the Academy Awards for Best Picture, but it certainly exceeded my expectations and pulled a few heart strings along the way. That said, I’m still of the opinion that the overwhelming critical praise is overrating the film a little bit, and my guess is that critics factored in the historical significance of the source material (Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 groundbreaking semi-biographical novel) when formulating their reviews.

At its core, Carol is quite a simple love story between a young, aspiring photographer, Therese (Rooney Mara) and an older, married woman, the titular Carol (Cate Blanchett). But back in the 1950s, homosexuality was considered a medical condition that could be cured through psychotherapy, and many women didn’t even know what the word “lesbian” meant.

Admittedly, Carol is a slow-paced film that requires a lot of patience and attention before reaping the emotional rewards. If it loses you at the beginning it might be a struggle to get through the rest of it, but if the film manages to hook you through the enticing chemistry of its lead stars, you may end up falling for its subtle romantic charm like I did.

The reason why romance is probably my least favourite movie genre is because it’s so hard to get it right. Infusing a film with the right characters and requisite passion to get audiences to care — usually in under two hours — without making it feel contrived or melodramatic or saccharine, is a tall task indeed. And so it is a true testament to the entire crew — from Hayne to screenwriter Phyllis Nagy to the cast — that the dialogue, the character interactions, and thus the attraction and romance, comes across as so natural. The result is a love story that’s perhaps not as intense or dramatic as that of Brokeback Mountain or Blue is the Warmest Color, though for me it’s every bit as genuine and emotionally engrossing as those films.

From a technical standpoint, the film is also beautifully crafted — the look and feel of the era is perfectly captured by the sets and the costumes — and even the excellent cinematography and music score play important roles in the overall production.

Still, the film wouldn’t have worked without the two outstanding central performances. It’s a little strange that Mara was nominated for Best Supporting Actress while Blanchett was nominated for Best Actress — it probably should have been the other way around or both should have been in the Best Actress category — but there’s no denying that both deserve to be recognised by the Oscars for their remarkably nuanced portrayals. Mara, in particular, is as good as I’ve seen her in anything, and now that I’ve seen all the Best Supporting Actress nominee films I’d say she gets my vote (though Alicia Vikander will probably win).

The supporting cast, by the way, is also fantastic. Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy and co all deliver effective performances that do Mara and Blanchett’s efforts justice.

Having said all that, I don’t think Carol is a spectacular film. It’s a little too slow and understated for my liking, though I connected with the central romance and appreciate that it is exquisitely made and fueled by Oscar-worthy performances. This is one of the rare instances where, for a film that has largely divided critics and mainstream audiences, I find myself siding — for the most part — with the critics.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Her (2013)

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Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are) is one of the most interesting and exciting filmmakers around, so I was really looking forward to his latest, Her. And no, contrary to popular belief, it’s not an Arrested Development spin-off film about…

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Nominated for three Oscars (Best Picture, Original Screenplay and Original Song), Her is a riveting, poignant and strangely poetic sci-fi drama about a divorced man (Joaquin Phoenix) who dates his artificially intelligence-powered computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). I was sceptical initially and thought it might be gimmicky, or worse, silly, but I really should have had more faith in the genius of Jonze (writer and director) and the brilliance of Phoenix, who proves again that he’s one of the most talented actors of his generation.

Like the best sci-fi stories, Her doesn’t require an introductory slab of exposition to explain to us the world the film is set in. It’s presented, as-a-matter-of-factly, from the very first scene about Joaquin’s wonderful and highly unusual job, with other features of this futuristic/alternate reality gradually leaked to us, piece by piece, throughout the rest of the 126-minute running time. Such is the mastery of the storytelling that you don’t question the logic of its universe — you just accept it, and soon, you believe it.

The world Jonze paints in Her is not apocalytpic or dystopian, nor is it really more alarming than most of what we already see today. People’s lives or interconnected with their mobile devices, which are linked to (what I assume are Bluetooth) earpieces and microphones, and spend all day conversing with their operating systems, which they can order to do effectively everything we do on our smartphones right now, and more. When we see Joaquin on the subway or walking down the street, there is very little human interaction as everyone is immersed in their down little digital world. The message is clear but subtle.

I found this world incredibly sad, but at the same time I envied how convenient life had become. Seriously, wouldn’t it be great to have an operating system you can talk to, who is tailored to your needs can sort through your hard drive on your behalf, can give you recommendations on what to see or do, write and send emails as you dictate, laugh at your jokes, or even just be there for you when you feel like you need someone to talk to? Eat your heart out, Siri, you piece of crap.

In many ways, the opening of Her reminds me of one of those awesome episodes of Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits I used to enjoy so much as a kid, with shades of that wonderful Charlie Booker British series Black Mirror. It takes a simple idea from our present world — in this case our increasing reliance, dependence and even obsession with computers and computerized gadgets — and applies a clever and satirical twist to it. But as the film progresses, Her shuns the cliches and exceeds those types of stories (which often have some sort of chilling ending) by becoming a genuinely touching story about a man’s — and reflectively, our own — desire to connect with other people in this increasingly hi-tech age.

It feels strange to say this about a relationship between a person and a computer, but Her is surprisingly romantic. I would go as far as to say that there are times when the film comes across as eerie, but the core of the romance itself never feels creepy. Credit has to go to Joaquin Phoenix for a skilfully restrained performance that makes us believe, first of all, that a person can have feelings towards a computer, and more importantly, in the mixed emotions that come from it. The voice performance of Scarlett Johansson is also incredible. As recognizable as her voice is, it didn’t feel like I was listening to Scarlett Johansson the actress, but rather, the computer operating system known as Samantha. But more than that, I cared about her as a person, which helped me understand why Joaquin’s character did too.

I also had no idea that the film features so many other big names such as Amy Adams, who plays Joaquin’s longtime friend, Chris Pratt, a work funny work colleague, Rooney Mara, as Joaquin’s ex, and Olivia Wilde, a blind date. All of them have their purpose and are memorable in their own way but don’t take steal the limelight from the central romance.

The film is a little too long, with the third act losing steam as Jonze winds down the storyline to find a suitable ending for his protagonists. But on the whole, Her is a sci-fi near-masterpiece that’s sweet, wise, smart, and filled with really creative and cool — albeit disturbing — ideas about the future that aren’t too far-fetched for us to believe that it could soon become a reality. Strictly speaking, I’d say I was probably impressed with Her more than I enjoyed it, but it’s without a doubt one of the finest motion pictures of the year, a film anyone who has ever experienced social loneliness or smartphone addiction can relate to.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Social Network (2010)

Admit it.  When you first heard that they were going to make a movie about Facebook, you thought it was going to suck too.  I certainly did.

But throw in Fight Club director David Fincher, producer Kevin Spacey and The West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin, base it around a nonfiction book by Ben Mezrich (who shot to fame with Bringing Down the House, which was made into the movie 21), and cast a bunch of young rising stars, and The Social Network suddenly becomes one of the best films of the year.

It is probably important to note upfront that accuracy of specific events may not have been a priority for screenwriter Sorkin when he wrote The Social Network, so don’t watch the film believing it to be entirely true.  However, we do know for a fact that certain things did happen.  We know that Mark Zuckerberg, a former Harvard student, created ‘Thefacebook’, a phenomenal social networking site that now has more than 500 million active members around the world.  We also know that he was sued by a few people — the identical Winklevoss twins for allegedly ripping off their idea, and his former best friend Eduardo Saverin, who Zuckerberg completely screwed over.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot, but believe me when I say it is a cracker.  The tone is set in the very first scene.  The characters are fascinating.  The relationships are compelling.  The dialogue is razor sharp.  And it’s surprisingly funny too.

Jesse Eisenberg is brilliant as Zuckerberg.  He is mesmerizing to watch, and really makes you believe Zuckerberg is a genuine prick.  While Justin Timberlake has received mixed reviews as Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster, some believe he is being tipped for a Best Suppporting Actor Oscar nomination.  Personally, I don’t think it weas an Oscar-worthy performance, but it was very good, and definitely better than what anyone was expecting.

The rest of the ensemble cast was terrific too.  The standout for me was the new Spiderman Andrew Garfield (Saverin), who grows on you as the film progresses.  But I really can’t poke a hole in any of the performances.  I think in years to come, The Social Network will be remembered as a classic that featured actors who went on to become superstars.  It’s already got Eisenberg and Garfield and Timberlake (all of whom should go on to bigger roles), not to mention Rooney Mara, Hollywood’s new Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Armie Hammer, who plays both the Winklevoss twins, was hilarious, a great contrast to their more serious business partner Divya Narendra, played by Max Mingella (son of the late and great Anthony).  Even Brenda Song, who has a small role as Saverin’s girlfriend, was dynamite in a couple of scenes.

The Social Network is captivating drama at its best, and I’ve already seen it twice.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

As a kid, my older sister tormented me with her video rentals, most of which were horror movies.  And of all the movies we watched, the one that was etched into my memory more than any other was A Nightmare on Elm Street (and its many sequels).

So of course, I was very excited about this new “reboot” of the franchise, especially with one of my favourite actors, Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen, Little Children, Shutter Island) playing Freddy Krueger.  Haley, while maybe not a physically imposing guy, has the uncanny ability to unsettle audiences with his creepiness, and I was sure he’d make a terrific Freddy.

The verdict?  Not great — one of those remakes that could have been a lot better, but on the bright side, could have also been far worse.

A Nightmare on Elm Street follows a familiar plot line to just about every other movie in the original franchise — a bunch of kids being terrified in their dreams by the horribly burnt, knife-fingered Freddy Krueger, except that if you die in your dream, you die in real life.

There is some attempt to make the story more compelling by inserting Freddy’s origins into the plot, and tying that to the central characters in the film to create a “mystery” that needs to be solved.  Not to say it worked, but at least they tried to give the characters an additional motivation to just simply staying alive.

The intention this time was to make Freddy more frightening as opposed to the wise-cracking, almost comical Freddy that he evolved into during the latter part of the original franchise.  This new Freddy is all malevolence and anger, though there is still a part of him that likes to toy with his victims.  For the most part, I think this is a welcoming aspect of the film, especially because Haley is so magnificently frightening, even without his make-up!

Speaking of Haley, I must say that he only half-worked as Freddy.  He did whatever he could with the character, but maybe it’s because I’m so used to the Robert Englund version that Haley’s version just didn’t quite feel right — like it was a poor man’s rip-off version of the real Freddy or something.  Englund’s prominent nose and impressive frame is replaced by Haley’s flatter nose and smaller frame, and even though they wore the same outfit and had the same burns (though Haley’s were more “realistic” thanks to improved prosthetics and CGI), it still took me a while to adjust.

I’m not sure if it would have been a good idea, but I would have liked to have seen them give Freddy a slightly new look — perhaps keep the burns and knives on the fingers but do something else with the rest of his outfit.  It would be destroying an iconic look but I felt like seeing something fresh rather than recycled.

What I liked about the film was that you didn’t really get a sense of who the main character(s) were right from the start, so you had a sense that anyone could die at any moment, or that perhaps this or that character may escape death for a while.

On the other hand, I do have two main gripes about the film (in addition to all the smaller gripes about the lack in logic I can forgive).  First, I hated how they telegraphed when a character was in a dream.  Almost every single time, it was bleeding obvious.  Doesn’t all the fun stem from the audience’s uncertainty as to whether a character is dreaming or not and their inability to tell the difference between the dream world and the real world?  Instead, we are basically told “he/she is dreaming now!” and we prepare ourselves for a Freddy’s appearance and/or a gruesome death.

Secondly, there was little innovation and originality in the deaths.  I think they simply recycled some of the better deaths from the original franchise and stuffed them in.  However, I wanted to see something new and creative, something unexpected and more shocking than just Freddy doing his thing with those fingers.

As for the young cast (ie apart from Haley), I actually don’t think they did too terrible of a job.  Kyle Gallner (The Haunting in Connecticut, Jennifer’s Body) is a veteran of these types of films now and he brings an uneasy presence to the screen — the clear stand out.  The others, Rooney Mara (Youth in Revolt), Thomas Dekker (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) and Twilight hunk Kellan Lutz were all solid — but Katie Cassidy delivered one of the most irritating performances of the year as Kris.  Nothing against her personally but she just tried too hard.

Apparently, A Nightmare on Elm Street has done well enough at the box-office for talks of sequels to be in the works.  I just hope that if they do continue this franchise, they be a little more innovative and creative next time, and not just try and cash in on the popularity of the original.

2.5 stars out of 5!