The Guilt Trip by Anne Fletcher

The Guilt Trip by Anne Fletcher

The Guilt Trip by Anne Fletcher

As inventor Andy Brewster is about to embark on the road trip of a lifetime, a quick stop at his mom’s house turns into an unexpected cross-country voyage with her along for the ride.

Growing up as a Chinese boy in the immigrant culture of Canada, aspects of Jewish, Italian and Chinese cultures always seemed similar to me. I don’t think we are all that different after all. We are all family-oriented, express love through home-cooking, and share a deep respect for family ancestry. Subsequently, our mothers aren’t that different either; they nag and embarrass us in public and as indicated by the film’s title, they love using the guilt trip. That is primarily how I connected to the truths and comedy of The Guilt Trip.

Barbara Streisand and Seth Rogen create a charming chemistry as the mother and son. Seth Rogen is a good straight man. I don’t know thing one about Barbara Streisand, her music career or seen any of her movies, but she is the secret ingredient that makes everything work. Without the charm or the truth to the way Streisand played the role, the role would have been annoying very quickly.

The nagging and bickering can be grating for some audiences because of how real everything is presented, maybe to the point it doesn’t feel like entertainment. For me with my theory about Jewish, Italian and Chinese cultures being very similar, it was an insightful engaging experience watching that dynamic being acted out onscreen. That said, I probably would enjoy watching it with my sister laughing about our mother than watch it awkwardly alone with my mother.

I laughed throughout the entire film. What I liked most about The Guilt Trip was how honest and real it was. The truth of the situation never precedes the humor. Anne Fletcher and her editor cut the comedy gags with discipline, the gags never outstay their welcome and all move the story forward. There are even times where there aren’t laughs. That’s where the truth  pays off as it delivers some genuine heartfelt moments between the mother and son. And the heartbeat in The Guilt Trip is why I would recommend it.

World War Z by Marc Forster

World War Z by Marc Forster

Gerry Lane, a retired United Nations employee who must travel the world to find a way to stop a zombie pandemic.

I haven’t read the original novel going into World War Z. There have been some complaints that this film departs heavily  from the novel, but apparently the novel reads like a series of personal accounts. If that’s the case, it’s probably more effective to experience the story through a first-person perspective for a film. On with the review…

The PG-13 rating has always been an interesting constraint for horror movies as it cancels the use of gore and forces more ingenuity in creating the scares. Marc Forster creates a constant frantic sense of jeopardy and properly raises the stakes. Even though it’s possible to outsmart and escape from these running zombies, we fear that the characters will eventually fatigue and lose from being outnumbered. The opening set piece was shot too shaky and cut too fast and it seemed like Marc Forster didn’t learn anything from the action in Quantum of Solace. But the set pieces improve as the film progresses.

By the finale, I was fully immersed into this world, alert of everything that can startle the fast-running zombies and looking out for every possible human mistake. I was cringing at every door squeak and wished a can of WD-40 would just fall out of the sky on their laps. That said, the characters don’t make typical stupid horror movie mistakes. Even in times of risk and with the occasional accidental mistake, they take the proper precautions and do the most sensical thing.

Zombie films typically are set in a town or city. What makes World War Z an unique experience is its international scope, we get to see the entire world react to the zombie outbreak. It gives a political and cultural cross-section of how different countries would react to such a catastrophic event. It holds a mirror to our current world. This was the most interesting part of it for personally as it sets itself apart from George Romero films or The Walking Dead.

The most valuable Brad Pitt brings to the film besides his star power is the big-budget production values itself. The cast performs fine but it’s by no means a performance-driven film. The studio has decided to produce a sequel, as the war in the novel lasts for a decade. And it will probably continue to draw from the U.N reports in the novel. Depending if Brad Pitt returns to the role or if the story unfolds with a new protagonist, the story can go either which way. I’ll probably see it then but for now, the epilogue doesn’t tease me that much.

Star Trek Into Darkness by J.J. Abrams

Star Trek Into Darkness by J.J. Abrams

The crew of the USS Enterprise meets an unstoppable force of terror from within Starfleet, Captain Kirk leads a manhunt to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction.

The central relationship between Kirk and Spock is the most compelling element out of the entire Star Trek canon. My peers frequently debate me about Star Trek: The Next Generation but my viewing experience of TNG has only been the movies. Unfortunately I missed it as a television series. For my money, there’s been nothing nearly as compelling and iconic as Kirk’s hot-blooded brash instinct versus Spock’s cold logic and the temperamental humane Dr. McCoy caught between them. I love what they each represent and their eternal triangular quarrel. They want to work together to solve grandiose problems but they all see different on the approach. Never does one of them ever solve the solution completely with their own philosophy and often it’s a varying combination of all three that saves the day. It’s about hearing people out, being unassuming and adapting to new ideas. When Star Trek: The Original Series debuted in the mid-60’s, Gene Roddenberry intended the original show to have a major political agenda and aimed to present an optimistic version of what man can be at their very best.

Much of the essence from Star Trek: The Original Series remains in Star Trek Into Darkness, it contains themes about colonialism, political intervention, foreign policy and terrorism. But it is there only if you want to read it. These themes are expressed in a muted fashion as the thematic discussions are always running parallel to major action set pieces. As if the material was like a shark that had to keep moving at breakneck speed or it will risk dying of boredom. Personally, I never minded those thematic discussions in the previous Star Trek films. A few more quiet moments wouldn’t have been bad either. Just saying. Now that J.J. Abrams is helming the next Star Wars movie, the “Star Wars vs. Star Trek” geek war that existed when I was a teenager might very well be over now. A Star Wars influence is present in the film and I ponder what elements Abrams will bring over.

The script is workshopped to an inch of its life. Heck, it’s indicative in the film’s “no colon” title. The fact that the writers have been quoted stating that “There’s no word that comes after the colon after Star Trek that’s cool.” has been clearly spent way too much time pulling their hair psychotically, obsessing over every detail and perfecting the story over coffee-spilled paper. Seriously, is there really a group of people out there that feels negative about colons after the movie title? Does that really justify warping (yes, pun intended) English grammar? This sounds like ranting but I really mean this as a compliment to their supposed geek madness.

The cast delivers as they did in the previous installment. I do think having watched the previous installment helps immensely as there are not a lot of character building moments for everybody. But the actors are all well casted in their roles and fortunately every crew member still has something to do. Zachary Quinto shines as Spock and his friendship with Chris Pine’s Kirk is a believable one. Their friendship is the heart of the movie. Simon Pegg gets to do something new as Scotty. Benedict Cumberbatch is a great villain. He owns the audience. One minute he is savagely evil, the next minute we slightly sympathize with him and then he shifts again. On that note, I can’t wait for Sherlock season 3.

This is a very ambitious film that has a lot of things to accomplish. It’s trying to deliver a story with multiple characters, please both the non-fans and the fans, go to new territory but also honor the spirit of the original series. The film essentially wants to have its cake and eat it too but it accomplishes it really well. If J.J. Abrams’ gave any more pop culture nods as he does in this film, his head would fall off. I cheered at the spectacle of the action scenes, laughed at the in-jokes, and almost cried at the film’s climax. It doesn’t go to new territory as much as the first one and I hope they do go somewhere new for the next installment.

I want to see it again and look forward to the third installment. Hopefully it won’t take as long as this one.

Jack Reacher by Christopher McQuarrie

Jack Reacher by Christopher McQuarrie

A homicide investigator digs deeper into a case involving a trained military sniper who shot five random victims.

So on the height debate, I have never read the Jack Reacher books, so I do not have an impression of the character in my mind. However, it’s irrelevant that Tom Cruise is not 6″5. Hugh Jackman is technically much taller than Wolverine in the comics. And even though they make everybody taller than him in the movies (imagine the budget of apple boxes on every X-men movie), nobody’s arguing that his height ruins his performance as Wolverine. At the end of the day, it’s a question of medium. Lee Child stated that he wrote Jack Reacher to be 6″5 because he wanted Reacher to feel like an enormous presence in the reader’s mind. As film is a visual medium, one can build a person’s presence by adjusting how you film an actor and the actor can perform a larger-than-life personality in his performance.

That’s exactly what Tom Cruise brings to the table. Not since Collateral has Tom Cruise created such a powerful onscreen character. The Jack Reacher character embodies a lot of qualities that we enjoy seeing Tom Cruise play: a savvy maverick (pun intended) who can handle any situation and deliver funny zingers as he’s doing them. The biggest thing going against Cruise is his own stardom. With the amount of information we know about his personal life and his star power, some people may not buy Tom Cruise playing a “Man with No Name” archetype who is shrouded in mystery. It’s a legitimate argument, however, Cruise plays against his stardom as much as he can. I understand that Jack Reacher in the novel is a womanizer and they downplay that here, probably as a way to help shape Tom Cruise into more of a normal person for the movie. He does not grin his way through this role, and in the sum of it all it made a huge difference for me.

The film has an all round great cast. I’m a Werner Herzog fan and he was actually the initial reason why I wanted to see this movie. Herzog brings a chilling presence to his villain role that pushed me into nervous hysterical laughter every scene he was in. Knowing the funny stories behind Herzog, I would say it was 40% scared by his character, 60% laughing giddy because it’s Werner Herzog. Technically that means I’m taken out of the movie by having this pre-existing knowledge, but for me personally it engaged me even more.

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel is a story conscious cinematographer. He is aware that he’s making a crime thriller and uses cinematography to punctuate thriller conventions. He frames the shots in a way that maximizes the tension for each scene, keeping the viewer unnerved and agitated throughout the film. Deschanel understands that visual spectacle is most effectively earned when people believe what they are seeing. A noteworthy example is a car chase sequence in the film that is covered in a series of long shots designed to ensure the audience that Tom Cruise is indeed driving the car performing all the stunts. It was one of the best car chases I’ve seen in a long time.

Christopher McQuarrie is a competent director and I look forward to his work as a director. It’s nice to see a screenwriter make his way into a director and earn their visions. It shows in the film. The best part I enjoyed about Jack Reacher was that it reigns itself in. It understands set-up and payoff and plays like an old fashioned suspenseful thriller where the mystery patiently unfolds itself before the audience. Much of the fun factor comes from the fact that Jack Reacher is ahead of the film’s characters and the audience in figuring out what’s going on. It engaged me and I found myself shifting forward on my seat anticipating what was going to happen next.

I wish there was more I can say about how much I enjoyed it, but that’s about it. Tom Cruise, forget your beloved Mission:Impossible franchise

Hugo by Martin Scorsese

I went into Hugo without any prior knowledge. I didn’t see a trailer or read the synopsis and only heard one radio interview. I only knew it was the Martin Scorsese 3D children’s film.

Space in movies can act as a character, it can evoke not only a sense of place, but a looming sense of character and life that can really enrich a story. That’s something that this movie achieves, one example being in the opening long shot where Hugo Cabret is crawling through the inner body of the entire train station, through the pistons all the way to his hideout. If you closed your eyes, you can smell the steam from the train pistons and feel the vibrations of the click clanks of the gears spinning around. The train station in Hugo is characterized as both a fun place at times (when Hugo is crawling through it) and a dangerous place (there are way too many ways for a child to be killed). It’s been a while since I really been moved by a sense of place since I’ve watched Hugo and was truly marveled by itThe 3D did enhance the space.

The setup of the story was problematic. The film is called Hugo, but it’s not really about Hugo Cabret the orphan (played by Asa Butterfield). It’s about Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley), a toy store owner at the train station. It started as a story about an orphan and ended up being about an old man’s legacy.

The beginning of the story used an unnecessarily long time to set up. If you took the film and shook it, 10-15 minutes would have fallen out. I started to feel bad that I wasn’t interested and invested in the Hugo Cabret character. As horrible as it sounds, him being an orphan and missing his father wasn’t enough for me to hang on after 30 minutes. The story must move forward. Honestly, the train station as a space was more of an interesting character than Hugo himself. Even the side characters (besides Inspector Gustave, played by Sacha Baron Cohen) that populate the train station and their little interactions do not add anything to the core story. It would have added to the story if they interacted more with Hugo Cabret and Georges Méliès characters.

It’s really the latter half of the film where Hugo picks up and shows what it really is about – the love of cinema. The film’s latter half is energized by Martin Scorsese’s own personal passion for filmmaking. I like Martin Scorsese films and it’s nice to see him change up his tune. It’s not like anything he’s done before, but yet it feels dear and closer to his heart. The latter half of the film was charming and enchanting. There’s a sequence we see how a group of men are made to disappear on screen through the use of editing. And you watch it with a smile.

This all raises the question of, why wasn’t this film about the passion of film from the get go? Why a meandering storyline instead of a straight one? The path the story took to get to it’s final point seemed laborious. I walked out feeling like I missed something. That I needed to go back and see it again but I didn’t miss anything. There’s nothing wrong with a story being simple but Hugo didn’t enforce the discipline of taking out the unnecessary beats. That or it didn’t create enough intrigue in the initial story between Hugo and Isabelle (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) snooping around to retrieve Hugo’s notebook from her godfather. I can’t be sure if kids would enjoy this movie because of the long drawn out story beats. There weren’t any children in my screening, so I can’t be sure of that.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot to love about this film. I think the technical awards it won were well deserved. It did something interesting with 3D. But I only ended up liking it.