20 March 2015


The Divergent Series: Insurgent
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Zoe Kravitz, Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer
Written by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback
Directed by Robert Schwentke

I shamelessly loved DIVERGENT (read my review at The MSU Reporter). I saw it three times in theaters, once with audio commentary, and skipped around here and there scene-wise with the Blu-Ray. There's lots to love, and lots to identify. It was a well written, well acted, well shot movie that exploited my feels. INSURGENT I looked at with tempered excitement. Although I am positively giddy to revisit these characters, and most importantly to me, the themes, of this world again, the creative team behind the first film were nowhere to be found, and that creative team, I feel, were paramount in making the movie as good as it was. Director Neil Burger and screenwriters Evan Daughtery and Vanessa Taylor conceivably found the turnaround time too quick between films and opted to exit, or whatever the reason may be, it's disappointing none of these intelligent forces were behind for the sequel. The good news, INSURGENT is good. The sorta bad news, it's not nearly as good as DIVERGENT. The other good news? I dug the themes and how they were conceptualized in the context of the story. The other sorta(ish) bad news? It was a bit too on-the-nose. 

INSURGENT starts off five days after DIVERGENT left off. Tris (Woodley), Four (James), Peter (Teller), and Caleb (Elgort) are on the run from Janine (Winslet) and her task force of anti-Divergent exterminators. Team Kill Janine have their hands full - they need to lay low, but at the same time build an army that could overthrow Janine's reign of terror, and deal with shifting allegiances that put everyone in less than ideal spots. Things get even more complicated when Janine uncovers a powerful box with a secret message only Divergents can unlock. Thus begins the struggle for Tris, the only divergent able to release its secrets, but whose guilt and pain may make her unable to succeed, putting her life and the lives of others in jeopardy. 

First, let's talk about the positives, of which there are quite a few. In DIVERGENT, scenes I tend to go back to involve a personal moment for Tris, something not necessarily plot motivated but a beautiful character beat. Take, for example, when she and her fellow Dauntless recruits climb up the train tracks to their new home (while 'Run Boy Run' beats like crazy in the background), or when Tris succeeds in the Capture-the-Flag gambit and flies through the deteriorating skyscrapers of Chicago. These are but a few moments that got me onboard the DIVERGENT bandwagon. What INSURGENT offers isn't nearly as strong or memorable as such aforementioned sequences, but there is one particular standout sequence with Tris under the influence of truth serum. Woodley gives it her all in one hell of a heartbreaking, can't-look-away scene stealer as she is forced to confront the choices and sacrifices that she's made in her fight. It's brutal, it's soul-revealing, and it's damn good. Later, as the trailers have pretty much revealed, there's a Tris vs. Tris type of fight, and although it's rather a blunt way to hammer home the point of Tris' INSURGENT arc. Nevertheless, that fight, and the whole ten minutes that encompass her journey where she confronts facets of herself, is powerful. Each beat may not land as strongly as another, but it works. 

There's a good sense of momentum with the pacing and story. With the gang divided on what to do next against their fight with Janine and how to go about it, the Tris arc is allowed time to flourish. Ultimately, that means the twisty-turny allegiance of Peter and Caleb is muddled and rather under-developed, but for the sake of keeping the focus on Tris, it's a forgivable sin. As the Big Bad, Janine is regulated to pure Figurative Mustache-Twirling Villain. We know her goal - to open the box - and we know she'll achieve that goal through any means necessary. Any development of this character was DIVERGENT exclusive, it seems. But again, Tris' arc is what matters, and her poking and prodding and general evilness is a means to a end. Naomi Watts appears as Four's super hot mom. Like, seriously. Brunette works for her. All I can hope for ALLEGIANT is that she's a large and prominent character of the story. Yowza. 

Special effects are predominantly well done. The fiery house simulation sequence showcased in every INSURGENT trailer clearly has the most work done, as great effort is afforded to make air-bending Shailene Woodley look completely real and totally not digital. It works more often than it falters. The only real digital grievance is one of the final shots of the film, a full CG aerial shot of communities walking outside obliterated Chicago. Not a memorable image to end your movie on.

Where this movie stumbles, it's hard to peg down. On a surface level, there's a difficulty in ascribing any faults. The biggest pitfall for me, personally, as a DIVERGENT devout, is that the emotional center of the first film seemed lost. Yes, plot becomes of greater importance in this sequel (to a degree), but the pain and grief of Tris, and the arc that comes from that, should have held a greater emotional intensity. They did an admirable job, no doubt, just not fully there, if you know what I mean.

Neil Burger brought a swiftness and engagement with his direction in DIVERGENT, and although INSURGENT has plenty of prettiness and strong shots, I still can't help but wonder what it would look like under Burger's direction. When all is said and done, there's nothing inherently wrong with INSURGENT. It's a fine sequel that, thankfully, didn't suffer the full wrath of sequelitis (in the last decade, only CATCHING FIRE and THE DARK KNIGHT were saved from a sophomore slump), but was still missing some pieces anyway. Definitely worth seeing, especially if you were anywhere between a full on to somewhat DIVERGENT fan. I have absolutely no idea how they're going to make ALLEGIANT into two movies, but I guess we'll find out in a year. 'Till then, solid work, fellas. I wager I'll be seeing this once or twice more.



Father Gregory (Jeff Bridges) is having a difficult day.
Seventh Son
Starring Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore, Kit Harrington, Alicia Vikandor
Written by Steven Knight, Charles Leavitt
Based on the novels 'The Spook's Apprentice' by Joseph Delaney
Directed by Sergei Bordov
2015, 102 mins., Rated PG-13

Not long after Peter Jackson made sword and sorcery(ish) epics cool with the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, I was in the camp of folks who thought that all types of films like those -- with wizards, dragons, monsters, eclipse Armageddons, gods, etc. -- should be dark, serious, and above all, epic. Years later, when the Ray Harryhausen classic CLASH OF THE TITANS was remade with Sam Worthington as Perseus and Liam Neeson as Zeus and one killer kick-ass Kraken, I went in with the expectation the material would be handled seriously, and the movie would be amazing. I was wrong on both accounts. CLASH OF THE TITANS, the remake, was all about action. Gravitas and nuance was third to action and special effects. Nothing mattered other than making things look cool. For me, it was a devastating missed opportunity. 

I say all this, because that hard blow in many ways made films like SEVENTH SON easier to swallow and accept instead of being hit with overwhelming disappointment. Up front, I'll mention that I never read the books this film is sourced from, but if I were a fan of those novels, I imagine this adaptation would be quite the disservice. Probably DRAGONBALL: EVOLUTION level of terribleness. A lot of this feels extremely loosely based off the series. But that's beside the point. The point is this: I look at SEVENTH SON as a wonderful, playful throwback to the sixties and seventies, when we had action/adventure fantasy movies. Specifically, I'm thinking of the SINBAD trilogy. SEVENTH SON is a homage to those type of flicks -- or rather, it would fit so well into those classification of movies of that time period. It's just fun. A paint-by-the-numbers plot with largely unimpressionable characters and so-so special effects. They're not trying for serious, or epic, or anything necessarily great. Just sit back, have a good time, and enjoy this fantasy throwback to a time where these type of films were everywhere in cinema chains. 

SEVENTH SON has something to do with kids who are born the seventh son of a seventh son having abilities of some sort. Father Gregory (Bridges) is a old, wise(ish) wizard who recruits Tom (Barnes) to stop Malikin (Moore), a shape-shifting evil badass sorceress who intends on destroying the world and ruling it with her evil minions. Right about now is where the end tag announcer from the BATMAN '66 series would say, 'can Father Gregory and Tom beat Malikin in time? Will the earth be enslaved by monsters? Find out next week, same mage time, same mage channel!' Or something like that. 

To put it bluntly, no, SEVENTH SON is not a good movie. Acting is subpar, at best. Jeff Bridges is hardly comprehensible as Father Gregory, choosing an accented voice spoken through lips that seem sown together. Or perhaps it's his gigantamous beard and facial hair that's blocking the words from escaping his mouth. Either way, there really oughta be a subtitle option when he's speaking. No doubt about it, this is a paycheck gig for Jeff Bridges, and his performance reflects that commitment. Ben Barnes was really impressive in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN, channeling the right amount of princely valor, charm, and acting talent. Here, there's not a ounce of that skill on display. He lumbers through each scene, makes out with a hot chick (in the most entertaining subplot of the film, mage & witch love: can they be together when one's a hunter and one's the thing they hunt?), and resorts to a dead plan, dead-eyed glaze. As a hugely underdeveloped badass witch, Julianne Moore's Malikin fares the best, but only because she hams up the screen so totally committed, it's spectacular to watch. She's having fun, and I'm having fun right there with her. 

The script could use, at minimum, ten more drafts. Iron out details about this world's rules, creatures, and words, improve the dialogue, and just improve the basic framework of the movie at least. All this 'seventh son' business is explained in one throwaway line, but it would be mighty preferable for some time devoted to explaining the mystical power behind it. Backstory and histories are brought up very late in the game, adding little emotional value to certain scenes when, if such details were revealed earlier, it would have helped considerably. The relationships between Father Gregory and Milikan, and Tom and (witch) Alice (Vikandor) are awkward at best, and could use refining to spice up their scenes, perhaps make up for the lack of chemistry between any of these actors. 

For me, the real highlight of SEVENTH SON, and the aspect that makes me the most giddy, are the monsters. Look at the photo above, Father Gregory face to face with this giant green lizard creature (played by Djimon Honsou in human form). That's the type of cool shit a monster-loving fan like myself has a field day over. And check out the photo below, with the four-armed badass ready to take down some opponents. For years I've watched ambitious yet poorly down battles of the protagonist vs. multi-limbed monster variety, and they've been disappointing. Not SEVENTH SON. No. These fights are spectacular. Those arms work in perfect unison, and the fight choreography with all four is expedient and lethal. Finally, the four-armed foe realized in all of his magnificent glory!

Ultimately, if one does enjoy those sword-and-sorcery fantasy epics from the sixties and seventies, and walk into SEVENTH SON with that mindset, the film's a blast. It really, properly is. If you go in with the mentality that this is a $95 million dollar movie produced with the intent of being something like 'the next big thing' with glamorous special effects and a built-in fanbase with the hopes and dreams of a multi-film franchise deal hanging in the balance, than this movie is quite the clusterfrak. For all its poor writing, incomprehensible performances, and occasionally lavish special effects, SEVENTH SON is fun. As it's now out of the theatrical circuit, give it a look-see when it hits DVD/Blu-Ray. For me, this was a fun, nostalgic trip to a time long ago when fantasy adventures were all the rage.

15 March 2015


Run All Night
Starring Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Boyd Holbrook
Written by Brad Ingelsby
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

In the last five years, Liam Neeson's THE GREY is his best, most nuanced, most accomplished role since he broke 'big' with action films once TAKEN took off. TAKEN 2 and 3 were just disasters of mediocre movie-making and unenthusiastic deliveries by Neeson. Haven't seen A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, so can't comment if that was a marked improvement, but I can say that RUN ALL NIGHT is.

To clarify, RUN ALL NIGHT isn't a deep movie, nor altogether a return to the 'glory days' (aka six or so years ago) of Liam Neeson being a bona fide action star, but it's a mark in the right direction. It gives Neeson his juiciest material to work with in years as a character torn between his loyalties to his best friend of several decades and his duty to his flesh and blood. Of course he will always choose his son, Michael, and he will do whatever necessary to save him (Neeson's characters are always quite skilled at protecting family members), but to have that extra layer of kinship - hell, brotherhood - with the villain of the story? That right there adds some much needed drama and dimension to action movies that have become rather thin of everything as of late.

RUN ALL NIGHT has Neeson as Jimmy (lame name, folks, but gives him the Common Man vibe; a Common Man who also just happens to have a particular set of skills . . .), a drunk lowlife ex-super killer for his buddy and non-blood brotha Shawn (Harris). They're best of mates until a series of absurd coincidences forces Jimmy to kill Shawn's son to save his own. Thus begins the longest night of their lives, as these two families cause mass havoc in the streets of New York City with car chases, bathroom fista cuffs, and apartment explosions. And have to deal with the threat of sporadic rain!

Thing is, my one thumb up kudos for RUN ALL NIGHT is probably elevated because of the shit storm of subpar movies Qui-Gon's been in before. The fact that I'm watching this action movie that has fight scenes that I can actually comprehend, a story that actually tries, and characters of substance, well -- that just seems maverick compared to the rest of the similar titles of this litter. It's a fine film, highly competent, shot and lit with such moody dark blues and bright florescent vistas that it's actually rather impressive. The real heart of this whole thing is the Jimmy and Shawn relationship, where decades of brotherhood is dissolved due to familial duty and obligation. Blood has been shed, and the only way to rectify the situation is with blood.

It all culminates in a shootout in the woods, but the real ending is a rather tragic, low-key, quiet exchange of bullets and words at on the train tracks. It's a nice beat, two friends forced to this shit storm of death. Shawn and Jimmy even have a motto that's repeated at least four times throughout the movie, probably one of those things more seasoned screenwriters should probably skip, because it telegraphs the films trajectory immediately. There's two ways this movie could end, but throw that motto in there and now there's only really one way.

All in all, this was one run I was satisfied to partake in. A dark action thriller that works. If Neeson decided to hang up the action reins now, it'd be a good choice to end on (seriously, watching Neeson try to keep up or conduct the same maneuvers as his considerably younger costars was a bit sobering; his roles work best when he's a straightforward physical force, like a shark, picking out bad guys without much aerobics). Better this than a hypothetical-perhaps-soon-not-to-be-hypothetical TAKEN 4. Give RUN ALL NIGHT a go if you're a Liam Neeson fan like myself, but if you're looking for solid action spectacle, rent or blind buy Keanu Reeve's JOHN WICK instead.

13 March 2015


Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Script by Chris Weitz
Starring Lily James, Richard Madden, Derek Jacobi, Cate Blanchett, Stellan Skarsgard, Helena Bonham Carter
2015, Rated PG, 112 mins.

Stories tend to (not necessarily need) to be updated for a new generation. Previous iterations of a long-told story just don't hold the same appeal to a good amount of the marketplace now, hence why we have Tim Burton's (terrible) ALICE IN WONDERFUL and upcoming (why, Lord, why?) DUMBO. It's why PETER PAN can't ever seem to have enough updates and reimaginings, and long cherished fairytale and Disney stories are getting big budget, CGI-fest new releases, cos kids young to young adult just can't be bothered with checking out some 40 year + titles. 

So if you're going to make a new movie based on a old property, there's got to be a point to it. In the case of CINDERELLA, a story told as often as Peter Parker's origin, it does a fine job of adding some additional layers of character and story beats, but overall, the ends don't justify the means. After all, when all is said and done, it really is just some glamorized retelling hellbent on rackin' up the budget on needless SPFX. But before we get to the film, a brief moment to talk about what preceded the flick.

A year and some months ago (can't believe it's been that long), FROZEN blew everyone's mind to become a cultural phenomenon, catapulting the title up to the fifth highest grossing movie of all time. Originally, I was a FROZEN naysayer, until I saw the film and instantly bit my words, so the announcement of this FROZEN FEVER short had me more giddy than the actual film I paid money to see. Ultimately, it was a wobbly production with quite a few flaws but ultimately saved by an innate love to see Anna and Elsa again in a non-ONCE UPON A TIME capacity. The skit itself is amusing -- now that the sisters are bonded better than ever, Elsa wants to get Anna the best birthday party possible, going all out while a simple hangout would do. Neat concept. 

The animation is solid work, nearly on par with the original movie itself. What's not so up to par are two things: (1) the song isn't all that good, frankly. And a call-back to FROZEN's most famous song feels shoehorned in instead of organic, and (2) despite being credited to the contrary, the voice talent barely sounds like Kristen Bell or Idina Menzel. There's a few instances it's full on Bell sounding, but Elsa never felt right. Still, great to see the characters again, and if the Disney chairman is to be believed, work is already underway on a potential FROZEN sequel, so, we'll see them again before too long . .. maybe by the time George R. R. Martin finishes the GAME OF THRONES series.

As a film, CINDERELLA is solid. Veteran director Kenneth Branagh has a keen eye, and the visuals never fail to impress. Nice, bright colors adorn every shot; hell, even the dirty attic looks pretty, and I've never seen Cinderella's glass slippers look shinier. On the surface level, there is nothing all that shoddy about CINDERELLA. 

Even the script is pretty tight. It moves at a brisk pace, the ending rearing its obvious markers in what feels like no time. Perhaps that's too its detriment, however. Perhaps there should have been a bit more breathing room, more time dedicated to character and allowing them ample time to just be. Cinderella's stepsisters particularly never overcome the long done portrayal of snotty, self-absorbed, materialistic gits - it would be interesting if they instead elected to take a fresh, slightly original take with them. Perhaps make them relatable and submissive to their mother's controlling, advantageous planning. As for the stepmother, on one hand, effort is put forth to make her a true antagonist right alongside William Turner, Jr., Stellan Skarsgard (which is much appreciated), but on the other hand, Cate Blanchett's talent seems almost wasted. 

Lily James is absolutely adorable as the humble, father loving daughter Ella who just gets the short staff on every occasion (and I can't emphasize enough how marvelous it was to see AGENT CARTER as James' mum!). Perfectly solid. If there is a complaint - and what would a movie blogger be without a complaint? - it's to do with the most culturally recognized scene of the entire story: the Prince's ball. Ella (who is given the lovely rebranding of "cinder" by her stepsisters) is a girl who is entirely out of her depth going to this ball. This is mostly a performance choice that I'm scrutinizing here. Instead of being awkward, unsure of herself, or at least portraying a person who is attempting to act like someone who belongs, there's this out-of-character performance as James makes Ella seem no different than a princess being brought up in the monarchy. Basically, I feel there should be some sort of awkwardness or uneasiness with this whole thing -- Ella happily embracing all the wild-googely-eyed men and women staring at her, her effortless dancing skills with the prince, etc. Instead, she simply owns it all effortlessly. My mom said, "it's magic!" Me? Not sold. 

Speaking of the handsome prince, poor Robb Stark cleaned up quite well. Richard Madden is a fantastically charming and individual-minded prince, easily making even me swell for the bloody guy.

Ultimately, CINDERELLA is a competent, very fine movie. It is not the new definitive telling of the tale, nor is it a wholeheartedly fresh or original take at the character. The original animated Walt Disney film would do just fine. But since this film exists, it's an actual thing now, it's a perfect acceptable, heartwarming tale of . . . what, exactly? Accepting oneself as one is? The movie is more concerned with hitting the necessary plot points its through-line isn't all that strong until the penultimate scene. 

Fans of Disney movies will love it, the ladies will be charmed by it, and critics will likely still grumble grumble over why this film exists in the first place. Still, if there has to be a modern day retelling of a gazillion-times told story, Branagh's CINDERELLA would be thrown into the 'win' column . . .

08 March 2015

TV Watcher: 03/01/15 - 03/07/15

03.01.15 - 03.07.15

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH 101/102. "Alive in Tuscon/The Elephant in the Room". Now THIS is how you open a series. For months, FOX has advertised THE LAST MAN ON EARTH sporadically, with each new blurb and TV spot heightening my excitement for this project more and more. Add in the involvement of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the duo behind LEGO MOVIE and 21 JUMP STREET), who also directed the two-part premiere, and there was zero chance I was skipping this series. Turns out, within the opening fifteen minutes of lunacy and isolation Phil Miller undergoes as he realizes, for some unexplained reason, he's the only man left alive after a virus outbreak, the show already hooked me. It managed to balance the somberness of Phil's realization with the comedy of Phil horsing around, with the world as his playground. 

The big question inherent in THE LAST MAN ON EARTH is, could this be sustainable as a series? Thanks to a clever secret revealed in the premiere episode and the direction episode two sets the series towards, yes, there's so much that can be mined from this premise. Will Forte easily sheds my distaste for him after the dismal MACGRUBER and creates a hilarious, empathetic character who's just given up, and as episode two rolls around and he's faced with a different but familiar living situation, his frustration and charm are beautifully leveled. And major props to the series for adding Alexandra Daddario in a hilarious and tempting cameo. Poor Phil Lord. 

In 43 minutes, this series has won me over, and the prospect of spending the next couple weeks watching Phil Lord mess everything up and acclimate to his new situation is irresistible. Excellent series, excellent work. Grade: A+

EPISODES 409. "Episode Nine". Well, that went by quickly. Season 4 feels like it just began, and here we are, already at the end. Was the ride worth it? EPISODES the series has always enjoyed a rather gradual pace that eventually culminates in a finale that twists things towards another direction, like last year's PUCKS is cancelled-but-now-resurrected-cos-of-higher-ups-bitch-fights, and this season ends on a note that doesn't inspire the most enthusiasm. The whole season has been rather light on comedic moments and a plot interesting enough to keep my attention, becoming more or less a show that I can rely on airing this time of year instead of a show I need to be steadfast and watch like some addiction. Real good story and comedic material could have been mined with everyone and the writers begrudgingly brought back to work on PUCKS, the show everyone in the cast and crew hate, but instead it's glossed over relatively quickly so the characters can concentrate on their new show in development. There's a fun Carol falling for people of power subplot that works extremely well for several episodes only to turn sour in a jealous-rivalry storyline. Even Matt gets two cool chances to stand out - a quasi-reunion with his ex-wife and a reluctant partnership with Lapedius. But, sadly, all these storylines end on a bit of a whimper.

Overall, the weakest season of EPISODES yet, but still a somewhat satisfying adventure. With a season five renewal (as far as I understand it) still up in the air, regardless of what direction the wind blows, it's been a great run, and a fun series to watch. Season Grade: B-

SHAMELESS 507. "Tell Me You Fucking Need Me". After the amazeballs season 4 mid-credits surprise of Jimmy/Steve's apparent resurrection, the Fiona/Jimmy reunion was the storyline I was looking forward to the most this season, and it didn't disappoint. Initially, I suppose I was in the camper van of folks who would like to see their relationship rekindled, but as these three episodes pointed out, y'know, Jimmy isn't exactly a good guy. He's a thief, a liar, and a manipulator who uses situations to his advantage. How their relationship concludes with this episode is sublime. After dealing with her "unfinished business", Fiona realizes it's time to move on, as difficult as it may be, and Jimmy rides away, motorcyclin' into the night. It was a fine line the writers walked with these two characters this season, and the end result was immensely satisfying. Although, sadly, I do now have to recognize this is the last of Dichen Lachman we'll see on the show. She's a terrific actress (see: DOLLHOUSE), and it would have been preferable to see her get an expanded role, but even a tiny bit of Dichen is better than no Dichen. 

Watching Ian's reluctance to acknowledge his bipolar disorder is heartbreaking, as if Mickey being shaken up after seeing his boyfriend's aloofness. Debbie finally winning the boy was a wonderfully light and heartwarming moment in a series of grim storybeats, and the Frank and Sammi's dynamic reaches a threatening crescendo (not the best subplot, but they have to give these characters something to do, I suppose). As it stands, Lip and Fiona's storylines are the most compelling, and although the likelihood of either Gallagher getting it easy for the remaining season 5 episodes is unlikely, I can't wait to see what happens next. Although, I can, sorta, cos I don't want this season to end . . . Grade: B+

JUSTIFIED 607. "The Hunt". It's all coming to an end. There are two standout sequences this episode: (1) Art and Markham having a face-to-face. If there's been only one strength this sixth season has mastered, it's these amazingly gripping dialogue bits with Markham and another character, be it Raylan, Boyd, Ava, or Art. It's a testament to the strength of Sam Elliot's delivery and piercing stare, but also to the extraordinary writing. This episode delivers a Art/Markham scene that will probably pay off later, but for now, it was just marvelous watching two pro speakers and actors playing off one another. (2) The Boyd/Ava scene out in the woods, where all gets revealed, and Boyd is faced with a terrifying thought about his sorta-fiance. It was inevitable that Boyd would find out, but I was, I suppose, hoping for more. As of yet, the Ava working for the Marshals has yielded no helpful results. There's been so much emphasis on her emotional state - and understandably so - but she has yet to really help the Marshals in any major way, and now the likelihood is Boyd will ask for Ava's help to steer and manipulate the Marshals to his will. For as strong as Joelle Carter has been this season, her character has less impressive. 

It's been too long, but Winona is back on our screens! It's a pleasure to see the beautiful Natalie Zea back in the JUSTIFIED universe, and I am all too pleased at the understanding she and Raylan arrive at near episodes end. That being said, it pretty much spells doom for these characters - the likelihood of a happy ending for these two is, shall we say, fairly slim. Another great element of this episode - and this season overall - has been Garrett Dillahunt as Ty Walker, who's now on the run from the Marshals and Markham, making him a dangerous beast. Each scene he's in with another character always has this edge to it, this sense that he could strike a lethal blow at any second, or that he's always in control of the situation no matter how dire. After the highly depressing departure of Choo-Choo last week, Ty is still strong enough a character to keep me glued, and now as a dangerous man with no allegiances, it'll be interesting to see where this goes. Mere episodes left . . . not ready for this to end. Grade: A-

05 March 2015


Bianca (Mae Whitman) shines in this hilarious teen comedy.
Directed by Ari Sandel
Written by Josh A. Cagan
Based on the novel "The Duff" by Jody Keplinger
Starring Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Bianca A. Santos, Allison Janney, Skyler Samuels, Jen Jeong
2015, PG-13, 101 mins.

Flashback a couple years ago, critics and audiences alike were gushing all over EASY A, the Emma Stone-led teen comedy that everyone cited as invoking the relatability, romance, and contemporaryness of those John Hughes movies of the eighties - but, y'know, nowish. I personally never bought a ticket on the EASY A bandwagon of love, although I do admit it's a darn good movie with one beautiful and talented lead actress, but it never really deserved all the kudos it got. 

With THE DUFF, here's a situation where I feel that here's a movie that completely deserves all those accolades - the relatability, the feel-good romance vibe, and firmly reflecting the contemporary culture in which it's set - probably won't get its due from critics and the mass audience, and that's a shame, cos THE DUFF is a gem. 

D.U.F.F. means Designated Ugly Fat Friend - now, the Duff doesn't necessarily have to be ugly or fat, they're just the least desirable member of a group. Compared to her friends Jess (Samuels) and Casey (Santos), Bianca is the DUFF, a fact  brought to her attention by next-door neighbor/long-ago friend Wes (Amell), the football player with abs of steel . Understandably pissed at this new revelation that completely alters Bianca's perspective of her role in her friendships and self worth, Bianca cuts a deal with Wes - help her overcome her DUFFyness to ask out Cute Musician Boy Toby she's crushing on, and she'll help him pass his studies. It's a match made in screwed up heaven.

At the time of this review, I've watched THE DUFF twice, and hope to again before it leaves theaters (although that might not be too far in the future, thanks to rather weak box office receipts). It's that fun and that good. Mae Whitman's vulnerable yet tough performance as Bianca is impressive enough to easily tempt me to check out NBC's PARENTHOOD series, or at the very least, eagerly await whatever projects she has coming up in the pipeline. The script is funny, with great jokes, self-deprecating humor, a bit of a meta edge, and best of all, a tone that doesn't take itself too seriously. Amell is perfect as both encapsulating and then subverting the football jock stereotype, lending a certain charm and nuance to the role that could otherwise have been lost in the hands of another actor. 

Thing is, THE DUFF just works. Right  from the beginning, with its technology saturated opening exposition to a brilliant social media de-friending scene about halfway through the movie, to the hammy but enormously satisfying finale and YouTube-y closing credits, the tone works, and with two irresistibly attractive and endearing leads delivering the scripts sharp jokes, it's easy to get why multiple viewings only help make the viewer love it more (or maybe it's just me; for all I know, I'll convince you to see it, and you, gentle reader, will find it positively rubbish, but I properly don't think so). 

Hell, any movie that makes Ken Jeong sufferable and even prompting a laugh-out-loud moment or two is well worth a recommendation. After five seasons on COMMUNITY trying my patience at every turn, it's a nice, very welcome chang of pace not to hate the guy (see what I did there?). If there's any criticism to be had, the movie does end a wee bit too quickly, culminating at a school dance where Bianca sort of abandons her friends without any exchange between the three parties. It's an off-putting moment that slightly dampers a victorious vibe. Earlier on, there's a hilarious CG-fail involving a lawn mower and clothes that is just so lazily put together, it adds its own layer of laughability.

All in all, THE DUFF, from a structural, storytelling standpoint, doesn't break any new ground, and similar to EASY A, it nails the Lesson We're Trying to Convey Here a bit too heavy on the nose, but the fact the leads are so damn good and funny, and the script barely goes a scene without a clever wit or charm easily makes this one of the more entertaining and fun times at the movies in quite a while. Strongly recommended, cos, y'know, laughing is good. And Mae Whitman is pretty.