FlixChatter Review: The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

Pets_poster

The moment I saw the trailer for this months ago I was immediately sold. Anyone who’s ever owned a pet would likely be drawn to this as well, and given the popularity of cat (and dog) videos on social media, this is no doubt a winning concept for an animated movie. The movie started off well enough on the premise of pets shenanigans whilst the owner is away, seen from the life of the movie’s protagonist, a terrier dog named Max (Louis C.K.). The opening scene, set to Taylor Swift’s Welcome to New York, with Max propped on a bike as his owner Katie strolls through Central Park with the city’s metropolitan backdrop is fun and vibrant. Life seems perfect for Max, that is until Katie arrives one day with a huge, hairy dog from the pound. Max takes an instant dislike to Duke (Eric Stonestreet), and it’s easy to see why.

Pets_katie

At first the story seems to revolve around the households of Max as well as his NYC neighbors. There’s the obese gray cat Chloe (Lake Bell), bulldog Mel (Bobby Moynihan), dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress), parakeet Sweet Pea (Tara Strong) and a white Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) who has a crush on Max. I enjoy the intro to each of these fun characters, some of which has been revealed in the trailer. I still laughed when we see Chloe resisting temptation of eating all the food on the fridge and fail miserably, and when Buddy enjoying a delightful massage courtesy of an electric mixer. But the plot then takes us into more of a riotous adventure involving pets being taken in by Animal Control, and ends up being kind of a rescue and ‘great escape’ type of plot that is neither inventive or original. I feel like I’ve seen this type of plot before in other animal movies, most recently Shaun the Sheep.


The whole bit in the sewer with an anti-human gang Flushed Pets, led by a militant white bunny Snowball (the petite firecracker Kevin Hart) has some hilarious moments, but it feels too mean-spirited for a kids movie. Unlike the far superior talking-animal animated feature Zootopia, there’s not much emotional resonance nor depth in The Secret Life of Pets, which is a bummer as I think the concept has so much potential. The moment Duke finds out about what happens to his owner provides one of the very few emotional moments in the movie, but for the most part we get one slapstick gag after another. It also includes a rather silly musical number involving dancing sausages that seems rather pointless.

The movie is directed by Chris Renaud & Yarrow Chenney who have worked on previous Illumination animated movies in the past. I quite like the score too, which I realize from the credits is by Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat. The funniest bits to me are in the simpler moments. There’s one when Max is trying to channel his inner wolf instinct but then concludes that perhaps the ‘myth’ comes from a dog mistaking its parent saying ‘woof’ with ‘wolf.’ You have to watch it to get the full impact of the joke. I also find the aloof & sarcastic Chloe hilarious, she’s what you’d imagine a cat would be and the moment she gets her head in a tube is absolutely hysterical. I wish there were more moments like this, that is the simple shenanigans these pets get into in a normal day, instead of the grandiose escape-from-peril plan that is too busy for its own good. The simple day-to-day stuff is more of what I expect from a movie titled ‘the secret life of pets.’

Pets_snowball

That said, I think the fun personality of the pets, thanks to a talented ensemble of voice cast, makes this movie enjoyable despite the flaws. Louis C.K. is perfect as Max, a good ol’ loyal dog who’s self-deprecating and cynical. The standout for me is Lake Bell‘s Chloe, Albert Brooks‘ hawk Tiberius and of course Hart’s hysterically-psychotic white bunny. I find the massively popular comedian hilarious in real life, his high-pitched voice, ultra-confident persona and antics are a hoot. But I can see how he might irritate some people, as comedy is so subjective. Jenny Slate‘s raspy voice as Gidget is funny too, though her Pomeranian’s character transformation is just downright preposterous. I get it that we can’t complain about things being nonsensical about a cartoon of talking animals, but I feel that the plot could’ve been much more engaging. Comparing this to other works by Illumination Entertainment, this is more akin to Minions than Despicable Me in terms of substance. There are touches of Toy Story as well, though it obviously doesn’t hold a candle to the Pixar masterpiece trilogy.

If you’re on the fence though, I think this is still well worth a watch. I don’t think it’s worth the 3D price however and I think it’d be ok to just wait for rental. I saw one reviewer say this is more humor than heart and I guess that is perfectly adequate for a kids movie. As an adult though, I kind of expect more given what Pixar, Disney and even Dreamworks have delivered lately.

3Reels


What do you think of ‘The Secret Life of Pets’?

Weekend Viewing Roundup: Sam Riley, Alternative Austen & Man Up (2015) review

I cannot fix the hour or the spot, or the look or the words which lay the foundation…I was in the middle when I knew it had began…

That was a quote from Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and that pretty much applies to how I feel the same way about the actor playing him… Sam Riley.

badassDarcy

I fall even more under Riley’s spell now… [le sigh]

Ok, so yeah, about that weekend roundup, well the past couple of weeks has been filled with quite a few Sam Riley movies: Control (2007), Maleficent (2014), Byzantium (2012) and Franklyn (2008). I didn’t get to see Brighton Rock (2010) yet but hopefully later this week. I’m astonished at his chameleonic ability as an actor, my appreciation post on him will be quite massive let me tell you.


I did see one new release this past week, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and got a chance to chat w/ the author of the book it’s based on, Kim Barker. Review & interview of that coming next week.

Ok, so these are my weekend viewing roundup, starting with…

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

///
So this is the first 2016 movie I saw twice on the big screen… and I could’ve gone for a third if it’s still playing for another weekend. Alas, I’d have to settle for all the fun gifs and clips on Tumblr until the Bluray comes out. As you may’ve read in my review, I bloody love this movie and I enjoyed it even more the second time around. Sam Riley & Lily James are now my favorite Darcy & Lizzie pairing amongst the plethora of P&P screen adaptations.

;;;

Austenland (2014)

///
Ok so naturally, watching an alternative Jane Austen movie makes me want to re-watch one of my faves from a couple of years ago. As far an Austen-inspired films go, I actually think this one is even sillier than PPZ movie, believe it or not. Some of the supporting characters are so out there and freakishly bizarre that it made me cringe at times (though that Captain East is one spectacular eye candy). Jennifer Coolidge is a hoot but she went waaay over the top at times, yes even by her standards. But the romance of Darcy & Jane (JJ Feild & Keri Russell) is lovely and of course all the misunderstandings and repressed emotions are all the stuff Austen movies are made of. (my full review)
///

Man Up (2015)

ManUp2015

This British rom-com has a rather unconventional pairing – Simon Pegg & Lake Bell, and that’s the reason I rented it. Bell played a single woman who inadvertently *stole* a stranger’s blind date, and the film took place over the course of a single night. Bell is a natural comedienne and here she gets to show her comedic chops, and also do a pretty convincing British accent.

It’s a pretty fun rom-com even though it doesn’t always avoid the trappings of the genre and is ultimately predictable, but the two likable leads made the movie feels fresh and genuinely funny. Rory Kinnear, who I often see in more serious movies so far, is so hilariously unhinged as Bell’s not-so-secret admirer. I LOVE the London scenery, both during the day and night, which adds to the film’s charm. The finale could’ve been a bit tighter and less verbose, but I think overall this movie is well worth checking out.

3halfReels


Well that’s my weekend recap. So what did YOU watch this weekend? Anything good?

FlixChatter Interview with NO ESCAPE filmmakers John Erick & Drew Dowdle

NoEscapeUKposter

This past week I got the opportunity to meet up with the filmmakers behind the action thriller NO ESCAPE. So apparently the Coens are not the only brother filmmaker team from Minnesota, and the Dowdles are truly one of the nicest filmmakers I ever had the pleasure to meet. The interview was about an hour late than scheduled, apparently there was a radio interview that ran longer than expected. I was the last of six interviewers scheduled to chat with them, and I had been a bit worried they’d be tired of talking by then.

But as soon as I entered the room of the Marquette Hotel, I was greeted with a big smile from both John Erick Dowdle (director/writer) and his brother Drew (writer). I immediately felt comfortable and at ease with them as I sat down and prepared my iPhone recorder. I’d think that for people who’ve been known for their horror films (Quarantine, Devil, As Above So Below), they’d be all dark and moody, but that’s not at all the case with as they’re all smiles and full of energy.

As soon as I started writing in my notes, John noticed that my Mona Lisa pen is from the Louvre Museum. He remarked that he used to live close to it when he was making As Above So Below in Paris that his then young boy named Henry became so obsessed with the place and started to spell his name H-e-n-r-i. I had to ask about the filming at Paris catacomb, so find that at the end of the interview.


Check out my spotlight & review of their film No Escape, as well as a short bio of both of them after they both graduated from St. Thomas Academy, an all-boys, military, Catholic high school near St. Paul, MN.


FCInterviewBanner[SPOILER ALERT: Some of the questions might pertain to some plot details about the film. I’ll be sure to mark that in red to warn you]

Q: Can you elaborate more about how the idea of this story came about? You mentioned at the Q&A after the film that a coup happened whilst you were in Thailand?

JOHN: In 2006 my dad and I went to Thailand and we were traveling all around there. And right before we got there, a coup threw out the prime minister and the generals took over the country. There’s a new regime right as we got there and there had been no advanced warning or nothing like that. I started thinking, what if this… I mean, it went smoothly but I thought, what if it didn’t. What if this went very badly like Phnom Penh in 1975 (referring to the Cambodian genocide by the Cambodian Communist Forces Khmer Rouge). What if this went very badly and I had little kids with me. In my last trip to Thailand, we had two little kids with me like Lucy and Beeze, so basically these two girls (in the film) were based on our little sisters. We started building the story from there. As soon as we got back we started expanding on that. Drew and I returned to Cambodia and traveled around to gather little details to make it more authentic.

DREW: Yes our trip back to Asia was in 2008, that was for location scouting to pick up more details. But we didn’t start shooting until 2013.

DowdleBros_Thailand
John Eric [left] and Drew [right] in Thailand
Q: This question came when my husband and I were discussing the film after we saw it. The rebel group seems to have been building up for some time, like a time bomb that would explode at any moment. Now, the western corporation in the film where Owen Wilson’s character Jack Dwyer works for, they and the others seem to be caught off guard by this. Is that the case or did they know but they choose to ignore it and just left the Dwyers to fend for themselves? I’m just wondering if there’s something sinister behind that?

JOHN: No, I think so many times in these situations… there’s always someone who wants to manage the situation. When we were shooting in Thailand, there was a coup developing while we were there. The people we’re working with was like, ‘oh no, it’s gonna be fine, it’s gonna be fine.’ And literally, we left and two weeks later there was a coup in Thailand. And looking back I thought this must’ve been worse because our friends and family from the United States were like ‘Are you guys being safe over there?’ and we’re like ‘oh yeah, everyone’s fine, it’s not as big a deal as everyone’s making it…’ But I think it was. It’s just people in that situation tries to manage and deny what’s happening. We’re also guilty of that ourselves.

Q: It’s like you were in denial then? It’s like you just brushed it off, oh it’s not as bad as it looks even thought it is.

JOHN: Yeah, I mean if we have this billions of dollars at stake building this waterworks so there can’t be something that would overthrow us. So that would be the corporate mentality.

DREW: Yeah, our partners when we were shooting the movie, Time Warners, they were like ‘oh this was just newspapers, selling newspapers, it’s nothing to worry about and you believe that, you said ‘yeah ok I’ll buy it.’ In terms of the fictional situation in the movie, not only were they not aware of when this was going to happen nor that there’s this level of unrest but they didn’t take them [the rebels] seriously and what they’re capable of and what they’re capable to do.

Q: Now, switching gears a bit about the casting, because I’m always interested in that topic whenever I interview filmmakers. The casting of Owen Wilson here reminds me of the casting of Steve Carell in Foxcatcher as they’re both known for their comedic work. How about Lake Bell who’s also known for being a comedian?

JOHN: She’s amazing. I think comic actors can do anyting. If you can do comedy you can do anyting. For Owen and Lake, I mean when we cast Owen people were like, ‘are you going to give him a crew cut and make him really tough?’ and we’re like ‘no, we want Owen from Marley & Me in this movie.’ And Lake Bell was sort of the same thing. I mean you don’t usually imagine Lake crawling through the mud like she did in this movie. We like that when people don’t usually imagine an actor doing a certain thing. It took a while to convince their agents… and we’re like ‘no, it’s got to be Lake.’

Q: So you already had these two lead actors in mind for the movie?

DREW: Yes, Owen absolutely. We had been building the character around Owen for several years. Things kept falling apart but he kept saying, ‘hey I’m still with you.’ Lake’s casting came much later. But by the time we saw In A World, we’re like ‘oh it has to be her.’

DowdleBros_int2

She’s also a writer too, she wrote In A World… 

JOHN: Yes she is and she’s brilliant.

DREW: And so is Owen. He’s a brilliant writer himself [he co-wrote three films with Wes Anderson including The Royal Tennenbaums] So to have two actors who knew how to write is such a huge asset for us.

So it’s like they’re allies in the filmmaking process as they can also give you input. 

JOHN: Absolutely, there’s nothing greater for a director than having a smart actor. I mean those two kids were also very intelligent kids. It helps so much when they’re thoughtful about what they’re doing.

Q: Yes I noticed that the kids were very believable in the movie. Usually kids can look bored in scenes of peril, but here they looked like they’re genuinely scared and upset.

JOHN: Yeah, they were amazing. We read hundreds and hundreds of girls but luckily we picked the right ones. [Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare played the two young siblings in the film]

DREW: Working with Lake too, made these kids worked so much better. They knew exactly what we need and what we’re trying to avoid. In the moment it really helps get that from them.

JOHN: From the moment she was on set, she immediately adopted those two girls. She grabbed them, put them on her lap and said, ‘from now on you’re my little turkeys.

DowdleBros_int3

Q: What is the biggest challenge filming in a foreign land (in Chiang Mai, Thailand) and display such treacherous conditions on screen? Even that rainy scene towards the end look quite real.

JOHN: Oh we used a rain machine on that scene towards the end but it only had either off or torential downpour, they didn’t have sprinkles [laughs]

Q: Any memorable moment you’d like to share from filming? 

DREW: The fire was perhaps the most memorable thing. It’s not so much about Thailand, there was an accidental fire that burned a building down. It was a pretty spectacular moment on the set.

JOHN: We were filming in this government office and when the tank shoots the wall, there was a beam that’s supposed to fall and it didn’t and it started on fire. I mean we’re able to get everyone out and thankfully everyone was safe.

DREW: It was the last take of the take and the actors loved being on set and we’re playing playbacks, I mean it was the end of the day anyway. But we’re supposed to shoot the next day and the whole building was up in flames. We’re like ‘oh no, is this gonna be the end of the movie?’

Q: But other than that, did everything else go as planned?

JOHN: Yeah we shoot the next day, we just picked a different location the show must go on, y’know. It actually was fun the next day as we had limited equipments, it’s like back to basic like in film school, like Gilligan’s Island where we have the coconuts, we’re just cobbling everything together [laughs]

DREW: We had like three cameras and one monitor that smells like barbeque. I mean we got everyone out [from the burning building] but we lost some equipments and we had to order a lot of new sound equipments from Bangkok, so it was a logistical challenge. But that was sort of our own doing.

In terms of the challenge of shooting, we’re really surprised how sophisticated the crew was, we had a Thai producing partner who had to deal with all the bureaucracy there which was significant so we didn’t have to deal much with it ourselves.

JOHN: It was a very smooth film.

DowdleBros_int1
Source: Pierce Brosnan Proboards

Q: How long did it take you to shoot the film?

DREW: 39 days.

JOHN: 39 days of shooting. So it was like, in one day we’re like ‘we have THIS much to do?’ So there’s a lot of big things every day. But thank God that all the crew… I mean one the things I found interesting is that in America, all the crews was so unionized that ‘oh this guy can touch the light but he can’t touch the stand, etc.’ there are so many rules as to who can do what. Whilst in Thailand, everyone is there to help whoever needs help. It’s like there’s a symphony of motion where things happened so smoothly. I mean, there’s camera crew helping the art department when the art department needed help… I don’t know, it’s just a wonderful atmosphere to make a film. We had the time of our lives filming there.

DREW: It was so cooperative and everyone moved so fast. We got the feeling that, I mean this is such a wonderful thing for us, we got the feeling that everyone on the crew really wanted this to be a good movie. I mean there were other times when they’d do a good job but they don’t really care about the movie, they’re just punching the clock, they’re not invested in a kind of creative emotional way. Here it seems like everyone there wanted to have their creative fingerprints on this so it was nice that they really cared.

[spoiler] Q: When you’re watching the film, some people might make the generalization that it’s the natives, who’s being portrayed as evil, chasing this innocent family that happens to be from the West. But then there’s the conversation between Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan’s character that seem to offset the perceived prejudice against the enemies/villains of the film. So is that a deliberate thing you did or a natural flow of the story?

DREW: It was very deliberate.

JOHN: Yeah, we really wanted the rebels in the city to have a reason. I think so often when something horrible happened, the tendencies just chug it as ‘oh these people are evil, those people are good’ but we wanted to ask the question why. Why would somebody do this, why would somebody act this way. Not to say that violence is acceptable but these are people who are fighting for their families, their lives and their futures, too. They’re trying to get rid of the foreign influences that were hurting them so we wanted to give a rationale for them.

DREW: Yeah, to use John’s example with Phnom Penh in ’75, y’know, I mean you can’t really justify what the Khmer Rouge did in any kind of rational level, I mean they were really really violent and took a lot of lives. But there’s a reason they were doing what they were doing in terms of the foreign involvement in their country, they’ve suffered through a lot of bombings in a war they had nothing to do with. There’s reasons that caused it and again, I mean again you can’t justify their reaction to it but there’s a source to it, they didn’t just do it because they liked to kill people or that they’re just bloodthirsty. Now that’s an extreme example. In our movie, it isn’t just ALL about the natives versus the foreigners, it’s a certain subset of the natives that were in a war path to get rid of the foreigners. There were locals who helped the family and there were locals that also got killed by the rebels.

JOHN: So the Dwyers family is caught in a crossfire. I mean our focus is the Dwyers, just like in Titanic, the focus is on Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s characters but it doesn’t mean you don’t care about everyone else in the movie. But the film has to have a focal point and for us, having gone to Thailand, my focus has to be from the family.

DowdleBros_int4

I’m curious about the process of casting Pierce Brosnan and how he worked with the other cast?

JOHN: We love the idea of Pierce here. Pierce is the kind of guy who could say and do anything and you’d just love him more. He could say the worst, most horrible things and you just love him more. I mean there’s a couple lines in this movie where I think Pierce might be the only human being alive who could deliver those lines and make you like him more. We like turning that James Bond thing on its head, I mean make him an alcoholic with a beard and sort of scuzzy, so we had a lot of fun. Pierce found this documentary Beware of Mr Baker about the [Cream and Blind Faith rock band] drummer Ginger Baker who’s sort of this old surly Brit, so Pierce brought that to the character.

DREW: He’s got so much charm, we grew up loving Pierce Brosnan so to have him in our movie was like a dream.

JOHN: To meet him for the first time was like, ‘ok come on, stay calm.’

So you both were a bit starstruck then?

Oh yeah we were.

AsAboveSoBelowPosterOk last question, about your last film As Above So Below, how did you manage to get the permission from the French government to film in the Paris catacomb?

DREW: That was not easy. I mean we shot in five different parts of the catacombs and some were easier than others, but the main one that we wanted which was the roughest but the most interesting looking, we got the permission literally the night before we’re supposed to shoot. Their bureaucracy doesn’t move very quickly but thankfully we got a French producing partner but we were the first film to shoot inside the catacombs.

JOHN: And probably the last [laughs] We were down there shooting for five weeks, it was a long time to be underground.

DREW: It was cold and wet. It was a lot colder in there than we thought even thought it was in the middle of Summer. It was freezing down there.

Surrounded by skulls too.

JOHN: Yeah, it’s funny there are some parts in No Escape where we found this small space and we thought it was the perfect location and some people were saying, ‘no this is way too small, you can’t film here’ and we’re like ‘we filmed inside the catacomb, this is tons of space!’ I mean once you shoot there, you can shoot anywhere.


Thank you to John & Drew for taking the time to chat!

Me_with_theDowdles

No Escape is in US theaters now and opens in the UK on Sept 4.


Thoughts on the interview and/or No Escape?

Film Spotlight + Mini Review of Action Thriller NO ESCAPE

NoEscapePoster

When I first saw the trailer of NO ESCAPE, it definitely promises to be a highly intense action adventure. I have to admit though I was quite surprised by the casting of two actors known mostly for their comedic work: Owen Wilson and Lake Bell, but hey, we’ve got James Bond er Pierce Brosnan in it, whom I associate with this types of films. But it’s the unlikely casting that got me intrigued. The fact that the film is set in South East Asia also piqued my interest.

Well, later this afternoon I’ll have the opportunity to interview the filmmakers behind the film, John Erick Dowdle who directed the film based on the script he wrote with his brother Drew Dowdle.

Film Synopsis:
An intense international thriller, NO ESCAPE centers on an American businessman (Wilson) as he and his family settle into their new home in Southeast Asia. Suddenly finding themselves in the middle of a violent political uprising, they must frantically look for a safe escape as rebels mercilessly attack the city.

It’s always awesome to see Minnesota filmmakers making movies in Hollywood!

Per IMDb, John grew up in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. After graduating St. Thomas Academy, an all-boys, military, Catholic high school, John moved to Iowa City to attend the University of Iowa. There he would make the move from writing to film. Two years later, John moved to Manhattan to attend NYU’s film program. After graduating NYU, John moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in filmmaking. John wrote and directed his first feature, Full Moon Rising (1996) just out of college. For his sophomore effort, The Dry Spell, John was joined by his brother Drew, who produced the film as John wrote, directed and edited. They now live in Los Angeles, working together as The Brothers Dowdle.

 


My mini review of NO ESCAPE

I must say that these types of thrillers are not usually something I’d see on the big screen as I have such feeble nerves. Given their horror background, there’s definitely nerve-wracking terror and sense of dread, as well as genuine jump scares in this edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Wilson_Bell_NoEscape

I think the less you know about the plot the better, and there’s definitely more emotional resonance than what the trailer/poster have you believe. I’m very impressed by Owen Wilson‘s casting, he’s not an ‘action hero’ or macho tough guy, he’s just an ordinary family man who’s driven to extremes to save his family. His ‘everyman’ persona definitely make you sympathize with him right away, and Lake Bell as his wife is quite convincing here as well, in a role I haven’t seen her portray before. Even the two little girls played by Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare are both terrific here. Kudos to John E. Dowdle for coaxing such a convincing performance out of them, to display authentic sense of terror for such young actors must’ve been very challenging.

How we feel about this survivor-thriller hinges on whether we care or not about Wilson’s family and this film definitely delivers. Pierce Brosnan‘s quite memorable here in a key role. He’s not in the film much but when he’s on screen, he’s definitely memorable. There’s a conversation between his and Wilson’s character that offer an interesting perspective on what’s going on. The film is billed as a coup-gone-horribly-wrong (as the title was going to be The Coup), but there’s more than meets the eye.
Pierce_Owen_NoEscape

The film is bloody but thankfully not gory. The filmmakers wisely choose to show the reaction after a violent act is committed, and what it means to them, rather the act itself. It makes it all the more effective and suspenseful. I think do horror/thriller fans would appreciate the filmmaking style of the Dowdles, and the convincing performances of the actors definitely immerse you in their predicament. Wilson and Bell certainly have dramatic chops on top of being talented comedians.

The scene on the roof is one of the craziest, most intense scenes I’ve ever seen. I think it’d be especially tense if you are a parent, as it’ll make you REALLY think about what you would do in such a dire situation.

The fact that the film was shot on location in Chiang Mai, Thailand certainly makes it look authentic. But the film is set in a fictitious SE Asia country as to not offend the Thai government. Given the recent bomb attack in that country though, it certainly adds to the nightmarish quality of the film. If you like the experience of having your nerve stretched to its snapping point, then this is a film for you.

3halfReels

NO ESCAPE opens in the US on 8/26 and in the UK on Sept 4.


Stay tuned for my interview post with the Dowdle Brothers!


What do you think of this film? Which film of the Dowdle Brothers have you seen?

FlixChatter Review: Million Dollar Arm (2014)

AshleyBanner

MillionDollarArmPoster

We all know Disney is capable of creating compelling stories, and Million Dollar Arm is no exception. While some may prematurely write this off as just another sports flick, they’d be missing the opportunity to see a fun, light-hearted film. Million Dollar Arm is based on a true story about two young Indian teenagers who were plucked from obscurity and thrown in to the sports spotlight.

JB (Jon Hamm) is a sports agent who once was mingling in the upper echelons of athletic society but now is struggling to sign clients and make ends meet. After losing out on a deal that would save his lifestyle and business, JB is offered a Hail Mary. Flipping between the channels, “Britain’s Got Talent” and a game of cricket catches JB’s eye. (Fun fact, the footage of BGT is of Susan Boyle’s iconic rendition of I Dreamed A Dream from Les Miserables.) JB, initially prejudiced against the game, is flabbergasted by the bowler’s speed, even if the form is a little nontraditional. After a creative stroke of genius and with the help of an investor, Hamm strikes a deal to run a talent contest in India. The two most promising candidates will not only have the chance to win $1,000,000 but also come to America, in order to be groomed for a professional baseball tryout. Hence the name: Million Dollar Arm.

As I said, the film is primarily light-hearted, but it also touches on the poverty in India. It doesn’t do a deep dive by any means, but goes from one sweep of the Taj Mahal and wider shots to show the disparaging shacks and murky communal waters. With that said, I was thrilled the film didn’t go in the opposite direction by showing uber cheesy Bollywood stereotypes. The brief glimpses we do see of India, gives a good sense of what the culture and people are actually like. Some parts are quite humorous (“we never bribe in India, we just pay money to bypass the system”) and others are very emotionally charged. The village, where the two boys are from, has what appears to be a religious dedication/blessing ceremony. We see traditional dancing, Hindu marking and the fact that it literally takes the entire village to properly see them on their way. These themes are carried throughout the entire film.

MillionDollarArmStills

The two young boys, Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) captured my heart. On one hand they were typical teenage boys interested in the goings on of the girl next door, but on the other hand showed maturity well beyond their years. These boys were thrown into something so far beyond their comfort level and experience, but they handled the pressure with grace. Another fun fact, we learn neither one of them like cricket and had never thrown a baseball in their entire lives!

I absolutely loved Brenda (Lake Bell), and thought she offered the perfect mix of comedic relief and concerned mother. She actually befriends the boys and learns about their struggles with not only learning American customs but also trying to perfect the techniques of baseball in only a few months’ time. We see her participating in yoga sessions and offering late night/early morning advice (she’s a night-time RN). Brenda is the moral compass of the film, while the boys are the heart and soul.

Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of Jon Hamm; however, I do enjoy Mad Men. I felt like his portrayal was too similar to Don Draper, and found his performance a bit distracting to watch on screen. I think someone like Aaron Eckhart may have been better suited for the role. Eckhart has proven he can play the suave jackal and redeeming father figure (think Thank You For Smoking). With that said, it was fun to watch Hamm’s character arc from selfish ladies’ man to surrogate father.

Overall, this movie does not disappoint, and offers a little something for everyone. And, as a bonus, the score and/or soundtrack was super fun. The sound was a hip hop/Bollywood fusion. Million Dollar Arm is humorous, serious and, even though it’s a true story, will have you on the edge of your seat!

four reels


PostByAshley


What do you think of Million Dollar Arm? 

Five new-to-me actors I’d love to see more of – based on 2013 viewings

Since I started last year, I’m going to make this post an annual thing (well, for as long as I have this blog that is). I mentioned in the first post that one of the joys of watching movies is discovering new talents. Again, I may not necessarily love the film they appear in, but the actor(s) in question could still make an impression to me to make the list. The obvious case for me this year is last year’s Honorable Mention Oscar Isaac (who in hindsight should’ve been on my MAIN list) in Inside Llewyn Davis. I’m not terribly fond of the film but I LOVE his performance and I’d love to see more of him in Hollywood.

So like last year, I’d like to focus on those I either wasn’t aware of prior to 2013, or that for some reason I just didn’t notice them until last year. Some of these actors have been working steadily and relatively well-known to some, but they were ‘obscure’ to me until recently. It’s perfect timing that I had just read the BAFTA Rising Star nominees earlier this week, and a couple of their nominees make my Honorable Mentions.

FiveNewFaves2013

In any case, based on my 2013 viewings (not exclusive to movies released last year) , here are five new-to-me actors I’d like to see working more in Hollywood.

[In alphabetical order]

Riz Ahmed

FiveNewFaves_AhmedI had never heard of Riz Ahmed before but apparently the British Pakistani from Wembley London is a pretty well-known actor and rapper. Well he didn’t rap in the movie I saw him in, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but he gave a pretty soulful and affecting performance as a Pakistani man pursuing the American dream. I was pretty mesmerized by the 31-year-old, though apparently he also had a bit part in Michael Fassbender’s swashbuckling actioner Centurion in 2010.

What’s Next: Well according to IMDb, he’s got supporting roles in Nightcrawler and Violent Talent, not sure yet about the release dates. I hope he’d get a leading role again in the future as he definitely has the talent AND gravitas to pull it off.

Lake Bell

FiveNewFaves_BellApparently miss Bell has been acting in various movies and TV shows like The Practice and Boston Legal, but I haven’t seen a single film of hers until her directing debut where she also starred. The film was this comedic gem In A World … which I saw at the MSP Film Festival in a sold-out showing.

The leggy and beautiful actress could’ve been a fashion model (and she probably was at some point), but she made herself to be a disheveled mess in her own movie, but yet she’s so fun to watch! I hope she does more comedies as she’s so naturally goofy and has quite a knack for physical comedy. As a voice over talent trying to break into a male-dominated industry, she proves her mettle both in front and behind the camera. I love that she explored a plot that hasn’t been explored much but definitely ripe for a hilarious comedy!

What’s Next: I just saw her in the trailer for sports drama Million Dollar Arm with Jon Hamm, and she’s also up for a thriller with Owen Wilson (??) and Pierce Brosnan called The Coup. But what I’m looking forward to is Bell teaming up with Simon Pegg in British comedy Man Up, now I don’t know what the premise is yet, but it sounds like fun!

Daniel Brühl

FiveNewFaves_BruhlNow, I’ve already been aware of Brühl from his memorable supporting role as a Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds. But everyone’s performance in that movie was practically eclipsed by that Austrian Christoph Waltz. But this year, I was impressed by the 35-year-old German actor in not one but THREE films: RUSH, The Fifth Estate, and Joyeux Noël. I’m thrilled that he’s nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as Niki Lauda in RUSH, but hopefully Oscar won’t overlook him.

There is a quiet charisma about him that I like, not to mention his versatility. Apparently he’s part Spanish as his full name is Daniel César Martín Brühl González Domingo (wow!) and he’s fluent in German, Spanish and French on top of English, of course. No wonder he’s able to pull off different accent, which is key to being offered roles of various nationalities.

What’s Next: I saw him in the John le Carré’s spy thriller A Most Wanted Man with Philip Seymour Hoffman, but looks like he’d have a more prominent role in the drama The Face of An Angel with Kate Beckinsale.

///

David Oyelowo

FiveNewFaves_OyelowoHe’s one of the trio of British-African actors I’m really loving lately, along with Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor. I first noticed him in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and then The Help, but last year I saw him in Jack Reacher and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Now, it’s the latter that REALLY made me take notice as the 37-year-old actor somehow can pull off playing a teenager and college freshman believably. Not only that, the Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) graduate also has the on-screen charisma to match his natural acting talent.

Like many British talents, Oleyowo are often mistaken for being an American as he effortlessly pulls off various accent. In fact, most of the roles I saw him in was him playing an American. Many Brits might recognize him from earlier season of Spooks (MI-5) as well, so he’s perhaps one of the most successful Spooks-alum as Hollywood’s taken notice of him.

What’s Next: He’s got no less than seven projects listed on his IMDb page, yay! One of them is Interstellar. But what I’d love to see is him in leading roles as he surely deserves it. Sounds like he’s the protagonist in Nightingale and Five Nights in Maine, and a supporting role (rumored) in Jurassic World.
///

Andrea Riseborough

FiveNewFaves_RiseboroughWhen I first saw Riseborough in Disconnect, I was blown away by her performance… only to be floored later on when I realized she’s British!! I’d say her role as an ambitious journalist was one of the most grossly-overlooked performances of 2012! Later in the year I saw her in OBLIVION where she uses her natural accent and she was truly the best performer in that entire movie!

The third film I saw her in, Shadow Dancer with Clive Owen, she plays an IRA member-turned-informant and pulls off an Irish accent beautifully. She reminds me of my favorite actress of all time Cate Blanchett, who has the same chameleon-like ability with not only her looks but her accent, demeanor, etc. The 32-year-old English actress was trained at Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), so I guess we can expect quality work from this future thespian.

What’s Next: She’s part of an ensemble cast of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s upcoming film Birdman (also starring Emma Stone, Ed Norton and Naomi Watts), as well as The Silent Storm with Damian Lewis. Hopefully she’s got a bigger role in the latter.


Honorable Mentions:

These five names did an impressive performance last year, though two of them (Robinson and Nyong’o had not acted before). Poulter and Nyong’o are one of this year’s BAFTA Rising Star nominees year’s nominees, too.

Tye Sheridan (Mud)

Somehow I didn’t notice him much as Brad Pitt’s son in The Tree of Life, but here he’s definitely memorable. As one of the two young boys in MUD who befriended a man with a shady past (Matthew McConnaughey), Sheridan’s character was the heart of the film. I’d love to see what else he’s got going on next.

Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

It’s definitely one of the most talked-about performance of the year but her sensational performance hopefully won’t be a one-hit wonder. The Mexican-born Kenyan actress was a graduate of the Yale University School of Drama’s Acting program and she has a pretty extensive stage credits. She’s starring with Liam Neeson next in the actioner Non-Stop [sigh], let’s hope Hollywood finds a project worthy of her talent soon enough.

Nick Robinson (The Kings of Summer)

Soulful. That’s how I’d describe this newcomer. Though it’s his feature-film debut, the 18-year-old has a certain confidence and charisma to carry off a leading role. He also seems wise beyond his years which made him so perfect in this coming-of-age tale.

Will Poulter (We’re The Millers)

Here’s another young Brit who manage to fool me as an American. I totally forgot he was in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader but the tall, lanky 20-year-old was absolutely convincing as an geeky American teenager who somehow got entangled with a small-time pot dealer pretending to be a family vacationing in Mexico. His rendition of TLC’s Waterfall alone proves that this kid has amazing comic timing, it’s worth seeing just for that part (I’m sure it’s on Youtube).

James Badge Dale (Iron Man 3, Parkland)

Here’s another actor who I’ve never heard of before then suddenly I saw three of his movies in one year (same as Riseborough above). I didn’t really remember him in World War Z but he was definitely memorable in Iron Man 3 and Parkland, two VERY different roles that he pulled off nicely. In the former, he somehow reminds me a bit of Robert Patrick in Terminator 2, though perhaps not quite as iconic. As in Parkland, as Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother Robert, the 35-year-old displayed his dramatic chops. I hope he won’t get stuck playing supporting roles in the future.


Thoughts on any of these actors? Are you a fan of their work?

Indie Review: Lake Bell’s debut film ‘In A World’

Two of the films I was impressed with at MSPfest happen to be directed by women. One was Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is as far away from this one in terms of tone and subject matter, but I’d highly recommend both. I like the fact that this one is a comedy, it’s quite rare to see a well-written comedies these days that don’t contain overly foul language and/or crude sexual/bathroom humor. Thankfully, this debut film from Lake Bell contains neither, but it definitely delivers the laughs and then some.

In A World (2012)

InaWorld_LakeBell

An underachieving vocal coach is motivated by her father, the king of movie-trailer voice-overs, to pursue her aspirations of becoming a voiceover star. Amidst pride, sexism and family dysfunction, she sets out to change the voice of a generation.

As someone who watch at least half a dozen movie trailers a week, the premise definitely appeals to me. In fact, earlier today I saw a trailer of Inescapable that pretty much had this cheesy VO narration that tells you the plot of the story. The protagonist of this movie, Carol (Lake Bell), lives under the shadow of her voice-over star dad Sam Solomon (Fred Melamed). After being kicked out of her dad’s house to accommodate for his new young wife — which Carol refers to as his groupie — she has to pack her bags and live with her sister.

As a vocal coach, Carol often has to coach certain celebrities when they have to adopt a certainly adopt a certain accent, but voicing a trailer is still pretty much an elite boys club. An opportunity suddenly presents itself when a big studio is looking for a voice over for a quadrilogy blockbuster sci-fi franchise and with the help of her friend Louis (Demetri Martin), she just might have a chance to break into the glass ceiling of that industry. The whole VO competition involving her dad and another VO star Gustav, an eccentric douche bag who takes a shine on Carol, provide most of the laughs. Ken Marino is a hoot as Gustav, a familiar face though I can’t quite put my finger on what movies I’ve seen him in. There’s also a comical side plot about Carol’s sister marital infidelity involving a seductive hunk in the form of Irish hunk Jason O’Mara. Seriously who could resist him with his natural Irish brogue 😉

InAWorld_still

This is the first time I’ve seen Lake Bell, though I’ve heard of her before this movie. She not only star in this but also wrote and directed her debut film, and I must say I’m impressed! She’s got excellent comic timing and a knack for accents, and the story is surprisingly engaging and downright hilarious. The tall and svelte Bell could make a living as a model but she really made herself to look very plain here as a perpetually-disheveled tomboy whose ‘signature look’ is a denim overall. But she’s instantly likable and she surround herself with equally affable and amusing characters.

It was fun to see cameos from Geena Davis, Eva Longoria and Cameron Diaz as well, the scene of Longoria struggling to say just one simple line with a British accent had me in stitches! This movie premiered in Sundance a few months ago and I hope it’ll get some decent distribution in the coming months. I’m glad I got to see this comedic gem, and it’s one I actually don’t mind seeing again.


Thoughts on IN A WORLD and/or Lake Bell?