Author Archives: Cassandra Hsiao
Joy may not be filled with Christmas cheer—what it does have, however, is one of the toughest underdog fights to the top, not to mention excellent performances, a surreal touch, and a 1990’s classy wardrobe to kill for.
Joy tells the story of a female entrepreneur facing every hardship imaginable. In the scrambling chaos to make ends meet, Joy returns to the creativity that fueled her childhood and invents designs for a self-wringing mop. From there, the climb in the business world is arduous and heart-wrenching as Joy gets thrown to her feet again and again, but ultimately it’s her wits and stubborn streak that wins her the day—and the audience’s heart.
David O. Russell’s partly fictionalized spin on the real-life tale of entrepreneur Joy Mangano can be off-putting at times with the juxtaposition of an inconsistent dreamlike tone and the real-life hardships women face everyday. The choice of Joy’s grandma as the narrator is questionable as well as other elements that seem like remnants from a leftover script. Joy’s family is so eccentric that they become caricatures that alienate the audience in their mainly functional, antagonistic roles. However, there’s still much to love with a character that surmounts all odds and truly does not know the meaning of giving up. Joy has ever-faithful support from her best friend, her ex-husband, and her children, but at the end of the day Joy is the sole victor and author of her success.
Similarly, even with a talented ensemble cast, Jennifer Lawrence shoulders much of the movie herself as the only truly fleshed out character. She has an immediate transparency that allows the audience to see her gears spinning and read her every determined thought. Robert De Niro plays his flawed-to-a-fault character with subtle humor, and Bradley Cooper gives an intense performance of the business executive who kick starts Joy’s business.
Though predictable in its girl-power and David-versus-Goliath themes, Joy focuses on the tenacity and hard work in the journey more than the feel-good destination—an important movie for anyone with big dreams.
First Published on Crixit.com
Director Joe Wright attempts a steampunk-fantasy tale in Pan, to mixed results. Orphan Peter (played charmingly by newcomer Levi Miller) discovers he is destined to overthrow pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who will do anything to get his hands on fairy dust. Peter, on a personal mission to find his mother, teams up with hookless Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and the feisty Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) to defeat the pirates and save the fairies. For a PG movie, Pan is surprisingly dark with little regard for both life and plot, with boys falling to their deaths and natives bizarrely exploding into color powder when they die.
The idea of Neverland itself requires the suspension of disbelief—but Pan is simply asking too much with its overt use of CGI. And there was that odd (though strangely rejuvenating) scene of Lost Boys singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” even though the story supposedly takes place during World War II. Other unexplained elements include caverns of green calcite fairy dust, fish in the sky, and Cara Delevingne-mermaids (every mermaid has her face). These are the results of the half-cooked plot that ultimately fails its quest to explain how Pan came to be. Perhaps filmmakers are leaving space for a sequel, but it feels a bit of a cop-out when we never learn exactly how Hook and Pan became such enemies.
The cast is mismatched, with the exceptions of truly Pan-esque Levi Miller and evil, comedic Hugh Jackman. Rooney Mara as the fearless warrior is a marvel to watch, even though she’s not quite perfect for the role of a tribal princess. Garrett Hedlund strikes me more as an unoriginal Indiana Jones/Han Solo than a Hook.
My original love of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan will forever remain—and Pan, on the bright side, has furnished that love with Miller’s near-perfect embodiment of Pan and spectacular overtures composed by the talented John Powell. It’s just a pity Joe Wright’s reimagining of the legend’s beginning falls short of the breathtaking wonder Neverland is supposed to evoke.
First Published At Crixit.com
With the solid success of The Maze Runner, Scorch Trials is bound to attract a plethora of movie-viewers—and my guess is, only a portion of that audience will have read the books. The rest are most likely in the dark about sinister organization WCKD and their purpose.
Luckily, Scorch Trials picks up literally five minutes after the end of the first movie. Thomas and co. are flown over to a “safe” compound where everything is pristine and a luxury for the Gladers—food, clean clothes, a safe place to sleep. Thomas, the rebel he is, has intuition akin to Peter Parker’s spidey sense—he perceives danger before he sees it. He convinces the gang to make an escape out into the Scorch, the baked sandy version of the world as we know it. On their journey to find out more about WCKD, they face brutal conditions of the wastelands, encounter Cranks (people who’ve been infected with a disease called the Flare), and team up with other rebels who plan to take down WCKD. But when they realize WCKD’s sole goal, morals become murky and suddenly not everyone is on board with golden child Thomas.
The movie feels disorienting—even more so for those who haven’t read the books. Perhaps this stems from a perceived change in tone (cue the zombie apocalypse-esque Crank chase/scare scenes) or an unconvincing plot (the book wasn’t too organized either). For example, Thomas must have some serious leadership skills to convince his friends to leave a safe house unarmed and unprepared to cross the burning Scorch in search of “people in the mountains.” The filmmakers made some key choices that deviated from the book that I believe enhance the storyline, but there are plot holes that take away from the viewers’ satisfaction.
Apart from that, the action scenes were intensely thrilling, from Thomas’s baseball slide as seen in the trailer to escaping Cranks to gun fights. Well done, Wes Ball. The director is adept with the big explosions as well as the metaphorical mini-fireworks: sparks in the small moments and character development. This can be attributed to the cast’s undeniable talent and likeability, which ends up being the Scorch Trials’ anchor among all the commotion and disorientation. I’ve always loved these characters from the bottom of my heart and with every interaction my heart melts a bit. Thomas and Teresa, Thomas and Minho, Minho and Newt, Thomas and Brenda, Thomas and Newt—the character pairings are endless and I love every single relationship (not to mention the actors themselves—Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, etc.).
The score adds to the good fun and adrenaline rush. Even though the Cranks rely mostly on jump-scares and the horror gross factor, it’s still exhilarating to experience, though probably not as enjoyable for your younger brother or sister. Parents beware.
First Published At Crixit.com
Armed with sharp wit, classy actors, and a timeless feel that pays homage to the spy genre, Man From U.N.C.L.E. is retro-slick and surprisingly funny at times. The plot’s bare bones may sound familiar—childish almost—but when it’s brought to life on the big screen with offbeat quirks by a talented cast and crew, it’s a thrill to behold.
Set in the ever-beguiling charm of the 60’s, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), America’s top spy, is forced to work with Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), member of the Russian KGB. Their differences are put aside as they try to work in tandem with Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a German mechanic, to defeat a criminal organization headed by the glamorous Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). However, the Cold War has put strains on the spies’ relationship in both dire manners (which country has the power in the end?) and juvenile ways (Kuryakin repeatedly shows up Solo with more advanced gadgets, to his chargin).
The script throws mini-curveball after curveball—Director Guy Ritchie knows how to pace his story and keep viewers’ attention in both the exhilarating action scenes and the more frequent good-ole-classic spy social mixers, where talk, not blows, is exchanged. The pattern the film falls into smacks of smart aleck, showing us a chipped scene and filling in the blanks later. Some may find the reveals tiring, but it held my attention for what felt like a long 2-hour movie—long in the best way possible, as I hoped for more scenes, more surprises, and got what I hoped for.
Perhaps it’s the allure of the time period and the class the characters carry themselves with. I’m a sucker for beautiful sets and high fashion—but I think it was the way the actors took command of their environment and wore their costumes with grace that captivated me. Cavill is classily handsome and sophisticated, Hammer plays the role of a Russian spy well, Vikander has an undeniable presence, and Debicki commands every scene she’s in. Gaby’s character I’ve absolutely fallen in love with—she comes close to topping my Favorite Female Characters list (Black Widow is first).
Even the comic book-ish split screens and overly dramatic music added flare rather than cheese to the movie. I’d say, mission accomplished. Is it too much to hope for a sequel?
First Published At Crixit.com
Whether you consider yourself an artist or not, everyone will be able to appreciate some part of the work and imagination shown in Paul Taylor: Creative Domain. The film follows the composition of legendary choreographer Paul Taylor’s 133th dance, titled “Three Dubious Memories.” It’s an exclusive glimpse into a mysterious, elusive artist’s mind as he commands the attention of the dance room with just a few words. He gives the dancers space to contribute their talents and ideas, inspiring them to embody core emotions. Every rehearsal presents new challenges, such as off-center blocking or balance struggles, but there is something magical about watching a master slowly walk through the same movements as his dancers.
I love the arts. At the core of dance lies the same foundation for the rest of the arts—telling a story and evoking emotion in the audience. It is fascinating to see the meticulous notes Mr. Taylor enters rehearsal with and the fact that he allows enough scope for inspired changes and improvised collaboration. I admire the dancers’ complete dedication to bringing his vision to life.
At the end, viewers get to see the whole dance performed on stage. It has width, depth, and room for interpretation. The dance changed emotions as fast as a light switch and I can only imagine what it must be like to experience that feeling live. What hit me the hardest, however, was that out of the 133 dances Mr. Taylor choreographed, he was only truly happy with one. Paul Taylor: Creative Domain makes me want to be a better artist in every way possible.
First Published At Crixit.com
SHOW AND PROVE is a powerful, gritty book that is told from two different perspectives — Smiles’ and Nike’s, two teens in the South Bronx in 1983. While some big changes are going on in the world, the two best friends are seeing changes come to their own lives. Not only is Smiles involved in a summer camp counselor rivalry with Cookie, but he is also thinking about joining the Five Percenters. Nike has struggles of his own — he likes Sara, a sweet new camp counselor, plus he wants to win the breakdancing competition and has to face his own ignorance. As the summer wears on, the two find purpose in their lives as they overcome struggles and rethink their assumptions about people in their community.
Author Sofia Quintero knows her characters and the world of 1983 Bronx through and through. She jumps right into the characters’ slang and voices, and I initially had read it especially slowly and carefully to anchor myself in their world. After a few chapters though, it became easy to picture Nike and Smiles — and what vibrant, unique and flawed characters they are. Readers can’t but help love them for who they are, even with their multiple shortcomings. The way that Nike and Smiles transform throughout the book is incredibly rewarding to experience; the characters feel so real that I feel pride for how much they’ve grown.
Though the novel is set more than three decades ago, the story feels like it could happen today. Perhaps with the turbulent world we live in today, the themes of friendship, respect, passion, compassion and countering prejudice are all the more important and relevant. SHOW AND PROVE is an instant classic with all the staying power and youthful vigor of hip-hop for generations to come.
First Published @Teenreads
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl follows Greg Gaines who has survived four years in the dangerous landmines of high school by befriending but not sticking to different cliques. He remains widely invisible, eating lunch in a teacher’s room with best friend Earl, with whom he makes terrible movie parodies in their free time. When Greg is forced by his mom to befriend Rachel, a girl with leukemia, his life is turned upside down as he stumbles through the awkwardness of teenage years.
Initially, I had a mixed reaction to the film, but the more I thought about it, the more it grew on me. It’s a breath of fresh air to see something so candid and honest in its depiction of how teenagers react to different things, not to mention the platonic friendship between Greg and Rachel. What’s wonderful is that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl doesn’t try to be something it’s not. It doesn’t aspire to deliver a life-changing message or whack you over the head with morals. Instead, it effortlessly avoids stereotypes and strips the fluff. You experience emotions you can’t quite put into words as you watch quirky characters trying to put their scrambled thoughts into words.
The reviewer at Variety called the film’s hilarity “a surprise.” Clearly he did not read the book. Fans of the book will be thrilled that many of the book’s off-the-wall-hilarious lines made it into the movie. With added details that—do I dare say it—make the plot even stronger, the movie will please readers and non-readers alike.
The acting is superb. It’s completely believable that Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke and RJ Cyler are actually Greg, Rachel, and Earl consecutively with their boy/girl-next-door persona. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon showcases his unique style in the skillful camera work and the way each scene is shot. Although this sometimes detracts from the character interactions, it adds another dimension to the film that is a bit meta, as Greg is a filmmaker after all. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl might just be a cult classic favorite in generations to come.
First Published At Crixit.com
It’s impossible not to love everything about this book. BECAUSE YOU’LL NEVER MEET ME is told completely in letters between two boys who’ve never met. In fact, if they did meet, one of them would most likely die. The book starts off with a letter from Ollie, a boy who lives in the middle of the woods, isolated from society with very good reason: He is allergic to electricity. Moritz, on the other hand, has an electric pacemaker. On top of that, he is eye-less and has mastered the art of echolocation to navigate his way around school. Their letters convey their unique stories — Ollie’s relationship with a girl named Liz and Moritz’s troubles with a bully. Through their correspondence, the two find both friendship and hope even in the tragedy that tied their pasts together.
I have a love-hate relationship with epistolary novels. Either they are beyond fantastic and use the format wisely or they sound overly pretentious. I’m happy to say that Leah Thomas’s debut novel is exceedingly well written. Every letter shows something new about Ollie or Moritz and the characters’ voices couldn’t be stronger or more clear-cut to the reader. Ollie’s quirky optimism and the thawing of Moritz’s cynical heart are truly inspiring, not to mention that their letters are filled with humor and some great one-liners.
BECAUSE YOU’LL NEVER MEET ME is also incredibly self-aware. With the element of a mysterious laboratory past and the two characters’ weird circumstances, the reader can’t help but draw comparisons to Matt Murdock’s sightless superpower or Electro’s relationship with electricity — but the book beats you to it by actually bringing up the Marvel comic books. It takes a little suspension of disbelief, since the novel has the tone of YA contemporary fiction but soon dips into sci-fi. However, the poignancy and surprising truths about life help ground the plot.
The danger of writing in letter format is that one character’s story may overpower the other. But what surprised me is that Thomas makes each and every chapter emotionally greater than the one before. The best part is, you’re truly living the life of either Ollie or Moritz as they recount their stories to each other. You have been warned, reader: you’ll fall in love with these strangely wonderful characters and their bizarre lives from the first page.
First Published @ Teensread.com
If you combine the grim nature of fairytales with a paranormal YA vibe and set it in 17th-century France, you end up with CRIMSON BOUND, and somehow, it all works out beautifully, like a layered, detailed painting. Inspired by classics such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Girl Without Hands” and “Hansel and Gretel,” CRIMSON BOUND tells the story of Rachelle, a headstrong girl who encounters a creature called forestborn, a former human with strong, invincible, murderous powers.
By committing a terrible crime, Rachelle becomes bloodbound, one step closer to transforming into forestborn. Rachelle attempts to atone for her mistakes by defending the kingdom with her inhuman speed and skill. When she is forced to guard the King’s son Armand, whom she despises, she forces Armand to help her find a sword that will save the world from the god of the forestborn, the Devourer. As the two begin to explore the realm, they discover long-forgotten magic, conspiracies and love in unexpected places.
What a refreshing dip back into the fantasy world! Though the above synopsis may sound confusing, author Rosamund Hodge paces the narrative perfectly so that it doesn’t take more than a few pages to get the gist of the unique magic employed in the novel. Hodge’s world-building is well-constructed and creative. Her characters are also quite unlike those in any other YA fantasy novel I’ve read, with Rachelle’s self-hatred, Armand’s wryness and Erec’s deadly playfulness.
CRIMSON BOUND is a page-turner with the unpredictability of a rollercoaster. There were reveals and plot twists that actually sent a jolt down my spine and made me rethink everything that had happened leading up to that moment. The spin on well-known fairytales is fantastic, especially when all the stories meld effortlessly together. Hodge goes back and forth with ease between a folklore-ish, Brothers Grimm-style voice and a modern tone that fits the protagonist well. CRIMSON BOUND is a surprising, one-of-a-kind fantasy novel with the epic battle of good and evil, where perhaps the “good” may not be righteous.
First Published @ teensread.com
When terminally ill Dr. Cas Pepper meets Dylan Morgan, a young woman with big dreams stuck between a rock and a hard place, no matter how he tries to shake her, he can’t. Dylan hitches a ride with Cas on his journey “west,” where she plans to become a published writer and he plans to enjoy the last part of his life. Their relationship, though rocky at first with Cas pleading that Dylan would shut up, fits the unusual-but-sweet friendship cliché as the two find each other in their loneliness.
I usually can’t stand “roadtrip” stories, but Cas & Dylan was so skillfully written I couldn’t help but love the movie. The poster looks like it’s advertising some hokey “Western” comedy, and while there is a lot of Bluegrass Country music played, it’s much more than that. Screenwriter Jessie Gabe dared to bring the audiences to unexpected destinations in moral dilemmas and serious content matter such as suicide, death, and abuse. Gabe manages to balance that out with dry humor infused in the banter between Cas and Dylan.
The film relies entirely on the two actors’ shoulders—and they pulled it off brilliantly. Tatiana Maslany (Dylan) delivers every line with perfect sass, wit, and optimism—I wished I had even a fraction of Dylan’s daring spunk and spontaneity. Richard Dreyfuss’s performance as Cas brought tears to my eyes even after the credits stopped rolling. It wasn’t an easy ending, and that is what makes the movie different from the Hollywood tropes it employs. Suitable for older teens due to language and heavy themes.
First Published At Crixit.com