Bianca (Mae Whitman), a high school student, attends a party where Wesley (Robbie Amell), a popular jock who was once her childhood friend, tells her that she's a DUFF, a.k.a. a Designated Ugly Fat Friend, and that her best friends, Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), are merely using her to make them look more attractive. In exchange for helping him study to improve his grades, Wesley agrees to help Bianca get a make-over and to teach her how to pick up guys. The more time they spend together, the more his shallow ex-girlfriend, Madison (Bella Thorne), gets jealous because she wants him back.
Based on the novel by Kody Keplinger, The DUFF lacks the bite and quotability of Mean Girls, but it's at least the best high school comedy since Easy A. Kudos to casting directors Angela Demo and Barbara J. McCarthy for helping to pick Mae Whitman as the lead. Whitman has natural charisma, panache great comedic timing and impressive acting chops much like Ellen Page did in Juno. She deserves to be a star. When it comes to plot and character development, though, The DUFF offers no surprises. Everything can be telegraphed from the first act, but there's nothing inherently wrong with that because the film always feels energetic without becoming dull or boring. Allison Janney briefly adds a few laughs as Bianca's mother as does Ken Jeong playing the high school principal. They both seem to be having fun in their roles.
The screenplay by Josh A. Cagan finds just the right balance between comedy, romance and drama. While there's not much in terms of subtlety or room for interpretation, nor does it pass the Bechdel test (this is a Hollywood film, after all!), but the film does have more than a few laughs along with genuinely heartfelt moments, and it ultimately sends a positive, inspirational message to all the DUFFs out there. Hopefully, The DUFF will help to put Mae Whitman on the map so that we can see her charisma onscreen again.
Good Day, Ramón
Ramón (Kristyan Ferrer), a young man, lives with his single mother, Rosa (Arcelia Ramírez), and grandmother, Esperanza (Adriana Barraza), in a small Mexican town. He struggles to find work to support his family, so instead of turning to a life of crime, he immigrates to Germany in hopes of working for his friend's aunt. When he can't find the aunt at the address his friend had given him, he's left wandering the streets homeless without being able to speak a word of German. Fortunately, he meets a kind stranger, Ruth (Ingeborg Schöner), who agrees take care of him as he were her very own son.
Every once in a while comes a film that combines arthouse and mainstream qualities while keeping you moved, entertained and uplifted. Good Day, Ramón is such a film. Writer/director Jorge Ramírez Suarez tells a story that's part of a familiar formula, but it's much more important how he tells that story. Fortunately, the story here feels fresh because it's told with warmth, tenderness and complex, well-development characters. Writer/director Jorge Ramírez Suarez truly cares about his characters because each one of them, even the supporting ones, have their own chance to shine. Moreover, the performances from both the Mexican and German actors are all superb with not a single performance that doesn't ring true. Kristyan Ferrer resonates charisma and warmth while Ingeborg Schöner gives a quietly moving, well-nuanced performance. One particularly poignant scene is when Ruth vividly recalls the memory of how her parents had bravely hid Jews during the Holocaust, and how the Nazis shot her father. Ramón doesn't know what she's saying, yet there's still a connection between them. Suarez wisely doesn't milk that scene for too much sentiment or schmaltz. The power of Ruth's words are enough to generate emotional resonance. Even the delightful scenes of Ramón teaching Ruth and a neighbor, Karl (Rüdiger Evers), to dance merengue remain brief enough without overstaying their welcome. In other words, Suarez understands that less is more, and he trusts your intelligence/imagination as an audience member especially given the fact that he avoids resorting to flashbacks when Ruth speaks about her past.
To balance all of the serious drama, Suarez includes some very funny comic relief and wit, some of which comes unexpectedly, so none of those surprises to be spoiled here to ensure your maximum enjoyment. Suarez grasps that the friendship between Ramón and Ruth remains at the film's very core. You'll find yourself thoroughly engaged by how they bond and help one another despite their many differences. A less talented writer/director would've probably veered off into a distracting tangent or two, i.e. by including a romance between Ramón and the young woman at the grocery store, but Suarez knows better. Good Day, Ramón tackles many profound issues ranging from friendship to compassion and joie de vivre while never becoming preachy, corny or dull. It's a genuinely heartfelt and delightful crowd-pleaser that will make your spirit soar.
Hot Tub Time Machine 2
McFarland, USA Shadows
Triumph in the Skies
Branson Cheung (Louis Koo Tin-lok) has just taken over the airline company Skylette that his father owned. He serves as both a pilot and an advisor for the airline's commercial which stars pop star TM (Sammi Cheng) and Captain Samuel Tong (Francis Ng). They soon start romancing one another. It happens to be that Cassie (Charmaine Sheh), Branson's ex-girlfriend, works as a flight attendant on a flight that Branson pilots. Meanwhile, Captain Jayden Koo (Julian Cheung) who used to co-own Skylette airlines now pilots a private jet. He falls in love with Kika (Kuo Tsai Chieh), a woman he meets on one of his flights.
Writer/co-director Matt Chow does a great job of combines three different love stories in a way that's coherent instead of confusing and convoluted. You can easily predict where each of the storylines are headed, but there are a few surprisingly tender moments along the way. Kika, for instance, comes across as shallow at first, but there's more to her than meets the eye as you (or Captain Jayden Koo) get to know her. Some of Captain Samuel Tong's scenes on the set of the commercial are quite funny---Francis Ng is pretty good at physical comedy, it seems.
Given that Triumph in the Skies is based on a TV series of the same name, it's worth noting that Matt Chow and co-director Wilson Yip provide the film with slick visuals and an interesting use of colors that help make the experience aesthetically pleasing on the eyes. The same can be said about the use of music. Although the film does deal with serious themes, it's handled in a light way with fast enough pacing that makes it an entertaining albeit somewhat slight date movie.
Isabel (Maria Marull), a model, learns upon boarding an airplane that she's not the only one who knows someone named Gabriel Pasternak. Thus begins the first story, "Pasternak," among a total of six separate, yet thematically connected stories. To reveal more plot details about the opening story would spoil its many surprises. "The Rats", is about waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) who contemplates exacting revenge on a customer (Cesar Bordon) with the assistance of the restaurant's cook (Rita Cortese). In "Road to Hell,"
Diego (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a business man driving an Audi, expresses road rage against another driver, (Walter Donado), only to find the table has turned on him in more ways than he (or you) could possible imagine. Ricardo Darin stars as a demolition engineer in "Bombita." His life gradually spirals into chaos and tragedy, a la Falling Down, as he expresses his anger and frustration toward the company that towed his car. In "The Bill," Mauricio (Oscar Martinez), a wealthy man, discovers that his son, Santiago (Alan Daicz), was involved hit-and-run accident that killed a pregnant woman, so he promises Jose (German de Silva), his groundskeeper, monetary gains if he came forward to take the blame instead of his son. The situation gets out of hand as others, including his own lawyer, wants his own share of the deal. Finally, there's "Till Death Do Us Part," about a bride, Romina (Erica Rivas), who learns that the groom, Ariel (Diego Gentile), has been cheating on her with a woman who's also a guest at their wedding.
Writer/director Damián Szifron brilliantly infuses each story with comedy and drama while walking a fine line between comedy and tragedy. He truly has a very dark sense of humor which is apparent from the very first story, "Pasternak," which also happens to be the one that generates the most laughs thereby hooking you right into the film as you anticipate more brilliance. The other stories have various degrees of comedy and drama/tragedy, with "The Bill" being the least comical, but that doesn't make it any less biting than the others. Szifron's major strength is his knack for being perceptive about human nature and how volatile it can be. One small incident can awaken the beast within someone who may never have exhibited aggressive behavior in the past. What's separating us from animals, after all? Very few films can make you feel happy, sad, angry, hopeful, depressed, shocked, intrigued, and exhilarated all at once, but Wild Tales, a wickedly funny and smart roller coaster ride of emotions, succeeds at that with aplomb.