25 November 2019

Stephen King's Doctor Sleep


This was unexpectedly good. It was not Oscar-winning good, but it was a thoroughly entertaining horror-thriller. Kudos to writer/director Mike Flanagen for being faithful to Stephen King's tone and the source materials, and paying sincere homage to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, but yet still successfully adapting the story to be in continuity with both film and novels, and therefore suitable for the big screen. Most importantly, Flanagan eschewed the typical Hollywood jump scares and screeching strings for a tense, taut and highly atmospheric film that brought its chills through the music, the direction and the acting. This was a well-acted film. Ewan McGregor was convincing in his trauma and Rebecca Ferguson made for a delicious villain. At 152 minutes, the film occasionally felt long, and with Flanagan's history with The Haunting on Hill House, it was hard not to imagine that this film would have benefited as a 4-5 part mini-series. That would have allowed the story to breath a little better and the characters and mythology to be developed deeper.

Flanagan did a good job in balancing the continuity from both Kubrick's film and King's novels, taking the concept from the novel and streamlining it for mass consumption. King's books always had the tendency to meander and Flanagan managed to retain the concept and create a tense horror-thriller.

This film had its horror moments, but none were of the jump scare varieties. It was  just a pervasive sense of creep and dread throughout, with great direction and cinematography by Michael Fimognari. Lots of lingering shots, long shots, twistya and camera angles. The music by The Newton Brothers also helped, focusing on bass and beats to drum in the dread.

McGregor was an unexpected choice to lead this film, but he nailed it. He is an underrated actor who is almost always reliable despite the film he is in. And in this case, he got the paternalistic aspect down pat. His arc was a bit more rushed and would have benefited if this story was a mini-series, but nonetheless, he ably carried the film and Danny Torrance's trauma.

Ferguson was a delight, and it did seem like she was having fun in her role. She was deliciously evil and bordering on campy. Her styling, reminiscent of The Babadook meets Amy Sherman-Palladino, was distinctive and unnecessary which really made it sort of in-jokey. It was only a pity that her big climatic scene did not let her chew on the scenery more.

New actress, Kyliegh Curran, was good but unfortunately this was not much of a breakout role for her. Although the potential is there.

Adaptations of King's works have always had a spotty history and in general there were more misses than hits, in both television and film (and even his novels). However, Doctor Sleep fell firmly in the latter (as was the source novel), and was both a worthy sequel to Kubrick's The Shining and a good film in its own right.


24 November 2019

Frozen II


Well, this was a definite crowd-pleaser...for children. It was blatantly engineered as a child-pleasing, money-grabbing sequel that lacked originality in terms of both story lines and animation quality.

The singularly best thing about Frozen II was Idina Menzel's singing, but even the songs this time round lacked the catchiness and showtune-ness of the original (the end-credits, pop-cover versions sounded like it would have fit right in to the film). 

On its own, it was a pleasant enough film with some action, some laughs and some drama; but as a follow-up to one of the biggest and creatively original animation, this was a let down. It was unexciting with a simple, predictable plot that was shoe-horned into this premise, the comedy was juvenile as was the drama.

Sure, it was good to teach children about respecting the environment and the rights of the indigenous people, and hopefully this was what the tykes got after watching it, but not sure if the message was strong enough to get through given that their messaging was less explicit than the girl-power theme of the last film.

Character-wise, none of our main cast had any real character growth or development which was a key feature in the first film and common in these animated sequels barring Pixar's Incredibles 2 and the Toy Story franchise (though Toy Story 4 was already showing fatigue but more likely than not might still get the Best Oscar over Frozen II).

The voice-cast was great still and of the newbies, Sterling K Brown stool out. Evan Rachel Wood got to sing which was always nice, but really inconsequential. Was the only reason for casting her because she was a named-star that could sing? Perhaps, pitting a broadway songstress against Menzel would have been more impactful for the climatic song.

Speaking of songs, I wonder which Menzel tune will get the Best Original Song nomination? I doubt the other new songs have a chance, although Jonathan Groff's power-ballad was a fun interlude on screen (the Wheezer cover - without the animation - showed its blandness).

Just a thought: they should really get Panic! at the Disco to duet with Menzel if Into the Unknown gets nominated!

This film was squarely aimed at children and their parents' money and Disney was unabashed about it. So bring the children and give Disney more money, they will surely enjoy themselves. Parents, stay home and watch The Mandalorian and wait for Christmas for the "final" Star Wars (still giving money to Disney).


17 November 2019

Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria)


An intimate and honest, semi-autobiographical film by Pedro Almodóvar that was confidently directed and honestly written. Almodóvar depicted the journey of a creative genius stymied by physical and emotional pain as he recalled and re-experienced significant life moments that may or may not have contributed to his creative block. Almost every scene of this film was purposeful and every frame was emotionally dense; audience transference was inevitable. Kudos to Antonio Banderas for a searingly strong but yet highly restrained portrayal. His journey from the start to the end of the film was sincere and arresting, with the emotions playing over his face and body throughout. Penelope Cruz also stood out, albeit in a more limited, but highly emotive, role.

The film unfolded in a measured pace but was never slow or dull. There was always an overlying question of "Why?" hanging over every scene and vignette, which was then followed by a "How?". The answers to these questions usually revealed themselves by the end of that story, although sometimes it could be rather oblique and only cleared up a couple of scenes later. However, by the end of the film, the whole narrative crystalised beautifully.

In its core, Dolor y Gloria was a story about love. It beautifully and examined various themes and types of love in its near 2-hours run time,focusing not only at romantic love, but also maternal love, first love, fraternal lover, the love after a breakout, lover amongst friends and, importantly, loving yourself. The film also touched on addiction, self-blame and self-discovery. A deeply rich and emotionally resonant film that could only be made possible from a writer/director who had lived a life.

Having said that, it would have been less realised if Almodóvar cast a less accomplished lead than Banderas. Banderas looked and felt like a man who had experienced all the above emotions and feeling. A highly nuanced performance that was one of his best. It was less showy than Joaquin Phoenix in Joker or Christian Bale in Ford v Ferrari, but equally as powerful as the former.

Cruz played a supporting role, and depending on how the field is like this year, she may have a shot at a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Like last year with Roma and Cold War, Parasite and Dolor y Gloria are two exciting foreign-language films that should break through and land nods in the major categories. It is a definite shoo-in for Almodóvar for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, and also for Best International Film, with Best Picture a slightly longer shot.

Ford v Ferrari [IMAX]


This was a real crowd-pleaser of a dad/bro-movie. It was a great racing film that straddled both box-office appeal and critical adulation. James Mangold's direction was excellent and the editing was tremendous, as was the sound design and editing (a contender for Oscar nominations for all three fields). All that together, resulted in adrenaline-pumping, nail-bitingly exciting racing scenes that was superb in an IMAX theatre. However, none of that would have mattered if not for the film's fantastic leading men. Both Matt Damon and Christian Bale exuded undeniable charisma and anchored the film with their naturalistic, lived-in performance. Their easy, bromantic chemistry was palpable and authentic, and that was key to maintaining the audience's attention throughout the entire 152 minutes. Although, at times, the film did feel long but that feeling usually dissipated once the car-scenes kicked in. However, the real breakout star of the film was the natural - and naturally sizzling - chemistry between the Walsh Bale and his on-screen wife, the lovely, Irish Caitriona Balfe. They both should do a film together. And, mark my words, Noah Jupe will be the next Tom Holland.

Mangold scored a critically acclaimed film with his last film, Logan, and he continued his streak with Ford v Ferrari. He smartly cemented the story on the two men, rather than the titular two companies, and, with his writers, found the emotional resonance of their characters. Bale had the more emotionally-complex arc whereas Damon's character, having not much of a backstory or actors other than Bale to act off, had the less emotionally-charged role even though he seemed more like the lead actor to Bale's lead/supporting (both actors will be entering the Lead Actors race, though I'd bet Bale might get the nod more than Damon).

The driving scenes and the races were the secondary stars of the film, and absolute kudos to Mangold and his creative team. The editing, sound design and sound editing were fabulous. The IMAX really helped in this regard too. They were exciting to say the least.

Bale, in a rare, non-American and non-physically transformative role - other than a constant hunch - was great to watch as we see his character grow and evolve and even mature a little bit. His scenes with Balfe were an unexpected highlight. These two actors should star in a WWII romantic epic.

Damon, with less to do, actually succeeded in his convincing, all-American hero depiction of Carroll Shelby as he played off mostly Bale and Tracey Letts (hilarious!) and Josh Lucas (a convincing and conniving villain).

Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders scored the film beautifully, alternating between jazzy/bluesy notes for the quieter more emotional-heavy scenes, and exhilarating bass/strings-heavy sets for the action sequences.

Phedon Papamichael was the cinematographer, and he got some great shots especially of the racing and the night scenes.

This was a highly enjoyable and entertaining film, with great acting, good laughs, exciting races/drive sequences and a good story. One of the best racing film since Ron Howard's 2013 Rush with Chris Hemswoth and Daniel Bruhl. Definitely worth it to catch on the big screen and the IMAX, and a sure contender for below-the-line oscars; Bale and Damon are also in the contention for Best Actor, whereas Best Film and Director nods may be a bit harder to get.

27 October 2019

Terminator: Dark Fate [IMAX]


This was a genuinely fun action-adventure movie. Great set pieces with excellent action sequences and choreography by director Tim Miller, and bolstered by a good action soundtrack by Junkie XL, it really did set the heart and adrenaline rushing (that was a good car chase!). However, for maximum entertainment, do check your brain and logic at the door.

The much simpler and straightforward story, compared to the most recent few installments, still defied logic and basic common sense, but who really need that if all you are waiting for was the next action scene. The writing could be sharper and smarter, and they could have actual female writers in that large writing team of theirs to write proper dialogue for the three female leads. Nonetheless, kudos to James Cameron and Miller for actually having three strong female leads in the first place.

Miller's action direction was fantastic and he has a great eye for it. The action scenes were smooth and unchaotic, but when it came to the dramatic beats the film just grind to a halt. And you find yourself waiting impatiently for Miller to set up for the next big set piece. Compared to Deadpool, Miller lacked a good script and charismatic lead actor/character to carry the downbeats.

Admittedly, all five leads are definitely not going to get any acting awards, but at least they were entertaining and did what the role and story required of them. And it will be unlikely any of them, or the film, will get nominated for a Razzie.

A kick-ass Linda Hamilton was an absolute great fun to watch.

Mackenzie Davis has the built to be intimidating and the excellent fight direction by Miller showed that she did appear to do most of the scenes herself, but she lacked screen presence and charisma.

Similarly, Natalie Reyes was not as convincing in her role, especially in the latter half of the film when the predictable "twist" was revealed.

As for the boys, Arnold Schwarzenegger's participation was always welcomed in this franchise, But at least in this installment he was actually more relevant to the narrative and not just shoehorned in for fan-service. Furthermore, his self-referential mockery was less grating and seemed more thoughtful than usual.

Lastly, was our villain, Gabriel Luna as the Rev-9. Man, it was great to have a really bad-ass villain that seemed unstoppable but Luna lacked Robert Patrick's apathetic nonchalance that made the T-1000 fearsome and scary.

Junkie XL's action score was great to propel and energise the sequences, but in the down-moments, it seemed rather generic and flat.

This film should definitely be watched on a big screen for full enjoyment but IMAX was not really necessary. And 128 minutes later, I would not mind a sequel to find out where the story goes next.

20 October 2019

The Farewell


I can see why this film would be beloved by an American/non-Asian audience. It was - to them - likely an interesting glimpse into a foreign culture, tradition and familial values, and the comedic clash of East-meets-West, though genuinely funny, might seemed fresh and exciting in their white/black-tinged world.

However, from an Asian perspective, this film offered nothing new that Asian-cinema has not witnessed or produced in better measures.

Although there was a sincere warmth and honesty in the story, director/writer Lulu Wang's treatment of the material felt amateurish and generic. The storytelling was heavy-handed and littered with expected and predictable tropes of its genre.

Nonetheless, the acting shone through especially from the lesser-known cast. Awkwafina did impress in her first serious-dramatic role, but not in the sense that she was a revelation, instead more like that she was better than expected. Then again, she shone more in the comedic moments rather than the deeper, more introspective, serious beats. Her overall characterisation was more that of an entitled, self-obsessed millennial as seen through my Asian eyes.

The veteran actors, on the other hand, were outstanding. In particular Tzi Ma and Diana Lin 林晓杰 as Awkwafina's parents. But the breakout role, and definite star, of the film was first time actress Zhao Shuzhen 赵淑珍 as the granny at the center of the plot. She stole all her scenes with her easy, unbridled charm and effortless sincerity. It was not impossible to imagine that the actress herself had gone through something similar in her own personal life.

Non-Asian audience, and even those - like Awkwafina - who are Asian in skin but not brought up in that environment, will enjoy this film a lot for its exploration of the immigrant story and reconciliation of one's cultural, traditional past and present day societal norms. This film was not perfect but at least it had sincerity and aimed to educate without mocking. A potential Best Screenplay nomination is in sight.

For Asian audience, go watch it too to support cinema, and to enjoy the film's honest moments and the genuine laughs it brings.


19 October 2019

Joker


Wow! Forget about the MCU, Black Panther or Logan. Joker has redefined, possibly even transcended, the superhero/villain film genre. It was absolutely possible to take it as a standalone, character-study, independent of its comic-book pedigree. And it was brilliant.

Joaquin Phoenix was the ace in the deck. He was immensely riveting, insanely transformative and immersive and utterly unforgettable. Just give him the damn Oscar already. Truly, he was in practically every scene of this film and you cannot take your eyes off him. His eyes were magnetic, his body language was (and the dances!) hypnotic and his voice - and that laughter! - was uniquely indelible.

Joker was an in-depth character study that went beyond the supervillain origin story tropes. Director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver found a way to humanise and authentically translated the downfall of Arthur Fleck the man and a rise of a Joker the villain.

The story itself, was well-paced and although it had its comic-book cliches and the third act meandered into socio-political overtones that felt concurrently overhanded and underbaked, the narrative itself still managed to be surprising and unexpected especially in terms of how certain outcomes were reached.

The best moments of the film were the musical interludes, either from the haunting and oppressive strings of Hildur Guðnadóttir's or Phillips' song choices, where Phillips' just followed and circled around Phoenix as he moved, danced and simply commanded the camera and the screen and our attention. 

Lawrence Sher's cinematography had its moments too, with a couple of standout scenes that were shot and lit beautifully. And together with Phillips' direction and Guðnadóttir's score, their work together helped to support Phoenix and translate his phenomenal characterisation from paper to screen.

Phoenix owned this film and our attention. He was equal parts pitiable, sad, scary, lovable, charismatic, menacing, evil, good and all were mostly done through his eyes and face and body. He and Christian Bale could possibly be the two most method-actors out there now, and he could be the best on-screen Joker of all time (sorry Heath Ledger).

For now, the Oscar is his to lose (if all things being equal, but we all know the Oscars is more than just performance-oriented). As for the supporting cast, Francis Conroy was well-cast as were Robert De Niro and Zazie Beetz although Beetz had nothing much to do. But all three had good chemistry with Phoenix.

Joker was a riveting film elevated to greatness by Phoenix. It deserved to be watched and the concerns surrounding its validation of a sociopath are unfounded as long as the audience watching it have some level of intelligence to be able to differentiate between art and life.

Stephen King's Doctor Sleep

This was unexpectedly good. It was not Oscar-winning good, but it was a thoroughly entertaining horror-thriller. Kudos to writer/director...