28 November 2013

Diana

This a horribly chauvinistic movie that portrayed the late Lady Di as a simpering, wanting, lonely woman. It minimised her social and humanitarian work and impact, the footnotes at the end of the movie is a joke, when director Oliver Hirschbiegel and writer Stephen Jeffreys barely spent any time on screen regarding her work with land-mines and other charitable organisations. Based on the book by Kate Snell, "Diana: Her Last Love", this movie absolutely fails the Bechdel's Test. Naomi Watts has her moments of brilliance but this is a far cry from her Oscar-nominated work in last year's "The Impossible". Even her Oscar-baiting scene felt weak and uninspired. She could not keep in character throughout the movie and frequently we see glimpses of Watts on the screen rather than the Queen of Hearts. But one of the biggest fault in the failure of this movie is the casting. Naveen Andrews is grossly miscast. He and Watts have zero chemistry and yet we the audience are supposed to believe that this man is the love of her live? So much so that Lady Diana will act like a giggly school girl just experiencing her first love? Perhaps if we could buy into that relationship, this movie would be more believable. Sadly, both Andrews and Watts have as much chemistry as two dead, cold fishes sitting on ice in a market. This movie would have been much better if we got a more in depth portrayal of the woman behind the public mask: "The Queen" and even to a certain extent "The Iron Lady" were both star vehicles for their actress (Both won Oscars) because they gave us layers and layers and complications of these famous faces. What we have here for Watts is just a single facade and slight glimpse of the smart, powerful, manipulative woman within. Watts will be a long shot for this year's Oscar race depending on the crop of Actresses this year, and with Streep, Dench, Blanchett and even Bullock already on the horizon, she will have a better chance another time.

Old Boy


Disclaimer: In my opinion, Park Chan-Wook's "Old Boy" is one of the best movies of this generation. I have watched it once in the cinema, once on an airplane and once at home going through his The Vengeance Trilogy. I still get chills and flashbacks whenever I hear the first movement of Vivaldi's 4 Seasons: Winter. 


I applaud Spike Lee for adapting, rather than re-creating, this brilliant movie. However, this American end product though competent, lacked the heart and soul, and undeniable psychological tension and thrills that was so prevalent in Park's Grand Prix-winning film. Ignoring the fact that the basic storyline is the same, the biggest stumbling block here are the characterisations of the leads. All three of them. Josh Brolin: we spent much time in the beginning but his transformation lacked the intensity and instability that Choi Min-Sik's Oh Dae-Soo had which illuminated the screen. We do not get a sense of Brolin losing his humanity nor regaining it. Neither do we feel that he is willing to lose it all again, and his humility, towards the end. Growls and gutteral sounds do not a damaged person make. Elizabeth Olsen (aka Scarlet Witch) is an interesting actress but her character's motivations for helping out Brolin were poorly defined. Also, she lacked that vulnerability and icy-strong fragility that would have enhanced the finale. Her chemistry with Brolin seemed forced and scripted, and more script necessity rather than organic which, again, lessened the emotional impact of the ending. It seemed that Lee and scriptwriter Mark Protosevich did more things wrong than right in translating the film to Hollywood. However, one thing they got right was the casting of the anatagonist. Sharlto Copley, may not be as innocuously evil as pretty boy Yoo Ji-Tae, but he brought his own crazy eyes and psycho posturing to the role. Although his backstory is much less convincing here and again, belittle the impact of his motivations and methods. Lee did add some throwbacks and homages to Park's movie, but thankfully he did not try to re-create shot for shot. The infamous corridor brawl was definitely reworked here and though a long shot was used, Lee's choice to segregate the camera from the action made the scene less urgent and less dangerous; the torture scene had no dental involvement but was initially frightening but then lamed out. No octopus here, but Lee did create a fantastically gross out scene here involving a white mouse instead. The envelop was not pushed here and it's such a waste for the material is so rich to bring to a wider audience. Instead, we are left with a sanitised version that lacked the psychological tension and drama of the original. 


27 November 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Disclaimer: I read the books when they first came out and was really into them until Book 3 where the ending was, in my opinion, hastily concluded. Book 2 was the best read of the trilogy. Oh, and I'm Team Peeta.

The review for: The Hunger Games (23 March 2012)

The best thing about this instalment is, like its predecessor, Jennifer Lawrence. Although she is let down by her director Francis Lawrence here and the general direction of this cinematic franchise. By focusing on the YA market and the general dumbing down of Hollywood productions, the socio-political commentary and satirical aspect of Suzanne Collins novels is lost. Although we spend the First Act establishing the political background of the show, we do not spend time in it to understand much about it. Similarly, this made villain Donald Sutherland rather un-intimidating. Jennifer Lawrence, does however, have her fine acting moments when she finally comes to terms with her role in the situation, but sadly those are far and in between. Instead, we have more moments where she portrayed Katniss as a wishy-washy tramp. The other standouts include Elizabeth Banks, who looks like she may be getting bored; Woody Harrelson and Philip Seymour Hoffman who were the bright sparks in their scenes; Sam Claflin as the charismatic Finnick Odair who almost set up Team Finnick; Jena Malone as Johanna Mason who surprised me with her on screen presence and whom I would not mind seeing again in the next movie; and of course, the vastly under-rated Hutcherson who can portray their sincere, simple, heart-broken tenderness so well that only a fool would choose the silver-screen Gale against him. Francis Lawrence direction led to an overlong, badly paced movie with poorly lit scenes that marred the supposedly exciting Third Act. When a reader who knows all the twists is watching this faithful-ish adaptation, there is really nothing much to look forward to except the occasional brilliant acting from the cast. The direction is mediocre with some scenes too forced, too long and too distant. And of course the lack of focus on the socio-political aspects of this dystopia. Even James Newton Howard's score was generic. I do not see how this movie can benefit from 3D or an IMAX experience. This is way better and funnier: Sesame Street: The Hungry Games - Catching Fur.

24 November 2013

The Suit


The third, and final, play of the SRT's "3 Titans of Theatre" is a singularly, powerful production that not only challenges you intellectually but tugs at the emotional heartstrings effortlessly. Strength in its simplicity, director Peter Brook has given us a simple stage, a small cast paired with a three-piece live band on stage, and showed us that did not limit his ability to provide variety, engage the audience - across the 4th wall from the get-go, no less - and wrought them through all the subtle complexities of the play, the music and the actors. At a tight 70-odd minutes, Can Themba's play appeared on the surface to be a simple story of a adulteress and her husband, but beneath that simple tale is a Morality play (not entirely different from Musashi), an Apartheid play, a Romantic play of Greek Tragedy and Shakespearean Comic proportions, a statement about Feminism and Feminity, and even a brief subtext on Religion, Sin and Forgiveness. Who the owner of the suit is is not important, but what/who it represents is the crux of the metaphor. South African singer/actress Nonhlanla Kheswa is a tender heartbreak with her soulful voice and achingly restrained acting; she is the anti-hero, the adultress, that we begin to develop Stockholm Syndrome towards. Hers is the journey that we follow through all the way and when it reached its unavoidable conclusion, we come to realise we had fallen hopelessly into Brook's and Themba's trap. The two male leads, Ivanno Jeremiah as the cuckolded husband, and Jordan Barbour as the narrator/Maphikela were both riveting and convincing in their roles as individuals living through South Africa's Apartheid period - not as victims, but as universal undeniable fact/truth. But perhaps the seeds of disruption were being planted in this fable-like tale of the husband's revenge on the wife. An absolutely powerful play that I am glad was brought to our shores.

22 November 2013

Bolshoi Ballet: Swan Lake

Disclaimer: I distinctly remembering having watched 3 others "Swan Lake" performances before: New York, Tokyo and a foreign staging in Singapore and also vaguely recalling at least once in Paris I believe.

Up front, purists will be disappointed by Yury Grigorovich's version of this seminal, classic ballet. Secondly, the touring company is made up of mainly "young talented artists", so expectations should be adjusted. With that in mind, or if you read the programme before the show started which I did not, perhaps one would have been more entertained than I was. I have nothing against directors putting their own stamps on others' work, but sometimes, too radical a change may not be beneficial nor befitting the wondrous score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. And the whole last scene is proof of that. I have no doubt about the dramatic/narrative effectiveness of the new ending, but the build-up to that - the new choreography and new story - just did not convey the necessary emotional weight that the music demands. However, the orchestra was also not doing any justice to Tchaikovsky's masterpiece. There was not enough gravitas in their playing and rhythms were also occasionally slightly off, but most importantly, they did not sound like they knew the intricacies of the work well enough to translate across. In addition, we have the "young, talented" principals of Ekaterina Shipulina and Ruslan Skvortsov playing the main leads, and their youth was evident. Skvortsov, as Prince Siegfried, did not possess the masculine strength and grace as expected; Shipulina, as Odette-Odile, on the other hand had sufficient grace but technically she will definitely need a few more years before she can totally enthral an audience. Her Odette and Odile were clearly defined with Odile being a more standout role for her where she presented the strength, the determination and precision that was lacking in the overtly softer and gentler Odette. As a couple, their chemistry was not strong enough to elicit a strong reaction to the finale. That and their un-enchanting pas des deux made their story rather detached. In all, it was still a good introduction for those uninitiated to classical ballet performances, but it is neither brilliant nor memorable for those expecting Russian Bolshoi Ballet.

20 November 2013

Captain Phillips

Disclaimer: I was in the Navy when the events of the movie was underway, and was also involved in parts of the ops planning. 

Paul Greengrass has again demonstrated that he is the premiere director for handheld camera action sequences especially in tight frames/spaces. However beyond the action-packed First and Third Act, Greengrass shortcoming has a dramatic director shows in the slow, plodding Second Act. Screenwriter Billy Ray is also partially to be blamed for he gave no added dimensions to Tom Hanks' eponymous protagonist. For viewers who followed the real life events, we would know what happened to Captain Phillips in the end, so how do you engage these people who knows what your hero's fate is? Despite having a stellar actor like Hanks who can still command a screen, the material left him with barely anything much to work with. The faint and clumsy attempts to inject familial ties and emotions in the Third Act just felt cheap and appeared like vainglorious attempts for Hanks to Oscar-bait. Luckily, Ray gave us a more interesting antagonist, and perhaps it is also because we know less about him, and that made him and his choices engaging: will he turn? Will he kill anybody? What are his motivations? A pity not more was done to explore this aspect. All the other bad guys were stock one-dimensional characters, as were the good guys that were not Tom Hanks. As aforementioned, Greengrass directed the action sequences amazingly well. The First Act Pirate attack was tight, exciting, by-your-seat adrenaline pumping, that was only topped by the intense final Rescue sequence. Those bits could have made the movie worth it if not for the Second Act which just plodded on way too long with almost nothing happening. The music by Henry Jackman was adequate and as necessary as it needed to be, but not memorable. After his previous work on "X-Men: First Class", "Kick Ass" and "Kick Ass 2", I am beginning to see a trend, which then makes his next work for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" very worrying. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shot the film in a highly naturalistic way with a lot of his scenes dependent on natural lighting (or absence of, especially in the Third Act). Lastly, that whole final scene was such a joke, such a blatant attempt for more Oscar-baiting for Hanks (come on! which medical officer will actually do all that first at triage??).

17 November 2013

Rigor Mortis 殭屍 [HK]

Disclaimer: I watched this in HK in cantonese; the review is a quick one that I wrote while commuting.

A frightless, plotless, squandered effort of an otherwise potentially exciting/intriguing concept that could have revived this nostalgic genre for the Gen X/Y-ers; the director Juno Mak was more interested in imageries and fancy angles, that served no reasons, rather than a solid story and plotting. 

9 November 2013

Musashi ムサシ


Part of SRT's 3 Titans of Theatre series, this was an extremely well-directed Morality dramedy (for a lack of a better word) play by legendary director Yukio Ninagawa that daftly balanced comedy with Bhuddist teachings (without ever being preachy) and serious philosophical questions on Morality, Government and Self, the Philosophy of War, and Redemption/Revenge that echoes that words of Kant, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke and Rousseau. The biggest challenge in bringing this play to Singapore is translating the Japanese historical culture and making it accessible to Singaporeans. And in this case, I think they did a brilliant job. However, most of my audience were, unfortunately, lost in this non-familial cultural abyss. It is therefore essential to not only know about the basic background of Musashi Miyamoto and his duel with Sasaki Kojiro, but also understand, appreciate and differentiate Noh and Kyogen theatre (the website at SRT's page gives a good primer). The many inappropriate, in my opinion, laughters in an otherwise farcial drama drowned out many of the actors' words (and it was mainly the non-Japanese crowds who were laughing). That and the rather inaccurate (and very brief) translations were the downside to this otherwise absolutely brilliant play (also, some of the translations came before the line was spoken and this was really bad when it was punch line, with audience members sniggering even before the moment had arrived). Ninagawa's direction was superb, from the prologue with the blazing sun to the exceptional Scene 1 introduction (that was WOW! a coups de théâtre), the direction constantly kept me speechless. A relatively simple set, that barely changed at all, and a full cast that was on stage at almost all times, there was no waste, no mess, and Ninagawa really knew how to direct your focus. Even if your focus should waver, especially when the one sentence English translation is actually more like 5 or 6 Japanese sentences long, there were always other small things that the non-core characters-of-the-moment were doing. They aren't all just standing by the side hoping that the audience do not notice then. Then there was the amazing use of the soundtrack. The bamboo would rustle to signify "a moment"; the cicadas would sound to emphasise "the silence"; birds would chirp when morning has arrived; and soft music would play to heighten the dramatics of the scene. The actors were all standouts. None of them were wallflowers. They all acted their roles with aplomb, of course the ones that were the standouts had the most comedic reliefs. The 2 young leads were also arresting with Tatsuya Fuijwara as the older Musashi Miyamoto being the more assured one as compared to Junpei Mizobata's Sasaki Kojiro. This was an amazing play that rightly deserved its standing ovation and double curtain call. One comes out of it with a sense that screenwriter Hisashi Inoue had taken a lot of effort to translate and distill many teachings/philosophies into an accessible avenue for the masses; teaching, without preaching, the sanctity of 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...