29 December 2013

12 Years A Slave

Finally, a Steve McQueen movie comes to the shores of Singapore, and for those who may have missed his previous 2 works Shame and Hunger, this is definitely an excellent introduction to this director. Again, he reunites with Michael Fassbender to bring us a a harsh, brutal and direct look at black slavery in 19th century America. However, this time the lead role belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor.

It is amazing how a mainly British team came together to give us an amazing film about a piece of American shame. Almost every aspect of the movie was without a doubt top notch. From the sound mixing and editing, to costumes and sets, the very fitting score by Hans Zimmer, the gorgeous cinematography by Sean Bobbitt and of course the first class acting and directing.

From the get go, McQueen has got us hook, line and sinker into the film. There was minimal dialogue during the first 10 minutes with just Zimmer's wondrous score coupled with the harsh, raw directing and filming. And throughout the film, McQueen never once let down this honest brutality and over-indulged in romanticising anything. He is one of the few directors who understand what it means to show not tell, and he respects his audience's intelligence. Praise also goes out to writer John Ridley for giving us characters that are complex and multi-layered, with no one dimensional good guy or villain. 

Of course all these cinematic magic would also not have happened without the talented cast that McQueen has assembled. Here we have shoo-ins nominations for Best Actor for Ejiofor, Supporting Actor for Fassbender and a Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong'o.

Ejiofor is stunning as he tries to maintain the dignity of his character and wrestles with moral dilemmas. He grows and he changes; he makes us empathise with his situation but at the same time makes us question whether the decisions he made are right or wrong, or for that matter if there is even a right or wrong to be had. However, the one thing that let this film down is also the lack of development/emphasis on his motivation to escape his situation. Sure we may have glimpses of it, but by choosing not to spotlight it, McQueen and Ridley may have let some audience feel slightly detached from his story.

Fassbender was amazing in his portrayal of the central antagonist. He gave us a villain who is not an all out bad guy. He made us think why does this person act the way he does. What are his motivations? And we don't see Fassbender at all, unlike Brad Pitt, as he meander his way throughout the movie anguished, tormented, psychotic, brutal, crazy, horny, repentful, humble, etc. He is like Leonardo diCaprio in Django Unchained. The crazy white man in a black movie, except he is definitely not a caricature.

Lastly, we have Lupita Nyong'o who will definitely give Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle a run of her money for Best Supporting Actress. Nyong'o is heartbreaking. Her character's evolution is truly the emotional core of this movie and Nyong'o portrayed her so nakedly honest. With just two particular scenes, she has seared her moments into the audience memories.

The rest of the cast includes standouts like Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson and Paul Dano. And of course it has to be an American and Brad Pitt (who is also an EP), who is the white hat of the movie.

As aforementioned, Zimmer has given us a terrific score. Silent and gentle at moments and harsh and violent at times. His composition here never once overwhelmed the film, but always a constant companion throughout.

There is no doubt that this film will garner loads of accolades and nominations during awards time, and, to me, this is thus far, the film to beat for this year's Best Picture. This and American Hustle are in a tight heat although I would not be surprised if the latter beats it. Although I was enraptured throughout 12 Years A Slave and fascinated with the story of the protagonist, somehow towards the final third of the film, it dawned upon me that, as I had said above, do I really care about what happened to Solomon in the end? Sure, I want to know how his story end, but do I really care if he died a slave or a free-man? If he gets re-united with his family or go all Django Unchained on us? This is a conundrum. McQueen and writer John Ridley has given a character that we cared about but just not deeply enough to root for him. Conversely, in American Hustle , we want the "good" guys to win, however, as in my review, the getting there was tedious. Weighing them both together, I feel that McQueen has given us a far more superior movie compared to Russell. And it is definitely a lot better than Lee Daniels' The Butler.

American Hustle

David O. Russell has hit it 3 for 3 with this latest flick. This is a compelling love story wrapped in a con-heist featuring complex leads that are likably unlikeable. Russell seems to have a knack for drawing such characters. Bringing together the stars from his previous two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, the expectations of the audience, critics and the actors themselves must be undoubtedly high. Especially for the new guy(s). This film is without a doubt, like Silver Linings Playbook, going to be a major awards contender. Director, Picture and even Screenplay seems to be a lock for nominations. However, surprisingly, it is the acting category that will be rather challenging. In here we have 2 Academy Award winners and both for Russell's movies in Christian Bale (The Fighter) and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), and 3 Oscar nominees in Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and, new guy, Jeremy Renner. This movie might break the trend of producing an Academy Award winner but it might sneak in some nominations. Of these 5 actors, the easiest to rule out will be Cooper. It was a surprise to see him even nominated for Silver Linings Playbook, and this movie clearly shows why. He has no range nor depth in acting. He is still Bradley Cooper. In all his characters that he has played, he has never once really inhabited the role to give us more than what was superficially written on the script. His scenes are usually the most painfully annoying and drags the film down (sometimes the 2 hours run times feels like a lot more when he is onscreen). The central 2 leads - Bale and Adams - were standouts with the latter giving one of her best work in a long time. Bale, in his own unique way, gave us an anti-hero that we slowly begin to love, and as the movie progressess, layers and layers of this character is slowly peeled off to reveal a hero within and Bale shows it all to us. Adams on the other hand, could be easily be dismissed as being the glamour-puss of the movie, but her character is a counter-point to Bale's. As we get deeper and deeper into the story, her hard exterior belies her inner nature and then before we know it, we get moments where it is all swapped and her softer core comes out but her soul is hardened. Adams amazingly dazzles us with those eyes that speaks volume. She would be the best bet for a Supporting Actress nomination but unlikely as she is more the female lead. However, Lead Actress will be challenging, but could be a possibility for a nomination though not a win. Then we have the belle of the moment, Jennifer Lawrence, who once again shows us (and me) what a terrific and exciting actress she is for someone so young. She was so much better here than in The Hunger Games and X-Men: First Class. I might even say that her role here is more deserving of a nomination than her win for Silver Linings Playbook (but if Adams run for supporting too, Lawrence definitely has the edge over her in terms of popularity sadly). As the manipulative, trashy wife of Bale's conman, she is clearly having a ball of a time, and Lawrence is almost completely lost in that role. She's in it. She has became exciting to watch again. Lastly, poor Renner has still not found another movie for him to shine since The Hurt Locker. He was good here, but just good. Not great. Competently acceptable. He did not bring anything special to the role but neither did he distract from it like Cooper. Honorable mention to Louis CK, who with Blue Jasmine, is having a rather nice run on the big screen. Russell was just excellent. A unique narrative to start off the movie and although occasionally the pacing seemed stalled, it picks up again quite fast. The 70s sets, costumes (Adams' and Lawrence's) and hair was astonishing detailed. Even the wash of the print felt vintage. The script by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, could be a bit more trimmed but I'm glad that they decided to show rather than tell us about the characters, thereby letting us be part of the characters' emotional and psychological evolution. Although, some bits did nothing much other than indulgence. Then there is the amazing soundtrack (not so much the music which was by Danny Elfman), but the 70s music that peppered throughout was in a word: smooth. The songs just totally set the mood for the scenes. A good movie, with great acting, solid directing and smart-ish writing, just a bit pacey.

28 December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug [3D/HFR/IMAX]

Like the first instalment, this movie suffered from poor pacing and extraneous scenes. It could definitely been have at least 1/3 shorter and that could have made it more impactful and memorable. Nonetheless, it was still stunning movie, gorgeously rendered and directed. I am still a believer in the HFR technology, and over here, it was actually less distracting than before. In addition, the 3D was less obtrusive here, although some scenes were clearly created just to show it off with no real benefits to the story; and IMAX is always excellent especially to fully appreciate the grandeur of Peter Jackson's world. The biggest problem with "The Hobbit" trilogy that separates it from LOTR is that the main cast is too big, what with all the dwarves. This results in insufficient screen time for the main leads: Bilbao, Thorin and Gandalf, and insufficient audience empathy to care deeply for their quest. Unlike destroying the ring to save the world, what will re-establishing Thorin as King do? Without all these clearly defined goals, the audience emotional attachment will definitely be less. Similarly, Thorin's characterisation is sorely lacking to give him the Heroic gravitas like Aragon (sadly, Richard Armitage also lacked the screen presence and charisma of Viggo Mortensen) or the anti-hero broodiness, which is so in vouge these days, to engage the audience. In this instalment, Martin Freeman's Bilbao has a much lesser role to play, and the ring is becoming a very convenient deux ex machina. Gandalf, as always, is such a mystery. He, like Dumbledore, knows so much but says so little that it is getting frustrating. Thankfully we have Ian McKellen in this role who brings with him such cheeky seriousness that you know you just want to trust him (and that he knows best). 3 new main characters were introduced and to varying success. Orlando Bloom's Legolas is a welcome, and reprising this iconic role definitely suits Bloom and it is fun to see how Legolas changed to the Elf that we know of in LTOR; Evangeline Lily's new character Thauriel is really not needed in terms of story advancement, perhaps it will lead into Legolas' character development, but the C/D/E-plot that Jackson and company has shoved down our throat is wholly un-necessary, and bordering on boring and unrealistic (no offence to the actors involved who are surely trying their darnest to sell it); lastly we have Bard as played by Luke Evans, and from my understanding he is to play a bigger role in Part III which was clearly eluded to and foreshadowed here, and at least he has already been much more interesting a character to root and understand about than sully Thorin. Like most middle instalments of trilogies, this is definitely going somewhere but is not there yet, so the feeling is the same. But unlike "The Two Towers" this does not make me wish that Part III is out now, but when it is out, I will still definitely be there to see how the tale ends and tie in with LOTR. And that is what Jackson has going in for him. Even Howard Shore's score is also less effective here.

11 December 2013

Ilo Ilo 爸妈不在家 [SQ Inflight]

The best Singapore movie since Roystan's controversial "15". Both may appear different at first glance but thematically they could be brothers, albeit likely from different fathers. Homegrown son Anthony Chen has given us a heartwarming, simple story of the modern Singapore family. However, despite its sincerity, the Romanticising of the central characters frequently rang false. Which led to an unabashedly shameless, emotional-baiting, penultimate scene. Having said that, the scene would not have worked if not for the wonderful performances by Yeo Yann Yann (who really ought to run for Lead Actress rather than Supporting Actress) and Filipina actress Angela Bayani. Chen Tianwen also gave a career best performance, and young actor Koh Jia Le was believable in his more emotional-heavy scenes. Unfortunately, the writing was the biggest let down. Other than the extremely grating use of blatant Singlish which truly does not sound like that (Learn from Roystan Tan and not Jack Neo and co.), the lack of character development and backstory for our main protagonist reduced the audience empathy for her; her bond with her ward could also have been better explored and developed. This could be due to budgetary constraints though. Directing-wise, Anthony did a great job. Moving the story well at a good pace, always engaging the audience with little snippets of information to keep them just half a step behind and invested to follow it through. The POV changed smoothly but too quickly and diluted the audience's empathy with the characters. Also certain scenes felt more late 80s/early 90s rather than the late 90s of the Asian financial crisis. Nonetheless, Yeo's outstanding performance as an overworked, under-appreciated and dedicated Mother/Wife coupled with a truly original and inherently sincere story makes this movie a local pride to be watched. 

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...