22 August 2014

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years of Pilgramage

Decidedly different from Murakami's past works in that this was grounded more in reality and lacked the magical realism he was known for. However, Murakami replaced that with a stronger emotional core throughout the novel. 

This was  essentially a story about self, love and happiness. A dark story - possibly one of his darkest - that only had occasional glimmer of hope and light. But those glimmer are enough to sustain optimism...or are they? That oscillating hope illustrates Murakami's skill as a storyteller (not so much a wordsmith per se since this is a translated work). 

This is Murakami's most emotionally resonant work since Norwegian Wood and also perhaps one of the most easily accessible to new readers.  

20 August 2014

Under The Skin [SQ Inflight Entertainment]

Director Jonathan Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell have crafted what is definitely one of the strangest, most WTF, yet strangely alluring art house alien/sci-fi movie ever based on a novel by Michael Faber. 

However, beneath all that strangeness, there lies an oddly sad story and commentary about human nature which was brought to life in all in muteness by the magnetic screen presence of Scarlett Johansson. 

In a role that is a total opposite of that in Her, Johansson barely spoke here, but yet she and Glazer had managed to make her character highly intriguing and the story oddly engaging. 

As an audience we are constantly asking ourselves "What is happening?" and "What is going to happen next?" - and that in itself is excellent storytelling that is so rare in Hollywood these days. 

Cinematography by Daniel Landin was raw and naturalistic with some amazing shots, and music by Mica Levi was hauntingly effective and memorable especially in such a dialogue-free movie. 

Yves Saint Laurent [SQ Inflight Entertainment]

The biopic of the tulmultuous life of troubled fashion savant and enfant terriblé Yves Saint Laurent started of with a lot of promise but midway, like Saint Laurent himself, director Jalil Lespert got lost in the debauched excess, losing focus on the main subject and his relationship with both Fashion and Pierre Bergé. 

Pierre Niney as Saint Laurent got his shy demeanour in the beginning down pat, however as the story progressed, Niney slowly failed to capture that lost, desperation and maniac dependency that plagued Saint Laurent. 

Guillaume Galliene as Bergé, however, was a constant rock throughout much like how his character was portrayed. Though biasness would be inevitable since the story is told from his point of view. 

The sweeping piano and violin score by Ibrahim Maalouf was a highlight. And of course also the gorgeous costumes by Madeline Fontaine throughout. 

No surprise this film was not screened in Singapore. 

Les Modes Passant, Le Style est Éternel. 

6 August 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The heroes in a half-shell are back in a brand new, reboot origins story. Jonathan Liebesman does a competent job in giving us a relatively fun romp re-introducing the turtles to a new generation. At least he understood that the storyline cannot support too long a show time, and during the snappy 101 minutes focused mainly on Megan Fox and action - unlike producer Michael Bay. The turtles are slightly different from their cartoon counterparts but broadly retained their basic characteristics. Surprisingly, Raphael got the lead here.

Liebesman gave us a fairly straightforward origin story but other than a very good action set towards the end of the Second Act, the rest of the movie was fairly simple with no real big twists or unexpected results. Although the origin story itself was a departure from the story that we grew up knowing.

Cinematography was also rather flat throughout which did not help to make the movie more visually appearing. Likewise, frequent comic/super-hero music collaborator Brian Tyler was also, as usual, generic and un-inspiring. Someone need to come up with a new iconic Superhero score like John Williams' Superman Theme or Zimmer/Howard's Batman score.

It seems like the du jour thing now to litter superhero/comic-book movies with pop culture references. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't; and sometimes there can be too much (see: Guardians of the Galaxy). In TNMT, it only worked when the references came from Michaelangelo - because at least here we have an established character who is likely to spew such gems and not seemed to come out as smart-alecky or self-referential.

Not much acting going on here. None of the actors hired to be the turtles are Andy Serkis. Megan Fox looked better after child-birth but definitely less sexploited here than in Bay's Transformers. Will Arnett was genuinely funny.

Ultimately, a fairly entertaining romp that did not take itself too seriously and the short run time was to its favour.

2 August 2014

Anna Karenina [Blu-Ray]

Joe Wright's adaptation of Leo Tolstoy beloved classic is extremely stylised, uniquely presented and a gorgeously sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears. However, the directing, although unique, was inconsistent, occasionally bordering on simplicity, with style over substance; the storytelling deceptively simple with all of Anna's complexities and Tolstoy's social/political commentary lost. Wright again brought out the best of Keira Knightley, and similarly Jude Law also stood out, but young Aaron Johnson (now Taylor-Johnson) was badly miscast.

Wright chose a very unique way to present this story, and although it took a few minutes to get use to it, it was nonetheless arresting and visually spectacular. However, Wright noticeably got lazy and this technique became inconsistent, and when it did not serve the narrative was abandoned without forewarning.

Luckily for us, he had Seamus McGreary as his cinematographer. When the scenes were set indoors, McGreary shots ranged were heartbreakingly tender to sumptuously spectacular. However, when we move outdoors, the wide-angled lens captured the country in all its raw natural beauty. The balance of lights and shadows were sublime throughout.

Then we had Dario Marianelli's score which like his award-winning score for Atonement echoed the era of which the show was set in. With Russian strings and folk themes weaved within the emotional tapestry of Anna's heart.

The last production praise goes to costume designer Jacqueline Durran who deservedly won the Academy Award that year. Her costumes were all simply astounding. The details for all the dresses and head gears. Every single piece of clothing that Knightley wore was a work of art. Although none reached the status as that infamous green dress from Atonement (one barebacked moment came close!). Based on that year's nomination, only Eiko Ishioka's equally sumptuous work on Julia Robert's disastrous Mirror, Mirror was her closest rival, but Anna Karenina could likely had won because of sheer quantity.

The screenplay by Tom Stoppard was oversimplified both in terms of plot, characterisations and dialogue. Tolstoy's prose - although translated - was much more piercing than what the actors were asked to say.

Knightley gave a good performance. Not her best but she carried the film ably on her shoulders and Wright definitely knew how to get the best out of her. However, she was betrayed by the lack of substance and depth a character like Anna should have.

Law was surprisingly mesmerising. He had a refined, restrained dignity that was magnetic.

Unfortunately Johnson was at the other of the spectrum. Way otherside. He is too young and lacked the skill to portray a deceptively simple character like Count Vronsky- who is actually not as simple as he appeared in the movie. His youth disallowed the audience to engage with him and his love affair with Anna. And this was further compounded by the absolutely frigid chemistry between him and Knightley.

A visual and aural feast of a movie that lacked a heart and soul.

1 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy [IMAX/3D]

Marvel and James Gunn have on their hands a new space-movie franchise. This was a fun, enjoyable ride that would definitely appeal to the majority of the public as evident by my audience's response. The two best elements were the awesome 70/80s mixtape playlist peppered throughout and the incredible creature (and floral) design and directing of Groot. However, it does not really stand out amongst past Marvel movies and Gunn's voice can be best described as the poor man's Joss Whedon.

Gunn gave us an incredible introduction that quickly set the tone for the rest of the movie. However, other than the aforementioned playlist choices and Groot, nothing else really stood out in the remaining 100-odd minutes. What was lacking throughout was a strong emotional core to anchor the movie with the audience. Things just happen and get resolved. Our heroes do not really suffer any significant, damaging, personal, soul-crushing, emotionally tense setbacks. There were definitely enough action sequences and they surely will keep the action-fans happy. However, the sequences were nothing spectacular and the action choreography basic.

Gunn's script, co-written with Nicole Perlman, had its moments especially when the movie referenced 80s pop culture. However, the humour was on the broad side. Also, there were too many moments where Gunn and Perlman tried to capture that elusive Whedon-esque banter, and it just fell flat. Perhaps it was likely because the group was actually only two actors, 2 CGI creations and Dave Bautista. The banter here just did not work. And solely relying on Chris Pratt to deliver the humour will need him to be a stronger actor/comedian - and that is where Robert Downey Jr. succeeded brilliantly.

Then we have the characterisation of the core group. The First Act tried to establish that. Like above, it did not succeed very well. There was basic motivation but nothing deeper was explored to establish these bunch of renegades as true friends.

Pratt is a good comedic actor. On the small screen. Where he had a great array of comedic talents to work opposite with. Here, he was the sole (lead) comedian, and that responsibility was too much for his very-much buffed shoulders to carry. He lacked that self-depreciating vulnerability that would have made his character more human.

Zoe Saldana was a pretty face, even in green, and she did give her best shot to try to emote. But it felt like she playing the same character as she did in the 2 Star Trek movies. Heck, even the setting felt like a copy cat of Star Trek: Into Darkness.

Groot was the surprising scene-stealer. Not Rocket. I will admit that I might partially be biased against Bradley Cooper, but objectively, Groot's simplicity and emotive eyes were crowd pleasers. Kudos to the creature designs for both Groot and Rocket, and also definitely applause to the floral designer for that penultimate climatic scene.

Poor Lee Pace and Karen Gillan were barely recognisable under all that makeup. They were definitely hamming it up as the villains.

Lots of big names too throughout: Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro, John C. Riley, Djimon Hounsou and Josh Brolin but they are really just there to add credence to Marvel.

The score by Tyler Bates was unimpressive. Generic super-hero movie score. Marvel really needs to up its game on this aspect. Cinematography by Ben Davis had moments of cosmic, intergalatic beauty, but generally the lensing was also generic and run of the mill.

IMAX was definitely fun and the IMAX moments really popped. The 3D here was also more subtle and submissive but not necessarily a deal breaker.

Overall, a fun enjoyable movie for the masses, that brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe closer together and pulls slightly on the threads to make Avengers 2 and 3 an awesome reality.

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...