26 December 2014

Saint Laurent


Disclaimer: Expectations were high going into this film for two reasons: (1) it triumphed over the superbly brilliant and universally acclaimed Blue Is The Warmest Colour as France's entry for The 87th Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film; (2) this is the second of two Yves Saint Laurent biopics of the year - the first being: Yves Saint Laurent.

Saint Laurent was a stylish movie with a disjointed and non-cohesive narrative, saved by the charismatic Gaspard Ulliel as the eponymous fashion savant and Yves Saint Laurent's gorgeous designs.

At about 30 minutes too long, director Bertrand Bonello's 150 minutes biopic gave the audience no insight into mind and inner workings of fashion's enfant terrible. It focused on a brief chapter of his life but yet in choosing just that short time-frame, Bonello was not able to find any focus for his story: his fashion? his ideas? his relationships? his scandals? It was a hotchpotch of ideas and imageries. With the camera fleeting from one scene to another, never really lingering long enough for the scene to develop beyond the initial planned shock and awe.

At least Yves Saint Laurent was unabashedly proud of its focus towards the more salacious details of Saint Laurent's life. Also, granted, neither the sex nor nudity was as explicit as in Yves Saint Laurent, and we did get some gratuitous, and entirely superfluous and irrelevant, male frontal nudities of the stars - Ulliel and Jeremie Renier - but that could be a byproduct of Singapore's censors. That may account for the feeling of narrative disjointedness - which is very unfair to Bonello.

The true saving grace of the movie was Ulliel. He was a very different Saint Laurent from Pierre Niney's version, having had the luxury of bypassing Saint Laurent's more difficult growing years. However, physically, Niney was more alike Saint Laurent; Ulliel's prettiness and physique occasionally was a bit too distracting. But having said that, Ulliel's charisma helped to translate this enigmatic character more easily for the audience.

However, as aforementioned, Ulliel was let down by the script of Bonello and co-writer Thomas Bidegain. With no anchor for him to center his character on, Ulliel did his best to try relay the emotions of such a difficult man.

Bonello was also responsible for the music of the show and that yielded similarly mixed results. The disco-scenes had great authentic soundtracks, but the rest of the show was aural white noise.

The best scene of the whole movie - like what Saint Laurent himself said about his collections - was the 1976 show. Perhaps it was the clothes.

22 December 2014

Predestination


An entertaining Australian sci-fi movie that had a very cool concept and story, but perhaps got a bit too lost in its own perceived smarts that if you just tug a bit at the logic thread, the whole tapestry will unravel.

For fans of the sci-fi and time-travelling genres, the - inevitable - twist could be guessed within the opening minutes of the movie, and writers/directors The Spierig Brothers had padded the whole 97 minutes with enough clues and hints that even Elle Woods would have solved it.

In addition, if The Spierig Brothers had focused less on the crime noir sub-genre and made a film exploring the psychology behind the concept, this movie might have been even better, Although, realistically, a more intelligent movie would also mean less box office receipts.

Ethan Hawke was competent in the role, but to be honest, other than when he was working with Richard Linklater, Hawke's characters tend to blend in with each other.

The real stand out here was Aussie actress Sarah Snook. She was an interesting mix of old school Jodie Foster bundled with the effervescent charm of new kid Emma Stone. Her scenes and delivery in the first two acts easily eclipsed that of Hawke's. If Snook was given material that elevated the movie out of the depth of pop-intelligentsia, I am quite confident that she can meet the challenge.

This was definitely an entertaining movie that will appeal to the masses, but the concept could have been toyed with so much better. Perhaps, a new lease of life in the future as a series or mini-series.



The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies [IMAX/3D]


The final chapter of this drawn out trilogy is unfortunately the weakest of the lot, and that is saying something since The Hobbit is already incomparable to The Lord of the Ring.

At 144 minutes, this is the shortest entry of the lot, but yet it felt so bloated. There is essentially only one set where the whole story is based on (yes, we do venture to other locales briefly, but those scenes were mere interludes), and there really was not any substantial plot to sustain the length.

In addition, everything we see had a been-there-done-that feeling to it. Peter Jackson did not give us anything new or innovative to distract us from the thinness of the plot and the repetitiveness of the action.

The biggest problem with this trilogy is that we do not care about this "fellowship". There was not really any character development or investment by Jackson and company to make the audience feel attached to the characters. Likely because Tolkien himself did not really intend for this story to be so long.

The only character we really do care about is Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins - and we all know he survives. It says a lot when its the well-being of the lovers of the fictional - and frankly, unbelievable - love story (Evangeline Lily and Aidan Turner) that got us most concerned about.

No disrespect to Richard Armitage who portrayed Thorin with great gravitas, but his character's life or death was not something that we root for. Especially since we do not know why we would want him to survive. Even Luke Evan's Bard was so one-dimensional and boring.

Sadly, it was the auxillary star-casts which stole the limelight here. Benedict Cumberbatch's Smaug was fun while he/it was on screen; as were the holy-unholy trinity of Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee. That scene with the latter three should have been in the LOTR instead.

Ryan Gage's Alfred is the Jar Jar Binks of this prequel trilogy.

The highlight of this "defining chapter" is when Howard Shore's familiar Fellowhsip theme mildly rises when Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is sent to look for Aragon. Just that brief moment is enough to conjure up the majesty of the original LOTR trilogy and make The Hobbit pale in comparison.

Speaking of Howard Shore, even his score here just felt tired and generic.

I still appreciate the High Film Rate (HFR) that Jackson utilised here. It did make the action clearer and the image crisper, although the "hyper-realistic" feel to it may not be to everybody's liking. The movie was filmed in 3D so it is worth to watch it in 3D just to give a better sense of depth and scale to the battle. But do not expect the 3D gimmicks. IMAX was a plus just for the scale of it.

Overall, watching this concluding chapter, it made me miss the original trilogy. Perhaps, that was the ultimate in the grand scheme of things.

14 December 2014

The Flash


Disclaimer: Doing things differently for some shows now because of personal time constraints. Binge-watched The Flash from its Pilot to the Winter Finale over two days. Previously, I had watched Arrow but did not make it through the first season, although from what I hear, Arrow has vastly improved.

Pilot: A very good pilot - did everything that a pilot is meant to do. Introduced the protagonist and the main cast, developed a potential long term (or at least a season-long) mystery, start the conflicts between various aspects of The Flash's life, and most importantly, not laden it with too much exposition. Trusting the audience to know enough on their own - which is important in a comic-book adaptation, especially of a more well-known hero. Grant Gustin was an interesting choice to play Barry Allen, but his dorkiness is adorable - a lot like New Girl's Jesse - and instantly a lot more relatable to the average audience. Especially as this is an origins story, it make sense for him to start off as such before he matures (both physically and mentally). Tom Cavanagh - missed him since the days of Ed - was sufficiently creepy and enigmatic as Dr Wells. All the other support cast/characters were also clearly developed with clear-cut roles which hopefully will evolve as the series proceeds.

Episode 2 - Episode 9 (Winter-Finale): 
It is a testament to the show's strength that I managed to binge through 8 episodes in 2 days (6 on the second to be precise), but of cause it has its weak points too.

The show is geared towards The CW's target audience (teens and young adults mainly) and it shows. Greg Berlanti is a great producer and he understands what a TV audience want. However, a lot of things are simplified and continuity is not the greatest strength of this show, and that is only within the first 9 episodes! Too many deus ex machina moments dilute the tension and stunts character development for the sake of plot development.

The metahuman-of-the-week format also has got to changed. How many super villains can you introduce to the mix, although it is a good way for us to see how The Flash's super-speed can adapt and change, a serialised comic story-telling can be much more enjoyable. See what happened to Marvel's Agents of SHIELD in season 2, when they serialised their overall story-telling (it is almost like as Whedon's Buffy).

I miss opening credits. Almost on every new shows. (That's one thing that American Horror Story got right through the years). That introduction VO by him was way too earnest and annoying - it was like a robotic Carrie from Sex and the City - but thankfully that was lost towards the end, hope it stayed away.

Gustin is a relatable leading man but his whining and over-enthusiastic urge to be a hero needs to stop and evolve, and, as they say in The Book of Mormon: man up! On the other hand, it is also his adorkiness that makes him stand out, so they have to find that balance. Most importantly, stop pining like a little puppy for Iris - thankfully, the winter finale finally addressed that issue head on.

Gustin and Emily Bett Rickards' Felicity had great chemistry and were highlights whenver she came on; much better than Gustin and Candice Patton's Iris (a poor man's Lois Lane). Not so much with Steven Amell's Oliver.

The love triangle between Barry, Iris and Eddie (Rick Cosnett) needs to be resolved soon and hopefully the winter finale will be the last of it. Eddie and Iris are cute together, although it looks like Eddie will slowly be getting more interesting.

The most interesting character at the moment is Cavenagh's Dr Wells. Good guy or villain? Seriously, too early to tell which way the showrunners are really heading towards. All his actions thus far could just be misdirections to the bigger arc. It will be a pity if Cavenagh is only here for one season. Barry still needs a mentor.

Cisco (Carlos Valdes) and Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker) are great as the sidekicks. Cisco - the token comic relief - was surprisingly not annoying but is now bordering on being boring. Caitlin, on the other hand, has a more interesting backstory but she is in danger of becoming overly mopey. They worked best as Barry's friends and confidantes.

It will be interesting to see how the show develop and who Reverse-Flash is going to turn out to be. Future-Eddie? Or Eddie's father? Or future Wells? Future Barry? I am almost sure there is a time travelling element involved. And that is sufficient  to keep its audience hooked until 2015.

8 December 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings [IMAX/3D]

 

2 words to describe this movie: Epic. Spectacle. 

Ridley Scott is a masterful storyteller - Prometheus, for all its plot holes and heightened expectations, had a great story to tell - and he knows how to direct big set pieces without getting too complicated. Together with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski - gorgeous wide-angle lensing - and composer Alberto Inglesias - epic, awe-inspiring score - this is a visual and auditory spectacle that is worth to be seen and heard in an IMAX theatre. The 3D, however, not very much so.

Pacing-wise, the movie did slowed down a bit too much towards the end of the first act, and, as gorgeous as they were visually, the plagues dragged on too. For most audience, they would be familiar with the plagues, but if you were going to add internal conflict for your protagonist, then you better be willing to explore it more. Especially since, ironically or not, or purposely or not, Moses felt like a terrorist at one point. That angle should have been explored more by Scott and the four writers involved.

A lot like Noah, there was no outright theophany of God, but unlike Aronofsky, Scott did try to establish a more realistic and probable cause for many of the events - yes, even for the parting of the red sea. However, the choice to use a child actor - or this particular actor - to suggest His presence may not have been wise especially given the dialogue the child had to utter.

Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton led the cast and both were stellar in their roles. 

Edgerton infused Ramesses with a sense of humanity and brought out a sympathetic angle in a potentially one-dimensional figure.

Bale - as per his usual flair - morphed himself both physically and inwardly to portray a reluctant hero and eventual believer. But surprisingly, it was his relationship with Maria Valverde's Zipporah that felt the most authentic and provided the real emotional core of the movie.

Wolski cinematography was outstanding throughout. The amazing use of wide-angle lens to capture the epic-ness of Scott's imagination made the trip to the IMAX worth it. From the first 10 minutes on, the beauty of Wolski's eye is undeniable. But, the 3D really did nothing to enhance the entertainment - not even for the special effects.

Inglesias' score was able to match Scott;s vision and brought out the awe within the audience. In particular, during the "Parting of the Red Scene" scene, those horns and bass really drove it in. All we lacked was Whitney and Mariah from Prince of Egypt.

Tony Scott would have been proud of this.

Nightcrawler


What an original and darkly engaging directorial debut from director/writer Dan Gilroy! Jake Gyllenhaal was mesmerising as he disappeared into a role that is wholly unique, with equal parts charming and frightening.

Gilroy gave us a story with a relatively original concept, bringing us into the world of news video capturing. But at the same time, it was also a satirical rift on modern news channel relentless focus on crime and violence which is only because of the viewers' insatiable appetite for such "news". Aaron Sorkin will have such a field day with this - oh wait, he did already with The Newsroom.

Watching the movie itself leads the audience to question not only their own morality but also the ethics behind journalism.

Gilroy framed the movie in three distinct Acts, making Gyllenhaal's character's story easy to follow as we see him dip his toes, then start to swim, and finally dive all the way. In addition, the character himself was written very well, as his full character slowly emerges as the movie unfolds, and the audience, after connecting with him in the first act, may find themselves in a moral quandary as they realised that they may be slowly rooting for this anti-hero...or not.

However, none of all the above would have been possible without the fantastic portrayal by Gyllenhaal. This may possibly be his finest work and in an ideal world, would surely ensure him an Oscar nomination (but the race for that seemed rather tight this year). Gyllenhaal created a whole new person complete with mannerisms, ticks, walk and talk. That really is dedication to the craft. He was at times utterly charming, and at other moments totally frightening. Even just those little eye movements make his character all that more real.

Rene Russo - wife of Gilroy - was a good match for Gyllenhaal and her scenes with him were equally intense.

Cinematography by Robert Elswit had a very news-footage feel to it and the crime scenes were gorgeously shot. Music by James Newton Howard was also appropriate, moving the action and tension along.

A brilliant movie with a star performance by Gyllenhaal.

5 December 2014

State of Affairs



Pilot: NBC is taking a gamble with this new series, not only because Katherine Heigl is in the lead (for the record, I personally think she is a good actress with on-screen presence and I do not really give a damn about her PR-drama), but because how do you properly do a spy-drama when there will be inevitable comparison with the revitalised Homeland and consistently excellent The Americans over on cable? Nonetheless, the premise is interesting enough and at least the showrunners show us a different aspect of the CIA: the President's Daily Briefing. But herein lies the biggest trouble. Heigl is too glamorous and inappropriately dressed for her supposedly high-security clearance character (according to Wikipedia, she should be the Director of National Intelligence). and consequently, she lacked that necessary gravitas to give her role and credit. Nonetheless, Heigl has screen presence and is relatable but not convincing. Alfre Woodard, on the other hand, eased into her role as the first black female president with all the necessary gravitas and some. Everybody else in the show seemed to be there to support Heigl and will need to be crafted out more. Adam Kaufman looks like an exposition tool; Sheila Vand is the best friend. Pity James Remar is only listed as recurring. But the final act placed a thread for a continuing mystery which may be rather interesting.

Episode 2, "Secrets & Lies": Heigl is still too glamourous for her role which now seemed like she was/is (?) an operative. Her makeup is too thick and way too Botox-ed. Let's hope the MO of the show is not really turning it into a case-of-the-week with the ongoing mystery peppered throughout until Sweeps month. This may turn out better if they keep it serialised. Woodard needs more to do. As does Remar. The other briefers need to be more fleshed out. Nestor Carbonell is an interesting addition and David Harbour as the Chief of Staff seemed to know something. 

Episode 3, "Half The Sky": A much improved episode. With much less make up, Heigl is finally looking less glamourous and more like a CIA operative. They are also finally bringing more of the backstory to the foreground and shining a bit more light on the supporting cast/briefers. Both of which help to smooth out the edges. But most importantly, Woodard has a much larger role here which she tackled with vigour. Similarly, her interactions with Heigl and the First Gentleman are the highlights, especially the former which should be the central driving force of the series. One thing the show needs to explore is Heigl's character work-relationship. How does Charleston relate with the Director of CIA?

4 December 2014

Maps to the Stars


Bolstered by a powerful female cast - from the raw and vanity-free Julianne Moore to the cold and yet fragile Mia Wasikowska and the always talented and under-rated Olivia Williams - David Cronenberg's latest is a dark, strange satire on the dysfunction of Hollywood that lies below all the glitz and glamour.

The story, written by Bruce Wagner, unfold in layers and in pieces, with each piece slowly falling into place as the layers are slowly peeled off. All that happened as Wagner and Cronenberg satirised the dark comedic truths behind the Hollywood machine. With name-droppings like snow in Winter, the pop-savvy and intelligent audience will get the comedy behind the darkness. However, if not, some parts may not make much sense.

Moore was riveting throughout the movie as we see her character morph and change through the 112 minutes. The accolades were justified as was her Best Actress win at Cannes'. The role was vanity-free and Moore really let herself go and embraced all the idiosyncrasies, the outrageous-ness and the narcissism of her character and made her feel real and not a caricature.

Moore was matched by Wasikowska. This girl is going to win an Oscar really soon - her body of work is phenomenal! Thank you, Tim Burton for bringing her to the masses! But, Wasikowsa, please stick to these brilliant indies. Wasikowska definitely had the more complicated character to play - and some may argue the real lead of the movie - and she did it with aplomb! That raw, naked vulnerability mixed with a strange innocent maleficence is creepy yet alluring. She draws you in to her story and keep you there - locked, chained and possibly drugged.

Williams had a smaller role compared to Moore and Wasikowsa, but what she did with her screen time was truly amazing. She was equally magnetic as the strong, take-no-BS momager and as the frightened, teetering-on-a-breakdown mother.

The men in the show were sadly not up to the strength of the ladies, and the writing may have been at fauly. Robert Pattinson was actually understatedly appropriate for his I'm-there-only-to-move-the-plot-along role; John Cusack's character was not well written which may have led to his rather boring and one-dimensional portrayal; Evan Bird's neck is too long which was distracting, but other than that, his make up was too thick and distracting, although his character was actually quite interesting.


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...