19 December 2015

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens [IMAX/3D]



I will just say it right now: this was not a great movie.

It was a good film; an enjoyable, fluffy, popcorn, end-of-year, special-effects bonanza that is bound to make loads of cash, but it was not great in any way at all. Filled with a predictable and recycled storyline, predictable and clunky dialogue (noticed a trend?), mediocre to bad acting from the newbies, and boringly bland sets, music and cinematography, this film rides on the legacy of its original epic trilogy and succeeds because of the dismal tragedy of its prequels.

Granted, J.J. Abrams had a lot on his shoulders when he took on this behemoth and all things considering, he did a valiant job. Just not an outstanding one.

The film was obviously made for a four-quadrant audience with as much mass appeal as possible (read: simplicity). It had to pay homage to the original and acknowledged the mistakes of the prequels for the fanboys, and yet it need to hook in a whole new generation of audience for the large cinematic universe that Disney has planned. The latter is all without the large, built in fan base of the comic books industry - Marvel and D.C.

The problem is that script by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt was a rehash of the original just with the pieces moved around. The more cynical ones - like me - would even say that it was basically like any other generic Hollywood trope these days. There was nothing new nor refreshing about it. The storyline was contrived and kismetically-convenient to push the narrative forward; every plot point was predictable and sledgehammer-like foreshadowed. Worse still was the predictable, stale and cheesy dialogue that dulled down significant moments.

Abrams et al tried to emulate a Joss Whedeon-eque kind of banter but that was just sad and sadly funny. It did not work because of the lacked of chemistry between the cast and the chunkiness of the words.

Which brings us to the Abrams directorial effort. There is a certain off-rhythm kilt about the whole beat of the film. It seemed that Abrams was always just a quarter-to-half a beat slower than the action or the emotional resonance of the film.

As much as his use of CGI was much more controlled and more en naturel, none of the big fight/action sequences was overly memorable - either visually or narratively. There really was not anything refreshing or new or exciting. Up to a certain point, the endless homages, and wink-wink to fanboys, began to feel intrusive and annoying and just plain pandering. It showed how badly Abrams lacked in originality. Even the sets were a yawn. Especially that opening sequence. That whole prologue felt like it was filmed on a sounds stage!

However, the biggest crime by Abrams was his casting of the three leads. There is nothing wrong with casting newbies or actors in their virgin roles. Occasionally we get brilliant, standout, Oscar-nominating results. But Abrams does not have that quality as a director to bring that out in his cast, and unfortunately, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and the not-so-new Adam Driver are not natural born thespians. Often, and in particular with Ridley, their stiff acting brings us out of the film.

It is sad when the actors that are not seen can outshine the more visible cast with just their voice alone. Lupita Nyong'o exuded warmth, wisdom and wit; Gwendoline Christie has an indomitable physical presence and a voice to match; Andy Serkis - master of the motion capture - was just terrifying (although still slightly comical).

Harrison Ford no doubt shone the brightest of the actors in person. He has an effortless charm and commands the screen. His scenes opposite Ridley greatly shows off her inexperience and sadly wooden acting. It was only when Hans Solo appear does the film really kick off into high gear.

Oscar Isaac was another standout. Here is a hero - unlike Rey and Finn - who we can really root for and who we want to win. Although he was reduced to playing third of fourth fiddle here. Pity and a waste, and hopefully a bigger role in the sequels for Isaac (but please, not as Rey's love interest - be original!).

Ridley, as aforementioned, still needs to brush up on her acting particularly when she is in the frame but is not the focus. Whenever that happens you can tell that she just freezes up and remained wooden until she is asked to react. However, she has talent which was evident when we see her close up or a reaction shot. And I believe that she has a gift for physical comedy.

Boyega was slightly better. His strengths laid in his comedy but he still needs to develop more to handle any emotional heft beyond "I feel bad".

Boyega and Ridley were paired off early and there are inklings of potential romance between the pair, however it all seemed forced. There were not many moments of natural chemistry between them which then strained the credibility of their partnership.

And then we have Adam Driver. Not a stranger to some viewers - and an Emmy nominated actor too. But he was miscast as Kylo Ren. He lacked the presence to be an effective villain. When he removed his mask, there was even a glimmer of menace or terror. More comedy actually. And hopefully his arc through the sequels will show us his growth from what really is a petulant man-child now.

Domhnall Gleeson was a more effective villain and really just stole the scenes with Driver. Hope to see more of him and Isaac in the sequels.

Lastly. we have John Williams' anaemic score. Maybe Abrams should have passed the scoring duties to his other long time collaborator Michael Giacchino? William's score lacked epicness. Perhaps he was let down by poor sound mixing/editing, but throughout the film, the score constantly reminded us how un-exciting everything was.

In all, this was a good film to spend the holidays in. But will it be remembered in the future? At least the prequels will be - for how bad they were. The rest of the sequels will now definitely play a larger role in shaping the future of this franchise.

3D not necessary. And really, IMAX wasn't too.




17 December 2015

Creed





Nostalgia weekend starts with Creed – the seventh film in the Rocky franchise, and boy was it a knockout! Reuniting Fruitvale Station’s talented Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, the film was surprising sincere and heartfelt. Even as it occasionally veers towards the overly dramatic and oddly faux epic-ness of a Rocky movie, it was still a worthy successor of Slyvester Stallone’s early hits.
Speaking of Stallone, he was the Most Valuable Person of the film. There was an unexpected naturalness in his role that genuinely made you feel for him and how life must be like for a lonely, ex-champion. It was no wonder that he has been getting accolades and he does deserve it. There is a possibility that he might get a Best Supporting Actor nomination out of it, but if he does, Mark Rylance is still the man to beat (without having seeing Spotlight yet).
Coogler directed a brilliant film. He managed to get another great performance out of Jordan and also from Stallone, and the rest of the supporting cast. His fight scenes were visceral and kinetic, and bloody kudos to that amazing oner  that was Jordan’s first “real” fight! That really brought the audience into the ring. However, too many oners and it can begin to feel gimmicky. As were the overly epic and heroic score by Ludwig Goransson and the multiple homages to Rocky.
The story by Coogler was an ingenious way to bring Rocky back to pop-consciousness. Although the more dramatic and emotional scenes ironically lacked the punch and the screenplay by Coogler and Aaron Covington had too many clunky lines. Thankfully, it was all saved by the chemistry of the stars. Although the romantic subplot felt like a lost plot line of Empire.
Jordan has a great career in front of him – as long as he clears off duds like Fantastic Four ­. From the small screen on The Wire, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood to the big screen he definitely is a rising star. But he also definitely has a lot more room to grow as an actor, especially evident when Stallone is over-shining you in a less showy role.
There will sure be comparison between Creed and Southpaw since both are sport movies about boxing. However, Creed definitely was the better movie; although Jake Gyllenhaal gave a much better – and rawer and more vanity-free  - performance than Jordan. But overall, Creed succeeded in engaging the audience more even though some would claim that the manipulation was too blatant.



15 December 2015

In The Heart Of The Sea




Ron Howard's latest wasan alright movie - it was neither spectacularly good nor horrendously bad - it just lacked the grandeur and epic sweep that it so badly wished it had, but, in the end, it was failed by a generic story and un-imaginative storytelling.

Chris Hemsworth is an underrated actor and it is going to take a lot for him to get out from under Thor's shadow. His last outing with Howard gave us the excellent Rush and hopefully with the moolah from Marvel, he can continue to pursue smaller films that allow him to showcase his acting chops.

The story by Char;es Levant, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver was too focused on getting the characters to meet The Whale that it sacrificed characterization and relationship building which would become so important in the Third Act as the crew tried to survive. In truth, the story behind Moby Dick could have been very interesting, but the direction it took was not refreshing or new.

ITHOTS tried to emulate the gorgeous CGI-created world of Life of Pi but failed. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and Howard just could not capture the beauty as well as Claudio Miranda and Lee Ang. Neither could Howard copy the gritty realism of J.C. Chandor's All is Lost - despite Hemsworth's dedication to the role.

Howard had some moments where he shone and brought a palpable sense of excitement and terror to the audience. However, there were more moments that felt rushed and generic. And of course, there was also the badly done CGI. The water scenes were actually done really well when it was real but the CGI moments ranged from bad to laughable - which then brings the audience out of the movie. Even worse were the land scenes with one of the worse CGI seen on a big budget film (seriously, TV's Supergirl and Marvel's Agents of SHIELD had better CGI).

The cast gathered was terrific, but sadly wasted and misuse. Although there was a real sense of camaraderie and chemistry between Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy and Tom Holland (Spidey, meet Thor; Thor, meet Spidey!) it was not enough to make us really care about the characters or their conflict. Ben Wishaw, Brenden Gleeson and Michelle Fairley was actually more interesting as a set although their story was separate from the heroics.

The material itself was so rich that this film could have been epic, but instead it was just acceptable and mildly entertaining which was such a shame. Can Chris Hemsworth breakout?

8 December 2015

Macbeth



A beautiful and poetic interpretation, albeit a mildly abridged version, of Shakespeare's classic tragedy that was filled with gorgeous shots and a riveting, mesmerising  performance by Michael Fassbender and an equally hauntiing and intense one from Marion Cotillard. Thankfully the subtitles helped with both the Shakespearean/Elizabethan English and the heavy heavy Scottish (and Irish and French and Fassbenderian) accents.

Director Justin Kurzel's first big film was assured and confident, and he managed to stage the film like a play but yet still fully-utilised the large screen capability of cinema to translate the grandeur and majesty of the story. However, the strength in his directing was really the closer and intimate portrayals of King and Lady Macbeth. Although that was also partially due to the strength of the actors.

I think it is great that actors of such calibre like Fassbender and Cotillard are willing to take a chance on Kurzel, and something must have gone right in their collaboration - and it really showed on screen - for all three to go a second round with the upcoming Assassin Creed movie.

The film was just shy of 2 hours long, so some scenes/moments would have expected to be cut and that definitely was not to the show's advantage. Especially to an audience not familiar with the platy. The narrative would have seemed rather disjointed and the relationships between some of the characters less explored and established to make their actions much sense. But of course the big moments - and soliloquies - were kept and aced by the stars.

Fassbender was amazing and absolutely commanded the screen, His portrayal of Macbeth's descent from hero to murderer, lord to tyrant, from being respected to being feared, was slow and methodical. And the way he sprouted Shakespeare's line demanded that they be listened to through the tonal inflections and the careful pauses. His fear, hesitation, anxiety and resignation translated through his speech and his face and his posture.

Cotillard held up gamely against Fassbender. Thankfully her Lady Macbeth avoided the usual cliches and was portrayed as an equal to Macbeth. Although, her descent to madness was not as overt but it was that simplicity that Cotillard wrought that made it so much more haunting.

Both Fassbender and Cotillard definitely deserve some recognition come award time, but Fassbender will be fighting against himself in Steve Job in an already crowded - yet seemingly mediocre - field; Cotillard may stand a chance to gain a nomination in the Best Supporting Actress.

Kudos to Adam Arkapaw for the gorgeous cinematography although the fire scenes was a tad too harsh (see: Roger Deakins' brilliant work at the end of Skyfall). Although his shooting of Top of the Lake and the first season of True Detective already made him a name to be excited for.

And also kudos to Jacqueline Durran for the stunning costumes, and Fiona Crombie for the excellent production design. 

Kurzel has distilled Shakespeare's masterpiece into a worthy cinematic adaptation and ably captured the riveting performance of Fassbender and Cotillard to bring the Tragedy to life.



2 December 2015

The Good Dinosaur


The Good Dinosaur was a beautifully rendered animation with gorgeous, picturesque landscapes and amazing details. The story itself was a simple, straightforward The Land Before Time  meets The Lion King sensibility that despite its subtle darkness, still lacked the depth and lofty ideas of past Pixar entries. Nonetheless, it stills pack an emotional punch aided by Mychael and Jeff Danna's grogeous score.

I think Pixar had a wonderful concept initially: What if the meteor that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs didn't really hit Earth. That is a brilliant sci-fi concept and animation would have been able to carry it off beautifully (think: Avatar). And some seeds of that idea could be seen in the final film, however, what was more obvious was that the final product was clearly a different story from that.

The anthropomorphism of the dinosaurs went a bit too far  - but just roll with it since it is an additional million years of evolution - and the de-anthropomorphism of the human boy was just weird, unless it was a dark, dark subtext. But the relationship between the two lead characters worked, although the most powerful scenes were the wordless ones which then led me to wonder if The Good Dinosaur would have done better if it followed in the footsteps of Wall-E and go sans dialogue. We know Pixar is capable of that.

And when the dialogue fell to the side, you can really appreciate the gorgeous beauty of the film. Just based on that alone, I think the 3D version of this movie would have been stunning.

The music by Mychael and Jeff Danna definitely helped too. They had created a beautiful theme to celebrate friendship and love. A more emotionally stirring score than Giacchino's work on Inside Out

This was a simple story. No lofty ideas and grand, complex themes. And because it lacked originality, Pixar should have embraced the sappiness and gone all in for the heart and perhaps even lose their initial conceit.

The short animation tagged before the film: Sanjay's Super Team was also similarly not one of Pixar's best. It told a simple and personal story - a rarity - and because of that, it had a touch more heart and sincerity despite the simplicity (in terms of narrative and animation).

25 November 2015

The Program




Stephen Frears’ newest film was an enjoyable and rather educational look into the Lance Armstrong doping saga, and like his past films The Queen and Philomena, he managed to extract a phenomenal performance from his lead – in this case, the revelatory Ben Foster – but unlike those earlier films, The Program lacked heart and passion.

Frears and writer, John Hodge, presented a clear narrative from the beginning to the final downfall of Armstrong. However, too much time was focused on the long middle act which illustrated the abuse of the performance enhancement drugs (which the audience already knew he did), and not enough time was spent examining the why in the beginning or the potentially emotionally wrecking fall from grace in the end.

As a docu-drama of the faux legend there was not really any real drama involved in the retelling nor were there any documentary revelations about the saga.

We learnt nothing new about Lance Armstrong, nor did we feel like we better understand why he did what he did.

The inclusion of real life footages from the Tour de France races were a good touch and helped to add authenticity to the cycling scenes. However, Frears was not able to inject any sort of passion into the sport although cinematographer Danny Cohen lensed the races with a sense of tight dynamics.


Foster was outstanding in his role. He gave a strong and dedicated performance, and eerily resembled Armstrong. He was convincing in his own self-righteousness and had the smug, charming attitude to carry such vanity off. The little of what we glimpsed at the end of the defeat and shame showed a well that was sadly not tapped and explored.


The character of David Walsh – ably portrayed by Chris O’Dowd – was superficially developed as nothing more than the pesky journalist in the end. As the main supporting character/actor, the audience was not involved in his story as he served just to support and move the narrative along.


Jesse Plemon's Floyd Landis character was also underserved but at least we had a good sense of where his actions come from, and Plemon - an under-rated but ubiquitous character actor - definitely helped to bring his character out.

Like Tom Hardy in Legend and Johnny Depp in Black Mass, Foster has thrown his hat into the longlist of consideration for this year’s Best Actor. However, like Hardy and Depp, the overall quality of the film may hurt his chances, but of all three, I think he is the one that most deserves some recognition especially for his commitment.


24 November 2015

Legend


On paper this film sounded great, but unfortunately what we see on screen is nothing but. This was not a bad film per se, but just that it was ... uninteresting. A tepid and bland presentation of what could have been an exciting gangster(s) biopic. The only saving grace was the undeniably talented Tom Hardy who gave a performance that was fun, exciting, engaging but sadly undeserving of Brian Helgeland.

For someone who wrote the excellent - oscar-winning - screenplay of LA Confidential, the narrative in this film was unfocused. Does it want to be a gangster film, a true-life biopic, a romantic drama or a family drama? Sadly, Helgeland chose to focus on the romantic aspect which was the weakest and also the least interesting storyline.

At the end of the film, after 131 long minutes - it would have been better served if they cut it by 20-30 minutes - we still do not really know the Kray brothers any better.

Helgeland's story seemed to want to push the envelop, but Helgeland the director seemed to resist it at every turn.

As a director, Helgeland best work was utilising computer wizardry to have Hardy interact with himself. But for the rest of the film, it was pedestrian. Even his choice of music - with Carter Burwell - seemed at odds with the rest of the film.

Hardy was great. He created two distinct characters and they were both interesting and riveting. Sadly, the script couldn't serve him better by exploring the intriguing dynamics between the two brothers as well as the challenge of being a gangster and a lover/psychopath. However, towards the end of the bloated run time, even the audience was slowly getting tired of the schtick.

The supporting cast were a talented bunch of actors but all so wasted. Paul Bettany barely registered, Christopher Eccleston was boring and one-note, up-and-coming Taron Egerton had a few moments to shine but his character was a mystery - lover? sidekick? right hand man? all three? - and David Thewlis was reduced to almost the unintentional comedic relief.

Emily Browning had chemistry with Hardy, but using her as an audience surrogate was a poor choice to bring the audience into the gangster world as she herself is so out of it. As such, her character was difficult to relate to.

In the end, maybe Hardy may get recognised for his work here - depending on the rest of this year's crowd I suppose - but by itself, it was not enough to lift this film out of the doldrums of blandness. A boring film could be a worse sin than a bad film.

23 November 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2





Breaking up the final part of this trilogy was clearly a money-grabbing ploy because on its own, Part 2 lacked a definite structure which made the conclusion of this dystopic saga feel limp and betrayed the emotional investment of the audience.


That being said, Suzanne Collin's third book itself was also not her best, as it tried to cramp as much of its political satirism-for-tweens, but at least the ending held weight and was less expected than in the movie - which was clumsily foreshadowed.


The target demographic would surely be happy with the film. Its darker overtones were well handled but could have been dealt with more deeply to give it a richer complexity which I am sure star Jennifer Lawrence could have handled.


This second part dragged on too long to reach a conclusion that as foresaid was expected. It moved from one scene to another, as our characters faced one obstacle after another, but none of that were truly climatic or exciting. It truly felt hollow as there never was once a sense of real danger for our heroes (except one particular standout moment which was too rare in coming).


The chemistry that existed once between Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson seemingly vanished. As more age-appropriate it is between Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth, they lacked chemistry. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks were under utilised but their few scenes were a lot more memorable. Julianne Moore's character evolution/deceit would have been better served if it was all in one movie and Donald Sutherland was great as President Snow - evil and cunning and frightfully calm.


In the end, this was a serviceable film that felt too long and concluded the saga in an unsatisfying limp.

5 November 2015

Spectre [IMAX]



Spectre was an entertaining, action-packed and generally fun film that tried to tie up all of Daniel Craig’s past Bond films into a neat little bow. However, Sam Mendes and John Logan tried too hard to do both that and re-capture the magic of Skyfall, such that it succeeded in neither.
Comparisons with Skyfall will be expected, and just like Sam Smith’s Writing’s on the Wall is a paler shade to Adele’s Skyfall, Spectre too failed to excite and engage as much as its predecessor. And it is not just the plot, unfortunately even the cinematography (by Hoyte van Hoytema here), Thomas Newman’s score and Christoph Waltz’s villainy all failed to match the high standards set by Roger Deakins, Newman himself and Javier Bardem.

The film started off great. That was the best part and it gave hope that Spectre will be better than Skyfall. That opening sequence – especially that long tracking shot by Mendes – was outstanding. The action sequence too was the best of the whole film, and even in comparison with all that were in Skyfall.
Smith’s title song surprisingly worked a lot better in the cinema with the classic Bond montage than over the radio, and it all really set the bar quite high.

However, from that point on, the film got too entangled in its own lazy narrative. <mild spoilers> Writers Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth (the first three wrote Skyfall) created a Hydra-esque organisation to account for  the past three bond films and it was lazy <end spoilers>.  Everything became too neat, too contrived and not really well explained.
There could have been such a rich mine of character development for both Craig and Waltz based on how they wrote Waltz character. But that chance is all gone and wasted now. Pity.

Similarly, Bond himself broke no new grounds here. There was not any emotional depth in his character unlike Casino Royale and Skyfall. The same could be said about the other characters. M, Q, Bill Tanner and Moneypenny were all there to service the plot; maybe except M.
Mendes and van Hoytema filmed some pretty scenes together and the action choreography was exciting (and thumped up by Newman’s more aggressive music), however, they were not adrenalin-pumping or edge-of-your-seat types. At 148 minutes, it also featured a number of downtime moments which slowed the pace down too much with no service to the plot. Even the sex scenes felt sterile and boring.

Tom Ford is really getting a lot of promotion out of this. But, damn!, that guy has impeccable tailoring (for Craig).
Craig has embodied this Bond persona, and he has mastered that trademark smirk and sneer that we have all come to love. Sadly, he was not given much juicy material to play with. And whatever he had, Craig is not that nuanced an actor (yet) to sell what is not spoken.

Lea Seydoux is the lead Bond girl and like most of the recent Bond girls, she is not a pure damsel in distress. Similarly, her backstory sounds tragic and rich, and Mendes really did manage to get her to show us that.
Waltz was creepy, but not in a scary sort of way like Bardem. More like creepy psychotic – like his character in Inglourious Bastards. He did the best with what he was given but we never really understood him or cared much about him – which was a waste of such an important character.
Ben Wishaw is a great Q. Funny, snarky and loyal. Wishaw had great bantering with Craig.

Ralph Fiennes had big shoes to fill and he did a great job. He was equally intimidating as a boss and as an adversary.
Poor Naomie Harris was relegated to the background here.

Andrew Scott was smarmy. From the moment he came on we knew he would be a player but his motivations were so cliché.

Monica Bellucci looked great for her age and for that brief cameo.
A genuinely entertaining thriller that looked and sound good in an IMAX, though not really necessary, that tried too hard to be as good as its predecessor but just fell short.

3 November 2015

Quantico




Pilot: ABC's new show might be the best of this season's lot. In the vein of "How To Get Away With Murder", we are treated to a mystery in the future with clues in the flashbacks. Like "Murder", the cast are all fairly fresh-faced (and pretty) individuals with some old familiar faces to keep the viewers grounded. And although Priyanka Chopra is not as big a star as Viola Davis in the States, she is a big deal in Bollywood. Similarly, it also bears the question: how would it sustain itself beyond one season?



Episode 2, America: Some new faces and a certain amount of character retcon were introduced. But at least it worked. Although the focus on Chopra's sexuality/sensuality is getting too overt. But the suspects are genuinely getting more interesting in both their personal lives and how they may figure into the larger mystery.


Episode 3, Cover: A less exciting episode but it did serve up a nice surprise or two. However, after two episodes of the trainees, I thought this would be the time to provide a bit more insight to the trainers. Why is Miranda helping Alex? Although I do appreciate that the romantic entanglements are not the main focus.


Episode 4, Kill: The nine months of training in Quantico is really becoming very interesting. It may actually be more engaging then who bombed Grand Central Station. And the rest of the main cast/trainees are really stepping up especially Simon and Shelby. Is Nimah being setup for Season two?


Episode 5, FoundThis is slowly getting more and more preposterous. They need to set up the timeline better. Although it will be interesting to see how the "good guys" will win against the "less good guys". But again, I'm more interested in the past than the present and not for the clues to solving the mystery but for the dynamics of the cast. That is the greatest strength of this show. 

30 October 2015

Supergirl


Pilot: CBS has jumped into the superheroes pool and has wisely decided to make a splash by centering on a female superhero, but - damn it! - you don't have to keep drumming that point in throughout the whole pilot do you? And you can't even give a good reason why she is called "supergirl". From the co-creators of The CW's DC-shows - the fun The Flash and the dark Arrow - the pilot of Supergirl has gotten most things right straight out of the bat. Melissa Benoist was surprisingly well cast and she brings with her a lovable and refreshing charm. Our titular heroine actually loves her power, the people around her all knows she has power - even the potential love interests which is refreshing - and so far the rest of the cast are appealing with an outstanding Calista Flockhart especially.  But it will be interesting to see how the supporting cast will be integrated into the action/drama - which was one thing that both Arrow and The Flash did very well - and how CBS will differ from The CW (NBC's Constantine did not fare as well, ratings wise, despite being a fun show to watch). Otherwise, the pilot was interesting enough to stay tune for the next episode. Here's hoping CBS does not turn this into another run-of-the-mill procedural.

Episode 2, "Stronger Together": Benoist's cute and over-earnest demeanor is already getting slightly annoying and none of the characters seem to have great chemistry together. Literally, they looked like the actors are finding their footing together as much as the characters. The clunky dialogue does not help matters too. But at least our heroine as already met the Big Bad which is refreshing.

29 October 2015

Burnt


In theory, this film should have been great, but in the hands of director John Wells and writer Steven Knight, what we were left with was the equivalent of a stale, insert-your-favourite-mass-market-store-brand bread. What a waste of the bevy of talented stars attached to it (and I am not including Bradley Cooper in this mix).

Essentially, this should have been marketed more like a romantic-comedy, and then perhaps it would have made more sense. If you are looking for food-porn or have a better understanding of how chefs work/think, then may I humbly suggest Netflix's superior Chef's Table. Or even Bryan Fuller's Hannibal!

Why did Emma Thompson even agreed to be in this film? Uma Thurman was barely up for less than 10 minutes. Talented European actors like Daniel Bruhl, Omar Sy and Matthew Rhys end up playing second fiddle to (American) Cooper who brings nothing to this role other than his usual persona. And poor Alicia Vikandar - this year's more ubiquitous actor - does not even get a mention on the poster.

The story itself, by Michael Kalesniko, has so much potential, but the way Wells chose to handle it was disappointing. Everything about the directing and writing was introductory class 101. Nothing was done to establish Cooper's character and his brash arrogance was purely unearned. Which leads to a highly misleading movie tagline: how is it that he has everything to lose?

All that led to a predictable storyline. The romance. The twist. The faux-twist. The happy ending.

Cooper is a way over-rated actor. Just like in American Sniper, he was one-tone in this film. Shouting and being rude does not an intimidating and excellent chef maketh. There was no passion in his cooking or his reverence towards food. Joseph Gordon-Levitt learnt to walk a tight rope for The Walk; did Cooper even learn to cook or use a sous-vide machine?

Sienna Miller is the love interest. Did I spoil it for you? At least I could believe that she was a struggling single mum, but the chemistry between Cooper and her was barely palpable. And at least she was not cut from the movie unlike in Black Mass.

Poor Bruhl was left to be the unwitting comedic side-kick but at least his character was fun; Sy should have been given more to make his scenes work; Rhys nailed his last scene way better than any of Cooper's.

Again, why did Emma Thompson agree to be in this?

Sure, there was some good philosophy about food but most everything else was pedestrian and flat. To use a common food analogy, the souffle did not rise.


28 October 2015

The Walk [IMAX/3D]


An entertaining biographic film that was visually exciting and buoyed by Robert Zemeckis' remarkable use of 3D and achored by Joseph Gordon-Levitt's boyish, faux-french charms.

A technically superb film but its effects occassionally usurped and distracted from the story. The First Act started off promising with Gordon-Levitt, and his initially-distracting Parisian-accented english, and his co-stars Charlotte Le Bon and Ben Kingsley, exploring Phillippe Petit's initial desire and need to be a wire walker.

However, despite all their rom-com-esque charm (think: JGL and Zooey Deschanel's 500 Days of Summer) and Kingsley stealing his scenes, there was a distinct lack of heart. We do not really know who is Phillippe and why he wants to do what he wants to do. Zemeckis used lots of voice-overs to try to bring that acrosss, but Gordon-Levitt's faux-french voice work - and what was shown on screen - did not hel pto convey that across. And it is this lack of empathy that led to the Third Act feeling rushed and expected.

Similarly, because we know of Petit's story, Zemeckis had the immense challenge to make the process entertaining and engaging. The heist-element could have been that, but except for the introduction of James Badge Dale's character and a great scene by César Domboy (with Gordon-Leveitt), there was not much emotional investment for the audience.

Kudos to JGL for his wire-walking skills and that unfaltering accent (which because it was consistent, became less distracting). And it was his wire-walking skill that really helped to sell the climatic moment, although - like aforementioned - parts of it appeared too CGI. Partially, also because we know that the original Twin Towers are sadly not present anymore.

Gordon-Levitt has his charms and really sold on the manical energy of Petit, however there was no depth in his characterisation. The best actors were Kingsley who did much with a small role, and the French actors, Domboy and Clément Sibomy - who both should have been given more to do.

After the desolated beauty of Mars in  The Martian, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski gave us another beautiful landscape, but this time of the urban jungle that is NYC and the more romantic concrete of Paris.

Unfortunately, the music by Alan Silvestri was rather pedestrian and forgettable, failing to lift the narrative.

If nothing else, Robert Zemeckis truly knows and understands how to utilise the latest cinematic technologies. Although not like James Cameron who pushes the boundaries, Zemeckis' use of technology often served to enable him to tell a story beyond the limits of reality.

The film was both an ode to Philippe Petit and to the city of New York, and nothing made it more clear than the last scene/frame. Maybe it's time to catch James Marsh's Man on Wire which I missed.

24 October 2015

Blindspot


Pilot: NBC's latest crime/drama tries to be something different, but the whole concept/execution of it is reminiscence of its own Blacklist, except for the change in gender. Its like Blacklist meets Prison Break. The cast is attractive, especially the two leads Jaimie Alexander and Sullivan Stapleton, and the central mystery intriguing itself. The supporting cast seemed to be included for racial diversity which honestly is absurd considering that the pilot's plot is racist. Or that could just be put down to lazy writing without research which really is not forgivable considering that the pilot should be solid (i.e. Mandarin is not Cantonese and most Chinese dialect are spoken not typed out). Similarly, the showrunners are positioning this more like a crime procedural than a black-box mystery, also heavier on plot and narrative rather than character. After the pilot they all seemed flat and only Marianne Jean-Baptiste was interesting, in part also because she had presence. They missed the boat on this being an actor's showcase by skipping out on the rehabilitation of Jane Doe.

Episode 2, A Stray Howl: This second episode felt stale, adding nothing to the story so far. The characters are re-introduced and their relationship further clarified, but nothing new in terms of dynamics. Although Stapleton and Alexander seemed to have developed a better chemistry as their characters start to link up. Writing is still lazy and contrived though,

Episode 3, Eight Slim Grins: My notes are getting shorter, but finally we have something new and interesting, and thankfully it involves the MVP of the show. What is Jean-Baptiste hiding? And what (who) is "Daylight"? That may be more interesting than who/what is Jane Doe. Similarly, characterisations still take a backseat to plot, and any character growth of the two leads (the rest are left to languish) were bland and two dimensional. And what is with the electronica soundtrack?

Episode 4, Bone May Rot: My notes on this episode was a one-liner. Solving the tattoos is becoming to random. The showrunners better have a good game plan behind this. And seriously, four episodes in and I am already getting bored about finding out who Jane is or isn't. "Daylight" seemed more interesting as I am already more invested in Jean-Baptiste than the others.

Episode 5, Split The Law: Well, the show finally has a villain for the audience to root against and no surprise that it is the CIA. However, we still do not have much answers. Jean-Baptiste remains the most interesting character/actor and everybody else are just too textbook. It is also annoying as hell, that these tattoos have not given us a purpose yet. And that random guy died in Episode 3 is still a mystery.


23 October 2015

Crimson Peak


Disclaimer: I cannot believe that in this day and age, Singapore is still censoring films such as this. It gets slapped with a NC-16 rating (not for 16 years and under) and the sex scenes are cut?!

Guillermo del Toro's latest is not a horror house picture. It is a very stylish and gorgeously sumptuous gothic, tragic love story that appealed more to the eyes rather than the brain or heart.

With such a wonderful cast, it was a pity that del Toro (and co-writer Matthew Robbins) did not focus more on the story and tried to get more out of his stars. The chemistry between Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston can be best described as frosty; that between Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain remained obtusely enigmatic; and although Charlie Hunnam and Wasikowska had some sparks, it was a pity they were not explored.

There were elements in the story that had some potential but they were merely skimmed through, which then begged the question, what was the purpose of bringing it out in the first place. The main mystery, on the other hand, was not un-expected, and del Toro could have pushed the envelop a lot further.

Having said that, at 119 minutes, the film did not really feel that long, and that really was due to del Toro's visual style. Throughout the film, he sustained a high level of creepiness and taut/tense atmosphere, and although the supernatural portions were not that scary they were effective in winding us up.

The cinematography by Danish Dan Laustsen was gorgeous and really helped to elevate del Toro's visuals. However, one aspect that this film did not score well in was the special effects. Yes, they were beautifully rendered (and very reminiscent of the del Toro-produced and Chastain starring Mama), however they lacked the originality and creep-factor of the practical effects in del Toro's masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth.

The two part that really lived up to del Toro's visions/visuals were hair, costume and make-up, and production design. Costumer Kate Hawley, Hair & Makeup head Jordan Samuel, and Production Designer Thomas E. Sanders really ought to get recognised at the Oscars.

Wasikowska was perfectly cast in the lead and she continued her trend of Victorian-esque heroines after Stoker, Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre and even Alice (of the Wonderland). However, casting her opposite Hiddleston (or the other way round whichever was first) was unfortunate as they did not have the necessary chemistry to spark and convince as lovers. They were better as in-laws in Only Lovers Left Alive.

Hiddleston was great as the tortured male protagonist and he could definitely sprout those Gothic romance lines convincingly, but as one-half of the central trio, he was the one that felt the weakest.

Chastain is a great actress, however as intriguing as she was in the first act, she got stale in the second act, and really only came back alive in the third.

The irony that they cast Hunnam as an American when he's British, and Chastain as English when she's American is not lost. Poor Hunnam was wasted.

This was a decent addition to del Toro's filmography, but for straight-up horror/super-natural nothing still beats Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone.

22 October 2015

Code Black


Pilot: A great cold opening that led into a relentless adrenaline high for the next 40-odd minutes, but therein laid Code Black's biggest problem. How can it maintain such high standards for a whole (network) season? Marcia Gay Harden is the star of the show and her entrance was brilliant. She was believable (in a TV sense of the word) and had enough vulnerability to not make her a sap. The central conflict was addressed early on and laid the groundwork for the rest of the pilot to focus on. Harden's chief sparring partner is Raza Jaffrey who has really seen his star rise since getting noticed on Smash. The other standout was Luis Guzman and it's a pity Kevin Dunn is not a regular. As for the residents, they are externally different but written oh-so boringly. The writing on the show is also bordering on cheesy and clunky, and unabashedly emotionally baiting. After the pilot, this feels like HOUSE M.D. on speed but lacking the cast chemistry and magnetic enigmatic charisma of Hugh Dancy.

Episode 2, We Plug Holes: This episode continues on the exploring the chaos that is Code Black and already the show feels repetitive with little to no characterisation. As the doctors are the focus, we do not get a good picture/depiction of the Emergency Room. In addition, it has a feeling of entitlement and indifference. All good medical-based TV tend to have a good mix of healthcare personnel: ER, Scrubs, and even Offpsring. The show sustained its watchability because of the adrenalin coursing through it, which begs the questions: how can they keep it going for 20-odd episodes, and how will the show be like when the volume is dialled down to 2 instead of 99. Kevin Dunn is this show's MVP - just like in VEEP.

Episode 3, Pre-Existing Conditions: Where are the opening credits? Pity. It's like they heard me. A quieter episode here and a lot of flaws are now showing. The Residents are still boring and stereotypical. Their storylines are run-of-the-mill and unexceptional, bringing nothing new nor exciting to the genre. The morality yardstick is too on the nose and the greyness in the earlier episodes seemed more black now. The showrunners are trying to let us know the characters better, but honestly, they don't seem too interesting. Raza Jaffrey is actually at the top of this stack and even Marcia Gay Harden is losing her intrigue now. Kevin Dunn on the other hand...At least some pairings work: Harden and Luis Guzman are a highlight. Writing definitely needs to improve. Most of the time the characters are spouting lines straight out from pre-UnREAL Lifetime.

Episode 4, Sometimes It's a Zebra: Dialogue is still clunky and the characters still flat and repetitive. The medical aspects of it are interesting but they do not really help to inform on characterisation or narrative much, and professionally, the medicine is just off the mark even with poetic licence. Many times it just served to add drama for drama sake, and the plotting is getting repetitive: "it's a risk you have to take", "you can do it...i can't...yes you can...".  "you're his doctor". And despite all that, in four episodes we have still not seen a big setback. Why have residences? Their struggles are not only inexperience.

18 October 2015

Stonewall


By itself this was not a good film, bordering bad; but as a film about a significant slice of history, it was truly offensive!

Roland Emmerich's personal film was poorly directed, badly written (by Jon Robin Baitz) withb poor characterisation, unfocused and, ultimately, messy. But most importantly, it did no favour to the people who were at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots, and those who followed after, like Harvey Milk, which led to the Supreme Court of USA to declare Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional and legalisation of same-sex marriage in the US in June 2015.

Leaving politics aside, for now, Emmerich and Baitz had no clear idea or vision about this film. Is it going to be a coming-out/of-age story or a film about gay rights? If it was the former, the exploration of which was juvenile and superficial at best. It really felt like they threw in every single gay/coming-out cliche that they could think of and laid it out there. Sometimes barely even coherently.

If Stonewall was about gay rights, then it fared even worse. It barely scratched the surface about the injustices and inequality, the turmoil and the struggle and the many facets that such a prickly topic can cover.

The one good thing about Stonewall was that it reminds people. or - cynically - enlightened many, the true meaning of Pride Parades.

Well, make it two good things, for the second thing it did right was that it reminded us that Jeremy Irving has the potential to be a star.

Poor Irving was wasted here, paraded as just another pretty all-American country boy (even though the boy is English). Do not forget that he was "discovered" by Steven Spielberg, and despite having been 4 years past since War Horse, it is heartening to know that he still has that talent that we spied in him back then. Luckily for us, it was all thanks to him that the film was not all that bad. His scenes with his family, especially with his on-screen sister, were easily the best of the whole film and effectively elicited the emotional sympathy and empathy.

Johnny Beaucamp, you are lucky we have Penny Dreadful to remind us that you are more than just an Amy Winehouse wannabe.

And now, a bit about the politics

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

This film would have been a lot better if the Stonewall Riot was used as a setting. What it depicted instead was a senseless riot that was triggered off because a boy got cheated on. It was not about inequality or injustice, it was because of a broken heart. And the whole riot itself lasted 10 - 15 minutes tops. There was no exploration of the fallout from it and in the end, we ask ourselves what was the real purpose of all that?

(END SPOILERS)

I understand that this was a personal film from Emmerich, and maybe Baitz too, but they really did not do justice to the subject matter. And the grammar over the opening credits was atrocious!

This was the closing film of Singapore's 7th Love & Pride Film Festival 2015, and I think it was abhorrent, and selfish, for the organisers to have this film in its line up, much less its closing film.


15 October 2015

Bridge of Spies


Let the Oscar Games begin.

Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and the Coen brothers start the 2015/16 Oscar season with a bang with the first truly good movie of the year. Let's hope that they can keep the momentum going.

Bridge of Spies tells a (inspired by true events) story that may not be as well known but definitely inspiring and aspirational. Penned by Matt Charman with the Coen brothers, the story in itself was relatively straightforward but tucked beneath this Cold War drama was a simple exploration of the themes of morality, justice, faith and humanity. All of which fall directly into Spielberg's wheelhouse.

Spielberg, on his part, has directed a great movie with wide-spread popular appeal - especially with Hanks in the lead. The story had shades of his under-rated Munich and the modern classic Schindler's List, but albeit one with a more pro-American shade reminiscence of  Lincoln. All his trademarks were present, lens flare (waaaaay less then JJ Abrams), back lighting, purposefully awkward angles to frame shots and even one thrilling action sequence that was done much better than most directors these days.

The film, even at 141 minutes, did not feel long at all. The pace was clipped and characters - especially foreign ones - were kept to a minimum; events unfolded as they should. Spielberg really made this film very accessible to the mass public.

However, all of this would not have been possible without Hanks in the lead. Hanks - the all american everyday man, whom Matt Damon is in the flanks to takeover - exuded a quiet and strong presence. His lines delivery was so believable regardless of how hokey they may actually be, and you really felt that he cared about the outcome - and thus you also care about it.

But, in my opinion, the most valuable actor of the film was Mark Rylance of BBC's Wolf Hall fame. Rylance gave a truly outstanding and memorable performance. He created a character with whom we can sympathise and empathise with. Without which the basis of this film would have fallen apart.

Hanks may get a Lead Actor nomination, but I think Rylance will more likely be the one to get and deserve Oscar recognition.

Amy Ryan also stood out with her small role as Hanks' onscreen wife. A strong presence with a voice and not just a long-suffering wife.

Sebastian Koch and Alan Alda round out the excellent cast.

Frequent Spielberg collaborators Janusz Kamiński and Thomas Newman did the cinematography and music respectively. Through Kaminski's lens, East Berlin seemed so desolate, harsh and cold; Newman's score was very apt and did not distract at all even during the above-mentioned action sequence unlike in most typical action movies.

With this film Spielberg and co has set the bar quite high for the rest of the awards season, and it will be exciting to see how the other contenders will compare to it!

14 October 2015

The Martian


A very likable and enjoyable nerd/sci-fi thriller that had humour, suspense, and pathos, but despite all that something was still lacking in it to make it really superb.

Ridley Scott finally scored a real hit after the so-so Exodus: Gods and Kings, the well-acted but incoherent The Counselor and the disappointing Prometheus, and writer Drew Goddard definitely played a role in the success because the script was the strongest of the lot. It was direct, straightforward and made sense (within the scope of cinematic/artistic licence).

However, therein also laid one of the main problems. Goddard's script was essentially script-writing 101. There were no surprises and nothing unpredictable about how the story unfold. Scott himself also presented it such that you knew what was exactly going to happen next and that made any sought of tension in the film appeared overly drawn out and tedious. Character development and emotional investments were sacrificed on the altar of narrative cohesiveness and continuity. Debate.

Goddard - a alumnus of Whedonverse - peppered the screenplay with many snarky one-liners and most of them actually worked. However, a few - especially those uttered by side characters - fell flat and distracted the momentum of the story.

Speaking of which, Scott's pacing was excellent in the beginning. The action and story kicked in almost immediately which really grabbed the audience's attention from the get go. However, as the story progressed, and the predictability level got higher - and more tedious - the film began to dragged. And then we rushed to the finale.

Scott had assembled a great cast of actors and they all fitted their roles really well, even Kate Mara who managed to be less (not non-) annoying. And there was a surprising number of Marvel-related actors which really did make Goddard's running gag of Iron Man worked.

Matt Damon is a really relatable, everyday-sort-of-man. and that made his character someone the audience can really get behind with. Furthermore, he delivered the snide snarks with aplomb - which recalled back to his brilliant and often underused comedic talent (see The Informant! and the Ocean's Eleven trilogy). However, as the script had no mention of his emotional and mental state of mind, we do no get much in terms of dramatic chops.

That laid solely on the shoulders of the brilliant Jessica Chastain. Sadly there was not enough of her. But those few scenes we have, she conveyed more in her body language than the words she uttered. Just like in Interstellar she was the best actor in the whole film.

Michael Pena who had the best lines in Ant Man again had the best lines here, and his relationship with Damon were one of the highlights.

Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor rounded out the ground crew trying to bring them back and they all played their roles to the tee.

The weakest "major" characters were the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and Sue Storm (Kata Mara). They were there purely for narrative reasons but then out-of-the-blue, some sort of romance, that made no sense, crept in which added nothing to the supposed tension/risk of their characters.

The cinematography and music by frequent Scott collaborators Dariusz Wolski and Harry Gregson-Willaims also stood out especially the gorgeous wide-angled landscaping of the former. The latter's music slowly became overly drawn out towards the end when the action sequences themselves also felt tedious.

In the end, this was an optimistic exploration of the nature of humanity and a triumphant return to form by Ridley Scott. Definitely a better movie than Interstellar  and more easily accessible to the public than Gravity.

It Follows [SQ Inflight Entertainment]


A fairly original horror/supernatural film, and that in itself is a rarity these days, that was suspenseful and entertaining throughout relying less on jump scares but mood, atmosphere and directing to inject fear and trepidation. It felt a lot like last year's great horror flick The Babadook, especially in terms of the ending.

A standout performance by the central damsel-in-distress - Maika Monroe - and here's hoping that she can break out of her stereotype. However, the rest of the cast were fairly non-memorable.

I liked that story-wise writer/director David Robert Mitchell did not lay out any background or mythology to the supernatural entity. Just accept that it is what it is. However, one of the most important things in horror films is that the villain/ghost/spirit/demon/etc has got to be consistently portrayed and its capabilities/powers need to be consistent regardless of how exagerrated it might be, and in this case the inconsistency got to the point where it was rather distracting.

The directing too was great and the way it was shot with the wide-angles and the pannings, etc really added to the mood and elevated the fear factor.

The ending itself <spoiler alert> left much to be desired and felt like a cop-out, leaving the door wide open, instead of just a sliver, for a sequel <end spoiler alert>.

It Follows was definitely a good horror film but maybe not as exalted to the heights as a "new modern classic" as claimed by Eli Gold of The Good Wife. Though, as it seems, it has already integrated itself into modern pop culture lexicon.


Me and Earl and the Dying Girl [SQ Inflight Entertainment]



An indie version of The Fault in Our Stars, but with more originality and sincerity such that its emotional climax was much more deserved.

Directed by one of Glee's usual and more visually exciting director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the exuberance and angst of youth was deftly captured. The story itself was nothing new and the way it was told was also not very original, but putting them together gave us something interesting. Think Perks of Being a Wallflower meet John Green.
Thomas Mann made for a good narrator and his self-effacing mannerisms made him endearing to the audience. Similarly, Olivia Cooke is a rising star worth keeping an eye out for. Especially since she landed the lead in Spielberg's Ready Player One.
 
The character of Earl, on the other hand, was interesting. And a smart choice. He served as both the audience surrogate and as Mann's character voice of reason.

In the end, like an episode of Glee, there was even a lesson to be learnt. But here, it did not sound Ryan Murphy-preachy or overly dramatic. 

Remember: there are always things to be discovered about people. 

19 September 2015

Black Mass


With this movie, Johnny Depp has placed himself on this year's long list for Best Actor. However, despite a fascinating story of an equally intriguing character, Scott Cooper failed to really explore beneath the superficiality to uncover what could have been a complex character study.

Depp was really not very different here in this film than his last offerings. He has completely changed himself physically but the only difference now is that Black Mass is not a Disney film. He was creepy as hell, with an icy cold stare that would freeze even the White Walkers of GOT, and he really did inhabit the character - losing himself but without the caricature-tendency of Jack Sparrow or The Mad Hatter.

The story by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk was straightforward but as aforementioned, it focused more on the life of James Bulger rather than explore deeper into the man himself. What that resulted in was a missed opportunity to mine the rich relationship dynamics that existed between Bulger and John Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton), his brother William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his partners.

Martin Scorcese's The Departed (and the original HK version) had it right when they really dug into the relationship between a criminal and the law-enforcer. So, although Depp was up to par, Edgerton was not given enough material to make Connolly anything more than two-dimensional.

Similarly, Cumberbatch was wasted here as the younger brother and Senator. That relationship could have been a whole movie by itself exploring the complex co-existence of blood and money, and of power and familiarity.

David Harbour and Julianne Nicholson stood out amongst the rest of the extended cast, with Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Rory Cochrane and a late-entry Corey Stoll rounding out the large cast.

Music was by Junkie XL which was really different from what he did for Mad Max: Fury Road. But that cello at the end was awesome.

In the end, this suffered from the Iton Lady syndrome - a good actor but a story that failed him.

Everest [IMAX 3D]


Disclaimer: I am so glad that after climbing Mt Kilimanjaro I have no further need to satisfy myself to scale any higher peaks.

This movie should be seen in the big screen and preferably in 3D. IMAX if possible. The cinematography is gorgeous and you need that screen size and the 3D depth to really appreciate the scale and the harrowing horror that mountain climbing can bring. Exciting misadventures notwithstanding, the narrative was ultimately as thin as the air up there, made worse by nagging inconsistencies and unrealism, and a Final Act that unabashedly dramatises the truth to milk your tears.

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur did a great job in getting straight into the story. However, that ended up being a double-edged sword. We got great shots of the gorgeous landscape and was right there in the midst of the action as the mountaineers begin their track and acclimatisation. But we barely know anything about the characters which made the final act seemed unearned and false in all its dramatisation. What we got in the end felt more like a shove in the back rather than a KO sucker-punch.

In the end, this really was just a story about two people: Jason Clarke and Josh Brolin, and this epic journey. Pity then that Kormakur had to resort to cheap dramatics to cajole us into empathising with them, but lucky for him, he got Kiera Knightly and Claire Underwood Robin Wright to be their respective spouses and our emotional surrogates.

The best actor was without a doubt Emily Watson. Watson is heads and shoulders above everybody else in this film, and to me, she really is the film's emotional core.

Clarke is everywhere these days, and this perhaps is his strongest role since Zero Dark Thirty.

Brolin - again after Sicario - really does have that annoying, smug act down pat. Unfortunately, the way his character was written really made it hard for us to care about his story.

Knightly and Clarke surprisingly had good chemistry, and she did her bit part rather well. Well enough to definitely at least tug on the heart-strings.

Wright was really just being Claire. But strangely, a good fit for Brolin's character.

Jake Gyllenhaal was really just an extended cameo, but at least his character had some purpose in an odd sort of way. Sam Worthington - poor chap really needs to catch a break - appears, disappears, appears again but for what real purpose that another already-existing character cannot do?

Kudos to cinematographer Salvatore Totino! Breathtaking!

And an excellent score by Oscar-winning (for Atonement) Dario Marianelli.

Mountain-climbers will definitely appreciate this film more but just suspense your belief - this is Hollywood! - and non-climbers might just never want to climb a mountain again. IMAX and 3D highly recommended.

18 September 2015

Sicario


A brilliant and exciting movie by Denis Villeneuve that had almost everything going right for it - great directing, excellent cinematography, fantastic music and a top-notch cast - except for a familiarly subversive, and slightly uneven story that really only worked because the protagonist was a female, and that female was Emily Blunt. And there was Benicio del Toro.

After Enemy and Prisoners, Villeneuve returned with a home-run that is Sicario. From the opening sequence on, this slow-burning drug/crime procedural did not let down on its pacing. The action sets were not big or showy, but Villeneuve's direction was precise and notched up the tension expertly. Buoyed by Roger Deakin's gorgeous cinematography and Johann Johannsson's sumptuous music (much better than his work on The Theory of Everything), this film was a visual and aural pleasure!

Using Blunt's character as an audience surrogate, we follow the story as blind as her, and slowly understand the larger picture at about the same rate as she. That made for an effective storytelling and ensured empathy for her character.

But what was really great about the movie was the subversion of expectations. The story itself, written by Taylor Sheridan, was nothing new; it could have come from any number of spy dramas out there, and possibly even ripped off  from Homeland or 24. However, it absolutely turned the Hollywood archetypal strong female action hero on its head.

Blunt's character slowly became less relevant narratively as the plot unfolds as del Toro's role took on more significance.  However, Villeneuve still skillfully managed to maintain Blunt as the epicentre of the story although the slight narrative detour to focus on del Toro's character did disrupt the flow of the story.

Blunt absolutely nailed her role and impressed with her range of emotions that she conveyed just through her physicality, eyes and body language. By the end of the movie, we were as put through the wringer as she was, and could really empathise with her situation.

Del Toro also stood out. He started off as an enigma and really, towards the end, still remained so. However, he has an extremely strong presence stealing the scenes in a subtle, non-showy, way.

Josh Brolin played a typical role. He bordered on being overly cocky and annoying, but thankfully, managed to rein it in.

An excellent movie that really set the bar high for all upcoming Oscar-baiting movies!

The Visit


M. Night Shyamalan's latest is a decidedly smaller film than his previous outings, and was much better for it. Without much gimmicks, and with Blumhouse behind the scene, the focus was on the story and atmosphere which was effectively intriguing and unsettling. Although Shyamalan's reputation still cast a large shadow over the project, and the climax was expected and did not hit high enough a mark,

Using a variation of the found-footage technique, Shyamalan managed to make a horror/thriller story that was grounded more in reality and relied less - but not absolutely none - on jump scares but more on suspense and mood. Having said that, the "twist" itself was expected but at least not outrageous - it was not the trees!! - although the final climatic sequence could have been edited and shot a bit more creepy.

The child actors here were actually good, which was important since they were the anchors of the show, and they had good chemistry together as siblings. Neither was overtly overbearing, annoying or boring which made them interesting enough to follow through.

The real star, however, was the grandmother: Deanna Dunagan. She was frankly rather amazing to watch. Equal moments of friendly and loving and creepy as creepy goes! The grandfather, less so.

Shyamalan has always been rather in tune with pop culture which does often help to connect his films with a young audience, and with the success of the addictive Wayward Pines, here's hoping for a total comeback for him!

10 September 2015

The Assassin 刺客聶隱娘

A polarising film that is very much typical of director Hou Hsiao-Hsien 侯孝賢; so in other words, it should not surprise those who are familiar with his works. However, it is a bit of a Western-misnomer to call this a wuxia film, when in actual fact, it really was more a political period piece. 

Hou won the Best Director award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and it really is not surprising that he did. Hou's favourite single-frame shots - whether tight close-ups or wide-angled landscape - are peppered throughout the film. As are long moments of silences and stillness. 

Hou is a master in the arts of show-not-tell. And he very seldom belittles the intelligence of the audience. 

The biggest let down were the actors. Most of them could not live up to the immense subtlety that is required of them amidst the stillness of Hou's direction. Eyes and body language become more important than speech and intonation. 

Shu Qi 舒淇 did a commendable job in an unflattering role, but her eyes looked more dulled rather than passive and jaded.

Chang Chen 張震 broods well, but beneath his broodiness we do not see the supposed intelligence and scheming ruler.

The standout was the wife of Chang Chen's character as played by Zhou Yun 周韵. Now, she was interesting to watch. 

Ethan Juan's 阮經天 and Satoshi Tsumabuki's 妻夫木聰 roles seemed to have been edited out to be just glorified cameos.

If you are looking for a mindless, martial-arts flick of love and revenge, then this is definitely not for you. But if you have patience and do not mind using your brain, then you will definitely be rewarded by the directing and at least the beauty and some-what intelligence of this film.

8 September 2015

The Gift


Joel Edgerton's directorial debut was a decent effort albeit one that was thematically and stylistically inconsistent, but a smarter-than-average pseudo-intelligentsia story with decent performances by Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall and Edgerton made this film an entertaining enough watch.

The story itself (which was also written by Edgerton) was rather straightforward, but Edgerton managed to slowly tease out the details and secrets such that the audience were more or less constantly guessing. However, there were times when the script was too smart for its own good.

The First Act was excellent, and then someway in the Second Act, Blum House Productions got control and it somehow morphed into a horror/slasher-flick cliche, and in the Third Act, the resolution felt rushed and unearned.

More time and effort should have been spent on developing the characters more fully. Instead, Edgerton spent his energy on moving the plot forward and left the characterisations to his actors.

Bateman did a great job, but his character's progression from the start to the end was the most abrupt. Although there were little hints here and there, they felt more like afterthoughts by the director and/or actor rather than organic to the character.

Hall, on the other hand, was more impressive. She eschewed the typical damsel-in-distress but her character must be one hell of a techno-phobe! The central conflict could have been easily resolved if she actually just used the internet! Or go to the local library for that matter. Or just some good ol'fashion Nancy Drew sleuthing.

Edgerton was creepy enough in a benign sort of way with a hair cut that could almost give Javier Bardem from No Country For Old Men a run for his money. Directing oneself can definitely be challenging, and it shows here. Edgerton's character was more distracting than anything else, and similarly, his character was as flat emotionally as he was internally.

All in all, you could really feel all 108 minutes of its run time and as pseudo-intellectual as Edgerton made the ending to be, it still felt like an emotional cop out because it was not earned.

3 September 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.


A fun and uber-stylish crime/spy-caper from Guy Ritchie - expect nothing less! - with a dash of camp and noir. Unfortunately this time round, style beats substance, and the gorgeous men and women, well-directed action sequences, and nifty twists are not enough to cover up the fact that the plot is thin, the characterisations are two-dimensional at best, and the cast really did not have much chemistry.

Ritchie has not really made a great film since the double whammy of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. After getting married, and then divorced, to Madonna and getting seduced by Hollywood to do RDJ's vanity Sherlock Holmes project and its eye-rolling sequel, there was hope that he could ignite his creative juices again.

UNCLE showed that Ritchie is a good director with an eye for action and comedy, and that he has a distinctive style. But he has lost that originality. Throughout the whole 116 minutes run time, the film felt like a mash-up of a Quentin Tarantino western (complete with the appropriate accompanying soundtrack) and a Mexican action telenovela (think: Lito's movie scenes in Sense8). There was no sense of the British spy genre - see: Kingsman or Skyfall - which Ritchie seemed to be gunning for in the (excellent) opening sequence, although granted that UNCLE was initially an American series.

Then we have the casting. Nothing against having pretty and gorgeous people on the screen. That is their job. But couldn't we have more authenticity here which would have greatly enhanced the enjoyment if we were not subjected to inconsistent accents? Look, we have Henry Cavil, a British playing an American; Armie Hammer who is an American playing a Russian, the gorgeous - and much wasted - Swedish Alicia Vikander who plays a German; and Elizabeth Debicki who is an Australian playing an Italian. Thankfully we have Hugh Grant playing Hugh Grant!

Cavil, was at least still acceptable. Especially since as Superman he is practically American now. And the English language is not hard to transmute although he sounds a lot better when his original British accent snuck out. So at least that was not a stretch.

Hammer was a conundrum. He played the part well except when he spoke. Look at The Americans, even the Russians there spoke better English than him. Would it have been so hard to cast a Russian or an actor who speaks Russian and English? What does Hammer bring to the table? His last movie, The Lone Ranger, bombed spectacularly. This would not have been the breakout role for him after his much more well-received turns on The Social Network and J. Edgar.

Vikander was wasted. We know, from Ex Machina, that she is capable of so much more. But here, she was merely a prop and plot device. And just in case they get called out for being feminist, she's a mechanic too and drives like a pro (at least only in the first scene). Although guess what? This film definitely fails the Bechdel test.

It was refreshing to have Debicki to be the main villain of the movie. And she deliciously camped it up. But that was all about it. The conversation in the writers' room must have gone something like this:

"We need a villain."
"Let's make it the wife!"
"Brilliant! That's different!"
"And so not feminist!"
"But why her?"
"She must be blond and skinny and sexy..."
"But why her?"
"Uses sex as a weapon..."
"But why her?"
"...and there's bombs! And explosions!"
"But...ooooh explosions!"

At least the cinematography by John Mathieson was gorgeous, and Daniel Pemberton gave us great music to watch the film by. Although the costumes, for such a stylish show, fell short. Budget reasons? Cavill could have a much spiffier wardrobe, and definitely so for the gorgeous Vikander.


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...