18 February 2015

Jupiter Ascending [IMAX/3D]


Disclaimer: I really liked Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas.

You need to go in to this film with the right attitude and expectations, and when you do, the 127 minutes could be entertaining. No doubt the Wachowskis' latest is laughingly bad, but admist all the clunky dialogue, wooden acting and ludicrously large plot holes, the story concept itself was interestingly fresh and original, Michael Giacchino's score was fantastic and the special effects were cool - albeit nothing groundbreaking.

The Wachowskis have created a world and story that is grand in scope and deep in history, but unfortunately, their vision is limited by the screen time. Many things just happen and scenes start in media res. Jupiter Ascending would definitely benefit more as a mini-series or as a graphic novel, or even a trilogy, just so that they could flesh out the characters more and provide more details into the backstory. Maybe Peter Jackson should have been hired!

It is a pity that the special effects were not more outstanding. Most of them were seen before, but at least the action sequences were exciting and well directed, almost reminiscent of the adrenaline-pumping Speed Racer and other recent space operas like Guardians of the Galaxy, however it was mired by poor scripting.

The Wachowskis need to relinquish the script writing to better writers; Cloud Atlas benefitted from that (and David Mitchell's source material). Too much clunky dialogue and heavy exposition, and unless everybody is like Sean Bean, it is going to be hard to carry off.

Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum were basically sleep walking through the film, then again, other than her Oscar nominating role in Black Swan, Kunis has yet to impress (again) and Tatum was rightfully passed over this year for Foxcatcher. It also did not help that Tatum looked more like an escapee from Middle Earth than an associate of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.

Poor future Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne must be praying very hard this film does not undermine his chances on Oscar night. Even he could not chew enough of the scenery to save his scenes. Douglas Booth is pretty and may be a potential heartthrob on the rise. Tuppence Middleton was in The Imitation Game and thankfully her role was largely forgettable and only moderately laughable.

Bean did not die, but neither was he very useful. 

And James D'Arcy is here too! First on Agent Carter and then Broadchurch S2...he's everywhere!

Giacchino's score was a highlight. As usual, lots of big brass to heighten the excitement, and even some choral singing to suggest the otherworldly-ness of the aliens. Like most of his work, the end score was a delight to listen to as the credits rolled.

The Wachowskis should consider migrating this idea to another medium to maximise the potential storytelling.

15 February 2015

87th Academy Awards (Oscars 2015)




Well, it is that time of the year. Not a bad crop of movies for 2014, but really nothing too memorable or spectacular. Most were rather low-key hits (the irony!). As usual there were snubs and with that comes the unexpected nominees, and this year's surprises were mostly not very pleasant. For every Jake Gyllenhaal, there is a Bradley Cooper and Steve Carrell; Jessica Chastain passed over for Meryl Streep; Selma (which I have not watched) is barely making a presence. But then again, it was also a good year for indies: Boyhood, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and for the Brits: Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything, and Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley for The Imitation Game.



Like every year, there are some locked-in winners already by this time of the year, and some races that are still too close to call. But as we all know, publicity and campaigning play as big a role as the actual effort/product, so as per usual, below are my predictions for the major awards for the 87th Academy Awards.



*Winners are highlighted in red


Who Should Win: Boyhood 
Who Will Win: Birdman


This is a tough category to call and it may depend a lot on who wins Best Director. In my opinion, Boyhood was the best movie of 2014. I loved the simplicity of the story but grandeur of vision. But how do you reward/differentiate between two excellent films where one had vision and heart, the other had skill, intelligence and insider-snark.




BEST DIRECTOR
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game



Who Should Win: Richard Linklater
Who Will Win: Richard Linklater
Who Was A Surprise/Snub: Bennet Miller may have been recognised at Cannes, but Damien Chazelle should have been nominated instead for Whiplash, No comments on Selma or its director Ava DuVernay since I have not watched it yet.


Like above, I think this year the Best Director and Best Picture will most likely split between Linklater and Iñárritu. Although the PGA, SAG and DGA awarded their top prize to Birdman, I think Linklater should be rewarded and recognised for his audacious vision of doing a 12-years stop-gap motion picture. Iñárritu's pseudo-one shot vision was great, but it was just as gimmicky as Linklater's without the vision.



BEST ACTOR
Steve Carrell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie RedmayneThe Theory of Everything


Who Should Win: Michael Keaton
Who Will Win: Eddie Redmayne
Who Was A Surprise/Snub: Bradley Cooper first then Steve Carrell; Jake Gyllenhaal was robbed for his amazing work in Nightcrawler as was Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Heck, even Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year, Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Viceor any of the french (YvesSaint Laurents were more worthy than either Cooper or Carrell.



From the initial three-horse race with Cumberbatch, Keaton and Redmayne, it has now come down to just the latter two, with Redmayne pulling ahead and likely to win. Redmayne had the more showy performance and the dedication would draw the support, although Keaton and Cumberbatch had the more nuanced roles.



BEST ACTRESS
Marion Cotillard, Deux Jours, Une Nuit
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Withespoon, Wild


Who Should Win: Julianne Moore
Who Will Win: Julianne Moore
Who Was A Surprise/Snub: Jessica Chastain was sunbbed for The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby; Rosamund Pike may have done her best work in Gone Girl but her portrayal was one note and rather boring.



This is Julianne Moore's to lose, with Marion Cotillard in second place. Interestingly, this category is where most of the nominees, except Felicity Jones, come from non-Best Picture/Director/Actor movies. What does that say?



BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. SimmonsWhiplash

Who Should Win: J.K. Simmons
Who Will Win: J.K. Simmons


Again, another lock-in. J.K. Simmons to lose. No doubt about it. That man was simultaneously scary and touching, and always riveting!



BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Patricia ArquetteBoyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Kiera Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into The Woods


Who Should Win: Patricia Arquette
Who Will Win: Patricia Arquette
Who Was A Surprise/Snub: Meryl Streep was really just chewing scenary and Jessica Chastain should have been recognised for A Most Violent Year.


A great group of nominees but the Oscar is likely to be Patricia Arquette's to lose. Although Laura Dern would come in a close second despite her relatively brief screentime.



BEST WRITING - ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
BirdmanAlejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo
BoyhoodRichard Linklater
Foxcatcher, E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson and Hugh Guinness
Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy


Who Should Win: Wes Anderson and Hugh Guinness
Who Will Win: Wes Anderson and Hugh Guinness
Who Was Snubbed: The Dardenne Brothers for Deux Jours, Une Nuit and JC Chandor for A Most Violent Year. Both were simple in scope but complex in depth. E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's Foxcatcher was just a mess - and should it not be in Adapted Screenplay?


Most likey Wes Anderson will win this, and very deservedly so, as a consolation prize. Birdman and Boyhood did not have great scripts. but Gilroy's Nightcrawler was fresh and exciting.



BEST WRITING - ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
American Sniper, Jason Hall
The Imitation Game, Graham Moore
Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson
The Theory of Everything, Anthony McCarten
Whiplash, David Chazelle



Who Should Win: Paul Thomas Anderson
Who Will Win: Graham Moore


I think Thomas Pynchon's novel and words may be beyond the general Academy's liking, and so PT Anderson will lose out here too the next likely candidate - with all the prestige attached to the source and subject - will be Graham Moore's adaptation of Alan Turing's life. Curious to have Whiplash here too, although it has a slightly higher chance here than in the original screenplay.



BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How To Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya

Who Should Win: Big Hero 6
Who Will Win: How To Train Your Dragon 2
Who Was Snubbed: The Lego Movie.


I wished I had watched The Boxtrolls. However, even without The Lego Movie (which I did watch but strangely did not review) here, I thought that Big Hero 6 had more heart (though less laughter), Dragon 2 was really bad, in my opinion, with one of the voice works and plot.



BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Birdman, Emmanuel Lubezki
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Robert Yeoman
Ida, Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski 
Mr. Turner, Dick Pope
Unbroken, Roger Deakins

Who Should Win: Emmanuel Lubezki
Who Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezki


That pseudo-one shot film and framing is what will Lubezki this award, although Yeoman had very gorgeous shots. Sadly, did not catch the rest, although Deakins' work have always been excellent.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Alexandre Desplat
The Imitation GameAlexandre Desplat
Interstellar. Hans Zimmer
Mr Turner, Gary Yershon
The Theory of EverythingJóhann Jóhannsson

Who Should Win: Alexandre Desplat
Who Will Win: Alexandre Desplat


Desplat's scores for Wes Anderson's movies have always been one of the highlights of the movies, it will be sad if he does not finally win an Oscar for his gorgeous work in The Grand Budapest Hotel. The bump from the 57th Grammy Awards should help his chances.


BEST ORIGINAL SONG
"Glory", Selma (as a consolation) 

BEST FILM EDITING
Boyhood (Birdman if it was nominated)

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
I'm calling it for The Grand Budapest Hotel or Into The Woods

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
Guardians of the Galaxy

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Colleen Atwood for Into The Woods


12 February 2015

A Most Violent Year


J.C. Chandor's latest after last year's phenomenal All Is Lost is a slow-burning, meditative drama that examined the human's spirit as it tries to stay above the ever-rising tide of darkness, with great performances by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain (another ubiquitous year again, and definitely robbed of a Best Supporting Actress nomination...sorry Meryl).

Beautifully shot by Bradford Young, Chandor offered an understated direction on a rather theatrical script. Winter in New York is always a good setting for gritty, noir-ish crime. Well-paced with answers and revelations teased and revealed at its own time with a tension constantly simmering under the surface but never really boiling over. Except for that penultimate scene which was really unnecessary drama and kind of spoilt the tone and gravitas of the final scene.

Oscar Isaac is going to be everywhere soon and thankfully with DriveInside Llewyn Davis and this film, even if Star Wars tanks he will still definitely have a job and cache. Unfortunately for him, Chandor's script did not allow for a showy role, he still lacked that innate gravitas to emote with just his eyes and body language.

Chastain, on the other hand, had a great character to play with, As an intelligent, atypical gangster daughter/moll. she was fierce and yet vulnerable at the same time. Behind those stubborn eyes laid a tenderness for her husband and a ferocious protection for her children. She should have had been recognised by the Academy.

The score is again by Alex Ebert who scored All Is Lost, but this time round, the accompanying music for certain scenes felt off.

Chandor is an exciting new director/writer to follow and his films may not get as much public love, but they are definitely worth the time.


10 February 2015

Still Alice


What a heartbreakingly great performance by Julianne Moore in a film that bravely eschewed Hollywood sentimentality and dramatics to deliver a poignant and touching story on one woman's struggles and her journey through (early-onset) Alzheimer's disease.

Directors/Writers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland adapted Lisa Genova's novel into a heartfelt story of the decline of an intelligent woman struck with early onset Alzheimer's. They focused on her journey and relegated the support by her family into the background. Such that, we are only purvey to her struggles and not how it affects the people around her, and consequently, how that affects her as a patient.

Nonetheless, Moore was astounding in displaying her internal struggles and spectacularly disappeared into her role. As her character slowly fades away through the course of 101 minutes, Moore also lost more and more herself. A vanity-free performance that highlighted why she is the Actress to beat this year.

Alec Baldwin was a solid partner for Moore, however, his character lacked depth and Baldwin was not able to get pass that one-dimensional aspect.

Surprisingly, or not surprisingly depending on which camp you are in, Kirsten Stewart was the other actor that stood out. She stood her ground opposite Moore and displayed depth and sincerity in her portrayal of the prodigal daughter. Her final scene with Moore was equally poignant and touching for both actresses. Side note: Stewart now has been the screen daughter of two onscreen Clarice Starling.

Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish are the other two disturbingly good looking children who really served not much purpose other than to provide comparison with Stewart's non-conforming daughter. A missed opportunity by Glatzer and Westmoreland to explore the complicated feelings a mother would feel on passing a genetic disease down to her children. That would have been more fodder for Moore.

This film was a showcase for Moore and illustrated the struggles of someone with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. However, for a more holistic cinematic exploration of dementia, nothing still beats Sarah Polley's Away From Her back in 2006, where Julie Christie was also nominated for an Oscar for her heart-wrenching portrayal of an elderly woman with dementia (that year, the Oscar was won by Marion Cotillard for La Vie En Rose).

The Judge


This film was a family drama masked as a legal procedural, with great, sublimal acting from Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. being RDJ.

The whole film was too long with too much mis-spent focus on RDJ and the poorly under-utilised and miscast Vera Farmiga. Those scenes really did not serve much purpose other than they attempted to draw parallels between RDJ as a son, and RDJ as a father/husband/partner. Director David Dobkin, and writers Nick Schenk and BIll Dubuque, should have just stuck with the daughter to draw those parallels.

However, the one thing the film got right was the portrayal of titular Judge and the resolution of his case. They did not flinch from the uncomfortable truth nor tried to make him a self-sacrificing hero. No Hollywood, or Law & Order, last-minute coup de grace to save him.

Then, of course, we have the magnificent Duvall who brought such gravitas and humanity to this old man who loved his sons and his job despite the hard exterior shell. As he struggled with keeping his secret and lashing out to hide it, that love still managed to seep through his actions and glances. A definite scene stealer who deserved his recognition from the Awards circuit this year.

The other Robert on the other hand was just so typical. RDJ has gotten lazy as an actor, either that or writers and directors are casting him in roles that scream RDJ. All I see is him (and his persona).  He could be Tony Stark or Sherlock Holmes. I kind of miss the RDJ that was Ally McBeal's beau. Now all we get is this arrogant, swaggy playboy in every single of his role. He needs another reinvention if he wants to be taken as a serious actor again.

9 February 2015

Foxcatcher


Bennett Miller's latest offering is a Palme d'Or winner for Best Director and a multi-Academy Awards nominee - and I really liked Moneyball so the expectations were high going in, but unfortunately, it was not as great as to be expected.

As a film, it felt lost and disjointed. Does Miller want to do a sports - wrestling - film, or a character study? And if the latter, who is the focus on? Steve Carell's John du Pont or Channing Tatum's Mark Schultz? There never really was a clear focus.

I appreciate the fact that Miller did not show everything but trust in the audience to be intelligent enough to follow, however, in the end, it felt like a true-crime retelling (think: FX's Fargo) rather than an intelligent exploration into the psyche of the persons involved. Writers E Max Frye and Dan Futterman script was filled with too much assumptions - for which Miller also expected the audience to make - regarding the characters actions and motivations.

Then we come to the acting.

Carell definitely showed that he can do drama, but is he getting recognised for being a good actor or for being a better actor than what most people expected him to be? His portrayal of du Pont was constant throughout, and with the aid of the prosthetic nose, Carell was seldom glimpsed, but his - and Miller's choice - to inject du Pont's speech with that slow, monotonous and passionless drawl was a bad one. Even his character, as pointed out above, was not fleshed fully and many a times, we are left to just assume which made his character disturbingly one-dimensional. And again, Jake Gyllenhaal was robbed.

If the show was about Mark Schultz, then - sorry - a better actor than Tatum should have been approached for the role. Tatum did a good job, but not a great one. Like Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, keeping silent with a thousand yard stare but blank eyes does not a good actor maketh (see how Marion Cotillard does it in almost any of her works). But then again, this was not really Schultz's story, or was it?

Ruffalo was the only saving grace, but mainly because his character was the most straight-forward, Family always first. Oh wait, his brother was sometimes first and sometimes second.

In all, a good movie with a fascinating story somewhere within.

Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho (The Way He Looks)


Daniel Ribeiro's coming of age, and coming out, film exemplifies the typical problem of short films that become full length features: not all additions of conflict, to stretch out the running time, works.

Nonetheless, it still retained some of its charms and indie-sincerity, especially in Gilherme Lobo's and Fabio Audi's portrayal of young love. Tess Amorim's development into Lobo's fag hag was equally just as realistic.

The extended school bullies and Audi's female love interest scenes dragged the film down and off its rails of sweet charm, however it was the home and familial scenes, where Ribeiro tried to explore the conflicts of a blind adolescent seeking his independence, that the film really faltered.

6 February 2015

Wild



An inspirational and - to me - a relatable film with Nick Hornby's beautiful script brought to life by Reese Witherspoon and the luminous Laura Dern.

A much better directorial showcase for Jean-Marc Valleé than last year's Dallas Buyers' Club. Like 127 Hours a few years back, the challenge for one-person dramas will lie in the flashbacks. No one is going to be able to tolerate 127 hours with one man or 1000 miles with one woman and his/her voice-overs. 

However the difference between James Franco/Danny Boyle's adventure was the purpose of the journey. In this case,   Cheryl Strayed story - as told by Hornby - is one of lost and (self-) discovery. It may not resonate with a lot of people: why walk 1000 miles? But for those of us who have gone through such challenges, albeit less extreme, we can relate to the emotions that Witherspoon went through. Not just the physical hardships and the constant doubts and regrets, but also the need to seek something out. To seek oneself, to understand one's past and present so as to decide on the future. The Chinese says it best, and most succinctly: 寻找自我 (looking for myself). 

The script was classic Hornby. From the musical references throughout - we all did that on our hikes/journeys! - and the literary quotes to the self-reflecting stream-of-consciousness voice-overs laced with doubt and peppered with obscenities and the questions about God and religion (in this case more veiled). Pity, like the Dardenne Brothers' modern morality play, he too was no recognised by the Academy. Perhaps the source material is more a lightweight compared to Hawking's or Turing's biographies, or Pynchon's Inherent Vice, and less a crowd favourite than Whiplash or political than American Sniper. But Hornby's prose is definitely not weaker than any of the above, instead, as a writer, his words and the story it tells may actually be more beautiful than all of them. 

Witherspoon gave a strong performance. Much better than her Oscar winning role as June Carter. It was a demanding role, and she displayed all that raw emotions out, naked and vanity-free. The only thing that she could have done better was to go more method - and Vallée should have taken more note on continuity - for a 3-months trek she barely lost weight, got a sun burnt or had a bad hair day. That would be why she would not win on Oscar night, and also why the film did not get a nomination for Best Picture or Director. 

The only other actor that stood out - no disrespect to Thomas Sadoski or the ubiquitous Michiel Huismann - was the amazing Laura Dern. Dern's total screen time may be minimal - but, hey!, even Judi Dench won her Oscar with just 5 minutes - but she is without a doubt the spiritual center of this whole film. Without her luminousity and her relationship with Witherspoon, we would not able to feel anything for Cheryl nor empathise with her journey. In just those brief minutes that she was on the screen, we are immediately drawn to her presence and her positivity. Just like in The Fault In Our Stars, Dern is the MVP of the film. If there wasn't Patricia Arquette and the juggernaut that is Boyhood, this year's Oscar for Best Supporting Actress might be hers (Streep, Stone and Knightley really have no chance).

At the end of the film, there was a sense of peace and satisfaction. For Cheryl/Witherspoon completing her journey, but also for the audience completing the journey with her. Makes me want to go climb a mountain again. 

Big Hero 6



An entertaining, fun and surprisingly touching animation that even adults will appreciate. A simple superhero origins movie with great animation and an appealing lead (Baymax, not Hiro). Kudos to the voice talent of Scott Adsit who managed to provide so much emotion to Baymex in just his tonal inflections. Way more heart than Golden Globes winner How to Train Your Dragon 2, and also more than The Lego Movie. John Lasseter is definitely an asset to Disney! 

Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night)



The Dardenne brothers' latest is a simple yet powerfully thought-provoking drama with Marion Cotillard giving one of her finest work ever. 

Cotillard is - in one word - AMAZING. With just the subtlest of actions, she conveyed the deepest and most complex of emotions. Those eyes are so expressive and were put into great use throughout. Every single high and low that she goes through were felt by the audience. She connected with us on an organic and realistic human level that is so rare in modern cinema. 

But the main thing about this film is the simplicity of it all. The Dardennes have made an extremely complex film. A morality play that explored so many themes and Life questions. It looked at The Self and how it relates to oneself, family and others. Simple life questions that have no simple answers. It also explored pride and humility, and how we struggle to choose between them. 

However, the Dardennes chose to portray these themes more implicitly by focusing on Cotillard and not the people who she had to convince. This movie could have been portrayed in another manner with the focus on the people instead; casting a group of talented actors to illuminate the moral struggle. Although of course it will be more difficult to get a group of Cotillards rather then just one of her. 

Cotillard definitely deserved her Oscar nomination. At least even more so than Rosamund Pike. A pity that the script was not recognised for its simple complexity. 

The ending was also wonderfully 

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...