27 July 2015

Southpaw


Antoine Fuqua's newest film was unabashedly cliche but it was more than just another boxing movie, or another hero-to-underdog-back-to-hero again movie, because of the emotionally resonant work of its main cast particularly Jake Gyllenhaal, Oona Laurence, Rachel McAdams and Forest Whitaker.

The narrative by writer Kurt Sutter was typical of many hero-reborn stories over the years, and some parts may be too heavy handed. However, Fuqua wisely kept the focus on Gyllenhaal and did not stray too much into the emotional quagmire that Sutter's script potentially had.

However, the rise and fall of this film rest solely on its cast. And Gyllenhaal was outstanding.

Following his Oscar-snubbed role on Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal returns with another fully-committed role that, depending on how the year shapes up, may or may not see him in contention again. He really found the character and slipped into him totally. There was no vanity nor ego in his portrayal of the boxer, and as he experienced the losses and wins, the audience was able to connect and empathise.

McAdams played a pivotal role in the story and was the emotional anchor throughout. She and Gyllenhaal had great chemistry and she really showed her depth (together with the Season 2 of True Detective).

Whitaker takes on a supporting role here, but this man, as we know, is capable of so much more! And here, he and Gyllenhaal had a natural chemistry that made their on-screen mentor-student relationship believable.

The other real star of this film was young Oona Laurence. Yes, a child actor that was brilliant and absorbing (and not annoying). Laurence held her own against Gyllenhaal and will be a fine actress to keep an eye out for. If only there were more accomplished stage child actors for the big screen.

Lastly, the music was exceptional. A brilliant juxtapose between John Horner's classical strings and Eminem's heavy rapping, reflecting the story and Gyllenhaal's character's arc.

24 July 2015

Irrational Man


Woody Allen's latest sees him using film to explore his own dark philosophies of life, and he does not even try to hide the blatant-ness of it. At least this time round, Emma Stone has better chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix than she had with Colin Firth in the lighter, more romantic Magic in the Moonlight (the irony!).

Using the classic Three Acts structure, Allen used it to explore his own believes in morality and amorality and his own existentialism crisis. However, it lacked grace and subtlety and courage, with Allen just dipping his toes - and occasionally the whole foot - into the subject matter.

The story itself was predictable and borderline indulgent and it really did take its time. There were no unexpected curveballs, so the process of getting to the end had to be interesting and riveting to sustain the (intelligent) audience's attention. Sadly it was not.

Not even the snazzy Jazzy soundtrack could help to distract much.

Phoenix was a great choice to play the lead. He is one of the better actors of his generation and always inhabit his characters with the deepest understanding and dedication. Here he is overweight (gosh, that paunch was distracting!) and slumped over in the First Act, Rougeishly handsome and straight-back in the Second, and a slow crumbling of the facade in the Third.

Stone on the other hand, replayed her wide-eyed Romantic ingenue, for which she does a great job. But opposite Phoenix with such dark material, she paled. She held her own much better in the rom-com with Firth. Her wide-eyes failed to convey the necessary emotions and complexity that her character needed. Perhaps it is time for Allen to look for another muse.

Whereas Parker Posey held her own against Phoenix. Her scenes with Phoenix were the highlights of the movie. Together they both felt natural, and Allen's dialogue felt less self-serving.  Posey was a delight to watch.

Phoenix and Posey would be the reasons to see this 90-odd minutes film that felt like 180.



Ant Man [IMAX/3D]


An enjoyable film and a decent addition to the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a charming turn by Paul Rudd and great use of 3D-effects, but marred by the ghost of Edgar Wright (and Joe Cornish) and a general uneven-ness in terms of tone and characters.

As an origin story, the basic structure was there. Director Peyton Reed brought us from Point A to B to C and D smoothly and there were enough humour within to make this a sort of Marvel's Ocean Eleven. Reed's action sequences were also entertaining enough although nothing too mind-blowing.

But the biggest problem was that Wright's fingerprints could still be seen through Reed's gloves and the glimpses of Wright's DNA leave Ant-Man wanting.

Wright and Cornish have a very particular style and it peeks out at times in certain sequences, but these moments never really got to shine and hence it ended up giving the film a certain sense of uneven-ness.

Furthermore, Marvel's insistence to tie up every movie so succinctly with the greater MCU made it even more uneven, with certain parts of the film feeling like they were haphazardly mashed-up to give a whole. As much as we loved to see Hayley Atwell, John Slattery and Anthony Mackie, their scenes really ought to feel more organic.

I have a feeling Ant-Man will tie in very nicely with MTvU.

Adam Mckay and Rudd contributed to the screenplay, and it was evident with many of Rudd's lines. However, most of the people he played opposite with could not parlay with him as effectively. The only true standout was Michael Peña who owned his role and had great comedic timing with Rudd.

Rudd was great as Scott Lang, although his backstory should have been more developed. But Rudd had the screen charm and that handsome-ish yet rouge-ish and boy-ish charisma to play a thief-turned-hero. He is likeable but yet serious. And of course he wrote his own lines and was able to deliver the one-liners as they should be. That's an advantage right there.

Michael Douglas as Hank Pym was a disappointment. Douglas had no connection with his character and as the dead-panned one opposite the goofball Rudd, Pym was just boring. He and Rudd had no chemistry.

Evangeline Lily and Rudd were not much better. I wonder how Wasp would be like if Joss Whedon had got his hands on her. Her character was just as one-dimensional and predictable and boring.

(Whedon and Wright and Cornish should do a film together!)

Corey Stoll is on a roll ever since his turn on House of Cards. but here he was just another cookie-cutter, one-dimensional Marvel villain. And not even a very convincing one at that. Marvel either needs to gives us more complex villains like Daredevil's Kingpin (although granted a series does allow more time for character development) or more hammy ones like Ultron.

The Captain America franchises work well because they do not usually have a villain per se.

Again, the music - by Christoph Beck - was another decent MCU score.

The mid-credits scene was kind of expected. The end-credits scene, however, makes me excited for Captain America: Civil War!

At the end of it, I wished we could have gotten Edgar Wright's vision instead of Marvel's.


20 July 2015

Inside Out


This was possibly the best animation Pixar - or any other studios for that matter - has done in a long time (since WALL-E, in my opinion). It was insanely smart with so many layers that an adult can appreciate, yet so expertly geared towards the young. There was joy, sadness, drama, pathos, tears, lots of laughter and even fear and disgust. It really ran through the gamut of feelings, In short, Brilliant!

But before we talk more about Inside Out, some time should be spared for the animation short tagged in front of it. Lava is another triumph for Pixar. Like most of their shorts, the concept is simple, but what was different here was the simplicity in its expression of love. A simple Hawaiian song that in its 7 minutes run time managed to make us smile, sing along, felt sad, then hopeful and lastly happiness. It was a great foreshadowing to the main movie itself.



Now, the film itself. Inside Out is so simple in its premise: What's goes on inside someone's head? The execution itself is simply complex. There were so many ideas and concepts that Pete Docter and company touched on that could have been further explored. The mind is really such a complex system but kudos to Docter and Co. for finding a way to make it so accessible to the young minds out there. 

The story itself was also very simple. Imagine a Thelma & Louise in your head with two opposing characters. That was what this film was essentially about. A road trip for 2 gals and the interesting people and places that go to and meet along the way. 

One of the best thing about the movie was how it did not shy away from a difficult theme: emotions are crucial and they formed us for who we are, even negative emotions like sadness and anger are important to the development of our personality. Life is about being happy, but sometimes we need to embrace the duality of our emotions to reach that state.

There were so many moments in the film that I wished we could have spent more time to explore: Abstract Thinking, Imagination Land, The Subconscious, Memory Dump, the interactions of the emotions in different persons and why are Riley's emotions of both gender?

That is not to say that this film has no drawbacks, but bearing in mind that the target audience are a lot younger, we can give it a wider pass. Small plot contrivances are unavoidable. This film could have gone a lot darker and the adult/cynical side of me wished it had dipped more than just the little toe into it. Sadness had so much more potential to explore. Why "things" happen around her.

A road trip between Sadness and Fear would have been a dark, and interesting, journey to take.

Similarly, kudos to Amy Poehler and Phyillis Smith as Joy and Sadness. Their voice work really helped to bring alive the characters. Richard Kind was also outstanding as Bing Bong. The rest of the emotions: Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader and Lewis Black were great too and had their moments.

Michael Giacchino scored the film and such a step up from his previous two works for Jurassic World  and Tomorrowland. The main theme was simple yet elicited a certain child-like gaiety that resonated with core theme of the movie. 

There are so many potentials for sequels! Let's hope Disney/Pixar don't screw this up.


Amy


An intimate and harrowing look into the brief life of Amy Winehouse.

What this documentary did very well was that Asif Kapadia and company gave us a very personal look into Winehouse - from her rise to fame to her addiction and ultimately - and sadly - her untimely demise.

Kapadia wisely used a mix of video recordings (so many camcorders at that time! - the modern equivalent will be Instagrams, Vines, Tweets and Facebook statuses) with Winehouse's lyrics and voice-overs by the people close to her, and often times too, Amy's own words to give a very intimate look into that period of her life.

However, one thing that this otherwise riveting documentary could have done better was if it could have gave us a better understanding of Amy Winehouse the person, rather than Amy Winehouse the celebrity/drug addict.

One leaves the theater with a feeling that although I know about the life and times and tribulations of Amy Winehouse, I still do not really know who is Amy Winehouse. An intimate look that lacked the intimacy.

But if nothing else, this would serve as a great cautionary tale against drug/alcohol addiction! Looking at you Lindsey Lohan!

Magic Mike XXL


A pale comparison to the original and this was already giving it the Ultron treatment: a lower expectation for a sequel of an unexpectedly wildly successful film.

This road trip really went nowhere. Poor characterisations throughout with the flimsiest of plot (even less material than the strippers' - sorry, male entertainers - g-string or throngs, and a sorry excuse to try to get away with it all with a minimal showing of skin. If all else fails at least own the nudity. 

Why Channing Tatum would want to do this after his turn on Foxcatcher? At least Matthew McConnaughey had the right idea to bail. And Alex Pettyfer too. 

They tried to make this sequel a bromance-heavy road trip but it really fell short on the comedy. Maybe except for Joe Manganiello, the rest of the cast had no comedic timings. Manganiello was the breakout star of this sequel - good for him!

Reality and realism was really thrown out of the back seat in this poorly acted, scripted and directed money-grabbing sequel. And there was not even enough skin/nudity shown! 

15 July 2015

Leviathan (Левиафан)



What a great film this was! A depressing but emotionally resonant movie that bravely showed the corruption within (the Russian) Government and the complicity of Religion, and how they, hand in hand, but also with the actions of Man, led to the destruction of lives and shattering of dreams. Is there Hope? Are we just but doomed to be nothing but a skeleton in the sands of time, left there beyond our control? Or are we instruments of our own Fate? Which will give the better outcome? The Heart, the Mind or the Faith? A real masterpiece that was more complex than it seemed.

Terminator: Genisys



A total reboot of the franchise that was entertaining and obviously built to hopefully start off a new franchise, but it lacked the grit and adrenaline of the first two or the charisma and action of Christian Bale's Terminator Salvaation. Although Arnold gamely hammed it up and was one of the few bright spots.

Alan Taylor is a competent director but based on what he did for Thor: The Dark World and this, he still need to brush up on his pacing and action choreography. And also to get the most out of his actors. There were not really any images or set pieces that stood out which was disappointing for a summer action blockbuster, and when the story slowed down for some exposition or pre-requisite romance building the whole film felt draggy. 

Furthermore, with the child-friendly ratings, Taylor had to do weird things with the camera angles and lighting to block off any hint of nudity or blood. It kind of became too jarring and then just plain silly. 

Story wise, an interesting way to reboot the franchise but way too much plot holes and contrivances that weren't really explained. A better writer and director will surely be needed if there was to be a sequel. In the end, it was better to stop thinking too much and just follow the explosions.

Then we have the cast. Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney had no chemistry. 

Clarke may be believable as Khaleesee but absolutely not as Sarah Connor - a role made so iconic by Linda Hamilton! She was too clean and too pristine throughout. No sweat, no stains, no blood and not a hair out of place. 

Courtney is like an action version of Channing Tatum: a muscular jock with a weird face that somehow Hollywood wants us to think is handsome and can act but the truth is that he really ain't and can't. 

Jason Clarke was possibly more entertaining but his character was more of an headache if too much thought was put into his motivations and purpose. 

Poor Matt Smith was wasted. 

At least we will always have Arnold. What a man! He got the best lines and really just hammed it all up such that he was really the bright spot throughout. 

IMAX and 3D was not really worth it.

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence (En Duva Satt På EnGren Och Funderade På Tillvaron)



A bizarre and delightful film that explored humanity and the way we live our lives through a series of magical realism-tinged odd and eccentric vignettes that yet seemed grounded in some sense of realism. The direction was spectacular with notes of Wes Anderson and Gus Van Sant wafting about! With a unique way of placing the camera still in each scene and having each little story played out in totality in that space. A art house film no doubt but one that really intrigued and tickled the mind/intellect as it teases and subverts our expectations.

7 July 2015

Minions


A funny, mindless animation with those loveable, hapless idiots that is clearly aimed at the young ones, although some jokes were obviously inserted in for the parental units/adults.

Stretched out to just over 90 minutes, the film started out strong - with a very spoiled prologue (that is why I hate watching trailers!) - but faltered a bit in the middle act but managed to regain its (still rather) uneven footing in the end.

The voice acting was unspectacular, with both Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm, going a bit over the top; Michael Keaton, Allison Janney and Jennifer Saunders were better but pity did not have much to do; Geoffrey Rush was outstanding as the narrator - must be the Aussie accent - and was as good a choice as any if Morgan Freeman or James Earl Jones were not available.

The minions themselves had a very entertaining language. And now that it is in full-length, you can really appreciate it more - and that's where a lot of the humour is from for the adults. Recognising the hodgepodge of languages that they bastardised from! Even Bahasa Melayu!

A good fun watch, and well worth the 90 minutes. Just do not expect it to be as deep as a Pixar animation. But entertainment-wise, it is there!

Oh, and thank you The Minions for brining the Banana Pie back to McDonald's (best thing EVER!)!

3 July 2015

Far From The Madding Crowd


What a great movie this was! Romance and Drama in a riveting package that only the Victorian literary classics can do so well. It succeeded because of the brilliant directing by Thomas Vinterberg (of the underwatched but equally fantastic The Hunt) and the very excellent cast of Cary Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen.

This joins the short list of excellent Victorian-aged dramas that succeeded in bringing the book to life, joining the ranks of Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice, Lee Ang's Sense and Sensibility and Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre.

Like all book-to-screen adaptations, expectations have to be appropriate. There is no way that a movie can keep everything - all the themes, side plots, characters - to its 90 - 120 (or even 180) minutes running time. If it was a mini-series, now that, the expectations are different! And Far From The Madding Crowd is no exception.

The film was beautifully shot (The Hunt's Charlotte Bruus Christensen at work again) and the pacing was excellent, with a great amount of story being told in just the first 30 minutes but with no loss of depth from brevity nor lack of sense from condensation. The gorgeous strings and score by Craig Armstrong definitely helped to move the quiet scenes along and was never jarring or intrusive.

However, having said that, unfortunately the weakest link in author's David Nicholls screenplay the relationship between Sergeant Frank Troy and Fanny Robin, and because of that, Troy relationship's with our heroine Bathsheba is less well-explored than that between her and Oak and Boldwood. Troy appeared more like an obstacle rather than a real challenge for her love.

Another fault in the movie was the overall characterisation of Bathsheba. She started off strong - an educated woman who knows what she wants and how she wants it - a feminist ahead of her time, but as the movie progressed and ultimately towards the end, Nicholls and Vinterberg had her reduced to almost just another damsel in need of a man to save her. Thankfully, they had Mulligan.

Mulligan was sublime. Ever since her Oscar-nominated debut in An Education (or even earlier in one of the scariest Doctor Who episode - Blink) she has been churning out great roles, even in not so great movies. But here, she defined Bathsheba. Her strength and her vulnerabilities were all exposed and revealed and translated beautifully across the screen. She was only let down by Nicholls' script, but it was because of the strength that she imbued into her Bathsheba, that she did come off as weak and needy in the end.

I wonder how Thomas Hardy had written Bathsheba.

Schoenaerts and Sheen were Mulligan's worthy sparring partners; sadly not Tom Sturridge.

Schoenaerts, last seen battling it out with Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, was excellent as the quiet, dependent Mr Nice, and thankfully his Belgian accent was not obvious which suited his character. Although his character may seem boring, but Schoenaerts managed to find that warmth and sincerity within that honesty and righteousness. His chemistry with Mulligan was crucial to the backbone of the story and it really did stood out.

Sheen is a class of his own, but pity he was not given much to do. It would have been nice if we could explore the bromance between Boldwood and Oak. Schoenaerts and Sheen had a good vibe going in their few scenes together.

Sadly, Sturridge was a victim of adaptation. Troy's on screen characterisation was paper thin and appeared to be more of a one-dimensional villain rather than the supposedly Romantic that was hinted within. The subplot between Troy and Fanny Robin really ought to have been fleshed out more to give his character depth - which, as fore said, would have given Bathsheba even more complexity.

A great film by a director that interested in character and manages to draw it out of his exceptional cast!

Now let me get to the book!

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...