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...