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. 

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...