25 November 2015

The Program




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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


24 November 2015

Legend


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 November 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2





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


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


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


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


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


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

5 November 2015

Spectre [IMAX]



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 November 2015

Quantico




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



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


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


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


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

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...