19 December 2015

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens [IMAX/3D]



I will just say it right now: this was not a great movie.

It was a good film; an enjoyable, fluffy, popcorn, end-of-year, special-effects bonanza that is bound to make loads of cash, but it was not great in any way at all. Filled with a predictable and recycled storyline, predictable and clunky dialogue (noticed a trend?), mediocre to bad acting from the newbies, and boringly bland sets, music and cinematography, this film rides on the legacy of its original epic trilogy and succeeds because of the dismal tragedy of its prequels.

Granted, J.J. Abrams had a lot on his shoulders when he took on this behemoth and all things considering, he did a valiant job. Just not an outstanding one.

The film was obviously made for a four-quadrant audience with as much mass appeal as possible (read: simplicity). It had to pay homage to the original and acknowledged the mistakes of the prequels for the fanboys, and yet it need to hook in a whole new generation of audience for the large cinematic universe that Disney has planned. The latter is all without the large, built in fan base of the comic books industry - Marvel and D.C.

The problem is that script by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt was a rehash of the original just with the pieces moved around. The more cynical ones - like me - would even say that it was basically like any other generic Hollywood trope these days. There was nothing new nor refreshing about it. The storyline was contrived and kismetically-convenient to push the narrative forward; every plot point was predictable and sledgehammer-like foreshadowed. Worse still was the predictable, stale and cheesy dialogue that dulled down significant moments.

Abrams et al tried to emulate a Joss Whedeon-eque kind of banter but that was just sad and sadly funny. It did not work because of the lacked of chemistry between the cast and the chunkiness of the words.

Which brings us to the Abrams directorial effort. There is a certain off-rhythm kilt about the whole beat of the film. It seemed that Abrams was always just a quarter-to-half a beat slower than the action or the emotional resonance of the film.

As much as his use of CGI was much more controlled and more en naturel, none of the big fight/action sequences was overly memorable - either visually or narratively. There really was not anything refreshing or new or exciting. Up to a certain point, the endless homages, and wink-wink to fanboys, began to feel intrusive and annoying and just plain pandering. It showed how badly Abrams lacked in originality. Even the sets were a yawn. Especially that opening sequence. That whole prologue felt like it was filmed on a sounds stage!

However, the biggest crime by Abrams was his casting of the three leads. There is nothing wrong with casting newbies or actors in their virgin roles. Occasionally we get brilliant, standout, Oscar-nominating results. But Abrams does not have that quality as a director to bring that out in his cast, and unfortunately, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and the not-so-new Adam Driver are not natural born thespians. Often, and in particular with Ridley, their stiff acting brings us out of the film.

It is sad when the actors that are not seen can outshine the more visible cast with just their voice alone. Lupita Nyong'o exuded warmth, wisdom and wit; Gwendoline Christie has an indomitable physical presence and a voice to match; Andy Serkis - master of the motion capture - was just terrifying (although still slightly comical).

Harrison Ford no doubt shone the brightest of the actors in person. He has an effortless charm and commands the screen. His scenes opposite Ridley greatly shows off her inexperience and sadly wooden acting. It was only when Hans Solo appear does the film really kick off into high gear.

Oscar Isaac was another standout. Here is a hero - unlike Rey and Finn - who we can really root for and who we want to win. Although he was reduced to playing third of fourth fiddle here. Pity and a waste, and hopefully a bigger role in the sequels for Isaac (but please, not as Rey's love interest - be original!).

Ridley, as aforementioned, still needs to brush up on her acting particularly when she is in the frame but is not the focus. Whenever that happens you can tell that she just freezes up and remained wooden until she is asked to react. However, she has talent which was evident when we see her close up or a reaction shot. And I believe that she has a gift for physical comedy.

Boyega was slightly better. His strengths laid in his comedy but he still needs to develop more to handle any emotional heft beyond "I feel bad".

Boyega and Ridley were paired off early and there are inklings of potential romance between the pair, however it all seemed forced. There were not many moments of natural chemistry between them which then strained the credibility of their partnership.

And then we have Adam Driver. Not a stranger to some viewers - and an Emmy nominated actor too. But he was miscast as Kylo Ren. He lacked the presence to be an effective villain. When he removed his mask, there was even a glimmer of menace or terror. More comedy actually. And hopefully his arc through the sequels will show us his growth from what really is a petulant man-child now.

Domhnall Gleeson was a more effective villain and really just stole the scenes with Driver. Hope to see more of him and Isaac in the sequels.

Lastly. we have John Williams' anaemic score. Maybe Abrams should have passed the scoring duties to his other long time collaborator Michael Giacchino? William's score lacked epicness. Perhaps he was let down by poor sound mixing/editing, but throughout the film, the score constantly reminded us how un-exciting everything was.

In all, this was a good film to spend the holidays in. But will it be remembered in the future? At least the prequels will be - for how bad they were. The rest of the sequels will now definitely play a larger role in shaping the future of this franchise.

3D not necessary. And really, IMAX wasn't too.




17 December 2015

Creed





Nostalgia weekend starts with Creed – the seventh film in the Rocky franchise, and boy was it a knockout! Reuniting Fruitvale Station’s talented Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, the film was surprising sincere and heartfelt. Even as it occasionally veers towards the overly dramatic and oddly faux epic-ness of a Rocky movie, it was still a worthy successor of Slyvester Stallone’s early hits.
Speaking of Stallone, he was the Most Valuable Person of the film. There was an unexpected naturalness in his role that genuinely made you feel for him and how life must be like for a lonely, ex-champion. It was no wonder that he has been getting accolades and he does deserve it. There is a possibility that he might get a Best Supporting Actor nomination out of it, but if he does, Mark Rylance is still the man to beat (without having seeing Spotlight yet).
Coogler directed a brilliant film. He managed to get another great performance out of Jordan and also from Stallone, and the rest of the supporting cast. His fight scenes were visceral and kinetic, and bloody kudos to that amazing oner  that was Jordan’s first “real” fight! That really brought the audience into the ring. However, too many oners and it can begin to feel gimmicky. As were the overly epic and heroic score by Ludwig Goransson and the multiple homages to Rocky.
The story by Coogler was an ingenious way to bring Rocky back to pop-consciousness. Although the more dramatic and emotional scenes ironically lacked the punch and the screenplay by Coogler and Aaron Covington had too many clunky lines. Thankfully, it was all saved by the chemistry of the stars. Although the romantic subplot felt like a lost plot line of Empire.
Jordan has a great career in front of him – as long as he clears off duds like Fantastic Four ­. From the small screen on The Wire, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood to the big screen he definitely is a rising star. But he also definitely has a lot more room to grow as an actor, especially evident when Stallone is over-shining you in a less showy role.
There will sure be comparison between Creed and Southpaw since both are sport movies about boxing. However, Creed definitely was the better movie; although Jake Gyllenhaal gave a much better – and rawer and more vanity-free  - performance than Jordan. But overall, Creed succeeded in engaging the audience more even though some would claim that the manipulation was too blatant.



15 December 2015

In The Heart Of The Sea




Ron Howard's latest wasan alright movie - it was neither spectacularly good nor horrendously bad - it just lacked the grandeur and epic sweep that it so badly wished it had, but, in the end, it was failed by a generic story and un-imaginative storytelling.

Chris Hemsworth is an underrated actor and it is going to take a lot for him to get out from under Thor's shadow. His last outing with Howard gave us the excellent Rush and hopefully with the moolah from Marvel, he can continue to pursue smaller films that allow him to showcase his acting chops.

The story by Char;es Levant, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver was too focused on getting the characters to meet The Whale that it sacrificed characterization and relationship building which would become so important in the Third Act as the crew tried to survive. In truth, the story behind Moby Dick could have been very interesting, but the direction it took was not refreshing or new.

ITHOTS tried to emulate the gorgeous CGI-created world of Life of Pi but failed. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and Howard just could not capture the beauty as well as Claudio Miranda and Lee Ang. Neither could Howard copy the gritty realism of J.C. Chandor's All is Lost - despite Hemsworth's dedication to the role.

Howard had some moments where he shone and brought a palpable sense of excitement and terror to the audience. However, there were more moments that felt rushed and generic. And of course, there was also the badly done CGI. The water scenes were actually done really well when it was real but the CGI moments ranged from bad to laughable - which then brings the audience out of the movie. Even worse were the land scenes with one of the worse CGI seen on a big budget film (seriously, TV's Supergirl and Marvel's Agents of SHIELD had better CGI).

The cast gathered was terrific, but sadly wasted and misuse. Although there was a real sense of camaraderie and chemistry between Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy and Tom Holland (Spidey, meet Thor; Thor, meet Spidey!) it was not enough to make us really care about the characters or their conflict. Ben Wishaw, Brenden Gleeson and Michelle Fairley was actually more interesting as a set although their story was separate from the heroics.

The material itself was so rich that this film could have been epic, but instead it was just acceptable and mildly entertaining which was such a shame. Can Chris Hemsworth breakout?

8 December 2015

Macbeth



A beautiful and poetic interpretation, albeit a mildly abridged version, of Shakespeare's classic tragedy that was filled with gorgeous shots and a riveting, mesmerising  performance by Michael Fassbender and an equally hauntiing and intense one from Marion Cotillard. Thankfully the subtitles helped with both the Shakespearean/Elizabethan English and the heavy heavy Scottish (and Irish and French and Fassbenderian) accents.

Director Justin Kurzel's first big film was assured and confident, and he managed to stage the film like a play but yet still fully-utilised the large screen capability of cinema to translate the grandeur and majesty of the story. However, the strength in his directing was really the closer and intimate portrayals of King and Lady Macbeth. Although that was also partially due to the strength of the actors.

I think it is great that actors of such calibre like Fassbender and Cotillard are willing to take a chance on Kurzel, and something must have gone right in their collaboration - and it really showed on screen - for all three to go a second round with the upcoming Assassin Creed movie.

The film was just shy of 2 hours long, so some scenes/moments would have expected to be cut and that definitely was not to the show's advantage. Especially to an audience not familiar with the platy. The narrative would have seemed rather disjointed and the relationships between some of the characters less explored and established to make their actions much sense. But of course the big moments - and soliloquies - were kept and aced by the stars.

Fassbender was amazing and absolutely commanded the screen, His portrayal of Macbeth's descent from hero to murderer, lord to tyrant, from being respected to being feared, was slow and methodical. And the way he sprouted Shakespeare's line demanded that they be listened to through the tonal inflections and the careful pauses. His fear, hesitation, anxiety and resignation translated through his speech and his face and his posture.

Cotillard held up gamely against Fassbender. Thankfully her Lady Macbeth avoided the usual cliches and was portrayed as an equal to Macbeth. Although, her descent to madness was not as overt but it was that simplicity that Cotillard wrought that made it so much more haunting.

Both Fassbender and Cotillard definitely deserve some recognition come award time, but Fassbender will be fighting against himself in Steve Job in an already crowded - yet seemingly mediocre - field; Cotillard may stand a chance to gain a nomination in the Best Supporting Actress.

Kudos to Adam Arkapaw for the gorgeous cinematography although the fire scenes was a tad too harsh (see: Roger Deakins' brilliant work at the end of Skyfall). Although his shooting of Top of the Lake and the first season of True Detective already made him a name to be excited for.

And also kudos to Jacqueline Durran for the stunning costumes, and Fiona Crombie for the excellent production design. 

Kurzel has distilled Shakespeare's masterpiece into a worthy cinematic adaptation and ably captured the riveting performance of Fassbender and Cotillard to bring the Tragedy to life.



2 December 2015

The Good Dinosaur


The Good Dinosaur was a beautifully rendered animation with gorgeous, picturesque landscapes and amazing details. The story itself was a simple, straightforward The Land Before Time  meets The Lion King sensibility that despite its subtle darkness, still lacked the depth and lofty ideas of past Pixar entries. Nonetheless, it stills pack an emotional punch aided by Mychael and Jeff Danna's grogeous score.

I think Pixar had a wonderful concept initially: What if the meteor that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs didn't really hit Earth. That is a brilliant sci-fi concept and animation would have been able to carry it off beautifully (think: Avatar). And some seeds of that idea could be seen in the final film, however, what was more obvious was that the final product was clearly a different story from that.

The anthropomorphism of the dinosaurs went a bit too far  - but just roll with it since it is an additional million years of evolution - and the de-anthropomorphism of the human boy was just weird, unless it was a dark, dark subtext. But the relationship between the two lead characters worked, although the most powerful scenes were the wordless ones which then led me to wonder if The Good Dinosaur would have done better if it followed in the footsteps of Wall-E and go sans dialogue. We know Pixar is capable of that.

And when the dialogue fell to the side, you can really appreciate the gorgeous beauty of the film. Just based on that alone, I think the 3D version of this movie would have been stunning.

The music by Mychael and Jeff Danna definitely helped too. They had created a beautiful theme to celebrate friendship and love. A more emotionally stirring score than Giacchino's work on Inside Out

This was a simple story. No lofty ideas and grand, complex themes. And because it lacked originality, Pixar should have embraced the sappiness and gone all in for the heart and perhaps even lose their initial conceit.

The short animation tagged before the film: Sanjay's Super Team was also similarly not one of Pixar's best. It told a simple and personal story - a rarity - and because of that, it had a touch more heart and sincerity despite the simplicity (in terms of narrative and animation).

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...