29 September 2016

Deepwater Horizon


Paul Berg's disaster thriller was entertaining and surprisingly touching, with moments of  nail-biting tension. But as exciting as the main/climatic action sequence was - and the moments leading to the blowout was truly brilliant - the other sequences were less so, with the film unfolding passively and even confusingly sometimes.

Berg took his time to establish the scene and heavily, and clumsily, foreshadowed the events to come which was so unnecessary since we already know it is coming. That begs the question: what was the point?

In addition, Berg focused on Mark Wahlberg and neglected the rest of the cast, and that made relating to them as they navigate through the disaster very challenging. Especially since they were all dressed similar-ish on the rig,  It was good that Berg spent the first act laying the ground but most audience members would be unfamiliar with the layout of an oil rig. As such, without a clear idea of the design of the rig and how the space is arranged, there was less of an impact when the disaster struck because everything just got even more confusing.

Wahlberg was his usual all American, self-sacrificing, family-loving hero - the same type he had played before so many times. Kudos to Wahlberg and Kate Hudson for making their relationship believable. Their chemistry really helped to add a layer of emotional weight to an otherwise macho-adrenaline driven thriller.

Kurt Russell commanded the screen but of course he played second fiddle to Wahlberg.

And then we have Gina Rodriguez. Her character was written so badly. Initially she was introduced as a smart, resourceful and capable character but as the story progressed, she devolved into a pathetic whimpering, damsel in distress that needed to be rescue. Chauvinistic much?

The saving grace for the film was really the intense action sequence depicting the blow-out. After that, the film just could not keep up with the adrenaline and slowly petered out as we watched passively as the rig gets destroyed.

28 September 2016

Cafe Society


Cafe Society was a typical, run of the mill, predictable Woody Allen romantic dramedy. With a star studded cast, Allen again muses sardonically on love and relationships, albeit only superficially. The main cast, in particular Jesse Eisenberg, were individually good but lacked chemistry together.

The film, and its set design, were beautiful with an authentic 30s NYC/LA feel to it. Costuming did a commendable job too. While Allen kept a keen eye on the aesthetics of the film, his exploration - or musings - on love was a lot more superficial this time. With just a perfunctory circling on the dilemma of loving more than one person at a time and a cursory meditation on Tennyson's wise adage of  "'This better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all",

Eisenberg gave a strong performance here as he evolved his character through the film in both a distinctive physical way and a more subtle emotional growth. But yet, there were some nuances to his character that did not change which formed the bedrock of his character.

Kirsten Stewart veers away from her Twilight days and we do see a versatile actress beneath that luminosity. However, she did not have any chemistry with either Eisenberg or Steve Carell which made selling the underlying romance that tied the story together difficult.

Blake Lively is just there to be pretty. Parker Posey and Carell should be in more of Allen's films.

The annual Woody Allen film is almost an event unto itself and this film does not disappoint his fans, but to the casual moviegoer - or Allen newbie - it can be a bit blend and blah.

25 September 2016

Pitch


Pilot: Dan Fogelman's second pilot this season, after This Is Us, is another winner and one of the best pilots in a long time. The concept was clearly established, exposition quickly and neatly dealt with, main characters filled in and supporting cast sketched out, and ultimately a hook for audience to tune in next week. Fogelman and co-writer/creator Rick Singer wrote a smart pilot that was logical and plausible but yet has the potential to be so much more than just your regular sport-drama. Kylie Bunbury has the elusive star quality that makes her magnetic to watch, but whether she has the depth to carry out more emotionally heavy moments is still to be determined. Mark-Paul Gosselaar plays against type and yet somehow still remained the same, and that is truly fascinating, however his chemistry with Bunbury fleets in and out and please don't have them sleep together. Ali Larter - another Heroes alumni in a Fogelman show! - was great and her lines were golden. Also, Pitch definitely has a much more killer soundtrack than the current season of Empire. Miss Cookie Lyon, we need you here...STAT! Honestly, Taraji P Henson would fit right in here!

The Magnificent Seven


Antoine Fuqua's remake of a classic Western was a decent film, if albeit chauvinistic and racist. It lacked originality, authenticity, fun and an emotional core. Nic Pizzolato's story was more about plotting and moving the story forward rather than a character-driven narrative (more season two than one of True Detective). Denzel Washington was the only cast member to be able to exude a sort of old school/western charm with Chris Pratt being pushed too hard to be quippy and the rest being one dimensional stereotypes.

Fuqua reunited with Washington and Ethan Hawke, all three were last seen together in the excellent Training Day, and their chemistry was evident. Sadly, Hawke was let down by a weak character that had a seemingly interesting backstory but went nowhere.

On the other hand with Pratt, Fuqua and Pizzolato tried too much to bank on his comedic background, but as funny a guy as Pratt is, his one-liners and quips seemed out of sync with the whole film and the rest of the cast. It seemed to play more for the audience - a certain type - than be an organic part of the story.

The final climatic scene was the best moment/sequence of the film, but it lacked immediacy and danger in the way it was shot with every shot clearly framed, choreographed and executed. The lack of actual cowboy/western-esque stunts (see Alden Ehrenreich aka young Han Solo in the Coen Brothers Hail, Caesar!) really hurt this film's authenticity.

At least Fuqua et al set the scene and basis of the film early but it required seriously challenging "movie logic" to accept that these seven men will be part of the group with nary a discussion/objection.

And then that was where another major problem laid. As much as I applaud Fuqua for ensembling a racially diverse cast, and Pizzolato for moving the story out of the original's Americans-saving-Mexicans conceit, why didn't they have the courage to make it a mixed gender cast? The film badly failed the Bechdel Test; other than Haley Bennett there was no other significant female role. And just by having her tot a gun and shooting up bad guys, does not make the film any less chauvinistic, especially if what she did was to make another male character more of a hero.

Vincent D'Onofrio did his best with his limited character and gave his character a certain amount of depth. Byung-hun Lee should be insulted by his racist role - but I guess the paycheck is good. Hawke and Lee had an interesting story initially but that potential devolved by the third act and felt more Lone Ranger and Tonto rather than two equals. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier were the token racial-diversity deux ex machinas. Peter Saarsgard, hardly recognisable, needs a mustache to complete his villainy.

The late James Horner started on the score before he died, unfortunately he had not seen the film yet, and Simon Franglan's final product showed the schizophrenic result with a mostly distracting film score. Ennio Morricone this ain't. Mauro Fiore lensed the film and but as  gorgeous as the sunsets and wide-angled landscapes were, the overall effect was jarring and lent a further gloss of inauthenticity to the film.

In this day with Tarantino's The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained still so fresh in most people's minds, Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven comparatively lacked authenticity and originality.

24 September 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings


A simple and predictable fantasy fable that was wildly entertaining. Smart, affecting writing that did not dumb down the material brought laughter and scares, and an emotional sucker punch at the end that was not only surprising, but also well deserved. But most importantly, the stop-motion / CGI animation was downright stunning, and it has been a long time coming that a film's score had been so effectively used throughout.

Laika has done it again. The stop-motion maestros continued to astounding work with Kubo and the Two Strings. From the opening moments, the animation will leave you spell bound. Mixed that in with amazing origami action and seamless CGI background, and this is a real contender for best animation Oscar.

Of course, to be an Oscar contender the story itself is important, and the screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler (with story by Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes) was well written. As simple - and predictable - as the storyline itself was, the way director Travis Knight engaged the audience with its simplicity was effective with stirring images and poignant silences interspaced between moments of physical humour and manga-esque action.

Nonetheless, the two biggest disconnect with the movie was the casting and the voice attacking.Other than Art Parkinson (aka Rickon Stark) and Rooney Mara - who were great in their roles - Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey were simply miscast and lacked vocal chemistry between each other and their character. It seemed like a shameless big-name, headlining-grab for some star power which kind of does reflect the lack of faith the producers have with the original material itself. And that is sad.

Dario Marianelli wrote the score for this film, and it is in one word: stunning. Absolutely beautiful and befitting score. It has been a long while since I last felt so attuned with a film's music. One of Marinelli's best score since Atonement and Anna Karenina.

I think this film - and the animation - would have been more stunning had it been watched in 3D. It seemed to lend itself very well, like most animation, to that technology.

23 September 2016

The Good Place


Pilot, Episode 2 "Flying" and Episode 3 "Tahani Al-Jamil": A very refreshing comedy that explore high philosophical concepts, albeit superficially, in a sitcom-esque format. Anchored by the ever-charismatic Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, The Good Place is good for a good chuckle but three episodes in, there were not any truly laugh out loud moments. Plot and story, and even twists, have so far been predictable, although by the third episode, the supporting cast got more established and relevant. However, like many shows with such high-brow concepts, the main concern is how would the show runners maintain the conceit beyond the first season. What happens once everybody finds out the truth, accepts the truth and move on from it?

Designated Survivor


Pilot: When Jack Bauer meets Clark Kent, you get Tom Kirkman. A by-the-numbers, political-thriller that seemed, at first glance, to be yet another variation of 24 or Homeland, but without the hook. Yes, the scenario is intriguing but a lot of what was shown in the pilot failed to address the potential fallout from such a scenario. Instead, we were revolving around Kiefer Sutherland who despite attempts to make himself seemed mousey and nerdy and non-intimidating - those glasses! - is undeniably very Jack Bauer still. The supporting casts all seemed bland, the child actors bring horrible flashbacks to Homeland's Chris and Dana Brody - remember them? Shudders! - and the plot itself does not seem capable to go beyond a limited series. And perhaps it is that last point that may keep the audience tuning in, because although Sutherland has charisma, but seeing how the show can sustain itself for a full season and beyond might be interesting.

Episode #2 The First Day: I'm bored. Designated Survivor has one of the clunkiest dialogue and it is just a mish-mash of possibilities and storylines. It seemed as if the showrunners are just throwing a bunch of ideas out there and see which sticks: political thriller? Political drama? Espionage thriller? The cast still do not have their beats in sync and only Sutherland looked comfortable in the role he is playing, and even then, it still looked like most times he wants to hulk out into Jack Bauer.

21 September 2016

This Is Us


Pilot: Fall TV has finally swung in and one of the first new series is NBC's This Is Us. It may be a bit early to declare it, but Dan Fogelman's new series has the potential to be the next Parenthood. The pilot was smartly written with authentic dialogue and acutely genuine emotions as the family drama unfolds and the emotions are wrung out of the audience. Of course, this would not have been possible if not for the great cast who were perfectly cast and embodied their characters so well. Milo Ventimiglia has come a long way since his days as Jess in Gilmore Girls and in Heroes; Justin Hartley is a handsome revelation and Chrissy Metz is an heartache. Sterling K. Brown gave a great performance but his character was still a bit of a cipher. As was Mandy Moore who did not get much to do this time. The ending gave us a little twist that was, in my opinion, kind of expected but it really does open up many exciting storytelling potentials! Looking forward to the next few episodes.

Episode #2 - "The Big Three": The show continues on on its charming, touching and downright heartwarming course as the framework of the series begins to take shape. The relationship between Kevin, Kate and Randall is very interesting and has so much potential for exploration. On the other hand, in the past, Rebecca and Jack's story seemed to be sacrificed and was presented as lean as possible. Nonetheless, Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia nailed their scenes. Ken Olin directed this episode (he is also the producer), maybe one day he will guest star in it too. Speaking of which, Katy Sagal and Brad Garrett slayed their moments! A word of caution though: This Is Us needs to stay clear of having way too many last minute, episode ending twists.

8 September 2016

Sully


Disclaimer: I have aviophobia, i.e. fear of flying.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have our first all-round Oscar contender here. Actually, just give Tom Hanks the Oscar now for Best Actor. Clint Eastwood will also almost definitely at least get a nomination for Best Director. Terrifyingly realistic and realistically touching without being overly schmaltzy or excessively melodramatic, Sully was smartly directed and superbly acted, hooking the audience in from the get go all the way to the end of its 96 minutes run.

After a few misfires with Hereafter and J. Edgar, followed by the fun, but lightweight and mismatched, Jersey Boysand the politically-charged American Sniper, Eastwood finally returns to form that saw him won the Best Director for Million Dollar Baby. 

Eastwood made a lot of smart directorial choices here and most importantly in how to tell the story. He smartly focused on the Captain Sullenberger and not the trigger event itself, and by doing so, when it finally happened, we become more invested in the characters.

And at the same time, Eastwood had also wisely chosen to stay clear of over-dramatising the situation, but yet he had wisely peppered a few moments throughout to bring out the human factor.

Eastwood presented the whole incident as calmly as Cpt Sully was in managing the situation, and with that he injected realism and removed unnecessary histrionics that would have otherwise marred the experience. And that experience was terrifying. Terri-f***-ing-fying (see disclaimer). Which really made the moment of rescue all that much satisfying, touching and believable.

Then we have Hanks. He really did topped himself here, digging really deep into the character and disappearing. Cpt Sully's fears, anxieties, pride and confidence all became his own. We follow him throughout the film and as we slowly get to know him, our feelings evolved with the film. Without keeping too much away, minor spoilers ahead, we loved him, we doubt him, then we root for him again. Brilliant!

Aaron Eckhart holds his own against Hanks and gave a confident performance, but unfortunately not in the same calibre as Mark Rylance award-winning performance last year opposite Hanks in Spielberg's Bridge of Spies. Depending on the rest of the year, the Supporting Actor race may or may not have space for him.

Laura Linney (again we see her, after Genius...I really hope she is making a comeback) provides the emotional anchor for Hanks, and also the audience surrogate.

Then we have Anna Gunn and a few character actors, like Mike O'Malley, Jamey Sheridan and Chris Bauer, maintaining the calibre of acting.

Not to say that this film was flawless. The screenplay by Todd Komarnicki had some moments of trite fictionalising dramatic trope, but the brilliant cast easily helped to mask it over.

The film was shot almost entirely in IMAX digital cameras by Tom Stern and it showed. It really ought to be watched in an IMAX theatre. The experience was well worth it.

A definite Oscar contender and a great start to this year's awards race.


Don't Breathe


Don't Breathe was not an original film. Neither in its premise or plot. And despite its short run time of 88 minutes, the final act just would not end. However, director and co-writer Fede Alvarez had some really great moments that really stood out and effectively notched the tension and fear up to 11. Just for those alone, the film redeemed itself from predictability. Sadly, nobody was brave enough to embrace an unexpected ending which would then really have elevated the film from the rest of the pack (looking at you Lights Out).

The biggest issue, other than predictability, was that none of the characters were really worth rooting for. They were not even anti-heroes (or anti-villains) which could have elicit some sort of audience sympathy or empathy. They were flat, generic and single-mindedly motivated. But then again, one does not expect too much going into a film like this and really just ought to accept things and move on. 

Once again, kudos to Alvarez for effectively using the minimal jump scares. But, also like Lights Out, the story seemed to work a lot better as a short film and stretching it out to feature-length just led to padding and staleness. 

The epilogue was unnecessary and a blatant sign of studio/producer/creator greed. 

And I cannot believe the Singapore f***ing censored it!

3 September 2016

Pete's Dragon


A lighthearted, feel good film that had the joyous exhilaration of How To Train Your Dragon, the wide-eyed wondrous awe of The NeverEnding Story with a large smattering of the trademark Disney family wholesomeness.

Elliott was a wondrous creation by Weta Digital and was deservedly a character unto its own.

Kudos to director David Lowery on his first big budget film. He managed to make a remake feel slightly original, yet paid sufficient homage to the original and the brand. Although ultimately it felt like a typical Disney film in the end, the process of getting there, especially in the first act was at least refreshing.

The child actors were good, but Oakes Fegley somehow lacked the innocent naivety required for such a role. And his interactions with the digital Elliott, though touching was even less believable than Neel Sethi's portrayal of Mowgli in Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book.

Oona Laurence continued to shine and she will be a talent to watch out for as she grows.

Bryce Dallas Howard was a miscast. She appeared too cold and her familiarity with the children too forced to make the emotional pathos worth it.

Robert Redford, on the other hand, just exuded gravitas and lent the film such weight with his presence.

Not much to say about the other male co-stars Wes Bentley and Keith Urban other than flat, one-dimensional and boring. Although Urban would make a great Gustav in a Disney's live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast.

The music was strongly country-themed but the cinematography by Bojan Bazelli was stunning. Especially of the forest in its myriad greens and lights and shadows.

Pete's Dragon was a family and child-friendly, Disney schmaltzy-aw shucks film.

1 September 2016

Sing Street


A charming, feel-good love-story/musical whose unbridled optimism about love, life and the future is as infectious as the original songs are catchy.

John Carney has written and directed another musical love story. Where Once was original, raw and full of passion, and Begin Again was polished, sleek and Hollywood, Sing Street presented the young and innocence of puppy love, full of optimism, hope and dreams.

Regardless of what Carney thought of Keira Knightley, she has screen charms and a magnetic waifish attraction that helped to push the illusions of the fairy tale that was Begin Again. But here in Sing Street, Carney's decision to cast unknowns - Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton - as the leads did not lead to the sparks and palpable chemistry that Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova had in Once. As such, the focus of the story fell on the idea of the plot rather than its execution.

What would you do to win the girl (or boy, if we are being politically correct)?

The film definitely succeeds as a feel good rom-com, but beyond the catchy original songs, and the euphoric nostalgia of 80s pop (Ah-Ha! Duran Duran! The Cure! Hall & Oates! Spandau Ballet!)  there weren't much other substance in it. Although, at this day and age, who do not just want some happy optimism in their life? And there, Carney hit the mark.

But of course, it would have been better if we could have explored more of the romance, or the family situation, or even the bandmates who, though are each uniquely displayed, seemed like nothing more than props.

One of the best scene in the whole film was a quiet moment where the indelible Maria Doyle Kennedy was sitting in the sun, enjoying some wine and her papers, and her two children talking about her behind her back. That moment felt so authentic and sincere. Kudos to Jack Reynor for the delivery.

And that last scene absolutely ruined it. It should have ended about 2 minutes earlier with the quiet refrains of Adam Levin singing us into credits. But as Knightley said in Begin Again, and I paraphrase, Levin (or his character, some would argue) can't help but make every song into a stadium anthem. Carney is so guilty of overdoing it here in the end. My eyes just rolled back.

Sing Street was a movie equivalent of a sugar rush. It felt good but ultimately will still leave you empty and hungry.



Genius



A heavily sepia-tinged film that seemed a lot more suited to be on the stage but showcased a phenomenal supporting performance by Nicole Kidman.

Theatrically directed by Michael Grandage, especially in its scene transitions and blocking, and from a screenplay by the talented John Logan - who is known to string words together into beautiful sentences - the film and its undoubtedly brilliant cast tried to make the mundane process of editing into something interesting. Unfortunately, beyond the frantic montages of paper flying and red pencil scribblings they largely failed. The most interesting aspect of the film was its exploration of its main characters which felt underserved, but it was also those moments that elevated the film.

As talented a wordsmith as Logan is, he seemed torn in deciding on who his main focus should be on. Grandage similarly. Is the story of Max Perkins? Or is it a biographical adaptation of the life of Thomas Wolfe? Or is it the main focus actually the bromance between these two?

It was an odd choice for Grandage and cinematographer Ben Davis (he of the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe franchises) to shoot the whole film in sepia-tone. It definitely suited the mood and atmosphere of the times - which was gorgeous and beautifully recreated - but it also made the film feel heavier than it should.

Kidman gave a astounding performance - her best in ages! Although coming on screen occasionally as a supporting role,  but her every appearance was raw with emotions. Clearly reminding us once again that she is an Actor, damn it!

Jude Law gave one the best performances of his career and he really is on the second wind of his career (like Hugh Grant). However, he did tend to veer occasionally into over-acting which is so hard to avoid in this sort of role.

Colin Firth pseudo-American diction was distracting, but he oozed an understated charm and a quite sort of magnetism that draws the audience in to his mood. Pity that his Max Perkin's stoic calm was underwritten and over-shadowed by Law's maniac Wolfe.

Then we have Laura Linney. Where have you been Linney? We missed you. Your effortless poise and strength anchored the film and was the true heart of the story.

Genius is a prestige film and it would have been a very good play. But can it rely sole on its pedigree and star power, despite the ho hum story telling, to push it forward towards Oscar/BAFTA glory? Especially since it is a film  about a time in American history that is made by a largely British-Australian effort.

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...