13 December 2017

Murder on the Orient Express


A competently directed and beautifully shot film by Kenneth Branagh that did not veer too much from Agatha Christie's source material. A refreshing take of a classic story that engages but never really hooked the audience. And if not for the strong ensemble of veteran thespians holding this film up, it would surely have not been as entertaining especially since the younger actors were general disappointments (with the exception of breakout actor Tom Bateman) as their obvious inexperience were starkly apparent when compared directly opposite the likes of Branagh, Dame Judi Dench, Olivia Coleman, Derek Jacobi, William Dafoe and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Branagh and writer Michael Green managed to inject some originality and freshness to this (mostly) familiar story but despite Branagh's eye for staging, blocking and mood, he never really managed to capture that elusive hook that made this improbable Christie's story so gripping in text. There was a lack of climatic excitement and the urgency of solving a murder which made the book such a page-turner.

Similarly, compared to superior 1974 version - which had an all round star-studded and competent actors - this version lacked the suspense and a genuine sense of whodunnit even despite knowing the source material.

Branagh managed to ensemble a great cast of named-stars both veterans and up-and-comers. However, as aforementioned, the younger cast members could not hold their own against these established, and academy award winners and nominees. Every actor has a scene whereby they are the focus and it was so stark the difference between how veterans like Dench, Dafoe, Coleman, Jacobi commanded the screen compared to the blatant acting of young ones like Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr, Lucy Boynton and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. If only Branagh - and his odd accent - could have cast or directed these younglings better.

Kudos to cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and composer Patrick Doyle for providing excellent craft support that bolstered the film.

Now, as we wait for the sequel Death on the Nile, hopefully if Branagh returns to direct, he will have improved on the short-comings of this production.

9 December 2017

Coco


An absolute crowd-pleaser  for the whole family. Pixar has done it again with a four-quadrant winner that resonated across generations and culture. It may not be as (pseudo)-intellectual as Inside Out but it definitely pack a great emotional punch especially in its third act, with a strong story line on the evergreen theme of family vs self and obligation vs passions that never turned schmaltzy. Great voice work all around in particular Anthony Gonzalez and Gael Garcia Bernal, with great music and score from Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the duo that gave us the hits from Frozen, and Michael Giacchino who is back - at last - with a mariachi-tinged score that delivered on the emotional journey.

Directed by Lee Unkrich, who also gave us the last real Pixar tearjerker, Toy Story 3Coco continued Pixar's animation technological supremacy. The film was gorgeous to behold and tiny nuances like the translucency of the skin, the glow of candle light and the luminosity of the alebrijes, especially Pepita's - oh Pepita! - are mesmerising. The animation is fluid and never distracting.

The main story itself was simple, and Unkrich told it efficiently but yet without ever holding back anything. At a brisk 109 minutes, the only letdown was the slightly draggy second act as well as the predictability (for an adult perhaps?) of the finale. However, the emotional sincerity of our lead character Miguel held steady throughout and helped to sell the story, predictability and all which led to very, very strong third act and finale that will surely tug at the heartstrings of even the meanest scrooge. And for most, tears will be inevitable. But the tears were well-earned.

Coco proved that Pixar (and to a smaller extent, Disney) can still create wondrous, original content instead of just money-making, merchandising-selling sequels. In addition, well-thought out characters that have rich, emotional depth will always connect with the audience.

Key to the success also laid in the music and the Lopez have definitely nailed it with the potential Best Song nominee Remember Me. Giacchino has also found his groove back with a great score, echoing the success he had back in his last collaboration with Pixar for Inside Out. Hope he can continue this collaborative streak in The Incredible 2.

Coco is definitely the animation to beat this year for the Best Animation Oscar. And I daresay it should even have a shot, albeit a very long one, in this year's wide-open Best Picture race if for nothing else but its optimistic outlook and attitude on love and acceptance - elements sorely lacking in the world these days.

17 November 2017

Justice League


An entertaining film that brought some laughs and some serviceable action, but ultimately felt like a wannabe Avengers. Although a definite improvement over the travesty that was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, it was still far from the (overrated) high bar of Wonder Woman. The film rushed through its introduction of the new characters leaving most of the newbies as one-dimensional freaks with gifts, and the primary conflict itself suffered from a paper-thin villain and a drastic lack of urgency and gravitas.

Justice League also suffered from being tonally unevenly throughout its near 2-hours run, and it was clear that there were more than one pair of hands involved in the creation of this film. From the hyper-realistic and over-stylised shots of Zack Snyder to the oddly more intimate and less grandoise moments by (likely) Joss Whedon; similarly, for every zinger and witty repartee, there were ten equally eye-rolling clunkers and clumsy bantering.

Wonder woman remained the most interesting character with Superman a close second; similarly Gal Gadot and Henry Cavill were both very charismatic and embodied their characters, especially Cavill who should consider venturing into comedy more. Ben Affleck is better as Bruce Wayne rather than as Batman; Jason Momoa made Aquaman a film worth looking forward to. Unfortunately, Ezra Miller's maniacal, child-like, Barry Allen was made to be too much of a wisecracker and it bordered on being annoying (and after 4 years on TV, CW's Grant Gustin's The Flash somehow still seemed a better fit for the character), his lacked of backstory definitely also did not help; same for Ray Fisher's Cyborg who remained a cipher. I don't feel like I want to know more about the last two superheroes.

The action sequences were rather messy (very unlike Snyder) and were not as well shot or choreographed, but at least they did not drag on for longer than necessary. But even then, it lack the awe and spectacle that one has come to expect of superhero franchises (blame it on Marvel). Worse of all, the final fight lacked the money-moment where you would expect all the heroes to come together (preferably in a single frame) to defeat the villain (see: Avengers I and II). Which was a shame, as that is what fans wanted to see.

Danny Elfman seemed to have lost his mojo and turned out another lacklustre and unmemorable score. When was his last good score? 2006's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? 2008's Milk? Or  2010's Alice in Wonderland?

Fabian Wagner was the cinematographer for the film and he at least used a few interesting shots to capture the characters and his action. It will be interesting to see how he progresses from television work (albeit the cinematic Sherlock and Game of Thrones franchises) to the large screen.

I am glad I did not fork out the extra for IMAX or 3D and I am not sure if the latter will be actually worth it.

Stay till the end for both a cheeky, unrelated, mid-credits scene and a do-we-really-want-it? post-credits scene.

Justice League was better than expected, and despite Whedon having a hand in it, the DCEU is still unable to climb out of the doldrums of its own making. But at least Wonder Woman still slays.

15 November 2017

The Mountain Between Us


The seemingly impossible has happened. There was nary a spark of romantic chemistry between both Kate Winslet and Idris Elba. Who knew that that would have been possible between these two gorgeous people. Coupled that non-chemistry with a survival-in-the-wilderness film that lacked realism and grit, this film ended being as frigid as the mountain our two leads were stranded on. 

The lack of chemistry between Winslet and Elba was not only in the romantic side of things, but also in general. The weak script left much to be desired as bantering gave way to heavy-handedness and Nicholas Sparks-ian dialogue. Unfortunately, as the main stars of the film, these two heavyweight actors did not work.

The first fifteen minutes showed potential, as director Hany Abu-Assad effectively set the premise, but from then on, the 112 minutes film just dragged on with many languid moments of waiting and longing and trudging through snow. Abu-Assad and writers Chris Weitz and J Mills Goodloe were egregiously guilty of telling way too much rather than showing. The stars' lack of chemistry, Ramin Djawadi's uninspired score and Mandy Walker's only occasionally beautiful cinematography (it definitely ain't near Emmanuel Lubezki's gorgeous snowscape in The Revenant or Roger Deakin's stark bleakness in Fargo) did not help to unleaden the bloated run time.

Abu-Assad's decision to not inject realism in this survival tale was extremely distracting and absolutely did affect the appreciation of the narrative and the characters' predicament. Winslet's silky billowy hair, and her near-flawless makeup throughout was unbelievable; as was the seemingly lack of visible physical changes in the stars' appearance (come on, the magic of CGI and hair/makeup?). 

All of the above really affected the urgency and realism of the film and the genre (look at the dedication of similar genre films like Everest, or even The Lost City of Z). The lack of urgency really just failed to ignite any sort of passion or empathy in the audience. 

All that together just made the events unfolding on-screen seemingly eye-rollingly unbelievable and ridiculous.

The unnecessarily long epilogue did not help to end the film on a bright note too.

It is unfortunate that both Winslet and Elba ended with such a dud. Winslet had moments - brief ones - where she showed glimpses of award-winning calibre acting; whereas Elba failed to excite anybody of his chances to be the next Bond or even Doctor.

This film could have been so much more if they had just embraced the poppy aspect of the premise, instead of trying to make it more elevated than it actually is. The film failed to excite me to want to read the original source novel.

13 November 2017

Suburbicon


A typical Coen brothers black-comedic opera that, unfortunately, under George Clooney's direction ended up being neither dark nor funny. What Clooney gave us was instead a messy juggling of a pseudo-murder mystery and a socio-political satire that lacked subtlety and finesse; the former being eye-rollingly ridiculous and the latter being narratively incoherent and irrelevant. Clooney even managed to mangle Alexandre Desplat's score with odd musical cues. The film was only saved by the brilliant - and only truly darkly comedic - Julianne Moore, who - yet again - beautifully embodied the persona of a 50s housewife, and also by the brief comedic turn of third-billed Oscar Issac.

Suburbicon, as a film, had nothing new to say. It seemingly wanted to comment on white-privilege, racial discrimination and maybe even political hypocrisy, but none of those messages were coherently translated on to the screen. Throughout the film, a big question mark looms over the whole narrative, begging the question "Why?". Why is this scene necessary? Why is this happening? Why are they so stupid? Why is Clooney doing it this way?

The problem is not that the characters are dumb or that coincidences conveniently deus ex machina everything, but in how the story unfolded. On more capable hands, such contrivances can work brilliantly, see the Coen brothers' own Burn After Reading or Fargo (or even Noah Hawley's terrific TV version). However, Clooney may have been overly ambitious and bit off more than he could chew with trying to make the plot seemingly more current and more political than it should have been.

Matt Damon - known best friend of Clooney - may not have been the best first choice to lead this dark comedy. His performance lacked the subtle maniac oddness that would have elevated the lead character. On the other hand, Moore fiercely embodied that campy madness and she stood out so much more for that role.

Damon and Moore were incompatibly matched, both in terms of oddball craziness and romantic chemistry. The one and a half scene between Moore and Issac, on the other hand, was sizzling and electrifying to watch as they both gleefully chewed - and chewed and chewed - on the scenery.

Young actor Noah Jupe was competent enough - and cute enough - but he was no Jacob Trembly in Room.

Desplat scored the film and, as aforementioned, the score throughout the film was jarring and annoying. And it was only during the end credits can you properly appreciate Desplat. Robert Elswit lensing gave the film an authentic 50/60s vibe but none of the scenes really stood out.

Suburbicon had potential and perhaps if co-writers Clooney and Grant Heslow (also a co-producer) left the Coen brothers' script alone, the outcome might have been tighter, cleaner and less muddled.

26 October 2017

Thor: Ragnarok [IMAX/3D]


Not a simple feat, but kudos to director Taika Waititi for bringing us not only the best film of the Thor franchise but also one of the best entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thor: Ragnorak was a superhero space/fantasy that effectively weaved the current wave of 80s nostalgia, from the homage to the old school Star Wars trilogy to the retro electronica and cyberpunk synthesiser beats, into the current fabric of technology-enabled, explosion of colours, sounds and CGI effects. It was not only a rollickingly exciting and fun ride, but it was also downright funny with many laugh out loud moments and excellent comedic beats by everybody in the cast. Perhaps, the weakest part of the film was the plot, and not surprisingly, the villain. The basic storyline was thin, basic and stretched out to fill the spectacle, but at least in this case, the fillers more than made it up to distract from the A-plot.

Finally, since Joss Whedon and the first two Avengers, Marvel has got writers – Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – who understand banter; not only good, naturalistic banter but also funny ones. And although there were a number of clunky lines, most of which were to underscore dramatic moments, they did not induce too much eye-rolling only because the delivery (mostly) by Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddlestone, Jeff Goldblum and the treasure that is Cate Blanchett, was deliciously campy and they sold it for all its hammy over-the-topness.

From the get go, Waititi established the tone of the film and we know this was not going to be like the dreary, bleak and gloomy Thor: The Dark World, but will be more like James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. And the result was even better. Waititi brilliantly balanced the comic with the drama, the funny with the action and he managed to get such good reaction shots from all the cast members. A supercut needs to be done! The blooper reel for this will be one hell of a laugh riot!

On the other hand, Waititi’s pacing of the film could have been be a bit tighter especially in the slightly bloated second act. Beyond the spectacle of the gladiator fight between Thor and <spoiler alert> Hulk </end spoiler>, the time spent in Sakaar did not justify how much we ended up knowing about it. In other words, if the audience were to spend almost half to two-thirds of the running time in a new world, more could have been to establish the world. Not even Goldblum could ham it up sufficiently enough to obfuscate the fact that Thor would eventually, somehow, get the upper hand. And there was only that much petulant Hulk one can tolerate before he gets annoying like every other petulant child on screen ever.

Similarly, we all know that Blanchett's Hela will eventually get defeated, but it is the how that we are interested in. And although getting to the final showdown was exciting, the actual climatic fight was just way too brief. 

In the same vein, although Hela had a proper backstory with a clearer sense of purpose and villainy, her scenes were also one of the weakest mainly because Blanchett did not have much of a worthy opponent to work against. Instead, she was saddled with exposition, but hey, at least she looked great - that hair! that makeup! and she has got lipstick! - and gamely camped it up although her accent was distractingly inconsistent.

Hemsworth has really grown into his role as Thor. And by "Hemsworth" I mean Chris, not Luke, who has a cameo as an Asgardian actor playing "Thor" (with Matt Damon as "Loki" - priceless!). Anyways, Hemsworth definitely has the comic chops - also evident in his scene-stealing role in Ghostbusters - and Waititi used it here to great effect. The writers and Waititi have found Thor's voice from Whedon in The Avengers and brought it out to the fore. Not only that, Hemsworth also has a gift for physical comedy and that coupled with his comedic timing, really brought the funs, laughs and levity to the film - and the MCU franchise.

Hiddlestone, on the other hand, needs a new schtick. His version of Loki is finally getting stale. However, he gives damn good reaction shots. As an actor, Hiddlestone has not been getting much of a showcase. 

Blanchett, as mentioned above, is a treasure and she elevates the simply-sketched Hela just by being her. A pity she was not given more scenaries to chew. Instead, we have Goldblum who gleefully chewed his way through every moment. Even in the end-credits scene.

Tessa Thompson was a valuable addition to the MCU and she exuded verve and sass as she banter and battle.

Mark Ruffalo was also similarly lots of fun, although his Banner/Hulk was shortchanged narrative-wise. Not unexpected since this was a Thor film and not The Incredible Hulk. But it would be very interesting to find out more what happened to them since the end of Ultron.

Benedict Cumberbatch has an extended cameo and served to mainly tie up the various Marvel universes together. A pity his cloak did not get a role. Fellow brit, Idris Elba also had less of a role here other than to act as deus ex machina-like plot device. 

The score was by Mark Mothersbaugh and Marvel may have finally got a score that was memorable (not a soundtrack a la GOTG) and also a possible ear worm for the franchise.

The 3D effects were quite well done, but not entirely needed. Similarly, watching on IMAX was just for the pure fun of a BIG screen and BIG sound. As per usual, we have a mid-credits scene which undoubtedly is setting up for Avengers: Infinity War and a end-credits scene (as hinted above).

Thor: Ragnarok has set a new benchmark for the MCU (and superhero films) and will be a tough act to follow. It managed to reintroduce - and rehabilitate - an established character and even improve on it, but yet still retaining the essence of what made the character a hit. Hopefully. Black Panther will establish itself as a totally, and tonally, different genre and breakthrough as another hit for Marvel.

6 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049 [IMAX/3D]


If nothing else, this was a singularly stunning, breathtakingly gorgeous, absolutely beautiful piece of film. Just give Roger Deakins his Oscar now! As for Dennis Villeneuve, the man is now five for five since his 2010 breakout film Prisoners, and he will surely be in the running for Best Director again this year. His film in itself - prior viewing of the 1982 original not necessary, but does inform the experience - was a surprisingly simple, yet layered noir/science fiction story that was effectively told despite its length (163 minutes) and also, ironically, satisfyingly unresolved. Ryan Gosling stood out and may get a nod but he is in danger of not breaking out of his comfort zone.

The IMAX experience was really worth it here. Not only as a canvas for Deakin's sumptuous cinematography, but also for the excellent sound design and mixing. So far, only this film, DunkirkMad Max: Fury Road pioneer Avatar has really, properly utilised the capabilities of IMAX.

Villeneuve's directing was sure-handed and he managed to maintain the high standard of sci-fi storytelling he is known for - see Arrival and Enemy - with the sensibility of a blockbuster. The science fiction never corrupts the narrative and there was constantly a strong sense of character in his lead (Gosling). And like in Arrival, the story had the plausibility of being grounded in reality.

Hampton Francher and Michael Green co-wrote the screenplay and they might also get a nod for Best Original Screenplay. At 163 minutes they had a lot of time to craft out their characters and it did not disappoint. Even their villains had depth, Jared Leto in his hubris and Sylvia Hoeks in her loyalty.

The story took its time. With the first act introducing the audience to the new world and laying the seeds of the A-plot and the central conflicts/themes of the film, i.e. what makes us humans? And what makes us more than human? What defines humanity? Then came the second act where we inched towards the truth and more truths - or truths - are revealed. Then came a short third act where revelations are made as we hurdled towards the fourth and final act of resolution. But a resolution for whom? Definitely not us as the audience, as the world of Blade Runner persists.

Gosling, as handsome as he is, and as talented as he is, seemed to be channeling the same persona that he inhabited in his last films. A touch of Drive with some La La Land and a dose of The Place Beyond the Pines. The last film that he was truly, truly, heartbreakingly great in was Blue Valentine. Nonetheless, he stood out here and ably carried the show throughout. He embodied a character that we cared for, root for and ached for. So kudos to him.

Harrison Ford brought some gravitas to the screen but there is a reason why Ford does not have many awards - or nominations - under his belt. Although as a fan of the first Blade Runner, it was great to have Agent Deckard back and at least Villeneuve and co did not only bring him back just for fan service.

Unfortunately this film did fail the Bechdel Test. The one moment where two women interacted - Robin Wright, looking and acting very Claire Underwood, and Hoeks, channeling Alexandra Reid - they were discussing about Gosling. Ana de Armas played the only other female character that was somewhat outside of the A-plot, and she brought a tenderness to the film, helping to carry some of the emotional weight off Gosling's shoulder.

However, Deakins is the real star here. The long run time was partially because so many of the scenes were just too beautiful to leave on the cutting room floor. His colours, use of light, lines and proportions. Absolutely stunning. A whole masterclass in composition, lights and shadows can be done with this film.

The score was not as defining as Vangelis but Hans Zimmer and his protege Benjamin Wallfisch had created a soundscape that paid homage to Vangelis electronica-tinged score but yet also supported the grandiosity of Villeneuve's vision and Deakin's cinematography.

This film might even challenge Kingsman as the most stylish film of the year!

Blade Runner 2049 may be a modern day sci-fi classic. And a damn gorgeous one at that.

5 October 2017

Kevin (Probably) Saves The World



Pilot: A high-concept supernatural/religious comedy that feels like a touch of Joan of Arcadia meets Touched by an Angel and mixed in with a sprinkling of the cookiness of Wonderfalls. Nonetheless, Jason Ritter makes an affable doofus and it is easy to root for him. The pilot starts of slow, but the final act was when it really came together, once all the heavy exposition dump and character introduction is through. Even the initially annoying teenage niece was partially redeemed towards the end. JoAnna Garcia Swisher and Ritter has great chemistry together and siblings, and hopefully that will get explored more like when Ritter was back on Parenthood. Kimberly Hebert Gregory needs to be more than the sassy "warrior of god" from paradise. Ideally, this story would do well more as a serialised series rather than a save-a-soul-a-week schtick, and hopefully some sort of darkness/edge can creep in to the otherwise bland/typical/feel-good story.

The Mayor


Pilot: A charming sitcom with a winning cast that exudes chemistry. The pace is snappy and the jokes, although not high-brow, is at least not low-brow and is consistent. Led by a charismatic Brandon Michael Hall, with a perfectly cast Yvette Nicole Brown and Lea Michele in a role that is less campy but at least allow her to flex her underrated comedic chops, this easy comedy is winsome and a welcomed distraction to real-life politics. Shout out to Bernard David Jones and Marcel Spears as Hall's best mates who round out this funny ensemble.

4 October 2017

The Gifted


Pilot: Well, this definitely ain't Legion, but Bryan Singer's directing - within the confines of a broadcast's budget - did help to elevate the action sequences and competently establish the world the show was built in and the central narrative. The CGI effects were good enough to sell the mutant powers, but ultimately, The Gifted lacked originality and save Amy Acker, most of the other cast members were not as strong in their role. Stephen Moyer is definitely not a vampire, and hopefully his storyline will afford him the chance to flex some acting muscles. Acker has the innate talent to hide her Illyria under her Fred no matter what show she is on, and she will be their greatest assets. The two kids - meh! The other mutants - interesting, good racial mix, but boring. Hopefully with the exposition-heavy pilot out of the way, the script and the banter can improve. Mutants-in-pursuit need not always have to be dreary. Again, see Legion.

1 October 2017

Marvel's Inhumans


Episode 1 & 2: Behold...The Inhumans and Those Who Would Destroy Us
You know a show is in trouble when the best thing about it is the sets and production design, and the best character is a fully CGI, oversized, teleporting bulldog that does not speak and spent half of the premiere asleep. It is hard to believe that Marvel actually allowed this to premiere on IMAX last month, and also allowed Scott Buck to create and run a show which after 2 episodes looks poised to be worse than Netflix's Iron Fist (which - in the end - was not too bad).

The casting of our Inhumans royalty was good...if based only on physical appearance. However, some of the cast's acting leaves much to be desired, but at least by the end of episode 2, it does hint that they will improve once they are free from the shackles of pilot exposition. However, the cast's chemistry is obviously lacking. Anson Mount as Black Bolt has got the dignity and command, but he (and his character) seemed to exist in a vacuum. Serinda Swan ain't no Ming Na Wen and lacked the attitude to be a kickass badass. Ken Leung and Eme Ikwuakor's characters are too undeveloped and are at risk for endangering racial stereotypes. Poor Isabelle Cornish (sister to Abbie) has no direction (or was not properly directed...pick one). Ellen Woglom...still a mystery, but could be poised to be the new Skye. And lastly, perhaps the most famous name of the cast, Iwan Rheon aka Ramsay Bolton, who although looked the part, unfortunately chose to play down the menace to be an effective villain. On top of it, physically, he lacked authority and did not exude the supposed intelligence.

The overall CGI, other than for Lockjaw, was generally good for TV but will ultimately be bad in the long run as budget runs out. This is not Game of Thrones. In particular, the CGI for Medusa's hair (and even the wig Swan's wears) was stiff and silly. Obviously, the studio did not have the money to emulate Javier Barden's glorious mane in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Lies.

Sean Callery scored the premiere and as ridiculous as it sounds, his score his too majestic for Buck's vision.

Thankfully, there are only 8 episodes to this series. But at least the end of episode 2 does hint that the story might improve. And then, we will get Marvel's Agents of SHIELD back. Marvel should consider following Star Wars lead and dump the showrunners who are not working for them.

30 September 2017

Ghosted


Pilot: There was an unexpected charm about this odd, paranormal sitcom that came through throughout its 22-minutes pilot and that could be attributed to comedic duo of Adam Scott and Craig Robinson. Introductions are sped by, backstories paddled through and paranormal science accepted as facts, but yet the jokes are solid, the humour steady and not juvenile. How the series will carry on is still yet to be determined, but Scott and Robinson makes this an easy entry to watch.

28 September 2017

Logan Lucky


Ocean's 7-11 is an apt description of Steven Soderbergh's latest film. It shared a DNA with his Ocean's Trilogy, from the tone, the structure and the concept. All except that in this case, it all felt a bit more hillbilly, i.e. less class, less refined and less witty. The cast's chemistry though good, lacked the electrical excitement and easy repartee that was the highlight of the Ocean series. Nonetheless, this was a fun and easy ride that actually managed to wrangle out some real heart-tugging emotions at the end (boy, John Denver is sure having a moment). One thing for sure, Channing Tatum should stick with Soderbergh because he knows how to bring out the best in Magic Mike.

The screenplay is by Rebecca Blunt (hooray for her and Soderbergh) and although it was a competent script that made sense (at least movie-logic) and was filled with a number of witticism, the characters eventually lacked depth and were stock stereotypes. It could very well had been a fan-fiction of Ocean's Eleven for the redneck crowd polished up for Hollywood consumption by Soderbergh and co. It would be interesting to see if she can churn out something more original in the future.

Soderbergh's direction was typical of his style. Close-ups, side-swipes, and jaunty and catchy music to underscore the action. Reliable and effective and worked well for a heist film. So no complaints there, but neither will it be applauded.

Tatum stood out as the lead of this ensemble of known but not-super A-list stars. Although his emotional range still needs work, he has an easy bromantic-relationship with onscreen brother Adam Driver and also a relatable and believable father-daughter relationship with his young co-star. The latter of which was important when the heartstrings gets tugged.

Driver obviously can act, so hopefully his next outing as Kylo Ren will be better.

Daniel Craig should do more comedy, but not in an American accent. Or at least not in a southern accent. But other than that, it was quite hilarious to see Mr Bond doing the funny.

Elvis' grand-daughter Riley Keough has potential, but only time will time if she has the chops to breakout from the shackles of her heritage.

Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid played the roles of the Ocean's Malloy brothers (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan). Does that mean that one day Gleeson or Quaid may eventually end up with a Best Actor Oscar?

Katie Holmes and Katherine Waterston were more of gloried cameos. As were the annoying Seth MacFarlene and underused Sebastian Stan.

Hilary Swank seemed to be there just in case a potential sequel gets greenlit. What a waste.

Music was by David Holmes who did the Ocean's trilogy so expect similar but with a bit of a southern twang; cinematography was by Soderbergh under his usual pseudonym of Peter Andrews (as like his previous films).

Logan Lucky was a fun heist comedy with a bit of heart, that although not highly original, was sufficiently entertaining and competently acted.

The Good Doctor


Pilot: From the creator of House, David Shore, comes another medical drama centred on a lead character who defies societal-norms. And in this case, instead of being a rude, cantankerous diagnostician/genius, we have a high functioning autistic savant/surgical resident. But what both series have in common is a brilliant lead actor who deftly created a character that was unique, distinct and memorable. The Medicine part of things was a tad too cringe-worthy from a professional point of view, and the CGI too in your face Sherlock-esque. The pilot focused on Norman...I mean Norma Bates...no, Freddie Highmore...who after years honing his skills on Bates Motel has finally arrived on Network TV and hopefully to a larger audience. Highmore has impressed ever since his star-making turn on Finding Neverland (much like Tom Holland in The Impossible), and it is gratifying to see this young actor grow and mature. Nonetheless, his character (and even his acting) overshadowed both the plot and the other characters, other than the indomitable Richard Schiff. In this exposition heavy pilot, Shore et al tried to cramp too much back story and over-focused on Dr Shaun Murphy's autism (his tics and all). That gave no room to establish the other characters other than flimsily sketched out relationships and character traits. The next two episodes will need to work hard to either establish a strong ensemble or a strong story for Highmore. One reason House worked because House was not restricted by the surgical discipline and as a diagnostician he gets to figure out all the rare diseases and syndromes; but the basis of The Good Doctor does not allow for that and so the showrunners will need to figure something out if it wants this medical drama to be as popular as the Korean drama it was based on (which will be hard to replicate outside of an Asian context) or even Grey's Anatomy or ER.

Episode 2: "Mount Rushmore"
The medical stuffs behind this is bad. Unrealistically bad. Highmore and Schiff remained the highlights of the show, whereas everybody else were annoying and boring with nary an ounce of dimension. As one character said, this might be better if Highmore was House (a diagnostician). However, there was a glimpse of potential in what this show could and/or should evolve to with the addition of the older, wiser nurse (a la Jesse in Code Black) and the sassy, kind-hearted pathologist/lab tech as his only friend in the hospital. That show might be better.

27 September 2017

Star Trek: Discovery


Episode 1 & 2: The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars
This new Star Trek definitely has potential and its lead actress, Sonequa Martin-Green, is totally engaging to watch. If the quality from the first two episodes is any indication, and assuming it persists, audience will be in for a treat. The show has a gorgeous cinematic quality to it. From the top rate CGI (much better than most shows on TV) to the beautiful cinematography (by Guillermo Navarro) and great scoring (by Jeff Russo). Creatively, the showrunners (pity Bryan Fuller has left), took a bold risk to start the series off with a prologue-esque structure, focusing on a lead that was not a captain of a Starfleet ship. This definitely informs the character and establish a relationship between her and the audience that will likely shape the rest of the season. However, all shows - and especially a Star Trek one - are ensemble series, and we will have to wait for Episode 3 to see how the full cast get on together and essentially whether the cast can sell the show to non-trekkies. But from these two episodes, it might be worth the wait to check it out for a few more episodes at least.

Episode 3: Context is for Kings
Welcome to the second pilot. Or the official one. And welcome Jason Isaacs. He is an enigma isn't he? Do we trust him? Or do we not? Now that is great character-writing. On the other hand, Anthony Rapp just comes off as rude, stucked-up and condescending with nary a redeeming factor. Hopefully that changes, we won't want our first openly gay Star Trek character to be a stereotype now do we? But the breakout star - together with Martin-Green, who continues to impress here - is Mary Wiseman. She has a warmth and humour that did not seemed forced or scripted. Looking forward to more pairings between her and Martin-Green. Although after this episode, it does kind of look like this series might follow in the lead of Doctor Who, not just for the whole stuck in space / horror in space / alone in space concept. but it might jus be a case-of-the-week procedural type series with its central mythology weaved in and out. Rather than a straight up serialised sci-fi. Only time will tell.

26 September 2017

Stronger


An unabashed tearjerker that (mostly) eschewed the typical cliches and tropes of the genre to focus on a strong emotional core that carried the film to cathartic resolution, showcasing a strong and haunting, lived-in performance by Jake Gyllenhaal and a great (and validating) post-Orphan Black turn by Tatiana Maslany. Gyllenhaal might be in the running for a Best Actor nod.

Director David Gorden Green's film ran for almost 2 hours but it did not feel that long. He and writer John Poliono had smartly chosen to have the Boston marathon bombing happen within the first 15 minutes, and with that inciting moment out of the way, Green could focus on the emotional journey of Gyllenhaal's Jeff Bauman. And not only Bauman's journey but also that of the people around him, particularly Maslany's Erin Hurley (his now ex-wife) and his mum, played by a fabulous Miranda Richardson.

The film successfully conveyed a tumult of emotions through not a deluge of words but just the minimal amount of well-chosen and well-toned words that carried weight just by its simplicity and honesty. Together with the strong acting by its cast, and the arresting chemistry between its two leads,  these emotions and complex feelings were effectively translated on screen.

The first two acts were its strongest moments, however somewhere between the end of Act Two and mid-way of Act Three, the film started to get saccharine and succumbed to some of the cliches of the genre. But luckily it only dipped its toes and did not get totally submerged and we were only very briefly in maudlin (read: Oscar-baiting) territory.

As mentioned, this film might not have worked as well if it was not for both Gyllenhaal and Maslany. Their chemistry was key to sell the emotional weight of the story, but at the same time not oversell it until it becomes unbelievable. Individually, they were both giving their A-game; but together, they were magnetic and should do more films together.

Gyllenhaal gave another superb performance. It was as haunting and as lived-in as his performance in the overlooked Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal has consistently been giving great performances, but he had always been sidelined come Oscar time. But with this performance, he should be due for some sort of recognition. He masterfully conveyed the fear, doubts, hesitancy, love, commitment that were required of him. The amazing CGI definitely helped too, but it requires real skills and commitment to act as a bilateral amputee (before the CGI was applied). So kudos to him. The only real fault in his performance was an off-tangent scene at the end of the second act that felt disjointed from the narrative of the story and also from the characterisation of Bauman. 

Maslany impresses with her strong performance, especially in the first two acts. In particular, in the first act where she had to carry the emotional weight. However, fans of hers (me included) from Orphan Black will already have known what a terrific actress she is. And hopefully with this role (and her Emmy win), a larger audience will recognise her talents. Although she is the co-lead, but like Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl she might benefit from submitting herself for a Best Supporting Actress, and depending on this year's crop of films, she may or may not have a shot. It is too early to tell.

Richardson also deserved a mention. Her role as the mother may be less showy and meaty, but what she brought to that character was both empathetic and sympathetic.

This was a great film. A strong contender for awards season for Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, but a Best Picture nod is not unlikely.

24 September 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle


A fun, mindless romp with the usual Matthew Vaughn-styled, slow-mo, pseudo-one shot action set in a background of outrageous world-domination/spy espionage intrigue, and interspersed with PG13 humour. However, it dragged on a tad too long with too many blatant product placements and lacked the originality, heart and energetic spark of the original despite an unfortunate aborted attempt at a dark political satire. But at least we had Julianne Moore and Elton John! Moore was deliciously campy and Elton (lol!) was just campily vulgar and outright hilarious throughout. 

Vaugh and co-writer (and frequent collaborator) Jane Goldman had scripted a narrative befitting the series, i.e. outrageous enough to be plausible in the real world with a huge dose of suspension of beliefs, but where they went wrong was that the story got bigger than them and whilst negotiating from point A to B to Z they got lost in points U and S. 

<spoilers>
The idea of an American counterpart, the Statesmen, was definitely interesting and deserved to be explored as a parallel story and then perhaps brought in together à la "The Avengers". But in this film, they over relied on the big-name American stars and yet, paradoxically, under utilised them. Cost constrains? Which is either good or bad for Oberyn Marte...I mean...Pedro Pascal's ego who got the longest screen time. 
<end spoilers>

Vaughn directorial style remained consistent here as in "Kingsmen: The Secret Service" as did his favoured rapid cuts and quick edits action and fight choreography. But at least his use of slow-mo made sense unlike some over-exuberant directors. Unfortunately, no standout scenes this time round unlike the phenomenon church shootout in the last film, but the final big fight came quite close - and only because of Elton. 

Taron Egerton got less to do here because of the need to service the larger cast, but this role fits him. And he does bring a sort of roguish yet gentlemanly charm to Eggsy. 

Same with Colin Firth. Was he really necessary to be brought back? Even though he was crucial to the success of "Kingsmen: The Secret Service". 

Mark Strong remained the MVP. 

Moore was an absolute delight. She, like Samuel L Jackson before her, seemed like she was having so much fun being crazily evil. Or just plain crazy. She was, simply put, so much fun to watch and her scenes looked forward to. 

Elton. F***ing scene-stealer. Every. Single. F***ing. Time. Kudos to him for daring to make fun of himself. 

Channing Tatum, Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges deserved better and hopefully the supposed "Statesmen" spinoff will do them justice. 

No end credits this time round, but the epilogue looks like it was setting up Part Three. 

23 September 2017

Beatriz at Dinner


Give Salma Hayek an Oscar nomination! She gave a multi-layered and nuanced performance in an otherwise good-but-not-spectacular film that had a great concept but not the cajones to flesh it - and Hayek's character - out beyond pop-eco/psycho babble. John Lithgow capably and excitingly volleyed with Hayek, but the rest of the ace cast filled their roles ably but with less overall purpose. "Carnage" still sets the benchmark for dining table drama; "August: Orange County" would be a slightly distant second.

Mike White's script lacked bite. It had humour both dark and squirm-worthy, and light and breezy, but nothing actually said that was not pop knowledge and the arguments on either side regarding white-privilege, environmentalism, class divide, compassion and empathy were only superficially explored. It seemed as if White and director Miguel Arteta were afraid to antagonise or vilify Hollywood and/or their producers. 

Arteta smartly focused his camera on Hayek but unfortunately, and unsure if it was intentional or not, he has a predilection to focus on Hayek's buttock which really seemed at odd with the story's projection of an un-sexualised protagonist. 

The casting was great with each actor very appropriately chosen. However, the roles of Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny felt extraneous. So much more could have been done to give them - and the others - more purpose. See: "Carnage". 

The only consistent character was Lithgow's and he brought dimensions to an otherwise stock rich, white guy. And the added layers really gave Hayek something to work against and with. 

As brilliant as Hayek was - her best role to date since Frida Kahlo - she was let down by inconsistent characterisation and an unfortunate ending that chose to be less ambiguous and more blunt. However, the second act was totally owned by her and Arteta smartly chose to allow Hayek's nuanced acting to take over even in moments of prolonged silence. 

Connie Britton needs better roles and/or a better agent. Sevigny looked good and she has not had such glam roles in a while. And it's a pity Duplass and Amy Landecker did not interact more given that we know that have great chemistry on "Transparent". 

At 83 minutes, the film was short, sweet and to the point. Just that it lost depth in the bargain. 



22 September 2017

Patti Cake$


A fun and charming crowd-pleaser that was surprisingly touching even though it was an utterly predictable, underdog-triumphs-against-life-predicaments sort of film that ticked all the usual tropes, and it was due to the sincerity of writer/director Geremy Jasper and the endearing, and breakout star, Danielle Macdonald. 

The film would have benefitted from a tighter edit and cutting its runtime by about 10 mins. Nonetheless, it was still an easy digest and the extra minutes did help to further inform the characters, although it did not add too much to the main narrative nor the emotional catharsis sought by Jasper in the final act. 

Jasper followed a very strict three-act structure and that did give the film a backbone which helped the filmmaker to tell his story. The characters too were rote and stereotypical archetypes. But despite all that the film succeeded based on the sincerity of the story and the strength of Macdonald's portrayal. The infectious raps definitely helped too; as did Cathy Moriarty's cantankerous Nana. 

Macdonald's underdog drew us into her emotional stratosphere by sheer force of infectious charisma. She spits her rhymes convincingly and we want her to succeed. Even though her route to escape from her life was predictable, it was a testament to Jasper's skills and Macdonald's talent that we never stopped supporting her struggle and climb to success. 

Bridget Everett was the mother. The archetypical non-supportive single parent whom we know eventually will likely come to their senses and appreciate the talent of their child. Perhaps the additional minutes spent on giving her a more complete arc was to bolster the emotional climax of the parent-child relationship. But I did not think that it was absolutely necessary. 

The raps, and single song, were written by Jasper, and kudos to him for writing such catchy and infectious pieces. 


"Patti Cake$" was a refreshing, charming departure from the doldrums of recent films and a very pleasing placeholder till the fall/winter Oscar contenders. 

21 September 2017

Battle of the Sexes


A competent film from the directors of "Little Miss Sunshine" that tried to juggle too much including gender politics, LGBTQ rights, themes of love vs ambition and of freedom to love with a love story and a love triangle, and unfortunately, in the end, underserved all of them to the point that the actual titular tennis match was the most exciting moment of the whole 121 minutes. In a similar vein, the supporting actors, including the  scene-stealing Sarah Silverman and Alan Cumming, and surprisingly nuanced Austin Stowell and Elisabeth Shue, were more interesting to watch than the leads: a miscast, albeit competent, Emma Stone (who had no chemistry with Andrea Riseborough) and a funny, but lightweight Steve Carrell. 

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris delivered a by-the-numbers story but may have bitten more than they could chew such that although the narrative moved forward, it moved erratically and without focus. Furthermore, with such a well known historical moment where the outcome was popular knowledge, the directors failed to capitalise on that foreknowledge and build up the drama to that moment. And none of the themes and storylines were developed beyond the superficial which was such a shame for such an important story about such an important moment. They, and writer Simon Beaufoy, should have focused on gender equality or LGBTQ rights and centered the lead up to and aftermath on the Billie Jean King vs Bobby Riggs match instead. 

Stone followed up her Oscar winning role in "La La Land" with another Oscar-baiting performance, albeit in a miscast role, that will keep her in the conversation but unlikely to garner her any awards. She never really lost herself in the role both physically - not looking like BJK or even a tennis player at all - and mentally (those eyes practically screamed "Look at me! I'm Emma Stone!"). 

Carrell was more appropriately cast although it was also unlikely he will repeat his "Foxcatcher" success. He brought the laughs and towards the end, ably brought a certain degree of compassion for his character. 

Riseborough and Stone had zero chemistry, and without that electricity it was so hard to sell the love story, the supposed identity conflict and the drama. Similarly, Stone did not spark with Stowell although from Stowell's end it was apparent that his Larry King cared for Billie Jean, but not vice versa. 

As aforesaid, Silverman might be the film's best chance for an acting nomination. Cumming, though delightful, was more for comedic relief. Stowell was a pleasant surprise and the ex-"Bridge of Spies" POW remained an actor worth keeping an eye out for. 

Cinematography and music were by Linus Sandgren and Nicholas Britell and both were decent with the former ably recreating the 70s look. Although Costume Designer Mary Zophres will be the main contender for a creative nomination. 


In the end, the film was decent but it told a story that most will already know without adding anything new; and if you never knew about the historic Battle of the Sexes then a documentary would have been more illuminating. 

20 September 2017

American Made


A fun and frothy, summer-popcorn Tom Cruise film that was one of his better recent outings and will surely entertain the masses. However, for all of director Doug Liman's kinetically-charged and docu-like storytelling, and Cruise's high-energy performance and undeniable charm, this film lacked depth and only superficially glossed through the incredible true story of Barry Seal. For those looking for more complex characters and deeper narratives regarding the Medellin Cartel, drug smuggling and money laundering, you would be better off tuning in to Netflix's "Narcos" and "The Ozarks". 

The film was consistently and constantly fun. Gary Spinelli's script was easy and breezy and littered with references to 80s pop culture. Cruise and Domhnall Gleeson also had the best quips which kept the story light. 

However, despite all that - the superficiality of the narrative and the humour - the biggest problem with the film is the lack of a central conflict. Without that conflict, there is no build up to any sort of climax or even a climax for that matter. But yet Cruise's innate charisma and Liman's unique style, managed to ably obfuscate the audience enough to just go along with the ride. 

Like most of Cruise's non-ensemble based films, the other players/actors - and theirs characters - do not really matter. Perhaps only Caleb Landry Jones stood out, and with his recent outing in "Twin Peaks: The Return" , Jones is really nailing the tweaker loser. Nonetheless, the film is all about Cruise and his maniacal energy efficiently carried the paper-thin plot through all 117 minutes and distracts us from the lack of characterisation of his Seal. 

The cinematography by César Charlone was gorgeous and beautifully recreated the Instagram filter-like look of the 80s. 

A likely hit for Cruise but will unlikely bring in new fans or be fondly remembered in a few years. But at least it proved that Cruise and Liman are a great team and that hopefully bodes well for the much-anticipated sequel to "Edge of Tomorrow". 

19 September 2017

God's Own Country



A tender and heartfelt coming-of-age love story by first time director (and writer) Francis Lee that was unequivocally sweet, charming and sincere. Comparisons with "Brokeback Mountain" will be inevitable but this film with its limited indie-budget and lesser known actors felt more visceral and more honest. 

As a first time director, Lee's showed a lot of potential but he definitely still fell prey to a couple of cliched tropes, some of which worked, but some did not. His pacing needed some work and some fats could be trimmed off that would not necessarily hurt the story. However, he excelled at the more intimate moments and managed to efficiently and successfully illustrate and evolve his complicated protagonist. 

Lead actor Josh O'Connor rose to the challenge of portraying the emotional walled off protagonist and it was rather beautiful seeing his defences slowly wear off as he embraced his future, his sexuality and the hand that fate had dealt him. 

Co-lead Alec Secareanu had the less flashy role but he brought a tenderness that did not seem forced and that really helped to sell the honesty of the relationship. 

An honest and tender film that wore its heart on its sleeve and forebodes a bright future for Lee. 

17 September 2017

mother!


A polarising and confronting film that on the surface appeared like a "Rosemary's Baby"-esque psychological, horror thriller, but on a deeper level, it can be construed both as a religious allegory and a socio-political commentary. 

This was a technically superb film-making from writer/director Darren Aronofsky that constantly challenges, deliberately confronts and purposely confuses; beautifully shot by Matthew Libatique throughout and Aronofsky and Jóhann Jóhannsson's unique decision to abandon all musical cues only served to highlight the unsettling unease. 

Jennifer Lawrence anchored the film with another captivating and award-worthy performance. Michelle Pfeiffer was a spot-on casting and Javier Bardem's choice of portrayal took a bit of getting used to, but made a lot of sense on hindsight. 

The film's overall real awards chances will all depend on how it is ultimately received. "mother!" is brave film-making and really deserved to be watch with no foreknowledge (even what was above might be too much information). You will either love it or hate it, and you will likely come to a conclusion before the film ends. 

One of the most polarising films in a long time. 

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...