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.

Little Women

This was a good and entertaining film that was far from perfect. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, this film was anchored by great pe...