29 October 2018

Beautiful Boy

This was a problematic film. Ironically, it was simultaneously under-cooked with thin characterisation and a superficial emotional narrative, and over-baked with its heavy handedness and pedantic handling of an over-long and repetitive story. Someone ought to tell director Felix Von Groeningen that "show-not-tell" also extends to the music in the film, and not every song choice has to pointedly telegraph the expected emotional reaction he wants to illicit. Luckily the film was saved by a good - not great - performance by Timothée Chalamet (for great: see Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose) and also the under-rated Maura Tierney who stole her scenes with Steve Carrell with her quiet, restrained performance.

This film would have benefited from being adapted into a prestige, limited series. Over four to six episodes, it would have given time and space for the characters to be developed into rounded (and complicated) individuals rather than just paper-cut cliches (again, see Patrick Melrose). The emotional bonds between them could also have been better explored especially the central father-son relationship. But instead, we were left with a heavy-handed and in-your-face depiction of their conflict.

There was definitely a worthy story to tell here, but with biographies like these, whereby the ending is already known, Von Groeningren did not manage to find a satisfying way to retell it. There was essentially a lack of urgency and narrative drive to engage the audience.

Cliches can work if there was emotional investment, but unfortunately not here, and we, the audiecne, were left with a repetitive cycle of tropes and cliches that felt empty and hollow. Perhaps, that was the point - to highlight the repetitive nature of drug addicts and recovery - but there sure could have been better ways to underpin that theme.

Chalamet was good here. But as involving as he was an actor, his performance lacked a transformative realism. We never really buy him truly as a drug addict. It seemed like he was perptually acting. No doubt that Chalamet will very likely get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor - they do love him - but thus far, even Sam Elliot in A Star is Born seemed more deserving to win it than him.

Carrell was ostensibly the lead in this film, but it never really felt like he owned the film. His relationship with Chalamet never felt genuine and it never felt like we really understood their dynamics. Sure, we know why, on an intellectual level, he behaved like that, but there was no complexity to his portrayal, and this was as much a screenplay issue as it was a character issue. Carrell, like Ryan Gosling in First Man, often mistakes the quiet, 100-yard stare, as deep, method acting, but at least Gosling adds a pursed-lip now and then, and eventually went beyond just that; Carrell never really did.

Tierney was the unsung star of the film with just a fraction of the screen time as her male co-stars. But with that one car scene (just like Elliot), she effused more emotional weight in the whole film than Carrell and Chalamet.

Amy Ryan rounded up the main cast, and sadly, she was underused. But her few scenes with Chalamet felt genuine and maternal. Definitely more so than Carrell's (although his scenes with the younger versions of Chalamet were more on point, albeit blatently emotionally-baiting).

One of the biggest distraction in the film was the music. Firstly, there was too much of it and secondly they were all too obvious in their telegraphing of emotions. Feel this! Feel that! Feel messed up!!

A Beautiful Boy was clearly an Oscar-baiting project, but the end result was a film that never achieve its potential. And this missed opportunity may likely not provide Chalamet the necessary forward momentum to win his Oscar (but I'm sure his time will come).

22 October 2018

The Wife

Glenn Close was superb in this film. A first class display of nuanced virtuosity as her restrained portrayal of the eponymous wife had her emotions simmering just under the surface and threatening to implode her throughout the film. But it was all only until in the final act where it finally erupted out. Not in a volcanic, Vesuivian sort of way, but in a controlled, yet still fiercely fiery, explosion of emotions that ran the gamut. The film's narrative itself was interesting, albeit predictable, and quite probably problematic in this day of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Nonetheless, it really was Close's remarkable performance that held this film up. Jonathan Pryce too deserved some praise for being the actor that allowed Close to spar and shine, and he was good in his own right, just that he gets eclipsed here (the irony!).

Directed by Swedish director Bjorn Rung and adapted for film by Jane Anderson (off Meg Wolitzer's book), the film ran for a tight 100 minutes and it effectively illustrated the feelings of Close's character which really did became clearer on hindsight. Little moments and acts throughout the first two acts which seemed trivial and unimportant, actually served to underscore The Wife's emotional turmoil and struggle, and coupled with Close's nuanced performance, it all did mean something; perhaps a second viewing may truly highlight Close's superb portrayal.

However, there were moments in the show whereby it all seemed too heavy-handed and obvious, especially when in contrast with such a brilliant, understated character-study of the main character. Case in point, Max Iron's son and Christian Slater's un-authorised biographer. Both these two characters lacked depth and existed seemingly to drive the narrative forward.

The backbone premise of the film could have been delivered more effectively with more subtlety or even via a different medium, a play perhaps. I would pay to watch Close and Pryce pitted against each other, live on stage as they struggle with recognition, fame, love, duty, respect and pride.

Although the one other thing that the film makers got really right, was the portrayal of the relationship between the central couple. A long-standing marriage that had obviously suffered multiple bumps, but yet there was genuine love between both parties that fueled their fights and conflicts. And, again, for that both Close and Pryce deserved praise.

This film will unlikely to get much love come Oscar time. It is too small and too topical for this time, but Close might surely get nominated. If not for an Oscar, at least a SAG and a Golden Globe.

18 October 2018

A Star is Born

This was honestly a good film. It had its faults, but it was entertaining enough although ultimately it felt like an extended Lady Gaga music video with a love story thrown in between sets.

As a whole, the film felt indulgent, unfocused, superficial, and really could be shortened by 20 to 30 minutes. It only livened up whenever Bradley Cooper cuts to Lady Gaga singing. This was clearly a vanity project for Cooper and as a first time director he told a straightforward, albeit slightly misogynistic, story. The main flaw was he seemed conflicted as to whose story the film wanted to tell, Cooper's or Lady Gaga's or theirs? The chemistry between Cooper and Gaga was there but it never really felt elevated to that of two people deeply in love (although Cooper's self-loving was blatantly apparent). Gaga, although shortchanged as character, felt at ease in her role that seemed reflective of her and was truly alive when she sung. Speaking of which, her voice was the true star of the show. It raised goosebumps, but sadly that only happened in the first act.

Cooper will definitely make a great music video director or even a live-concert producer. However, as a film maker, he threw many cliches and tropes onto the screen. Close-ups for the emotional moments (which really highlighted Gaga's expressive face but not her as an actress on the whole),  multiple edits within a scene to make sense. Have a villain and make him British! Focus on your female lead's breasts and make sure she have no female friends, but wait, she must have a gay bff! (insert eye-rolls).

There were also a number of in your face scenes that felt expository and betrayed the old adage of "show, not tell". It was like Cooper felt insecure that his audience had no idea what he wanted to say, so he just went,  "let us telegraph everything so nobody misunderstands me".

Then we had Gaga's character. We never really got a sense of who she is. It was all just superficially brushed out and when things happen we just ended up accepting it. That made it easy for Gaga to act but really did not give her much of a range or emotional depth to mine. Gaga had a natural ease for the character and a lot had to do with how similar she is to her. But, looking closely, there were times when Gaga felt like Gaga and not her character, and also times when Gaga was Acting. It is hard to imagine how she will be fare as an actress beyond this role (American Horror Story: Hotel definitely did not help, Golden Globes Award notwithstanding).

Cooper is a good actor. He has the nominations to prove it, but here he really went for it and chewed the hell out of the scenery, ostensibly refusing to yield the spotlight to Gaga who had the better character on paper.

Together, Cooper and Gaga felt like great friends. There definitely was love between them but it was not that of the deep, romantic, I-will-die-for-you kind of love. It was a co-dependency kind of love which, if you think about it, sort of made sense in the film, but then kind of goes against the narrative.

The songs were the highlights. Even Cooper's bits. Although Lady Gaga will surely get at least one, Oscar nomination, or two, for the original songs.

I felt that a lot of praise that has been lavished on this film was because of the initial lowered expectations from Bradley Cooper as a first-time director, and Lady Gaga as a first-time movie star. Consequently, with all the hype thereafter, expectations became a lot higher.

With all the hype surrounding it, I am sure it will get some love come Oscar time, but other than Best Song, any wins - at this moment - will seemed quite hollow.

Shoplifters 万引き家族

A simple tale of a family brought together not by blood but by choice that was understated in its naturalistic execution but utterly heartfelt and gut-wrenching in its execution. The emotions were absolutely well earned and the cast exuded a genuine sense of warmth and sincerity in their roles. A feel-good, brilliant piece of storytelling by writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda that give us hope, something so needed and lacking in films these days. It deserved all its accolades and the Palme d'Or award.

The story itself was straightforward, although I am sure some nuances were lost in translation. However, what was not lost was the performances of the cast. Those shone through, especially for the young ones, and Koreeda managed to coax a genuine performance and reactions from these newcomers.

Veteran actors like Lily Franky, Sakura Ando and Kirin Kiki anchored the narrative. And again, their acting felt naturalistic and unforced, and the relationships between them all felt real. 

Although it took a while to decipher the relationships between all the members of the family, it actually did not really matter. However, the final act really hit it home and tugged at the heartstrings. But not in an overly-saccherine way, or in a manipulative, This is Us-kind of way. One really did get immersed into the story.

At 121 minutes, it contained so many elements but yet was so simple and smoothly paced. This truly was a brilliant piece of story-telling. Honest. Sincere. Genuine. Hopeful. 

17 October 2018

Madeline's Madeline

This film was not for everybody. It can definitely be classified as an art-house film. Writer/Director Josephine Decker had created an unexpected film that weaved a well-known subject matter into an imaginative and experimental tapestry that felt original. The result of which was a film that was oddly disconcerting, strangely affective and hypnotically mesmorising. And most importantly, a star is born in Helena Howard who with her debut in this film becomes one of the most exciting new, young actor to emerge in recent memories. Imagine this film as Lady Bird with mental health issues, and Howard as the next Saoirse Ronan.

The narrative followed a rather straightforward path and Decker expects her audience to pick up the details on their pwn. There were no spoon-feeding of backstory or expository motivations here. Events unfold and you are expected to keep up with the psychedelic unknown and immerse yourself into the experience.

In the end, it was a bit like the nature of the what Madeline's Madeline was about. Is your life yours? Or is it the people's around you? Am I experiencing my now or experience your now?

With regards to the mental health issues of it all, Decker handled the subject matter in a matter-of-fact sort of way. It was not really the focus but neither was it swept under the carpet.

And it all culminates in a show-stopping finale that Howard absolutely owned. Just that penultimate scene alone could be her Oscar-reel.

Howard was supported by veterans Molly Parker and Miranda July who were really there to allow Howard to act off on, but they definitely held their own.

At just 93 minutes long, this film could feel a lot longer for some, but to me it just went on by as I found myself engrossed in the story and was kept wondering how will it all end. Riveting.

16 October 2018

Three Identical Strangers

A truly fascinating true story of identical triplets separated at birth who found each other 19 years later. And then it veered off into a pseudo-scientific documentary into the controversial study of twins separation and the idea of nature versus nurture.

The first part, this documentary did very well. Ably telling the story of the central triplets and how the lives changed. However, film director, Tim Wardle, then decided to dive into the why they were separated, and that whole arm was messy, albeit interesting. Anybody with an inkling of scientific studies and twin-studies would find the exploration of the Neubauer controversial studies lacking in depth and purpose. It really seemed more sensational here rather than an intellectual exploration of the ethics and ramifications. Which would have made for a more interesting story.

With a title like Three Identical Strangers, the film makers really ought to have gone more in depth into these three people for us to get a better understanding of them and their lives, and left the twin-separation studies more as an aside rather than a secondary focus which disrupted the story telling.

First Man

This film had Damien Chazelle's fingerprints all over it. After Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle has established a very distinctive visual and auditory signature. The film had a docu-realistic feel to it whereby the story was told through Neil Armstrong's POV, and with that, came along a detailed sense of intimacy, when we explored his home/personal life, and also a genuine sense of trepidation and awe when he was at work and in space. Those scenes set within a space/air-craft were utterly gripping and by-your-seat tense, and that final act was fantastic, albeit surprisingly epic. Ryan Gosling remained an acting enigma, is his brooding, hardened stare and pursed lips meant to be serious actor or just brooding? Next to Claire Foy, whose every look carried so much more weight, the difference was noticeable.

At 141 minutes long, you can really feel the length of the movie especially the slightly bloated second act. Although logically it was inevitable since we needed the failures to highlight the pressure and emotional toll it had on Armstrong eventually. However, we never felt the development of the other relationships Armstrong had to really feel the loss.

Having said that, Armstrong's relationship with his wife Janet was also not as focused as the mission-to-the-moon, but those little moments between Gosling and Foy were effective. Chazelle easily charted the changing dynamics between the spouses at the different phases of the mission. And a lot of it really had to do with Foy's compelling acting.

Gosling had his moments, but throughout the whole film there are times when doubt arises as to what was actually going on between those pretty eyes. Which was so contrary to Foy.

If Gosling were to get a Best Actor nomination, then Foy should at least get a Best Support Actress nod, or in the bare minimum, thanked by Gosling for lifting him up.

The other big player in this film was the music. Again, Chazelle enlisted best bud Justin Hurwitz. And again, it sounded a lot like Whiplash and La La Land in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The snare drums made frequent appearances as did the jazz. It worked mostly although slightly on the nose - I get it...it is like a ballet in space. Although that score that accompanied the Final Act was jarringly epic and different to what had preceded, and yet as the scene went on, it kind of eased into familiar territory that was oddly fitting. So perhaps, it might just get recognised for that moment.

This film was clearly an Oscar-bait but yet seemed a bit light-weight  to Chazelle's previous fares (yes, even La La Land). Although it may still get into many categories depending on how the rest of the season goes. A sure bet, however, will likely be at least Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations.

15 October 2018

Bad Times at the El Royale

With this film, and after The Cabin in the Woods (in between was also the better-than-expected The Martian and the phenomenal The Good Place), writer/director Drew Goddard has officially joined the pantheon of writers and directors whom I would watch anything that they make.

This chapter-movie was seriously funny. It was witty, smart as hell, genre-eschewing, dark but not macabre and just littered with visual and literary puns and gags. And it was also so very well cast. A bottleneck film that trapped its character and had fun exploring their identity as the story twists and turns and flashbacks fleshed out the complexity of these strangers. Goddard weaved together a brilliant, intelligent, original film that not only entertained but also provided a subtext of social commentary. Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman stole the show, but Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson all played their roles so bloody well!

As a director, Goddard had some great flourishes, with long shots and live-singing (bravo Erivo!). It was a smart choice to divide the film into chapters because it not only clearly told the story but also allowed for different perspectives to be gleaned and then - wham! - turned it all on its head. The only slight downside to this film was its length. At 140 minutes, it could really have been a wee bit tighter towards the third act. Maybe a nice 120 minutes may have been better.

Erivo absolutely slayed! Here we had a strong female lead that absolutely carried her scenes. Even against Bridges and Hemsworth (and his abs), she commanded the screen. And boy, it sure made a lot of difference casting a Broadway singer to do the live singing! Amazing!

Then we have Pullman. This boy was a discovery and his arc was one of the highlights of this film. He could go far as an indie actor as he honed his craft. I would not be surprised though if he turned up on the small screen next and stole the show (again).

Bridges was solid and reliable. Hemsworth was a hoot and really ought to do more comedy after Thor: Ragnarok and his bit in Ghostbusters (his abs deserved a screen credit of their own). Johnson, like Kirsten Stewart and Robert Peterson, is slowing inching out of the franchise that made their name. Jon Hamm, on the other hand, seemed to be still channeling his Don Draper persona. Cailee Spaeny rounded up the main cast and she will also be one to look out for in the upcoming movies.

The music was by Michael Giacchino and was fantastic. Giacchino should really ought to get away from major blockbusters (except for Pixar) and get back to scoring smaller films where he could really play around and create more exciting new sounds.

Seamus McGarvey lensed the film and he gave us some really good angles and points of view.

In all, Bad Times at the El Royale, was a hoot that will not be for everybody. But for me, it was a damn good fun at the cinema.

14 October 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant gave extraordinary performances in this otherwise rather light biopic of novelist/forgery felon Lee Israel. This dramedy lacked drama and emotional heft, and its lead character, although purposely unlikable, did not seem to have much sense. Nonetheless, it was McCarthy's against-type performance, coupled with great on-screen and comedic chemistry with a terrific Grant, that really helped to provide the laughs and tide through a seemingly too-long 107 minutes.

Director Marielle Heller made the stranger-than-fiction real life story into a straight-telling film that ran accordingly but lacked depth. Both in terms of character and narrative depth. Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty ably adapted Israel's memoirs but unlike Israel herself did not seem to able to inhabit fully the character(s) they are writing for.

This film really hinged on McCarthy's star power and acting, and perhaps she may have a shot at an Oscar nomination for this. The film itself may actually soften her chances. Nonetheless, her transformation was commendable and she delivered the caustic, biting wit of Israel's perfectly. But it all seemed very superficial with just the occasional glimmer of emotional complexity, which seemed more of McCarthy's own doing rather than a writing/directing choice.

Grant, on the other hand, really deserved a Best Supporting Actor nod. His scenes were the highlights and his absence keenly felt, especially in the latter half of the film. His chemistry with McCarthy was perfect and there is a buddy-comedy somewhere between these two needs to be made.

The film would really have been better if we explored the person that was Lee Israel rather than making this a mish-mash of a biopic and a criminal/heist exploit.

10 October 2018

Venom [IMAX]

This was a fun-enough film that had two things going for it: Tom Hardy and a run time under 2 hours. Any time Hardy (or Venom as it may so be) was on screen, the film was infinitely better. Hardy had charm and charisma, he was funny, slightly irreverent and definitely was not taking the film too seriously. Eddie Brock's bromance with Venom was a clear highlight of the film. On the other hand, when he is not on screen, fellow cast members, Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed, did the best they could, but their clunky lines and superficially written characters did the film, and themselves, no favour. And at just 112 minutes long, the film zipped along after the dull and plodding first act. At least director, Ruben Fleischer, had two good action showcases - the racing scene was exciting enough and would have been better had he relied less on close-ups, and the final showdown was riveting enough to excite.

This film was clearly not by Marvel, and the title card said so as much - "In association with" - as it lacked the finesse in storytelling that Marvel seemed to excel in. The first act, the origin story, was clunky as hell. Even the prologue itself lacked urgency and tension. The film really only kicked into gear when Hardy discovered Venom within himself. And boy, did the bromance between these two characters take over the film. Actually, it would have been lots better if it really did.

And perhaps if Venom had gone the route of Deadpool and Logan, it might have scored better. In its totality, the film's action did feel like it lacked bite and Venom itself tended to sometimes feel a bit neutered/watered-down.

Hardy is the star of this film, and I really hope that the film does well enough to launch a franchise because his Eddie Brock was such a hoot (sorry, Topher Grace). But really, perhaps, the powers to be should considering letting Brock/Venom/Hardy loose and go for a R-rating. And the mid-credits scene definitely make Part II an enticing project to look forward to.

Williams did the best she could, and at least she kicked some ass and looked good doing it.

Ahmed's character epitomised every cliched trope a supervillian should be, and Ahmed just sleepwalked through it, effecting none of the depth or virtuosity last seen in his career-making performance on HBO's The Night Of.

Reid Scott remained unintentionally hilarious, a by-product from his time on Veep and Jenny Slate was underused.

Ludwig Goransson scored the film, as he did too in Black Panther, and there were some great music cues peppered throughout.

IMAX was not necessary for this film. A nice, big screen would have surely sufficed. And I doubt 3D would have made much difference.

Stay till the end for a post-credits scene. Not related to Venom or the MCU, but still a bit of fun.

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...