Tag Archives: Scarlett Johansson

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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I ain’t gonna lie: despite suffering some superhero fatigue as of late, especially after the bitterly disappointing Batman v Superman, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Captain America: Civil War, was still probably my most anticipated film of 2016.

In my view, the MCU has not put a foot wrong with any of its movies (I’m counting from the first Iron Man film back in 2008), with each entry ranging between “fantastic” and “pretty good”. Though Avengers: Age of Ultron may have disappointed some fans, Civil War has been promising to impress for months. Apart from pitting the franchise’s two biggest leads (Captain America and Iron Man) against each other, the film was bringing back most of the characters from the Avengers while also introducing us to the likes of Black Panther and villain Crossbones. And when Disney reached a deal with Sony to finally bring Spider-Man to the MCU, the internet lost its mind.

It’s no wonder that Civil War has been dubbed Avengers 2.5, which could have been a cause for concern but for two pertinent reasons. First of all, the film was being framed as the third entry in the Captain America standalone franchise  (hence the title), and as such there was going to be a definitive focal point rather than simply an orgy of evenly distributed superhero action. Secondly, the film was being directed by the Russo Brothers, the huge comic book nerds who gave us the brilliant Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If anyone was going to do the movie justice it was going to be these two champions.

The hype for this movie was through the roof. The trailers looked great and Marvel was so supremely confident that it screened the film for critics a month out from its US premiere next month — and lifted the review embargo shortly thereafter. Of course, the critics have been very kind in return (97% Rotten Tomatoes), so much so that DC fanboys have accused Marvel of paying critics to slam BvS.

It was under these heightened expectations that I stepped into a surprisingly packed cinema on the morning of the first day of public release (a weekday, no less). I was hoping for awesomeness and accepting nothing less, and so I am super glad to report that Civil War does not disappoint. It’s by no means perfect and couldn’t quite live up to the astronomically positive hype, but as superhero movies go — and remember, the bar keeps getting higher as we keep demanding more — this one is about as good as they get.

Now I admit this is a bit of a dick move on my part, but I’ll be making some comparisons to BvS. It’s just the natural thing to do, given that both are mega franchises about two beloved superheroes going up against one another while setting the stage for the next ensemble movie (in this case, The Infinity Wars). It helps us put things in perspective and reminds us just how hard it is to get such movies right.

And so the first thing I will say is that Civil War kills BvS in terms of storytelling. To be fair, it’s not exactly an even fight because we’ve been with these Marvel characters for years and multiple films, while BvS only had Man of Steel before it and had to introduce one of its two main protagonists. That said, the end product could not be more different. Civil War is a lesson in great storytelling that Warner Bros and Zack Snyder should try to learn from. From the pacing and introduction and development of characters to conflict development and editing, Civil War shows BvS how it’s done. The story is tight and flows, gliding along as opposed to plodding along. Whereas BvS felt like a fragmented mess at times, Civil War felt like a well-lubed machine that knows when to crank things up and how to build things up so audiences can follow and become emotionally invested.

I don’t want to go into the story too much, though rest assured that there is a damn good story in there, not just a simple premise and a bunch of fight scenes. The stakes feel real and the dilemmas of the characters feel real. The rift in the Avengers stems from a fundamental difference in philosophies, and the film helps you see both sides. Ultimately, this is what makes the movie successful — you don’t really know which side to choose, as Captain America and Iron Man become both protagonist and antagonist.

What impressed me most about what the Russo Brothers did with this movie is how they managed to make it feel very different to just another Avengers movie, or even just another Captain America movie. The story is a continuation of Winter Soldier (though it incorporates events from the previous MCU movies, especially Age of Ultron) and comes across as clearly a Captain America movie. This story has plenty of other key characters, but Steve Rogers is without a doubt front and center. At the same time, the film also does what The Avengers did so well, which is to bring so many characters and plot strands — some old, some new — together seamlessly.

Without giving too much away, I count around a dozen people in this “civil war,” and none of them are neglected by the Russos. Captain America and Iron Man of course get their screen time as leads, though it is surprising how everyone else is given their moment and opportunities to shine. Perhaps this is why the 2.5-hour running time is justified, because you really need that much time to make sure everyone gets in on the action while ensuring that it remains a story about just one or two main characters. Importantly, at no point did the running time feel long. In fact, like Chris Evans says in the trailer, I can do this all day.

My concerns about how the film was going to introduce the new characters turned out to be unfounded. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is amazing. The Amazing Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is…er…amazing. Perfect casting and perfect characterisations. Black Panther is more integral to the plot, but Spider-Man is, in my opinion, the best incarnation of the popular character we’ve ever seen on the big screen. I can’t wait to see both of their standalone films (Black Panther in 2018 and Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017).

It is important to remember, however, that Civil War isn’t just all out action. There are plenty of scenes that drive plot and build character so that we actually care about them and their plights when they eventually come to blows. But when the film decides to give us action, it is scintillating action. This is a big call, though I’m not afraid to call it: Civil War has the best action scenes of any MCU movie — ever. Probably of any comic book movie — ever. I think the film might have taken some hints from Netflix’s Daredevil series in focusing more on gritty and innovative combat sequences rather than CGI. The hand-to-hand fights are exquisitely choreographed and the stunts are brutal and bone-crunching. And because there’s so much emotion involved, the blows between the superheroes also feel more personal. It’s far more than just a bunch of indestructible freaks putting on a show.

The 17-minute sequence that has become known simply as “the airport scene” is as glorious as advertised. You’ve got all of them going head to head, and yet it never feels messy or fake like it did in Age of Ultron, despite the fact that there was probably just as much CGI involved. To put it in perspective, if I try to think of the fight scenes between Batman and Superman in BvS, I just remember the two of them taking turns punching and tackling each other through walls, which got a little “meh” after a while. The fight scenes of Batman against regular terrorist dudes, on the other hand, were far more entertaining and creative. The fight scenes in Civil War are all at that level or higher, and the craziest thing is that even without the airport scene it’s still got some of the best action sequences ever filmed.

The performances are excellent across the board. Chris Evans might suck in everything else he’s in, but there’s no denying that he is perfect as Steve Rogers/Captain America. And we already know how good Robert Downey Jr is as Tony Stark/Iron Man, though I think he is better in this than he has been in any other MCU movie since probably the first Iron Man. In Age of Ultron, Downey Jr seemed a little tired of the character, whereas here he appears to have a lot more energy. Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany — all of them are solid. Special mention goes to Paul Rudd, who pretty much provides a laugh-out-loud moment every time he says or does something as Scott Lang/Ant-Man. It makes me very eager to see the Ant-Man and the Wasp in 2018.

As I said earlier, the film is far from perfect, meaning Civil War is not without flaws. As is usually the case with MCU movies (with the exception of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki), the main antagonist is a little weak. I like that the villain is someone who relies on brains as opposed to brawn, but unfortunately his/her motivations are somewhat contrived, and his actions are in some cases nonsensical or unnecessarily elaborate. The same can be said for some other minor characters who pop up in the movie. Having said that, these are relatively minor complaints in the grand scheme of things, and I’m just grateful that the film sticks to its promise of being a Captain America vs Iron Man movie all the way to the end as opposed to throwing in some kind of all-powerful monster at the last minute so they can become buddies (cough, Doomsday).

So now I’m combing through all the MCU movies thus far (I’ve seen them all) and I’m wondering where Civil War ranks among that list. I’ve always thought that the first Iron Man and the first Avengers were the standouts, and I’ve recently added The Winter Soldier to that list after watching it again a couple more times. To me, Civil War is arguably in the top 3, or at worst in the top 4 after the aforementioned trio. What it also shows, categorically, is that the Captain America franchise is the best solo-character trilogy in the MCU, besting the Iron Man trilogy (thanks to a lacklustre second film) and the Thor trilogy (no matter how good Thor: Ragnarok is). This is a unique film that combines the best of both worlds: the personal, engaging story of Captain America and the spectacle and thrills of an ensemble superhero movie. I look forward to seeing it again.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: Kudos to the marketing team for the trailer, which showed enough to get everyone super excited but not revealing the whole story and its many intricacies (unlike, again, BvS). Smart use of editing to mislead and avoiding certain subplots and characters all together made sure there were enough surprises for audiences. While some great lines and scenes did lose some impact because they were in the trailer, there’s so much more to the film than the trailer suggests.

The Jungle Book (2016)

Finally! I got to see The Jungle Book!

The film had been high on my anticipation list ever since I heard about how footage screened at Disney’s D23 celebration blew everyone away, even more so than the Star Wars and Captain America: Civil War sneak peeks.

I actually don’t remember much about Rudyard Kipling’s original story or the 1967 animated version, and to be honest, it didn’t seem like something I’d be particularly interested in anyway. A “man-cub” named Mowgli raised by wolves and living with a bunch of talking animals? Not exactly my cup of tea.

Nonetheless, I was still itching to see a film being lauded as the most technically advanced ever made, given that everything — apart from kid actor Neel Sethi (and a couple of extras) — was computer generated. In fact, the whole film was shot on an LA sound stage.

And watching the film, you’d never be able to tell. The visuals in The Jungle Book are as spectacular as advertised — the sharpness of the jungle and vibrant colours of the scenery, the lush greens and fluid waters, the hyper-realistic animals. And yet, as real as they look, there’s also a surrealism to the animals because they talk and have other human traits. It’s a strange blend but one that works to perfection. Your eyes will not be disappointed.

That said, no matter how good the special effects are, The Jungle Book wouldn’t be anything without solid characters and a compelling story. In this regard I must admit I was not confident before I watched the movie, though these fears turned out to be unfounded. It’s a simple coming-of-age story of self-discovery and redemption, but Favreau manages to keep it compelling through a fantastic mix of thrilling action, intense drama, light comedy, and a sense of adventure. I was very sleepy before the movie began (it was early in the afternoon and I just had a big lunch), but minutes into the film I was wide awake and stayed that way until the end.

Apart from Favreau’s deft storytelling, the cast also does a great job of selling us this unique world. Young Neel Sethi, who is 12 now and probably a couple of years younger when he performed, has received mixed reviews as Mowgli. I think he did pretty well, considering he had no prior acting training and had to carry the entire film from start to finish with no one else but him and a green screen. There were a few moments where he comes off a little rough around the edges, but you have to balance that with the naivete and innocence he brings to the performance. On the whole, I lean towards the positive.

I remember back in the old days,  voice actors were just voice actors. Now, they’re getting all these massive stars to fill such roles, and I’m starting to think that it’s more than just for marketing purposes, because the voice cast in The Jungle Book is absolutely wonderful. Apart from being distinctive voices, they each bring surprising depth. Huge props for getting Idris Elba to play ferocious tiger villain Shere Khan, who oozes menace with every word. Bill Murray as sloth bear Baloo provides almost all of the timely humour, while Ben Kingsley voices the austere black panther Bagheera. Christopher Walken also does a great Chistopher Walker as King Louie. On top of that there’s Lupita Nyong’o, Giancarlo Esposito, the late Garry Shandling, Russell Peters, and Favreau himself. The only voice talent that was a little wasted was Scarlett Johansson, who plays Kaa the Burmese Python. Her voice is great, but she’s in it so little that there’s not much of a point other than to throw her name (and photo) on the posters.

As I said before, I don’t remember the beloved animated version and I doubt I’ve read the source material, but by all accounts this version pays respect to both without being slavish to either. I could have done without the couple of song numbers from the animated film that have been thrown in, but to Favreau’s credit at least they don’t come across as jarring.

In short, The Jungle Book met my very high expectations. The visuals are worth the price of admission alone (I went 2D, but apparently this is one of those instances where 3D IMAX is commendable), and the handling of the story, action, drama and tension once again demonstrates that this man

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is one of the best blockbuster directors around today. There have been rumblings that Disney is looking to get him on board with Star Wars, possibly with the Han Solo or Obi Wan standalone movies, and if that’s true, fans have every reason to be excited. In fact, The Jungle Book is so well put together that I think that Jungle Book — the Warner Brothers version of the live-action adaptation to be directed by motion capture king Andy Serkis and set for release in 2018 — should probably be scrapped completely. Yes, the film will star Serkis himself (as Baloo) alongside Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch and Cate Blanchett, but it’s hard to imagine that topping Disney’s version either in box office or critical success. This may be as good as Rudyard Kipling’s story can be adapted to the big screen.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Chef (2014)

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Chef is 100%, completely unabashed, unapologetic food porn. Written and directed by Iron Man director Jon Favreau, it tells the story of a master chef (Favreau) who loses his way before rekindling his passion for scrumptious cuisine by starting a food truck. On its face, Chef is a road trip movie about one man’s quest for redemption, but in reality it’s more or less one delicious course after another that will probably make viewers extremely hungry and foodies like myself spray their shorts in uncontrollable excitement (and envy) .

No one will deny that Chef is a vanity project. Favreau clearly loves his food (as evident by his sizable girth) and he has a passion for making it. There are lots of big names in the film, from Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson to Dustin Hoffman and Sofia Vergara, but you get the feeling that all of them agreed to appear as a “friendly” favour to Favreau.

But as another great self-indulgent piece of entertainment once said, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” In fact, some of the best movies and TV shows of all-time are self-indulgent, and it is in my humble opinion that one of Favreau’s greatest claims to fame lies in his role as Eric the Clown on the show that made the abovementioned line famous.

Anyway, Chef is essentially a very simple, family-friendly story about a guy who likes to make food. While working for a top gourmet restaurant in LA, Carl (Favreau) becomes engaged in a very public spat on social media with a prominent online food critic (Oliver Platt), resulting in a humiliating fall from grace. Then, with the help of his buddy (John Leguizamo), son (Emjay Anthony), his ex-wife (Vergara) and her other ex-husband (Downey Jr), he starts a food truck selling Cuban sandwiches. This time, he uses social media to his advantage in promoting the new venture as he makes a road trip back to LA via some other cities known for their culinary delights.

The story and the script could not be simpler, and you get the feeling watching the film that everything is secondary to the food. I saw the movie after a big meal and I was still getting hungry. Whether it’s gourmet cuisine or basic roadside snacks like Cubanos, Chef makes the food all look scrumptious enough to die for. It’s not as easy as it seems because I’ve seen plenty of food shows where all the grubby hands and sweaty chefs have turned me off. Watching Chef,  however, I felt like I could channel Favreau’s passion and almost smell the saliva-inducing aromas.

If you take away the food (no pun intended), Chef would be a barely passable movie with a cliched message telling everyone to do what they’re passionate about (with a side message about the dangers and powers of social media). There are some poignant moments between Carl and and his son, the core relationship in the film, but apart from that the film’s just an excuse to keep shoving delicious stuff in our faces.

My main problem with Chef is that after Carl’s initial fall from grace there’s almost no tension or conflict the rest of the way. It’s all just one big, smooth-sailing ride back up to the top. Even the ending is too neatly tied up into a perfect bow, and the cynic in me couldn’t help but cringe at all the mushiness. I guess it will work for audiences who are after nothing but a feel-good experience — which the film delivers expertly — but personally I wanted my emotions to be challenged a little more.

At the end of the day, Chef is what it is. Feel-good food porn that should be a hit with families and foodies alike. The foodie in me thinks it’s sensational, while the movie critic in me says “Meh.” My overall impression probably falls somewhere slightly above the average of the two (I am, after all, a pig).

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Lucy (2014)

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Lucy is a big deal in Taiwan. About half the movie was shot in Taipei, which is why locals have been so supportive by flocking to see it by the truckloads, turning the sci-fi action flick into the No. 2 film at the domestic box office for 2014 (behind — you guessed it — Transformers: Age of Extinction). The film’s reception in Taiwan has been somewhat muted. Some people say it’s awesome, while others have given it the lukewarm “It’s OK.” No one in the country really wants to say it. So I will. Lucy sucked.

Our eponymous protagonist, played by Scarlett Johannson, is a young woman living in Taipei who becomes an unwilling drug mule to some Korean gangsters. During her ordeal something happens, opening up her brain capacity from the normal (mythical) human 10% and accelerating it towards 100%. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know some crazy stuff goes down. She doesn’t just become a smart gal. She becomes a freaking superhero who would shit all over the Avengers if they ever met in a dark alley (and yes, that includes the Black Widow).

It sounds like a cool idea, and writer and director Luc Besson (who is also very popular in Taiwan) clearly thinks so too. But for a movie about an unfathomably intelligent being, Lucy is remarkably stupid. Stories about maximizing human brain capacity are not novel — Bradley Cooper gave it a shot in the flawed but vastly superior Limitless back in 2011 — but in Lucy the enhanced brain functions are taken to a whole new level, giving her ever-expanding supernatural powers like telekinesis, super-hearing, mind-reading, shape-shifting, tapping into electronic signals, controlling gravity, expert marksmenship, time travel, etc — you name it, Lucy can do it. And you thought the stuff Johnny Depp could do in Transcendence was ridiculous.

So basically, any semblance of real science goes out the window. The film is more or less a superhero action flick, and everything about it — from the tone of the film and its completely over-the-top action scenes to the way she transforms after gaining her powers — tells us not to take things too seriously. And yet, Lucy lacks the elements of what makes a superhero movie good. The problem lies with the complete lack of character development, or rather, the reversing development in her character. Lucy started off semi-likable, but the more powerful she grew the less human she became. She loses her morals and emotions. She essentially (and quite literally) turns into a machine — and we don’t give a shit.

When a film fails to make any emotional connection we start looking for something else, and in this case it’s the action. Lucy is adequate in this regard but nothing special. There is one scintillating car chase scene through the streets of a major city, but apart from that there’s not much we haven’t seen before. One of the reasons the action fails to truly excite is because Lucy becomes so powerful that she has no enemy who could provide the film with some much-needed conflict or tension. There’s no formidable foe or arch nemesis to give us the type of showdown a movie like this demands.

Worse still, Lucy has a distinct dearth of humour for a Luc Besson film. There’s a little bit of the usual cheekiness, perhaps, but there are no laughs to be found in Lucy, which is strange given the film’s farcical nature and tone. As for the performances, Johansson and Morgan Freeman are about as good as you could have expected, while the special effects are admittedly seamless, though both are things we tend to take for granted these days.

Unfortunately, my gripes go deeper than that. For all the hoopla about filming in Taiwan, it turns out that those scenes could have been shot anywhere. So we see some shots of the busy Taipei streets and various angles of Taipei 101. Big deal (sadly, for some Taiwanese audiences, that’s enough to make the movie great). We actually have no idea what the heck Lucy is even doing in Taiwan. We know she lives there and she appears to be a student, but that makes no sense because she doesn’t know a lick of Mandarin. Moreover, the antagonists in the movie are Korean. We don’t know what they’re doing in Taiwan either. They don’t speak English or Mandarin. It just makes the whole Taiwan setting extremely pointless.

I consider myself quite a careless viewer in that I don’t usually notice holes in movie storylines, but in Lucy they were jumping out at me because they was so obvious. For example, when Lucy goes into a Taipei hotel to look for a Mr Jang, the receptionist connects her over the phone and acts as a translator between the two. The problem is, the receptionist is speaking Mandarin to Mr Jang and/or his henchmen, and we find out later that they’re all Korean! Or when Lucy is in Taiwan and tells Morgan Freeman that she’ll be at his place in Paris in 12 hours — except a direct flight from Taipei to Paris is 12 hours and 35 minutes, and she’s not even at the airport! And I haven’t even talked about how Lucy apparently loses most of her teeth at one stage, only to have them apparently all grow back (so she’s got Wolverine powers too?) or how she kills a whole bunch of innocent people for trivial reasons (or no reason at all), and yet spares all the bad guys who are hell bent on tracking her down and annihilating her. Just really careless, sloppy stuff.

Having said all that, I didn’t loathe Lucy, or at least not as much as I think I should. The film actually started off relatively strong and was packed with a decent level of intrigue, but the further along it went the more preposterous and — pardon my “political correctlessness” — retarded it became. Apart from all the batshit insane stuff Lucy was doing, the film was filled with trite philosophical BS pretending to give meaning to the story, complete with Terrence Malick Tree of Life-style random snippets of micro-organisms, (copulating) animals and outer space. And if that’s not crazy enough for you, the Akira-esque ending almost makes Muholland Drive seem logical

All of the above combines to make Lucy a trippy, messy, cheesy experience where the enjoyment level is heavily dependent on how much nonsense you can stomach. If you go into it knowing you’re about to see the dumbest action movie of the year rather than the intelligent sci-fi it appeared on paper, you might even find the silliness endearingly fun. For me, however, Lucy was just one big clusterWTF that’s neither clever nor funny, rarely exciting, and only passably entertaining.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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I’ve done a complete 180. With The First Avenger and now The Winter Soldier, Captain America has gone from, in my opinion, the most boring Marvel superhero with his own movie to the most interesting. He has impressive strength, speed and agility, but he’s not “superhuman” or invincible like Thor or the Hulk, nor is he aided by impressive technology like Iron Man. He may be the face of American heroism, but the 70 years he spent in frozen limbo has turned him into a vulnerable young/old man struggling to find his place in the new world order.

I was surprised that 2011’s The First Avenger turned out to be such a good film, one that cleverly made fun of the patriotism Captain America stood for while providing well-executed action sequences. That raised the hype for the sequel, and I’m glad to report that The Winter Soldier does not disappoint. With a few caveats, the film is a success, at least on par with its predecessor and ranks a few steps behind the first Iron Man and The Avengers as the best of the whole Avengers franchise.

The story is a natural progression from the events in The Avengers. Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is still working for SHIELD as a loyal soldier following the “incident” in New York (as they keep referring to in each post-Avengers film). Following a rescue mission aboard a SHIELD vessel along with the Black Widow, Natasha Ramanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the Captain begins to question the organization he works for and the motives of its frightening new project. It’s the catalyst that puts Captain America on a dangerous new journey of self-discovery that will force him to confront demons from his past and a battle against a new villain, the mysterious Winter Soldier.

The film plays out like it should, with a few minor but not completely unexpected surprises along the way. It’s biggest strength is its ability to mix things up a little so that the film doesn’t simply feel like its predecessor. The modern setting of course helps, but I enjoyed the insertion of new stakes and ideas, including being out of touch with the modern world, dealing with post-traumatic stress, the problems with unquestioned loyalty and pondering whether increased government surveillance is for the safety of the people or to control them with fear. Unfortunately, none of the ideas come close to being fully explored — this is a superhero action blockbuster, after all — but it’s better than not having anything intelligent to say at all.

It’s also great to see Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury FINALLY doing something after doing nothing but talk a big game in every Avengers movie to date. One of the best sequences in the entire movie is when Nick is under siege and must pull out all the stops to try and escape death. I also didn’t realise Scarlett Johansson would play such a big role either — she’s essentially the female lead and has the most screen time outside of the Captain himself. And if you think she’s just there for eye candy you better think again, because she kicks ass with the best of them.

There are plenty of other cool positives, such as the presence of screen legend Robert Redford as a senior SHIELD executive, Anthony Mackie as the new sidekick, and a touching sequence where we find out what has happened to Captain America’s first love, Peggy Carter. I did find the addition of Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter a little jarring, but that’s because I’ve come to think of her as an annoying psycho in TV’s Revenge.

Fans of the comics and the Avengers universe will also be happy to learn that there are many references and hints to other characters who may or may not appear in the franchise in the future. I won’t spoil them (I actually didn’t know most of them) but there are articles which explain for those who want to find out.

I personally enjoy these nice little Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout the film, including a great Pulp Fiction reference right at the end. By the way, I should mention that there are TWO post-credit sequences and you should stay for both of them (I only stayed for one as I didn’t know about the other). One of them ties into the next Avengers film while the only is an epilogue that will no doubt play a role in the third Captain America movie scheduled for 2016.

On the downside, the movie is a slightly overlong at 136 minutes with a couple of unnecessary slow slabs that could have been easily cut out. And while I enjoyed the action scenes I would have preferred less rapid cuts and shaky camera business so we could actually see what was going on. Lastly, The Winter Soldier receives the dubious honour for having the least amount of humour in the entire Avengers franchise. There were a few effective jokes and one-liners here and there, but for the most part the film is incredibly straight, just like its hero.

Overall, this is a highly enjoyable superhero movie and a solid sequel that will ensure that the Marvel money train continues to steamroll everything in its path.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Her (2013)

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Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are) is one of the most interesting and exciting filmmakers around, so I was really looking forward to his latest, Her. And no, contrary to popular belief, it’s not an Arrested Development spin-off film about…

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Nominated for three Oscars (Best Picture, Original Screenplay and Original Song), Her is a riveting, poignant and strangely poetic sci-fi drama about a divorced man (Joaquin Phoenix) who dates his artificially intelligence-powered computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). I was sceptical initially and thought it might be gimmicky, or worse, silly, but I really should have had more faith in the genius of Jonze (writer and director) and the brilliance of Phoenix, who proves again that he’s one of the most talented actors of his generation.

Like the best sci-fi stories, Her doesn’t require an introductory slab of exposition to explain to us the world the film is set in. It’s presented, as-a-matter-of-factly, from the very first scene about Joaquin’s wonderful and highly unusual job, with other features of this futuristic/alternate reality gradually leaked to us, piece by piece, throughout the rest of the 126-minute running time. Such is the mastery of the storytelling that you don’t question the logic of its universe — you just accept it, and soon, you believe it.

The world Jonze paints in Her is not apocalytpic or dystopian, nor is it really more alarming than most of what we already see today. People’s lives or interconnected with their mobile devices, which are linked to (what I assume are Bluetooth) earpieces and microphones, and spend all day conversing with their operating systems, which they can order to do effectively everything we do on our smartphones right now, and more. When we see Joaquin on the subway or walking down the street, there is very little human interaction as everyone is immersed in their down little digital world. The message is clear but subtle.

I found this world incredibly sad, but at the same time I envied how convenient life had become. Seriously, wouldn’t it be great to have an operating system you can talk to, who is tailored to your needs can sort through your hard drive on your behalf, can give you recommendations on what to see or do, write and send emails as you dictate, laugh at your jokes, or even just be there for you when you feel like you need someone to talk to? Eat your heart out, Siri, you piece of crap.

In many ways, the opening of Her reminds me of one of those awesome episodes of Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits I used to enjoy so much as a kid, with shades of that wonderful Charlie Booker British series Black Mirror. It takes a simple idea from our present world — in this case our increasing reliance, dependence and even obsession with computers and computerized gadgets — and applies a clever and satirical twist to it. But as the film progresses, Her shuns the cliches and exceeds those types of stories (which often have some sort of chilling ending) by becoming a genuinely touching story about a man’s — and reflectively, our own — desire to connect with other people in this increasingly hi-tech age.

It feels strange to say this about a relationship between a person and a computer, but Her is surprisingly romantic. I would go as far as to say that there are times when the film comes across as eerie, but the core of the romance itself never feels creepy. Credit has to go to Joaquin Phoenix for a skilfully restrained performance that makes us believe, first of all, that a person can have feelings towards a computer, and more importantly, in the mixed emotions that come from it. The voice performance of Scarlett Johansson is also incredible. As recognizable as her voice is, it didn’t feel like I was listening to Scarlett Johansson the actress, but rather, the computer operating system known as Samantha. But more than that, I cared about her as a person, which helped me understand why Joaquin’s character did too.

I also had no idea that the film features so many other big names such as Amy Adams, who plays Joaquin’s longtime friend, Chris Pratt, a work funny work colleague, Rooney Mara, as Joaquin’s ex, and Olivia Wilde, a blind date. All of them have their purpose and are memorable in their own way but don’t take steal the limelight from the central romance.

The film is a little too long, with the third act losing steam as Jonze winds down the storyline to find a suitable ending for his protagonists. But on the whole, Her is a sci-fi near-masterpiece that’s sweet, wise, smart, and filled with really creative and cool — albeit disturbing — ideas about the future that aren’t too far-fetched for us to believe that it could soon become a reality. Strictly speaking, I’d say I was probably impressed with Her more than I enjoyed it, but it’s without a doubt one of the finest motion pictures of the year, a film anyone who has ever experienced social loneliness or smartphone addiction can relate to.

4.5 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part II

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013)

Percy-Jackson-Sea-of-Monsters-Cover

 I for one thought the first film Percy Jackson & The Lighting Thief, was underrated. Berated as a Harry Potter clone, I thought it was a fairly solid action-adventure flick that differentiated itself with its Greek mythology angle. Nothing special but certainly not horrible.

Given that it was a box office success, it’s no surprise that they went on to make a sequel, based on the second novel in the Rick Riordan’s series. This time there’s no world discovery phase as Percy Jackson (Lerman Logan) is already living at CampHalf-Blood (the offspring of Greek gods).

The story focuses on this special force field that protects the camp after a girl sacrificed herself and became a huge tree (yeah, I didn’t get it either). Of course, the tree is dying and Percy and his friends need to track down the Golden Fleece from the Sea of Monsters to heal the tree. There are raging mechanical bulls and predictable prophecies and other naughty half-god kids getting in Percy’s way. Oh, and Percy discovers her has a half-brother who only has one eye (he’s a Cyclops).

It still feels derivative, but like its predecessor, Sea of Monsters offers sufficient entertainment, humor and special effects (though the effects are barely passable because they look video gamey in several places) for fans of the series. There’s plenty of running around and pretty magic-fuelled action sequences, though I have to admit I had a bit of trouble keep track of the convoluted plot and the plethora of characters.

Regardless, pretty much anything with Alexandra Daddario (who plays Annabeth, the Hermione of the series) is worth watching in my books.

3 stars out of 5

Monsters University (2013)

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It’s quite unusual for an animated sequel, or any sequel for that matter, to come 12 years after the original, but that’s what they’ve done for Monsters University, which is actually a prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc.

I saw Monsters Inc when it came out at the cinemas but don’t recall it being particularly good, certainly not in the same league as Toy Story. Which is why it surprises me to say that Monsters University is an excellent animated film and a strong prequel that outshines its predecessor (or is that sequel?).

Set at an undisclosed number of years before Monsters Inc, Monsters University details how one-eyed green monster Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and huge dotty monster Sulley went from rivals to best pals and from students at a “scare” university to owners of the company we know they will one day run.

The film is driven by the stark contrast between our two protagonists – Mike is ambitious and determined but lacks the physical attributes to be a scarer, while the privileged Sulley has all the attributes of a wonderful scarer except he lacks motivation and desire. Naturally, the two clash heads early on, but circumstances force them to work together as they participate in the university’s annual Scare Games.

Despite my bias against animations, the bottom line is that Monsters University is very funny and is a film that can be enjoyed equally by both children and adults. The writers do a great job of taking advantage of the comedic opportunities and stereotypes offered by the university setting and display witty creativity in the monster designs and the overall concept of the Scare Games.

The voice performances are brilliant. Crystal and Goodman go without saying but I was also impressed by the great supporting cast that included the likes of Steve Buscemi, Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion, Alfred Molina, Bill Hader and Helen Mirren.

Definitely one of the better animated films I’ve seen in recent years.

3.75 stars out of 5

Run (2013)

run

Run is a gimmick movie about the growing phenomenon known as “Parkour”, which is basically free running. I could explain it, but you’re better off watching this video below.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tznXBzETFUI

In short, Parkour is insane stuff, so you can imagine that a movie about it would be pretty cool. Run’s Parkour sequences are choreographed very well, but that’s about the only strength of the movie because everything else about it, from the plot to the acting, was frighteningly bad.

The story revolves around a 17-year-old kid played by William Moseley (Peter from the Narnia series!) who is a Parkour expert on the run with his criminal father played by Adrian Pasdar (yes, the dude who flies in Heroes!). He hides his identity at his new school but still ends up making friends with a bunch of kids who are, surprise surprise, also into Parkour!

There’s some juvenile stuff, some teen romance, and eventually when the bad guys (headed by Eric Roberts, brother of Julia) catch up to them they must use their Parkour skills to escape and defeat their enemies.

I guess if you watch the film simply for the Parkour sequences and ignore the laughable acting, the cringeworthy romances and the contrived plot, then Run is arguably a fairly entertaining movie. But then again, there are so many great Parkour clips available on YouTube now that you don’t need to watch a movie to see these amazing acrobatics. That said, having not been familiar with Parkour before, I didn’t mind it too much.

2 stars out of 5

Don Jon (2013)

don jon

I have a sizable man-crush on Joseph Gordon Levitt like most heterosexual males, and so I was really looking forward to Don Jon a project written and directed by the man himself.

Gordon-Levitt plays an Italian-American stud, Jon, who loves the ladies but loves whacking off to porn even more, even when he starts dating the drop dead gorgeous Scarlett Johansson, a 10 out of 10 according to Jon’s crude rating scale.

The film is more or less a critique of the modern superficial male, who objectifies women and can’t figure out why they don’t feel physical or emotional fulfilment even when they dating a girl most men can only dream of being with. It also says something about the modern superficial female, who holds men to an impossible standard by comparing them to the perfect male characters from unrealistic rom-coms.

As cynical as that is, Don Jon does offer up some hope as Jon begins to undergo changes after meeting a mature-age classmate played by the wonderful Julianne Moore. But can he stop jerking off to porn in favour of real sex? That’s the real question.

I really wanted to like Don Jon, and there are indeed things to like about it, such as the performance of Gordon-Levitt and some witty interactions between the characters, including with his father (Tony Danza!). But as well-made and edgy as it is, it’s just not quite good enough to be great. The film is promoted as a comedy-drama, but the jokes are more “nice observation” or “I can relate to that” rather than stuff that will make you laugh out loud. And much of it is so brutally honest that it becomes extremely uncomfortable, especially if you are a guy, but my guess is that cringe is exactly what Gordon-Levitt intended.

It’s a nice little directorial debut for Gordon-Levitt that showcases the talent and potential he has as a filmmaker, but Don Jon falls short of being the memorable smash hit I hoped it would be.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Avengers (2D) (2012)

Joss Whedon, you glorious bastard. You really did it. Despite near-impossible odds, you somehow managed to make The Avengers work.

Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), led by SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) — a cast of characters that will make any fanboy violently spray their pants. It was never in doubt that the idea of putting together this Marvel-lous ensemble, inside and and outside the movie, is ambitious, delicious and simply awesome — but the question was always how on earth the poor screenwriter and/or director were going to pull it off.

The answer? Enter Joss Whedon, the genius behind the TV’s Buffy and Firefly.

Back in September 2010, I attended a chat session with Whedon at the Sydney Opera House, where he talked about a number of his popular projects, including The Avengers, the script for which he was working on at the time. Joss admitted it was bigger than anything he had ever done before and called it an exciting challenge, but said that at the end of the day it was just telling another story.

I remember being sceptical, thinking that there must be an infinite amount of ways this film would suck donkey scrotums. It’s hard enough making a film about one superhero — but to have four? And that doesn’t even include all the minor characters and the supervillain(s). How would he able to balance all of them, give each one enough screen time and development, while at the same time progress the storyline and fill it with spectacular action that is enhanced by, but not overshadowed by, the special effects? And how was he going to massage all the egos of the actors involved? Just the thought of it made my head spin.

And yet, Joss Whedon worked his magic and made The Avengers (arguably) the greatest superhero movie of all-time. Every one of the four main superheroes not only got their own time to shine, they meshed together wonderfully and became greater than the sum of the parts. The action was brilliant, thrilling and plenty, the plot was engaging and the humour was classic Joss Whedon — extremely dry and self-deprecating.

Speaking of plot, I realised I haven’t even mentioned it yet. But does it matter? All you need to know is that there is a common enemy, Thor’s brother Loki (Tim Hiddleston), and Nick Fury has no choice but to activate the Avengers initiative and bring these heroes together to save the world. It helps if you’ve seen the other films in the franchise and know what the little blue cube is, but if you haven’t it barely makes a difference.

Of course, it’s not easy bringing this volatile bunch together. As Whedon said it himself, if everyone was on the same page right from the beginning the film would be over in 15 minutes. So yeah, expect some tense moments at the start as each character is introduced and as they find time gel as a team — but when they finally come together as one, as you knew they would, it’s a goosebump-inducing sight.

Kudos to Whedon for creating characters that balance each other out and eliciting great performances from the entire cast. Robert Downey Jr, as the biggest name of the lot, steals the show a little bit as Iron Man because of his addictive personality but doesn’t dominate the proceedings. Chris Evans’ Captain America is, as you would expect, a straight shooting, no nonsense leader. The other Chris, Aussie beefcake Chris Hemsworth, took a while to make it to earth but his presence is key because of his history with the supervillain — plus he’s arguably the most powerful. And last, but not least, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, my personal favourite — surprising because he wasn’t even supposed to be in it.

Ruffalo replaced Edward Norton, who fell out of the film early on, apparently because he was either asking for too much creative control or because he wanted too much money, or both. I’m glad it happened because Ruffalo’s a perfect fit for the role, a better Bruce Banner than both Norton and Eric Bana (from the earlier Ang Lee version).

You might wonder, with these four, why even bother with Johansson’s Black Widow and Renner’s Hawkeye? While they may be two ordinary humans with extraordinary skills, let’s face it, they’re not real superheroes. Nonetheless, Whedon gives both a special purpose and makes them indispensable members of the Avengers. Johansson, in particular, continues Whedon’s tradition of strong female characters — a far cry from her appearance in Iron Man 2 where she was little more than forgettable eye candy.

Speaking of strong female characters, Maria Hill, a SHIELD agent played by Cobie Smulders (from How I Met Your Mother), also has a surprisingly important role. And Gwyneth Paltrow makes a return appearance as Pepper Potts, which I also did not expect as none of the other love interests from the other franchises are in it (save for a photo of Natalie Portman).

Other returnees include Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, who gets a little more personality this time, as well as Stellan Skarsgard as the scientist from Thor. Considering how many characters there are it’s quite amazing that Whedon managed to get so much out of these two.

Another returnee, Hiddleston’s Loki, was an apt choice for the villain. In the beginning I thought it was a bad idea because Hiddleston wasn’t very villainous in Thor, but he worked out well here because he was an enemy that relied on his brain as opposed to his brawn.

It’s almost not worth mentioning for blockbuster movies these days but the special effects were amazing. The Hulk, in particular, was the best he has ever been — said to be due to the performance capture technology used in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Tin Tin.

Having said all of this, I do have a couple of nitpicks with the film. The first is that some of the action sequences, especially the hand-t0-hand battles earlier on, could have been slightly clearer by using less quick cuts.

The second is Loki’s alien army. Having put so much effort into the heroes, it just felt like this enemy was kinda lame. They looked menacing enough, but I kept hoping they’d pose a greater threat, a threat based on their abilities and cunning as opposed to their sheer numbers. I guess that leads into my next nitpick — that despite all the turmoil I never got the sense that any of the Avengers were in serious danger.

Lastly, while I love Whedon’s wry humour — lots of laugh out loud moments in this film — there were a couple of occasions where a tiny bit more subtlety should have prevailed, in that the punchline was already achieved but its effectiveness was diminished because it decided to go a little further or add an extra line that wasn’t necessary.

But these are all minor complaints. In the grand scheme of things, The Avengers is everything fans could have hoped for an more, a remarkable achievement considering the impossible expectations heaped onto it since the project was first announced in 2008.

I already can’t wait for the sequel.

4.5 stars out of 5!

(I don’t care for 3D, but I’d be interested to hear what people thought of it.)

Movie Review: Iron Man 2 (2010)

It was always going to be an uphill battle for director Jon Favreau in creating a sequel to Iron Man that lives up to the original, one of the best superhero films of all-time (along with The Dark Knight, depending on personal preferences).  Despite a valiant effort, as expected, Iron Man 2 falls short of its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a fun, thrilling superhero action film.

Iron Man 2 begins where the first one ended, when weapons genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) reveals to the world that he is indeed Iron Man.  To be honest, there’s not a whole lot in terms of plot.  Most of the film is about the brilliant and cocky Stark as he struggles to deal with being a superhero and facing his own mortality.  Meanwhile, he has the US government pressuring him to give up his invention, a couple of new villains on his back, and dealing with a range of difficult personal relationships all at the same time.

The cast is again brilliant.  Apart from the sensational Robert Downey Jr as Stark/Iron Man, there is a brand new Russian villain, Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), a new competitor by the name of Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), and a sexy and mysterious new assistant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson).  Characters returning from the original include secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), supportive friend Happy Hogan (John Favreau), and army buddy Lt Colonel James Rhodes (played this time by Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard).  Samuel L Jackson, who appeared in a cameo after the end credits in the original, has a slightly bigger role this time as Nick Fury of SHIELD.

Robert Downey Jr shows once again why he is getting all the biggest and best roles in Hollywood.  He is totally believable as a genius, a narcissistic prick and a superhero, sometimes all at once.  For me, Sam Rockwell absolutely steals the show as jealous rival Justin Hammer.  He is equal parts pathetic and dangerous, but always hilarious.  Mickey Rourke is also very good as Whiplash, his performance giving the character a dimension not achievable from a lessor actor.  Scarlett Johansson felt somewhat underused, though she did get to strut her stuff for a brief moment.  If there is a weak link, it’s Don Cheadle, whose straight-faced performance doesn’t live up to the deadpanning foundations laid down by Terrence Howard.

As for the action, most of Iron Man 2 felt more subdued than what I remembered from the original.  That is, of course, until the final battle, which is insanely exhilarating.  There’s more machines, more weapons and more explosions than the first film, but because it lacks that unexpected freshness and attitude, Iron Man 2 has less of a “wow” factor.  And for some reason, I felt there were a few moments where the film sagged a little.  A stronger script with less subplots and fewer characters may have served the film better, but these are relatively minor complaints.

The first Iron Man film blew me away because it was so different and fun.  Being a sequel, Iron Man 2 started from a disadvantaged position because it is stuck with the parameters it has set for itself and consequently has become so much harder to surprise.  That said, it’s still a solid film which is a lot of fun and about as well as you could have expected under the circumstances.

3.75 stars out of 5!

[PS: If you want to stay till after the credits there is a short scene which introduces us to Thor’s hammer, which I believe is for a different franchise.  It’s a long wait and a short scene that doesn’t show much, so only stay if you really want to see it.]