2013 Movie Blitz: Part IV

April 11, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Dead Man Down (2013)

dead man down

Colin Farrell is back as his gritty self in Dead Man Down, a neo-noir thriller that’s not bad but probably at best a good video/DVD rental.

Farrell plays Victor, a seemingly depressed fellow who works for a ruthless drug kingpin, Alphonse, played by Terrence Howard. Alphonse is receiving death threats, and it seems Victor might not be who he really says he is. At the same time, he starts seeing a scarred woman across the road, played by the original girl with the dragon tattoo, Noomi Rapace. It’s all dark and gloomy; people are scheming, and many of them are going to die.

The cast is excellent, and there’s not much to complain about the aforementioned trio of Farrell, Howard and Rapace. The supporting cast which includes Dominic Cooper, Armand Assante, F Murray Abraham and Isabelle Huppert is also very strong.

I wouldn’t call Dead Man Down boring, but it’s not exactly super exciting either. There are a few moments of tension, but for the most part it’s just a bunch of moody gangsters plotting to kill each other. It’s a dark and serious tale of vengeance, but there’s nothing really helping it stand out from a lot of similar flicks that have been released on the market over the years. There are some interesting plot twists which can be viewed as genius or absurd, depending on your point of view, but at the end of the day it’s just a decent albeit forgettable thriller.

2.75 stars out of 5

Phantom (2013)

phantom

Submarine movies were pretty popular for a while (The Hunt for Red October, K-19, U571), so I was looking forward to seeing Phantom, supposedly based on a classified true story about how Russia and the US came perilously close to coming to blows during the Cold War.

Unfortunately, despite the great cast headed by Ed Harris, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Shredder (William Fichtner), Phantom turned out to be a strangely dull and unfulfilling film that fails to live up to expectations.

The first thing that should be noted is that the story is told from the Soviet’s perspective and all the aforementioned actors play Russians. But of course, they speak English, which already removes a layer of realism to the narrative.

Putting that aside, Phantom struggles because it’s not exciting. Submarine movies are known for their claustrophobic tension and friction between members when critical life-altering decisions need to be made. Phantom has those elements too, but for some reason the film’s pulse is flat and never projects a genuine sense of the scope of the danger. I thought this was perhaps it’s because we know nothing will happen, though the brilliant Thirteen Days, about the Cuban missile crisis, shared the same problem and was absolutely riveting cinema.

And the whole time I was watching the film I couldn’t stop thinking that I was listening to Fox Mulder because even as a Russian Duchovny can’t seem to get rid of that hypnotic voice.

It also has a really bizarre ending that is completely at odds with the rest of the film.

2.25 stars out of 5

The Numbers Station (2013)

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Is John Cusack still an A-list star? The Numbers Station suggests that he isn’t one any more.

It’s not a bad film, but it’s not a very good one either. Cusack plays a burned-out CIA operative who is sent to a secret US numbers station in the UK countryside. It’s basically a government information station that transmits secret messages via code, and Cusack has to protect it from attackers along with a female agent played by Malin Ackerman.

Of course, the station comes under attack, and Cusack is told that help will come in four hours. Meanwhile, he is given an order to secure the station by killing those related to the compromise. There’s a bigger plot involved that could effectively change the world, but that’s about as far as I’ll go with the spoilers. To be honest I found it a little too confusing and convoluted to remember anyway.

Cusack and Ackerman are good individually, but they don’t develop any genuine chemistry. The numbers station concept itself I also found very interesting, and some of the shootouts are well-executed, but for some reason it just didn’t give off the vibe of a high quality action-thriller. Was it because they were mostly stuck in one place? Was the plot unnecessarily convoluted? Was it just a lack of freshness in the way the story unfolded? Or a little bit of all of the above?

In any case, I felt The Numbers Station was somewhat of a letdown because it had the potential to be a lot more than what it was — which is passable, but forgettable entertainment.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Lifeguard (2013)

lifeguard

The Lifeguard, produced, written, and directed by Liz W Garcia, is an interesting little indie film about a depressed 29-year-old journalist (Kristen Bell in a daring performance) who leaves her life in New York to head back to her small hometown in Connecticut, where she begins working as a lifeguard at the local pool. There she meets a bunch of local kids and begins a relationship with one of them (David Lambert).

It’s a deeply personal film about life’s disappointments, failed expectations and vulnerability that comes from loneliness and isolation. It’s one of those films where you either connect with it or you don’t, and given the closeness in age between myself and Kristen’s character I could definitely feel her pain and frustration.

As good as Bell is in this film, her thunder was stolen a little bit by Mamie Gummer, a high school assistant principal who is coming to terms with the problems in her own life and marriage. The only thing I had seen Gummer in before was The Good Wife, where she plays a really annoying bitch of a lawyer, but here she is a revelation.

On the other hand, I don’t think The Lifeguard is ultimately anything special. There are some mildly amusing moments here and there but I think it would be false advertising to add “comedy” to film’s categorization as a drama. This is a serious film that with a melancholic tone, and as such it’s not easy to develop a lot of enthusiasm for the story. And as is usually the case with such films you have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to end.

Still, I quite liked it, though I also recognize that it probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

3.5 stars out of 5

TJB Dim Sum (Taipei)

April 10, 2014 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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I tell you what, the Breeze food level on top of Taipei Main Station is a foodies paradise. There are must-haves such as Anzu and Ippudo, and very-nice-to-haves such as Ootoya. The whole floor is full of delights, not just popular restaurants but also themed food courts (eg, traditional Taiwanese cuisine, curry, beef noodles, etc). I’ve been trying them, one by one, and a couple of weeks ago I tried TJB Dim Sum, the dim sum franchise of the TJB (TheJeansBar) chain that also includes the brunch joint TJB Cafe.

We had an opportunity to go for a lunch set, which I would not have minded, but since it doesn’t really you that much money we decided to order a la carte. They serve various stir-fry and soup noodles, rice, BBQ meats, congee, vegetables, bread toasts/buns/sandwiches and dim sims which include spring rolls, turnip cakes, BBQ pork buns, shumai, etc. Set meals that include drinks and buns are available for a bit extra. Here is the full menu.  Price wise you’re looking at a minimum of about NT$150 to NT$300, depending on whether you get a beverage or other snacks.

Plenty of options, but we went with a simple oyster sauce stir-fried noodle with shallots and ginger, a TJB pork chop, BBQ pork and fried egg rice, a TJB pineapple bun with butter, plus a milk tea. We also ordered a BBQ pork bun but they stuffed up the order and took more than half an hour to get it to us, so they took it off the bill in the end.

Here’s what we go in photos.

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How was it? Good! I didn’t expect anything exceptional, so the food was probably better than I expected. The noodles were plain but delicious, and rice was great. The bun was slightly better than average and I’ve had better milk teas. Still, given the other enticing options available on the menu (such as the stir-fried turnip cake) I wouldn’t mind heading back to try the place again.

8/10

Details

TJB Dim Sum (TJB 茶餐室)

Website: http://www.thejeansbar.com.tw/tjbdimsum/  (Facebook page)

Movie Review: Snowpiercer (2013)

April 10, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Snowpiercer poster

It’s not often that a film with mostly western actors gets released in Asia nearly a year before in the US, but that’s the case with Snowpiercer, a wild sci-fi action thriller starring big names such as Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and Octavia Spencer. The reason why Snowpiercer isn’t released in the US yet (apparently it will get a limited release on June 27, 2014) is because it’s actually a South Korean film directed by Bong Joon-ho (what a great name), best known for the wacky monster movie The Host (not to be confused with the Stephenie Meyer adaptation) from 2006.

Anyway, despite all its flaws, I had a fantastic time with Snowpiercer, which I think is one of the more original sci-fi flicks to hit our screens in some time. It’s actually based on a French graphic novel and is about a post-apocalyptic world where the survivors of a disastrous anti-global warming experiment that has frozen the entire planet live on a never-stopping train that travels in loops around the planet. There is of course a class system on the train, with the elites up the front and the poor stuck in the back in horrific conditions. The film focuses on a man called Curtis (Chris Evans), who is sick of the mistreatment and decides to launch a revolt from the back of the train.

Snowpiercer  is ludicrous in many ways and requires a certain level of belief suspension, but it works in the end because Bong manages to balance a weird, wacky sense of surrealism often seen in Korean films with violent action and gritty drama while not forgetting about the political messages and clever satire. It’s a unique blend that sometimes treads a fine line and occasionally gets a little too surreal for my liking, but on the whole I think it gets the job done. I’m convinced a Hollywood director wouldn’t have been able to create the same type of feel, and I’m glad there won’t be any America remakes because they won’t be necessary with only two key Korean characters (The Host’s Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, who again play father and daughter).

For me, the greatest strength of the film is the depiction of the idea itself and the world in which they live in. The special effects are not exceptional, but they are good enough for a Hollywood blockbuster. The action also fits in with the rest of the film — it’s brutally violent in some respects but lacks genuine realism — in a good way — so that you never get the urge to turn away or categorize it as gratuitous.

The performances are solid, though not many characters are properly developed given the focus on the action. I had just seen Chris Evans and his blonde locks in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and he was almost unrecognisable here with the scruffy brown hair and dark stubble. Tilda Swinton is also fantastic and equally unrecognisable with her huge teeth as the nasty Minister Mason, while a special mention goes out to Alison Pill (from The Newsroom) for her small but important role as a creepy school teacher.

Snowpiercer is the type of film that doesn’t hold up to intense scrutiny because of how crazy its premise is, but thanks to the skillful direction of Bong and the fast-paced action it’s an excellent and thought-provoking piece of sci-fi entertainment that would make an awesome DVD rental or on-demand stream if it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves at the cinemas.

4 stars our of 5

Abu’s Authentic Cuisine (Taipei)

April 10, 2014 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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It was our wedding anniversary, so we decided a special lunch celebration was in order. My wife had been craving the souffle at Abu Brasserie, which has apparently shut down and relocated to north Taipei’s Beitou district, so we chose its more deluxe cousin, Abu’s Authentic Cuisine, located near the big roundabout in the Da’an district.

It’s a relatively small restaurant that’s well-decorated and gives off a cosy, intimate atmosphere. While Abu’s Brasserie features more Italian-influenced cuisine, Abu’s Authentic Cuisine learns closer to French. The dinner menu can apparently be quite pricey (in the vicinity of NT$3000-5000 or more) but the lunch sets are much cheaper and can be as low as NT$1000 (+10%) if you choose the cheapest main course.

Here’s that day’s lunch menu.

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It’s a four-course meal, with salad, a soup, a main course and two desserts, plus tea or coffee. Wanting to try everything, we ordered both salads, though we really wanted the corn soup so we skipped the ox-tongue chicken broth. For the mains, we ordered the steamed truffled beef tenderloin with anchovic garlic sauce, and the potato and duck confit. And since it was our anniversary, they were preparing the souffle especially for us, in addition to one of their usual desserts.

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Before any of our ordered dishes arrived, however, we were treated to some nice tea and a couple of pieces of crispy naan coated with spice powder. It had a great kick and whet the appetite for the magnificent house bread (four types) which I wanted more of but held back because  didn’t want to be too full. The bread also came with butter, olive oil and a tuna dip.

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This first salad is the warm abalone with zucchini, which was sensational. You could tell it was quality abalone and it was cooked to perfection. You didn’t really need much else, but it went well with the vegetables and peppery herb sauce on the side.

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The other salad we got: the wild mushroom, truffle egg and mixed salad. I loved this col salad, which provided a nice contrast to the warm one. The scrambled truffle egg was sublime, and it came with a freshly shaved piece of truffle. The salad itself was also very fresh and topped with a refreshing dressing that wasn’t too heavy or light.

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The corn soup with crab was a revelation. It’s the best corn soup I’ve ever had, and I’ve had thousands (OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I’ve had a lot). You don’t usually associate fine dining with corn soup, and to be honest, I didn’t think they could make it particularly different. But whatever they put into this one, it did the trick. It had the right consistency and wasn’t watery but didn’t feel like it was filled with starch either. The flavour really penetrated through the entire soup, which was also at the right temperature (often places serve soups too cold). Best of all were the pieces of fresh crab meat — not the canned or fake stuff you tend to get at Chinese restaurants. Unbelievable stuff.

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The first main course, the steamed truffled beef tenderloin, was superb. The size doesn’t look substantial (it didn’t need to be) but the meat is deceptively thick. You get one piece where you just enjoy the natural flavours of the beef, and another one that comes with a sauce. There’s also a bit of extra condiment on the side plus some sea salt/pepper, so you can really get a different experience with each bite.

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The second main is the potato and duck confit. It’s quite similar to many other French duck confits in that it has an extremely crispy and slightly salty outer shell with soft, juicy duck meat inside. But I liked this one a little more than the duck confit we got from Abu Brasserie because of the rocket on top and the fact that it wasn’t quite as salty on the outside. It also didn’t feel like it was dripping with oil, so it didn’t come across as a super heavy dish.

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And of course, after the terrific meal we were treated to what we were promised, the souffle. It came beautifully decorated with candles and flowers, and we could not wait to dig in. Here’s a piece.

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The fluffy texture, the cream, the strawberries — it was perfection.

The desserts were finished, however, as they soon served a second dessert, a simple yet delicious peach with a biscuit and creme, plus some dried apricots. 

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And there was tea and coffee as well. I got myself a cappuccino. The rock sugar was a nice touch.

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In all, a fantastic lunch, good service, and great atmosphere. The particular waiter we had that day was probably new and perhaps somewhat nervous (and/or mentally challenged), but apart from that there’s not much else to fault with the experience.

9.5/10

Details

Abu’s Authentic Cuisine

Address: No. 28 Siwei Rd, Da’an district, Taipei (nearest MRT: Da’an, Zhongxiao Fuxing, Zhongxiao Dunhua)

Phone: +886 2 2707 0699

Hours: 12:00 – 2:30 pm, 6:00 – 9:30 pm

Abu

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

April 7, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

captain-america-2-poster-uk-full

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

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