Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 2)

April 28, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Let’s get straight down to it. Part 1 is here.

The Awakening (2011)

This one’s not bad for a British ghost movie. Set in the 1920s, the lovely Rebecca Hall plays a supernatural debunker who has been called to boarding school to investigate a ghost sighting related to the death of a student.

As you would expect, The Awakening has an abundance of chills – nothing new or innovative but there are so few well-executed ghost movies these days that it was actually refreshing to see some old-fashioned scares. The setting of a spooky boarding school full of pale English boys helped a lot, especially when most of them head home for the holidays and there’s nothing but a whole bunch of echoes.

The gradual change of Hall’s character from sceptic to believer was done very well, and both Dominic West and Imelda Staunton do great jobs in supporting roles. The ending was a little out there even for me but on the whole it’s certainly a worthwhile movie to get on a DVD night.

3.5 stars out of 5

ATM (2012)

Slasher film starring Alive Eve and two blokes set in an ATM room in some random parking lot. If that sounds stupid to you it’s because it is.

The three co-workers leave a function together and one of them has to go get some cash from an ATM in one of those isolated little glass rooms. A crazy dude dressed like Kenny from South Park starts terrorizing them and killing people who may be able to help them. Why? Who knows and who cares?

This is one of those films where the main characters deserve to die for continuously doing really stupid things that make no sense whatsoever. The premise is so preposterous that it drains all the fun out of the film – which is mainly just a lot of panicking and screaming and ending up back in the same place. Instead of being scared by their predicament I was more annoyed by how moronic they were being.

Interesting idea to try and make a slasher film in such a confined space but they really should have put a little more effort into the script and the execution. And a scarier antagonist with a little bit of personality wouldn’t have hurt either.

1.25 stars out of 5

We Bought a Zoo (2011)

My sister kept raving on about what a great movie Matt Damon’s We Bought a Zoo was, so I had to check it out, even though I’m not ordinarily a fan of family films. It’s supposedly based on a true story (albeit set in the UK, not the US, but I supposed it worked just as well) about a grieving widower who decides to start over and buys a zoo. Not a tank of fish, but a full-blown zoo with lions and everything.

The movie focuses on Damon’s character and a bunch of zookeepers, led by Scarlett Johansson, who are trying to keep the animals alive and the zoo licensed on very little money. Meanwhile, Damon has to deal with the rebellious activities of his son, who is still struggling to cope (his cute younger daughter loves it though).

I think that gives a fairly complete picture of what to expect from this film. Kids and people who like animals will probably enjoy this feel-good film. I’m not saying I don’t like animals or that I didn’t enjoy it, but I simply didn’t think it was anything special. Part of it is because it felt too much like a kids’ movie – everything was predictable and flowed too smoothly; even when there was conflict you knew it would all turn out rosy in the end. On the other hand, I did find parts of it quite uplifting, and it’s always a pleasure to see Thomas Haden Church (whom I’ve been a fan of since the Ned and Stacey days) and John Michael Higgins (my third favourite lawyer from Arrested Development), two of the best three-named actors around.

3 stars out of 5!

The Darkest Hour (2011)

I remember when I saw the trailer for The Darkest Hour and I thought to myself – this looks pretty interesting. Plus it had Emile Hirsch, who I’ve been a massive fan of ever since Into the Wild, one of my favourite movies of all time. Instead, The Darkest Hour should have been called The Darkest Hour and a Half, because that’s what it felt like watching this piece of trash.

The story is about two young Americans who travel to Russia to pitch a social network idea and find out they’ve been screwed over — this was the best joke of the movie because one of the Americans is Max Minghella, who was the non-Winklevii dude from The Social Network.

They go to some Russian nightclub to drown their sorrows, meeting a couple of girls (Olivia Thirlby and Rachael Taylor), and then some invisible aliens attack, turning humans into dust everywhere.

Now, when I first saw the trailer, I thought the idea of an invisible enemy was kinda cool, and certainly very scary. I was wrong. The invisible alien thing sucked badly precisely because you couldn’t see it. It became just a bunch of losers running around screaming. The worst part of it is that when you finally see how lame the alien is you wish you never saw it in the first place.

For a sci-fi thriller I found The Darkest Hour inexplicably boring and completely lacking in excitement. This probably could have worked with a better script and better direction (it’s directed by Chris Gorak, a former art director who had only previously been at the helm of one other film), but unfortunately it ended up being one of the most disappointing films of the year.

1.25 stars out of 5!

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

April 28, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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.)

Review: The Walking Dead (Season 2)

April 23, 2012 in Reviews, TV by pacejmiller

I got into The Walking Dead when it was still a comic book. Years ago a friend had lent me the first few volumes, which I enjoyed but didn’t think was anything too special (could be attributed to my bias against American comics). When I heard about the TV series, however, I became very keen because I knew it had tremendous potential.

Season 1 of The Walking Dead was great television. Anything with zombies makes pretty good television anyway, but it’s not often that a post-apocalyptic world depicted on TV is so dreary, bleak and horrifying. It had a love triangle, some volatile characters and plenty of terrific deaths (both meanings intended).

Season 2 came with a lot of expectations. What were they going to do this time that could top the solid first season?

Having now watched all of season 2 in its entirety, I have the feeling that perhaps my desire to like the show is greater than how much I really like it. The dark mood of the first season was maintained well, but significant portions of it felt somewhat repetitive and was extraordinarily slow for a show aimed at zombie lovers.

It’s strange, considering when you list the main story arcs of the season it sounds pretty awesome:

  • The little girl, Sophia, goes missing, and the gang split up and set out to find her;
  • Rick’s son, Carl, is accidentally shot and almost dies — then becomes a bit of a douche;
  • The gang find refuge at a ranch owned by the enigmatic Hershel;
  • Glenn gets a lady friend;
  • Daryl grows a heart — for a while;
  • Lori gets second thoughts about the pregnancy;
  • Andrea goes half mental; and
  • Shane goes full mental.

This doesn’t even mention all the excellent twists and turns, such as Sophia’s fate, Hershel’s little secret, the gang of dangerous survivors they run into — and of course, the mega big huge revelation of the finale, not to mention the first appearance of one of the comic’s coolest and most memorable characters. Oh, and the deaths of key characters were pretty shocking too.

Core cast of season 2

And so it baffles me while for stretches throughout this second season I found the pace to be excruciatingly slow. Part of it probably stems from the fact that the majority of the episodes take place on Hershel’s farm, meaning there is very little movement. I admire the efforts to make this a hard-hitting drama focused on the human characters and all, but to be honest, I just wanted to see more crazy zombies.

Is that wrong? I mean, let’s face it, the zombie scenes are still the most thrilling — by far — and at times during season 2 I almost forgot they existed. I suppose the point was to show that the humans are more dangerous than the walkers, but humans, for the most part, aren’t quite as exciting as decomposing cannibals. Not to say that they should go overboard and turn this into a video game because the drama is what drives this show, but slightly more balance would have been welcome. It’s really their own fault for making the zombies so wonderfully frightening — kudos to the make-up and special effects team, by the way — which only made me want more of them.

Nonetheless, judging from the final scene, it appears season 3 could be an explosive and very bumpy ride — depending on how closely they follow the comic. Season 2 was relatively strong but it could have been a lot better, in my humble opinion, had they hastened things a little. Perhaps sensing what a commercial success the series is they decided to drag it out for as long as possible.

In any case, I hope the Governor makes an appearance in season 3.

Rating: B

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 1)

April 22, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

With around 25 movies waiting to be reviewed in my draft folder, I have decided that it’s no longer possible for me to just “catch up” to present day with detailed reviews for each film, especially not when I have plans to eventually put out a long overdue “Best of 2011”film ranking.

And so I have decided to go on a bit of a mega review blitz and get most the majority of the films out of the way with condensed reviews. I have reserved more detailed reviews for the newer and more high profile films I have something to say about, which I will hopefully chuck in there somewhere.

Anyway, here is the first batch:

The Way Back (2010)

My only 2010 film in this entire review blitz. I had been dying to see The Way Back for quite some time but never managed to get around to it until a couple of months ago.

It’s supposed to be inspired by real life events (also have to take that with a grain of salt), about a bunch of gulag prisoners who literally walk fromSiberiato Nepal/India. It features an all-star cast including Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan and Colin Farrell, and I believe the film was nominated for a 2011 Oscar for its make-up.

This is one of those visually stunning, well-acted, inspirational “true” stories that highlight the strength of the human spirit. Most of the film is about the kind of amazing feats (and crap) these people went through to survive, so from that perspective it was compelling to watch, but on the whole it didn’t quite have that “memorable epic” feel to it. At the end of the day, I enjoyed both the story and the technical achievements of the film but also came away slightly disappointed that it didn’t blow me away like I wanted it to. I’m glad I caught it on DVD.

3.5 stars out of 5!

The Three Musketeers (2D) (2011)

My knowledge of the Three Musketeers, sadly, comes almost exclusively from that 1998 Leo DiCaprio movie The Man with the Iron Mask, where the Musketeers are played by powerhouses Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich and Gerard Depardieu, with Gabriel Byrne as D’Artagnan.

This new version of Musketeers, on the other hand, is played by relative unknowns – Luke Stevenson, Ray Stevenson and Matthew Macfayden (Mr I love, I love, I love you from the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice), with Percy Jackson himself (Logan Lerman) as a young D’Artagnan. The bigger stars, Orlando Bloom, Christoph Waltz and Milla Jovovich, on the other hand, are relegated to smaller roles.

I’m afraid this one was not at all very memorable for me. The lack of star power amongst the key roles might have had something to do with it, but for some reason despite all the swordplay, flying around and blowing things up I never felt…well, anything. It wasn’t awful and admittedly it was fun at times, but I found myself watching for the sake of it and not really caring what happened next.

Apparently a sequel was planned but I’m not sure I’d want to see it.

2.5 stars out of 5 

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

Having called the original overrated and the sequel one of the worst films of last year, I returned for more punishment with Paranormal Activity 3, which is actually a prequel about a young Katie and Kristi, the sisters who led the first two films in the franchise.

I suppose the makers deserve some kudos for coming up with the prequel idea so they can milk a little more money out of audiences – but still, the movie sucked dog scrotums. Perhaps it was scarier than the other two from a “boo” factor perspective and slightly less tedious in its build-up, but those are the only positive things I have to say about the film, which has really scraped the bottom of the barrel this time.

For one thing, I thought being set in 1988 meant that the “film everything” philosophy would have to be slightly reconsidered, but instead this family had some of the most advanced video camera technology ever used. I mean, seriously, what kind of family from the 80s would install cameras in just about every corner of the house, and what kind of futuristic cameras were they using to capture both crystal clear audio and high definition quality video for every second of the freaking day? This would have had to have been on tapes, by the way.

But I guess people who watch these films already know what to expect — a lot of time fillers, a few chills and several boo moments here and there, and a crazy ending where all hell breaks lose. Strictly speaking this might have been the most enjoyable movie of the three, but because the predictable formula has been reused so many times I can only give it…

1.5 stars out of 5

The Double (2011)

Richard Gere. Topher Grace. Straight to DVD (I think). That just about sums up The Double, a film about a Soviet operative called Cassius who is some super deadly killer seeking revenge against those who harmed his family. Gere and Grace are two CIA agents trying to track him down, but is there more to the story than meets the eye? And why is it called The Double?

Actually, this was not too bad for a straight-to-DVD flick (if that’s indeed what it is). But as a feature with two somewhat marketable stars – plus the likes of Martin Sheen, Odette Yustman, Stana Katic (from Castle) and Stephen Moyer (True Blood) – The Double fails to generate any real suspense or genuinely exciting action. It reminded me a little of those Carlos the Jackal films that were popular for a while, except those films were considered cool back then but not now.

The so-called “twists” were fairly obvious and didn’t add a whole lot to the drama. The execution wasn’t all bad but I think the script itself needed work. Not an atrocious effort overall but still a completely forgettable film. As you can see I am struggling to remember the details.

2.25 stars out of 5

Le Salon at Yongkang Street

April 22, 2012 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

So I’m a pig.

My last food review was this handcut noodle place on Yongkang Street in Taipei. Well, shortly after that meal, I walked around the corner and headed into Le Salon (小茶栽堂), a popular cafe/afternoon tea place that sells an assortment of cakes, biscuits, chocolates, macarons, teas and coffees. It’s supposed to be pretty good. A little on the pricey side, but good.

This particular one we went to (there are a couple, apparently) has two levels. The ground level features all the pretty displays, and the upstairs area is where the diners can sit and chat away the afternoon (when we went there was a bunch of gossipy upper class ladies badmouthing friends who weren’t there).

Cakes...

More cakes...

Cookies and biscuits...

Tea and coffee...

Given that we were still pretty full, we decided against the mega afternoon tea sets, which cost NT$880. There is a royal set for 1680, but that’s for 3-5 people. We went with the classic cake + macaron + biscuit set to share (NT$450) — it was supposed to be a canele but they didn’t have it so we had to replace it with a biscuit. Fearing it might not have been enough, we also got an additional cake. Add on the 10% service charge and that’s around NT$700 for a light afternoon tea.

The first thing I will say is that the cakes looked nicer on the menu, and also in the display cabinets downstairs. Must have been the lighting.

The cake we got with the set was the oolong milles feuilles, which is supposed to be their speciality. That’s right, oolong tea flavoured milles feuilles! The other cake we got was the chocolate truffle ball, and the macaron was not strawberry but lychee. The biscuit was just, well, a biscuit.

Here are the photos.

Oolong milles feuilles

Chocolate dome

Lychee macaron and cookie

Was it great? Not really. The oolong milles feuilles was quite interesting but the oolong flavour was not as strong as expected. The flavour itself was fine but the layers of pastry were not quite crispy enough. The milles feuilles at Robuchon are much better.

The chocolate truffle ball looked good and tasted pretty good too, but it wasn’t anything spectacular. The inside was predominantly chocolate mousse, which made it lighter than I had expected (in a good way), but at the end of the day it was just chocolate.

The biscuit was somewhat forgettable, and I’ve had better macarons elsewhere — though I admit the lychee was a little different.

The beverage I got was a cold Japanese genmai tea. It was what it was.

So yeah, it was just okay. Don’t regret trying it out but don’t think we’ll be heading back there any time soon.

6.5 out of 10

Details

Le Salon  (小茶栽堂)

Address: No. 8, Lane 4, Yǒngkāng St, Daan District, Taipei

Phone: 02-2395-1558

Opening hours: 11am-11pm