Recapping my epic 2012!

December 31, 2012 in Blogging, Book Reviews, Misc, Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

2012wall

Who would have thought I’d be counting down the hours to 2013 when it was all supposed to end for everyone 10 days ago?

But anyway, I’m here (at work, actually) and I’ve been contemplating what a colossal year 2012 has been. Of course, there’s the big one — learning how to be a father to the most adorable little baby boy in the history of the universe, who has taken up the majority of my time and effort and SLEEP. But it’s also him that has made 2012 the most remarkable and wonderful year of my life thus far.

On the work front, I started a new full-time job where I get to write and edit all day. For the first time ever, I actually don’t mind going to the office every day, and I love the fact that I get to go home at a reasonable hour every night so I can spend time with my son before he goes to bed. It’s also a stable job that potentially allows me to do a lot of extra-curricular stuff, whether it be freelance work or other personal writings, such as this blog. Unfortunately, my lack of experience and desire to “take it easy” means I have probably squandered many of those hours that could have been put to better use.

That said, I have done my fair share of freelance work this year too. I started off completing a mammoth editing job for a travel book that had been horrendously translated. It was definitely not worth it from a monetary perspective but at least I have now been officially named as the editor of a published book (which I am yet to see, by the way). Apart from that and my regular book reviews for a trade publication, I also did some work for a well-known international magazine, which eventually lead to my first cover feature article. I didn’t exactly love the way it turned out after the editor played with it, but it’s better than having no article published at all.

The highlight of my working life this year has to be my trip to Beijing to cover the Communist Party’s leadership transition, which was exhausting but rewarding. I’m glad I got to see and learn so much, but I’m also happy that it won’t happen again for another 10 years.

Health wise, it’s been a mixed bag. Physically, I managed to get fitter than I’ve ever been after commencing a daily exercise routine that began last October and lasted about 12 months. I’m still trying to get back into it, actually. However, the fatigue and poor quality sleep has also taken its toll, and I’ve been under the weather more times than I can remember. It’s frustrating because you feel like you’re rarely feeling 100%.

Despite the positives, it’s also been a year where a lot of my goals went unrealized. I basically did not touch either of my work-in-progress novels for the entire year, which is pathetic and not worthy of an excuse. I didn’t write that screenplay I had been itching to write either. And I also didn’t monetize my blog like I had promised myself I would.

On the reading front, I only read 14 books this year, dominated by the Hunger Games trilogy, Steve Jobs biography and the first two books of the 50 Shades trilogy (I’m still stuck on the third and final book). Actually, I blame it all on 50 Shades for turning me off reading this year because it’s been a huge struggle getting through them. Why do I torture myself?

These are the things I wish I had more time to complete, but my shifting priorities had placed them all on the back burner. In fact, I’m still putting them off until I can finish posting all of my backlogged movie and restaurant reviews, which means it might be a while before I can even get started.

So what’s in store for 2013? A lot. That’s my guess. I’m personally hoping that things will become more stable on a day-to-day basis and that I can be more motivated to work on my projects. My focus next year — my new year’s resolution, so to speak — will be on the things I failed to accomplish this year: the novels, the screenplay, and doing more reading. I tend to always oversimplify things and set myself targets that are impossible to reach, so this year I’ll just say that I’d like to at least do more on/of those things  in 2013 than I did in 2012.

So I guess if my 2012 was “epic” then I’d like my 2013 to be simply “productive.”

See you next year!

Top 10 Films of 2011!

December 30, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

It had to be done. My list of 10 favourite films of 2011. Actually, I cheated. It’s really 11 films because I didn’t feel it was right to leave one of them out, so I made them both equal 10th.

In the end, after going through all 110 films I watched from that year, I came to the conclusion that 2011 was a fairly decent year in cinema. Not necessarily a lot of extraordinary “all-time “films but a fair number of very very good ones. Also a lot of 4-star films and a couple of films higher than 4 stars that unfortunately couldn’t make the cut.

Again, this list is based on the ratings I gave when I initially reviewed the movies. It is also a list based on the films I liked the most as a casual filmgoer, rather than a list of films judged the best by some sort of objective standard.

Without further ado, here goes. (Click on the titles for the full review)

10 (tied). The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

We're in the top 10 films of the year, Snowy! Let's celebrate!

We’re in the top 10 films of the year, Snowy! Let’s celebrate!

I felt compelled to include this one in the top 10 because it’s one of the best animated films I’ve ever seen. I know cartoons can do cute and comedy, but this is the first time I found an animated film so exhilarating to watch. A bit long, of course, but a remarkable and landmark achievement in motion capture animation features.

10 (tied). Moneyball (2011)

Our movie's pretty awesome, chubby!

Our movie’s pretty awesome, chubby!

I don’t think you need to love baseball to love this film, which I found insightful, amusing and moving in a strange kind of way. It might have moved a little slow for some but the pace was just right for me. And kudos to Kerris Dorsey for stealing the show as Brad Pitt’s daughter, especially for her sweet rendition of Lenka’s “The Show.”

9. The Ides of March (2011)

Vote for me or I'll stomp your head in

Vote for me or I’ll stomp your head in

I’m a sucker for political dramas/thrillers and this was another one brilliant one that just happens to star three of the best actors in Hollywood — George Clooney, Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymore Hoffman. Far from perfect but in many ways it comes across as a more stylish version of Primary Colors, still one of my faves from the 20th century.

8. Mission Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011)

I'm on a date with Robin Thicke's wife!

I’m on a date with Robin Thicke’s wife!

Just when you thought Tom Cruise’s career was on the rapid decline path he churns out one of the best, if not the best, action movie of 2011 with fourth instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise, in my humble opinion the best one yet. Its simplified but intelligent plot and ridiculous action sequences provided a non-stop adrenaline rush and almost had me jumping on the seats like Cruise on Oprah.

7. Warrior (2011)

Bain vs Tom Buchanan

Bain vs Tom Buchanan

Take note, Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown — this is how you do an MMA movie. Actually, by infusing the narrative with a touching storyline and characters we can root for, Warrior is by far the best MMA movie of all time, and leaped onto my top 10 list of 2011 the moment the credits started rolling.

6. Super 8 (2011)

Look, it's E.T.!

Look, it’s E.T.!

My appreciation for Super 8 has perhaps waned a little since watching it more than a year ago,  but at the time I watched it I thought it was potentially this generation’s E.T. — the nostalgia it created was as powerful as anything I had seen in years. Even without it, the film was still highly entertaining and a lot of fun. A great family film.

5. Hugo (2011)

I heard the toymaker used to be Gandhi...

I heard the toymaker used to be Gandhi…

I can’t believe there are so many family films on my list, but there’s no way I could leave Hugo off this list. This remarkable Martin Scorsese film is rich and enriching, magical and emotionally rewarding. On top of that I found it incredibly impressive from a visual perspective and it’s also one of those rare films where the 3D was not detrimental to the overall experience.

4. Midnight in Paris (2011)

I wanna hug this movie too

I wanna hug this movie too (and Rachel McAdams)

If Hugo is for cinema lovers then Midnight in Paris is for lovers of literature. I had no idea what the film was about (thanks to the spoiler-free trailers) but was blown away by the clever script and the perfect tone created by Woody Allen in what must be his best film in years. Sweet, engaging and charming, it’s the best lighthearted movie of the year.

3. Drive (2011)

Yep. I'm Ryan Gosling and I can do no wrong.

Yep. I’m Ryan Gosling and I can do no wrong.

Drive might become my favourite 2011 movie when I look back years down the track, but for now, it’s no. 3. This stylish, ultra-violent neo-noir crime drama won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it simply has the X factor. I was captivated by this film from its brilliant start (one of the best intros ever) all the way through to its powerful conclusion. I don’t really care if the movie has an underlying message — I just thought it was awesome to watch.

2. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Stop freaking me out!

Stop freaking me out!

Based on the acclaimed novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin haunted me when I watched it and still gives me the chills whenever I think about it. As a new father, this film, which is really a “horror” more than anything else, resonated with me in a way few films do and much of that has to do with the spectacular performance of Tilda Swinton, who absolutely should have at least had an Oscar nomination. The recent tragedy at Newtown has had me thinking about the movie a lot lately, which could be why it topped Drive for the no. 2 spot.

1. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Get your dirty hands off my wand, Malfoy!

Get your dirty hands off my wand, Malfoy!

That’s right. My favourite film of 2011 is Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And if you don’t like it you can bite me! What can I say? I love those monkeys. Seriously, it may be an unconventional choice, but to me this was the best film of the Apes franchise (yes, including the iconic original) and may possibly be one of the best popcorn movies of all-time and one of the most entertaining movies ever. I’ve seen it more than twice and I still think its awesomeness is unparalleled. A cool premise, mindblowing special effects and the most epic action sequences of the year — who cares how much sense it made when it’s so much fun to watch?

Well, that just about does it. With less than two days to go in the year, it looks like this 2011 list will only be one year late instead of two. I promise my 2012 list will be posted during the first half of 2013! Promise!

Honourable mentions: 50/50, X-Men: First Class, Shame, The Descendants, Crazy Stupid Love, Snowtown, Limitless, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

PS: I just realized I never reviewed the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on this blog. I have no idea why, but from memory I gave it 4 stars and it would have missed out anyway, though it probably would have made the honourable mentions list.

10 Worst Films of 2011

December 27, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

It’s a Christmas Day miracle!

Yeah, you better believe it. I have finally finished watching and reviewing all the 2011 movies (ie, movies with a 2011 release date according to IMDB) on my list and I’m ready to deliver my worst and best lists of the (last) year. Sure it’s a little late, but better late than never, right? Take that, 2011!

Anyway, it was very interesting going through all 110 movies on the list and seeing whether I still felt the same about the movies so long after I initially rated them (well, for the older ones at least). There were indeed some differences. For example, I could have sworn I gave Transformers 3 a rating much worse than the 2.5 stars it received, and from memory I thought Something Borrowed should have been worse than 2 stars. On the other hand, having seen The Adjustment again more recently I think perhaps it deserved more than a 3.5. But to keep it to first impressions I decided not to change anything.

To make it easier for myself, I highlighted all the movies with ratings more than 4.25 and less than 2. And guess what? I ended up with exactly 10 films for each! Another Christmas Day miracle!

OK, so here goes. First up, counting down my 10 worst films of 2011! Click on the title to read the full review for each film.

10. Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown (2011)

IMG_8497.CR2

You don’t wanna mess with us, punk

You know, the sequel to MMA flick Never Back Down is not actually that bad when placed in context, which is a straight-to-DVD film with low expectations. The fight scenes are OK, but its recycled plot, laughable subplots and cringeworthy dialogue were enough to propel it into my top 10 worst of the year. Just.

9. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

1223-Film-Review-Extremely-Loud-Incredibly-Close_full_600

Tom Hanks piggy backs annoying kid

This was supposed to be a triumphant tear jerker about post-9/11 American, but instead it came across as exploitative and pretentious, and probably the worst Best Picture Oscar nominee ever. The kid (Thomas Horn) deserves some kind of award for portraying the most irritating child character in recent years.

8. Your Highness (2011)

Natalie Portman's best performance ever

Natalie Portman’s best performance ever

I really wanted to like this fantasy comedy farce but it turned out to be one of the year’s biggest disappointments. Perfect example of where there was not enough script and too much improv for a bunch of stoned actors/comedians who needed to be reigned in and saved from themselves.

7. Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

OMG, we're in a movie that's exactly the same as the last two!

OMG, we’re in a movie that’s exactly the same as the last two!

As long as they keep making them I’m pretty sure Paranormal Activity movies will keep landing on my worst movies list every year. This one was actually one of the better ones, which really says it all about this gimmicky franchise that has as much trouble filling up the screen time as it does producing genuine scares.

6. The Art of Getting By (2011)

Let's see who can stare at the other person longer

Let’s see who can stare at the other person longer

Probably the most pointless film of the year in which a kid tries to get by with minimal effort, meets a girl, falls for her, kind of, not really, no one cares. Whatever the message was, it didn’t come out.

5. Jack and Jill (2011)

Two Adam Sandlers laugh at an Adam Sandler movie while everyone else pouts

Two Adam Sandlers laugh at an Adam Sandler movie while everyone else pouts

Adam Sandler movies used to make me so happy, but now they just make me sad — and angry. Jack and Jill is yet another example of how far he has fallen. Not only is it terribly unfunny and mean spirited, the film takes a dump all over screen legend Al Pacino by allowing him to be involved.

4. Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)

Watching real garden gnomes would have been more exciting

Watching real garden gnomes would have been more exciting

Possibly the worst animated film of the last two decades. The last cartoon I fell asleep in was Cars, and that was because I was really tired. This one had no excuse. The dearth of laughs was terrifying and there was no originality apart from the fact that they are garden gnomes. And as nearly always, the 3D was a waste of everyone’s time.

3. The Darkest Hour (2011)

Why am I screaming?!

Why am I screaming?!

The idea was good on paper and the trailers looked promising, but invisible alien enemies turned out to be oh-so-lame…until you saw the aliens and realized that was even lamer. Despite all the running and supposed danger, for whatever reason, The Darkest Hour just had no pulse. With no characters to root for and almost zero excitement, it was indeed the darkest hour — well, 89 minutes, to be exact.

2. ATM (2011)

I think people are watching us watching them watching us

Hang on, I think people are watching us watching them watching us

Ordinarily, a film released straight to video-on-demand and DVD should not be this high up on the list, but ATM does star Alice Eve, Brian Geraghty and Josh Peck, who aren’t exactly unknowns. My problem with it is that it’s just too unbelievably stupid and nonsensical, to the point where I actually started getting annoyed and wanted the protagonists to get killed for their lack of IQ. A slasher movie where everything is so predictable is never a good thing either.

1. New Year’s Eve (2011)

Michelle Pfeiffer and Zac Efron being forced to pretend there's chemistry between them

Michelle Pfeiffer and Zac Efron being forced to pretend there’s chemistry between them

The honour of the worst film of 2011 goes to New Year’s Eve, a new low in saccharine ensemble films where a bunch of stars are forced together on the screen because of some arbitrary common theme. How they managed to make a film with 20+ Hollywood A-listers that sucked so bad is beyond me. No one is given enough screen time to do anything meaningful and nearly all the characters/story arcs are unlikable or contrived or both. It was my only reviewed film of 2011 to be rated less than a 1 star (I actually gave it a 0.5), meaning the gap between this film and the my no. 2 film is wider than the gap between no. 2 and no. 9. The only positive thing I can say about it is that at least it wasn’t in 3D. Eek.

That was depressing. Next up, my 10 favourite films of 2011!

PS: It actually wasn’t such a bad year in terms of bad movies. A lot of average and below average stuff but not many made me want to pull my hair out.

PaPa Gio’s All You Can Eat Pizza!

December 25, 2012 in Food, Reviews by pacejmiller

208

It’s been more than a year since my first visit to Papa Gio’ (I remember because my wife went into labour that night, probably from eating too much there during lunch), one of the best and most underrated Italian restaurants in Taipei.

Located in the alley behind the Ming Yao Department store near the Zhongxiao Dunhua MRT station (blue line),  it doesn’t look all that fancy but oozes an authentic Italian feel with its wood-fire pizza oven and Italy-inspired artworks. The a la carte menu is pricey by Taiwan standards so I recommend the business lunch, which ranges from NT299 (AU$10) to NT$800 (AU$26.50) depending on what main course you get. At the very least, you get an appetizer, a salad, a soup and a dessert, plus three types of all you can eat pizza. The more expensive options include an additional pasta or seafood or steak dish.

189

(Note: the last time I went there the lunch special was NT$390 and you get all you can eat pizza + a pasta in addition to the other extras except the appetizer, which is replaced with garlic and pizza bread.)

The bread comes with an olive oil and balsamic dip

The bread comes with an olive oil and balsamic dip

196

Pumpkin soup

Pumpkin soup

But let me get back to the pizza, because PaPa Gio’ has some of the best pizzas I’ve had in Taiwan. The choices are different each day, but there are always three types and they are all delicious. The chefs specialize in simple but fantastic topping combinations, and the crust is just sublime.

On this day we had a potato pizza, another one with ricotta, roma tomatoes and spinach, and a third with mushrooms and caramelized onions. None of these are on the regular pizza menu. I was surprised that I enjoyed the spinach one the most, but all of them were excellent and I had far more slices than I should.

198

199

We also got two pastas — a cheese risotto and a vegetarian tomato spaghetti. Both were simple but tasty, and a perfect complement to the pizzas.

203

205

We finished off with dessert and a beverage. The dessert today was a panna cotta, and it tasted better than the photo suggests.

In all, a hugely satisfying experience. I am honestly shocked that the place is not fully packed out every weekday during lunchtime. That said, it’s probably still better to book in advance.

9/10

Details:

PaPa Gio’

Address: No. 22, Alley 6, Lane 170, Chung-hsiao East Rd. Sec. 4, Taipei (Zhongxiao Dunhua MRT Exit 5)

Tel: (02) 2711-8720

Fax: (02) 2711-8721

Email: [email protected]

Website: http://www.papagio.com.tw/main.html

Business Hours

11:30am – 14:00pm

18:00pm – 22:00pm

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 8)

December 24, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Red State (2011)

Red-State-poster

Hard to categorize this movie except to call it an interesting Kevin Smith film.

Written and directed by Silent Bob himself, Red State is about a bunch of kids who meet a woman on the internet for naughty business, only to find themselves kidnapped by a religious cult. Cops get involved, mayhem ensues.

Doesn’t sound particularly original but it is a very unusual film with some fascinating characters, fine details, unexpected twists and turns and the feeling that anyone could die at any second despite a star-studded cast – featuring the likes of John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Michael Parks, Kevin Pollack, Kyle Gallner, Stephen Root, Anna Gunn, Kerry Bishe – not huge names but a very solid lineup.

It’s been described as an action-horror but that’s not quite right, though I’m not sure how else to categorize it. In any case, I really enjoyed the tension and being taken this wild ride with no idea where it was heading. It was a little messy at times and got less interesting as it progressed towards the end (though it had a ripper of a conclusion), but at a swift 88 minutes it was good enough for me.

3.75 stars out of 5

Red Dog (2011)

red_dog

I’m not usually a fan of animal movies or Aussie movies, so a combination of the two was unlikely to produce anything I would want to watch. But strong word of mouth and curiosity got me to check out Red Dog, which is apparently a true story about a legendary dog with his own statue in Western Australia.

It has a pretty decent Aussie cast with Rachael Taylor, Luke Ford and Noah Taylor, but of course they had to amp up the star power a little bit with American star Josh Lucas, whom I didn’t really mind here despite this being a very Aussie film.

I’ll admit, I was surprised that Red Dog was so entertaining and occasionally moving, making it a great family film and dog/animal-lover film. It doesn’t aim to be anything it isn’t and succeeds as a fairly low brow buddy movie with kiddy humour, clichés and an unexpected dose of charm. It doesn’t wow but has its effective moments.

I didn’t love it but I certainly didn’t hate it either.

3 stars out of 5

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

tinker tailor

This is one of those films that had the critics calling it a masterpiece and the majority of regular moviegoers calling it a boring turd. Personally, I’ll admit it took me more than a couple of goes to get into it, having fallen asleep during my first two or three attempts. I finally managed to stay engaged on my final try but I still couldn’t see why it was so unbelievably great.

Perhaps I needed to have read the 1974 novel by John le Carre on which it was based, or the acclaimed 1979 mini-series that was able to squeeze in a lot more of the source material, to really enjoy this one. Sure it is stylishly made and fuelled by impeccable performances from an all-star cast featuring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch (best name ever), but I found the story quite unremarkable and lacking an adrenaline kick.

Told primarily through flashbacks, Oldman’s character, Smiley, a retired British intelligence agent, tries to figure out which member of their upper echelons is a Soviet mole. There are a lot of characters, a lot of detailed conversations involving spy lingo and people sitting around doing everything really really slowly.

I can appreciate certain elements such as the well-crafted tension in a few scenes, but on the whole I expected a lot more and don’t get what the fuss is all about. I can certainly understand why people have walked out or fallen asleep in this film (I personally know a few) because it is deliberately slow paced and looks extremely gloomy. It’s almost as if Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (who directed the brilliant Let the Right One In) is telling his audience: if you can’t sit through this then you’re just not clever enough for my movie.

It may have been a tremendous feat to condense such a complex novel into a 127-minute movie, but having never read the book it made no difference to me whatsoever.

2.25 stars out of 5

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2012)

Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-On-Stranger-Tides-Posters-pirates-of-the-caribbean-21175443-800-1185

Even though I had seen all three previous entries in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I never really got into it like I thought I would. In fact, I can barely remember what any of them are about.

That might have been the reason why I actually thought the fourth instalment, On Stranger Tides (better known as Pirates 4), was pretty decent. Or maybe it’s just because it’s the first movie of the series without Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom.

Anyway, this one follows Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) on his quest for the Fountain of Youth. The main antagonist is Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his daughter, and the Jack’s love interest, is played by Penelope Cruz.

It’s your typical pirate adventure movie (if there is such a thing), and the thing I will remember the most from it is the freaky mermaids, who play a key role in helping the pirates locate the fountain.

It’s still filled with sword fights, loud battles, special effects and Johnny Depp running and dancing around like a lunatic, but for once a film in the franchise felt shorter than its actual running time (for me, anyway). This one was still too long at 137 minutes, but it’s actually the shortest of the lot. Pirates 3, which I actually fell asleep in, is a mammoth 168 minutes.

I can’t say I thought it was fantastic, but it might be the first Pirates movie since the first that I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to (and of course there will be).

3.5 stars out of 5