Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 7)

December 9, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I think we’re slowly getting there, but there are still a few more installments to come in what feels like a never-ending movie blitz.

Melancholia (2011)

Lars von Trier makes some strange films, and Melancholia is one of them. To be honest, had I watched this film a few years ago I would have categorised it as another contrived arty farty film that bores with pretentious pretty images and little substance, but I guess as I get older I am starting to appreciate these kind of things better.

I’m not sure if this is a spoiler but Melancholia is actually an apocalypse movie. Well, it’s actually a family drama disguised as an apocalypse movie, so don’t expect to see any asteroids or Bruce Willis blowing stuff up. The first half is set at Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgard’s dysfunctional wedding, where a lot of melodrama happens, and the second half is about the aftermath and how they deal with their impending doom.

I’ll admit, there is some interesting stuff here. The film is lovely to look at and full of, um, melancholy, as the title suggests, and Kirsten Dunst has arguably never been better as the depressed bride. But it’s not really my type of movie, and there is a lotta fluff. I mean, can we really say it’s not gratuitous to have a naked Kirsten Dunst laying on the grass under the moonlight? Not that I’m complaining, but still.

3 out of 5

One Day (2011)

One depressing film to the next. One Day is based on the book of the same title by David Nicholls and focuses on the relationship between Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess, not the serial killer), following them every day on July 15 from 1988 to 2011.

That sounds like an interesting idea for a novel but a potentially and brutally boring one for a movie if handled poorly. Fortunately, Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) has enough tricks up her sleeve to keep the film compelling enough to keep me intrigued for the majority of its 108-minute running time. The dialogue is crisp and the chemistry between the two leads, powered by strong performances, feels genuine, although Hathway’s accent has apparently been criticised for its inconsistency.

On the other hand, there is the unavoidable monotony of the film’s structure and the occasionally strained melodrama that is more infuriating than romantic. I have to admit that the ending got to me, which was surprising because I didn’t really believe I cared about the characters until then.

3.25 stars out of 5

The Whistleblower (2011)

The Whistleblower tells the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a US police officer who goes to post-war Bosnia to work for a security company under the UN where she discovers a shocking human trafficking ring. When she tries to lift the lid on the crimes she finds herself being stifled by the UN at every turn because it does not want to lose its lucrative security contracts.

I was really captivated by this powerful film from start to finish, although I suspect it was more the harrowing subject matter than anything else. It’s revolting what some people would do to make a buck and watching officials perpetrate abuse against the very people they were paid to protect is deeply disturbing.

This bleak but inspiring film is driven by a super performance from Rachel Weisz, even if she is far too pretty to play the role. In many ways, it’s a typical woman-against-the-system type of movie, but I found it surprisingly effective due to the sense of paranoia and frustration created by debut Canadian director Larysa Kondracki. I’d definitely recommend catching this on DVD if you haven’t already.

4 stars out of 5

50/50 (2011)

Seth Rogen movies are often hit and miss for me, but 50/50 might very well be the best Seth Rogen movie ever because he’s only a supporting character. Thankfully, 50/50 is dominated by the wonderful Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who continues to demonstrate his range as Adam, a 27-year-old who finds out that he has cancer. The film is based on the real-life experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser and is directed by Jonathan Levine, who has done a bunch of films I’ve never heard of people.

I’m not ordinarily a fan of comedy dramas, or dramedies, as they are known, because they tend to be stuck painfully in the middle by being neither truly funny nor dramatic. But if they’re all like 50/50 then maybe I would have loved them from the beginning.

This is a real eye-opener and crowd-pleaser that manages to be both genuinely funny and moving. How people deal with cancer is an interesting area that is seldom attempted in cinema, let alone a young man who has his entire life ahead of him, with all those hopes and dreams waiting to be fulfilled. You would think it’s destined to be a bleak film or a disturbing black comedy, but 50/50 reflects life and all its amusing complications and contradictions far better than anyone could have expected.

Perhaps the film works so well is because it contains jokes that worked in reality. I know the fact it’s a true story is likely to be the reason why Rogen shines as Adam’s best friend, because he played the same role in real life to Reiser. He essentially plays himself, generally insensitive, crass and vulgar, but shows flashes of humanity and decency when he needs to. He’s funny in doses but doesn’t annoy, which is when he’s at his best. Rogen should consider retiring right here because it’s unlikely he’ll ever top this performance.

This is a thought-provoking, sweet and touching film that’s as good as any comedy or drama I’ve seen this year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Pacquiao knocked out cold by Marquez!

December 9, 2012 in Boxing, Sport by pacejmiller

Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP

What a fight, what a stunning KO! This was an outcome few people saw coming, but boy was it a glorious finale to a rivalry between two ultimate warriors. In their fourth and best fight, Juan Manuel Marquez KO’d Manny Pacquiao with a crushing right hand counter at full force that connected flush on the Filipino’s chin with a second left in the sixth round, sending Pacquiao crumpling to the canvas like a sack of potatoes. It was every bit as devastating as the Pacquiao punch that KO’d Ricky Hatton or the Sergio Martinez punch that KO’d Paul Williams. I’m not sure if there was a count but it didn’t matter because Pacquiao was out cold for several minutes afterwards, though fortunately he was eventually able to get up and congratulate his conqueror.

It was a remarkable action fight full of twists and turns. Pacquiao (who weighed in yesterday at the welter limit of 147 pounds) started out the aggressor and most probably took the first two rounds by landing more punches and more effective punches than Marquez (143 pounds). The lead left hand proved effective for Pacquiao while Marquez appeared willing to spend more time to figure things out, using body blows to try and slow his opponent down and set up power shots up top.

It turned out to be the right strategy for Marquez, as just when it appeared Pacquiao might start cruising to a points victory, Marquez turned the tables in the third round with a huge overhand right after a body feint than floored Pacquiao for the first time in their four fights. It was a demonstration of the kind of power that the “new” Marquez possessed at welterweight, and it showed that his muscles were not just for show.

Pacquiao got up and survived the round, and it seemed like Marquez might begin to overpower the Pac-man. But instead, Pacquiao was able to find his legs and gutted out a fourth round that could have gone either way.

In the fifth, Pacquiao grew even more aggressive and evened the tables with a straight left hand that struck Marquez on the chin, forcing the Mexican to land his glove on the floor. The knockdown was not a devastating one but it showed that Pacquiao still carried some sting in his punches. As expected, Marquez came back valiantly with some big blows of his own, until Pacquiao unleashed a punishing right hook that clearly hurt him. This time, it was Marquez that had to hang on until the end of the round, and to his credit he did so fighting out of the corners.

Things looked great for Pacquiao for most of the sixth round as he busted up Marquez’s face with more sharp punches, widening the gap on the Compubox scores (which Pacquiao dominated 94 at 37% to 52 to 21%). He appeared to be hurting his opponent and even prompted suggestions that he might finish Marquez off soon.

But I don’t think it was a lucky punch that turned out the lights for Pacquiao because Marquez had clearly been timing that right hand counter all night, and he just happened to land it perfectly. Pacquiao was getting confident and perhaps a little careless, and it was obvious he was trying to finish off the sixth round on a strong note. And so when Pacquiao lunged forward with a right hand with a second left in the round it played right into Marquez’s hands. The Mexican warrior craftily evaded the blow and launched a beautiful right hand that connected right on the button – from behind you could see the crushing force jolt Pacquiao’s cranium. He collapsed face first to the canvas and seconds later Marquez was celebrating on the corner post.

What a sensational, action packed fight. No matter who you were going for, you have to admire the skills and hearts of the two fighters.  It certainly lends credibility to the argument that Marquez is the better fighter and has been all along, or at least the suggestion that Marquez is Pacquiao’s kryptonite.

I’d prefer to see the two of them fight someone else now or retire. In the aftermath of the KO there were immediate rumblings about a fifth fight, but I think Marquez has nothing left to prove against Pacquiao. Yes, Pacquiao was winning the fight up to that point (leading 47-46 on all three scorecards and probably would have gotten the sixth round too had the fight not ended there) and had hurt Marquez, but that KO was a perfect ending to their rivalry — there could not have been a more definitive conclusion after so many close fights. If they keep fighting, when will it ever end?

This whole time boxing fans were thinking Floyd Mayweather Jr was Pacquiao’s fated rival but as it turned out Marquez held that role all along. I guess now we will never see Mayweather-Pacquiao, but at the same time I don’t think too many people care anymore after being jerked around for so many years. Pacquiao said immediately after the fight that he is not going to retire and is going to come back, but I think it’s a good time for him to hang up the gloves. No shame in going out on a punch like that from an opponent like Marquez. But on the other hand, if they fight again, I’m pretty sure I’ll be watching.

As for me, I was wrong again in my prediction. From now on I’m going to live like this guy.

Game Review: Sleeping Dogs (PS3)

December 9, 2012 in Game Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I hadn’t played a video game with a storyline since I was immersed in Heavy Rain and Infamous well over a year ago, mainly because such games require a significant investment of time which I don’t have these days. Nonetheless, I kept hearing rave reviews about this Grand Theft Auto-like game based in a Hong Kong called Sleeping Dogs (I would have thought Eating Dogs was more appropriate), so I decided to put away some spare time to tackle it.

It turned out to be an investment with great returns, as Sleeping Dogs was an addictive and fun experience that has enough distinctive qualities to separate itself from all the other open world games out on the market. If you’re a fan of open world games such as GTA and Infamous and/or fans of Hong Kong gangster movies then it’s likely you’ll enjoy Sleeping Dogs as much as I did.

You play Wei Shen (a transliteration of “dangerous” in Mandarin), a HK native who has returned after spending years in California to work undercover for the HK police. He infiltrates the Sun On Yee triad organization, starting off from a low-level enforcer and, over the course of the game, rises through the ranks to become an invaluable member of both the triads and the police. As the stakes get higher and higher, Wei Shen finds himself torn between the two sides, blurring the line between good and evil  and forcing him to decide where his loyalty ultimately lies.

From a story perspective, it’s a game that steals from HK gangster movies such as old classics like A Better Tomorrow and newer hits like Infernal Affairs. The swearing and violence are full-on; there are street brawls with kung fu moves, meat cleavers and machetes, car chases and crazy shootouts. You can drift up and down the mountain paths like Initial D, run all day and swim in the ocean, sample local delicacies, hack computers and install surveillance cameras. It’s old fashioned yet refreshing in a lot of ways.

The gameplay also steals from many of the more successful video game franchises. It is based on the GTA foundation which allows open world exploration with a main core mission, dozens of side missions, mini games and plenty of other stuff to check out and do if you can’t get enough. It’s not quite like Infamous in the sense that you can choose to be “good” or “evil” by selecting a certain route of missions, but it is similar in the way you can attempt both “police” and “triad” missions and level-up both sides to learn different skills and abilities (eg, car jacking without setting off alarms, etc).

The graphics are excellent but by no means revolutionary. The game provides a sprawling, glittering vision of HK that isn’t quite “realistic” but captures the city’s reputation and charm with a mix of high rise buildings, traditional ghettos and neon lights. The characters’ faces look genuine enough, although a little more facial movement could have added to their emotions. It’s one of the better looking games out there but you can’t really it to the best of the best because of the vastness of its open world nature. As often is the case with such games, camera angles occasionally become problematic, but not to the point where they become annoying.

The voice acting is brilliant, led by Will Yun Lee, who voices Wei Shen. He’s not particularly well known right now, but that could change after he plays the Silver Samurai in The Wolverine next year (though perhaps not Mortal Kombat Legacy). Many of the supporting characters are played by Asian and Hollywood stars, including Edison Chen (sorry, no sex scandals this time), Emma Stone, Lucy Liu, Tom Wilkinson, Kelly Hu and Lost‘s Yunjin Kim — but its Mrs Chu (voice by Irene Tsu), an old-fashioned triad mother who works in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, gets my vote as the best of the lot.

You don’t wanna mess with Mrs Chu

The combat system is apparently modelled on the Batman: Arkham Asylum/City games, which I have not played but understand it is a freeflow combat system which features both hand-to-hand fighting and melee weapons. You can punch and kick, perform roundhouses, tackle people, trip people, break arms and legs — the whole shebang. You can also accomplish cool/sick kills by utilising the surrounding environment, which ranges from phone booths and electrical panels to wood saws and swordfish (!).

As the story progresses, you get to use a variety of guns which adds a new dimension to the game by allowing players to take cover, fire blindly and target specific enemies and body parts. You can even leap over certain obstacles and fire while time slows down. It’s all pretty cool, and there are always tutorials to make sure you get the hang of things before you start testing them out on the streets.

The driving system is similar to GTA and allows players to shoot from moving vehicles. Also added is the ability to jump from moving vehicles and guiding indicator arrows to let you know where and when to turn if you have a set destination, which really helps if you have trouble keeping an eye on the road and the map at the same time. My favourite is the ability to hail down taxis to take you to a destination of your choice, which saves a lot of driving time especially when you have to drive all the way across town.

In-game driving footage

The biggest strength of the game is the compelling core story, which is what makes it as good as any of the other open world classics. I was surprised by the effectiveness of the storytelling and the well drawn out characters. I inexplicably grew to care about Wei Shen’s plight and understood his obsession and rage. And some of the multi-part core missions involving one-on-everyone fights and shootouts are simply incredible, as epic as the climax of any HK gangster flick. The introductory mission, the wedding, the hospital shootout and the final mission are the high watermarks in my opinion.

The shorter side missions are nice too. Wei Shen can go on dates with various girls, go drag racing (on a bike or car), do favours for people, go on drug busts, gamble, bet on cockfighting, join a fight club or collect stolen statues to learn new martial arts moves from his master. Most of them will pop up from time to time on your map, but some can be random happenings you stumble across on the street. They do get repetitive after a while, but the same can be said for most open world games.

The trimmings are really for the die-hard fanatics. I’m talking about finding all the health-increasing shrines and locked suitcases littered throughout the city, becoming a karaoke master and improving the collection of outfits, cars/bikes and paintings in your possession.

It’s really a question of how much you want to explore. The game took me around 23 hours to finish on its maiden (and probably only) run, which included a lot of time on the fight clubs, side missions and especially the drug busts. A friend of mine, however, told me it took him just over 10 hours to complete when just focused on the core missions, so it’s up to the individual how immersed they want to be.

At the end of the day, regardless of whether you want to go straight through to the end or take the scenic tour, Sleeping Dogs is a whole lotta fun. There are ample open world games out there these days but Sleeping Dogs takes the best of those games and adds a unique HK flavour to go with its compelling core story, superb voice acting and timely humour. I might even consider buying the some of the online add-ons, in particular the Nightmare in North Point expansion title with Chinese vampires/zombies!

9/10

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