Movie Review: This is the End (2013)

September 29, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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While I’m not the biggest fan of Seth Rogen, I was really looking forward to This is the End,  an apocalypse movie featuring a bunch of comedic actors as parodied versions of themselves. The list of celebrities in the film is long — the leads include Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride, with cameos from the likes of Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Rihanna, Paul Rudd, Kevin Hart, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, David Krumholtz, Channing Tatum and Aziz Ansari. The film has received mixed reviews, and I can see why. It’s undoubtedly a good time and funny, albeit a little too hit-and-miss, and could have and probably should have been a lot funnier.

The central character of the whole thing is actually Jay Baruchel (She’s Out of My League, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and How to Train Your Dragon), who arrives in LA to catch up with his buddy Seth Rogen as they head off to a house party at James Franco’s house attended by all the above stars. Midway through the party the biblical End of Days (as depicted in the Arnie movie of the same name) descends upon them and the surviving celebs must find a way to deal with the terrifying aftermath, one that involves demonic monsters and possession.

It’s such an obvious idea, but as you can imagine, it’s also brimming with potential for laughs. I imagine the writers, Rogen and buddy Evan Goldberg, were likely stoned when they wrote this loose script, and it shows. There isn’t much of a plot, and the majority of the movie involves moronic, childish and sexually explicit banter and one-liners from the cast that serve to lampoon themselves.

Each of the actors plays a version of their real-life persona, one that corresponds with the public perception of them. Rogen, for example, is the same goofball you see in all his films, while McBride is the obnoxious slacker he portrayed in Your Highness. James Franco is interesting as a pretentious, sexually ambiguous nerd, though the funniest (and also most obvious) one is Michael Cera, whose has played this over-the-top douchebag version of himself so many times now that it has to make you wonder…

With so many comedians given free rein to show what they can do, you can expect at least some laughs, though how funny you find This is the End will likely depend on how much you like the particular brand of comedy of the six lead characters — ie, loud, profane, occasionally sharp, random, politically incorrect stoner comedy. I’ve always found this type of comedy a bit of a mixed bag. For instance, I really enjoyed Pineapple Express but hated Your Highness and thought films like Superbad and Knocked Up were overrated. I would place this film near the higher end the spectrum, mainly because no particular actor dominates and it was fun watching them play off each other. A couple of clever ideas had me laughing out loud pretty hard.

That said, I think it could have been funnier — perhaps with more scripted jokes, or less, or more editing to refine the material down to just the best parts. There were just too many jokes wasted for missing the mark or being too obvious.

Still, This is the End has enough quality stuff packed into it to make it one of the more memorable comedies of the year. Strangely, even though the story becomes more farcical as it progressed, it did not feel as though there was a mismatch with the “reality” TV style of comedy they were trying to make. That probably says more about reality TV than it does about this film.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: Excellent ending sequence, so stick around for the surprise.

Return to Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan (Hong Kong)

September 29, 2013 in Food, Hong Kong, Reviews, Travel by pacejmiller

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The first time I blogged about Tim Ho Wan, a Hong Kong dim sum restaurant famous for earning a prestigious Michelin star, was in 2010 (that post is here). At the time, there was only one store in the Mong Kok area, and a 2-hour wait was a frequent occurrence at the tiny joint.

Now, that place has relocated and there are four Tim Ho Wan branches across Hong Kong (Sham Shui Po, North Point, Tai Kok Tsui and Hong Kong Station). There are also two or three outlets in Singapore.

It was our last morning in Hong Kong and so we decided to check out the Hong Kong Station branch (which I see every time I visit HK), which is located in the row of shops between HK Station and the IFC Mall. It’s open 9am-9pm and I thought a visit around 10:30am would be relatively wait-free. I was wrong, but it wasn’t too bad — about a 15-minute wait in the end.

Admittedly, this new Tim Ho Wan has lost some of its original hole-in-the-wall charm. It’s obviously more commercialized, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The place is now more spacious, looks cleaner and better organized than it was before. And the prices are still very reasonable and you can get full for less than HK$40.

We ordered a lot of stuff.

The must-get is still the BBQ pork buns, which are world-famous because of the different skin that makes it almost like a pineapple bun. So the outside is crusty, crunchy, and the interior is hot and filled with delicious BBQ pork.

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The quality of the rest of their stuff is also excellent. I particularly liked the salty dumpling, which is probably the best I’ve had anywhere.

 

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The regulars, such as the shui mai, har gao (prawn dumplings), turnip cake and vermicelli roll are also great. Just good ingredients and nicely made, with just the right mix of flavours.

 

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Two dishes that I didn’t really like were the Cantonese sponge cake and the Medlar laurel blossom cake, but only because I’m not a fan of this type of dessert. My wife liked them a lot though, so it’s just a matter of personal preference.

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You know what? My experience of Tim Ho Wan this time was probably even better than the first. It’s not a typical yum cha place where you can sit down and enjoy a long meal, but as far as the food and service are concerned you can’t really do any better.

9/10

Details

Tim Ho Wan (添好運)

Address: Shop 12A, Hong Kong Station (Podium Level 1, IFC Mall) , Central

Phone: 2332 3078

Hours: 9am-9pm

Movie Review: Jobs (2013)

September 28, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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First of all, let me be clear. Jobs, the new biopic of the Apple legend starring Ashton Kutcher, is nowhere near as bad as some critics have made it out to be. For those who don’t know about the founding of Apple and the early days of the Steve Jobs story, the film can be an interesting glimpse into the world of the most iconic commercial innovator of this generation. That said, it is nevertheless a disappointing effort given the expectations and the subject of the biopic; for the most part, it was good while it lasted, but ultimately the film comes across as rushed, malnourished and incomplete, and despite the best of intentions, unable to deliver the engrossing experience curious audiences have been hoping for since Jobs’ untimely death in October 2011.

The strange thing about this film is that it, like Jobs the man, begins with what appears to be lofty ambitions, but then, unlike him, surprisingly fizzles out, almost like it decided to give up because the challenge had grown too difficult, or even because it had lost interest in what it was trying to achieve.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but it should be known that Jobs is not an attempt to capture the life story of Steve Jobs. In fact, it only covers a small part of his life, from how he came about starting Apple with Steve Wozniak in the 1970s to (without being too specific) the turn of the century (as foretold by the film’s opening scenes). What this curious time frame means is that we know almost nothing of his childhood or his adopted parents, and we see nothing of what are supposed to be the best years of his career. Also, it means the film assumes a certain level of knowledge about Apple and Jobs, which is fine, but a complete failure to even acknowledge the existence some of the biggest milestones outside of this chosen time frame (such as Jobs’s association with Pixar and some of Apple’s most iconic products) just feels…wrong.

Of course, it would have been impossible to capture every aspect of Jobs’s life, but in my opinion (others may differ) the makers of this movie made wrong decisions in choosing what parts of his life to emphasize and what parts to skim over. Without delving into spoilers, let’s just say the film’s last half hour or so is a bit of a hurried mess, and even though it ends on (I suppose) a good note at a particular juncture of Jobs’s life, it leaves you wanting a lot more. This is one of those rare occasions where a film should have been longer — it’s 122 minutes but could have easily added another 20 quality minutes without it feeling bloated. In a sense, the film feels almost like it’s setting itself up for a sequel, except there isn’t going to be one.

There are two additional problems with the film that comes to mind. The first is that it feels as though it is canonizing Jobs. Of course, the prick side of Jobs, which has been documented so well, is not missing from the film — we do get to see him lose his temper and the dark side of his obstinate and vindictive nature (most evidently in his relationship with his eldest daughter) — but the feeling I got (others may have a different interpretation) is that they tried to make him look like a misunderstood genius whose failures only came about because others (old fashioned business executives) did not believe him or share his ambitious vision. In reality, Jobs was at times reckless and his adventurous streak often got the best of him and his projects.

The second problem is that while the film is titled Jobs, it is more about Apple than the life of Steve Jobs. Apart from Jobs’s strained relationship with his first daughter Lisa, there really isn’t much else in the film about his life in the film that isn’t directly related to Apple. How they could make a movie called Jobs and not even let audiences know he’s dead strikes me as bizarre.

Having said all that, the film did start off on a strong note and most of the major events within the chosen period (such as Apple’s IPO and the 1984 commercial — and many more, though they could technically be considered spoilers) are featured and executed well. As a dramatization of that period of Jobs’s life, there’s not much to complain about. But as I had read Jobs’s official biography written by Walter Isaacson just last year, many of the things that happen in the film are still fresh in my mind and thus lacked punch, but for those who aren’t as familiar with Apple’s history and Jobs’s life (eg, my wife), the film could be quite a compelling eye-opener. People interested in Apple’s humble beginnings and geeks interested in the early PC era won’t be disappointed.

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Central to the film is the portrayal of Jobs by Ashton Kutcher. I have mixed feelings about his performance. On the one hand, he definitely has the look and walk of Steve Jobs down pat. There are moments in the film, a flash here, a blurry shot there, where Kutcher is the spitting image of a young Jobs. Jobs’s temper and narcissism also feel genuine. On the other hand, Kutcher looks too much like…Ashton Kutcher, and I wonder if a lesser known actor would have been more suitable for the role. The voice was also too distinctively Kutcher and not quite there.

In the supporting cast, which includes the likes of James Woods, Lukas Haas, Ron Eldard JK Simmons and Kevin Dunn, the standouts are Matthew Modine as one-time Apple CEO John Sculley and Dermot Mulroney as key venture capitalist Mike Markkula. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak, but apparently Wozniak himself as rubbished the portrayal and also his relationship with Jobs in the movie. However, it should be noted here that Wozniak was paid consult on the forthcoming Sony version of the Jobs biopic to be scripted by Aaron Sorkin and based on Isaacson’s book, scheduled for release next year. Whichever way you look at it, that film appears much better equipped to deliver the definitive Steve Jobs biopic we’ve been waiting for (albeit with a lot more rapid-fire dialogue). It seems in the rush to get in first, Jobs had to compromise on quality, which shows in the final product.

The final word on Jobs? A perfectly adequate and generally compelling dramatization of the founding and early years of Apple, but a somewhat incomplete and disappointing portrait of the life of the man it is named after.

3.25 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Sharp Objects’ by Gillian Flynn

September 26, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Sharp-Objects

I have finally finished burning through all three Gillian Flynn novels to date, with the last one being her debut novel, Sharp Objects. And now, sadly, I have no choice but to wait patiently until she produces more brilliant psychological thrillers.

Sharp Objects is told through the eyes of Camille Preaker, a Chicago reporter from a struggling newspaper who has been assigned to cover the murders of two young girls in her Missouri hometown, the place she once ruled as the most popular girl in town. But Camille is a deeply damaged person (both mentally and physically) and her homecoming is anything but smooth as she must deal with her wealthy but distant mother and stepfather, as well as her precocious 13-year-old stepsister Amma, who has taken over Camille’s former role as the queen bee.

Unlike Flynn’s breakthrough smash Gone Girl (review here), which is a rollicking delicious ride delivered at break-neck pace, or her second novel Dark Places (review here), which relies on the intrigue of a satanic worship murder mystery in a small town, Sharp Objects is more of a slow burn, reflective and contemplative — but it’s also her most personal and emotionally draining work. The tone is melancholic and downright depressing at times, but the narrative flow is dreamy — almost hypnotic — and has a way of slowly pulling you into Camille’s hazy and deranged world.

It is definitely the darkest, creepiest and most unsettling of Flynn’s three books (which is saying a lot if you have read the other two), tackling confronting themes such as serial murder, self-mutilation, depression, alcoholism, serious mental health issues (which shall remain unnamed) and the combustible mix of wealth and boredom and small-town life. And the ending of the novel — one that sent deep chills down my back — is arguably the best of all her books as well.

As with her other novels, Sharp Objects is also very much about sexual politics. For me, the most engrossing parts of the book are about Camille’s stepsister Amma, a walking contradiction who is sexual and childish, cruel and kind, domineering and needy, but at the same time she is just a sad little girl whose personality feels eerily genuine. On the other hand, I felt some of the male characters, such as the hotshot out-of-town detective Richard and the attractive prime suspect John Keene, the brother of one of the victims, were not as strong as their female counterparts.

Flynn’s is a sharp and stylishly evocative writer, though in Sharp Objects her writing is more raw and less polished (it is her first book, after all). But despite the occasional misstep, the story and characters do grow on you. It might not be her best book, but Sharp Objects could very well be the one that stays in your mind the longest after turning the last page.

4/5

PS: And yes, a movie version is coming too, but as of now there are no details on the cast or crew.

Movie Review: After Earth (2013)

September 26, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I am…well, was…one of the staunchest M Night Shyamalan defenders out there. I loved The Village and thought The Happening was, er, good (up until the ending) and didn’t think The Last Airbender was as awful as advertised, though Lady In the Water pushed me about as far as my limit would go. And so when I discovered that he was directing Will Smith’s latest sci-fi adventure After Earth (the same Will Smith who does not choose to make bad movies, apparently), I did not run off screaming like most other people.

I probably should have.

After Earth is, plain and simple, a bore, which is an incredible feat considering the semi-interesting premise and how much “action” there is. Basically, humans are forced to abandon Earth at some time in the future after making the place inhabitable, and the new place they decided to settle down has these alien creatures who are blind but can sense fear. Will Smith is some legendary commander who can suppress his fear (and hence practically invincible), and Jaden Smith (his real life son), is constantly living in his shadow. On a final trip to an abandoned Earth, their spaceship crashes and Will is hurt, and the only person who can save them (by trekking through dangerous terrain with evolved/mutated monsters) is Jaden.

So yeah, After Earth is basically a Jaden Smith star-making vehicle produced by his family. Will Smith, who came up with the idea for the movie, is more or less there for the star power and barely moves for the entire film. Jaden’s name even comes up first in the credits (this is living proof of fatherly love).

Apparently the original premise was not sci-fi and was about a father and son duo who are trapped after their car breaks down in the wilderness. That idea might have made a better motion picture, because the sci-fi elements in After Earth don’t really work. Maybe it’s the effects of a hangover from The Last Airbender, but After Earth has a childish feel to it, as though it was made with a Nickelodeon-esque audience in mind. It’s a morality tale and a coming of age story, but there is no nuance or subtlety. Everything is so painfully obvious and predictable. Bland and uninteresting, even when the characters are supposedly in danger. It’s not often that a 100-minute film feels too long. I’m not kidding here, but I think perhaps the film would have been better as an animation.

It’s pointless dissecting Will Smith’s performance because he has so little do to. As for Jaden Smith, I think his acting abilities have regressed from The Pursuit of Happyness (made 7 years ago) and The Karate Kid remake (3 years ago). Maybe it’s the script’s fault, or simply a lack of charisma, because I could not connect with his character at all. The most emotional parts of the film, including a (remote) tearful exchange with his father, felt strangely empty and cliched.

That said, the film is not quite as bad as it has been made out to be. Though clunky, the film tells its story adequately, and the special effects and scale are quite impressive. It’s not the worst of the movie of the year and 11% on Rotten Tomatoes is a brutal overreaction. However, After Earth is still ultimately a huge disappointment and a failed experiment. Maybe it’s time for M Night to retreat into the shadows and get back to the smaller, more intimate projects that made him a respected filmmaker in the first place.

1.75 stars out of 5