2012 Movie Blitz: Part 12

September 17, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Yes, there are still movies from 2012 that I have not yet finished reviewing or watching. But I am getting there. I swear. Here are four more film reviews.

Byzantium (2012)

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This was one I had been really forward to because it’s directed by Neil Jordan, and I really needed Saoirse Ronan to redeem herself in my mind after the disaster that was The Host. I’m still not 100% sure what to make of Byzantium, which is an interesting twist on the vampire genre and relies a lot on its brooding and melancholic atmosphere as opposed to cheap scares — though I wish I could have found it more engaging and frightening.

Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan are a mother and daughter vampire pair who have been around for a few hundred years by surviving on human blood. The story is dominated by a back story dating back to the Napoleonic Wars of how they became who they are, interspersed with their modern day exploits and typical (or not so typical) mother-daughter tensions. And of course, there are mysterious people hunting them down.

It’s a very dark (literally — the film is almost always poorly lit), bloody and violent film that provides a welcome escape from all the vampire lover fantasies we’ve had in recent years. I also loved the whole concept of how they are made into vampires and the way they transform when they feed. It’s different and haunting, driven by two very strong performances from Arterton and Ronan.

On the other hand, the dreariness got to me a little as the film progressed, and I yearned for less melodrama and more excitement. The back story, to be brutally honest, was somewhat predictable and stale, and I think that is what dragged the film down and prevented it from being an exceptional vampire flick. A minor disappointment because of high expectations, but not a bad film to catch on DVD on a rainy night.

3.25 stars out of 5

Cosmopolis (2012)

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So I keep hearing about what a great American writer Don DeLillo is, and Cosmopolis is based on one of his novels. And it’s directed by David Cronenberg (who gave us the magnificent A History of Violence and Eastern Promises in the last few years). Sure, it starred Shovelface, aka Robert Pattinson, but Cosmopolis was definitely high on my list of most anticipated movies of the year.

What’s it about? That’s hard to describe, but essentially it’s about a young billionaire (Shovelface) trying to head to his barber in a limo and gets sidetracked. He meets a bunch of people (from his wife to an assortment of mistresses) and things suddenly start to spiral out of control. Just 109 minutes of people saying and doing strange, random, confusing things.

The film has gotten mixed reviews and two minutes in I could see why. Cosmopolis seems like a great story on the paper, but adapted to the screen and it just feels all wrong. Every scene and conversation feels painfully contrived, like they are trying to sound mysterious and befuddling. No one on the history of the planet has ever spoken like the characters in this film, and yet everyone in it speaks in the same way.

I like the feeling of not knowing what is going on as things are slowly revealed to me throughout the film, but this film tries way too hard to mess with the audience’s mind and challenges them to look for deeper meaning (the follies of capitalism and materialism, perhaps?) when there isn’t really anything to look for. At least it feels that way anyway.

Cronenberg’s direction is stylish and the film is atmospheric, and the performances are strong, though that doesn’t make up for all its faults. It’s disappointing because there was definitely potential here, but instead all Cosmopolis did for me was bore and frustrate.

1.5 stars out of 5

Killing Them Softly (2012)

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I was warned about Killing Them Softly, which received praise from critics but was panned by many regular people who watched it. In fact, I was warned by an aunt to avoid it at all costs because it might bore me to death. Being the sucker for punishment that I am, I braced myself and watched it anyway, and to be honest I just thought it was OK — not boring, not great. Just OK.

The premise is simple. Ray Liotta runs an underground gambling ring for mafia types and once held up his own den to steal money off his patrons. Armed with the knowledge if that it happened again that people would automatically point the finger at Ray, a couple of goons (Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy) are hired to rob the place. In the aftermath, a hitman played by Brad Pitt, who likes to “kill them softly” (ie, quick and relatively painless) is assigned to…sort things out.

This is one of those movies I probably would have fallen asleep in a few years ago, but nowadays I have come to appreciate the art of “slow storytelling” and have come to understand why certain films are paced in a certain way. Killing Me Softly is undeniably slow, with lots of well-crafted dialogue and pauses. But the dark and bleak noir atmosphere is definitely intriguing, and when the violence hits it is brutal and uncompromising.

Having said all that, there’s not a lot about the movie that makes it something I would want to recommend to others. It’s simply a well-made movie that is slow and gritty, with big name stars delivering the expected strong performances. I wouldn’t call it boring, though it’s not exactly entertaining either.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Expatriate (2012)

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Known as Erased in the US, The Expatriate is a bit of a “meh” film in the sense that it’s perfectly adequate but does little to suggest that it should be anything other than a straight-to-DVD film, which is is.

Aaron Eckhart is a former CIA agent (kinda like Liam Neeson in Taken) who is living with his daughter in Brussels while working as a security expert. One day he suddenly discovers that all traces of his existence have been “erased”, so to speak, forcing him on the run as his ex-colleagues all start dropping dead. So essentially the whole movie is about him trying to survive while figuring out what big conspiracy he has been dragged into.

It’s not the most original premise, but there are elements of the film that work effectively for this to be an above average thriller. But when you have movies like Taken and those from the Bourne franchise (which this film borrows from liberally), a movie like The Expatriate pales in comparison and feels almost redundant.

I’m a fan of Aaron Eckhart and I think he does a great job in it, but it’s hard to like a movie when you feel like you’ve pretty much seen everything before, except done better.

2.5 stars out of 5

Legendary Lan Fong Yuen (蘭芳園) (Hong Kong)

September 17, 2013 in Food, Hong Kong, Reviews, Travel by pacejmiller

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Hong Kong has a wider range of food to experience than even Taiwan because of its massive ex-pat community and the greater disparity in earning capacity, leading to a wide spectrum of delicious cuisine that can cost just pocket change to thousands of HK dollars per head.

At the lower end of the spectrum is the legendary Lan Fong Yuen (蘭芳園), quite literally a hole-in-the-wall kind of place in the Central district. Located at 2 Gage Street, close to the Mid-Levels escalator, it’s the type of place you can completely miss when it is closed, but impossible to miss when it is open because of the long lines you will normally see outside. (If all else fails, look for the 7 Eleven on the corner.)

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As the legend goers, Lan Fong Yuen started more than 50 years ago as a roadside stall but eventually developed into a tiny tea cafe serving traditional HK fare such as pork buns, toasts, noodles and milk teas. It’s a fantastic place to sample authentic HK food at low prices and experience the bustling and crowded lifestyle of the locals. The lines might be long at Lan Fong Yuen, but the service and turnover are extremely fast, and you will almost always be forced (especially if you have less than four people) to share tables with others. On the latest visit, there were four groups of two on a table ordinarily suited for four people, so we were literally bumping knees with one another.

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The place doesn’t look it, but it’s clean. Well, about as clean as you could hope for. The walls are plastered with news reports recommending the place, though one side is filled with posters of Cantopop veteran Alan Tam. They must really like him.

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On this occasion we ordered their pork bun (豬扒包), condensed milk on toasted bread (豬仔包) and dry instant noodle with fried chicken and scallion oil (蔥油雞扒撈丁), plus of course a traditional milk tea. For one of the dishes we ordered a set meal, which means it comes with a fried egg and tomatoes.

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Not much to say except that it was sensational. For this price (around about HK$75) you shouldn’t expect too much, and it is rather simple food — but dang it sure is tasty. My favourite was of course the noodles with fried chicken, with the scallions and oil really bringing out the best in the dish. I waxed that plate pretty quickly. I asked for less sugar in the milk tea and it was still pretty sweet, so be warned if you are going the full sugar.

In all, it was a great experience to get down and dirty (in a clean way) with traditional HK tea cafe food. Not the most comfortable place, mind you, but there is a reason why this place has been around for more than half a century and why locals and visitors keep coming back for more.

8.5/10

PS: There are franchises in Shuen Wan and Tsim Sha Tsui, but I hear the original Central store is still the best.

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Details

Lan Fong Yuen (蘭芳園)

Address: 2 Gage Street, Central, Hong Kong

Phone: +852 2850 8683

Hours: 7am-6pm

LFY map