Recent Movie Reviews: Part VII

November 14, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)


I had heard some pretty nasty things about The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, the latest adaptation of a successful young adult book series which instantly conjures up images of franchises like Twilight. For maybe the first half hour or so, I was ready to disagree with the critics because I felt it was fairly engaging, but somewhere along the line the film just got bogged down by the weight of its own unnecessarily complexity and desire to infuse contrived romances into the storyline, and from there it all fell apart. In other words, I ended up agreeing with the naysayers: City of Bones stunk.

Starring the eyebrows of Lily Collins (offspring of music legend Phil), City of Bones follows the adventures of New York teenager Clary Fray, who one night realises she is not “normal” and  can see things other people can’t.  OK, I’m just going to say it — this movie is about angel warriors who slay demons on Earth. Fray is indeed special and has special powers, including the ability to use runes.

Anyway, the whole film revolves around the search for the titular Mortal Instruments, and in particular a magical cup. It all got a little confusing for me, to be honest, and I really didn’t care about all the explanations which made little sense. But it does also have vampires and werewolves, and in a bit of a controversial twist for young adult fiction, gay characters!

I did enjoy the start of the film and its urban setting, and the tensions brought about by an endangered protagonist who doesn’t know what the hell is going on around her. But I knew there was going to be a romance as soon as the blonde locks of Jamie Campbell Bower (who plays an angel called Jayce Wayland) appeared on screen, and I hoped that it wouldn’t ruin the movie. Well, it did, and the moment when Eyebrows and Bower shared an awkward kiss in a greenhouse (just as it suddenly starts to rain, by the way) was when I lost faith in the film completely.

I’m not as critical of the film’s fantasy cliches as others, because I don’t have a problem with stealing elements as long as the execution is right. This is harder said than done, of course, and City of Bones failed to get over that hump, though they did have a good crack at it. In the end,  it’s the contrived romance and the unnecessarily convoluted back story that crushed the film for me. That said, I don’t think the series is beyond salvation, and the planned sequel, City of Ashes, could still possess some potential.

2 stars out of 5

The Internship (2013)


These days you can be pretty certain of what you’re in for when you go to a Vince Vaughn comedy, especially if it also stars Owen Wilson. The Internship is what it is — affable characters you are familiar with, consistent, mildly amusing jokes and gags, and a cliched life message at the end. The only difference between this and other similar Vaughn movies in recent years is that The Internship is also a massive advertisement for Google.

Vaughn and Wilson are watch salesmen who someone get an opportunity to apply for an internship at Google. To get the sought-after job, they must compete against a bunch of young, cocky, highly qualified interns in a teams. And of course, the duo gets put in a team of misfits who are considered rejects by other teams, and they have to find a way to learn from each other and defy the odds. You know how it goes and you know how it ends, but it’s still a semi-enjoyable ride.

Directed by Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen, Night at the Museum, Date Night) and co-written by Vaughn, The Internship is one of those “safe” and “comfortable” movies that tend to rated better by audiences than critics. There are some interesting insights into Google’s recruitment process (including a Quidditch match), but for the most part it is extremely formulaic and short on original jokes. And of course it is unnecessarily long at 2 hours.

Vaughn and Wilson are likable guys who seem to always play the same characters, so you know what to expect with them. The other interns on their team are stereotypes but the actors who play them do fairly good jobs. Rose Byrne plays Wilson’s love interest and feels like a superfluous character, and Max Minghella is awfully one-dimensional and over-the-top as the dicky villain who bullies them (though I blame it on the script). The standout supporting character is played by Rob Riggle, a hilarious electric cart salesman, and it’s a shame he doesn’t have more screen time.

On the whole, I found The Internship to be a “meh” experience that won’t affect your life whether you see it or not. Apart from a bizarre and strangely adult segment featuring to a strip club, this was about as predictable of a movie as you’re likely to see all year.

2.5 stars out of 5

The World’s End (2013)


The World’s End is the third film in director Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost  (following Shaun of the Dead, which I liked a lot, and Hot Fuzz, which I haven’t seen). It would be an understatement to call this film a wild, outrageous and unpredictable ride, and I would recommend anyone who intends on seeing it to avoid all spoilers like I did.

The premise pretty much tells you the kind of experience you are in for. Pegg plays a middle-aged alcoholic trying to rekindle his glory days from two decades ago and gathers up his old gang to try and complete the “Golden Mile”, a pub crawl through 12 local pubs in a single night that ends at an establishment named The World’s End. The rowdy group start off the pub crawl as planned, but an unexpected twist throws them into the craziest night of their lives.

It’s hard to say more about the plot without giving key details away, so I’ll stop there, but what I will say is that it features Pegg and Frost at their stinging best. The wisecracks and one-liners come fast and furious, and the physical comedy is also surprisingly effective in a wacky kind of way. The supporting cast, which includes the likes of Rosamund Pike and Martin Freeman, are all excellent and contribute to a highly entertaining and surreal experience where nothing is taken seriously — in a good way.

And on top of it all, The World’s End is strangely heartfelt and pushes through its messages about alienation and letting go of the past extremely well. The film does lose a bit of steam towards the end as the silliness meter is dialled up to the max, but even then you get the feeling that the Wright was in full control of where he wanted to take his audience.

The World’s End is unapologetically crazy, bizarre, and above all, British. I thought it was hilarious.

4 stars out of 5

42 (2013)


Sports biopics are all about inspiration, and inspirational figures don’t come much bigger than Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in Major League Baseball. 42 follows Robinson’s journey from talented negro league player to his controversial signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he would become the only black player in a league of all whites, thereby making him the most polarizing athlete in sport.

For those who don’t know much about Robinson and his incredible life, 42 provides a wonderful insight into just how difficult it was for him to be that breakthrough guy who paved the way for racial equality in not just baseball but all professional sports in the United States. It’s a pivotal and very important part of American history that should not and will not be forgotten.

That said, 42 is very much a family film in the sense that it tackles the obstacles and the racism Robinson faced head on but in a somewhat sanitised way that feels like it steered clear of the ugliest and darkest aspects of what he had to endure. This is not to say that the film makes light of what Robinson went through — it’s just that things could have been portrayed in a much more cynical, brutal and disturbing manner. That would have made it a very different kind of movie and that’s not what the filmmakers had in mind.

However, this decision also means that 42 loses some of its edge and comes across as a more stock-standard sports biopic that at times borders on made-for-TV territory. There are the good guys and there are the bad guys, and there are the guys who redeem themselves after initially falling prey to peer and societal pressures. It made things a little too black and white for my liking, but again, this was the path the filmmakers intended on taking.

I hadn’t heard of Chadwick Boseman, the actor who plays Robinson in the film, before, but it’s obvious why he was picked for the role — he looks A LOT like him! I wouldn’t say Boseman was oozing charisma, but he does a stellar job as the man who wears No. 42 on his back. The big name star is Harrison Ford, who plays Branch Rickey, the MLB executive who came up with the idea of signing Robinson — apparently not because he wanted racial equality but because he wanted to win. Other known names include John C McGinley, Christopher Meloni and Lucas Black.

Ultimately, 42 is a fairly unremarkable film that manages to sustain our interest because of a remarkable man. It is a safe production designed for families and younger audiences, and as such it gets the job done, but expecting anything more will likely lead to disappointment.

3.25 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky

November 13, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller


I had been wanting to read Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower since watching his film adaptation — starring Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), Hermoine (Emma Watson) and Kevin (Ezra Miller) — earlier this year, a film (review here) that will most probably land in my top 10 for 2012 when I finally get around to doing that list (and I will, I swear!).

Some might have said I was setting myself up for disappointment by reading the source material after watching the movie version, but I ended up loving the book as well. Despite the fact that my own experiences in no way mirror that of the book’s protagonist, Charlie, the wonderful storytelling by Chbosky — through a series of letters to the reader, no less — conjured up all sorts of nostalgia, warmth and heartbreak. This is a great book for teenagers and young adults, not just because of the themes it tackles or the easy readability, but simply because it is a fantastic read.

Set in the early 1990s, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is all about Charlie, an introverted high school freshman coming off a the suicide of his best friend who remains haunted by the death of his aunt. He is shy, reserved and emotional, and it’s clear from the beginning that there is something about him that’s not quite right. There is an adorable naivete  about him; he’s intelligent but socially awkward, withdrawn but kind. He lives with his parents and a pretty older sister, and his older brother, a football star, has just gone off to college. You can’t help but like him, even though he is a 15/16-year-old who cries a lot and appears to have a more than a few screws loose.

Charlie tells his story to you through a series of letters to an unnamed older “friend”, but the book reads more like diary entries. It’s a clever device because it offers a portal into Charlie’s unusually mature and yet immature mind through his wide-eyed perspective of the world and makes you care about him despite being wary — because you know in the back of your mind that he is damaged, and you can’t quite put young finger on what could have caused it.

His life changes when he meets Patrick and Sam, a pair of step-siblings and seniors who take him under their wing. And so becomes a sweet and melancholic coming-of-age story about friendship, love, teenage angst and mix tapes (yeah!). It sounds corny and in some ways the book can come off that way, but Chbosky skilfully tackles difficult themes such as bullying, high school politics, alienation, drugs, suicide, depression, domestic violence and homosexuality in a way that feels natural and not at all exploitative or manipulative — and with a nostalgic handful of pop culture references (music, film and TV) from the time. Again, I think it goes back to the soft voice of Charlie, who is described by his friends as a “wallflower” (hence the title), someone who fades into the background and observes rather than participates.

Another aspect of the book I really liked was Charlie’s relationship with his English teacher Bill (played by Paul Rudd in the film version), who sees something in his quiet intelligence and love for reading. There are many references to classic books — such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, The Great Gatsby and Hamlet — which I think will be great for young readers.

Strangely, I think my love for the film has only enhanced my affection for the book and its characters. The book and the film are actually very different as far as adaptations go, and it’s a testament to Chbosky’s control over the material to be able to deliver the same tone and feel across two very different formats with distinct differences in storytelling and execution.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a book I would recommend to anyone who likes to read. It’s a short book (not much over 200 pages) and it’s a brisk and easy read packed with a lot of heart , pearls of wisdom and thought-provoking issues, but unlike a lot of other teenage lit it isn’t contrived and doesn’t shove life lessons in your face. I can definitely understand if people don’t like this book (for whatever reason, not just because of its themes), but for me it’s easy to see why it spent more than a year on the NY Times bestseller list and is published in more than 30 languages.


Movie Review: Lovelace (2013)

November 12, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller


There are a lot of ways the filmmakers could have gone about making Lovelace, a biopic about one of the most well-known porn stars in history who spent a grand total of 17 days in the industry. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman ended up going for a pretty straight-up story about a young, naive woman who was abused and manipulated to star in what turned out to be the most famous porno of all-time. While the film was interesting because of its subject matter and strong performances from Amanda Seyfried (the titular character) and Peter Sarsgaard (abusive husband Chuck Traynor), it’s hard for me to decide whether it was really any better than an above-average TV movie.

The film begins in 1970, when a 21-year-old Linda goes ice skating with her more precocious friend and gets picked up by the charismatic Traynor. The two quickly fall into a relationship despite Linda’s strict parents and get married, and that’s when things start to take a turn for the worse. The core of the straightforward narrative is about how Linda comes to star in Deep Throat and temporarily rises to stardom due to the film’s unexpected success, but never really gets to enjoy the fruits of that success due to the film’s producers and her husband’s controlling and abusive nature.

In many ways, Lovelace feels like a fairly standard battered wife film, though to the directors’ and Seyfriend’s credit you do kind of understand why things turned out the way they did. How does someone star in a porno against their will and appear to be relatively happy about it when they are in fact miserable and depressed? To be honest I still don’t know, but  Lovelace does a good job of helping viewers understand how she fell into her predicament through her naive disposition and orthodox upbringing in the that era.

I’m not sure how accurate the film is, but Lovelace is portrayed sympathetically as a tragic young woman who was led down the wrong path and had to learn her lessons the hard way before restoring some sort of normality to her life, though it is clear that the scars she endured from the Deep Throat experience will never fade completely. On the other hand, this type of handling of the narrative makes the story feel a little oversimplified. As harrowing as it was for Lovelace, was she really completely blameless for what happened to her and was her husband the root of all evil? The film certainly makes it feel that way.

Seyfried is excellent as Linda Lovelace, even though I thought she was a strange casting choice considering that she is far too pretty for the role even with the attempt to “ugly” her up. Sarsgaard has always been an underrated actor in my opinion, and it was good to see him relish the opportunity to play a sleazy bad guy, albeit a very one-dimensional one. I was also shocked to see Sharon Stone, who knows a thing or two about spreading her legs herself, play Seyfried’s mother. There’s no kind way to say this, but Ms Basic Instinct is really starting to show her age. But she still put up a solid performance that had more layers than her screen time afforded. Playing her husband and Seyfried’s dad is T-1000, Robert Patrick, who has run up a few miles on his odometer as well and doesn’t stand out much here. Rounding out the all-star cast are James Franco as Hugh Hefner, and Hank Azaria and Chris Noth as Deep Throat execs.

On the whole, I’d say Lovelace is a well-made,  well-acted and tastefully-crafted film (considering the subject matter) that avoids feeling exploitative or sensationalised, but there isn’t anything about it in particular that elevates it above your average biopic. I just feel there was more emotional complexity to be explored but the conventional approach ended up hamstringing the production and prevented it from being something edgier and more memorable.

3 stars out of 5

PS: I have not seen Deep Throat but am interested in checking out the acclaimed 2005 documentary on the film called Inside Deep Throat.

Fine Italian cuisine at Beata te’ (Taipei)

November 11, 2013 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller



Lots of Italian options in Taipei, but on this day we were feeling like some fine food, so we chose Beata te’ at the luxurious Bella Vita in Taipei’s Xinyi district. The restaurant is the love child of Alberto Zambotti, owner of Chianti Italian, and Purple, a Taiwanese author specializing in nutrition and healthy eating.

The interior of Beate te’ is comfortable and clean, with simple decorations and booths featuring big, soft sofas. The menu is available here and includes prices, which range from NT$780 for the Lunch Express to a whopping NT$5800 for the Troppo Buono set. There are also of course a la carte options as well.


The NT$5800 set looked like it was just overload, so we went with the $2500 Signature Lobster Set and the $1280 Delicate Lunch Set with the black truffle cream sauce fettuccine.  The signature set has one additional course (in this case the polenta) but essentially each set has at least a starter, a soup, a main course and a dessert.



Complimentary house bread


Chef’s antipasto (cold meat)


Squid tagliatelle




Vegetable soup


Leek soup with clams


Fettuccine with Alba black truffle cream sauce


Tagliolini with fresh Boston lobster


Coffee — is that a dog?


Hazelnut chocolate mousse served with house sorbet



House dessert (wine-soaked pear)

So how was it? It was good, but not exceptional, and ultimately a little disappointing because of the price. The dishes are a mix of Italian and creative contemporary cuisine but the flavours are more on the bland side, possibly because of the intention to be healthier. The standouts would have to be the squid tagliatelle, the leek soup and the black truffle fettuccine, though none of them made me say “wow, this is amazing.” The signature lobster dish was pretty good, but it also looked better than it tasted. In fact, the flavour reminded me of those Chinese restaurant lobster/crab dishes where they have noodles underneath — and I can’t say that this was much better than those.

On the whole, I can’t say the experience was poor because a certain level of quality is basically guaranteed at fine establishments such as this one, but if I were to go Italian there are preferable options out there for much cheaper prices. I’m glad I tried it out but it’s hard to envision heading back there anytime soon.



Beata te’


Address: 4F, Bella Vita, No.28, Song Ren Rd, Xinyi district, Taipei (nearest MRT Taipei City Hall)

Phone: +886 2 8789-1799

Hours: 11:30-15:00, 18:00-23:00

Movie Review: Prisoners (2013)

November 8, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Prisoners poster

I really wanted to watch this one and I’m glad I got the chance because it’s very very good. It’s the type of film that could have been a B-movie but ended up being a punch-in-the-gut type thriller because of the confident direction of Denis Villeneuve, the terrific ensemble cast and powerful performances by the two leads, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The story starts off simple: Jackman and his wife Maria Bello take their daughter to the home of their friends played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, who have a daughter of their own. The two girls go missing, and Jackman, who is a bit of a hotheaded psycho, decides to take matters into his own hands even though the case is being handled by a very capable detective played by Gyllenhaal. That’s a nice little premise summary that doesn’t give too much away, and the only thing I will add is that the film’s title is an apt one.

Prisoners is a dark, disturbing and emotional roller coaster ride that will have you questioning right and wrong and the lengths you would go to if your own child was taken and you feel like the police aren’t doing their job properly. It’s brutally violent but not in a gratuitous way because the psychological impact wouldn’t have been the same without it. There aren’t a lot, but there a few solid twists and turns which I much prefer to a lot of cheap ones, and it keeps up the tension as the characters become more desperate with the clock running out.

A big part of the reason why the film is so compelling is the performances of Jackman and Gyllenhall. These are complex characters with demons lurking behind them in the shadows, without these two Oscar-nominated actors in the roles I’m not sure all the layers could have been brought out as well as they were.

Also fantastic is Paul Dano, who I have always been a big fan of, as a mentally challenged suspect. Melissa Leo is again a chameleon in yet another unrecognisable role, while Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Mario Bello round out the superb ensemble cast by making the most of their more limited screen time.

While there is nothing jaw-dropping or groundbreaking about the plot and the final revelations don’t quite live up to the rest of the film, Prisoners is still one of the best suspense thrillers of the year, an unsettling, creepy climb into darkness thanks to effective execution and great performances from the all-star cast.

4 stars out of 5