2014 Movie Blitz: Part IX

August 16, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

This could be the last blitz before my best of and worst of list for 2014.

St Vincent (2014)

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I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s a simple premise we’ve seen countless times — a grumpy old man befriends a youngster, and they each end up learning something profound from the unconventional relationship. But in this case, the superb cast led by Bill Murray, doing what he does best, makes St Vincent a funny, poignant movie that won’t blow you away but will have you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside by the time the credits start rolling.

Murray plays the titular Vincent, a mysterious, reclusive old man with a sharp tongue and sharper attitude. Struggling single mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, and Vincent, almost by accident, starts teaching Oliver the ways of life. Naomi Watts plays Vincent’s Russian “lady friend.”

Murray has turned his grumpy, deadpan face down to perfection, and it’s on full display in this film. It’s a shame we don’t see him much in movies these days because the man is a true comedy genius. It was also good to see Melissa McCarthy play a straight character for once and doing it so well. She’s much more than just a stock character — you really feel for her — and she has great chemistry and timing with Murray when they’re engaged in one of their hilarious spats.

I thought Naomi Watts was a bit of A strange casting choice for her character, but apart from that St Vincent ticks all the right boxes for a touching and funny drama parents can enjoy with their kids (I’d say 12 and above).

3.5 stars out of 5

The Drop (2014)

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This is one of those gritty and brooding crime dramas that’s neither forgettable nor particularly memorable. I thought it was pretty decent because of a smart script, confident direction, and strong performances from the brilliant Tom Hardy and the legendary James Gandolfini in one of his final roles.

Basically, the plot revolves around Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), a bartender who works a bar run by Gandolfini’s character, Cousin Marv. Marv used to own the establishment but sold it to Chechen gangsters, and now the bar is a “drop” point for illegal funds. Later, a robbery sets the story in motion, and Bob finds himself being targeted by both the cops and the robbers.

Much of the story centres Bob’s relationship with a neighbourhood girl played by Noomi Rapace and a dog. It’s one of those films where you feel as though something is brooding and tension is always building, but you’re not sure of where it is all heading.

The cast is superb, especially Hardy, who is a man of few words but conveys many emotions just from looks and expressions, yet it is often difficult to figure out exactly what is going through his head.

It’s a violent film that doesn’t necessarily shy away from crime drama cliches but is still clever and different enough to distinguish itself from the pack.

3.5 stars out of 5

By the Gun (2014)

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By comparison to the film above, By the Gun is a much weaker and forgettable crime drama. Ben Barnes plays Nick Tortano, a low-level mobster who wants to “be someone.”

So he works under a Boston crime boss played by Harvey Keitel, starts dating his estranged daughter (Leighton Meester) and recklessly gets himself into a lot of shit as he tries to make a name for himself. Something’s gotta give!

I like Ben Barnes. He’s one of the prettiest actors around and he’s a stage actor who can clearly act. But as hard as he tried, he didn’t convince me here as a Boston gangster. Maybe that’s why he’s stuck with roles like Prince Caspian and high-profile flops like Dorian Gray and Seventh Son.

By the Gun has enough grit but not enough originality to sustain its 109-minute running time. I didn’t care much for the characters nor their predicaments, and when that happens a crime drama is destined for failure. It’s not poorly made, it’s just so average that you start to forget about it as soon as the credits roll.

2.5 stars out of 5

Son of a Gun (2014)

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So many guns in this movie review blitz! Son of a Gun is a fairly compelling Australian crime drama with similar themes to the masterful Animal Kingdom. It’s not as good, of course, but by Aussie movie standards it’s not bad.

Rising star Brenton Thwaites, who is just everywhere these days, plays JR, a young convict who becomes acquainted with a notorious robber played by Ewan McGregor. Upon his release, JR is introduced to a mob boss, this beginning a life of crime where the stakes continue to be escalated and things spiral out of control before JR realises he is in way over his head.

Like Animal Kingdom, this is a crime drama seen from the point of view of a naive man-child, learning the brutalities of the world with one frightening lesson after another. It’s a twisted coming-of-age story of sorts, filled with thumping violence and rounded characters.

It’s unfair beyond that to compare the two films. Son of a Gun isn’t on the same level in terms of tension, intensity and plot or character development, and it’s much less effective at veering away from genre cliches, especially as the film nears its finale.

What does give it extra brownie points are the performances of McGregor, still one of the most reliable actors around, and rising superstar Alicia Vikander (who has like five movies out this year), who brings more depth than one would expect for a supposed token female love interest. I’m still waiting to see though why Thwaites, as solid as he is, is snapping up so many roles in Hollywood.

On the whole, Son of a Gun struggles to separate itself from similar films in the genre the way Animal Kingdom did, but thanks to the awesomeness of Ewan McGregor and Alicia Vikander, it manages enough appeal to drag it over the line in my books.

3.25 stars out of 5

Liang Ban Jia Korean BBQ (Taipei)

August 16, 2015 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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We were itching for some Korean food, and one of the recommendations from the internets is Liang Ban Jia (兩班家), a Korean BBQ restaurant situated on Level 6 of the A9 Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store in Taipei’s Xinyi District.

The place is apparently packed during peak hours, but we went early for Friday lunch and managed to snag a seat.

As with most department store restaurants in Taipei, the decor is top notch and the atmosphere very comfortable. The service is of course also excellent. They apparently have this special ventilation system that absorbs all the smoke and fumes from the BBQ plates so your clothes won’t get all stinky.

They have a couple of lunch sets, one at NT$980 per head and one at NT$780 per head. The annoying thing is that if you have only two people both of you have to get the same set, so you can’t say have one person order a set and the other order a la carte.

The good thing about getting a set is that you get more value for your money, especially since you get unlimited side dishes (such as kimchi and other pickled vegetables), but the bad thing is that your selection is set and you can’t order the things you like. You can, however, order one set of sides for NT$80.

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The a la carte menu

In hindsight we probably should have gotten the set, but because we wanted specific things the sets didn’t have, like bibimbap and seafood pancake, we ended up ordering a la carte.

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No stinky clothes with this grill

We couldn’t come to a Korean BBQ without getting some BBQ, so we ordered the TORO pork, the cheapest item on the menu at NT$240 for eight slices.

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The waiters help you cook the meat, and they even use scissors to trim off the darkened edges. Apparently they don’t always do that if the restaurant is super busy, but they did so on this day.

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See the sauces at the bottom of the above photo? The one on the left is the Korean chili bean sauce, which is not that spicy but fantastic with just about anything. The one on the right is a lemony soy sauce which gives the meat a nice kick.

That said, the TORO meat was not great. Kinda tasted very porky and chewy. No wonder it was so cheap.

The other meat we got was spicy chicken.

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This took ages to cook. Needed a lot of patience. And the finished product was rather spicy. Unexpectedly spicy. Also not the greatest of choices (NT$280) but the beef was so expensive it would have made getting a la carte a rip off.

Next up, a spicy kimchi seafood soup.

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Lots of stuff inside and they cook it right in front of you on a separate portable gas stove. The soup was nice but it was super spicy. Like numbingly spicy.

They also cook the bibimbap in front of you too, and ask how spicy you want it and how well-done you prefer it.

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I have to say I really liked the bibimbap. I had to add some of that extra chili bean sauce but once I did it was excellent. Cooked to perfection and lots of great flavours. I wish I could have had more.

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Last, but not least, the good old seafood pancake.


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I also really liked this as it was thick and fluffy (some seafood pancakes are thin and crispy) and had solid fillings. The sauce was also sour and tangy, which went really well with it.

It was too much and we couldn’t finish everything, so we ended up taking a few pieces of seafood pancake back. We were also not close to finishing the soup. In hindsight, it probably would have been sufficient to skip the soup and the TORO pork, and perhaps upgrade the chicken to a better beef.

In sum, Liang Ban Jia is a perfectly solid Korean restaurant, but at NT$800-1000 per head it is a lot more expensive than similar quality restaurants elsewhere.

HOWEVER, I recently went back and tried out a different branch, at Shin Kong’s Tiemu store, and tried out one of the sets. It was a lot better, mostly because the quality of the meats were on a completely different level. So I’m revising my rating to give it a bump up.

8/10

Details

Liang Ban Jia (兩班家)

Address:  Level 6, Shin Kong Mitsukoshi A9, No. 9, Song Shou Road, Xinyi District, Taipei (nearest MRT Taipei City Hall/Taipei 101)

Phone: (02) 2720-1980

Hours: 11am-2:30pm, 5pm-9:30pm