Movie Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

September 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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It’s a sad world we live in that Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, is 2014′s most successful movie, not only in Taiwan but around the world.

To be honest, I actually quite the first Transformers film — watching special-effects-made giant transforming robots battle it out on the big screen while humans ran around screaming and making cheesy jokes was kinda fun. The second film, Revenge of the Fallen, was more of the same, but made some improvements both visually and stylistically, and though I found the experience wearing me down by the end I still felt there were some positives to take out of it. By the time Dark of the Moon rolled around I was firmly entrenched in the anti-Michael Bay crusade. It was far too loud, too long, too abrasive, too obnoxious. It was just too…everything, and it made me wonder how the hell I ever enjoyed the first two.

And so I thought the fourth Transformers film would be a welcome and much-needed fresh start. They kept the machines but got rid of unbearable leading man Shia LeDouche, replacing him with the likable Marky Mark Wahlberg. Instead of unrealistic love interests in the form of Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, they got Marky Mark a daughter (Nicola Peltz), who probably never (mistakenly) thought she’d be a in worse movie than The Last Airbender. They also threw in a new hunky race-car-driving boyfriend, played by Irish actor Jack Reynor. The rest of the cast was filled out by solid veterans like Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammar, all of whom are, let’s face it, looking for a paycheck. Surely it couldn’t be worse, or so I thought.

I don’t know if Age of Extinction is worse than Dark of the Moon when judged as a standalone film, but if you’ve seen the other ones in the franchise you’ve effectively seen them all, and the accumulated damage is something that’s almost impossible to overcome.  Age of Extinction is vintage Michael Bay. It’s 165 minutes of robots blowing shit up and beating the crap out of each other, with the gaps filled in by bad acting, trite dialogue and cheesy humour.

Marky Mark is a struggling — albeit very buffed — inventor (yeah right) who finds a dormant Optimus Prime while trying to ways to pay for his daughter’s college education. Meanwhile, there are some government agents who are trying to kill all robots, good and bad (makes sense to me), a Transformer bounty hunter wreaking havoc, and a desperate need to get the film to China at all cost to appease its Chinese co-producers.

If the film was cut down to about 100-120 minutes and it was the first time I ever watched a Transformers movie, then I can see how I might have enjoyed it. Instead, I spent the entire film trying to shake the feeling that I had seen all of this before, except not as loud, not as excessive, and certainly not as long. After a while, I became totally numb to all the colourful robots causing carnage to each other and their surroundings. Ironically, all the “action” made the film less exciting. It actually wasn’t that easy to tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys amid all the rolling around and explosions and shit, and frankly, I didn’t care. And every time I thought the movie was about to end, more stuff happened.

It was just too much of the same, cranked up to 11 (and that’s Michael Bay’s 11, which is like 37 for everyone else). There’s always some special, magic object that bad guys want to get their hands on. For some strange reason humans, who are basically like ants to the Transformers, always tend to be tasked with important things and are the key to saving the universe. The male leads love to act macho but are goofy and love to spew one-liners. The girls are always dressed in tight outfits, love to scream, and have no brains. And there’s always some massive battle in the end where half a city gets destroyed before the humans help the good robots claim an unlikely victory.

I do see attempts to add something fresh to the franchise, like the idea of the Transformer bounty hunter. But seriously — Tranformer dinosaurs? Transformer rabid dogs? Transformer laser guns that are perfectly human-sized for some reason? Ken Watanabe as a Samurai Transformer? And that whole “Chinese elements” crap that dominated the whole second half of the movie. I was more distracted by Li Bingbing trying to speak English and all the cameos from Hong Kong and mainland actors — and even Chinese boxing Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming — than trying to keep up with what was happening in the movie.

Fans of the over-the-top nature of the franchise — and they are clearly in abundance — will likely lap this shit up as they wait for the fifth and sixth instalments, which will probably be exactly the same as every entry except longer and louder. Personally, I can’t imagine anything worse. Transformers was never that good to begin with, but at least it was fun and flashy. What Age of Extinction proves is that the franchise is in dire need of a new direction, something I doubt Michael Bay will grant us as long as he’s raking in the big bucks.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Chef (2014)

September 16, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Chef-Poster-Movit.net_

Chef is 100%, completely unabashed, unapologetic food porn. Written and directed by Iron Man director Jon Favreau, it tells the story of a master chef (Favreau) who loses his way before rekindling his passion for scrumptious cuisine by starting a food truck. On its face, Chef is a road trip movie about one man’s quest for redemption, but in reality it’s more or less one delicious course after another that will probably make viewers extremely hungry and foodies like myself spray their shorts in uncontrollable excitement (and envy) .

No one will deny that Chef is a vanity project. Favreau clearly loves his food (as evident by his sizable girth) and he has a passion for making it. There are lots of big names in the film, from Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson to Dustin Hoffman and Sofia Vergara, but you get the feeling that all of them agreed to appear as a “friendly” favour to Favreau.

But as another great self-indulgent piece of entertainment once said, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” In fact, some of the best movies and TV shows of all-time are self-indulgent, and it is in my humble opinion that one of Favreau’s greatest claims to fame lies in his role as Eric the Clown on the show that made the abovementioned line famous.

Anyway, Chef is essentially a very simple, family-friendly story about a guy who likes to make food. While working for a top gourmet restaurant in LA, Carl (Favreau) becomes engaged in a very public spat on social media with a prominent online food critic (Oliver Platt), resulting in a humiliating fall from grace. Then, with the help of his buddy (John Leguizamo), son (Emjay Anthony), his ex-wife (Vergara) and her other ex-husband (Downey Jr), he starts a food truck selling Cuban sandwiches. This time, he uses social media to his advantage in promoting the new venture as he makes a road trip back to LA via some other cities known for their culinary delights.

The story and the script could not be simpler, and you get the feeling watching the film that everything is secondary to the food. I saw the movie after a big meal and I was still getting hungry. Whether it’s gourmet cuisine or basic roadside snacks like Cubanos, Chef makes the food all look scrumptious enough to die for. It’s not as easy as it seems because I’ve seen plenty of food shows where all the grubby hands and sweaty chefs have turned me off. Watching Chef,  however, I felt like I could channel Favreau’s passion and almost smell the saliva-inducing aromas.

If you take away the food (no pun intended), Chef would be a barely passable movie with a cliched message telling everyone to do what they’re passionate about (with a side message about the dangers and powers of social media). There are some poignant moments between Carl and and his son, the core relationship in the film, but apart from that the film’s just an excuse to keep shoving delicious stuff in our faces.

My main problem with Chef is that after Carl’s initial fall from grace there’s almost no tension or conflict the rest of the way. It’s all just one big, smooth-sailing ride back up to the top. Even the ending is too neatly tied up into a perfect bow, and the cynic in me couldn’t help but cringe at all the mushiness. I guess it will work for audiences who are after nothing but a feel-good experience — which the film delivers expertly — but personally I wanted my emotions to be challenged a little more.

At the end of the day, Chef is what it is. Feel-good food porn that should be a hit with families and foodies alike. The foodie in me thinks it’s sensational, while the movie critic in me says “Meh.” My overall impression probably falls somewhere slightly above the average of the two (I am, after all, a pig).

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

September 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Little boys just love training their dragons. Following the relatively successful How To Train Your Dragon from 2010, Dreamworks is back to milk that cash cow, or more accurately, that cash dragon, with the sequel, How To Train Your Dragon 2.

I actually really enjoyed the original (review here), which was an entertaining, sweet little story about the friendship between a kid viking called Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his cute but powerful dragon Toothless. It’s not one of the more memorable animated features in recent years, but it’s in the upper echelons in terms of quality, excitement and fun.

In the sequel, Hiccup and Toothless are back, five years older and closer than ever. Pretty much all the old cast is back too, with Gerard Butler playing Hiccup’s father, Craig Ferguson as Butler’s right hand man, America Ferrera as Hiccup’s girlfriend and Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as fellow viking friends. Cate Blanchett also joins the cast as a female viking whom I won’t spoil.

Since learning about prejudice and making peace with the dragons in the first film, everyone in Hiccup’s village of Berk has changed for the better. But of course there is a brand new villain (Djimon Hounsou) hell bent on conquering all dragons for his own benefit, and it is up to Hiccup and Toothless to try and stop him with the help of their family and friends.

I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by How To Train Your Dragon 2, which is as good as its predecessor when it comes to visual thrills and tugging the heart strings. The story itself is relatively stock standard, predictable even, so film’s biggest strength lies in the stunning visuals from all the dragon-riding action sequences that make fine use of some creative and skilled camera work. The dragon designs, and especially all the beautiful mix of colours, really added to the visual feast the film provides.

It’s more or less a continuation of both Hiccup and Toothless’s coming of age, and I’m glad to say that the title is not misleading because there actually is more legitimate dragon training in the film. Like its predecessor, it’s not the funniest animated film out there, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 more than makes up for the dearth of laughs with the exciting action sequences and emotional resonance.

Last word: A good film for the family that builds upon the solid foundations of the original by taking things to a new level.

4 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Lucy (2014)

September 12, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Lucy is a big deal in Taiwan. About half the movie was shot in Taipei, which is why locals have been so supportive by flocking to see it by the truckloads, turning the sci-fi action flick into the No. 2 film at the domestic box office for 2014 (behind — you guessed it – Transformers: Age of Extinction). The film’s reception in Taiwan has been somewhat muted. Some people say it’s awesome, while others have given it the lukewarm “It’s OK.” No one in the country really wants to say it. So I will. Lucy sucked.

Our eponymous protagonist, played by Scarlett Johannson, is a young woman living in Taipei who becomes an unwilling drug mule to some Korean gangsters. During her ordeal something happens, opening up her brain capacity from the normal (mythical) human 10% and accelerating it towards 100%. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know some crazy stuff goes down. She doesn’t just become a smart gal. She becomes a freaking superhero who would shit all over the Avengers if they ever met in a dark alley (and yes, that includes the Black Widow).

It sounds like a cool idea, and writer and director Luc Besson (who is also very popular in Taiwan) clearly thinks so too. But for a movie about an unfathomably intelligent being, Lucy is remarkably stupid. Stories about maximizing human brain capacity are not novel — Bradley Cooper gave it a shot in the flawed but vastly superior Limitless back in 2011 — but in Lucy the enhanced brain functions are taken to a whole new level, giving her ever-expanding supernatural powers like telekinesis, super-hearing, mind-reading, shape-shifting, tapping into electronic signals, controlling gravity, expert marksmenship, time travel, etc — you name it, Lucy can do it. And you thought the stuff Johnny Depp could do in Transcendence was ridiculous.

So basically, any semblance of real science goes out the window. The film is more or less a superhero action flick, and everything about it — from the tone of the film and its completely over-the-top action scenes to the way she transforms after gaining her powers — tells us not to take things too seriously. And yet, Lucy lacks the elements of what makes a superhero movie good. The problem lies with the complete lack of character development, or rather, the reversing development in her character. Lucy started off semi-likable, but the more powerful she grew the less human she became. She loses her morals and emotions. She essentially (and quite literally) turns into a machine — and we don’t give a shit.

When a film fails to make any emotional connection we start looking for something else, and in this case it’s the action. Lucy is adequate in this regard but nothing special. There is one scintillating car chase scene through the streets of a major city, but apart from that there’s not much we haven’t seen before. One of the reasons the action fails to truly excite is because Lucy becomes so powerful that she has no enemy who could provide the film with some much-needed conflict or tension. There’s no formidable foe or arch nemesis to give us the type of showdown a movie like this demands.

Worse still, Lucy has a distinct dearth of humour for a Luc Besson film. There’s a little bit of the usual cheekiness, perhaps, but there are no laughs to be found in Lucy, which is strange given the film’s farcical nature and tone. As for the performances, Johansson and Morgan Freeman are about as good as you could have expected, while the special effects are admittedly seamless, though both are things we tend to take for granted these days.

Unfortunately, my gripes go deeper than that. For all the hoopla about filming in Taiwan, it turns out that those scenes could have been shot anywhere. So we see some shots of the busy Taipei streets and various angles of Taipei 101. Big deal (sadly, for some Taiwanese audiences, that’s enough to make the movie great). We actually have no idea what the heck Lucy is even doing in Taiwan. We know she lives there and she appears to be a student, but that makes no sense because she doesn’t know a lick of Mandarin. Moreover, the antagonists in the movie are Korean. We don’t know what they’re doing in Taiwan either. They don’t speak English or Mandarin. It just makes the whole Taiwan setting extremely pointless.

I consider myself quite a careless viewer in that I don’t usually notice holes in movie storylines, but in Lucy they were jumping out at me because they was so obvious. For example, when Lucy goes into a Taipei hotel to look for a Mr Jang, the receptionist connects her over the phone and acts as a translator between the two. The problem is, the receptionist is speaking Mandarin to Mr Jang and/or his henchmen, and we find out later that they’re all Korean! Or when Lucy is in Taiwan and tells Morgan Freeman that she’ll be at his place in Paris in 12 hours — except a direct flight from Taipei to Paris is 12 hours and 35 minutes, and she’s not even at the airport! And I haven’t even talked about how Lucy apparently loses most of her teeth at one stage, only to have them apparently all grow back (so she’s got Wolverine powers too?) or how she kills a whole bunch of innocent people for trivial reasons (or no reason at all), and yet spares all the bad guys who are hell bent on tracking her down and annihilating her. Just really careless, sloppy stuff.

Having said all that, I didn’t loathe Lucy, or at least not as much as I think I should. The film actually started off relatively strong and was packed with a decent level of intrigue, but the further along it went the more preposterous and — pardon my “political correctlessness” — retarded it became. Apart from all the batshit insane stuff Lucy was doing, the film was filled with trite philosophical BS pretending to give meaning to the story, complete with Terrence Malick Tree of Life-style random snippets of micro-organisms, (copulating) animals and outer space. And if that’s not crazy enough for you, the Akira-esque ending almost makes Muholland Drive seem logical

All of the above combines to make Lucy a trippy, messy, cheesy experience where the enjoyment level is heavily dependent on how much nonsense you can stomach. If you go into it knowing you’re about to see the dumbest action movie of the year rather than the intelligent sci-fi it appeared on paper, you might even find the silliness endearingly fun. For me, however, Lucy was just one big clusterWTF that’s neither clever nor funny, rarely exciting, and only passably entertaining.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Boyhood (2014)

September 9, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I admit I had heard some good things about Boyhood — Richard Linklater’s epic experiment featuring the same actors over an actual 12-year period — but never did I expect it to be such a wonderful, profound viewing experience. Despite fears that the film would boil down to that one gimmick, once the awe stemming from the audacity to make such a crazy project subsides, Boyhood settles down into a beautiful, poignant coming-of-age story about life and love that’s as emotionally affecting as anything I’ve seen on the silver screen.

The film, which is a “proper” drama as opposed to a documentary, centers on Mason Evans Jr (played throughout by Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from a six year old in 2002 until he goes off to college at the age of 18. He leads what I suppose can be called a “regular” life by American standards these days, living with his single Olivia mother (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s real-life daughter), while his biological father (Ethan Hawke) slips in and out of his life over the years.

That’s about as much as I need to say about the plot, which is actually very structured but never feels that way because we’re just going along with these characters lives as they pursue their passions, fall in and out of love, and endure countless conflicts over the course of 12 remarkable years. We watch them grow, age, mature and change — and it’s happening all the time, in a way that is subtle yet undeniable.

The feel of the film is very natural, with conversations and interactions that you or I might have every day. They might talk about family, about ambitions or politics (the family is very liberal and the film does make fun of Republicans to some extent), though Linklater knows how to pick and choose so that the small snippets of daily lives will usually provide fascinating insights into the characters, human nature and simply the world around us. The understated tone is somewhat similar to the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight trilogy Linklater is perhaps best known for, so there is an air of familiarity for fans of those films, especially since Ethan Hawke plays quite a similar character.

Ellar Coltrane through the years in Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane through the years in Boyhood

Initially I wondered whether having the same actors throughout the years would make much of a difference. After all, we’ve seen so many films where they just cast different actors for different ages that it’s become a cinematic norm. Now, after having seen the movie, I can categorically say YES, it does matter. You might not lose anything from using different actors, but you certainly gain something, even if its just subconsciously, when you see real people growing older right in front of your eyes. As the film progresses chronologically, most of the physical changes in the adults are subtle, though for Mason Jr and Samantha it’s quite an amazing transformation. Even more amazing than the constantly shifting appearances, however, is seeing how their personalities develop over time as they turn from bratty little kids into young adults.

The film may be called Boyhood but it’s not just about the boy, as all the major characters in the family play irreplaceable roles. It’s about all of them. In some ways, I found the Olivia (Arquette) story the most fascinating (and heartbreaking) as she is forced to deal with challenging changes not just in her children but in herself.

Boyhood is a fairly long movie at 164 minutes, though when you consider how much time and ground it covers — at a leisurely pace, mind you – it almost feels short (and it makes Transformers: Age of Extinction‘s 165-minute running time even more incomprehensible). That said, I thought the length was perfect, as was the ending, which, like what the rest of the film does so well, captures just another one of life’s many precious moments.

Boyhood is a groundbreaking film because of Linklater’s ambitious filming technique, though it is so so so much more than that. This is not a film that will blow you away from the outset or titillate you with fancy special effects or intense action scenes. To be honest, I didn’t think much about anything when I first joined these characters on their respective life journeys, but then at some stage towards the end I realised, shit, this is a five-star film. Go watch it. It’s one of the most remarkable things you’ll ever see.

5 stars out of 5

PS: The fact that Linklater managed to complete the project is a minor miracle in itself. Realistically, the film could have collapsed for so many reasons — funding, studio issues, and most likely an actor falling off the rails, quitting, or even dying.

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