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

Shanghai Kitchen (New Taipei)

September 12, 2014 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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Shanghai Kitchen’s menu

Shanghai Kitchen (上海鄉村) is a relatively well known high-end Shanghai cuisine chain in Taiwan (I believe they have five outlets). They have one in New Taipei’s Banqiao district in the same building as the Eslite building near Fuzhong MRT station. The place is huge, but the couple of times I have been — weekday lunch and weekend dinner — the restaurant had very few customers. That said, I understand that the majority of its business comes from large group meals (they have private rooms) and special functions, especially wedding banquets, for which they have a dedicated section on the floors above.

But anyway, I’ve decided Shanghai Kitchen is a restaurant worthy of review because the food is genuinely excellent. It’s not an everyday-type restaurant, but I’d recommend it for group gatherings or special occasions. Their menu is relatively extensive and offers a variety of banquet sets and a la carte options.

Check out some of the awesome stuff we ordered below.

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This is one of their Shanghainese specialties, the stir fried shrimp meat. It looks simple — and it is — but it’s also simply delicious. Juicy and seasoned perfectly.

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This is their tasty vegetable rice cooked in an earthenware pot. Another simple yet wonderful dish where the essence of the vegetables are infused into the rice because of the way it is cooked. Much better than ordinary white rice when consumed with all their saucy, flavoursome dishes.

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Speaking of saucy dishes, check out this braised dongpo pork. It’s super fatty, but boy is it delicious. It’s a little salty by itself, but perfect with the above rice or these plain white bun pockets below.

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Next up, my favourite dish of the night — stir fried crab with glutinous rice cakes. This sauce is just sensational. The rice cakes provide a nice chewy texture to go along with the succulent crab meat, and if you have any sauce left you can have it with plain rice, or anything else really.

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The sauce goes great with these silk thread rolls we got below.

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And even better with these fried ones.

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To balance the meal up a bit after all that meat and carbs we also got this soupy luffa dish. Nice stuff.

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In all, this was a hugely satisfying meal. No weak links in all the dishes we got, with the stir fried crab and glutinous rice cakes and the dongpo pork being good enough to be the star menu items at any Shanghainese restaurant I’ve been to. A great place to visit for group gatherings and family meals.

8.5/10

Details

Shanghai Kitchen (上海鄉村)

Website: http://www.shanghaikitchen.com.tw/index.aspx

Address: Level 7, No. 46, Section 1 Zhongshan Road, Banqiao District, New Taipei City (inside Fuzhong Eslite)

Phone: (02) 2956 1818

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.

Movie Review: The Rover (2014)

September 6, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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The Rover is David Michod’s highly-anticipated follow-up to one of the best Australian movies of all-time, 2010′s Animal Kingdom. Set in a world 10 years after a global economic collapse, the film stars Guy Pearce as a quiet and relentless anti-hero who sets out to retrieve his car from a band of robbers on the run, and during his journey forms a strange and uneasy bond with the abandoned brother of one of the robbers, played by Robert Pattinson.

I had very high expectations for The Rover because Animal Kingdom (review here) is THE film that restored my faith in Aussie movies. And like Animal KingdomThe Rover is a confident piece of filmmaking that is bleak, tense and uncompromising. But at the end of the day, I still have to consider The Rover somewhat of a disappointment even though it was probably exactly the way Michod wanted it to be.

The film is set entirely in Australia and has been marketed as a modern Western of sorts, taking advantage of Australia’s hot, dry air and sandy, desolate landscapes. It’s a visually impressive film, but it’s also one that doesn’t explain anything to its audience. There’s no voice-over or extensive opening crawl that explains to us how or why the economic collapse happened or what the world has become. All we know is that we’re in Australia, and it’s been 10 years since the collapse. Consequently, much of the intrigue of the film comes from discovering what the world is like (I won’t spoil too much), though you have to keep your eyes and ears open because all of it comes in little bits and pieces.

What it creates is an unsettling experience where you don’t really know what is happening and what will happen next. You are forced to put the pieces together to understand how this new world works and what the characters’ motivations are and why they’ve become the people they are. That’s what makes the film, despite it’s deliberately slow and considered pace, so compelling and compulsive to watch. It’s a fairly typical hook, but Michod’s direction and the screenplay by Michod and Joel Edgerton are so confident and understated that you never feel manipulated.

Having said that, The Rover can also be considered somewhat dull and nonsensical. Some of the slower scenes drag and don’t work as well as they should, and when you break the film down, it’s really quite a stupid story masquerading as something more profound. You can call much of the seemingly random stuff in it “realistic” and “unexpected”,  or you can call it “contradictory” and “pointless.”

The film offers more of an experience than a story in that you are just thrown into it and made to observe for about 100 minutes, and you come out of it knowing only what is shown to you on the screen. It intentionally under-utilizes its innovative setting, so much so that you might think it’s a waste, and anyone expecting to get a complete picture of a post-economic-collapse world will feel as though they’ve been cheated.

Despite what can be perceived as flaws, I found The Rover to be highly watchable thanks to the performances of two leads. We already know what we’re going to get from Guy Pearce, who honestly has to be one of the most under-appreciated A-listers ever (seriously, does anyone even remember that he was in Best Picture winners such as The King’s Speech and The Hurt Locker, and played the lead role in films like The Count of Monte Cristo, The Road, Memento, LA Confidential, The Time Machine  and Lockout, as well as the villain in Iron Man 3 and Prometheus?). But my goodness, did anyone think Robert Pattinson would be exceptional as well?  People said he was good outside the Twilight films (eg, Remember Me, Cosmopolis, Water for Elephants), but I thought he was just OK in those movies. Here, he is genuinely believable as a weak, slow-witted American redneck with stained teeth, and I’d be totally OK if he received some awards recognition for this performance (especially since he’s evidently trying so hard to break out of Edward Cullen mode).

Still, The Rover is nowhere near as exhilarating as Animal Kingdom, which may have set the bar too high. I applaud Michod for trying something different and a little daring for his sophomore feature rather than going down the commercial route (that’s probably coming next in his adaptation of the Afghan war book, The Operations, by the late Michael Hastings, and will reportedly start Brad Pitt), but I do wish The Rover could have been a more complete, satisfying story, rather than what ultimately feels like a short story stretched into a semi-experimental full-length feature.

3 stars out of 5

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