Movie Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

November 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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It’s hard to believe, but Sin City, the mini masterpiece based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels, was released back in 2005. It was stylistic, brutal, violent, lurid, sexual, and unlike anything we had seen before. It was obvious that a sequel was forthcoming, though no one expected that it would be another nine years before Sin City: A Dame to Kill For would take hit the big screen.

A lot has happened over the last nine years, including the release of several comparable movies, most of which have not been very memorable. As a result, much of the anticipation that would have come from a Sin City sequel had it been made immediately after the original has dissipated. Without the advantages of surprise, novelty and unique visuals, Sin City 2 never really had a chance to live up to its predecessor. The fact that it was a box office flop confirmed my suspicions.

That said, I still had quite a good time with this one. I only remember bits and pieces of the original, and I am glad to say it did not matter all that much. Again, it’s more about the style than the substance, the titillation than the emotion. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Sin City 2 brings back some old faces and introduces some new ones in essentially two separate stories of revenge. The first one revolves around Josh Brolin’s character Dwight,  a tough guy still smitten with the woman who broke his heart. The woman, Ava, is played by the smoking Eva Green, who does an excellent job of making audiences believe that she is indeed a dame who can make a man kill for her. Other characters in this story are played by Rosario Dawson, Jamie King, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Dennis Haysbert (President David Palmer from 24!) and Jamie Chung.

The second story focuses on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a cocky young gambler who seems to always have luck on his side — that is until he runs into ruthless crime boss Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), the father of the Yellow Bastard from the first film. Bruce Willis returns in what is essentially a cameo, and Jessica Alba does slightly more this time than just dance without stripping, though not much more.

Both stories are interesting in their own way, but they don’t have much of a connection other than Mickey Rourke’s character Marv, who appears throughout as a bridge between the different acts. I think that the scattered narrative was also the approach in the original, but for some reason I remember it to be darker, more violent and more captivating.

The sequel’s still a very stylish film that emulates a lot of what made the original successful, including visuals featuring animation, black and white spliced with an eye-catching primary colour, and loads of bone-crunching violence to go with the squishy sound effects. The characters are comic book caricatures, but they’re very intriguing caricatures played by great actors. Despite possessing so many of the same elements as its predecessor, however, the impact this time around is just not the same.

To be honest I think the film would have worked much better had it be turned into a late-night TV series, with each act representing one 30-minute episode. As a 102-minute feature it just felt like they were forcing several unrelated stories into an uncomfortable package that doesn’t even try to live up the the hype and anticipation built up over the last nine years. Still, as someone who really enjoyed the original I must say I didn’t mind the sequel at all, as un-epic as it was. All style and very little substance rarely works, but in the case of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For it’s about as good as it can get.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The November Man (2014)

November 22, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Whenever I see an aging star in a new action flick, I immediately think: Taken rip off! But The November Man, starring former 007 Pierce Brosnan, is no Taken imitator. It’s actually quite a clever and complicated political action thriller based on the novel There Are No Spies by Bill Granger. I wouldn’t quite put it in the 007 class, nor does it live up to the likes of the Bourne franchise, though all things considered, The November Man is a perfectly adequate and compelling film experience that proves old man Brosnan still has what it takes.

Brosnan plays Peter Devereaux, an old CIA spy who went into retirement after his protégé David Mason, played by Aussie Luke Bracey, disobeyed his order and caused a tragedy. Five years later, he is called out of retirement to obtain crucial information from a spy who has been working undercover in the offices of a politician tipped to become the next Russian president.

The plot is quite complex; I wouldn’t call it convoluted, though you do need to pay attention. Essentially, the evidence leads Peter to a refugee worker played by Olga Kurylenko, whom he must protect from a deadly assassin. At the same time, he is pitted in the field against David, who is desperate to prove himself against his ex mentor.

There are twists and turns; people are not who they seem. Most of it is fairly typical spy thriller stuff, though I was quite intrigued by the intelligent narrative and the stylish execution of Roger Donaldson, who previously collaborated with Brosnan for Dante’s Peak and has films such as Thirteen Days, Species, The Recruit and The Bank Job on his resume. Those are all fairly solid but unexceptional films, and The November Man falls in the same category.

I was never that big of a fan of Brosnan as James Bond, but he was very good in this. Looked the part, felt the part. By comparison, Luke Bracey came across as a bit out of his depth, failing to match both Brosnan’s charm and screen presence. The dynamic sort of matched what was happening between their characters on screen too.

On the whole, The November Man is neither great nor memorable, but it is still an entertaining spy action thriller that represents a welcome return to form for Brosnan.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Into the Storm (2014)

November 20, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Blockbuster natural disaster movies these days tend to be either based on true events or completely made up and over the top. A couple of years ago there was The Impossible, about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and in recent years the world has also been rocked by made-for-TV parodies such as Sharknado.

Into the Storm is a return to the more “realistic” fictional natural disaster films such as 1996’s Twister. However, apart from superior special-effects owing to 18 years of improving technology, Into the Storm is an inferior film in every way.

In keeping up with the times, Into the Storm is a semi found-footage film in that it splices traditional filmmaking with handheld camera footage taken predominantly by two teenage brothers working on a time capsule project for school. I guess it makes the film easier to watch and less ridiculous than a film that is stitched together purely from found footage, but at the same time it feels like such a cop-out by trying to take advantage of both approaches.

The film stars Thorin Oakenshield, aka Richard Armitage, as a high school vice principal stuck in the worst storm of all time. But hey, he is freaking Thorin Oakenshield, so there is no task too difficult or dangerous for him, and it is no surprise that he is essentially a superhero in this film. If he’s not whisking high school kids to safety, he is searching for his eldest son (one of the camera wielders), who is trapped with the girl of his dreams (Aussie starlet Alycia Debnam-Carey) in an abandoned paper mill. Other times he just hangs out with a bunch of storm chasers, led by Prison Break and Walking Dead alumnus Sarah Wayne Callies. Naturally, there is also a dickhead filmmaker who doesn’t care about anyone’s safety and only just wants to get the whole thing down on camera.

Into the Storm admittedly boasts some impressive special effects, but as a whole the film is clumsy and forgettable. The characters are stock-standard and thus boring, and the danger never feels as close as it should be. You can more or less guess who’s going to die and who’s going to make it, and no amount of CGI can make up for the lack of imagination in the script or the lack of emotion in the drama.

I would have actually preferred it if the filmmakers pared back the special effects to spend more time on developing at least one character worth caring about, or if they went in the complete opposite direction to give audiences a cheesy, ridiculous spectacle where nothing is sacred. Instead, the film is stuck woefully in between, with no decent characters nor enough cheese to make it a popcorn-fun experience.

As disaster porn, Into the Storm gets the job done with its spectacular visuals and explosive carnage. If you missed it on the big screen, however, there’s probably not a whole lot the film can offer.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: These Final Hours (2014)

November 19, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Aussie movies, yay! I have been a bit of a dick when it comes to Australian movies for most of my life, but I have started to come around in recent years following a string of impressive efforts that have made the rest of the world take notice.

The latest Australian film to be a hit with the critics is These Final Hours, an apocalyptic drama about the moments before a natural disaster wipes humanity off the face of the Earth. It is great to see Aussie filmmakers take on something a little different and ambitious, and to have the skills and actors to pull it off. Even though not everything in this film worked, it is without a doubt one of the better end of the world movies I’ve seen in recent memory.

The story focuses on a young man in Perth named James (Nathan Phillips) as he struggles to cope with impending doom. At the beginning of the film we are told there’s about 12 hours before the catastrophe hits Australia’s west coast, though the majority of the plot focuses on the final 5.

It’s a character-driven film that succeeds because it explores a small sample of human reactions rather than something too broad to cover. There are scenes that suggest the budget is not that small, so it appears to be a conscious decision to keep the story small scale and personal. It does a good job of asking what you would do if the end was near. Would you confront it head on? Spend it with family? Get trashed? Party? Have sex? Kill yourself? Kill others? Or just go crazy?

These Final Hours tackles all these various possibilities with an observant eye and a sensible amount of realism and practicality. For the most part, it doesn’t over sensationalize things, nor is it too subtle for the impact to be felt the way it needs to be. There are some confronting scenes but none of them feel exploitative.

The primary catalyst for James’s character development is the young girl (Angourie Rice) he meets along the way. It was quite obvious where they were heading with the story once James runs into her — you know, the clichéd flawed guy minding his own business becomes a reluctant hero scenario — though to the credit of writer and director Zak Hilditch does a good job of keeping the narrative tight and intense for the film’s 97-minute running time.

The dialogue is OK — it’s effective at times but too scripted and melodramatic at certain moments. The ending also left a “that’s it?” taste in my mouth.  Still, the film is pretty good when put in context, but to be honest it’s nowhere near deserving of the overwhelming praise from critics and the 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is, however, probably a sign of good things to come. Jessica De Gouw, who has a supporting role in the film, is starting to earn a name for herself on the TV series Arrow and Dracula, while Sarah Snook, an extended cameo in this one, is on the rise after receiving deserved acclaim in the horror flick Jessabelle. Perhaps this can be one of those films we look back on as a turning point for many successful careers.

3.5 stars out of 5

Gordon Biersch (Taipei)

November 19, 2014 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

Gordon Biersch

I’m trying to limit by carb intake, so I needed a restaurant that serves something other than rice, noodles, pasta or bread, etc. Gordon Biersch doesn’t really fit that description, but they do have steaks and ribs, so it was good enough.

There are three Gordon Biersch branches in Taiwan, two in Taipei. We visited the one at Taipei’s Xinyi district, on level 2 of building A4 of the Shinkong Mitsubishi department store. The store is fitted out like a typical American sports cafe, with TVs playing NBA and NFL on them hanging near the bar. The whole time I thought Gordon Biersch was a German beer cafe, but as it turned out it’s just an American food joint not unlike TGI Friday’s or Chili’s.

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The menu is quite extensive and can be found on the website. They’ve got appetizers, salads, tapas, and so forth, as well as pizzas and flatbreads, burgers, sandwiches and tacos. There’s also pastas, steaks, and ribs, and of course, desserts. They do offer a wide variety of beers, wines and cocktails, but since I’m not a drinker I didn’t try anything.

They have a lunch special, which offers on top of your (limited) selection a soup or dessert plus a soft drink. You don’t save a whole lot, but it’s better than nothing. They also have a kid’s menu and a late-night menu featuring mainly drinks and snacks, so there’s pretty much something for everyone.

I couldn’t just get steak and ribs, so I compromised and got a Marzan BBQ burger (lunch special with dessert — for NT$440) and a half rack of ribs (NT$550).

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The ribs were surprisingly good, extremely juicy and flavoursome and with succulent meat that comes right off the bone with easy. The BBQ sauce was tangy and had a little spice to it that tasted a little Indian for some reason. The coleslaw that came with it was average, but the garlic fries were super crunchy and tasty.

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The Marzan burger was a bit of a disappointment. I thought the bun was nicely toasted, but the beef patty was way too salty. It was one of those burgers that packed a solid bite because both the bun and meat were really thick. The thing is, even as salty as it was, the burger felt like it needed some more tomato sauce and mustard. The slaw was the same, but the bacon potato mash was pretty good.

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Lastly, the dessert of the day, which was carrot cake. It was a huge slice, which came as a surprise because usually the desserts that come with meal sets tend to be small and crap. But this was a good portion and it was actually very tasty! I liked the nuts lining the back and the cake itself was very solidly packed together. I liked it.

I’ve only had a small handful of the options on the menu so it’snot exactly fair to give it a rating. But I will anyway. Two out of the three things we got were excellent, one was slightly disappointing (though the fries were great). Accordingly…

7.5/10

Details

Gordon Biersch

Website: http://www.gordonbiersch.com.tw/Eng/branch.aspx?prm_BranchID=1

Address: Shinkong Mitsukoshi Department Store, Building A4 2F, No.11 Songshou Rd, Taipei

Phone: 02-8786-7588

Hours: Monday-Fri 11am-2pm (Lunch); 3pm-5pm (Happy Hour); 9:30pm-11pm (Late Night). Saturday-Sunday 11am-12am

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