Movie Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

February 24, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

A Most Violent Year

Now that the Oscars are over I’m going to continue my movie reviews with a huge snub. For whatever reason, the critically acclaimed A Most Violent Year was not even on any radars this Oscars season, which is strange considering it features so many critic-pleasing characteristics — a unique premise, moral quandaries, superb performances, gripping drama, crafty action, and that solemn, Oscar-bait feel of a top-class production.

Written and directed by JC Chandor (previously best known for Margin Call), A Most Violent Year is set in 1981, widely regarded as one of New York’s most violent years. Oscar Isaac (Finding Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January) is Abel Morales, the seemingly upright owner of a heating oil company on the verge of a major breakthrough. But when his oil trucks begin to get hijacked, making him to lose not just money but also precious reputation, Abel finds himself being painted into a corner and forced to take drastic action. At the same time, a local assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) begins to target Abel for alleged anti-competitive practices and tax evasion.

A Most Violent Year, despite its name, is not a particularly violent movie by today’s standards. What it lacks in violence, the film makes up in tension, atmosphere and style, though the presentation is grounded firmly in reality. In an age where protagonists are typically remarkable people with otherworldly skills, experiences or attributes, Abel is portrayed as an ordinary man with real fears and emotions like you and me. Unlike typical modern crime thrillers, are no criminal masterminds in this film, no outrageous coincidences, no expert marksmen or world-class racing car drivers in getaway cars.

And yet, rather than coming across as dull, the film becomes actually more compelling because it enables us to genuinely sympathise and empathise with the characters and their predicaments. Overexposure to onscreen surrealism has made most of us numb, so it’s refreshing to be reminded that, hey, guns are scary; dealing with mafia people is scary; burglars are scary; police looking into your business — even if it’s perfectly legitimate — is scary.

None of this would have been possible, of course, without Chandor’s skilful direction and script, which prove that he is a filmmaker who has clearly studied the classic works of the genre and the techniques of the masters. Rather than loud and shaky, the action sequences are smooth, slick and suspenseful, notwithstanding the lack of explosions and rapid cuts. Rather than pretentious and dull, the silences and lingering shots actually have meaning.

The other key element is the central performance by Isaac, who is destined for stardom and will apparently appear in the next Star Wars movies. He’s a tremendous talent who deserved recognition for this controlled and charismatic performance where anger, desperation and fear are all delivered with nuance and subtlety. It’s perhaps not a stretch to say he channels a young Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone.

All of the supporting actors are very good too, especially Jessica Chastain as Abel’s astute wife, whose father is implied as not being the most upstanding citizen. David Oyelowo, who got a whole lot of attention at the Oscars ceremony for his Selma snub, is also solid, as are Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer and Elyes Gabel as one of Abel’s troubled employees.

I will readily admit that it is not a film for most modern average movie-goers, who tend to expect a lot of things to happen on the screen at all times. A Most Violent Year has a deliberately measured pace I would have found slow in my youth, and it adopts a “less in more” mentality in its execution some might find dull. While it is undeniably interesting, I would not be surprised if others wonder what the fuss is all about.

This is a ultimately story about a good man trying to survive in a corrupt world, and having to make some very difficult choices and compromises along the way. Gritty and brooding, and powered by Chandor’s self-assured approach, A Most Violent Year harks back to crime classics like Goodfellas, Heat and even The Godfather. It’s of course not quite on the level of those epics, but it is still a classy, well-executed film that commands your attention and respect.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Still Alice (2014)

February 23, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Note: Getting this review in just before they announce Best Actress at the Oscars!

I was in the mood to be depressed, so I went head and watched Still Alice, a sobering drama about a renowned linguistics professor’s battle with early onset Alzheimer’s.

It’s a respectable take on the illness that doesn’t go the whole way in capturing the worst the disease, preferring to leave its titular character with her dignity in tact. In that sense, Still Alice isn’t as quite as heartbreaking as I braced myself for (I had the Kleenex ready and everything), though the film surprised me with its gripping depiction of Alice’s family members and the way each of them reacts to the devastating news.

Based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Still Alice begins with Dr Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) celebrating her 50th birthday. With a successful career, a loving husband and three fully grown children, there’s not much more she could ask for.

But of course, the signs of the illness soon begin to manifest, randomly, sporadically, and with varying degrees of seriousness. Co-sreenwriters and directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland — along with Moore in perhaps the best performance of her stellar career — do a solid job of conveying the initial shock and confusion from the onset of the symptoms. From a forgotten word here or a misplaced item there and getting gradually shittier at Words with Friends (I enjoyed this especially), to getting lost in what should be a familiar place, the trio manage to capture the angst as well as the physical disorientation through the use of camera panning and blurred backgrounds.

Moore’s deteriorating appearance is also used to match her crumbling mind. In the beginning I remarked on how amazing she looks for a 50 year old (54 in real life), though as the film progressed she grew increasingly lined and disheveled — though let’s face it, still pretty good for a 5o-year-old Academic who squeezed out three children.

It was a clever idea to make the subject of the illness a top linguistics professor who appeared to have everything, allowing the contrast ensuing from her illness to be even more stark. It’s bad enough for ordinary people, but for someone for whom words and language are her pride and define who she is, the blow must be incomprehensible. I know some will whine about how lucky Alice is to have money and family support compared to others suffering the disease, though it’s not the movie’s fault that it can only focus on one story.

I knew Moore was in it and is a favourite for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars, but I had no idea there were so many big stars in it. Alec Baldwin delivers a controlled, layered performance as Alice’s husband John, a brilliant researcher in his own right who struggles to deal with not only his wife’s deteriorating mental capacity but also the impact on his own career. The way he deals with losing he woman he has loved for so long, especially her losing perhaps the biggest reason for his love — her sharp mind and fierce career ambitions — is truly heart wrenching in more ways than one.

Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish (from Weeds) play Alice’s three children, each of whom reacts differently to the diagnosis. Stewart, who gets the meatiest role of the three, is especially good, displaying a tenderness and non-constipated demeanour I thought I would never see again after “The Saga”. But to her credit, she has proven that there is life after Twilight.

The main complaint I can make against the movie is that it plays out too conventionally, pretty much the way I anticipated a movie about Alzheimer’s to go. The film alludes to how bad things will eventually get, but spares us the pain of actually seeing it. Maintaining the dignity of sufferers and reminding us that she is “still Alice” no matter what, appears to be a priority. Some will applaud the sensitivity of the approach, while others will say it sanitises reality. Everyone will have an opinion on how it affects the film, though it is undeniable that it would could have been edgier had it dared to venture a little further from expectations.

And for all the great depiction of Alice’s family, the film did very little to look at how her relationship evolved with her friends. In fact, I don’t even remember her having any friends at all.

It is not an easy movie to watch, and it’s hard to call it an enjoyable experience. If it’s superb performances and depressingly gripping drama you’re after, however, it’s hard to go past Still Alice. The script is perhaps too conventional for the film to be something truly special, but Moore’s performance elevates it far above what it would otherwise have been.

3.5 stars out of 5

Piccola Enoteca (Hsinchu)

February 23, 2015 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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We were dropping by Hsinchu in northeast Taiwan after a morning picking strawberries in Miaoli (further south) and needed a good recommendation for a place to have lunch. That recommendation turned out to be Piccola Enoteca, an Italian joint with an innovative recipe crafted by a Hong Kong owner.

The restaurant is small, with probably only enough room for 30-40 seats, but even for a Friday lunch it was very busy. Here is their menu (which apparently changes regularly), available in both Chinese and English — but I apologize for it being too small to read properly. They have a mix of homemade bread, antipasti, pasta, and main course meats, as well as side dishes. They also have some daily specials, so be sure to check out what they are from the professional staff.

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Here’s what we ordered (for four adults).

First up, an interesting take on the Taiwanese oyster omelette, with additional fish and squid. It’s as good as it looks, and not as oily as they typically are.

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Next, fried truffle and mushroom balls. Incredible stuff. Anything fried and anything with truffle is awesome, so the two together is hard to top.

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The first main course is a simple handmade pasta with black truffle, shaved freshly before your eyes. The handmade is perfection, though the flavours were held back to allow the star of the dish, the truffle, to dominate.

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The second pasta dish was the pumpkin ravioli. A superb blend of textures and sweet flavours. An Italian dish with an Asian touch.

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The third and last pasta was a more conventional tomato-fish spaghetti with ample garlic and a sprinkle of cheese and chili. The highlight again was the handmade spaghetti, cooked al dente.

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The main meat recommendation was “Saltimbocca”, the Chinese name for which is translated to “Jump in the mouth”. It comprises Yilan pork together and ham together with special herbs and spices. Very interesting mix of textures and flavours, especially with the Basalmic vinaigrette to give it a tangy sourness.

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The other meat was a special, a fish dish with an assortment of vegetables. The fish was well cooked, though this was probably the least memorable order of the meal.

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We were already stuffed, but dessert was a must.

We ended up ordering this homemade vanilla ice cream with Balsamic, a strange combination but a successful one. The ice cream was very creamy, and the Balsamic helped balance the flavours with a light tang.

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The other was a traditional tiramisu. One of the better ones I’ve had in Taiwan for sure.

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My favourite dessert selection was their lemon cheese cake, which was surprisingly light and fluffy but not too sweet and with just the right amount of sourness. With some chopped apple on the side, this was an incredible end to a pleasant meal.

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On the whole, a very rewarding dining experience. It would have been perfect if they had some pizza, but in terms of pasta and desserts it’s definitely a place worth visiting if you happen to be around Hsinchu.

8/10

Details

Piccola Enoteca (彼刻義式餐酒館)

Address: No. 84, Guangming 3rd Road, Zhubei city, Hsinchu county

Phone: (03) 558 6831

Website: http://www.piccolaenoteca.com/

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/piccolaenotecatw

Opening hours: Mon-Fri 11:30-15:00, 17:00-22:00, Sat-Sun 11:30-22:00

Last Minute 2015 Oscar Predictions

February 22, 2015 in Entertainment, Misc, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Crap. Can’t believe the Oscars are going to be on in less than 10 hours. Fortunately, I’ve now seen all the Best Picture nominees and almost all of the films in the major categories. So without further ado, here’s who I think will win and who I think should win. By the way, I have not been following the buzz and betting odds.

Best Picture:
Nominees: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
Prediction: Birdman
Should win: Boyhood

Best Actor:
Nominees: Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Michael Keaton (Birdman), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Prediction: Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Should win: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Best Actress:
Nominees: Marion Cottilard (Two Days, One Night), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), Reese Witherspoon (Wild)
Prediction: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Should win: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Best Supporting Actor
Nominees: Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Edward Norton (Birdman), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), JK Simmons (Whiplash)
Prediction: JK Simmons (Whiplash)
Should win: JK Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress
Nominees: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Laura Dern (Wild), Kiera Knightley (The Imitation Game), Emma Stone (Birdman), Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)
Prediction: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Should win: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Director
Nominees: 
Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)
Prediction: 
Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)
Should win: 
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Original Screenplay
Nominees: Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, Grand Budapest Hotel, Nightcrawler
Prediction:
Birdman
Should win:
 Boyhood

Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominees:
American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash 
Prediction:
Whiplash
Should win:
The Imitation Game

Best Animated Feature
Nominees: Big Hero 6, The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea, The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Prediction:
Big Hero 6
Should win: Big Hero 6

Cinematography
Nominees:
Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ida Mr Turner, Unbroken
Prediction:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: 
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Costume Design
Nominees:
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice, Into the Woods, Maleficent, Mr Turner
Prediction:
Into the Woods
Should win: 
Maleficent

Documentary Feature
Nominees: CitizenFour, Finding Vivian Maier, Last Days in Vietnam, The Salt of the Earth, Virunga
Prediction: CitizenFour
Should win: Finding Vivian Maier

Documentary Short
Nominees:
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, Joanna, Our Curse, The Reaper, White Earth
Prediction:
White Earth
Should win:
No idea

Editing
Nominees:
American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Whiplash
Prediction: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: Boyhood

Foreign Language Film
Nominees:
Ida, Leviathan, Tangerines, Timbuktu, Wild Tales
Prediction:
Leviathan
Should win:
No idea

Makeup and Hair
Nominees:
Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy
Prediction: 
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: 
Guardians of the Galaxy

Best Original Score
Nominees:
The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Interstellar, Mr Turner, The Theory of Everything
Prediction:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win:
The Theory of Everything

Best Original Song
Nominees:
Everything is Awesome (The Lego Movie), Glory (Selma), Grateful (Beyond the Lights), I’m Not Gonna MIss You (Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me), Lost Stars (Begin Again)
Prediction:
Glory (Sela)
Should win: 
Everything is Awesome (The Lego Movie)

Production Design
Nominees: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Interstellar, Into the Woods, Mr Turner
Prediction: 
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win:
Interstellar

Sound Editing
Nominees:
America Sniper, Birdman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Interstellar, Unbroken
Prediction:
American Sniper
Should win:
Interstellar

Sound Mixing
Nominees:
American Sniper, Birdman, Interstellar, Unbroken, Whiplash
Prediction:
Whiplash
Should win:
Whiplash

Visual Effects
Nominees:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, X-Men: Days of Future Past
Prediction:
Interstellar
Should win:
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Short Film (Animated)
Nominees:
The Bigger Picture, The Dam Keeper, Feast, Me and My Moulton, A Single Life
Prediction:
The Dam Keeper
Should win:
No idea

Short Film (Live Action)
Nominees:
Aya, Boogaloo and Graham, Butter Lamp, Parvaneh, The Phone Call
Prediction:
Aya
Should win:
No idea

Movie Review: Serena (2014)

February 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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The first two times Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper collaborated on a film (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) the results were spectacular, earning the duo three Oscar nominations and a win. Their third joint effort, unfortunately, is a huge misstep for everyone involved.

Set in 1930s America, Serena focuses on a young logging businessman played by Bradley Cooper, who becomes enchanted by a beautiful young blonde. The titular Serena is not just some trophy wife either, as she proves herself to be a strong, intelligent and astute woman who doubles as a valuable business partner.

That’s about as much as I can divulge about the plot without spoilers, because the biggest problem with the film is that I’m not even sure how to describe it. Is it a drama? A romance? A thriller? A Western?! All or none of the above?

The frustrating thing about Serena is that I couldn’t figure out where it was going or what it was trying to achieve. The first half or so felt like it was simply going through the motions while trying to set something up down the track, though the twists in the plot end up coming across as somewhat random and surprising in a WTF way. So after all that, this is what the movie’s about? Maybe I missed all the clues and subtle hints along the way, but it felt like I had been watching a completely different film when it suddenly decided to go off the rails.

The script was adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Ron Rash, which, from what I have read, differs significantly from the film. I had a feeling that might have been the case because it’s obvious there’s much about the movie that didn’t turn out the way it was envisioned.

The performances were good, but you already knew that was the case with two top-class actors at the peak of their powers. The problem is that Bradley’s character is an unlikable, spineless schmuck who generates no empathy or sympathy, while Lawrence is miscast as the blonde bombshell. Her youth worked to her advantage in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but here her babyfaced sweetness doesn’t match the tragedy-hardened demeanour her character demands.

The supporting cast also features some impressive names such as Toby Jones, who sleepwalks through the thankless role of the local sheriff, and chameleon Rhys Ifans, who plays a bizarre logger with an unexplored past and personality.

On the whole, Serena fizzles by failing to provide its A-class actors with roles suited to their strengths or a coherent script with a clear direction. The result is a strange and unsatisfactory experience that will leave many viewers scratching their heads wondering how such a quality production could have gone so wrong.

2.5 stars out of 5

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