Movie Review: Stand By Me Doraemon (2014)

January 30, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Doraemon was probably the first manga and anime I was exposed to as a child, so it made sense for me to choose Stand By Me Doraemon — the first 3D computer animated Doraemon feature — as my three-year-old son’s first cinematic experience.

It’s a good choice, because unlike other Doraemon feature films that depict standalone adventures, Stand By Me Doraemon is an origins story that takes us right back to the beginning and features some of Doraemon’s best known gadgets. While there are original elements, many of the subplots, including the ending, are borrowed directly from the manga/anime, though due to time constraints some classic chapters were condensed into montages.

For those who don’t already know the story, it’s about a loser kid named Nobita who is in the very bottom percentile in terms of both intellectual and athletic ability. To change his fortunes, Nobita’s great-great-great-grandson from the 22nd century sends him Doraemon, a lovable robot cat with a pocket full of handy futuristic gadgets. With Doraemon’s help, Nobita sets out to alter his future and win the affections of Shizuka, the perfect girl-next-door, while also fending off his friends, the bully Gian and the show-off Suneo.

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It’s a good-looking movie, with smooth 3D computer animation that pays homage to the simplicity of the original anime. As such, there aren’t many eye-popping images, though old fans should be content with the faithful transition from 2D hand-drawn animation to 3D CGI.

As a cynical adult, I have a few problems with the story’s logic and its underlying messages, some of which could be construed as shallow. As a kid, however, all I cared about was how cool Doraemon’s gadgets are and how much I wish I had them, so I’m not too concerned about my son being led astray.

Ultimately, notwithstanding the complexity of all the time travelling, Stand By Me Doraemon is a story that’s easy to follow and like if you enjoy rooting for the underdog. I don’t know if it’s the nostalgia flooding back, but I was actually very moved by the movie in the end. The final message teaching kids to be independent and that having a kind heart is the best attribute of all is something even adults can appreciate.

My son loved the experience and I had a pretty good time too. We’re already counting down the days until the next Doraemon feature.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Gravity (2013) (2D)

October 4, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I’m probably biased because I am a massive fan of director Alfonso Cuaron (responsible for possibly my favourite movie from the last 10 years, 2006’s Children of Men, as well as the best Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner of Azkaban), but let me just put it out there: I reckon his latest, Gravity, could very well be a masterpiece.

I saw just one scene of the film in one of the trailers, so I went into it with relatively little knowledge of what it’s all about, potentially a key reason why I found it so engrossing. I won’t say much except that it takes place in space and is about a bunch of astronauts (headed by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) on a mission. It is unconventional and a bit of a “concept” film in that there is only a handful of actors, minimal dialogue and limited human interaction. But it is one heck of a ride, one that is packed with a wide range of emotions ranging from fear, horror, desperation and claustrophobia to serenity, solitariness and hope.

The script is written by Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas Cuaron. I don’t think there is anything exceptional about it or the dialogue (there’s not a lot of it anyway), but I do think it is Cuaron’s masterful direction that makes Gravity work so well. He employs a lot of his trademark long takes which I absolutely adore, some of which feel like they last for 5 to 10 minutes each (the film’s first scene has no visible cuts for about 10 minutes). I’m sure a lot of it is just clever effects and editing, but the feel of a long, continuous, winding shot that moves from place to place and character to character really immerses you in the moment and the action.

Gravity is also one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen and makes you wonder how Cuaron went about shooting it and creating the special effects. I assume pretty much all of it is shot in studios with green screens, but the end product comes across as frighteningly realistic and genuine (I say “comes across” because very few of us know what it actually looks like in space). The same could be said for the space stations and shuttles in the film, which, I assume again, are close replicas of their real-life counterparts. The stunning and soothing views of Earth from space are incredible as well, and provide a beautiful contrast to all the man-made chaos happening right above it.

I was tempted to watch the film in 3D because apparently it’s “worth it,” but I’ve heard that so many times now and every time I’ve fallen for it I’ve come away disappointed. That said, there were parts of the film where I thought 3D might work well, and if I had the opportunity (sadly, I probably don’t) I’d love to watch it again in IMAX 3D. Either way, it’s a film that definitely should be seen on the big screen for maximum appreciation.

As with almost all films with only few characters, the quality of the acting is vital. In this regard Gravity also delivers, with Sandra Bullock — who I’ve never been very high on as an actress despite her Oscar win for The Blind Side — giving one of the best performances of her career. She spends a lot of the film on her own but somehow still manages to make us connect with her on an emotional level and forces us to sense her fear and dread. Apparently Bullock was one of the last choices for the challenging role after the talks with the likes of Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively and Natalie Portman fell through, but it has turned out to be a stroke of good fortune.

The other major role is played by George Clooney, the experienced wisecracking team captain who is so cool and calm under extreme pressure that it makes you wonder whether he is either a robot or a psychopath. Damn this perfect man (again) because he delivers a perfect performance, one I can’t really find any faults with.

I see a LOT of films, so I always welcome something that is a little different to your typical Hollywood blockbuster. It doesn’t mean I prefer them or will necessarily like them more (for example, I liked the concept of the 2010 Ryan Reynolds film Buried, though I didn’t think they ultimately pulled it off), but I find it exciting to experience something I haven’t before. Gravity is definitely something different, so I can appreciate that it is not for everyone. As I was walking out of the cinema, most of the comments I heard from my fellow viewers were negative, such as, “It was too slow and depressing”, “There weren’t enough people in it”, and “There’s too much internal psychological drama”. Even my wife thought it was just “OK”, not boring but not great either.

But for me, Gravity ticks all the boxes for a great film. It’s engrossing, exciting and intelligent, visually captivating, masterfully directly and skillfully performed. And it’s daring and memorable. It will dash the desire of anyone who ever dreamed of being an astronaut, and viewers used to more conventional films might feel like something’s missing, but apart from that, it’s as close to a masterpiece as any film I’ve seen in years.

5 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby (2013) (2D)

September 3, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I was kinda afraid of watching Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (it’s not just The Great Gatsby, it’s “Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby“!) because of all the hype surrounding it, especially in Australia. Described as a lavish production with A-list actors such as Leo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, the film is said to be an ambitious adaptation of one of the greatest novels ever written.

I am ashamed to say I have never read Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece, but I thought it would provide a fresher experience of the film version. It probably did, because the film was much better than I expected, though it did leave me wondering why it was such a great story, suggesting perhaps Luhrmann spent too much time on all the eye candy and razzle dazzle and not enough on the heart of the tale.

Set in Long Island in 1922, The Great Gatsby is told in retrospect from a sanitarium by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who befriends the titular Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio), a mysterious millionaire who loves to throw lavish parties. The story, however, is really about the relationship between Gatsby and his long lost love, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), Nick’s cousin. The problem is, Daisy is married to wealthy heir Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

This is a Baz Luhrmann film, so I got what I expected in terms of flashiness — vibrant colours, stunning costumes, spectacular sets and beautiful cinematography. So if you’re after a visual spectacle, The Great Gatsby certainly delivers. I saw the film in 2D, though I doubt you’d get a more immersive experience if you shelled out the extra bucks for 3D.

On the other hand, The Great Gatsby is a melodrama — and a fairly interesting one with a lot of layers — but I don’t feel as though Luhrmann really captured the complexity or its heart of the source material. I mean, there must be a good reason why the story has resonated for nearly 9 decades, but I didn’t sense anything special while watching the film.

The performances were great across the board. Leo is Leo and he captures the enigmatic Gatsby wonderfully with the right amount of charm, and later, pain and vulnerability, though the standout for me was probably Edgerton’s Buchanan. At first I didn’t think he would be right for the role, but he surprised me — again. Is there any doubt now that he is Australia’s most underrated export?

In the end, I was probably more appreciative of The Great Gatsby than I thought I would be. I’ve never been a huge fan of Luhrmann’s style, which regularly struck me as more style over substance — and while The Great Gatsby probably falls into that category as well, there was more substance than I had anticipated, powered by some excellent performances. It’s a big, extravagant production that I enjoyed, but when you strip away all the glitz and glamour it felt like just another story. And surely the story of The Great Gatsby, widely regarded as one of the greatest American novels ever written, is more than that.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I did love the soundtrack.

Movie Review: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (3D) (2013)

February 7, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I’m not sure what spell I was under that made me go and see Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, the latest instalment to the fairytale/historical ‘reimaginings’ Hollywood loves so much nowadays. What’s worse, this film was forced upon me in 3D, with no non-rip off 2D versions available anywhere (as far as I could find, anyway).

The premise is simple: Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton), the brother and sister from the classic Grimm fairytale, after killing a witch as per the story, grow up to become adult witch hunters. Bet you didn’t expect that!

The famed duo take their witch-killing talents to a small village where small children have been missing, and agree to help the mayor find the kids and slay the nasties, much to the disdain of local sheriff (Peter Stromare).

What ensues is a lot of witch hunting and fighting against the head nasty (Famke Janssen) and her minions. In 3D.

If you’re in the mood for something silly, you might enjoy Hansel and Gretel’s adventures. I, on the other hand, failed miserably to engage with this film despite not expecting a whole lot in the first place.

I suppose the aim of the filmmakers was to create something that people would think is cool (killing witches), make it a little scary and a little funny, and add a dash of money-grabbing 3D. But the problem was that the film was not very funny or very scary. Sure the witches looked nasty, but they were more comical (in a bad way) than frightening. And the majority of the humour lacked punch and came across as fairly lame. There really wasn’t anything that made this film stand out from other similar efforts.

Gemma Arterton does her best but Jeremy Renner, Academy Award nominee, looked like he was just there for the money. Plus he has the least suitable face for a fairytale in probably all of Hollywood — he just looks too…modern.

Another major gripe is the action, which had little originality and was plagued by rapid cuts that made it difficult to figure out what the heck was going on at times. Throw in the arbitrary, annoying and pointless 3D, and what you have is an uninspiring, all-round mess.

1.75 out of 5

Movie Review: Life of Pie (3D IMAX) (2012)

November 27, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Yann Martel’s Man Booker-winning Life of Pi is one of my favourite novels of all-time, and so I was both excited and apprehensive when I heard that it was finally released as a movie more than 10 years after it was originally published.

One of the reasons why the film took so long to adapt from the 2001 novel is because filmmakers deemed it unadaptable and unfilmable, which was certainly the way I felt when I finished reading it. But if anyone could pull it off, it would be Oscar winner Ang Lee, one of the most skilled directors of his generation.

And so I’m glad to say that the film version of Life of Pi is a huge success. While it doesn’t quite make me believe in God, as the story’s protagonist suggests, it is probably as good as it could have ever been given the inherent difficulties in bringing this wonderful tale to life.

The adapted screenplay by Oscar nominee David Magee (Finding Neverland) turned out to be surprisingly faithful to the novel (as far as I can remember anyway). Told through the voice of the titular character, it tells the story of a young Indian boy who becomes stranded on a life boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.

The first problem, of course, is making the situation believable within its own context. The second is employing special effects that support authenticity. And the third, and possibly biggest obstacle, is to make a 2-hour film interesting when most of it is dominated by a single human character and a mostly-CGI animal incapable of dialogue.

To Lee’s credit, he overcomes all three problems with ease, or at least it feels that way. Lee’s Life of Pi comes across as a kind of surreal fable recounted by a skilled storyteller, enabling it to feel both genuine and fantastical. The special effects are seamless (Lee says his experience on the underrated Hulk made it possible) and I certainly could not tell when the tiger was real or animated. As for keeping the story interesting, Lee does so by lengthening the on-land introduction (though not unnecessarily so — it sets up the characters and the remainder of the film nicely) and by changing things up constantly so there is not a lot of repetition when they are at sea.

The performance of Suraj Sharma as the teenage Pi is remarkable, especially considering that it’s the teenage student’s first film. He didn’t have to do it alone but he carries the film through its toughest stretches and remained convincing all the way until the very end.

Some have criticised the film’s preachiness about god/religion and its ending, but both of these things come straight from the novel. Personally, the ending was one thing about the novel that I truly loved, and I’m glad Lee decided to keep it in, though I question his decision to rely on strictly verbal storytelling as opposed to utilizing the visual. I can’t say much more without giving things away so I’ll stop there.

Granted, there are times when the film felt a little like a prettier version of Castaway (the one with a skinny Tom Hanks and “Wilsoooooon!”) and the story occasionally felt trapped in that little lifeboat, but on the whole Life of Pi is an enchanting, poetic and visually stunning experience that’s also unexpectedly moving and thought-provoking — even for someone who has read the book. Going in, I thought I’d appreciate the film’s aesthetics and technical achievements more than anything else, but I was pleasantly surprised by the emotive storytelling and engrossing drama.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: That said, I’m still not sold on the 3D, which despite my numerous vows I ended up paying extra for again — I thought only the introductory sequence with the animals, and maybe a few of the underwater scenes, were really enhanced by the 3D; the rest seemed perfectly fine in 2D to me. The extra large screen and superior sound from IMAX, on the other hand, was probably worth it.

PPS: I wonder what kind of film it would have been had M Night Shyamalan adapted and directed it, as rumoured earlier. That’s not bagging Mr Airbender — I’m genuinely wondering.

 
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