Movie Review: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

February 20, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Die Hard franchise has been on progressive decline since the 1988 original, which I still believe to this day is the best action movie of all time. The 1990 sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, is a surprisingly excellent action flick in its own right, while the 1995  Die Hard With a Vengeance is a prime example of a fantastic franchise reboot. All three can be considered action classics. The series took a bigger step back with 2007’s Die Hard 4.0 (or Live Free or Die Hard), where the 12-year gap had an unwelcome effect on the now-iconic John McClane, though it was still a relatively good movie. And now, the fifth and newest addition, A Good Day to Die Hard (let’s call it DH5 for simplicity sake), has fallen off the wagon and taken this great franchise down into the pits.

DH5 is not horrible by typical modern action movie standards, but it is a smear on the Die Hard franchise whichever way you look at it. In this one, John McClane (Bruce Willis) heads to Russia to “rescue” his son Jack (played by Aussie Jai Courtney), who has been arrested for a murder linked to  an imprisoned political prisoner. Mayhem ensues, and this time the McClane father and son duo team up to annihilate the bad guys.

I’m not sure what they were trying to achieve with this plodding effort, which has a lot of guns and explosions and cars flying all over the place, but not much real tension, humour or genuine excitement. Perhaps they were trying to emulate the awesomeness of Taken or the Bourne series (ie, an unstoppable good guy beats up a lot of bad guys), which I believe is a huge mistake.

The earlier Die Hard films featured a reluctant, vulnerable McClane caught in situations he didn’t want to be in, which is why they were so full of tension and nervous energy. In the last two of the series, however, John McClane has ceased to be the old John McClane we know and love. He has become the “new” John McClane, some kind of hardened superhero who never gets rattled or hurt no matter how many times he is tossed around in moving metal, beaten up or dropped from ridiculously high places. He has too much cache from past experiences to be vulnerable. He’s like Bruce Willis in Unbreakable without the fear of water.

As a result, the DH5 is generally predictable (even with the twists) and frequently lame. Even though there’s all this stuff happening on the screen, there’s just no excitement because you know he’s John McClane and John McClane can never be beaten. Worst still, this new McClane has no special hand-to-hand combat skills like say a Jason Bourne or Bryan Mills — he’s just a guy who likes to fire a lot of guns and doesn’t get hit himself.

Part of the problem is the direction of John Moore, who was previously at the helm of Max Payne and the remake of The Omen in 2006. We also had the “new” John McClane in DH4 (directed by Len Wiseman from the Underworld series), but that film was still pretty good, so some of the blame has to go to Moore, who let his foot off the gas pedal too often and relied far too much on obvious digital effects in many of the action sequences.

The biggest culprit is likely the script by Skip Woods (Swordfish, Hitman, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The A-Team), which is not very good at all. The dialogue is horrendous in both English and Russian and the attempts at creating some sort of father-son dynamic between the McClanes come off as clunky and out of place, largely because it feels so obligatory. McClane’s wry humour and one-liners, one of the defining traits of his character, is almost non-existent as well. Don’t get me wrong, there are efforts to lighten the mood, but they rarely felt like they meshed with the flow of the film.

The Die Hard franchise has always stretched the bounds of craziness, but a lot of what happens in DH5 is just plain lazy. Why don’t people bleed to death from untreated gun shots and puncture wounds? Why do Russian people who generally speak Russian to each other feel the need to squeeze in a sentence of English every now and then? Why do they suddenly start speaking completely in English  towards the end? Why do some of their Russian accents even start disappearing? Why does Jack McClane have to say his dad’s name, “John”, at least once every sentence? We know his name is John; we’ve known that for the last four films! Who the heck talks like that?

Bruce Willis is still good enough to pull off John McClane, but I can’t help get the feeling that he’s growing a little weary and is ready to pass the baton to Jai Courtney, who is physically imposing but looks more like a bad guy than a good one (he was the bad guy in Jack Reacher and felt much more convincing). The rest of the cast is predominantly Russian and none are memorable. None even come close to possessing the charisma of a Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman from the original) or even a Simon Peter Gruber (Jeremy Irons from the third film), let’s just put it that way. That’s another problem to add to the list — lame antagonists.

When all is said and done, DH5 is actually a passable action film by ordinary standards, but a criminally bad one when measured against the lofty bar set by the earlier entries in the same franchise. It’s a real shame because I think they could have done much much better, especially if they are considering bringing together John McClane and both of his kids (that’s Jai Courtney and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the latter of whom has a cameo in this one after appearing in DH4) in a sixth and potentially final Die Hard film.

2.5 stars out of 5

More Peking Duck at Beijing’s Quanjude!

November 18, 2012 in China, Food, Reviews, Travel

Quanjude is one of the most famous Peking duck franchises in China

On this night, after spending most of the day working on two lengthy articles, I caught up with a friend of a colleague who has been living in Beijing for more than 20 years.

He recommended either lamb hotpot or Peking duck, and even though I’ve had it before I decided to go with the duck again, as I’ve never been all that fond of lamb or hotpots.

This particular Peking duck place we visited was another famous one, and probably the most famous of them all. It’s a franchise called Quanjude (全聚德), and it has a history of almost 150 years. You gotta be pretty good to be able to last that long, right?

Outside the Quanjude near Shuangjing station

The Quanjude we met at is located near Shuangjing subway station. I originally wanted to catch a cab there but it was damn near impossible around rush hour, so I decided to catch the subway instead. I thought the subway was crowded before, but rush hour is a whole different ball game. You don’t really move voluntarily — you simply get carried by the crowds. You really have to experience it personally to understand what I mean.

Quanjude is regarded as fairly expensive, with half a duck costing around 200 yuan (AU$31). Like the other place I went to, you start off with the crispy duck skin (with dippable sugar), followed by duck meat wrapped in thin, hot pancakes plus hoisin sauce, cucumber and so forth.

Crispy duck skin with sugar

Succulent duck meat

Wrapped in steaming, fluffy pancakes

We also got a bunch of other duck related dishes, such as sliced duck feet with a spicy and tangy Chinese mustard and duck gizzards, which and looked and tasted surprisingly similar to BBQ pork. I wouldn’t usually get those things but they were better than I expected.

I admit, I found the duck feet a little unusual

Duck gizzards look better and taste better than they sound

The better duck side dishes were the soup, which was made with duck bones and was thick and full of natural flavour, as well as the fried duck meat on skewers. There was also a stir fry duck served in a crispy nest inside a lettuce (similar to a san choy bau) which was exquisite. To even out the food groups we added a stir fry broccoli, which was nothing special but got the job done.

Looks plain but the duck soup is sublime

Fried duck meat skewers

Duck san choy bau

Stir fry broccoli with pine nuts

While I didn’t pay for the meal I believe it cost around 370 yuan, which included a couple of beverages, one of which was a beer. Compared to the 60-80 yuan per head at Liu Zhai Shi Fu (刘宅食府), Quanjude is notably more expensive. But was it also notably better? I can’t say that it was. Definitely on about the same level, but all things considered Liu Zhai Shi Fu is better value for money.

8/10

Details

Quanjude (全聚德)

Website: http://www.quanjude.com.cn/direct.php (main website)
http://www.quanjude-sj.com/ (Shuangjing store website)

Address: 8 Guangqumenwai Dajie, Shuangjing, Beijing

(There are plenty of franchises, including at Wangfujing, and the Hepingmen store is supposedly the largest Peking duck restaurant in the world)

Price: 150-200 yuan (AU$23-31) per head

Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy (2012)

August 14, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

A Bourne movie without Bourne? Why the heck not?

The Bourne Legacy is the fourth instalment of the Bourne franchise and it’s the first in the series without Matt Damon, who played the titular Jason Bourne in the first three films (Bourne Identity, Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum). Instead, we get a pretty darn good replacement, Jeremy Renner, who I have been a fan of since The Hurt Locker and then became a massive fan of following The Town. And being Hawkeye in The Avengers didn’t hurt either.

It needs to made clear, however, that Renner is not playing Jason Bourne — he is Aaron Cross, another super soldier created by the US government. So why is a guy named Cross in a film with someone else’s name in the title? Well apparently, Damon’s decision to walk away from the franchise was only “temporary” because he and Paul Greengrass, the director of the first three films, didn’t think the studio gave them enough time to do this fourth film justice.

What this means is that The Bourne Legacy takes place in the same universe and is a continuation of the Bourne story but focuses on a different central character. You see photos of Bourne and he is repeatedly mentioned by the government and the press, but he’s supposedly hiding somewhere so that Aaron Cross can do his thing.

It does feel kinda weird watching a Bourne film where he isn’t in it, but I suppose Tony Gilroy, who was a co-writer on the first three films and wrote and directed this one, did the best he could under the circumstances. It certainly helps that the intense Renner plays a very different character to Bourne and is a killer badass in his own right.

That said, I don’t think the script is as brilliant as it pretends to be. We studied Gilroy’s Oscar-nominated Michael Clayton script in my screenwriting class, which I admired greatly for its confident dialogue and ability to keep the audience hooked by thrusting them into a world which has to be gradually pieced together, bit by bit, to understand what the heck is going on. You are constantly wondering what people are saying and doing throughout the film, and it’s not until the pieces start falling together that it all starts to make sense.

Gilroy employs the same technique for this film, but if you really think about it, all the pieces don’t exactly fall into place or fit together. He sets up a lot of “mysteries” as a device  to keep the audience engaged, but never ends up answering them in the end. Perhaps it was this kind of uneven writing that prompted Damon to call Gilroy’s The Bourne Ultimatum script a “career killer.”

Another problem  is that the forced references to Jason Bourne can be confusing for viewers who aren’t completely across the history of the franchise. I have watched all the earlier films in the series but to be honest I don’t remember a whole lot about the plot, which made it a little frustrating at times when the characters rambled on about the various government projects and some scandal that was being played out in the media. I also recognised returning actors such as Scott Glenn, David Strathairn and Joan Allen, but I had trouble remembering who they were. I imagine I’m not the only one who struggled with this aspect of the film.

But let’s face it, the plots of the Bourne films have always been secondary to their well-crafted suspense and action, and that’s where The Bourne Legacy also shines. The Bourne Legacy carries on the franchise’s tradition of “realistic” action that avoids reliance on CGI, which is made more impressive considering that Renner apparently performed almost all of his own stunts (talk about being devoted to the craft). The final extended action sequence, in particular, is probably the best in the entire series, and that says a lot.

I can’t believe I have written this much and not mentioned the two newcomers to the franchise, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton. Weisz plays a doctor who is involved in the medical aspect of the program while Norton is the new guy trying to hunt the super soldier down. Norton offers the better performance but is given the short end of the stick in the script, where he can disappear for long stretches and be completely forgotten at times. Weisz, on the other hand, is gifted some of the best scenes in the film, including one outstandingly horrific sequence at the laboratory where she works, and another later on at her house. It’s scenes like these that demonstrated Gilroy’s ability as a director — someone who knows how to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. And he isn’t as big of a fan of the shaky hand-held camera as Greengrass, which for me was a huge plus.

On the whole, The Bourne Legacy is a rather flawed movie and might be regarded by some as a “filler” film that can make the franchise more money while it waits for Damon to return. But what I can’t deny is that it is still an excellent flick purely from an action and suspense perspective and that Renner is absolutely dynamite as the new super soldier on the block. Damon has left open the salivating possibility of returning to the franchise in the future, which in an ideal world would put both him and Renner on screen at the same time. That would be awesome.

3.5 stars out of 5

Mos Burger and Mr Donut!

January 28, 2010 in Food, Taiwan, Travel

Two of my favourite places in Japan are the chains Mos Burger (fast food restaurant) and Mr Donut (…donuts).

And in Taiwan, they have both!

Mos Burger

Mos Burger is one of the few places that actually has a burger after which the restaurant is named.  That’s right.  At Mos Burger you can order a Mos Burger.

But the best thing at Mos Burger is the Wafu Fried Chicken.  Not only is it tasty, it is surprisingly un-oily.  You can push your serviette into it and there’d be no oil stain!  And check out the clever Japanese holding wrapper.  You don’t even have to get your hands dirty.

Mr Donut

Mr Donut has awesome donuts.  The best thing about them is that they’re not overly sweet, which is rare for donuts.  And they come in a wide variety of flavours and styles – whether it’s chocolate or strawberry glaze or cream-filled centres or these weird ball-type donuts, Mr Donut has it all.

Awesome: Taipei’s Two Peck Fried Chicken!

January 10, 2010 in Best Of, Food, Taiwan, Travel

I have a new favourite fried chicken joint.

‘Two Peck’ Fried Chicken in Taiwan is possibly the most sensational fried chicken I have ever tasted.  The franchises have branched out like wildfire since the first store opened in 2005, and there’s good reason.

The shop fronts are tiny, but the fried chicken breasts are massive.  I don’t know what the heck they do to the chicken, but the batter on the outside is unbelievable crispy and the meat inside is tender and juicy.  However, it doesn’t have that disgusting oily feel or after taste to it.  And if you want, you can make it spicy for a little extra kick!

According to reports, it’s a secret recipe utilising various Chinese herbs and spices.

The shopkeepers fry the chicken on the spot, so there is a bit of a wait, especially during busy hours, but trust me, it’s well worth the wait.  At only TWD 45, it’s a great bargain and one heck of a snack (or a meal).

Check out the website here – all in Chinese, but the pictures tell the story.  Might try the nuggets next time.

Where to find

There are over 50 stores in northern Taiwan alone, and I have seen my fair share.

Typical shopfront

Unfortunately, I only remember two.  One is just outside exit 5 of Kuting MRT Station (red/green/orange line), and another is a one minute walk from exit 2 of Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall MRT Station (red line).

 
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