Mayweather-Pacquiao: Dud of the Century

May 3, 2015 in Best Of, Boxing, Sport

Manny Pacquiao failed to deliver two promises on Saturday evening at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The first was that he would hand Floyd “Money” Mayweather his first defeat in 48 professional fights. The second was that he would give fans an exciting fight. While he could blame Mayweather for failing the first promise, Pacquiao was just as much to blame for the second. And so after five years of speculation, close calls, failed negotiations, name-calling, lawsuits and serendipitous meetings at Miami Heat basketball games, the so-called Fight of the Century turned out to be one huge stinking dud.

Before the Fight

The atmosphere before the fight lived up to the hype. Just about all the biggest names in sports and entertainment were there (see this link for a full list with pictures), either due to their connections (ie, Floyd’s buddy Justin Bieber, Showtime stars like Claire Danes, boxing royalty like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, or sponsor-related celebs like Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s there to promote his new boxing flick Southpaw) or their huge wallets capable of paying the exorbitant ticket prices (Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Andre Agassi, etc). It was the richest gate in sports history (ticket sales alone generated US$74 million), with even the shittiest ticket in the nosebleeds section costing just under US$3,000 according to StubHub.

The PPV numbers are not yet available, but they are expected to blow away the record of 2.48 million buys from the De La Hoya-Mayweather fight in 2007. The actual money amount will be astronomical, considering PPV prices are also significantly higher than for other bouts, with people paying US$90 for the fight (and US$100 for it in HD) in the United States and slightly cheaper prices in most other places on the planet (only a handful of countries such as Mexico, China and the Philippines aired it for free).

PPV

The demand was so high that the start time of the actual main event was delayed by approximately 45 minutes due to troubles encountered by people trying to order the PPV from their providers.

I was rooting for the Filipino and predicted a Pacquiao victory not just because he apparently possessed all the tools on paper to give Mayweather trouble (southpaw, speed, power, footwork, stamina, high work rate, awkward angles), but also because the American seemed to be genuinely spooked by the occasion. Mayweather appeared nervous at all the public events and even told reporters he no longer had the passion for the sport and was looking forward to retiring after one final fight in September.

He was uncharacteristically polite and passive, a far cry from his old ways of trash talking and acting brash and disrespectful towards opponents, and he continued to be plagued by reports that dredged up his history of domestic violence. It seemed like Pacquiao, who acted relaxed and confident throughout the promotion, had won the psychological battle, and I felt the Mayweather camp was rattled judging from the last minute reports claiming that it had tried — unsuccessfully — to block Pacquiao from using his commission-approved gloves for the fight. It also didn’t help that reports surfaced today alleging that Mayweather attempted to block certain female journalists who harped on his domestic abuse charges.

Pacquiao also appeared to land the first blow — figuratively speaking — when he entered the ring smiling and with plenty of confidence as his coach Freddie Roach snapped a selfie on his phone. He even allowed talk show host Jimmy Kimmel to take an unsubtle jab at Justin Bieber, who is part of Mayweather’s entourage and infamously crashed the introductory press conference a couple of months ago.

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Jimmy Kimmel joins Manny Pacquiao’s ring entrance entourage on May 2

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Justin Bieber pops out of nowhere during the kick-off conference in March

The Fight

Everything I said above may have been true, but none of it mattered once the two fighters got into the ring. I hate to break it to those still in denial, but the fight wasn’t close. You can hate on Floyd Mayweather Jr all your want, but you can’t deny his skills. Tonight, Mayweather proved he was the best boxer of his generation. Five years ago, who knows what the outcome would have been, but all that matters is what actually happened. For the record, I believe the outcome would have been the same because Mayweather’s just that much better and his physical advantages are too difficult to overcome.

Freddie Roach claimed that he had the perfect game plan — one he had been honing and perfecting over the past five years — and that Pacquiao was probably going to win every round. Well, it became clear after round one that Pacquiao had an uphill climb ahead of him. The Filipino needed to get off to a good start and probably should have rushed Mayweather from the opening bell to assert himself, but instead he was overly passive and spent too long posturing and feinting. Mayweather won the first three rounds, or at least two of the first three, with his accuracy, counterpunching, and ability to dictate of the pace.

Pacquiao had his moments in the next three rounds, but only when he managed to trap Mayweather against the ropes so he could launch his patented flurries. Most of the heavy blows, however, were either blocked or deflected. In terms of jabs and single shots in the middle of the ring, however, Mayweather dominated. It was simply a master class in how to control distance and range. Mayweather perfected using his 5-inch reach advantage to keep Pacquiao at bay, and clinching or arm-locking whenever Pacquiao got too close. Having referee Kenny Bayless, who typically allows Mayweather to get away with a certain amount of holding, didn’t help matters. It was frustrating and boring, but it was a brilliant strategy.

Before the fight, I thought Pacquiao had a decent chance because of his volume punching. I believed if he kept punching and overwhelmed Mayweather’s output he would be favoured by the judges. But against Mayweather, his punch rate suddenly came crashing down. It’s not an anomaly because it’s happened to every volume puncher Mayweather has ever faced. It goes back to Mayweather’s ability to control range, because Pacquiao knows there’s no point in throwing punches that have no chance of landing. It also says something about Mayweather’s underrated power. If those counterpunches didn’t sting, Pacquiao wouldn’t have grown so reluctant in coming forward. He knew he couldn’t be reckless and try to walk through Mayweather’s punches in order to land his own because he knew those shots could hurt him.

Mayweather’s not the same type of counterpuncher as Juan Manuel Marquez, the man who gave Pacquiao fits in their four fights and brutally knocked him out in their last matchup. JMM takes huge risks and gambles on his counters, which is why Pacquiao’s had success against him too, but Mayweather is a counterpuncher who plays it safe because he can.

The result was as one-sided as many of Mayweather’s other fights. 118-110 one one scorecard and a generous 116-112 on two others for a unanimous Mayweather victory. I had it 117-111 on my sloppy unofficial scorecard. Here’s how the judges scored each round.

mayweather pacquiao official scorecard

Anyone claiming that Pacquiao won — including himself — or that it was a close fight is deluding themselves. Your eyes or heart may deceive you, but the stats don’t lie. Compubox is not a perfect science, but in this case it’s an accurate indication of what took place.

floydpac compubox

Mayweather landed 67 more punches than Pacquiao at 15% more accuracy. The most startling stat is that Mayweather ended up throwing more punches than Pacquiao did overall. In a fight where just about everyone thought Pacquiao would need to throw 800 punches to win, he ended up throwing barely half that. Full credit to Mayweather for turning the usually tornado-like Pacquiao into just another fighter who thought he could outbox the master.

I mistakenly predicted a Pacquiao victory partly because big boxing matches usually turn out to be unpredictable, but the it ended up being one of those rare fights where everything pretty much went according to how fight experts predicted it could go. Pacquiao would have his moments early, when his best chances were available, but Mayweather would eventually figure it out — as he always does — and dominate the rest of the way. The only thing unexpected was that Pacquiao would be so passive to start the fight and allow Mayweather to claim those precious early rounds.

Unfortunately, Mayweather’s dominance — and Pacquiao’s reluctance — turned the Fight of the Century into a total bore. Brilliant performance? Sure. Exciting? Hell no. I can appreciate technical skills better than most, but for a fight of this magnitude the fans deserved more. A lot more.

Boos rained down on Mayweather when he proclaimed victory at the end of the fight and when they announced the decision, and while some of them were aimed at him as a person, I believe a lot of them were directed at the way he turned the fight into a snoozefest. There was no genuine action, no serious exchanges, nothing close to resembling a knockdown, and no one was ever in serious trouble or hurt from a big shot. Mayweather danced around, held, and ran some more, not just avoiding action but actively preventing it from happening. There may have been some natural tension early on, but even that evaporated as Mayweather’s tactics became a predictable pattern.

Mayweather deserves the bulk of the blame because that’s his style, but the typically exciting Pacquiao isn’t fault-free either. Perhaps it was his brutal KO loss to JMM a couple of years ago that made him so wary, but when the fight was clearly getting away he didn’t exactly go for broke either. With US$100 million-plus heading into his bank, Pacquiao probably decided it wasn’t worth risking his health for glory. I would have much rather seen him get knocked out trying to score the knockout himself rather than trying to feint Mayweather to death. And that’s what 80%-90% of the fight was: feinting and posturing. It was a chess match that was more boring than watching actual chess matches.

After the Fight

Everyone was disappointed. “Underwhelmed” was an extremely popular word on Twitter. I may have rooted for Pacquiao but the thing I wanted above all was an exciting fight that would come at least 70% to meeting expectations. This fight was about a 15%.

There were the Pactards and blind boxing novices claiming that Pacquiao had been robbed, that the sport is corrupt, etc, with some even going as far as slamming ESPN’s post-fight interviewer Max Kellerman for daring to press Pacquiao about how he could have possibly thought he won. Can you imagine the same thing happening if Mayweather was in Pacquiao’s position? Not hating, just pointing out the hypocrisy.

The internets was flooded with the same arguments Mayweather has faced for years — that he ran like a coward and didn’t dare to exchange in a real fight, like a real man. But that’s where his genius and understanding of the rules of boxing come into play. Do you think his career would have lasted as long as it has if he decided to go toe-to-toe with every foe? Do you think there would be as many people hoping that he would get knocked out every time he stepped into the ring?

The biggest flaw with the running argument, at least in this fight, is that Mayweather was actually more active than Pacquiao. Forget that he landed nearly twice as many punches. He actually threw more punches than Pacquiao. If he simply ran, how could he have won? It wasn’t as though the judges awarded Mayweather for evading Pacquiao’s punches. He landed a lot more at greater accuracy in almost every round. End of story.

That did not stop the excuses from rolling in immediately after the verdict. The Pacquiao camp revealed that the Filipino fought with a tear in his shoulder and that he was denied an anti-inflammatory shot before the fight. Not to be outdone, Mayweather claimed that both his arms and hands were injured either prior to or during the fight.

My Facebook feed became flooded with articles slamming Mayweather’s character and his woman-beating tendencies, and claims that he will never be respected no matter how many Manny Pacquiaos he beats. I suppose it comes with the territory of having been a complete prick for so many years, but even I felt all the media attacks in the aftermath of a career-defining victory were below the belt.

I haven’t had a chance to watch the fight again and I’m not sure I want to put myself through the pain for a second time. Big fights often disappoint; I can think of a few I was really amped up for that failed to meet expectations, but none were as disappointing as Mayweather-Pacquiao. Accordingly, my final impression of the fight will likely be Mayweather’s best blow of the fight — when he thanked God first in his post-fight interview. As someone irked by Pacquiao’s repeated “God will deliver him into my hands” remarks before the fight– no offense intended to any of my lovely Christian friends — I kinda liked that final insult to cap off all the stinging right hands and counters he fed Pacquiao all night.

Where to Now

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Mayweather insists he will fight just once more, this September, before riding off into the sunset for good. He seems genuine about this, and I believe he will carry through with the promise unless he desperately needs money again in the future — which is quite likely if you’ve heard the stories about his spending habits. Potential opponents include American young gun Keith Thurman, a 26-year-old heavy-handed fighter also with an unblemished unbeaten record (25 wins, 21KOs and 1 no contest — from an accidental headbutt in the first round), as well as Brit Amir Khan, who has a glass jaw but the height (5’9″), reach (71″), speed and boxing skills to potentially give Mayweather trouble on paper. Personally, I’d like to see him take on both guys to erase all doubts and retire at 50-0, breaking Rocky Marciano’s celebrated record.

As for Pacquiao, he said he’ll take a break and leave the rest to his promoter Bob Arum. To be honest, this loss doesn’t affect his legacy all that much. He lost to a better boxer on the night, not because he’s over the hill or a shot fighter. He’s still loved in the Philippines, where he’ll probably become president one day, and people still love to watch him fight. Against the right opponents there’s no reason why he won’t still be a massive PPV draw.

Roach and Pacquiao said they would like to push for a rematch in light of the shoulder injury revelation. There’s no rematch clause in the contract, but considering how much money the two will make (estimates for Mayweather are as high as US$180 million), the temptation must be there to do it all over again. Given how one-sided this fight turned out to be — and especially seeing that Pacquiao no longer has one-punch knockout power to give himself a puncher’s chance — it’s not something I want to see.

PS: The most exciting fight of the night was actually on the undercard. Vasyl Lomachenko, Ukranian amateur star, proved once again that he’s going to be the next P4P best fighter on the planet with his impressive destruction of the game but outgunned Gamalier Rodriguez. It was just Lomachenko’s fifth professional fight and the featherweight displayed an offensive aggression reminiscent of the Pacquiao of old and the technical brilliance and precision of Mayweather. Check out the highlights from that fight.

(Spoiler Free) Movie Review: Interstellar (2014) (IMAX)

November 7, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

interstellar-poster

Well, it looks like I have to reshuffle my list of the best movies of 2014 – again.

Memento. The Dark Knight trilogy. Inception. Time and time again, Christopher Nolan proven to be one of the most creative and visionary directors of this generation. His latest, Interstellar, is his most ambitious project to date, and also arguably the most rewarding.

I rushed to see the first session available of Interstellar this morning, not knowing what to expect other than a 169-minute sci-fi starring Matthew McConaughey. I intentionally avoided the trailers, the reports, and the early reviews. In fact, I didn’t even know who else was in it. Going in blind was the best decision I ever made, and so I am going to make sure there are no spoilers in this review so that your experience, if you haven’t already seen it, is as fresh and awe-inspiring as it can be.

Interstellar is the very definition of an epic. The ambition, the scale, the scope, the cast, the special effects, the storyline — even the running time; everything about this film is huge, which makes it perfect for the big screen, and in particular, IMAX, which I fortunately saw it on. It is not available in 3D (which I hate anyway), but this is one rare situation where I do wonder if the added dimension could have enhanced the visual experience even more.

I don’t want to give away the plot, so all I will say is that Interstellar is first and foremost a space exploration film. I liked the fact that there was no arbitrary exposition at the start of the film explaining the world the film was depicting. There’s no voice-over, no subtitles, no Star Wars-like opening crawl. It immerses you into the story straight away, while at the same time creating an intriguing mystery that needs to be slowly pieced together. And while the progression of the narrative is relatively simple, there are some exciting twists and turns along the way.

Interstellar is also a great big adventure flick filled with excitement, action, drama, and emotion. There are big set pieces, jaw-dropping landscapes and seamless effects, though all of these things feel like they are there because they are integral to the story, rather than simply to provide candy for the eyes.

My number one film of last year, Gravity, is probably best characterized as a space survival film. That was a thrilling spectacular which had some of the above elements, but Interstellar just takes it to a whole other level in every way. And it’s even twice as long! Interestingly, the film that first popped up into my mind when watching Interstellar was another McConaughey classic, 1997’s Contact, another one of my favorite sci-fi films. Both are about exploring the unknown with a health dose of hope and fear, and pose thought-provoking questions about human nature and humanity.

I don’t know much about the science the film rests on, though I assume there are going to be a lot of gaping holes, inconsistencies and flaws in logic. But the silliness of the science is beside the point. The important thing is that Nolan made me believe in it. Like he did in Inception, Nolan takes some very complex ideas and concepts and boils them down in a way that ordinary audiences can understand. Perhaps not fully comprehend or even grasp everything that is happening, but at least enough to be able to suspend disbelief and not get lost in the storyline. To me, that is the key to the film, and my guess is that if you did not enjoy it, it is because you were unable to buy into the film’s ideas in the first place.

Nolan’s films have been accused of being too cold and emotionless in the past. That is definitely not the case with Interstellar, which is powered by a surprising amount of human drama. Not all of it was effective — some of the dialogue came across as a little mushy, a little sentimental, and shall I say, McConaughey-esqe, though in the grand scheme of things I cannot fault Nolan for trying, because the film’s ultimate pay-off and message would not have worked without emotion.

I know I have not been the biggest Matthew McConaughey fan, and I admit I cringed a little when he first opened his mouth in the film (I expected his dialogue to be “Alright, alright, alright” on an endless loop). Smugness like that is hard to contain, even for an Oscar-winning actor. Slowly but surely, however, McConaghey managed to grow on me, and by the end of the film I was convinced he was the right man for the role. I cannot say much more about the other performances without mentioning their names (not knowing the whole cast adds to the pleasant surprises), so I will simply say that there is more than one Oscar winner in the cast and that they are all very good and go a long way towards mitigating the flaws in the dialogue.

Interstellar might not be perfect. It may not even be as intriguing, action-packed or ground-breaking as some of Nolan’s other films. And it even stars Matthew McConaughey. But man, I don’t think I’ve been more entertained more by a film in years. Nolan really reached for the stars with this grand epic. Some may think it was a spectacular success; others may think it was an admirable failure. For me, I’m just glad I was fortunate enough to be on the journey.

5 stars out of 5

‘Dreams from My Father’ & ‘The Audacity of Hope’ by Barack Obama

August 5, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

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My plan to read a lot of books this year was derailed by Barack Obama. I started tackling his first book, Dreams from My Father (published way back in 1995), in early June, and I didn’t finish his second book, The Audacity of Hope (published 2006), until this week.

Like everyone fascinated with Obama’s rise to become America’s first black president, I had wanted to read both books for years, but I have to admit that I found parts of them, in particular Dreams, to be a little dry. Having said that, there are some marvellous insights and ideas in these books that help shed light on the type of man and leader Obama is, and the things that have shaped his political philosophies (which I admit I find myself aligned with regularly). And so I thought I’d tackle the reviews in a single post so I can compare and contrast them a little.

For starters, both books were written before Obama was first elected president in 2008. Dreams from My Father was offered to Obama because he had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and written at a time when he was just about to embark on a serious political career. It is first and foremost a memoir, a 442-page epic that traces his mixed-marriage birth, his unconventional upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii, as well as his African heritage.The latter portions of the book are about his foray into politics at the grassroots level, through community organizing and church groups.

It’s not entirely chronological and it’s also not a blow-by-blow account of Obama’s life, but you do get bits and pieces of information that paint a (somewhat incomplete) picture of his life. The subtitle of the book is A Story of Race and Inheritance, so naturally race is a central theme of the book that fuels much of the discussion he has with his readers.

Hope, on the other hand, at a leaner 363 pages, came about because Obama had become a US Senator and a rising star in the Democratic Party. It would be two years before he would rise to the presidency, but I assume at the time the book idea was tossed around it was envisioned that Obama would eventually run for president, with a solid chance of making history.

It’s a completely different book to Dreams in that it’s less about Obama’s life and upbringing and more about his political and spiritual beliefs as well as his views on different aspects of American culture. He doesn’t shy away from the controversial issues such as homosexuality, abortions and religion, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and he admits to taking drugs, including cocaine), though some readers may be frustrated because most of the time he simply outlines the complexities of the issues without expressing a clear cut view or providing concrete solutions (but let’s face it, who can?). The last chapter on family is really the only time in the book that Obama divulges sizable chunks of his personal life (only snippets before this), but it’s arguably the most honest and heartfelt chapter of both books.

True to their respective titles, Dreams is more more personal and centered around family, with a more contemplative, reflective tone, while Hope is more about his audacious vision for the country and filled with optimism about the future.

And so it was an interesting experience reading both books in the context of when and why they were written. It’s interesting because we know who this man will eventually become, and even in the decade or so between the two books were written we can see how much he has matured and evolved as a politician — from someone with grand ideals but apprehensions about a political career to someone who is all-in and much more aware of what compromises he has to make both in the office and at home to make it to the top. It also made me wonder what type of book Obama would pen now if had the opportunity, and whether he is now a lot more cynical and disillusioned with the whole thing.

But if Obama didn’t become the most powerful man in the world, would the books be just as interesting? Of course not. It’ll just be the life and opinions of another intelligent, articulate black man. It would still be insightful, but not nearly as exciting or compelling.

Obama’s writing is solid. He’s an excellent writer on a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level, but his ability to piece together a clear narrative thread is sometimes lacking, particularly in Dreams. He also tends to be, as he admits, verbose at times, meaning the experience could be lacking if you are stuck reading a topic you don’t have a real interest in. These are common issues for most writers, especially first-time writers, which is why I feel Hope is the superior book. Given that the subject matter is more defined and written more like a series of essays rather than themed-biographies (ie, more up Obama’s alley), the voice is much stronger and more confident. You can tell he is trying to craft the persona of a future president, and when I read his words I could almost picture Obama saying them to a crowded room.

So, Dreams could have been even more personal, insightful and captivating, while Hope could have been bolder and contained more innovative solutions, but on the whole they are solid reads I’d recommend to people anywhere along the political spectrum, and together they paint an illuminating picture of who Barack Obama is and what he stands for. You might not agree with what he says or believes in, but anything that encourages positive political debate and discussion can’t be a bad thing.

Ratings:

Dreams from My Father – 3/5

The Audacity of Hope – 3.75/5

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

July 17, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Those who have read an article or two on this blog might have noticed that I have what you might call a bit of a Planet of the Apes infatuation. I declared the franchise reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the best film of 2011. I declared its long awaited sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, my most anticipated movie of 2014. I’m not quite sure what it is, but there’s just something about the story, the franchise, that has me going all ape.

This time around, the story takes place about a decade after the end of the previous film, when the so-called Simian flu — the same virus that gave the apes their intelligence — has wiped out the vast majority of the human population. All that remains, as far as we know, is a group of naturally immune survivors living in San Francisco led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Desperate for a source of power, a band of humans led by Malcolm (Aussie Jason Clarke) venture into the woods, where they run into the protagonist of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and his growing tribe of smart apes.

Just like its predecessor, the humans in Dawn take a back seat to the apes, who are far more interesting and dominate the narrative. It was a necessary decision to abandon the human cast from the first film, in particular James Franco’s Dr Will Rodman, the man responsible for creating the Simian flu in the first place (Franco is too busy posting nude photos of himself on the internet anyway). This is because, as an ape film, it’s important to see Caesar’s continued growth into the great revolutionary leader he’s destined to be. In Dawn, he has established societal order in his ape tribe, built a home, and started a family. He is compassionate, loyal and intelligent — but he can still be a total badass when he needs to be.

Key returning ape characters include Maurice (Karin Konoval), the big, clever orangutan who acts as third in command and the apes’ voice of reason, as well as Koba (Toby Kebbell), the tortured, mutilated ape Caesar liberated in the first film who understandably has trouble containing his distrust for humans and his violent temper. The most important new additions are Cornelia (Judy Greer), Caesar’s partner, and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), their rebellious son.

On the human side, the central character is Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, but apart from him everyone else is underdeveloped. There’s his second wife, Ellie (Kerri Russell), and his teenage son, Alexander (fellow Aussie Kodi Smit-McPhee), plus a stereotypical human a-hole named Carver (Kirk Acevedo from Fringe), but none of the supporting human characters get to do much, not even the legendary Gary Oldman.

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To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the film is driven by the characters and their relationships. Apart from the bond between Caesar and Malcolm, which forms the heart of the film, there’s also well-executed conflicts between Caesar and his son Blue Eyes and with his second-in-command Koba. This could have very easily been a big, dumb action flick with lots of loud explosions, pointless violence and flashy effects (in the vein of Michael Bay), but director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), who took over the reins from Rupert Wyatt, managed to keep his focus on the things that truly matter.

Dawn is not just a humans vs apes story — it’s a tale of survival that traverses universal themes such as ingrained discrimination, tribal loyalties, political complexities and familial bonds. It’s Reeves’ ability to craft these themes amid the chaos and action that enable the emotions to resonate, and it’s also what makes Dawn more memorable than your average sci-fi.

There were perhaps some missed opportunities to explore relationships on the human side (in particular Malcolm and his son), and some audiences might be disappointed with the lack of prominent female roles (Cornelia, in particular, felt like a wasted character), though on the whole I felt like the script by returning writers Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa and new addition Mark Bomback (who has s chequered history with Die Hard 4 and the crap Total Recall remake but also the underrated Unstoppable and last year’s The Wolverine on his resume), was more than adequate.

Part of the reason the ape characters are so compelling to watch is because they come across as real people (even more so than the humans), but at the same time we are constantly reminded of how different they are and how dangerous they can be. All wonderful ape performances are again done by motion capture, and the technology is even more impressive than it was last time as the apes have a more expansive vocabulary and hence more facial movements and expressions. I’m sure real apes don’t look quite like the apes in the film, but what matters is that they look incredibly realistic, not only in their physical appearance but also in the way their bodies move and interact with their surroundings. There was not a second during the film when I thought anything looked unnatural or out of place, and full credit must go to the special effects team and the understated performance capture of the actors.

And it is thanks in large part to the special effects that Dawn contains some of the most epic battle sequences and fight scenes you’ll see this year. As the number of apes have increased dramatically, the scale of the action dwarfs that in Rise, with several sublimely choreographed scenes that had me staring in awe from the edge of my seat. Further, the violence was never without reason or purpose, so unlike some action flicks (cough, Michael Bay) I never felt like I was getting numb from it all. Apes against humans, humans against humans, apes against apes. It’s pure, satisfying, mindblowing entertainment.

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Having set myself up for disappointment by living in ape hype for the last three years, Dawn actually lived up to my unrealistic expectations. Yes, I admit I am partial to the franchise, but how rare does a blockbuster of this magnitude turn out to be as good as you predicted? While the film was different to what I thought it would be, it was still bloody freaking sensational. As tense, emotional and exciting as I had envisioned. As visually stunning as I had imagined. As epic as I had hoped. Sure, if you want to you can nitpick all day, about the weakness in the script, the lack of development of the human characters (especially the females), the Hollywood stereotypes and cliches, the too-obvious exposition in the dialogue, the untied loose ends, and so forth.

Ultimately, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about as close as you can get to the perfect summer blockbuster. This goes beyond just living up to its excellent predecessor — Dawn is to Rise what The Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars, what The Godfather: Part II is to The Godfather. It might not be as intelligent as it wanted to be, but it’s still undeniably thought-provoking. It might not be as emotionally involving as it could have been, but it still tugs at the heart strings. There could have potentially been more action sequences earlier on or a more climatic ending, but you can hardly complain about what’s already there. When you factor in everything the film got right and the complete-package experience that it provides, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is simply the most flat-out awesome movie of the year.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Now it’s another 2-year wait until the next instalment in the series, currently scheduled for July 26, 2016 release date.

Book Review: ‘Sycamore Row’ by John Grisham

May 1, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

Sycamore_Row_-_cover_art_of_hardcover_book_by_John_Grisham

Alright, alright, alright.

So I picked Sycamore Row almost at random for one of my reads this year, knowing it’s yet another John Grisham bestseller but with no idea that it’s his long-awaited direct sequel to his debut novel, A Time to Kill. I’m not as high on Grisham’s first book as most of his other fans, but I thought it was a provocative and fascinating look into law and race in the United States, particularly in the notoriously racist state of Mississippi. In that book (review here), young hotshot lawyer Jack Brigance was tasked with defending African-American Carl Lee Hailey for murdering two white men who raped, tortured and nearly killing his daughter. It was a bit of a grind, a typical first novel that’s a overlong and filled with a lot of (occasionally misguided) passion, but I also can’t deny that there’s a certain charm and resonance to it.

The 1996 film adaptation starred Matthew McConaughey as Brigance, Samuel L Jackson and Hailey, and had a supporting cast with big names such as Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Ashley Judd and Oliver Platt. As I said in my review, the film is “a little self-righteous, melodramatic and contrived at times, but for the most part it was still an entertaining, thrilling, thought-provoking courtroom drama.”

And now the sequel, Sycamore Row, brings back Brigance as the central character in a whole new trial, one that is completely different to its predecessor but also tackles race issues in America’s deep south. The story is set in 1989, several years after Brigance got Hailey off murder (oops, is that a spoiler?) but remains affected by its outcome. He got the notoriety he sought but not the financial or career advancements he had hoped, and he and his wife Carly remain locked in a battle with the insurers over their burnt-down house. Out of nowhere, Brigance receives a letter containing the will of a wealthy white man who leaves the vast majority of his sizable estate to his black maid at the expense of his children, and thus begins a mammoth civil suit for the loot.

I was impressed by Grisham’s decision to switch the arena from criminal to civil this time. Most legal dramas are about murder, violence and sinister plots — after all, these sound the most enticing — but here Grisham does an excellent job of turning a will contest into an engrossing case. There are many characters and subplots weaving in and out of the narrative — there’s Brigance, bound to his duty to act for the estate but salivating at the financial windfall from a long trial, and at the same time worried that his drunken mentor, Lucien Wilbanks, is planning a return to legal practice; there’s Lettie Lang, the black maid and sudden but only potential millionaire, who has to deal with all the allegations against manipulation and misconduct of a frail old man while putting up with her deadbeat husband and family members leaching off her; there’s all the family members of the deceased, who hated him but would love some of his money to change their lives, AND all their lawyers, each angling for a slice of the lucrative pie; and of course, there’s the big mystery itself — why would the old man do what he did, if he did in fact know what he was doing?

Many of the old characters from A Time to Kill make a return, including Ozzie the town sheriff, former district attorney Rufus Buckley (played by Kevin Spacey in the movie), as well as hated divorce lawyer and Brigance ally Harry Rex (Oliver Platt in the film). It’s a testimony to the lasting power of A Time to Kill that I didn’t need much of a reminder to recall these characters I read about nearly three years ago. All of them, even the minor characters, are memorable and well-developed. I particularly liked the experienced lawyer Brigance found himself up against in the trial, Wade Lanier, who is a completely different breed to the despicable Buckley. Rather than creating yet another villain, Lanier is simply a formidable and respectable foe, someone who doesn’t mind resorting to dirty tricks but is never malicious or takes things personal.

Race is again the central theme of the book, as are the concepts of family and redemption, though this time Grisham takes a different angle. A Time to Kill was very black and white — those monsters deserved to die — but in Sycamore Row there are more shades of grey (there was even a section where Grisham questions the readers whether it was right for Hailey to have gotten off in A Time to Kill, irrespective of the injustice that was done to him). In the case of a will contest, Grisham asks why children should be obliged to look after a father who neglected them. But at the same time, why should a father leave his hard-earned money to children who wanted nothing to do with him? What is fair and what is just?

Those who have a keen interest in how the legal system works will also enjoy the painstaking nature in which Grisham goes through all the procedures leading up to the trial — even the tedious nitty gritty of it, from preliminary investigations to discovery, from pre-trial conferences to jury selection. It shows that Grisham is still passionate about the law, but on the downside more than two-thirds of the book elapses before the juicy stuff, the real trial, even begins.

It’s a long book at 464 pages for the hardcover edition, which probably means 700 pages or more for a regular paperback or large print edition. The strange thing for me when reading this book is that, despite all that happens throughout, it feels frustratingly flat, even at the supposed climax. It was as though Grisham was intentionally trying to avoid sensationalizing the story with a “slow-burn” narrative, one that plays on your emotions without being obvious about it. Part of the frustration probably comes from the feeling that you have a fairly good idea of how it is going to end, and roughly why it will end that way due to the obvious hints implanted in the story early on and along the way. Much like it was in A Time to Kill, you just know that the going will get tough and everything will appear lost before a rabbit is pulled out of the hat. I must also say that I didn’t really buy the ending, though I can’t explain why without divulging spoilers. Having said that, the final chapter steers the plot back towards more of a realistic and common sense conclusion, which at least mitigates some of the problems I had with it.

The result is a page-turner that falls short of being a compulsive page-turner. The novel keeps your interest because of the storyline and characters, but there’s also plenty of unnecessary padding. Some of it is interesting, some of it isn’t. There were a couple of times when I thought Grisham was trying to set something up for later, but the strand would never be resolved, leaving me wondering why he bothered sowing the seeds in the first place. I get the feeling that he or his editors could have easily pared back more pages to make it a smoother read.

Despite all the negative things I’ve said about Sycamore Row, I think it’s a superior novel to A Time to Kill. It’s not as compulsive, explosive or fast-paced as I hoped it would be, but I was still hooked into the story from the very first page and enjoyed reading it through to the end. It’s what Grisham fans have been hoping for ever since he penned A Time to Kill back in 1989 — a solid, emotionally satisfying sequel.

4/5

mcc

Matthew McConaughey as Jack Brigance in A Time to Kill (1996)

PS: I read in an interview somewhere that there are talks for a film adaptation of Sycamore Row and Grisham is keen to have McConaughey and his smug face back as Brigance, notwithstanding the fact that the Oscar-winner is now 44 and nearly a decade older than the character.

 
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