A Royal Affair by Nikolaj Arcel

A Royal Affair by Nikolaj Arcel


A Royal Affair is set in the 18th century, at the court of the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark (played by Mikkel Følsgaard), and focuses on the romance between his wife, Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (played by Alicia Vikander), and the royal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (played by Mads Mikkelsen).

It’s an exciting story and it’s very well told. At times, I found myself rooting for Caroline and hated King Christian VII. And then when doctor Struensee is introduced, I was rooting for him and Caroline. In the end, all three characters start to develop a triad relationship and King Christian started to become more likable so I rooted for all three of them. It perfectly shifted perspectives at different points of the story and we come to understand the personal meaning behind each character’s actions.

Mads Mikkelsen brings a firm masculine presence to Struensee. He carries a wisdom, which isn’t telegraphed through a typical scene where his character would recite intelligent things in front of the queen as she dilates her pupils impressed. No, it’s acted out in with his body and the way he carries himself. It’s easy to see why the king is charmed by him and why the queen falls in love with him. He is too good of an actor to be wasting his time playing young Hannibal Lecter in an American TV series. Hannibal Lecter is done, that character is just not scary anymore. Please make more movies like this!

Alicia Vikander has very expressive eyes. She communicates the repressed restraint of Queen Caroline Matilda, who is living in her own personal hell where she’s forced to live in constant abuse. She does a good job aging Queen Caroline from an innocent girl to a woman who eventually learns to be a queen. There’s no old age make-up, it’s purely in how she communicates the age from the confidence that one gains from life.

The unsung performance is Mikkel Følsgaard as King Christian VII of Denmark.  I read that King Christian VII has mental illness. They do not really go into that here but he does seem quite insane. On one level it is disturbing to watch because I can see anyone acting as psychotic as he does if one was the king and can do no wrong. But Mikkel Følsgaard communicates that deep down Christian is probably a scared boy that does not know what to do with his power.

If it were up to me, the film deserves Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor for its three leads.

A Royal Affair is well-shot with good production values and beautiful art direction. The film feels very romantic. The dance scene between Caroline and Struensee is sexy. There is a genuine sense of jeopardy because you feel their passion for each other, but like the characters, the audience doesn’t know where their love can ever go. That makes every moment so much more valuable.

One of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

Iron Man 3 by Shane Black

Iron Man 3 by Shane Black

When Tony Stark’s world is torn apart by a formidable terrorist called the Mandarin, he starts an odyssey of rebuilding and retribution.

Iron Man 3 follows in the vein of  The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall in which a hero is broken apart entirely and has to put himself back together. I personally like this story of a hero falling, rebuilding himself and rising again. The similarities in story for both Rises and Skyfall didn’t bother me because both films individualized the story specifically towards its hero.

Unfortunately, this is where Iron Man 3 drops the ball. The event that causes Tony Stark’s fall does not make much sense. What happened to Stark’s friend wouldn’t lead to what happened, let’s just leave it at that. The rebuilding of Tony Stark is the strongest portion and was something new. They do a good job breaking Tony Stark apart and putting him in a place where has to work without his armor. But Iron Man 3 makes its biggest sin in its third act when Tony Stark resurges – they forget and forego the essence of Tony Stark.

The story events that are affecting the characters never seem to match logically. Why is Tony Stark stressed about the New York incident in The Avengers? He didn’t cause the incident. Is it post-traumatic stress? It didn’t seem so, but it was not clear. Shouldn’t his guilt be centered upon his past as a weapons arm dealer and his continuing journey to right his past mistakes?

What they choose to do with The Mandarin was disappointing. He is a plot device, he’s not a character. Ben Kingsley is just collecting a cheque and selling some self-parody. I’m not even going into Guy Pearce’s villain except to say his character motivations were underwritten and his abilities are ridiculous.

Shane Black is one of my favorite screenwriters (The Last Boyscout and the first two Lethal Weapon films) and I am a big fan of his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It was nice how they were a Christmas theme running through the film, like in all the other Shane Black screenplays. I’d like to believe the finished product was not the film he wanted to make. In fact, I bet a year or two from now we’ll be hearing a statement from Shane Black about how he did not have creative control or had a better draft of the script that was heavily changed. Or he could have dropped the ball. Who knows? Seriously, the script seems written by a marketing committee, checklisting certain plot points from successful examples such as Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises, and forcibly inserting them into the script.

I remember years ago reading a quote from Shane Black saying how the producers on The Last Boyscout bought his script based on his ability to write sharp witty one-liners, not on account of the story or anything creative he was trying to achieve. That complaint is talismanic of the problem with the use of humor in Iron Man 3. There were way too many silly jokes that didn’t add to the story and it kept distracting from the seriousness of what was happening. It’s a poor unnecessary attempt to make things family friendly.

Let me make something clear, I do not equate these criticisms against the film having to follow The Avengers. It was a good choice to not include S.H.I.E.L.D, Nick Fury and the other Avengers, and set it as a solo Tony Stark story. But the place they go with the character totally nullifies the entire essence of Tony Stark. It would have been like Batman using a time machine to stop the death of his own parents, so he can stop being Batman. First of all, that would be okay if this was the last Iron Man movie. But it isn’t, this is the beginning of Marvel Phase 2. Secondly, having the hero removing his very own essence without fighting through a conflict is just plain cheating.

As I’ve said with my Avengers review, Marvel doesn’t need to make more solo movies if they don’t have legitimate stories to tell, they can just make more Avengers movies at this point. They’ve already upped the ante and we’re naturally expecting more.

I like Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, and they’ll move on to do better things. But this sadly wasn’t one of them. It’s the weakest of the three.

Louis C.K.: Oh My God

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Louis C.K.: Oh My God by Louis C.K.

I have no intention of going through and naming each comedy bit, that would ruin the surprise and fun of watching this new hour from Louis C.K.. The core of C.K.’s comedy is not the material itself. He is not reliant on comedy mechanics for laughs. Nothing he says ever feels like a joke in the traditional ‘setup, punchline’ sensibility. No, the humor is sourced in his energy and inflections, where the audience is experiencing the world through his point of view as if we were in his body, thoughts or fantasies. Sometimes it’s all three.

Often I find myself laughing at his word choices and visual descriptions. At times, he’s merely just stating the obvious. But the way C.K. utilizes a metaphor or simile is artful in how he can conjoin two separate ideas together, where he can wormhole the audience’s minds to some unexpected grotesque places for comparisons. And then he builds on it by acting out these ridiculous thought trains. There was also one improvisational moment where he accidentally spills water and he comments on it that had me aching in laughter. The bit he did as his closer was truly the climax of this new hour.

C.K. makes a point that being older makes a more intelligent and interesting person. He is the living embodiment of his own point. We’re watching a comedian who has grown into himself, and we’re intrigued not just for the laughs, but because he has something to say. A voice with true gravitas that he has earned from living a life.

And for that, Louis C.K. seems eternally connected to the grotesque and the morbid, but it’s all enwrapped over a positive message: appreciate life and what you have. That’s how he gets away with saying very horrible things on stage. As an audience member and a student of stand-up comedy, I enjoy watching him get away with it.

Ip Man: The Final Fight by Herman Yau

Ip Man: The Final Fight by Herman Yau

Ip Man: The Final Fight chronicles the later life of Wing Chun Grandmaster Ip Man.

The most interesting aspect between Herman Yau-Anthony Wong collaborations is that their partnership had its roots in Hong Kong Category III horror. Ebola Syndrome is still one of the most disgusting movies I have ever seen and been guiltily entertained by. Forget Outbreak or Contagion, Ebola Syndrome was a far more disturbing movie about a viral outbreak. Forget Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Wong truly played a disturbing sociopath in that movie. The point is: they’re not afraid to delve into the gritty, the ugly and the disgusting.

Set against the big commercial movie cog machine and the Ip Man franchise, the majority of Yau-Wong penchant for grittiness is diluted and only some of it remains in Ip Man: The Final Fight. It is that essence of the grittier and the uglier sides of Ip Man that makes out for the more interesting parts in Ip Man: The Final Fight, but it’s also the film’s major weakness because it never treads far enough from familiar territory.

What the film ends up being more like tonally is a combination of the Wilson Yip-Donnie Yen Ip Man films and Bruce Lee My Brother, where it is loosely glossing over the details of the grandmaster’s life and dramatically punching up the action so it can allow for fight scenes, but also providing a retro-gaze of Hong Kong accompanied with a celebrity guest-list cameos.

For example, it’s been said that Ip Man sported an opium habit. The concept is telegraphed but never truly explored. Another example is Hong Kong actor Liu Kai Chi gives a cameo as Ip Man’s friend who is suffering from poverty. They start what might be a potentially interesting storyline but it never finishes itself. Much of the film is like that.

There are about several subplots running through the story and they all end up as separate vignettes that do not rise above the sum of it’s parts. For a biopic drama, that’s a problem because it does not provide an unified narrative goal. This is not an editing issue. The story was based on Ip Chun’s stories of his father and it is as if seemed like the screenwriter noted them down as told and the director literally shot them that way. So I attribute this issue to lazy writing. The retroactive voice-over device ends up killing a lot of the drama. The scene will be happening and the voice-over will cut in summing up the rest of the scene in past tense. It keeps glossing over by stating what happened instead of letting the audience experience what’s happening in the now.

Anthony Wong is very natural as Ip Man. He looks most like the real-life version of Ip Man and actually adopts a Foshan accent. He breathes many colors into the role and the scenes with Ip Man and his students is the heart of the film. Anthony Wong is pretty much the best thing about this movie and his performance alone is the price of admission.

Eric Tsang has a great supporting role as a Crane style master who befriends Ip Man. There is a self-referential joke where Tsang says being a ‘clan master’ (獎門人) is difficult, a reference to his famous television gameshow, that was self-serving and unnecessary. Tsang and Wong share an awesome fight together. Not a lot of people remember that Eric Tsang started out as a stuntman; the fight looks very authentic. They were really smashing their forearms together. Eric Tsang is a badass.

Something I noticed about the cinematography was there were way too many crane shots in this film. There’s a scene that ends on a connective moment between two characters and then it cuts to a crane shot backing away presenting a view of the entire rooftop set. I have a theory about this. In Hong Kong, booking a crane from a production house is a planned expense and usually you would require more crew members or more time to set up a crane shot. Production houses in the Mainland will give crews an entire film equipment package in their deals, which includes cranes and jibs. With the cheap labor and higher amount of crew members, a crane shot can be set up much faster in the Mainland. As a recent occurrence, a lot of Chinese productions lead by Hong Kong directors have recently been very crane shot-heavy. Hong Kong directors, this needs to stop. You have to remember to pull back every once and a while.

Just as a small footnote, I really hated the Bruce Lee cameo. Playing Bruce Lee in a film is by no means an easy feat but the actor they chose was abysmally awful. He made Bruce Lee look like a rich asshole sellout. It was not fun, nor did it work as a pop culture reference.

Overall, I enjoyed this film, but I do not think it works completely as a standalone piece. It seems to fit as the final piece to this whole line of Ip Man films. In a way, I can’t help it because they’ve made so many movies about Ip Man in such a short time.

With every film, I see a little more of who this man was, what his legacy was and it had me thinking about even what being a good teacher means. I still think The Grandmaster is the best Ip Man film. They really don’t need to make any more Ip Man movies. And if they do (and I think they are because I saw a poster for an Ip Man 3 with Donnie Yen), please do the story with Bruce Lee and get him right.

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The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai

Oz the Great and Powerful by Sam Raimi

Oz the Great and Powerful by Sam Raimi

Oz the Great and Powerful is the story of Oscar Diggs (played by James Franco), who arrives in the Land of Oz and encounters three witches; Theodora (played by Mila Kunis), Evanora (played by Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (played by Michelle Williams).

When I was a kid, every time I got sick meant that I would risk an ear infection. My mom would take me to the Sick Kids Hospital in downtown Toronto. The most distinct thing I remember about that hospital was that in every waiting room they would loop The Wizard of Oz over and over on a television screen for kids. As a child, I do not recall ever sitting down and properly watching from beginning to end but my body was frequently shitty enough for me to bracket the entire movie through multiple shortened viewings.

As a child, the following things about The Wizard of Oz distinctly struck me. First, I remember the vibrant Technicolor look of Oz. Second, I noticed how every character in the story had an impediment or flaw, which was something they all had to overcome together as a group. Lastly, I recall being deeply scared by the Wicked Witch of the West, her flying monkeys and even the initial appearance of Oz.

Sam Raimi has reportedly said he does not believe in 3D filmmaking, but decidedly to make an exception for this film, believing it would immerse the audience into the world. Along with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi last year, this is probably one of the best uses of 3D I have experienced. Not once did I squint during the movie or was tempted to take off the glasses at any point.

The 3D enhances the spectacle of Oz, but it’s not solely responsible for it. There’s a really great sense of wonder from the world and it even builds upon the world of Oz you see in the original. There’s an imminent feeling that things are happening in this world beyond what you are witnessing onscreen. The set pieces often felt like a theme park ride and like a child I would physically flinch to the things happening onscreen. I held onto my legs in a sequence where Oz’s balloon is tossed by wind and descends through a waterfall. Suffice to say, I recommend seeing it in 3D.

The film has a great cast. James Franco carries the film competently by making an unlikable character very watchable. The best performance by a mile is Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch. She hits the right combination between doing an impression and adding her own interpretation of the role, like the cast of the Star Trek films.

The origin of the Wicked Witch of the West could have used a little more time to flesh her character out, but it was the most intriguing out of all the subplots. The actress who plays the fully-formed Wicked Witch of the West is seemingly lacking in vocal range. A lot of the Witch’s dialogue is screamed and it seemed like her voice was constantly on the verge of cracking.

Sam Raimi has an in-depth understanding of the similarities between a laugh and a scare. He knows when to pull back and hold a shot to build tension. You know something’s about to happen, but there’s no way to foresee if it’s good or bad until it happens. There’s a great sense of rhythm running through the film. I can only imagine it comes from Raimi’s DIY approach directing the Evil Dead films. Yes, this is a very funny movie. The dialogue between Oz and his monkey sidekick Finley is witty and stands out as some of the best-written clean funny dialogue I have heard in a while. For it’s scary moments, it’s balanced to the point that I think the majority of kids can still withstand and enjoy it. I laughed my way through the scares myself.

It’s unfair to measure Oz the Great and Powerful to The Wizard of Oz. The explorer who discovered Nova Scotia is simply not going to measure up to Christopher Columbus discovering America. You cannot rediscover a creative landmark. It’s just that simple. But I do think Oz the Great and Powerful gets as close as one can to realistically matching the joy of The Wizard of Oz for today. It spiritually retains the things that I found compelling about The Wizard of Oz. I was awed, tickled, scared and finally was touched at the film’s conclusion. Above all, it made me feel like the sick boy in the hospital waiting room again.