Special ID by Clarence Fok

Special ID by Clarence Fok Yiu Leung

Special ID by Clarence Fok

Zilong Chen (played by Donnie Yen), an undercover police officer deep within the ranks of one of China’s most ruthless underworld gangs. The leader of the gang, Xiong (Collin Chou), has made it his priority to weed out the government infiltrators in his midst. Struggling to keep his family together and his identity concealed, Chen is torn between two worlds.

The last time Donnie Yen officially put mixed martial arts onscreen was Flashpoint (Legend of the Fist: Return of Chen Zhen does not count, that was a superhero movie), which arguably in my opinion was his artistic peak as an action choreographer and onscreen fighter. He successfully made real martial arts combat cinematic. The choreography was shot in a way that allowed the viewer to visually break down why move A was countering move B. So with that said, my expectations of the MMA fights coming into Special ID were high.

To be fair, my high expectations aren’t out of place. Donnie Yen has said he wanted to go further with displaying MMA on film. In Special ID, Yen does this by integrating the urban environment into the choreography. The fights are set in tight spaces and narrow hallways, showcasing the physical precision it required from all the stunt performers. The group fights are convincingly realistic. Everything looks less staged and the moves don’t land as cleanly, giving a gritty sense of realism. On pure cinematic terms, Yen succeeds. The choreography is another story.

The only wee complaint I had about the mixed martial arts choreography in Flashpoint was that Donnie Yen was the only one who fought with MMA techniques. Everybody else was essentially a kickboxer fighting the main character that had groundwork and wrestling skills up his sleeve. I let that go for Flashpoint, but in Special ID it has now officially become problematic.

This makes me think that Yen was solely concerned with making himself look good onscreen. Yen has been guilty of this in the past but this is too blatant. Yen’s fight with Ken Lo, a stuntman popular for being the villain from Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master 2, is one such example. There were moments designed in their fight that purposely made Ken Lo look clumsy and stupid. Anybody who has seen Ken Lo in an onscreen fight will know that he is anything but clumsy. Don’t get me wrong, these are good fights. They are are tense and grueling, but it’s too dramatically convenient if only the hero knows Brazilian Jujitsu and all the villains have no knowledge of countering it.

Much of the story problems -and there are many- with Special ID are the common problems I have with current Mainland-Hong Kong co-productions. There’s a penchant for shooting dialogue scenes in a perfectly decorated restaurant or apartment. No matter what happened in the scene before, the actors are always seated perfectly still reflecting upon what just happened. The dialogue is often on-the-nose, stating things that the filmmakers are supposed to be showing. It is television-like and I don’t know why it is the trend. The dialogue scenes in Special ID are plodding and murder every sense of dramatic tension. It’s a narrative mess.

The female police officer character played newcomer Jing Tian was a severe plot contrivance and another example of a bad Mainland film trope. Her character Fang Jing was constantly spewing preachy dialogue about how police work should be ideally done, and acted too naïve to be a convincing policewoman. It’s like her character was written to secure an approval from the Chinese Film Bureau. She had too much screen time and it was like watching Hello Kitty fight crime.

I particularly hated the manipulative choppy musical score. It was in the vibes of “Hey, it’s time to feel this emotion now!” One minute there’s the metal music for the fights, and then the next minute it’s pensive piano music when Jing Tian yaps on about following rules is the key to a good life.

Collin Chou shows up for what ends up being a disappointing role. It’s actually a cheap marketing ploy to tease the martial arts film fans that there is going to be a fight at some point in the story. Collin Chou and Donnie Yen have fought before, so as fans we expect there will be something that will at least try to top the Flashpoint fight. But sadly, that didn’t happen. After that, I was only half awake for the final showdown with Andy On.

I’d recommend people see Flashpoint again. Sure, the plot wasn’t anything new, but Wilson Yip told a proper story. He gave little dramatic touches to the heroes and villains, which created proper stakes and made me care about the characters. Special ID has no developed characters, plot or any sense of flow or consistency. This was a perfectly marketed soulless product designed to take our money. And it was just plain mean-spirited.

I will probably watch Special ID again, but probably only the fight scenes in the form of online Youtube clips. I like these fights, but wished they belonged in a better movie. Special ID was just all flash, but without the “point”.

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Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen

Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen

Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen

A New York socialite, deeply troubled and in denial, arrives in San Francisco to impose upon her sister.

To start off, Blue Jasmine has a tremendous cast. A lot of unsung credit belongs to Allen’s long time casting director Juliet Taylor, who’s assembled a cast that aptly plays the social distinction between the lower and upper class. Each character, whether it’s a glass-clinking socialite or a muscled tough guy builder, says the pitch perfect thing in the exact way they would say it. They all felt like real people.

As of right now, Cate Blanchett should win the Oscar for Best Actress.  She is the film’s main event. There’s no sense of where Cate Blanchett starts and Jasmine French begins, she simply was just the character. Her character, Jasmine French, is not a likable character in any traditional sense. But she in such immense physical stress and on the brink of complete mental breakdown, it is an awesome spectacle to be marveled. It was like Blanchett was suffering in front of me for the entire 98 minutes.
Sally Hawkins is a great partner to Blanchett as her onscreen sister Ginger. Hawkins provides the necessary counter balance for the audience to gain true insight into Jasmine. It is like watching a master class in acting watching them. Alec Baldwin makes a great slime ball. I couldn’t help laughing when Louis C.K. showed up as a sleazy boyfriend. His character reminded me how some of my male friends are with women. The real surprise was Andrew Dice Clay, who gives a heartfelt performance as Ginger’s husband Augie. I hope he gets a nomination.

Blue Jasmine is by no means the most audience friendly of Allen’s works. Actually, it may be the most uncomfortable film Allen has made. For some audiences, this might be too akin to real life to be truly entertaining. There are many laughs, however most of it is nervous laughter from witnessing an oncoming train wreck situation perpetually worsening. Woody Allen’s sense of irony and truth is so strong, even when he tries to be dramatic it still comes off funny.

Allen has masterfully written the script in such a way that it was hard to see where the story was heading. It was not traditionally written where one scene set up the next. Instead, it was more like I was looking into these characters’ lives. Whether you like Woody Allen or not, it doesn’t matter. Blue Jasmine fires completely on another level and it’s really something to behold.

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Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

In my opinion, the key to making special effects convincing onscreen is designing the effect to look somewhere between real and unreal. When the audience can’t figure out what’s real and what’s not, they will believe it. This is what happened to me during Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.

Since Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón takes his love of the long take and brings it to new levels. I couldn’t figure out how these long shots were accomplished.  The camera floats freely around the astronauts in space in long takes, occasionally shifting from third person perspective to first person. The camera loops, twirls, corkscrews around space, completely forgoing the human sense of up and down. It looked like the cameraman was really floating around with the actors. I knew that wasn’t possible. But eventually I tapped out and let the movie spectacle just wash over me.

As science fiction thematically explores the extreme potential of mankind, awe is an important component to every science fiction story. I was in sheer awe through the entirety of Gravity. Firstly, outer space and the beauty of Earth from a distance awed me. Then there was the solemn beauty of witnessing the space stations being decimated in space. I began to marvel at the destruction and momentarily thought deep thoughts. It was as if for a second I was watching waves wash ashore on a beach while reading J. Krishnamurti. Finally, I was awed by the fragility of human life. After all, all astronauts are just little fishes trying to survive out of their own habitat. The experience was otherworldly, self-reflective and dangerous all at the same time.

I walked into Gravity mistakenly thinking it was a George Clooney vehicle. To my surprise, it’s a Sandra Bullock movie. Sandra Bullock has always had a natural personable quality onscreen. Whether it was pining for her crush to awaken from a coma in While You Were Sleeping or driving a bus that’s primed to explode in Speed, she’s always able to draw the audience into her plight with vulnerability. Bullock’s characters never feel above the audience. Often this quality of hers get overlooked from having to play cheerful funny characters in romantic comedies.

In Gravity, that quality is used to its full extent. We watch as she struggles to survive a series of obstacles. Her performance is as immersive as the special effects. She draws you in completely into her plight. I wish more depth were given to her character. By the beginning of the third act, the film starts to run low on its spectacle and it came to the moment where more character was needed for a bigger statement. Gravity elected to stay with its spectacle and jetted for the finish line. It had a good ending, but it was missing that final thematic punch that answers, “What is this story ultimately about?” and “Why am I watching this?”

And for that, Gravity is a great gem and one exhilarating thrill ride. I am even happy that it was a great role for Sandra Bullock. I just do not know if the thrills will be as compelling on subsequent viewings. So in the end, it is not a masterpiece, but very awesome nonetheless.

About Time by Richard Curtis

About Time by Richard Curtis

About Time by Richard Curtis

At the age of 21, Tim (played by Domhall Glesson) discovers he can travel in time and change what happens and has happened in his own life. His decision to make his world a better place by getting a girlfriend turns out not to be as easy as you might think.

As a story that involves time travel, About Time doesn’t even follow it’s established time travel rules. The most impressive part of it is, the movie is so charming with human warmth, none of that even matters.

I found myself not even caring about the broken rules. In fact, to be honest, I was so charmed and immersed into the story and characters I did not notice the rules were broken long after the movie was over. Plot hole zealots will have a ball nitpicking this film to oblivion but those who do will completely miss the film’s point. Curtis’ interest doesn’t lie in science fiction spectacle; the time travel explanation itself is as unscientific as it gets.

Curtis’ priorities lie upon human matters, which brings me to the characters. The film is well casted. As a romantic lead, Domhall Gleeson has an everyman quality that believably would have struggles dating women. That’s a common complaint I have with a lot of romantic comedies generally. Glesson seems like a normal bloke whose charm needs time to grow on someone as opposed to being immediately charming with practiced swagger. Rachel McAdams is adorable and shows good comic timing. She’s played a similar role before in Morning Glory, which was one of my favorites that year. Again, unlike a lot of romance stories, McAdams’ allure doesn’t hang solely on her beauty. The Mary character is smart, funny and an interesting person. More importantly, she is the type of the girl one would marry and take home to your parents.

Bill Nighy is Curtis’s secret ingredient and is the heart of the film. It’s a subtle minimalist performance, as if Nighy played the scenes as honestly as he could without adding any character quirks or anything an actor would do to purposely chew up the scenery. Nighy is an amicable presence, is effortlessly hilarious with his deliveries and inflections of every piece of dialogue he’s given.

There’s also a great cast of supporting characters that cover a variety of character quirks that I don’t even want to spoil here. They all have their little arcs and I think it’s probably a better experience to discover them while you’re watching the film.

The main point is that Richard Curtis used time traveling as a metaphor to say something profound about life. He captures moments of life’s joy and sadness. In doing so, the film is more than the sum of its parts. I was warmed by Curtis’ optimistic view of life and the sincere message he conveyed in About Time. For a guy that doesn’t cry at movies, I can say that other people will by the film’s end. Heck, I probably would have enjoyed it more if I could roll a tear.

This is probably the one of the best movies I have seen this year. If it doesn’t stay on my top ten by the end of 2013, it would be very surprising.

Don Jon by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Don Jon by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Jon “Don Jon ”Martello is dedicated to his family, friends, his apartment, church and one night stands with women. But none of these compare to the transcendent bliss he achieves with pornography. Dissatisfied, he embarks on a journey to find a more gratifying sex life, but ends up learning larger lessons of life and love from two very different women.

Don Jon marks as the debut film of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is the writer, director and star of the film. What’s most praiseworthy about JGL’s direction is how he puts the audience into the world view of his lead character Don Jon. It makes a good cinematic explanation of how Don Jon prefers pornography over bedding real women, a character trait that can easily be viewed as unlikeable or disgusting if mishandled. We never really venture outside his world, but yet Don Jon’s views seem logical enough to keep the audience invested in what happens to him.

Directing duties aside, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ability to transform himself amazes me. Having seen him in Inception, (500) Days of Summer and The Dark Knight Rises have familiarized me with the sound of his real voice, but I was still astounded by Don Jon’s macho New Jersey-accented voice. I was carefully listening to Don Jon’s dialogue and couldn’t detect any hints of Gordon-Levitt’s real voice underneath. It is artfully consistent and was the core element that sold me on the Don Jon character.

Scarlett Johansson has been said to be a wooden actress in the past. I think this was probably one of her better performances. This character felt like a real person to me. I have met and dated girls like Barbara. Furthermore, the allure of Scarlett Johansson is cinematically ramped up to eleven. She hasn’t been filmed to this level of sexiness since Match Point. For fans of the Black Widow, I’d even argue that this tops that. This is probably more to the credit of the direction. We feel Don Jon’s hunger for her. And like Don Jon, she too mesmerized me. And not just cause of her looks. She seemed like the ideal girlfriend at first and couldn’t really see her character flaws till late in the film. When I realized her character flaws, I was surprised I didn’t see them before. That was a very compelling moment for me in the theater. Honestly, Johansson’s character distracted me so much, I would need a second viewing to tell you anything about the Julianne Moore character.

Seeing Tony Danza as Don Jon’s father Jon Sr. takes me back to my childhood. He was the only man on TV who can make my dad cackle like a fiend in the English language. Danza’s presence adds warmth and makes for a convincing father. Brie Larson gets to do a Silent Bob type gag that is quite amusing.

The film’s brutally truthful display about the realities of men and women as a source for comedy, while handled tastefully with charm by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, hits a little too close to home. I have had discussions like this with a girlfriend similar to the Scarlett Johansson character. It accurately captures why it’s hard for men to explain the joys of pornography to the opposite sex. As Louis C.K. once put it, men just need to release so they don’t go out and murder somebody. That’s really it, but it’s not a pleasing satisfying statement to convince a girlfriend with. I’d argue that any girl that needs an explanation wouldn’t be convinced anyways because they probably have double standards. The film seems to take the same stance. All that said, the film managed to end on a poignant tender note.

In the end, Don Jon is somewhat of an odd animal. I wouldn’t personally recommend it as a date movie with your girlfriend, for the very fact that it might just open the awkward discussion of “How much pornography do you watch?” with your girlfriend. I still think people should see it as it is a competent debut film.

So on a more politically neutral note, I’d say guys would have more fun with it watching it with their guy friends and likewise with girls and their girlfriends. It’s probably better to be charmed by it separately than leaving the theater together primed for an awkward argument.

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2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

A DEA agent and a Naval Intelligence officer find themselves on the run after a botched attempt to infiltrate a drug cartel. While fleeing, they learn the secret of their shaky alliance: they are both undercover agents.

2 Guns is reminiscent of buddy cop movies in the late eighties and nineties. Unlike a lot of recent throwback 80’s action films, it tastefully retains much of the fun factor by concentrating on character and dialogue and removing some of the modern tropes that have gone stale, like the oversaturation of pop culture references. With its setup and buddy dynamic, at times it actually reminded me of the 1996 Adam Sandler and Damon Wayons buddy cop movie Bulletproof.

What elevated 2 Guns from standard action fare were exactly the snappy dialogue and the buddy dynamic between Washington and Wahlberg. The two lead actors create a believable long-time friendship and it gave the movie a sizzling charm that you just can’t look away from. Watching Walhberg and Washington rapidly throw zingers back and forth alone made the price of admission. After seeing his facetious performance in this film, it’s easy now to imagine Mark Wahlberg taking over the role of Tony Stark in future Marvel films.

The film has a good supporting cast. James Marsden and Edward James Olmos seem overqualified for these supporting roles. It’s nice to see them but they have too little time to truly shine. Paula Patton is cast in a seemingly intelligent female role, but is ultimately there for her sex appeal. Bill Paxton is the only one who gets to properly chew up some scenery as a scary CIA agent with a flair for torturing his victims.

The story moved along fast like a shark, for fear that stopping for a thoughtful pause would ruin its momentum and shatter the illusion of how complicated the plot seems. The action scenes are fun. More importantly, they are visible and you can follow what’s going on.  When it came to the finale, the film said “Screw it!” to all the dramatic buildup from the first two acts and serves a lesser solution to its conflict.
 Had it been a slower moving story with less charming leads, I would have considered the finale a cop out ending and been pissed.

But this time, I just went with it. I’m a sucker for buddy cop movies. 2 Guns just oozes old school charm, and charm can go a long way.

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This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

While attending a party at James Franco’s house, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and many other celebrities are faced with the apocalypse.

First off, I want to say I am a fan of the Judd Apatow team. Before Judd Apatow made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, I wasn’t really into the American comedies that were dominated by Ben Stiller, Will Ferrel and Vince Vaughn. The improvisational nature of Apatow’s comedy and the crude sophomoric jokes infused with a heartfelt message hit me on a deeper level. As a lover of buddy cop movies, I’m also generally a sucker for bromance movies, of which I would argue is a close relative. Most of all, I like Apatow’s cast of actors. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, James Franco… they’re all funny in their own idiosyncratic way and seem to have free reign over their own personas.

This brings me to my first critique of This is the End. The central gag of having the actors play themselves isn’t as funny as the film thinks it is. For example, This is the End‘s version of Michael Cera is a foul-mouthed cocaine addict. Why? Because the filmmakers thought it’d be funny to do a total reversal on Cera’s real life persona. That gag is only truly funny if we know what Michael Cera is like in real life. Most of us, unlike the filmmakers, can only drawn upon Michael Cera’s timid onscreen persona. That creates enough of a contrast to elicit laughs and it does. However, the filmmakers are ultimately more connected to the joke than the audience can ever be, and that is problematic on some level. I get the feeling I should be laughing harder than the film is making me.

Just to reiterate, I did laugh. There were times when the celebrity gag won me over. I liked how the character relationships were set up and they all have great chemistry. Jay Baruchel plays the audience’s avatar and reacts to all colors of obnoxious behavior exhibited by the other actors. Actually, the film even takes it one comedic step further. When Danny McBride enters the film, he does his brand of obnoxious behavior that happens to be so overwhelming, the other annoying actors call him on it and ask him to stop.

When the film doesn’t rely on the celebrity gag and gives something for the characters to do to survive the Apocalypse, it’s much more creative and funnier. I liked the graphic novel-like style that went into the world creation of the apocalypse. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg deliver some surprises to what’s going on outside James Franco’s house. The parts in between that didn’t pertain to surviving the Apocalypse are strung by improvisational dialogue scenes and they stick out as the weaker moments. I recognize the ability to improvise scenes and be funny on camera, but watching the cast react to the fantastical elements was more interesting than watching the celebrities react to each other. As the audience’s avatar, Jay Baruchel ends up being outnumbered as he is the only genuine likable character in a cast of six. So for somebody isn’t already warm to these actors, they easily come off as very unlikable. And that can get taxing rather quickly. The writing isn’t doing enough to build enough character for the cast and the film is completely reliant on what we know of these actors and their past works.

Due to its leaning towards it’s own self-referential quality than being a apocalyptic survival film, This is the End is ultimately a fan film for the Judd Apatow audience. (Think Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back for Kevin Smith’s Viewaskew Universe) If you never liked any of the comedies from the Judd Apatow team, this movie isn’t going to convert you. If you don’t like none of these actors, I’d tell you to just skip it altogether. I am part of the Apatow audience and like these actors, and even with that, it felt like watching one gigantic inside joke.