Tom Yum Goong 2 by Prachya Pinkaew

Tom Yum Goong by Prachya Pinkaew

 

Tom Yum Goong 2 marks Tony Jaa’s return since his announced retirement after the failed Ong Bak 3 and living life as a Buddhist monk. The sequel to 2005’s Tom Yum Goong has Kham’s elephant Khon is kidnapped once again by an evil organization that plans to blackmail Kham into assassinating the President of Katana to kickstart a coup. As flimsy as that plot sounds, it is the least of its problems.

By incorporating special effects and stereoscopic 3D into the film’s action scenes, Pinkaew forgets its major visual effect, namely Tony Jaa himself. The action is haphazardly cut with an embarrassingly huge amount of spatial jumps and tight close-ups that do not match, as if there was not enough usable footage. Many times the viewer enters the action after the first hit has been made. Apparently there were five editors on the project, what happened?

Tony Jaa is at not in his peak physical form, and the film seems to be hiding it from the audience. He is not as fast or hard-hitting as he once was. Jaa’s choreography is restrained, for most of the group fights he just seems to be dispatching people aside as quickly as possible. And the whole time, I was waiting for Jaa to show off. Everytime Ja whips out the elephant boxing style, a style that he and fight choreographer Panna invented for the previous film, are some of the film’s most exciting moments. Sadly, there is very little of it.

Jeeja Yanin from Chocolate is unfortunately sidelined, she occasionally shows up to help Tony Jaa and vice versa, but otherwise there is little interaction between them. Clumsy cop comic sidekick Petchtai Wongkamlao gets some nice lines in but as seen in the first Ong Bak his strengths seem to lie in physical comedy, which he does not get to do here. The stunning Rhatha Phongam from Only God Forgives also makes a decent femme fatale, but the overabundance of supporting characters and a political assassination plot weighs everything down as the film takes on more than it can handle. Why does it have to be so complicated? Man loses elephant. Man goes and retrieves it, end of story!

RZA, together with his film The Man with the Iron Fist and self-proclaimed love of martial arts films, is forging a reputation to being a kung fu film staple. His casting as the villain is cashing in on that particular geek sheik. Atrocious acting aside, watching RZA sharing an onscreen fight with Tony Jaa had me rolling my eyes. RZA movie fights just fine, but does anyone buy him gaining the upper hand on Ja?

Speaking of which, Marresse Crump, who plays the lead henchman, is a great onscreen fighter who can go toe-to-toe with Tony Jaa. The first fight between Crump and Jaa had me pumped, and their last fight on a train track was the type of creative set piece I was expecting to see. Both fighters are capable of more complicated choreography but the choreographers held back with their fight. The fights always seem to be over before the audience can properly enjoy them. The first Tom Yum Goong had a video game boss level-like approach with its action sequences that kept topping each other in terms of scale and insanity, which was made it entertaining and hilarious. There is nothing to that equivalent here.

The best Prachya Pinkaew film is still Chocolate, as it had a neat creative angle and managed to incorporate its action in telling an emotional story coherently. Tom Yum Goong 2 just seems oddly distracted and unconfident about what it wants to be. 

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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.

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.

Hugo by Martin Scorsese

I went into Hugo without any prior knowledge. I didn’t see a trailer or read the synopsis and only heard one radio interview. I only knew it was the Martin Scorsese 3D children’s film.

Space in movies can act as a character, it can evoke not only a sense of place, but a looming sense of character and life that can really enrich a story. That’s something that this movie achieves, one example being in the opening long shot where Hugo Cabret is crawling through the inner body of the entire train station, through the pistons all the way to his hideout. If you closed your eyes, you can smell the steam from the train pistons and feel the vibrations of the click clanks of the gears spinning around. The train station in Hugo is characterized as both a fun place at times (when Hugo is crawling through it) and a dangerous place (there are way too many ways for a child to be killed). It’s been a while since I really been moved by a sense of place since I’ve watched Hugo and was truly marveled by itThe 3D did enhance the space.

The setup of the story was problematic. The film is called Hugo, but it’s not really about Hugo Cabret the orphan (played by Asa Butterfield). It’s about Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley), a toy store owner at the train station. It started as a story about an orphan and ended up being about an old man’s legacy.

The beginning of the story used an unnecessarily long time to set up. If you took the film and shook it, 10-15 minutes would have fallen out. I started to feel bad that I wasn’t interested and invested in the Hugo Cabret character. As horrible as it sounds, him being an orphan and missing his father wasn’t enough for me to hang on after 30 minutes. The story must move forward. Honestly, the train station as a space was more of an interesting character than Hugo himself. Even the side characters (besides Inspector Gustave, played by Sacha Baron Cohen) that populate the train station and their little interactions do not add anything to the core story. It would have added to the story if they interacted more with Hugo Cabret and Georges Méliès characters.

It’s really the latter half of the film where Hugo picks up and shows what it really is about – the love of cinema. The film’s latter half is energized by Martin Scorsese’s own personal passion for filmmaking. I like Martin Scorsese films and it’s nice to see him change up his tune. It’s not like anything he’s done before, but yet it feels dear and closer to his heart. The latter half of the film was charming and enchanting. There’s a sequence we see how a group of men are made to disappear on screen through the use of editing. And you watch it with a smile.

This all raises the question of, why wasn’t this film about the passion of film from the get go? Why a meandering storyline instead of a straight one? The path the story took to get to it’s final point seemed laborious. I walked out feeling like I missed something. That I needed to go back and see it again but I didn’t miss anything. There’s nothing wrong with a story being simple but Hugo didn’t enforce the discipline of taking out the unnecessary beats. That or it didn’t create enough intrigue in the initial story between Hugo and Isabelle (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) snooping around to retrieve Hugo’s notebook from her godfather. I can’t be sure if kids would enjoy this movie because of the long drawn out story beats. There weren’t any children in my screening, so I can’t be sure of that.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot to love about this film. I think the technical awards it won were well deserved. It did something interesting with 3D. But I only ended up liking it.