HK Auteur Top Ten Films of 2013

Top Ten of 2013:
1. Blue Jasmine
2. About Time
3. The Act of Killing
4. Pacific Rim
5. Man of Steel
6. The Heat
7. The Call
8. Before Midnight
9. Gravity
10. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Honorable Mentions:
Berberian Sound Studio
The Conjuring
To the Wonder
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Behind the Candelabra
Prisoners
Firestorm
Captain Phillips
Snowpiercer
Don Jon

Genuine Surprises:
The World’s End
The Guilt Trip
Man of Tai Chi

Downright Hated:
Unbeatable
Special ID
Cloud Atlas
Iron Man
3


Still Yet to See (Will be Updated):
The Wind Rises
47 Ronin

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Philomena
Christmas Rose
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Way Way Back
Nebraska
Mud
Dallas Buyers Club
Nebraska
Like Father, Like Son
Blue is the Warmest Color

Verdict:

It seems this year I have gravitated to films that have impacted me on a deep emotional level on a lower volume than something to the likes of a loud and big special effects film or quirky idiosyncratic emotions from an indie picture. Even a film like Man of Steel moved me in its quieter dramatic moments. Anything that reflected upon life or anything about relationships between people were more personal to me this year.

Second to being touched were films that made me laugh, notably Pacific RimAbout Time and The Heat were films that I laughed from start to finish. It is an achievement that is often easily dismissed, but that earns huge props in my book.

One thing that I admittedly avoided were films with heavy subjects. The only movie that really peaked my interest was The Act of Killing. I was glad to have seen Terence Malick’s To the Wonder and Werner Herzog’s Youtube PSA about texting while driving, but I just didn’t want to think deep existential thoughts about life this year. I don’t know if there are more films like these out there this year.

I would have liked more Asian or European films to be on the list, but thus far nothing has earned any spots on my Top Ten, only my Honorable Mentions.

Most of the films yet to be reviewed are because they haven’t been released yet in my area, and I will probably get caught up in February when Oscar season comes around. I ask you to be patient with me.

Lastly, I figure I need to see more bad movies, which I  gladly would if I was able to review films professionally. There are films much more horrid than the ones I’ve listed here.

Again, as I’ve said before, I’ll try to keep it interesting. Bring on 2014!

The Internship by Shawn Levy

The Internship by Shawn Levy

Two salesmen whose careers have been torpedoed by the digital age find their way into a coveted internship at Google, where they must compete with a group of young, tech-savvy geniuses for a shot at employment.

The Internship has the misfortune of being wrongfully marketed by its trailer, which sells one of the film’s throwaway jokes about the X-men movies as if it was the best kneeslapping joke in a cheap goofy comedy. I scoffed when I saw the trailer, but The Internship isn’t entirely what its trailer represents to be. What is hidden from everybody is that it’s also partly a drama delivering a positive message about striving forward and taking risks in life.

For the most part, it’s a charming comedy drama. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson play to their own strengths. Vaughn always had a natural salesman type quality and here he really sells that.

The stark contrast between Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson’s characters, who are old school salesmen, and the young tech-savvy geek kids is overly exaggerated. The film acts as though being an face-to-face type salesman means never coming into any contact with the internet, smart phones and have no knowledge of contemporary popular culture. This is primarily where the comedy is drawn from and it all varies from a laugh to a chuckle to no laughs. The comedy fares better when it doesn’t draw from that character contrast. One noteworthy gag was the Google team building event where they all played a faux Quidditch match. That was knee slapping hilarious. Are team building activities at Google really that much fun?

In the end, the sincerity of The Internship‘s life affirming message is somewhat tainted by the fact that the film plays like a Google recruitment ad. For a viewer that may be taken back by the big blatant advertisement will probably not enjoy the film very much. It didn’t bother me much because there was just enough sincerity and laughs to pull me through the commercialisms. That is the dividing line between audiences who will be charmed by The Internship or be turned off by it, because strictly speaking it is a bit of a mixed bag.

Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach

Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach


Frances Ha
is a character study of its lead character, Frances Halladay, a dancer in her late twenties trying to find herself career wise and work through with her friends and surrounding community.

The title character Frances and her friends, notably New York hipsters, are not particularly interesting company. Having seen Baumbach’s previous film Greenberg, what is Noah Baumbach’s fascination with these hipster generation-Z characters that have an aversion for employment? Is Baumbach critiquing them, implying they should better people? No, Baumbach just navel gazes at the New York hipster sheik. Did I learn anything new about this generation’s youth? No, because I already know people like this and generally avoid them.

For instance, Frances seems to be afraid of the typical career ladder and desires something more. Dancing, what’s she’s established as her job, doesn’t seem fulfilling. But being a waitress is out of the question because her privileged upbringing makes it humiliating. Meanwhile, things start to become financially difficult. She then starts to lie pathologically to keep up with her friends who have gone ahead in life. Is she active in discovering her passion? No, she just mopes around, hoping it’ll hit her one day.

And like that, the movie goes on and on. Even at 89 minutes, it felt long watching these characters mope along talking about nothing. Greta Gerwig is very good in the lead part and displays a considerable amount of depth playing a quarter life crisis. She captured that boomerang generation mentality to a tee. It succeeds at what it does as a character portrait, but it’s truly interesting only when her character gets active. I just wished more things, whether comic, dramatic or tragic, happened so that she can be more compelling. For me, only the last 15 minutes were interesting. After all, there’s only so much quirkiness one can take.

Firestorm by Alan Yuen

Firestorm by Alan Yuen

Firestorm, the latest action thriller starring Andy Lau, is a character study trying to burst out of its commercial contraptions. The commercial aspects is a cops and robbers film with the volume turned up to eleven. Every moment is crucial. One can almost take the last frame of every shot, matte it and make a comic book out of the whole movie. The hidden arthouse aspects are the character study of its two leads and the morality play of right and wrong, which emanates later in the story. Director Alan Yuen keeps things moving along, artfully combining these two components in such a way that there’s never time for the audience to stop and think. For most of it, Firestorm is a fun ride.

Andy Lau leads the film sufficiently as the film’s righteous hero, but the heavy lifting comes with a cost. Senior Inspector Lui is mostly an action-oriented role. And he only gets interesting till the later portion when the Infernal Affairs-like morality play begins. It’s only then Lau holsters his gun and gets to chew some scenery.

It is great to see Gordon Lam, Hong Kong’s most versatile working character actor, finally play a lead role in a feature film. Out of the two leads, Lam has the more complex character. Andy Lau is billed as the lead on the poster, but the story is arguably more about Gordon Lam. He’s never given a bad performance and here he is the heart of the story. Yao Chen, who I thought would be a love interest for Andy Lau’s character (as it usually would), is the romantic love interest for Gordon Lam. I doubt a modern working woman in this day and age will tolerate a convict boyfriend to the level that she does, but Yao Chen brings a much-needed believability to the situation by reacting.

For what the film does for Gordon Lam, it falls short with veteran actors Hu Jun and Ray Lui, who are oddly undeveloped villains. This is not the way to use actors of their calibre; they deserve better. Michael Wong also has a cameo as Andy Lau’s boss. Does Wong treat Chinese film producers to dinner every week or has comprising photos of them? He tries to be subtle, which for him means trying to whisper his lines in a high-pitched voice as if he breathed vials of helium before each take. He is god awful as usual, but fortunately there is very little of him.

The action sequences are all entertaining and it is impressive how they are all set in in busy Hong Kong locales. There’s a sufficient amount of design going into the 3D for its action scenes; everybody uses tracer ammunition (which highlights the bullet trajectory) and there’s a noteworthy portion with birds. One particular high wire action set piece got too ridiculous. Let’s just say if I was dangling at a high altitude, I wouldn’t purposely slam the scaffolding that’s hoisting me. The finale shootout in Central’s Queen Street is the price of admission. Suffice to say, mayhem ensues. For any Airsoft fans out there, with all the Hong Kong police uniforms, SWAT gear, guns and muzzle flash that appears onscreen, this will be Disneyland for you.

To match its drama with an epic operatic grandeur, Firestorm‘s story is built around the metaphor of an oncoming typhoon blowing towards Hong Kong. As my creative writing teacher once said about one of my short stories, “Your pathetic fallacy is pathetic.” Sorry, it is too over-the-top at times. For example, Peter Kam’s bombastic operatic score is akin to a Final Fantasy game. It sounded like a choir of angels was chanting for Andy Lau’s survival through the gunfire. The work Peter Kam done on Isabella and Throwdown has shown subtlety and used music as a way to bring the audience into its world. I noticed that the quiet contemplative score sounded one octave away from the Infernal Affairs score. This is not Kam’s fault. I imagine this is the product of financiers citing references based on past box office success. Let’s face it, current Chinese and Hong Kong cinema is becoming a producer’s medium.

I was aware of how much commercial box ticking was going on throughout the film, but they were never overtly blatant enough to bother my enjoyment. Whenever Firestorm was being too loud and bashing my head, it was the hidden artsy choices, like Gordon Lam in a lead role, the undercover story arc with its morality play, which lifted it back up for me. It’s a fun time at the movies and if you’re going to see it, the 3D version will not disappoint.

Related Link

A Simple Life by Ann Hui

Machete Kills by Robert Rodriguez

Machete Kills by Robert Rodriguez

The U.S. government recruits Machete to battle his way through Mexico in order to take down an arms dealer who looks to launch a weapon into space.

Every new additional reiteration of Machete is becoming less funnier than its predecessor. Machete was funny when it was first a trailer in Grindhouse. It was mildly amusing when it was made into a feature film. The sequel, Machete Kills, is now just a bland joke that has been worn out by its many retellings. Robert Rodriguez, the joke teller, can’t seem to get enough of his own joke. Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to care how much we like the joke at all.

This film went right through me. As soon as it was finished, it was forgotten. Danny Trejo is an unique onscreen presence and I’m glad he is still working at age 69. Trejo has shown range in many of his supporting roles. Unfortunately, Rodriguez uses Trejo blandly as the film’s straight man, having react deadpan to the supporting cast of crazy cartoon characters surrounding him. Much of the film’s gags feel cheap, and it has nothing to do with b-movie irony. The most noteworthy example being the El Chameleón character, an assassin who is a literal shapeshifter, is a cheap excuse to open up guest star spots to help market the film. See? This all seems funnier to Robert Rodriguez than it is to the audience.

Robert Rodriguez claims to like his characters, and proceeds to populate his film with a cast of supporting characters that are on the surface visually interesting, but doesn’t do anything with them. It’s as if Rodriguez is perpetually trying to sculpt the perfect action icon, but never delivers the pathos to fully sell the character. Instead, the characters are all handled in a throwaway fashion, tossed aside once their iconography is fully formed.

The saving grace of Machete Kills is Mel Gibson, who really devotes himself to the role, milking his dialogue and sells his Bond villian-like character as if he were playing Macbeth. Gibson’s performance matches with the film’s ridiculous tone, but adds that missing pathos that Rodriguez is unable to provide, making every other actor slapdash by comparison. But when Gibson’s Luther Voz claimed to be a Star Wars fan who decorates his evil fortress with Star Wars memorabilia, I gave myself a light face palm. Evoking Star Wars as a source of humor is just about the lamest joke in the book.

That’s how this film slashes itself (pun intended). It is lazy and half-assed; it doesn’t know what to do with its own talent and has expended all of its irony. It’s sad to see Robert Rodriguez fall to this level. He is a very capable and multi-talented filmmaker who can shoot, score and edit, but maybe he just shouldn’t write his own scripts. I do not care about the upcoming Machete Kills Again… In Space. Please wow me with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug the Dragon.

To start off, I am not a Lord of the Rings fan. I haven’t read any of Tolkien’s works and only have seen the Peter Jackson’s film trilogy once. I am, however, a Sherlock fan and originally elected not to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in silent protest of it delaying the third season of Sherlock for an entire year. A friend invited me to a free screening of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug two days before its premiere, so I quickly caught up with the previous installment and read up on the film’s production online to prepare for its sequel. So this is going to be a review of the first film too. Let’s crack on…

My biggest problem with An Unexpected Journey is it launched its story retrospectively from Lord of the Ringsstarting with an older Bilbo Baggins telling the story to Frodo Baggins just before the events of The Fellowship of the RingThe Hobbit is not a prequel, it was written first before Lord of the Rings. It’s the true “part one” and yet it’s being framed as if it was a prequel to a great trilogy. This effectively echoes throughout the two Hobbit films as I am constantly being reminded about what’s to come. It’s distracting and by association makes The Hobbit seem less important.

Whether it’s Peter Jackson’s completist approach to expand the story or a corporate decision from the financiers to cash in on the success of the LOTR trilogy, The Hobbit is too long.  Often the story takes big steps backwards before being able to move forwards. It took forty minutes in the first film to start the journey and for someone who is not coming in sheer excited fandom, the slow pace is a lot of work on the audience’s part.

This is the typical pattern of one story movement in The Hobbit series thus far: 1) An imminent crisis or problem faces our heroes  2) Backstory is given in context to our heroes to the crisis. 3) The group tries to persevere and just as they fail or are about to give up, Bilbo does something that solves the problem  4) The group rejoice about the pure spirit of Hobbits and how impressive it is, cue flute music 5) A new problem comes along. Repeat.

Throughout both films, I had an internal monologue that kept screaming, “Let’s go! Hurry up!”, as if I was watching someone play a video game at snail’s pace. Die-hard LOTR fans will say that I am wrong about this but it’s why those DVD extended editions exist. Even though we’ll never know, Guillermo Del Toro’s original idea of directing the The Hobbit as two films sounds better. But this is just something I’ll have to accept. That’s the extent of my issues because when The Desolation of Smaug is good, it is very good.

Martin Freeman is a great Bilbo Baggins. The role requires exactly what Freeman plays best: acting quizzical from being one mental step ahead of everybody but always feels socially awkward about pointing out the obvious. Freeman’s reactions are entertaining and overall I find Bilbo a much more engaging protagonist than Frodo; he gets things done.

Smaug the dragon is frightening. Benedict Cumberbatch injects an immense sense of threat and power into Smaug’s voice, combined with its gigantic size, creates a memorable movie villain for the ages. It was bone-chilling watching the dragon slither around in the dark, with the imminent feeling he can squash Bilbo at any moment. Hands down, the Smaug scene is the best scene in all five films so far.

The beautiful Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel is a welcome addition to the series. Despite of being Jackson’s creation, she is a well-rounded strong female character that adds a love story. Orlando Bloom returning as Legolas is neither her or there for me. He isn’t an interesting character and seems to exist for his fighting abilities. Both elf characters are unnecessary filler material, but make entertaining filler no less. The dwarves are more fleshed out in this installment, which is an improvement because there was nothing to distinct them apart from each other in the first film.

Another minor quibble I had was the decision of using CGI in the action scenes. The orcs are computer-generated and the action sequences look digitally layered and video game-like. They’re well designed and are well-paced action scenes. But the LOTR trilogy previously established a real world look with its use of  New Zealand landscapes and creature make-up, and I wonder why Peter Jackson decided to go with more CGI as it doesn’t match with the previous films.

Peter Jackson’s deep love for the material is felt throughout both films and this perhaps is the film’s most winning quality. After all, Jackson’s completist approach isn’t self-indulgent or obnoxious, but out of a genuine love, awe and wonder for Middle Earth and its mythology. It’s infectious and is probably the primary reason I was able to sit through the long running time.

Overall, I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug more than An Unexpected Journey. There is less setup to be done, hence the story moves along much faster. And for that reason alone, I think I will enjoy There and Back Again even more when things begin to wrap up.

The White Storm by Benny Chan

The White Story by Benny Chan

An undercover narcotics operation against a Thai drug lord pits three childhood friends against each other.

The White Storm, the latest film from Hong Kong director Benny Chan is a undercover drug story, but it’s not interested in crime genre elements or in exploring the social issue of drug production in Thailand, but the onscreen chemistry between its three stars: Sean Lau, Louis Koo and Nick Cheung. The story reminded me most of John Woo’s Bullet in the Head in that it was about the disintegration of a brotherhood. The dramatic conflict between the three actors are the price of admission. It has a very interesting A story that could have made a great film, but The White Storm spends a lot of the 134-minute running time telling instead of showing its story. And also like Bullet in the Head, it executes it in the hammiest way possible under the guise of Hong Kong 80’s action nostalgia.

For example, in the story Koo, Lau and Cheung are lifelong friends. The film chooses to exposit this by having the trio reminisce about singing the theme song “Pledge to Join the War” by Adam Cheng from the classic TV show “Luk Siu Feng”, a classic song about brotherhood. And later on in the movie, Benny Chan plays the goddamn song. This is just about the oldest, hokiest joke in the book; they may as well have tied red headbands around their heads. People in my theater, including myself, laughed, not because it’s a funny clever reference but more in surrender of how shamelessly cheesy the writers were willing to go to highlight their bromance. Yes, they are very good friends, we get it!

Sean Lau is the subtle glue that holds all this cheese together. Something I observed about Lau was that he had all the best lines and was the only one out of the three protagonists who was not given a backstory. The lines of dialogue aren’t good in a cool quotable way, but it was exactly what the character would say in a given moment, no more no less. I suspect Lau rewrote a lot of his own lines. He gives a pronounced performance that’s as low volume and non-showy as this production will allow, but yet he comes out as the most engaging character. It’s really a testament to how underrated an actor Lau is.

Louis Koo and Nick Cheung, as good as they are and as much effort as they put in, overact compared to Lau. They are fine actors but are bogged down delivering a lot of expositional monologues stating how they feel. The romantic subplots Koo and Cheung are given almost dangerously dominate the A story. It’s not their fault though, Benny Chan directs with a heavy hand. It’s as if Chan and the writers constantly worry that the audience won’t be able to follow what’s going on, so they overcompensate.

Speaking of overcompensation, Lo Hoi-Peng shows up with crazy acting hair to chew up scenery, and boy, does he ever chew! It’s entertaining watching an old man act bananas but the hair does most of the acting. It’s hammy as hell. But despite of all the ham and cheese, Louis Koo, Sean Lau and Nick Cheung make very good company and are the price of admission. And at its core The White Storm is a good story about three friends, I just wished it wasn’t screamed at me.

Related Links
Unbeatable by Dante Lam
Nightfall by Roy Chow

Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-Ho

Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-ho

 

In a future where a failed global-warming experiment kills off most life on the planet, a class system evolves aboard the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe via a perpetual-motion engine. Over time a class system evolves on the train, with the elites inhabiting the front of the train and poor inhabiting the back of the train. Tired of their poor living conditions, the riders in the back revolt, attempting to seize control of the engine.

First off, I love the international cast. This is the type of  international co-production that I like to see more of.  Considering the somber heavy tone of the story, it’s surprising that this movie was even made. Every actor fits their part and they all happen to be character actors in an ensemble piece.

Chris Evans makes an engaging lead, never letting his stardom get in the way of his character. Watching him play such a righteous character never once reminded me of Captain America, and that’s probably the best thing I can say. Tilda Swinton is wonderfully ridiculous. When she first appeared, it threw me off because it was so over-the-top. Her character seemed to belong in another film. I wondered if it was possible for someone like that to exist in that environment but as the story unfolded, Swinton’s commitment to her cartoonish portrayal changed my opinion.

Song Kang-Ho is always an entertaining presence. He is held back by a language barrier but that is not enough to contain his natural funniness. Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer both make a dramatic impact with their supporting roles. Alison Pill also has a memorable cameo that teeters between creepy and satirically hilarious.

Bong Joon-Ho tells a good proper social science fiction story. The metaphor of the train representing the hierarchy of social class was handled with subtlety. This could vary for other viewers, but the film’s ideas and themes never felt heavy for me. As the lower class move up each train car in a series of action set pieces, I found myself slowly detaching from what was going on and comfortably sinking into the film’s ideas (a problem I had with Edgar Wright’s The World’s End earlier this year). The story’s themes brought me back to the time when I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Animal Farm in high school. I thought about human nature, social class and the rich versus the poor, but never for too long because the characters were about to discover what’s in the next train car. The middle portion of the film does sag a bit, but Bong Joon-Ho delivers some nice twists and turns along the way.

I read the news about the Weinstein Company is trying to cut a shorter version of Snowpiercer for its upcoming American release. Even thinking in Harvey Weinstein’s terms (and believe me, witnessing the amount of Asian cinema has neutered by Weinstein for the last decade, I consider myself an expert),  I don’t see what he thinks Americans won’t understand about the social politics and story in Snowpiercer.

The only commercial concern that I can think of is the Korean language portions of the film because American audiences apparently dislike reading subtitles. Korean only takes up a small portion of the film. And actually, an universal translating device is aptly written into film for audiences that prefer to listen. That or Weinstein just wants to put down his authorial stamp for unearthing Asian cinema to the West. So don’t be patronized, if it’s available, please go see the original director’s version. It’s solid science fiction made with proper intentions by a cast and crew that are passionate about the material.

Related Links
Stoker by Park Chan Wook

Carrie by Kimberly Peirce

Carrie by Kimberly Peirce

A re-imagining of the classic horror tale about Carrie White, a shy girl outcast by her peers and sheltered by her deeply religious mother, who unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom.

First off, it’s going to be very hard not to compare this remake to the original. Not because of the original’s success or how revered it was, but because of how similar both films are. This new remake of Carrie from director Kimberly Peirce, unfortunately, doesn’t do enough to justify its retelling.

The original Carrie explored the theme of power and control between adults and teenagers. Carrie’s mother Margaret hits her when Carrie doesn’t listen to her. And in another scene, a teacher cusses at a group of students and smacks one of them in the face in front of the entire class.

What works against the remake is today’s current standards of parenting.  In today’s age, hitting a child is much more frowned upon than it was in the seventies. If a kid is cussed or smacked by a teacher in school nowadays, they can legitimately fight back by bringing it to the school board or by calling the police. These politics ends up watering down the film’s themes, removing a lot of the edges off of the story. The threat of violence, whether it’s coming from adult onto the teenager or vice versa, is dampened. The state of today’s politics is not something I hold against the film, but the film doesn’t seem to want to challenge current social taboos and play in the politically incorrect. The entire effect of the horror is watered down as a result.

Director Kimberly Peirce makes up for this by adding modern horror movie aesthetics onto the story. There are loud jump scares, sharp objects are held closely into people’s faces making frantic expressions and people creepily walk by in the background undetected. The major difference between the original and the remake lies in the way that it scares its audience. In the original, the horror was a looming creepiness that stayed with me after the film ended. I reflected upon the inevitable tragedy of Carrie being an unfortunate outcast being pushed to the point of no return. In the remake, the horror is emphasized in the immediate present of the physical violence that’s about to be unleashed.

Everybody looks attractive and for a story about a social outcast in an image-conscious high school environment, that is a problem. In the novel, Carrie is described as a plump girl. Chloe Grace-Moretz is pretty regardless of how much the filmmakers try to dress her down. This works against her, but other than that, Chloe Grace-Moretz does a good job with what’s she’s given.

Julianne Moore is scary as Margaret White. It’s much more over-the-top than Piper Laurie’s version. I would argue Moore’s performance is scarier, if only because it was more psychotic and violent by comparison. The most engaging scenes are between Margaret and Carrie. The supporting characters end up becoming more black-and-white and it comes off bland. If you ask me, what makes the story so tragic are the grey areas, the edges and how it was hard to imagine how things could have ended otherwise.

Carrie is an okay adaptation that doesn’t completely honor the mechanics of its tragic story and deters from challenging the political correctness of today. It comes off more like a fairy tale than a tragedy. What the remake ends up proving is how tight the original movie was and how things are much scarier when the horror stays with you long after the story has ended. I can only say this because I seen the original film. So overall, people who haven’t seen Brian DePalma’s Carrie will probably like this version more by default.