The World’s End by Edgar Wright

The World’s End by Edgar Wright

Five friends who reunite in an attempt to top their epic pub crawl from 20 years earlier unwittingly become humankind’s only hope for survival.

The Cornetto trilogy is a trilogy in name only. As far as I can see, the chief link between Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz and The World’s End is Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Edgar Wright and the fact that they are all stories about friendships between men. There’s nothing in The World’s End‘s story or theme that forces any finality or closure.

The core story between the five friends dealing with being forty was compelling and heartfelt. It’s nice seeing Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan play bigger roles in a commercial film and a fresh turn seeing Nick Frost playing the most competent character. The story with Simon Pegg’s Gary King is genuinely the darkest and saddest territory these films have ever ventured.

When the genre stuff kicks in, it was quite the surprise. The first time around I couldn’t tell how exactly the core story about the five friends fit with the sci-fi genre elements that cut in the middle. The film simply operates too much on a thematic level. For example, the fact that the twelve bars they visit are all thematically named after points in the story seemed more on the nose than ironical. The humor itself is less blatant than in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz; it’s more akin to laughing at the thematic irony of the situation rather than laughing at funny zingers. It is all very clever stuff, but it may take multiple viewings to really digest its heavy ideas along with its spectacle. I had to watch it again before writing this review.

Now admittedly, out of all the three films, I knew least about the films that The World’s End is referencing. Audiences familiar with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter films will probably have a different experience than me. But at the end of day, science fiction or not, watching five men on a pub crawl just isn’t as cinematic as a zombie outbreak or a midday gun battle.

The fight choreography, although they are drunk bar fights, have a nice martial arts rhythm to them. It seemingly is an aesthetic Wright has brought from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. They were visually theatrical and matched the film’s ironic tone.

I take issue with the epilogue as the story ended on a rather cold morbid note that seemed mean to its characters. If only The World’s End was the second installment in the Cornetto trilogy, it would have relieved itself from following up on the more comical light-hearted expectations from Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, I probably would have liked it more as the darker second installment of the trilogy. That said, it’s dense and the film probably will grow on me with subsequent viewings.

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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Man of Tai Chi by Keanu Reeves

Man of Tai Chi by Keanu Reeves

Man of Tai Chi by Keanu Reeves

A young martial artist’s unparalleled Tai Chi skills land him in a highly lucrative underworld fight club.

Man of Tai Chi tells the age-old martial arts tale of a student devoting himself to an art, he gets too extreme, loses his way and has to find himself again.  It’s simple, well-paced, and communicates martial arts philosophy.

Tiger Chen holds his own as the breakout martial arts lead. His Tai Chi movements are beautiful. The core of his charisma is that he is a real human being with vulnerabilities. He is not preening for the camera in a showy or narcissistic manner (ahem Andy On, Wu Jing…) and plays his scenes earnestly.  Does Tiger Chen fit the description of a leading man? I don’t know, but it’d be nice to see more of him in future roles.

As for the supporting cast, Karen Mok fares better when she’s required to be loud and peppy. Silent performances aren’t her forte. Simon Yam is collecting a cheque and there’s nothing wrong with that. Qing Ye makes an adorable love interest. Iko Uwais from The Raid: Redemption (my review here) makes a nice cameo as a fighter. Yu Hai is charismatic as Tiger’s Tai Chi master, the dramatic scenes between Tiger and him were engaging and form the heart of the story.

The comedy gags in Cantonese spoken by the Hong Kong policemen actually do work. I laughed, though I worry how the gags will play as subtitles for English-speaking audiences. It’s like Reeves found a way to seep into the culture. That’s a thing that really impressed me with Man of Tai Chifor a film set in China that’s directed by a foreign director, it remains true to the culture. There’s no Orientalist gaze on Chinese culture, or a laundry-list showcase of the tourist hotspots. Mainlanders speak Mandarin, and people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese. There’s no misrepresentation here. I love how the film shows that many Chinese people are bilingual these days.

Tai Chi is a difficult martial art to capture on film. The idea of countering a hard energy with a soft energy is something you can only feel when you’re practicing the martial art, it’s a hard thing to see and be a part of as a bystander. It’s difficult to locate where the skill of the fight is. Previous cinematic attempts at Tai Chi, such as Jet Li’s The Tai Chi Master or Yuen Wah in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, have solved this problem by exaggerating Tai Chi to a cartoonish degree. Yuen Woo Ping executes this wonderfully and finds the right assortment of other martial art styles to fully test the limits of Tai Chi. Tiger Chen fights his opponents in the air, rolls on the ground, uses objects and the surrounding environment. There are no quick cuts hiding pulled punches and I love that. The fights are covered in wide shots with real martial artists and anybody can follow whats going on.

Contrary to popular belief, I sincerely do not think Keanu Reeves is a bad actor. I’m a fan. There’s a great article online by Kate Ronnebolm called Keanu Reeves is a Queer Superhero that aptly analyzes his success as a movie star. It says the reason Reeves has lasted this long is because he possesses a pensive quality, like he’s constantly reflecting upon himself and his surroundings. This has served his roles in ConstantineA Scanner Darkly, and Neo from The Matrix. I agree with this point, Reeves owns pensive. I think his performances have varied depending on the director’s ability to capture that quality on camera.

That all said, unfortunately Reeves is the own worst part of his own movie. I take no issue with his performance in Man of Tai Chi, but casting himself as the main villain meant that he is the final boss of his own kung fu movie. After 90 minutes of seeing Tiger Chen beating numerous opponents of varying styles, there simply is no way I can believe that Keanu can beat Tiger Chen. The film doesn’t provide any assistance as there’s no establishing scene showcasing Keanu’s character’s fighting abilities early in the story. For example, the final henchman that fights Tony Jaa in Ong Bak is obviously physically inferior to Jaa in real life, but the story makes him the more superior fighter by stating it beforehand. I would have been fine with even that. The end climatic fight is stiff and awkward; it’s obvious that Keanu didn’t have time to train with his directing duties.

That said, there is still a lot to like. And perhaps I like Man of Tai Chi more for intellectual reasons rather than its final result. But I have seen too many recent Chinese martial arts films that don’t star martial artists in them, but rather pretty boy actors just dancing around trying to look good in their own money-making vehicles. That’s just boring to me. I would rather see a film that’s trying something ambitious and fall short than make something that’s vacuous and faceless. Even with a disappointing climatic fight, the heartbeat of Man of Tai Chi is what won me over. I don’t’ know if Keanu Reeves want to keep directing in the future, but this is a good debut film.

Oblivion by Joseph Kosinski

Oblivion by Joseph Kosinski

A veteran assigned to extract Earth’s remaining resources begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself.

Unlike a lot of science fiction films that often have busy mechanical designs and crowded backgrounds, there is a very distinct simplicity to Oblivion’s production designs. The empty barren Icelandic landscapes, machines and buildings built in straight clean lines and the bright daylight all help create an effective atmosphere. The film is beautifully shot and finds a natural beauty in post-apocalyptic destruction. Often I found myself just gazing upon the landscapes and felt awe watching huge robotic monolithic ships harvesting the Earth’s water. Oblivion should definitely print a production art book.

The best performance in the film is Andrea Riseborough’s. A lot of the intrigue and mystery of what’s really going on behind this world is built from Riseborough’s performance. The intrigue is built so well that the beginning section with her and Tom Cruise makes up for the more interesting portion. She plays a very fine line between someone who is concealing a secret or not wanting to know the truth. As the audience, we cannot tell which one it is.

There are little Americanisms in the film that are problematic. At the beginning, Tom Cruise’s character lands an aircraft on Earth. As he gathers his gear, he puts on a New York Yankees baseball cap. Why? Even if it were a blue-collar habitual daily routine, why wouldn’t he have put it on before flying the aircraft? Wouldn’t there be more sun in the sky than in the ground? It’s not a big deal, and it took me out of the movie a bit.

Oblivion draws upon a lot of science fiction films in the past. Example? Let’s just say Tom Cruise jogs on a treadmill that is not rectangular. For that, science fiction fans may have a harder time enjoying Oblivion as they may fall into an accidental game of ‘spot the reference’. I personally didn’t have a problem with that. It doesn’t bring anything new to the science fiction genre but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Ted by Seth MacFarlane

Ted by Seth MacFarlane

As the result of a childhood wish, John Bennett’s (played by Mark Walhberg) teddy bear, Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), came to life and has been by John’s side ever since – a friendship that’s tested when Lori (played by Mila Kunis), John’s girlfriend of four years, wants more from their relationship.

When telling a joke, first you setup the premise, which lays out the confines of what the audience is about to laugh about. Afterwards, you deliver the  punchline. The punchline is an unexpected surprise connected within the confines of the original premise.

My major problem with Ted is that it tells jokes that delivers punchlines that are outside of its original premise. The result is still a laugh, but in retrospect it’s a laugh that does not feel earned because the surprises are coming randomly from left field. Sometimes, the jokes even break character (i.e. a group of bullies beat up a child, a child tries to join in to beat him as well but is rejected by the bullies and the kid that is being beaten up… that would never happen!). As it went from gag to gag, my mind kept looping back and thinking how most of the jokes were unearned laughs, resulting in a somewhat empty experience. It’s like that scene in a Looney Tunes cartoon where a laugh has long died off and you hear people’s coughs echoing in the theater.

The more I thought about it, it was all lacking in the writing. The story needed more character and plot and it seems Seth MacFarlane only delivered the bare minimum without fully exploring his own concept. Every time John chooses to spend time with Ted instead of Lori, it feels like the same thing is happening over and over again. We know Lori is frustrated with John, John knows this but he does not do anything different. So nothing is moving forward and we start to wonder why Lori is being so patient with John. Even the subplot with Giovanni Ribisi as a creepy stalker trying to steal Ted felt like a cheap writer’s trick to force a third act finale set piece.

I do think Mark Wahlberg is great at comedy, as exemplified in the past with his performance in The Departed where he was creepily funny. He was also the only reason that The Other Guys was funny as the straight-man, also because he was yelling at Will Ferrel the whole time.

Ted has some great jokes, even though my two favorite gags (the Thunder song and the girl-naming bit) from the movie are in the trailer. The fact that it’s all being said by a computer generated teddy bear makes it so much more psychotic. Ultimately, Ted feels lazy and having such a creative premise it makes me think about how much better it could have been if Seth MacFarlane put more effort into the writing. It just needed that little more.

And no, I am not familiar with Family Guy.

A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is something very cinematic about watching the creation of something. In A Dangerous Method, we see the beginnings of psychoanalysis and the intellectual debate about the approach to the mind. Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) treats Sabina Spielrein (played by Kiera Knightley), whom eventually becomes his assistant and one of the first female psychoanalysts. They begin a love affair, that breaks the boundaries of their doctor-patient relationship and threatens Jung’s family and career. Adding oil to the fire is the presence of Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen), of whom Jung seeks approval from but ultimately their relationship turns turbulent as they differ on views of sexuality and religion.

First of all, I liked the 2 lead performances. Michael Fassbender is great as Carl Jung. Viggo Mortensen brings true gravitas to Sigmund Freud, and we experience how Carl Jung is intimidated by his presence. Viggo is our generation’s Robert De Niro. He’s come a long way as an Omish dude sitting at the back of a carriage in Witness. Some actors are good at creating a character internally (i.e. Robert De Niro is always Robert De Niro but is able to create a character)and some actors are good at physicalizing a character (i.e. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka). Viggo Mortensen is both. Any role Viggo is in, he truly transforms into his roles inside-out and always creates a presence to be marveled.

On the issue of Kiera Knightley convulsing and making spastic movements… given that it is a factually-accurate portrayal of mental distress, she’s performing the psychosis as if she were in a theatrical play. She has yet to learn how to use a close-up on film. In my opinion, it’s not her fault. The director should have cut around her or toned her actions down. Watching her face as she does them, it feels very performed. I think less is more in this case and this was somewhat of a miscalculation on Cronenberg’s part. However, Knightley does fares better in the latter half of the movie.

I can see why David Cronenberg was attracted to do this material. There is a mental violence underneath the relationships between Freud, Jung and Spielrein. At times it is about manipulation, most of the time, it is all about power. The main problem is the mental violence is not violent enough. That may be because these are true events with real-life historical figures. You end up with a dramatic replay of historical events. There is no prominent theme underneath that does not say anything about life that you can take away from.

Is it worth seeing for the performances? Not really. It would also require an interest in the foundations of psychoanalysis (which I do have an interest in) as well. But even with that, that’s still pushing it because there is nothing more beneath it’s surface to offer. In the end, I’m glad I saw it but A Dangerous Method is a bit unremarkable.

Senna by Asif Kapadia

Senna is a documentary film that depicts the life of Brazilian motor-racing champion, Ayrton Senna.

You do not need to know anything about Formula One racing or even have to be remotely interested in it to enjoy this film. The story provides you with the technical knowledge that you need to know. The most noteworthy thing is, Senna works on primal storytelling instincts. There’s a guy, he loves racing and is pretty talented at it. He wants to race with the best team. The best racer on the best team (Alain Prost AKA “The Professor”) does not want to be second. They are on the same team but they race for themselves. Tensions arise.

Senna and Prost’s rivalry seemed too dramatic to be real. The rivalry was akin to Maverick and Ice Man in Top Gun. It is unbelievable this all really happened. There is a writing credit in the film’s credits (by Manish Pandey) though I imagine that is more compiling the facts to tell the most dramatic order possible than rewriting facts.

Film is an amalgamation of all the arts (photography, music, theater, storytelling etc.), the only new art form to arise out of film is editing. The idea that putting two separate images next to each other can evoke a whole new independent meaning. Senna is a film composed mostly of archive footage and interviews and it is truly impressive the amount of emotion and drama that was conveyed through archive footage. The story was told with great flow. It’s great to know that the editing by Greger Salls and Chris King has been recognized at this year’s BAFTA awards.

Ayrton Senna himself is a fascinating subject. We see the passion and determination in his eyes and you cannot help but root for him. It was not about being the best. Senna speaks of racing as his way of spiritually connecting to God. Racing was simply his purpose.

The musical score by Antonio Pinto brings out Senna’s spirituality and subtly sets the story from Senna’s perspective. Essentially you are either hearing Senna’s feelings or “how we should feel about the situation”. The music at the finale was particularly impactful.

I do not know thing one about Formula One racing and honestly I still do not know very much having seen the film. But Senna took me into another world and it gripped me all the way through. By the end, it struck me still and raised all the hairs on my back ( even though I am Asian).

I could not recommend this more, do not let the fact that this is about racing stop you from seeing it. Give it a chance!

It is one of the best films of 2011.