The 2013 Black List Scripts, A-G

Saturday, February 01, 2014 at 8:55 pm
The Black List here refers to a selection of screenplays that have not been produced into actual movies that are voted by Hollywood studio heads because they liked them a lot, an exercise done annually, usually released around December. Some of the past Black List scripts that were eventually made include Django Unchained, Juno, Source Code, and Lars And The Real Girl.

I've read up to the Gs so far and to be honest, I didn't finish reading about a third of them, while many of the rest were quite subpar (in a "how did it end up on this pile?!" sort of way), but for these ones below, let's just say they were more entertaining than 96% of all the movies I saw in 2013.

1969 A SPACE ODYSSEY OR: HOW KUBRICK LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LAND ON THE MOON
by Stephany Folsom
The title alone should alert you to why this is a good read! (… Doesn't ring a bell? Okay, it's a story about one version of the moon landing hoax …)

CAPSULE
by Ian Shorr
Holy cow this was a good script! My favourite of all the 2013 Black List scripts so far. A superbly plotted sci-fi thriller with a genuinely inventive plot and a wisecracking protagonist makes for a fun and exciting read. Script's been optioned and could be on its way to being made (if not, Shorr should definitely be hired for more work and achieve the same success as previous Black List alumni Adam Cozad — Dubai, going on to write Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit — and Jon Spaihts — Passengers, going on to write Prometheus).

CROWN
by Max Hurwitz
The script hooked me when it indicated in the beginning that it's about the infamous Conficker virus, which led me to think it was based on real events. It wasn't, but it's still a great read, a cyber-thriller that twists and turns and gives us a techno-savvy hero we can sympathise with (heck, I like his idiosyncratic police handler too), and introduces inventive scenes such as when the hero and his meet-cute get to know each other better while driving a stolen car with a laptop.

DIABLO RUN
by Shea Mirzai & Evan Mirzai
It sees the level of depravity and raunchiness of The Hangover movies and … zooms way past it. Three friends cross over to Tijuana and accidentally get involved in the deadliest vehicle race that side of the US-Mexico border. It's rude, it's lewd, it's violent … how bad is it? Here's one line: "Steve walks further into the bar only to literally see TWO GROWN MEN DOUBLE PENETRATING A DONKEY. The donkey brays in delight/terror."

EXTINCTION
by Spenser Cohen
A family bands together to survive a sudden and confusing invasion by an alien army. The description is unrelentingly melodramatic, so I read it till the end only because the plot kept things as realistic and human as is possible, staying very close to the characters' fear and motivation all the time. The revelation in the end works.

FRISCO
by Simon Stephenson
A delightfully charming comedy about a wisecracking paediatrician going down to 'Frisco' for a medical conference who's joined by a stowaway teenage girl dying of cancer. The dialogue is humorous all the way, and yet contains a lot of heart as we come to love the characters and enjoy the time spent with them.

FULLY WRECKED
by Jake Morse & Scott Wolman
The plot begins with the Knight Rider concept, a hotshot detective and his talking car, then twists it into something more like The Other Guys, or the Starsky & Hutch remake, with a seriously, seriously foul-mouthed and ridiculously horny car and the fat, loser officer who inherits him (a younger Seth Rogen could've played him, or perhaps Jonah Hill). It's a fun read all the way. 

GAY KID AND FAT CHICK
by Bo Burnham

The title seems to be indicative of the kind of movie it might be, and then I start reading and the plot takes it to an unexpectedly epic level (as epic as high school comedies go). It's perfect for an American indie comedy, to be directed by an up-and-coming young American director. The plotting is sound (speaking as someone who holds American mainstream cinema as the best model of film storytelling), the characters are solid and I really liked both of them. The only crappy part is the last scene (which functions as the denouement), which totally feels like it was punched in because the writer didn't have time to think of a good place to end before submitting, which is an easy fix so no big deal. Also the writing itself is already quite cinematic; I can already see the edits, the montages, where the music would go. I'd love to see this movie.

Mini-Reviews Of 2013 Movies

Monday, January 06, 2014 at 8:37 pm
JANUARY

LINCOLN - 6.5/10. As always, an accomplished performance from Daniel Day Lewis, as from Spielberg's typically excellent team of cinematographer, costume designer, production designer and sound designers, from a fairly impenetrable and dry (but daringly so!) screenplay from Tony Kushner ("Angels In America"). All that effort, and it's a good film, but not an easy watch; with the American Civil War entirely in the blind spot of my interest in history, I had to frequently consult Wikipedia on the side to understand at least some of who's who and what's what. Lightly suspenseful, occasionally funny ... but rather insipid in inspiring emotions unfortunately.

ZERO DARK THIRTY - 6.5/10. Ultimately not as compelling as I imagined it to be, a procedural film detailing the ten years it took to track down and shoot UBL in the head, the film has just one play here: an obsessively determined protagonist played by almost-certain Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain. Film ends with a 20-minute depiction of the Abottabad raid, but a lot of slow points before it reached that point.

THE IMPOSSIBLE - 9/10. HOW IS THIS NOT BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR?! A highly ambitious effort from Spanish director J.A. Bayona and his crew, and a successful one, pulling off Hollywood-level visual effects and drama but without tacky Hollywood sensibilities, features a heartwrenching performance by Naomi Watts and a great performance by young actor Tom Holland (his name is not being talked about for Supporting Actor, shame). The tsunami sequence is unforgettably ferocious, while the scenes of aftermath and hospital chaos seemed very realistic.

ANNA KARENINA - 7/10. As usual I love Joe Wright's aggressive filmmaking style, with his edits and how characters turn their heads (and how often) and the sound design and the saturated costumes and sets and the long takes, such as when the entire room switches into another location within the same take, or when the dancers all disappeared in the time it took Aaron Johnson to lift Keira Knightley up and spin her around and set her down. Too melodramatic and angsty, perhaps.


KON-TIKI - 6.5/10. Guess what? It's a film featuring endless ocean, storm sequences, flying fish, a troublesome whale, and night bioluminescence, and it's not LIFE OF PI! A movie about Thor Heyerdahl's legendary and risky voyage across the Pacific Ocean in 1947. A beautifully shot film with lots of arresting images, not just of the lone balsa wood raft in the ocean but also scenes of post-WWII Norway and New York, and a gory attack *on* a shark by humans. The movie however suffers from languid pacing and expressionless characters (blame it on Scandinavian stoicism), unaided by the fact that there's barely any music to support the film. The VFX (cityscape extensions, marine life) is amazingly accomplished. All at a cost of US$15.5 mil (or less than 15% of LIFE OF PI's production budget).

ARGO - 8/10. A gripping, taut and consistently tense movie, literally from the first sequence after the intro prologue, deftly directed by Ben Affleck from an effective screenplay by Chris Terrio. I don't see why Alan Arkin is nominated for this though.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK - 8/10. I loved, loved, loved the combination of the movie's manic, ADHD cinematography and editing. Jennifer Lawrence owns this, while Bradley Cooper plays the role perfectly. I don't see why DeNiro should be nominated for this though.

DJANGO UNCHAINED - 7.5/10. I liked it more than I thought I would, and it's again thanks to great dialogue writing by Tarantino, along with interesting plot twists. The volume of blood is on the level of "gushing", but instead of inviting disgust it's actually rather entertaining (in the gleeful, machine-gunning-into-Hitler's-head sort of way). Waltz is perfect as always, but I don't see why people are crying over Jackson and DiCaprio's non-nominations.


FEBRUARY

THIS IS 40 - 8/10. Confession: I can never get tired of watching Paul Rudd. But that asides, this is a charming dramedy about the ups and downs of a family when the couple turns 40, which swings towards revealing realistic (and sometimes icky) details but with exaggerated humour, like secretly wanting your spouse dead or asking your wife to diagnose your anus. The writing is enjoyable, the cast just perfect, and it's well-directed (I was admiring the camerawork in the climactic bicycle rampage).

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES - 7.5/10. I really enjoyed it. The plot frays a little at the edges, but it's meant to be an entertaining fantasy romance and I ain't cribbing. The unknown leads Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert are engaging, not just subtly good-looking but clearly carefully casted for their characters, surrounded by master actors such as the ever deliciously evil Emma Thompson and the always empathetic Viola Davis. VFX leaves much to be desired. But the score, composed by newbies thenewno2, is strange, often hits ethereal emotional notes, and sometimes interesting in how it takes the audience out of the movie.

MARCH

OBLIVION - 8/10. Great production design, music fits, story was interesting and good twists and turns, even though it burns up a lot of different sci-fi tropes, and such a brilliant idea on how an alien civilization would fire the first salvo in an invasion of the Earth and yet it's such a throwaway point in the film. Enjoyed it.

WARM BODIES - 8/10. Well-written. In fact, screenplay is perhaps worth studying for reference - I've always reminded, "setups and payoffs!" Skillfully straddles the thin line between comedy and drama such that it doesn't feel disjointed or tacky - jokes were funny, ideas are original and well-used, characters well-established. Good job on casting, even Rob Corddry was good; movie companions also remarked how similar Australian actress Teresa Palmer is to Kristen Stewart ... that is, except for acting ability.

APRIL

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN - 7/10. Standard action fare with the usual plotholes problem, but having said that it was terribly tense throughout, thanks to the script, though not original by any means (still, I thought the terrorists' ultimate goal was somewhat original). The VFX is as terrible as it looked in the trailer. Also, it seems that North Koreans now play the role that Soviets and "Manchurians" once used to play before the 90s - The Acceptable Villain. I really liked the performance of the actress who played the Secretary of Defense, whom I didn't know until the end credits was Oscar-winner Melissa Leo!

THE CALL - 6.5/10. Short, suspenseful thriller. First time seeing young Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin play a more adult role. The third act is rather contrived, but the final scene, throwing in an unexpected ending, shows that the director doesn't care, so fair enough.

G.I. JOE: RETALIATION - 4/10. The plot is seriously convoluted and seems to jump to unrelated subplots just to justify very implausible plot twists later on. And it doesn't help that one doesn't care about the characters, not even the one whose death was accidentally let out months ago who should've generated some sympathy. The action sequences were passable, nothing that came close to the exhilarating Paris chase sequence in the first movie. (I gather the mountain ninja sequence works better in 3D.) The one thing I enjoyed were the one-liners coming from the impostor President, such as: "You know, they call it waterboarding ... but I never get bored."

THE CROODS - 7.5/10. Alright, I admit it, it was far more entertaining than I expected it to be. The opening hunt sequence, which might or might not be in one single exhilarating take, was very fun. I still cringe throughout with the idea of cavemen having relatively intelligent (and pop-culture leaning) dialogue ... sorry, I just can't turn off. But the story is good and so are the visuals; the repeated explosions from the ground tearing apart, the varied creatures, etc.

SIDE EFFECTS - 4.5/10. Felt European; I mean, basically it's a contemporary Soderbergh film, so just imagine the style of Contagion and Haywire except done for a psychological thriller. In other words, very slow-going, with rambling plotting, so much that a bunch of girls next to me kept saying "so sien lah" and finally walked out ... just before the plot starts twisting really weirdly. So yes, it gets interesting in its last half hour as you try to piece together what the hell is going on, but they still feel very inert, like the depression the disconcerting Rooney Mara is showing signs of. It was not a fun movie to watch.


MAY

IRON MAN 3 - 8/10. The storytelling, obviously, was awesome - this from the brilliant writer of The Long Kiss Goodnight, among other more famous stuff.  The plot was unpredictable all the way through, though the Pepper Potts twist in the end was setup too strongly to be much of a surprise upon payoff. Good actors all the way through (Ben Kingley in fun British accent, yay!), though I wish Rebecca Hall was better used. And am I the only person outside of Hollywood who recognises actors like James Badge Dale and Stephanie Szostak? But really, I feel the strongest point is the storytelling, aggressive and funny at the same time. Easily the best Iron Man film, the first one that I actually thought was worth watching (first one was forgettable, second one was ... what happened in the second one?).

STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS — 8.5/10. Thanks to all yer whining, J.J. Abrams is forced to lower the lens flare and shakycam parameters in this film ... I could have used some more! (Not being sarcastic. I may be alone in this but I loved them in the first movie.) Btw, are the Orci-Kurtzman and Rossio-Elliott team the only writers in Hollywood allowed to produce complex plots for mainstream blockbuster films? The plot here forces you to think through J.J. Abrams' hyperkinetic camera moves, and one wishes one gets to do it more often. The ensemble cast retains their camaraderie, now with the addition of the lovely Alice Eve, with Benedict Cumberbatch snarling his way through as a seriously formidable villain (both of them having previously appeared in this lovely British comedy Starter For 10 starring James McAvoy). Anyway, everything just works for the movie from the top down and I could go on and on but I shouldn't. Trekkie or not, you're gonna watch the movie anyway. It'll be a blast.

Once more, a lesson in setups and payoffs. An Act II standoff leads to an electrical failure leads to one of the character adopting manual means to do his work, which is the setup to save the life of another major character at the end of the film, whom you really expect to die because you have forgotten about the setup by then. That's masterful screenwriting.


THE GREAT GATSBY - 6.5/10. I don't think I can ever get used to Baz Luhrmann's fragmented editing style. But it's a colourful film, and it'll be a travesty if the film isn't at least nominated for Production Design and Costume Design. Baz Luhrmann's stories can be hard to relate to, except for some moments, and in this case it's Jay Gatsby's character, with a dead-on performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. There was a moment when I felt I understood exactly why he does what he does, even though that scene will, I suspect, be a mystery to some - more logically-oriented - people. The music by Craig Armstrong also works its magic very well. I heard someone describe it as an excellent date movie; I would say yes only if you're a melodramatic romantic like I am ... otherwise, I don't think so.

JUNE

MAN OF STEEL - 7.5/10. Pretty much what a movie shaped by Nolan then passed on to Snyder to direct would look like. I see complaints about the third act being a mass of incoherent, destructive noise and fury, and I think it's Hans Zimmer not completing his job; while his heroic theme and the softer, otherworldly motifs were exactly right, he could have really helped define each of the different action setpieces by varying the score from fight to fight, to the point that the audience could've felt an escalation of stakes — just with the music. Henry Cavill wisely exudes a quiet, earnest calm; he doesn't react emotionally as much, except when seriously threatened, but perhaps that is the point — I see the point of him smiling slightly while everyone else is panicking. The kid from The Count Of Monte Cristo has finally made it. A few issues with the plotting. Not a perfect film. But it did made me tear up at random moments.

NOW YOU SEE ME — 7/10. Genuine effort by all, solid and engaging entertainment for the audience. Fun while it lasted.

BEFORE MIDNIGHT — 6.5/10. Sitting through the movie is about as difficult as it was for Jesse to sit there and take in Celine's emotional tirades; you know it's inevitable, it tests your patience, but you're married to the film now and you go through it because you have to, because it's the next stage in this love affair. A different animal from the other two films, in that the long conversation scenes now take in numerous other characters, yet stylistically still the same, it's a must-watch for fans of the first two films, but it's a tough sell for those who have seen neither and don't understand why there is a movie which is just about people talking and talking about deceptively random topics for the entire film.

WORLD WAR Z — 7.75/10. Tense. Exciting. Production woes aside, who says Marc Forster can't deliver big budget movies? The rewritten third act was seamless, though I wonder whether audiences mind the fact that the movie starts big and ends small, as suspenseful as that last sequence was. The plot generally makes sense to me. Also I once wrote a short story with precisely that cure for an epidemic, happening on a plane.

THIS IS THE END — 7/10. Vulgar, sacrilegious, and about as R-rated as it gets. You watch it to laugh at the hijinks and in-jokes of Rogen, Baruchel (I always love it when he plays the sensible guy among the misfits and mayhem, like in Tropic Thunder), Hill, Franco, McBride, Robinson, Watson ... but really, all you'll be talking about after the movie is how fucked up Michael Cera is. 

JULY

DESPICABLE ME 2 — 6.5/10. Entertaining, except that it can no longer surprise us with how damnably funny the minions are. Still, they could've tried harder to come up with creative jokes. The story is decent.

PACIFIC RIM - 7/10. A decent blockbuster film, the kind that threatens to lose itself in its epicness (see Man Of Steel), except that Guillermo del Toro is able to find the humanity and kept that somewhat visible, however one-note the characters are. Charlie Hunnam scores his biggest role to date but doesn't overplay it (though the character doesn't allow him to be memorable either), while Charlie Day worked surprisingly well as the JJ Abrams-lookalike scientist (a character that is a cross between the quintessential annoying characters from a Michael Bay film and the know-it-all scientist who predicts everything correctly from a Roland Emmerich film, except much more likable and much less contrived). Idris Elba was probably consistently told to shout his lines out like a war general, no matter what scene.

On another note, the action was still difficult to discern sometimes. While the problem with movies like Man Of Steel is that the objects move too fast, for Quantum Of Solace was that the edit was too frantic, for The Incredible Hulk was that much of the climactic fight happens in the dark, the unusual problem for Pacific Rim is that its objects are just too large, so even on a wide shot we can't fit the monsters and robots in the frame. Of course, it would've helped if we have even just a few more shots which show the bigger picture of what's going on. As it is, I'm sometimes confused who's throwing who around an
d who delivered what punch and how that monster was flung upside down.


THE LONE RANGER — 7.5/10. Entertaining Western adventure. And I hate Westerns; this one is saved by Gore Verbinski's brand of humour in storytelling, aided by Johnny Depp and rising young star Armie Hammer, whom I was skeptical before but no longer. James Badge Dale's star is on the rise too and I hope he makes it soon (in just one year he's appeared in Shame, Iron Man 3, World War Z and this). The climactic action sequence is a little messy in geography and pacing, but with Rossini's William Tell Overture (I guess some people identify it with the Lone Ranger) you just let it go and enjoy the roller coaster ride (and if you don't, you're just a sore critic/movie snob rubbing your hands for a chance to laugh a publicity-maligned blockbuster film to its fire-bombed ashes).

WHITE HOUSE DOWN — 6/10. I was ready to hate the film as I sat through the first half hour of really cliched scenes. Thankfully once the action starts it's easier to forget ... but sometimes, you still do hate it. None of the action sequences are memorable. And the VFX is obvious half the time. Jamie Foxx plays the least convincing President as an Important Side Character in a film. Joey King is continuing her spectacular rise as a child actress (she was young Talia al Ghul in Rises, and the China Girl in Oz). While Channing Tatum is Channing Tatum; good-looking, eager, humble, great sense of humour. As for the story, seriously, they should have just killed the girl, they had about five times to do it to shock the audience and they didn't! Meanwhile, how many times do they have to parade the nuclear football in a President-is-kidnapped movie? Olympus Has Fallen did it too. At least Salt had the decency to shockingly kill the President once the nuclear football is activated (in the Extended Version at least).


RED 2 — 6/10. I love Dean Parisot, one of the best Hollywood comedy directors out there who managed to churn out such gems as GALAXY QUEST and FUN WITH DICK AND JANE. It's too bad he's not much of an action director, which messed up the editing and pacing of this film. Other than that, he largely kept the elongated and dry humour of the first film. As a sequel the plot made sense, a chance to watch the quirky characters do the same thing in a different spy-ish scenario, while the new characters don't make themselves annoying. Mary Louise Parker had the most fun. And what a fun in-joke, getting Helen Mirren to play Queen Elizabeth I again.

AUGUST

R.I.P.D. — 6.5/10. I set my expectations so low that it turns out, I rather enjoyed the film! The pacing was uncomfortable, felt like the film was rushing to end right from the beginning. But story-wise, it's fun and entertaining, and I feel like the original script worked really well, just that things got lost in the production along the way, but you could almost see that originally there was a concept that studio execs got excited over and the original draft probably worked. The VFX sometimes works (the vortex was cool), but the Deados just look distractingly fake. Ryan Reynolds has been getting lots of RIPs over his career lately, but what I see is an actor continuing to prove himself, punching in the emotional beats and delivering great comedic expressions with that face, even though it might be edited out of whack. He can still rise above this.
PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS — 5/10. The plotting and pacing were haphazard. The VFX was hit and miss; some worked, but some were just embarrassing, like the mecha-bull sequence in the beginning. Logan Lerman can do better than this. I would say it's a film for kids, so best just to see it that way; but to really enjoy it, is to be a kid with some Greek mythology knowledge — I imagine there are some of those in the US and Europe, but none of those in Malaysia. Having taken a Greek mythology Coursera (which I barely remember, sigh), it was fun to recognize some of the references. Oh, and for sci-fi TV fans, there's Nathan "great show, of course they cancelled it!" Fillion.

ELYSIUM — 6.5/10. The premise is interesting, and Neill Blomkamp is nothing if not meticulous about making the world of the story feel as real as possible with how he fills in the details of the society in which the characters live in and the production design of the film. That's the good part. Unfortunately the plot leaves no room for emotional engagement; characters die without us caring for them (not a single one); and the romantic element was contrived and thus served no purpose in the film. Also, Blomkamp needs to rethink how he shoots action sequences. I love shakycam, I really do, even when everyone else hates it, but here you don't understand what each character is doing in a fight; half of the slo-mo shots were unnecessary, and by alternating slo-mo shots with unintelligible shakycam shots the action sequences were phail-ingly jarring. Also, the actors overact; Sharlto Copley isn't fun to watch here (the French accent didn't help) while Wagner Moura is just OTT in every scene. At least Matt Damon tried.

KICK-ASS 2 — 8/10. I like this film, liked it more than I thought I would. It's a long time since a sequel was a worthy sequel; most sequels these days, even good ones like, say, The Dark Knight, felt like they terpesong a bit from the original film. For me, Kick-Ass 2 continues thematically from the first film but extends the story and personal conflicts of the three main characters: Hit Girl, Kick-Ass and ... Red Mist (hehe). In other words, this one smells like a sequel should. The scene where Mother Russia takes down police car after police car is awesome, making use of the principle of "give the audience more than they expect". Chloë Grace Moretz continues to prove that she's no fluke when it comes to acting. Violent, profane, entertaining ... it's kind of unfair it did so badly in the US box office. I wish there was a third one.

SEPTEMBER

TANDA PUTERA — 0/10. You've heard so much about the film's flaws already: the terrible directing, resulting in limp and caricatural acting, and incoherent editing, with a SERIOUSLY ANNOYING SCORE (violins and cello all the time! urgh), laughable CGI, anachronisms galore, and a deliberate effort to make the Chinese look like bloodthirsty buffoons and the Malay working class live up to the false stereotype of the serial amok.

Honestly, I chuckled when Tun Dr Ismail and Tun Abdul Razak died. It was that bad. But then the Malay girls behind me were sniffing with tears, and I suddenly weep at how hopeless our nation has become.

Beyond that, however, is the question of what this movie is for. If, as purported, it's about the friendship between Doc and Tun, and at the same time meant to instil patriotism, why then did the film become instead about "two men hiding their illnesses from their wives and the country, and then dying"? The audience member will leave the cinema still none the wiser about what these two great men did for the country. Exactly how did they cooperate to repair the country? How did Tun get to be called Bapa Pembangunan; what did he actually do? What is the point of Mahathir in the movie?

One good piece of casting though: I recognised the former IGP Hanif Omar before he was even named in the film. But why is it the IGP who visits the bedridden PM in London? And also, did Tun Hussein Onn, a rather stoic character, actually cry on TV when announcing the PM's passing? I could go on with the questions.


WE'RE THE MILLERS — 8/10. I had a really enjoyable time watching this. The cast is spot-on; from the perennially lovable Sudeikis to the smoldering hot Aniston to eye-rolling rebellious Roberts ... and then there's Will Poulter. Going from the poncey, uptight, and very English Eustace in Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader to the dorky, pubescent, and very American Kenny here, Poulter's got range! Storywise there's nothing inventive, just your typical American comedy with a bit of heart. But it's directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball), and he makes it work.

激戰 | UNBEATABLE — 7.5/10. HK cinema is increasingly degenerate, descending into mindless comedies (you're supposed to try and avoid becoming like Malaysia, you know), but they do still have a few directors who deliver good or interesting films like Johnnie To, and, in this case, Dante Lam. The plot isn't strictly speaking original, but it is nevertheless engaging (I love the prologue of the movie, how it introduces the character without telling you everything immediately, and totally not what you'd expect from "a movie about MMA"), and learns all the best lessons from Hollywood about boxing movies: set up characters we care about by showing us their domestic struggles (but it cannot be pat, or else it's just boring drama), and then shoot the hell out of the fighting sequences and manipulate audience emotions with a complete lack of subtlety. Some of the cinematography in the training sequences looked amazing (the revolving shots, you know it). And the score sometimes actually worked, rare for HK movies.

I haven't seen a film with Nick Cheung in years, which made his performance here a jaw-dropping one for me; physically he looks amazing, but also delivers a character performance with heart and endearing humour. He should grab a nomination for Best Actor next year. Eddie Peng is good-looking and earnest, and I look forward to see more of his work. Malaysian child actress Crystal Lee doesn't falter in delivering the endearing, feisty girl role, while Mei Ting who plays her mother looks like a Chinese Marion Cotillard in certain angles.


CLOSED CIRCUIT — 6.5/10. I will give Malaysians three words as to why they should check out this suspense legal thriller:

Teoh Beng Hock.

Not that the circumstances in the movie mirror that infamous case involving the MACC in any way. It doesn't. But it deals with themes of conspiracytheory, scandals involving government institutions that are suppressed in a way that suggests desperation. When you see smoke and mirrors and a lack of transparency where you would expect an innocent party (said government institution) to display them, that is a clear sign that there is something embarrassing to hide, usually under the maxim of "for the greater good".

It isn't easy to convince Malaysians to watch a movie like this; and even if you can get their asses into the cinema it may not remain till the end of the film. Fact is, if you look at TMI readers, for example, they comment fervently on the Teoh and Altantuya and Scorpene cases because they are reported in a sensationalist manner; pin them down and get them to understand the cases in its tedious details, however, and they will squirm and say it no longer matters. (The government has been able to use this to their great advantage.)

I always like watching Rebecca Hall in any movie, and Eric Bana too, though I was somewhat distracted by his British accent. What I resent is the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy treatment of the plot, an attitude to storytelling that doesn't think it is necessary for the audience to follow the protagonists along in peeling apart the case, that it is enough for the audience to see Eric Bana have a lightbulb moment without us experiencing his epiphany simultaneously. For sure the film deals with complex but not necessarily sensational (read: easily digestible) plot twists, and it's not easy to present such info to the audience, but I'd like to feel the filmmakers tried. As it is, the first half of the movie was spent in semi-ignorance, and it was only in the second half that as an audience I begin to understand the implications of each new information that the protagonists discover, and share the same oh-my-god reactions they have.


THE INTERNSHIP — 6.5/10. A formulaic comedy movie exploiting a new high-concept premise that should've worked as entertainment, except it was let down by the script. The dialogue felt rather perfunctory, and it's easy to suspect that the really funny lines came from improv by Vaughn and Wilson. The package of characters and the character arcs of the protagonists were exactly typical to movies like these (which sends up nerds and their element). Funny moments here and there, but felt a little like a missed opportunity for an inventively funny and not-dumbed-down comedy about working at Google.

MALAVITA (aka THE FAMILY) — 7.5/10. A mob comedy with a French twist; beware, even the filmmaking style takes on mildly European sensibilities. A mob family in hiding descends upon an unfortunate French town and wreaks havoc upon the petty townspeople, basically Hot Fuzz in reverse. I chuckled often. Casting was perfect, and Pfeiffer is especially spot-on as the long-suffering mobster wife, while John D'Leo is brilliant as the wheeling-dealing, unfazed, short mobster son. The buildup for the final climax was so awesome, it's almost a crime that the payoff was ultimately rather pedestrian.

非常幸运 | MY LUCKY STAR — 4.5/10. Was intrigued by this as it stars 章子怡 (who puts on about 25 dresses throughout) and 王力宏 (at one point rising from the waters Casino Royale-style), in a ditzy, childish, unabashedly one-dimensional and unoriginal film about a girl who finds the man of her dreams; the basic plot reminded me strongly of Tiara Jacquelina's stage production The Secret Life Of Nora. Ultimately it required too much suspension of disbelief due to the scatterbrained plot development and dumb characters, so I didn't enjoy it.


RUSH — 6.5/10. Aussie Hemsworth sunk into his British racer role well, but the flashier performance is that of Brühl, who puts on some teeth and make-up to make him look more like Lauda, but also puts on a different accent than I've heard him speak — I assume it's because Austrian sounds a bit different from German? But really it's his very real portrayal of a terribly antisocial hero that fascinated me. Possibly to the disappointment to car-racing fans, it's a drama about rivalry more than car-racing, though I wouldn't have guessed that the script came from Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), and I think ultimately he's the wrong choice to bring this story to the screen; the documentary SENNA had more emotional engagement than this film. Despite the inquisitive and kinetic cinematography by Slumdog Millionaire DoP Anthony Dod Mantle, the car racing scenes didn't generate extra levels of excitement or suspense when put together. Ron Howard's least affecting film since The Da Vinci Code.

RUNNER RUNNER — 5.5/10. Not quite passable entertainment. The plot was sometimes contrived, and there was one time where something happened but it was so badly presented onscreen that I didn't understand what happened. The kind of movie where things happen just because the plot needed to get to the next act and hit a well-worn trope just to conform to genre. Timberlake can definitely pick better projects; Affleck's just having fun here.

PRISONERS — 7/10. You won't see a mainstream movie with a more committed ensemble of actors this year. After all the film did attract a topline cast with every single one being Oscar nominees (Jackman, Gyllenhaal, Bello, Howard, Davis), winner (Leo), or shoulda been nominated (Dano, for There Will Be Blood if nothing else). It's really an American indie film, judging by the pacing, and the symbolism sprinkled throughout (you can read into it an allegory about contemporary America and how it relates to the rest of the world ... you might also spot the cheeky reference to Zodiac, on account of Gyllenhaal). It's a dramatic film that's pregnant with dread, but it's also a mystery and it works ... well, for the most part: there were clues so obvious that I was waiting for half an hour for Gyllenhaal's detective to see it and wondering why he hasn't.


OCTOBER

GRAVITY [IMAX 3D] — 8.5/10. 'Nuff said. You'd be a fool to watch it in anything less than IMAX 3D.

NOVEMBER

ENDER'S GAME — 8/10. I've read the novel at least THREE times, and was fully expecting Wolverine director Gavin Hood to massively disappoint with the film adaptation. I was wrong. He stuck to the novel very faithfully, and as a huge fan of the novel I'm grateful for that. It really is like watching the novel come to life. A heavily sci-fi story about kids training for full scale alien war, it features explosions and fights, but why you should see it is because of the movie's risky adherence to the rather extreme themes of the story, involving children and ethics, warfare and politics. I really want to know how audiences who never read the novel respond to the movie; I asked half a dozen people to accompany me tonight but no one was available. No matter, I can watch it twice more, in case anyone's interested.

DIANA — 6/10. Oliver Hirschbiegel directed one of the best films of the last decade, Der Untergang (Downfall), while Naomi Watts has always been nothing less than a reliable actress. Yet somehow this film feels rather perfunctory. The first decision made was to focus on Diana's life post-separation (which, like The Iron Lady, meant that the film chose an obscure and not-particularly-interesting part to dramatise), and in particular her love affair with the stoic Pakistani surgeon Hasnat Khan, a fact that I didn't even know about. There's nothing wrong with showing the former Princess of Wales trying to live her life and fall in love like a normal person (which is nigh impossible, as the film shows), but it just leaves me craving to see more of her life while she was Princess of Wales, even if we sort of already knew what happened there. As for Watts, her performance never quite reveals who the real Diana was, and I kept seeing Naomi Watts doing Diana; it doesn't help that their facial structure was different and Lady Di was the most photographed woman in the world. This becomes seriously apparent in the re-enactment of Diana's BBC interview ("There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded."), where Watts had to match every facial twitch Diana did in the actual interview faithfully ... where Watts wasn't allowed to be herself channelling the character instead. Still, there are a few interesting moments in the film; it is, after all, telling the story of a larger-than-life figure.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE — 7/10. A decent sequel that goes through the same plot template as the first movie but also delves further into the themes established in the first movie. In the beginning I had a wishful thought that Malaysians would recognise some insights as to how the government can manipulate the people with devious intentions. But nah, most Malaysian audiences are nowhere nearly that discerning (... luckily, neither is this government either, so everybody's equal).

CARRIE — 6.5/10. I wanted to watch it for Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore; it didn't seem to be received well so I was surprised to find a near-full screening at 1U tonight. Still, from post-film comments I eavesdropped it seemed some of the audience thought it was "meaningless". ... Well, of course it is, it's not a horror film, but it's a supernatural, psychologically disturbing suspense drama, with the last quarter of the film turning into a revenge movie, and that revenge movie bit was what I was waiting for. In fact I thought the horrible bully girl could've died a more gruesome death under Carrie (more! more!). Overall I was surprised by some departures from the genre conventions; the girl Carrie accidentally knocks in the head with a volleyball turns out to be a matured, sympathetic girl, while the guy who asks weird Carrie out turns out not to be a dick at all (so much so that I spent half the movie more concerned that Carrie's going to kill him in the end). Moore is seriously creepy as Carrie's demented mom. Chronicle's Alex Russell is here too; the other members of that supernatural found footage movie (Dane DeHaan and Michael B. Jordan) have gone on to illustrious careers in a short while, I hope Russell's takes off too, but his role here doesn't give him much to play with. Overall, I had expected more from Boys Don't Cry's director Kimberly Peirce, so it was a tinge disappointing, but I had a good time overall.

DECEMBER

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS — 8/10. From my favourite director Paul Greengrass (who persists in shakycam filmmaking even as other directors fell out of it, so thumbs up!  ), so I'm biased. Tense and documentary-like, as expected. For some reason Greengrass used Henry Jackman (X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) rather than his longtime collaborator John Powell for the music this time, and yet the score sounds almost exactly like what Powell would've composed … and then Jackman uses the a music track from UNITED 93 to score a climactic action sequence, and then proceeds to end the film with a barely-concealed version of Hans Zimmer's INCEPTION's "Time" track. … What gives?

風暴 | FIRESTORM – 5.5/10. I went to see it because reviews say the plot and action scenes were over-the-top. Well, I guess the climactic shootout, which involves destroying 100 cars, dozens of RPG explosions, and hundreds of civilian deaths, is over-the-top, but the subpar CGI and choppy editing of the film in general was too distracting. In fact the film had a pretty decent plot, especially the last half of the film, when characters are forced into making unexpected choices and actually react emotionally to their situation. But the direction is less adept in managing the drama and so I wasn't particularly engaged; looked at my watch every 15 minutes.

Still, a movie that shoves a girl out of the window to a five-storey drop is one after my heart.  Also when the bad guys kill a hostage unnecessarily I was like, gosh, why is it taking an extra five seconds to kill her? Not cruel enough lah. Also, the shootouts really would work better if they had NOT spent money on music, but HK movies still hadn't learnt that no music = more realistic-feeling tension. On the other hand the ADR and sound mixing work in this film is bad; probably too rushed or something.


ENOUGH SAID — 5/10. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a great actress to watch and she turns in a fine performance here, but I also kept looking at the time every so often because the plot is just so … insubstantial. There are a few nice moments where the protagonist, whom we like, is placed in uncomfortable situations, and watching how she tries to navigate the scene, that's cinematic, but the rest of the film was mostly mundane, uninteresting, and sometimes boring. It's one of my problems with American indie films, how insubstantial and formulaic they often are.

DON JON — 6.5/10. Written and directed by and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the movie begins with JGL waxing lyrical about how the joys of porn > sex. JGL is intimidatingly macho here, sweating testosterone, and sharing guy stuff and guy thoughts that most guys can relate to, in the kind of undiluted honesty that is rare in movies. And then he meets Scarlett Johansson. There's one scene here ... boys, you may want to watch this alone, in your room. I'm just sayin'. And that's not even getting to what Julianne Moore does to him later on --

Ahem. With a strong (if not necessarily original) sense of style, revealing characters through production design, and often enjoyable dialogue, JGL's directorial debut may not blow you away, but should impress you with how well-executed it is with the subject matter it deals with. Also, a superlatively cynical Brie Larson who says not a single word but spends the entire movie staring into her phone still manages to portray a useful side character.


TRANCE — 7.5/10. A strong and intensely atmospheric movie by director Danny Boyle, this time tackling a psychological suspense thriller that pulls in elements of romance, heist, and memory — that last bit will invite shades of comparison with INCEPTION, and indeed there is a long flashback sequence (accompanied with a lo-fi score) that is emotionally reminiscent of Nolan's film ... and also the final shot of the film. That is where the similarities end, however. The plot is enjoyable, if only because one is kept wondering how this will all turn out. You find your allegiances towards the characters shift as the plot weaves along, and what strong characters they are, thanks to the great performance from James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, and Vincent Cassel. McAvoy and Dawson happen to be two of my most favourite of actors, so I may be biased.

Also, the cinematography is top notch, and combined with the atmospheric score and effective sound design makes for an immersive film. It's definitely a case of the master craftsmen elevating what could have been an average story into a beautiful piece of art.


THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY — 7.5/10. Question: are film critics just a bunch of embittered twats? This was an excellent film, a life-affirming, wish fulfillment type of movie about a salaryman so jaded that he spends inordinate amount of hours daydreaming because reality is either (a) a dump; (b) boring; or (c) both. Circumstances ensue to push him down a gradual slippery slope that turns him into a real-life adventurer, and if you've ever traveled to desolate landscapes of incredible beauty, you'll recognise that haunting stare on Ben Stiller's face reacting to it.

It's possible I'm just biased, seeing as the countries Walter Mitty visits are on my list of to-go places as well, including Iceland (!), Greenland (!!), and Afghanistan (damn you, Faisal).

The casting is pitch perfect, from the ever-charming Kristen Wiig to the ever-cool Sean Penn and a supercilious Adam Scott. They also have a kick-ass music supervisor, with perfect song choices to underscore the emotions in the scenes. The cinematography will go criminally unrecognised at the Oscars. This is a very different type of Ben Stiller movie, and probably because of the subject matter, I think this is my favourite of the movies he's directed.


12 YEARS A SLAVE — 7/10. Not the best film of the year. But a powerhouse cast stacked with known names like Ejiofor, Fassbender, Paulson, Pitt, Dano, Giamatti, Woodard, Cumberbatch (there's only one), under the quietly confident direction of British indie director Steve McQueen, with a story that starts with the revelation that there were already free black people in the North who truly lived without easy persecution from the dominant white race, then proceeds to sink one such free man into the menacing, unflinching stream of slave life (scored by Hans Zimmer with an oppressive, strangely mechanical piece of music that accompanies the man's descend into the Hell of slavery), can only deliver nothing less than an excellent slice-of-life portrait of mid-19th century North America. McQueen's penchant for long-take scenes, quite unlike most indie/arthouse movies, have a recognisable purpose, showing the audience incredible moments in its entirety, like when a man is hung up to near-death while the slaves operate their work near him in pretend ignorance.

Suggested List of 2014 Oscar Nominations

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 1:58 am

[As of 19 March 2014.]

Films I Have Yet To See
Inside Llewyn Davis, Dallas Buyers Club, Short Term 12, In A World …, The Wind Rises, The Invisible Woman, Kill Your Darlings, The Spectacular Now, Adore



BEST PICTURE
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Her
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
Star Trek: Into Darkness
The Kings Of Summer
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty



BEST DIRECTING
Alfonso Cuarón — Gravity
Bong Joon-ho — Snowpiercer
J.J. Abrams — Star Trek: Into Darkness
Paul Greengrass — Captain Phillips
Steve McQueen — 12 Years A Slave



BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Benedict Cumberbatch — The Fifth Estate
Hugh Jackman — Prisoners
Idris Elba — Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
Joaquin Phoenix — Her
Tom Hanks — Captain Phillips



BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Cate Blanchett — Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy — Before Midnight
Meryl Streep — August: Osage County
Sandra Bullock — Gravity
Scarlett Johansson — Her



BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Daniel Brühl — Rush
David Oyelowo — The Butler
Jake Gyllenhaal — Prisoners
Paul Dano — Prisoners



BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Adepero Oduye — 12 Years A Slave
Amy Adams — American Hustle
Julia Roberts — August: Osage County
Lupita Nyong'o — 12 Years A Slave
Naomie Harris — Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom



BEST WRITING, ORIGINAL
American Hustle
Her
The Kings Of Summer



BEST WRITING, ADAPTED
Captain Phillips
Philomena
Snowpiercer
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty



BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Her
Star Trek: Into Darkness
The Great Gatsby
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
Trance



BEST COSTUME DESIGN
American Hustle
The Butler
The Great Gatsby
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire



BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Her
Oblivion
Star Trek: Into Darkness
The Great Gatsby
The Lone Ranger



BEST MAKEUP
Lone Survivor
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
Rush
Star Trek: Into Darkness
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire



BEST FILM EDITING
Captain Phillips
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
Star Trek: Into Darkness
The Fifth Estate
The Kings Of Summer



BEST SOUND
All Is Lost
Gravity
Lone Survivor
Pacific Rim
Star Trek: Into Darkness



BEST SOUND EDITING
Gravity
Lone Survivor
Pacific Rim
Star Trek: Into Darkness



BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Elysium
Ender's Game
Gravity
Star Trek: Into Darkness
The Great Gatsby



BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Alex Heffes — Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
Explosions In The Sky and David Wingo — Prince Avalanche
M83 — Oblivion
Steven Price — Gravity



BEST ORIGINAL SONG
"Atlas", in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, by Coldplay
"Oblivion", in Oblivion, by M83 and Susanne Sundfør
"Ordinary Love", in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, by U2
"Stay Alive", in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, by José González
"Young And Beautiful", in The Great Gatsby, by Lana Del Rey



BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Despicable Me 2
The Croods



BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Genome Hazard [Japan]
Ilo Ilo [Singapore]
The Lunchbox [India]
The Notebook [Hungary]
The Past [Iran]

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