Movie Review: Selma

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Great cinematography, score, and lead performance by David Oyelowo gives power to an important chapter in modern history involving one of the most influential figures in modern modern history.

The film is quite slow paced, but every Oyelowo owns the screen in every shot.  His portrayal of Dr. King as someone who is almost a God-like figure when giving a speech or rally, and someone who struggles with family issues just like any other average family man, was brilliant.

The film deserves the Oscar Best Picture nomination it got.  It might not have star appeal or a topic that will have people come in droves to watch, but I recommend this film as a way to witness one of the pivotal moments in American history.

Movie Review: Whiplash (My favorite film of 2014)

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Fallen into the wrong hands, “Whiplash” would have been a boring TV movie or mini-series.  But in the hands of upcoming director Damien Chazelle, incredible editing by Tom Cross, who won the Academy Award for Best Editing for this film, and gripping leading performances by Miles Teller anad J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash” is a masterpiece that seemingly came out of nowhere, and was personally my favorite film of 2014.

As an educator, I can relate, to some extent, life in the world of education and the idea of pushing students to their limits.  There is no one-size-fits-all method to teaching.  In real life, some young adults actually can respond quite well to Simmons’ character’s ultra-intensive methods, breaking the students down and putting them back together; this is supposed to transform the student into something he otherwise could never achieve.  Other students (perhaps the majority) simply cannot take the immense pressure that such an environment imposes.  The key is to find a balance between being challenging and encouraging.

It’s an incredible film.  Who knew that a drama between student and teacher set in a music school can be this intense? Must Watch!

Movie Review: The Theory of Everything

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In this biopic of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Eddie Redmayne gives an absolutely brilliant performance, painting for us a picture of a very complex individual who struggled between his academic and personal lives as he coped with the ALS diagnosis.

The direction and plot are very standard; short of the performances by the two leads, the film offers us no surprises in terms of its storytelling, editing, or other aspects.  The film does not focus at all on Hawking’s work; it consciously shies away from the science and focuses on the personal events that made him who he is today.  This almost felt to me like a cop out, as if the writers didn’t bother with attempting to make the science interesting enough for the general audience.  What we’re left with is a story about one of the most brilliant scientists on earth, without the science.  They get away with it though, as Redmayne and Jones’ performances carried the film.

I’m very surprised that the film is nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, considering its lack of a ‘wowing’ factor compared to the other nominees (or some films that were not nominated).  It’s definitely worth a watch, though, if only for the performances of Redmayne and Felicity Jones alone.

Movie Review: American Sniper

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“American Sniper,” a biopic based on the book “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History,” chronicles the life of Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper.  Cooper packed on quite a few pounds to physically resemble the formal SEAL sniper, and gives a magnetic performance that holds the film together.

I can’t help but compare this film to 2009’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, “The Hurt Locker.”  Both films center on characters who go through the atrocities of modern war and struggles to deal with life after combat.  Although “The Hurt Locker” was a fictional and dramatized account of a bomb defusal unit, and “American Sniper” is a comparatively more accurate portrayal of the story of Chris Kyle, as a film, the former is a level above the latter in its storytelling and it grips the audience at the very beginning and never lets go.

Clint Eastwood is back on his game after some sub-par films such as “Jersey Boys” and “J.Edgar.”  The film is well-shot and well-edited, putting the audience right in the middle of Kyle’s world.  There’s nothing ground-breaking here, just very solid film making.

At over two hours, the film is a tad too long, and would have been a bore if it weren’t for Cooper and Sienna Miller’s excellent performances.  While I don’t quite agree with nomination of the film and Cooper for the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Actor, respectively, it’s definitely worth a watch.

Movie Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction

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Hearing nothing but bad things about the newest instalment (a so-called reboot) of the Transformers franchise from my friends and critics alike, I went to see the film anyway, for reasons that aren’t quiet enough to justify my trip to the theatre:

1. I wanted to see just how bad it was, and whether I can still derive some enjoyment out of it, and;

2. It was late on a Thursday night and my choices were limited.

In lieu of the fact that everyone I know trashed the film, my bar was set so low that it was almost impossible for me to hate it. And I can’t say I did, because at this point, I have lost faith in Michael Bay; to me, he will always be the guy who uses the same technique (that signature low-angle slo-mo shot of a dude stepping out of a car looking like he’s badass? check) and whose movies are always at least 20 minutes too long.

Recently, I have funnelled my hatred towards Michael Bay films into laughter as I was once again in awe of how bad his latest work is.  This film is another instance where Michael Bay and the people who produces these Transformers movies know that people will go to these films no matter how garbage they are.

However, I can’t say I hate this film, per se, because it features my home city of Hong Kong getting destroyed (you see it in the trailer so no spoilers), especially two of the city’s architectural monstrosities.  That, at a personal level, at least, makes this film not a complete waste of money to go to.

If you are ambivalent to seeing Hong Kong get demolished (It was enjoyable for me also because now I can say I’ve walked the same street as Bumblebee and Optimus Prime!), then don’t watch it.

As a side note: some local Hong Kong people are enraged over a line said in the film that promotes mainland Chinese propaganda, in selling its affections towards the city of Hong Kong.  But when you put that in a Michael Bay movie, who cares?

Movie Review: Captain America: Winter Soldier

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In a somewhat surprising turn, the sequel to 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” not only tops its predecessor, but also outdoes the last two sequels released by Marvel, “Iron Man 3” and “Thor 2.”  While the plot of “Iron Man 3” is more of a character study of Tony Stark’s personal struggles since the events of “The Avengers”, and the plot of “Thor 2” focuses on the peace on a galactic scale, “The Winter Soldier” brings us back into Earth and continues the mission of keeping peace on our planet.

The stakes are never higher.  The plot and set pieces are well laid out and the audience is never confused as to what is going on.  The special effects perfectly accompanies the humanist story.  Finally, even with the obvious political undertones exploring the devastating potentials of state overreach, and laying the ground work for the next Avengers movie with the introduction of the Hydra organization and new villains, the film does not seem too preachy or drags along.

I chose to watch the film in IMAX 3D and it was worth every penny.  Every time the Winter Soldier punches Captain’s shield the theatre vibrated along with it.

As I mentioned, “The Winter Soldier” is the best Marvel (by Marvel Studios) film probably since 2012’s “The Avengers.”  Definitely catch it before “Avengers 2.”

Movie Review: 300 – Rise of an Empire

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When you make a movie that is iconic as “300,” people will inevitably compare any sequel to the original.

Sadly, I have to say that in every aspect, “Rise of an Empire” feels far short of the first “300.”  Even though the stakes are higher, the tone and atmosphere of the film does not retain the glorious, no-holds-barred attitude of its predecessor.

What was magical about the first “300” was that, in a rare case, we witness a story where the warriors are happy about sacrificing themselves for their cause, even though we were never entirely sure for what cause they were fighting.  It was pure camp and corny, but they pulled it off brilliantly and made it look easy.

Examples of films that tries to emulate the feel of “300” are “Clash of the Titans,” and “Immortals,” and these films show that ancient-swords-and-sandals films, if not done the right way, can be cringingly-corny and difficult to watch.  Sadly, ‘Rise of an Empire” dabbles into this area of mediocrity at times.

“300: Rise of An Empire” is a decent time at the theatres, but don’t expect anything as epic and awing as the first “300.”