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Because you can’t possibly have enough “Best Of The Year” lists on the Internet.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: If yr favorite movie of 2016 isn’t here, it’s likely because (1) I didn’t get a chance to see it, (2) it hasn’t been released in Hong Kong yet, or (3) I did see it but didn’t like it as much as you did. Also, if some of these seem kind of old, it’s because their release date was 2015 for yr country, but 2016 for Hong Kong. See?

Also, I didn’t actually watch that many movies in 2016, due to the aforementioned change in work schedule. I’m hoping to change that this year.

TOP TEN DEF FILMS OF 2016

1. A Perfect Day
2. The Big Short
3. Rogue One
4. Ghostbusters
5. Eye In The Sky
6. Hail, Caesar!
7. Trumbo
8. The Hateful Eight
9. Zootopia
10. The Mermaid

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Star Trek: Beyond
Happiness
The Secret Life Of Pets
The Nice Guys


THE FILM I DIDN’T LIKE THAT EVERYONE ELSE DID

A Bigger Splash

MOST POINTLESS REMAKE

The Magnificent 7

MOST POINTLESS SEQUEL

Independence Day: Resurgence

MOST RIDICULOUSLY OVERPOLITICIZED FILM OF 2016 THAT I SAW

Ghostbusters

WORST FILM I SAW IN 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

The long version, blah blah blah )

The balcony is closed,

This is dF

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I have seen Rogue One. I will opinionize about it now. 

There may be spoilers .... )

War is hell,

This is dF
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Gene Wilder is gone, as you probably know.

I should probably say something – partly because I’m a fan of many of his 70s films, but also because the very first film I remember seeing in a cinema was Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.

Or at least it’s the first live-action film I remember. My parents may have taken me to see a Disney film or two (which would have been either The Jungle Book and/or The Aristocats), but I have no memory of that. But I vividly remember going to see WW&TCF. I was six when it came out, and I remember the contrast between the darkness of Charlie’s world (especially the scene where Slugworth tries to recruit him as an industrial espionage agent) and the bright Technicolor world of Wonka, and I remember the fates of the bad kids, and the twisted horror of the psychedelic riverboat scene (which scared the hell out of me).

And of course I remember Gene Wilder alternately singing, chattering and shouting his way through the picture. Wonka was the first movie character to stick in my head. He’s been there ever since, though it wasn’t until I was older that I realized just how well-constructed a character Wonka was, and how a lot of that was down to Wilder’s brilliant performance.

And then came his work with Mel Brooks – The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein – and Richard Pryor (the first two films, anyway).

By the 80s, I’d lost interest in Wilder after he seemed to just want to do sentimental romantic comedies, a genre which has never really interested me. The Woman In Red in particular seemed to cement his image as the Lionel Richie of Hollywood comedy – politely inoffensive romantic man in a cardigan – at a time when I was getting into horror movies and punk.

But I still enjoy watching him in his 70s heyday. I used to joke that he was one of the Great Shouting Actors Named Gene of my generation (the other one being Gene Hackman). But it’s intended as a compliment.

Incidentally, one Wilder film I’d recommend that isn't a Wonka or Mel Brooks film is The Frisco Kid (1979). You may want to approach with caution because (1) it got mixed reviews and (2) I haven’t seen it for over 30 years. But I remember liking it at the time. If nothing else, you get to see a younger Harrison Ford play cowboy.

Pure imagination,

This is dF
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I know that most of you are here for one reason only: my half-assed amateur movie reviews.

In which case you may be wondering, “Hey man, aren’t you watching any movies this year?" 

Well, I am, but not that many, and I haven’t had time to write them up here (which is also why I haven't seen that many films this year – it’s been pretty nuts).

So consider yrself caught up with this post.

The Big Short

You wouldn’t think Michael Lewis’ non-fiction books would make good films. But they do. First Moneyball, and now The Big Short, in which a small group of financial investors who realized the supposedly solid US housing market was based on fraud and on the verge of collapse, bet against it and made a fortune. It all works thanks to a combination of top-notch acting and the ability of the screenwriters to simplify the complex financial situation without dumbing it down (the gimmick of using actual celebrities to break the fourth wall and explain the wonky bits is particularly inspired). And the film smartly acknowledges openly that it’s making up some of the dramatic details but the overall story is true. It’s not a trick that would work with every “based on a true story” film but it works here. This is the best film about the 2008 economic crisis I’ve seen so far.

Trumbo

Biopic of Dalton Trumbo, the infamous Hollywood screenwriter who secretly wrote Oscar-winning screenplays while being officially blacklisted by Hollywood during the McCarthy Communist witch hunts. Like most biopics, Trumbo fudges some facts and glosses over certain details – and it makes no secret whose side it’s on as Trumbo faces off with congressmen, John Wayne and gossip queen Hedda Hopper. But it’s not exactly hagiographical either – Trumbo has his flaws, particularly when it comes to his family relationships. And at the heart of it is an interesting story of how Trumbo got around the blacklist. Anyway, I’m a sucker for stories about censorship and Commie witch hunts, so I’m with the choir this film preaches to.

Hail, Caesar!

In which the Coen Brothers pay tribute to 50s Hollywood films by way of a fake story about a real person – studio fixer Eddie Mannix, whose main job was to cover up the scandals of the studio’s stars. The Coens’ Mannix is not as sleazy or ruthless as the real one, but he does spend the film dealing with various problems, the centerpiece of which is the disappearance of Baird Whitlock, the lead actor in the eponymous film, who has been kidnapped by Communist screenwriters. The story meanders somewhat, but that may be intentional, as one of the goals for the Coens here was to create scenes from some of the big genres of post-war Hollywood, from musicals and singing cowboys to sword-and-sandals Biblical epics – which they do with stunning accuracy. The fact that they wrote their own “classic” film scenes instead of recreating existing ones is an achievement in itself. It may not be their best film, but it may be their best technical achievement.

The Hateful Eight

The eighth film by Quentin Tarantino, and the first one of his films I found it hard to get into. Like all his films, it looks great, has good acting, good dialogue and plays with the narration structure a little when it suits Tarantino to do so. The gimmick here is essentially a single-room mystery where people are not what they seem and the characters have to figure out what’s really going on. The problem for me is that there’s really no one very likeable, which is another way of saying there’s no single character you hope makes it out of the situation alive. The film is just too mired in the worst qualities of humans for me to really enjoy it. It’s not bad, it’s just one of those films I’ll probably only watch once.

Zootopia

One doesn’t usually associate buddy-cop films with animated kids films, but Zootopia is just that. Naïve idealist country bunny Judy realizes her dream of becoming the first bunny to join the police force in Zootopia, a city where predators and prey live together in relative harmony. But no one takes her seriously, and to prove herself, she takes a case to find a missing otter, with some unwilling help from Nick, a con-artist fox who is her only lead to the otter’s whereabouts. It probably says a lot that only an animated film with anthropomorphic animals could get away with using a buddy-cop formula as a vehicle to denounce racism, sexism, xenophobia and exploiting fear for political gain. Given current events, it’s arguably one of the more subversive films of the year.

The Mermaid

Steven Chow’s latest film, in which a mermaid is sent to assassinate a greedy billionaire whose development company has savaged her people’s home. It’s pretty much the usual Chow template – the selfish but redeemable protagonist, the goonish leading lady, cheesy CGI and a juxtaposition of madcap humor and senseless, cruel violence that, like most of Chow’s latter-day work, tends to lean more towards the latter. So it helps if you think of it more as a fantasy action film with comedy bits rather than a comedy film with action bits. That said, it’s also Chow’s most message-driven film – which is saying something, considering this is ostensibly a mainland Chinese-produced film that not only criticizes greedy land development but also makes fun of the growing trend of China’s growing (and in many cases irresponsible) millionaires.

Go fish,

This is dF

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Because you can’t possibly have enough “Best Of The Year” lists on the Internet.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: If yr favorite movie of 2015 isn’t here, it’s likely because (1) I didn’t get a chance to see it, (2) it hasn’t been released in Hong Kong yet, or (3) I did see it but didn’t like it as much as you did. Also, if some of these seem kind of old, it’s because their release date was 2014 for yr country, but 2015 for Hong Kong. See?

TOP TEN DEF FILMS OF 2015

1. Inside Out
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
4. Whiplash
5. Ex Machina
6. Selma
7. Chappie
8. Birdman
9. What We Do In The Shadows
10. Bridge Of Spies

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Ant-Man
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
SPECTRE


THE FRANCHISE REVIVAL FILM WE REALLY DIDN’T NEED

Jurassic World

THE FILM I LIKED THAT NO ONE ELSE DID

Chappie

THE FILM I DIDN’T LIKE THAT EVERYONE ELSE DID

Kingsman: The Secret Service

WORST FILM OF 2015

Terminator: Genesys

Director's cut!  )

And that’s that for 2015.

Same time next year,

This is dF
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And now, the movie review you’ve been waiting for all this time.

[NOTE: I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, but if you haven't seen it yet, by all means wait until you do before reading this.]

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Truly it’s hard to imagine another movie preceded by this much hype and an equivalent amount of baggage from fans who have never forgiven George Lucas for making grim prequels instead of giving them the Star Wars movies they WANTED. Plus, there was all the dithering over the fact that Disney bought Lucasfilm and declared most of the Star Wars Expanded Universe books, comics and games non-canon. Cos you know, Disney ruins everything, right?

Anyway, SW:TFA had a hell of a legacy to live up to, which makes it hard to review it like any other film – unless you’ve never cared about Star Wars, or you liked the films but not to the point of obsession, or you saw them starting with the prequels, or whatever. For myself, I’m from the original Star Wars generation where our young and impressionable lives were changed forever in 1977 by the original film. I didn't expect J.J. Abrams to duplicate that experience – that would be impossible, partly because I’m 50, and partly because part of what made the first Star Wars so amazing was that nothing like it had ever been done visually – Lucas’ team literally had to invent some of the FX techniques that made it work, or take older techniques to new levels. I knew going in that SW:TFA would have none of that – FX-wise, it would use the same techniques as the average Hollywood CGI blockbuster, albeit perhaps to better effect.

So I wasn’t expecting a life-changing experience – I was just hoping Abrams would make a decent Star Wars film that reflects the spirit of the original trilogy – i.e. a fun adventure in space with good characters.

So, with all that in mind, here’s what I have to say about SW:TFA:

1. I loved it.

2. Is it perfect? No – far from it. Plot holes abound, and Abrams and the writers go a little overboard with the fan service, while the story unnecessarily borrows select plot elements from the original trilogy and relies an awful lot on coincidence as a plot lubricant.

3. On the other hand, it’s got far better dialogue than any of the other films, and while the story follows some fairly obvious tropes, it doesn’t come across as a tired rehash.

4. That’s largely because SW:TFA is populated by an interesting new cast of likeable characters – Rey the mysterious Force-sensitive scrap collector, Finn the cowardly but good-hearted Stormtrooper, Poe Dameron the smart-ass pilot and BB-8 the plucky cute droid – to take the baton from the old hands.

5. Speaking of whom, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher do a great job of playing convincing older versions of their respective characters. I do admit being disappointed that Leia doesn’t have as prominent a role as Han, but at least she gets more than a cameo.

6. As the new Bad Guy, Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader, but that’s a good thing. Ren has his own motivations and complications, and actually projects his own brand of menace – until the mask comes off, but even then he comes across as a character someone put some thought into.

7. All up, is it as good as the original film? Of course not. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun, which you haven't really been able to say about a Star Wars film since 1983.

8. Is it as good as the original trilogy? Let's put it this way – I can safely say this is the fourth-best film in the series. Possibly even the third-best, depending on how you feel about Return Of The Jedi.

9. Either way, it’s safe to say the series is now back on track as the fun, entertaining popcorn space-fantasy franchise it was intended to be (whether George Lucas cares to admit that or not).

BONUS TRACK: For those of you who care, while Disney disavowed the Expanded Universe stories, that didn’t stop the screenwriters from borrowing certain ideas from it. io9 has a list here if you’d like to know more, though it is of course chock full of spoilers.

SEE ALSO: This op/ed from Ars Technica on why scrapping most of the Expanded Universe was probably a good idea.

AND FINALLY: If you want to know what George Lucas thinks about SW:TFA, you can find out here.

The Force abides,

This is dF


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This will be the last of the movie reviews for 2015 – except for that one.

You know the one I mean. That one warrants a separate post, so unless we manage to squeeze in that Peanuts movie at the last minute, this is probably it for 2015.

Bridge Of Spies

Steven Spielberg’s mainly-true Cold War tale about how insurance lawyer James Donovan defended accused Russian spy Rudolf Abel and eventually negotiated a deal with the Russians and the East Germans to trade Abel for Gary Powers and college student Frederic Pryor.

Much has been made about the fact that the Coen Brothers have a writing credit, though I can’t say how much it adds to the original screenplay. In any case, while it’s not a typical Coens script, it’s pretty well written. And overall it’s an interesting slice of Cold War history that Spielberg uses to mirror the modern paranoia and questions over due process that America is grappling with today in regards to the War On Terror.

For the most part it works, even if Spielberg overplays his hand from time to time and relies on some occasional cheese (particularly the scene where Powers’ U2 plane is shot down). Some people will write it off as Oscar Bait just because Tom Hanks is in it, but there’s more to it than that.

SPECTRE

Daniel Craig returns for his last outing as James Bond, and with Skyfall completing the reboot that puts Bond, M, Q and Moneypenny in their respective positions on the board, this film runs with that set-up to introduce the classic eponymous Bond foe.

And it does so reasonably well. The problem is that Casino Royale and Skyfall set the bar pretty high, and SPECTRE doesn’t quite clear it. Part of the problem is that sometimes the script lapses into the kinds of OTT action scenes the reboot was supposed to be at least be smarter about. A couple of action sequences here are noticeably and pointlessly dumb. Also, it’s starting to feel like “Bond defies orders and goes rogue” is becoming a standard plot device for the reboot films.

On the plus side, Craig is still good, as is Christoph Waltz as This Year’s Villain. It’s also good that the writers are continuing with the notion that M and Moneypenney are more than just desk jockeys. And the “evil plot” really taps into modern paranoia about the pitfalls of mass surveillance, even if some of the technology bits aren’t that well thought out. Overall, it’s an above-average Bond film, but here’s hoping future Bond films spend more time messing with the formula rather than settling into one.

Shaken not stirred,,

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One good thing about flying 15 hours on an airplane with a decent VOD entertainment system is that you do get caught up on yr movie watching. Here’s what I managed to watch.

Jurassic World

Did anyone need a new Jurassic Park movie besides Universal Studios? Probably not, and it’s just as well I waited for the airplane release. It’s silly dinosaur fun with a new raptor gimmick (i.e. Raptor Strike Force) and very dumb science. Probably the most amazing thing about it is that it requires you to believe that either the first three films never happened or that everyone involved at InGen learned absolutely nothing from the events in those films.

Terminator: Genisys

Did anyone need a new Terminator movie besides Paramount and Arnold Schwarzenegger? Probably not, and this film basically proves that. The idea of using the time-travel angle to create alternate realities of the first two films is great in theory, but the execution is pretty bad once you realize the writers were less interested in coming up with believable consequences of time travel and more in just using it as an excuse for a do-over of the original film. The result is basically a retread of the same ideas that tries to be different mostly by rearranging the pieces.

Ant-Man

It seems strange but true that some of the best Marvel films feature the least-known characters: first Guardians Of The Galaxy and now Ant-Man, where thief Scott Lang falls in with Dr Hugh Pym who has a formula and a special suit that can shrink people to ant-size but with proportionately increased strength and speed. On the downside, it’s 100% predictable, and the family angles are cliché. But Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas are great, and it has the right tone for a superhero film.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

As franchise films go, MI has more going for it than most, if only because you can do more story-wise with the ludicrous-action spy genre than, say, Jurassic Park or Terminator. MI has generally lived up to its premise, and it’s nice that this one openly acknowledges the fact that the IMF basically gets things done on improv and dumb luck. This installment pits Ethan Hunt against The Syndicate, a rogue group of disavowed agents causing mayhem. My biggest disappointment with it is that Tom Cruise is still the big star – I’d hoped the last film would be an excuse to let Jeremy Renner take the lead for awhile. That said, Cruise is still capable of pulling off an MI film, though I did find it amusing that every scene either features Ethan Hunt or other characters talking about Ethan Hunt.

Slow West

Not a franchise blockbuster! This an indie film from Scottish writer/director John Maclean about naïve lovelorn Scottish teenager Jay Cavendish, who roams the American Wild West in search of his girlfriend Rose, who emigrated to America with her father. Jay meets Silas, a bounty hunter who knows that Rose and her dad have a $2,000 bounty on their heads. The title is apt – this is a slow-burn tribute to Westerns (as interpreted by Scotland and New Zealand) that’s often too pretentious for its own good. Still, it has its moments, and Michael Fassbender is good as Silas.

Slow ride,

This is dF


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Not much time for the cinemas these days, but here’s a couple of amateur reviews to meet my blogging obligations.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

50+ years after its TV debut, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. finally gets the Big Hollywood Remake treatment, with Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin, with director Guy Ritchie aiming to do with Solo and Kuryakin what he did with Holmes and Watson – i.e. an action-packed period-piece buddy film with back-and-forth narrative jumps.

Wisely, Ritchie keeps the story set in the early Cold War 60s – trying to do a story in which a CIA and KGB agent are forced to work together wouldn’t really work in a 2015 setting. On the downside, it’s mostly an origin tale of how the U.N.C.L.E. team was assembled, built around a decent but average plot involving wealthy Nazi sympathizers trying to build their own nuclear weapon. It’s debatable whether we really need a whole film to explain the background, although maybe with the show being 50 years old, exposition helps.

Anyway, the real attraction here isn’t the story so much as the way Ritchie tells it, and the interaction between Solo and Kuryakin. Cavill is all suave and unflappable, while Hammer plays Kuryakin with barely controlled intensity. It’s good that they’re having fun with it, but I did find myself wishing they’d had as much fun as Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law had in the Sherlock Holmes films. This is good as light entertainment, but it just feels like more could have been done here.

Minions

Well, why not? Take what was really the best funny bits in the Despicable Me films (the Minion scenes) and give them their own film, which explains their origins and their purpose – to find an evil master to serve. Only they’re not very good at it.

After the Minion race spends several centuries in self-exile in Antarctica, three Minions strike out on a quest to find a new master, which leads them to a villain convention in Orlando circa 1968, where they land a gig with super-villain Scarlet Overkill to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth II so she can take over England.

All of which is pretty much an excuse to stretch all those Minion skits to 90 minutes, set to a lot of classic rock tunes to amuse the parents while the kids laugh at Minion slapstick. Which isn't to say only kids will find it funny – there’s a lot of fun to be had. Overall it’s a film that knows exactly what it is – zany goofball entertainment with epic merchandising – and doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

God save the Queen,

This is dF

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I haven’t managed to get to the cinemas much this year for a variety of reasons. But I did make it at least twice since the last time I posted something in this category.

Inside Out

Odds are you’ll be sick of hearing about this film before the year is out, but for once the hype is justified – at least to me.

By now you know the premise – five anthropomorphic emotions run the control room inside the head of 11-year-old Riley, with Joy the primary leader. When Riley’s family moves to San Francisco, Sadness starts taking over. After Joy and Sadness – along with Riley’s core memories – are accidentally dumped into her long-term memory, they must find their way back to HQ through Riley’s mind before she experiences an emotional breakdown and loses her personality.

This is easily the most inventive and creative film Pixar has done in years, and the most layered and complex film they’ve done it their entire history. Directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen do a great job of distilling complex psychological concepts and distilling them into a simplified but clever story and a weird but recognizable metaphoric landscape. And sure, it’s a little heavy on the emo – the main characters are emotions, after all – but it’s never really forced or overdone, and it works thanks to a great voiceover cast that really sells the characters.

After six years of slipping into franchise retreads and pedestrian princess films (i.e. Brave – good film, but didn’t raise the bar the way I’ve come to expect Pixar films to do), it’s good to see Pixar back on form and proving it's possible to make smart, creative films and still be successful.

What We Do In The Shadows

Mockumentary from Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (based on a short film they did in 2006) that’s basically The Real World with vampires, only it’s a comedy.

Rooted in the premise that a New Zealand film crew was granted access to the super-secret Unholy Masquerade, the film focuses on four vampire roommates who are somewhat out of touch with the modern world. That changes after they turn would-be victim Nick into a vampire, after which Nick gets them up to speed on things like The Internet while they teach him (not entirely successfully) about being a vampire. There are arguments over dishes, attempts to get invited into nightclubs, batfights and encounters with responsible werewolves.

I confess I’m not a big fan of mockumentaries, if only because it’s an overdone format. But this is rather well done. The improvised humor doesn’t always work for me, but there are a lot of genuinely funny scenes. And they have a lot of fun with the standard vampire tropes (lack of reflection, turning into bats, requiring to be invited into a building, etc) without really mocking the genre as a whole. In fact, it’s one of the better vampire films to come out in awhile.

FUN FACT: Here in HK, they actually went to the trouble of hiring local voiceover actors to do a dubbed Cantonese version. 

Behold.



This is unusual – they typically only do that for animated films. Evidently they thought this would be a big enough film in HK that they thought it was worth the expense of dubbing. 

Bite me,

This is dF

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ITEM: YouTube user Marcelo Zuniga has made some videos detailing every change ever made to the first three Star Wars films, complete with side-by-side comparisons.

Many of them I already knew about via the 1997 "special editions", but I didn’t know they’d been making extra alterations in subsequent home video releases. Many of them are fairly subtle, others not so much.

Anyway, as part of the original Star Wars generation, I think these videos offer definitive proof (to me) that the originals really didn't need "fixing". In my opinion the Biggs scene is the only deleted scene that was worth adding in.

It occurs to me too that one of the biggest problems here is that Lucasfilm is subtely (if not intentionally) altering film history.

The original SW trilogy was heralded in large part because the FX were groundbreaking and visually stunning for the time period. That matters because when you watch any old film, yr basically seeing films that were made with the tools available at the time, some of which may have been invented specifically for that film. That in itself is a tribute to the ingenuity of the filmmakers, and even if it looks a little clunky by 2015 standards, you can still appreciate what they managed to accomplish.

Star Wars has a well-earned rep as a game-changer in FX, but when you stick in scenes using technology that didn’t exist at the time, it’s like cheating. People seeing Star Wars for the first time may look at the latest version and think, “Wow, they had CGI back in the 70s!”

Well, maybe not, if only because Lucasfilm has been fairly transparent about its enhancements, so it’s not they're trying to trick anyone into thinking they were that far ahead of the CGI game. And maybe it only matters to people like me who have a fascination with film FX tricks and the art of making fake look real, and how they used to do it in the Old Days compared to now.

And considering a lot of the original FX are still intact, I guess you could say the upgraded films serve as a kind of mostly seamless comparison of old-school and new-school FX that demonstrate how sophisticated Lucasfilm and ILM were when they first started.

Still, now that Disney owns Lucasfilm, I’m hoping one day they’ll release the original versions for us Old And Cranky People who will always swear that Han shot first. That doesn’t seem likely, internet rumors notwithstanding. And Lucas has adamant that the “special editions” are the definitive versions as far as he’s concerned, and the originals are “half-completed” films.

If it ain’t broke,

This is dF


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Rowdy Roddy Piper is gone.

Which may not mean much to non-wrestling fans, except the ones who liked They Live.



For me, of course, Piper was part of the Toontown that was the WWF’s heyday in the late-80s. And he was always one of the standouts, whether in the ring or on the mike.

Also, while he wasn’t the first WWF superstar to break into films, he was one of the few who made at least one really good one (see above). The rest of them were mainly straight-to-video B-movies, but I’ll take that over Hulk Hogan’s kids films any day.

Piper brought Hell to Frogtown.



He went to the police academy with Jesse Ventura.



He inspired a punk rock song.



It’s hard not to respect that.

I think Jade Bos sums it up well:

Rowdy Roddy Piper was just an average dude full of disdain and hatred, for well, pretty much everything. And we loved him for it. Because deep inside we fucking hated everything too. It was the eighties. Sleek flamboyant artifice, Ronald Reagan, flawless over produced synth pop, and cocaine ruled the day. And much like the cocaine. It looked like so much fun, but in the end you’re miserable, broke, and alone with an empty mirror.

I know this probably doesn’t make much sense, but my hope is you feel like it does. Because that’s what Rowdy Roddy Piper was to me. In the middle of the fakest thing around, in the phoniest decade. In the grandly absurd Kabuki opera known as Professional Wrestling, he was somehow undeniable real.

Amen.

Sooner or later everybody pays the Piper,

This is dF
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Looking back on this list, it seems that a lot of the songs I liked as a kid (circa early-mid 70s) were ballads – not as in soppy love songs with an electric guitar solo, but as in songs that told stories.

But only one of them was made into a film.




Well, sort of. The film’s story has almost nothing to do with the song, which is of course about a jealous husband who becomes a victim of crooked Southern justice.

Which apparently is why Cher turned it down (or rather, Sonny Bono turned it down for her over concerns it might annoy her Southern fan base). In fact, according to legend, none of the singers it was shopped to had much interest, nor did the music label people who didn’t know how to pigeonhole it into a format. Even the guy who wrote it – Bobby Russell (a.k.a. Mr Vicki Lawrence at the time) – didn’t think it was all that great a song anyway. So Vicki went and recorded the damn thing herself.

Back story!

Anyway, listening to it now, I think it holds up pretty well. But then I like a good story about crooked Southern justice.

FUN FACT: Because Top 40 DJs in the 70s rarely bothered to tell you who performed the songs you just heard, it wasn’t until I got a copy of the 45 that I realized the singer was the same woman who played Mama on the Carol Burnett Show.

Supper's waiting at home and I gotta get to it,

This is dF


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I haven’t been getting to the cinemas as much as I would like these days. But I have managed to see a couple of things.

Mad Max: Fury Road

An argument could be made that we really didn’t need another Mad Max film – not least since any “reboot” would have to live up to at least the first two films, if not Beyond Thunderdome. But if yr going to revive the series, this is the way to do it.

George Miller made two very wise decisions with Fury Road: (1) real car stunts that rely as little on CGI as possible (though perhaps not little enough at times) and (2) going with an all-new story instead of rehashing Max’s origins, although the plot follows a framework similar (but not identical) to Mad Max 2.

Still, it’s the details that matter, and on that score, the film delivers just about everything you’d want in a new Mad Max film: insane car battles, insane post-apocalyptic tribes, and insane visual design, with a decent story engine driving it along. My only real complaint is the CGI thrown in for 3D purposes. But that’s a small quibble for a film where everything is deliberately over the top. Where else can you see an assault force led by a heavy-metal guitarist with a flamethrowing guitar?

Meanwhile, Tom Hardy is a worthy successor as Max, but Charlize Theron steals the show as Imperator Furiosa. Which has apparently upset the Men’s Rights groups who are annoyed at all the "feminism" George Miller poured all over their movie. If that’s not a recommendation to go see it, I’d like to know what is.

Ex Machina

Almost the polar opposite of MM:FR in terms of OTT energy, Ex Machina is a slow-paced but absorbing AI-thriller written and directed by Alex Garland. The story involves Caleb, a coder at a giant search engine company (not that one), who wins a company lottery to work with reclusive legendary founder Nathan Bateman on a super-secret project that turns out to be Ava, a female robot with artificial intelligence. Nathan wants Caleb to apply the Turing Test to Ava whilst already knowing she’s not human. But as the tests go on, Caleb suspects that both Nathan and Ava have their own agendas.

Oscar Isaacs is great as Nathan, equal parts brooding psychopath and charismatic-to-the-point-of-intimidating genius, and Alicia Vikander makes for a smart and sympathetic Ava. Domhnall Gleeson is a little lackluster in comparison as Caleb, but fulfils his role as the average guy who finds himself in over his head.

Like other films Garland has written, the third act falls a little short on logic, and some bits are predictable. On the other hand, he does avoid some of the more obvious tropes for this kind of film, and does a good job using the storyline to explore the ethical issues involved with developing AI (especially the way in which Nathan went about it), the differences between human intelligence and AI, and the possible consequences. Even the inevitable sexbot trope serves more to raise the ethical issues involved instead of “hey guys, sexbots!” Overall, if yr expecting a straight techno action thriller, you’ll be disappointed. But if you like yr SF a little more thoughtful, this should be right up yr street.

Smarter than the average robot,

This is dF


defrog: (Default)
They say celebrity deaths happen in threes. In the last 24 hours we lost Sir Christopher Lee, Ornette Coleman and Dusty Rhodes.

It doesn't get much more diverse than that.

I confess I don’t have much to say about Coleman, if only because I wasn’t really aware he was still alive. I have two of his landmark albums from 1959 (The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Tomorrow Is The Question!), and I confess I only got into him because Henry Rollins name-dropped him and John Zorn did a covers album of Coleman compositions. But there’s no doubt he was an original.

The same could possibly be said of Dusty Rhodes, who was a TV staple for me growing up in Tennessee watching professional wrestling on weekends. He was always a standout and could always work a crowd whether he was a heel or a babyface. I had mixed feelings about his American Dream gimmick in the WWF with the polka dot outfits and all that. On the other hand, Rhodes made the most of it. Who else could get away with going on national television in a butcher shop and saying, “You can beat my prices, but you sure can’t beat my meat.”

As for Sir Christopher Lee, well, this probably sums it up better than anything I could write.

Rest in Peace, Christopher Lee

You can also add to that list, “Was on the cover of a Wings album”.



Respect.

And you will know us by the trail of dead,

This is dF
defrog: (Default)
ITEM: Marvel is killing the popcorn movie. Furthermore, it doesn’t care. And Avengers: Age of Ultron is proof.

So says this op/ed piece in Wired, which is not a diatribe against popcorn films, but against the approach that Marvel has taken to them, and the effect it’s having on the overall popcorn-film genre.

I don’t agree that A:AoU will have a knock-on effect on all popcorn films – fans love it, critics mainly liked it, and the box office take is healthy, so Disney/Marvel and other studios have all the incentive they need to do more things like it.

That said, I do think the article brilliantly sums up the way I feel about the whole Marvel Cinematic/TV Universe. Namely: Marvel’s stipulation that each part must serve the whole. Apparently the A:AoU script had to conform to Marvel’s guidelines to the point that a number of scenes served no purpose except as set-ups or promos for other Marvel franchises.

From the article:

•So, once Marvel’s formula has deprived the movie of (a) time for the characters, (b) the potential for the story to unfold in a surprising way, and (c) meaningful consequences, we then get each character’s maximum 10 minutes of focus (which is now more like five or six) cut down even further, with ads for other Marvel products. In Age of Ultron, we lose several minutes of valuable time that could be spent developing our characters to visit Wakanda and establish Andy Serkis as a villain, not because he’s important to the plot—he’ll totally disappear after this one scene—but because there’s going to be a Black Panther movie. Thor has to be taken out of the action for a while so that his scientist friend can help him hallucinate the premise of Infinity War. Captain America gets a flashback that doesn’t relate to the plot, but does remind you that he used to date Peggy Carter, who you can catch every week on ABC’s own Agent Carter! Etcetera.

Now, I get that the above is more of a problem for an ensemble franchise like The Avengers than it would be for a standalone MCU franchise. And I also realize that interconnectedness is a key feature of the Marvel comics.

The thing is, that's easier to do with comic books that have been around 50+ years than it is with films and television. Universes don't mean much if the characters are one-dimensional and the stories are nothing but a series of epic fight scenes.

And even then, I have to say one of the reasons I stopped reading Marvel comics in the 90s was that same emphasis on interconnectivity in the Marvel Comics Universe. The result was too many damn crossovers. It got to the point that you had to read ten or eleven titles to be able to follow what was going on. Which of course was fine with Marvel because $$$$$.

Apparently Marvel wants to do the same basic thing with the films and TV shows and spinoffs of both. IMO, eventually it's going to backfire. Some MCU fans I know are already complaining that some of the TV shows have writing that's not Whedon-levels of clever. God knows how they're going to feel when they realize that Robert Downey Jr can't play Tony Stark indefinitely, which is going to ruin the continuity.

And now Warner Bros/DC are looking to emulate the same Cinematic Universe formula (since DC Comics, of course, does the universe/crossover thing as well), which seems to be a problem for a lot of fans because the existing DC film aesthetic has already been established by Chris Nolan’s Batman films and Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel. Which is apparently a bad thing because those movies sucked.

Which is news to me. Not Man Of Steel, of course (which I haven't seen, but I know it wasn’t that well received by Superman fans), but the Nolan Batman films. I seem to remember comics fans generally liking them (especially The Dark Knight), apart from some minor quibbles and the inability of The Dark Knight Rises to live up to TDK. Then the MCU happened, and now suddenly it seems all the fan sites are talking about how the Nolan films were actually awful the whole time because they’re not as fun as the MCU films and are about stoopid things like intelligence and emotion.

I might be imagining it. Or my memory is faulty. Maybe it’s just that Nolan’s Batman was better by comparison to every superhero film before it, but now it suffers in comparison to Iron Man and the Avengers cos they're superhero films done “properly”. That’s arguably true of Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films – I remember fans seemed generally impressed with the first two (not so much the third one, admittedly), but none of them have really aged well. Which I suppose is one reason why they rebooted it.

Anyway, I’d just as soon both Disney/Marvel and WB/DC drop the whole Cinematic Universe concept – especially if it’s only going to serve as a cross-promotion tool for other properties.

FULL DISCLOSURE #1: I haven’t seen A:AoU. Or any of the Marvel TV shows.

FULL DISCLOSURE #2: I like Zack Snyder as a director. And I don’t care who knows that.

Avengers disassemble,

This is dF

defrog: (sars)
Meanwhile, at the cinemas:

Chappie

Neil Blomkamp returns with his tale of a damaged police robot upgraded with experimental artificial intelligence who ends up raised as a South African gangsta.

No, really!

It’s a twisted mishmash of Short Circuit, Robocop and gangsta rap videos set in near-future Johannesburg, with naïve robots, extreme office politics, and numbskulled gangbangers. It’s the sort of thing Luc Besson might come up with if he decided to do a robot film.

Critics have been harsh with this film, and for the life of me I can’t see why. The film does have its share of flaws – namely some plot holes in the form of bad security practices on the part of Tetravaal (the company that makes the robots) and advanced technology that gets more questionable as the film goes along. But it all more or less works within the parameters that Blomkamp sets for the film. And he manages to make Chappie a sympathetic character (thanks in no small part to Sharlto Copley’s motion-capture performance).

Honestly I have more of a problem with Blomkamp casting Die Antwoord as basically themselves (only they’re criminals instead of rappers). It’s not that they're bad, it just odd enough to be a bit of a distraction (unless you have no idea who Die Antwoord is, in which case maybe not). All up, it’s not quite up there with District 9, but it’s far better than Blomkamp’s previous film Elysium (which critics liked a lot more than this – and so much for film critics, eh?).

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Mathew Vaughn and Mark Millar reunite with this pastiche of Bond films and the “gentleman spy” genre. Everything is here – bespoke suits, gadgets, the flamboyant villain, the uniquely-and-improbably-armed henchperson, the insane plot to destroy the world – except it’s not so much a tribute or even a spoof of the genre so much as a middle-finger mockery of it.

Or so it seemed to me. The storyline of young chav Eggsy being recruited into the service (on account of his father died saving Colin Firth) is as clichéd as it gets, and most of the rest of the film takes the cheesiest elements of the Bond films and jacks the volume up to 11 – especially the violence, which is at the level you’d expect from a script with Millar’s name on it (brutal and gratuitous) but more disturbing than entertaining. Which would be okay if the film was at least smarter or more original or less predictable. For the most part, it’s not really any of those. The satirical elements rely heavily on stereotypes and are as subtle as a shot to the head. Even Samuel L. Jackson’s villainous plot is ludicrous even by Bond-villain standards.

It’s not completely terrible – Kingsman has some nice gimmicks going for it, to include Firth acting suave, and Jackson acting with a lisp. But it’s not especially clever – unless you think “Extreme James Bond” is clever, then okay, maybe.

The spy who kicked my ass,

This is dF


defrog: (sars)
I don’t really go out of my way to see Oscar-winning/nominated films, but it seems that – for once – this year’s Oscar bait actually turned out to be films I would have gone to see anyway. Or some of them, anyway.

As usual, all of them opened in Hong Kong just before/just after Oscar Night (for maximum publicity), except for Selma, which opens this week. Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve seen:

Birdman

It’s not often I can post about seeing the Oscar-designated “Best Picture Of The Year” – partly because I don’t recognize the authority of NARAS, and partly because the films that win Best Picture are usually the kinds of films I’m not interested in seeing. But I saw Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman before the Oscars happened (I’m just now getting around to writing the review), and I’m surprised it won – not because it’s bad (the opposite, in fact), but because it’s not the usual kind of film the Academy goes for.

Or maybe it is. Between the buzz about Iñárritu’s heroic efforts to make the film look like a single shot and the storyline (actor famous for playing blockbuster superhero Birdman tries to revive career on Broadway with adaptation of Raymond Carver story while his family life, his sanity and the production itself falls apart around him), it’s tempting to write the film off as self-indulgent Oscar bait with actors acting a story about acting and the art of acting and how hard it is to be an actor, and isn’t it ironic that we’re satirizing actors, etc.

Which would be accurate except that (1) the film never comes off as being ironic or self-absorbed, and (2) the performances overall are just too good to write off, especially for Michael Keaton, who takes the title role far beyond what you might expect from a guy who once played Batman. The film’s only real problem is a tendency to get sidetracked with a couple of subplots that don't really go anywhere and seem to serve as a distraction while they’re setting up the next scene off-camera. Apart from that, though, it’s fascinating to watch the tension build as the film edges towards opening night.

Whiplash

That jazz drumming film that “real” jazz lovers hate because it’s unrepresentative of real jazz and music conservatory instructors. It’s kind of like people complaining that Lethal Weapon is unrepresentative of law enforcement procedure – it might be true, but who would go see a realistic version?

In any case, I don't really think Whiplash is about jazz – it’s about obsession with jazz, or with music in general. Both aspiring drummer Andrew Neyman and cruel teacher Fletcher are obsessed with jazz and musical genius in different ways, and it’s that obsession that pits them against each other. Fletcher is undoubtedly abusive – he’s the R. Lee Ermey of jazz schools, only more so – but J.K. Simmons makes Fletcher so believable that it doesn’t matter that most jazz instructors don’t behave that way. This one does, and he’s terrifying.

So yeah, I liked it, although it’s such an intense film that I don’t know if I could sit through it again. But in a good way. It's like a rollercoaster – intense while yr on it, then once yr off you want to ride it again. 

The Imitation Game

I don’t go much for biopics, but at least this one has an interesting hook – how Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code, invented computers and for his trouble was later arrested for being gay with another man. And I’ve got mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand – like all biopics (and hence the reason I don’t generally like them) – it plays fast and loose with the facts in order to make Turing’s role bigger than it actually was. On the other hand, filmmakers have almost always sacrificed facts for drama, so the real benchmark is whether the film holds up on its own merits regardless of accuracy. On that level, The Imitation Game works as a WW2 thriller – it’s a great story that’s well told and brilliantly paced.

That said, I’m also a little critical of Benedict Cumberbatch’s take on Turing – it plays a little too strongly on the tortured-antisocial-arrogant-genius stereotype that these kinds of movies tend to deploy (and which Cumberbatch has already done via Sherlock Holmes). For the most part he’s very good, but occasionally he overdoes it. But overall, it’s still entertaining.

Real genius,

This is dF
defrog: (sars)
You would think that the first great release of 2015 might be the new Sleater-Kinney album.

And it might well be. But I don’t have a copy of it yet.

I do however have the debut album from John Carpenter.

Yes, that John Carpenter.

Technically it’s not a debut album, since Carpenter has been releasing music for years via the soundtracks he composed for most of his films. But this is the first time he’s recorded music just for its own sake. According to Uncut, most of it was improvised along with his son Cody and Dan Davies (son of Dave, who worked with Carpenter on a couple of soundtracks) after staying up all night playing video games, until he realized they had about an hour’s worth of music done.

What you make of it will depend on three factors: (1) whether you like John Carpenter films, (2) whether you like the soundtrack music of John Carpenter films (besides Halloween), and (3) if yr enjoyment of soundtrack music depends on having seen the film it accompanies.

If you can't tick at least one of those boxes, then this probably isn’t for you.

For fans, the good news is that for the most part the music sounds exactly the way you’d expect a Carpenter album to sound – pulsing beats, 80s synths, and sinister overtones. It really does sound like a collection of themes for movies Carpenter hasn’t made yet – hence the title, John Carpenter’s Lost Themes (see what he did there?).

Listen to this. This could be straight off the Christine soundtrack.



I have to say, I dig it. But then I’m a fan of both Carpenter’s films and soundtracks. It’s not all great, and much of the greatness is fueled by nostalgia, but I’m 49, so I think I’m entitled.

If it helps, the album also comes with some remixes, although the only really interesting ones are the ones involving Zola Jesus (extra spooky) and JG Thirlwell (if John Carpenter scored The Venture Brothers …).

Turn out the lights,

This is dF
 
defrog: (Default)
Because you can’t possibly have enough “Best Of The Year” lists on the Internet.

Films now. Music soon.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: If yr favorite movie of 2014 isn’t here, it’s likely because (1) I didn’t get a chance to see it, (2) it hasn’t been released in Hong Kong yet, or (3) I did see it but didn’t like it as much as you did. Also, if some of these seem kind of old, it’s because their release date was 2013 for yr country, but 2014 for Hong Kong. Get me?

TOP TEN DEF FILMS OF 2014

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
2. Interstellar
3. The Wolf Of Wall Street
4. Edge Of Tomorrow
5. Lucy
6. Godzilla
7. A Most Wanted Man
8. The Railway Man
9. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
10. The Monuments Men

HONORABLE MENTIONS

American Hustle
Only Lovers Left Alive
X-Men: Days Of Future Past


THE ONE FILM I LIKED THAT NO ONE ELSE DID

Kiki's Delivery Service

THE ONE FILM I DIDN’T LIKE THAT EVERYONE ELSE DID

The Two Faces Of January

WORST FILM OF 2013

Transformers: Age Of Extinction

Want capsule reviews? Cos we got some right here )

Tomorrow: the music! 

dF out

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