DICK STEEL

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Ilo Ilo
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: Ilo Ilo
As it turned out, this is Anthony's labour of love, and the tremendous attention to detail was simply amazing, though not perfect (but what is?), with its art direction to immerse the viewer into knowing we're in the mid 90s without the need for an obvious marker until mid way. Electronic devices such as the Tamagochi game which was quite the rage in its time, ubiquitous pagers, and Sony's walkman all serve to remind us of a time where we got by without feeling the need to be online all the time. And from these little gadgets, come the darting of one's eyes to a lot more clues of time, from costuming right down to wide angled shots where I just had to find something out of place, but rarely did (I admit I nodded when a wide shot of a school hall had the correct President and First Lady picture hung up, something which could have been easily overlooked, amongst other things such as the model used for a police car).

But it is economical filmmaking in a sense, yet big in ambition to tell a story that can, and has proved, to resonate with audiences around the world. Most of the scenes take place in family HDB apartment, or the school, and any other outdoor shots were meticulously scouted and could have made the Old Places team proud, especially when we're modernizing our landscapes at a frightening pace. And the cinematography exploits tight spaces in lieu of avoiding getting something out of place into the frame, yet through its technical constraints came an intimate portrait through tight shots and intricate framing.

What I really liked about the film is how effortlessly the narrative flowed, without the director feeling the urge to be verbose about everything, preferring set ups to be resolved naturally at a later stage, with the film taking its time to evolve rather than pushing its pace to a rush, reining in any attempt to be overly ambitious in trying to cover everything, catalyzed from the introduction of a stranger into a family's life. And on top of that, giving each character crafted their strong, personal story arcs whose challenges one can surely feel for since they touch raw nerves from an unforgettable 90s era.

The Singapore Dreaming connection cannot be stronger than with Yeo Yann Yann's presence playing a pregnant mom in a family drama. One of the actresses at the top of her craft plying her trade on both sides of the Causeway, it is needless to say her sheer acting prowess shone through a role that required her to respond to threats, where her character had to witness the erosion of her bond with her son who slowly but surely begin to forge a stronger one with their family maid. And if that's not challenging the actress enough, her role also deals with the albatross of retrenchment starkly happening in the local small and medium enterprise her motherly character works for, and finding belief through self-help materials.

I've never thought much about Chen Tianwen as an actor since his television days, but it's a testament to the director's ability to elicit the best performance possible from his cast, and it's indeed a revelation that this actor could act, if given the right role, and having his ability coaxed right out of him. While the character had to disappear for a bit toward the last act, his Mr Lim stood for how the typical father would under dire circumstances, speaking little, and digging deep from within to weather the storm, picking up any job to tide through tough times. If you, like me before who is unconvinced by Chen Tianwen's acting abilities, you're in for a huge and pleasant surprise.

Fans of Lav Diaz's films would be no stranger to Angeli Bayani, who plays Teresa/Terry the maid, and nailed her role through and through as the dutiful servant with a mind of her own, standing up for herself from the onset when bullied. Leaving her family and young son behind, the character echoes many of those under similar circumstances, having to come to our island to look after someone else's kid instead, while at the same time bearing witness to the secrets each household owns. And rounding up the principle cast members is Koh Jia Ler as the young kid of the Lim family Jiale, a rascal of a kid, spoilt in a sense, and being the bane of Teresa at the start. Ilo Ilo has their story arcs central to everything else happening around them, and the chemistry between these two performers was one of the highlights of the movie, as we journey through their changes in attitudes that gave way to mutual respect, and love. Probably the child actor at the moment, having to co-shoulder the weight of the film on his shoulders as the unlikely antagonist who jump starts situations.

Anthony Chen has thrown the gauntlet down for local filmmakers to raise their own bars in filmmaking, leading the charge of the next generation of filmmakers who have their unique vision and stories to tell. It's rare in our filmmaking community to find storytellers who straddle between art house and commercial films, but Ilo Ilo shows that a combination of both is possible. So while the film continues to make waves overseas, and prestigious, international awards aside, there's nothing but true testament for any filmmaker, than for audiences in the home country to respond to the film in a show of support through a ticket. And it's not blind promotion - Ilo Ilo is the best local film to hit our shores this year, and perhaps in recent years, that it deserves as wide an audience as it can get from Singapore. You'll laugh, cry and will invariably be moved. A definite recommend!

Spring Breakers
(2012)

A Nutshell Review: Spring Breakers
Babes gone bad. A simple enough premise, set around teenyboppers who just cannot wait to break their goody-two-shoes mould, and take on something grittier on film. Written and directed by Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers is that film you may feel nauseous when sitting through, no thanks to its psychedelic colours, repetitive voiceovers, in your face camera angles, and non linear chronological presentation that seemed high on moving backward and forward to rock your cognitive balance deliberately, providing that first hand experience on the perpetual state of high the characters all seem hooked on in their search for hedonism and narcotic nirvana.

It's like a guys wet dream fantasy come alive when dealing with characters who are uninhibited in wanting to try crazy stuff, and the story follows four college girls - Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine, wife of the writer-director) and Faith (Selena Gomez), the latter playing that religious girl enticed into the life of hard partying by friends who resorted to robbing a restaurant to fuel their spring break vacation. Then it's scene after scene of merry making, sometimes with the aid of drugs, that we see the drowning of values within Faith as she falls deeper into the rabbit hole of trouble.

Faith may be the character differentiated enough from the rest of her friends, but it's a little bit limited to what she can do, given the subject of peer pressure. The others were bland one-dimensional characters who bond deeper because of their clique that had survived an almost impossible pulling off of a robbery, catching the eye of Alien (James Franco), who decided to help the girls out of jail, posting their bail and taking them under his crooked wing.

James Franco stood out for being the thorn amongst the warped roses, and credit to the makeup and wardrobe team for completely knocking off his good looks, and replacing it with a gangsta inspired wardrobe with metallic braces, sun shades and plenty of tattoos. But the outfit doesn't make the character, and Franco owns it as Alien, a rapper cum drug dealer/distributor, complete with small army and a fortune to go on the recruitment hunt that would put the fun-seeking girls in his predatory path.

It's ultimately light in treatment, trying its best to ramp up the final act with the introduction of a gang rival, and the extent of rot the girls descended into, courtesy of the seduction from the dark side. There's little pleasure obtained from watching the movie, like a desperate exercise by the cast to show off how nasty they can actually be for film, playing to the fantasy of the filmmaker.

Evil Dead
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: Evil Dead
It's hard to live up to one's tagline, especially when it's screaming the words "most terrifying", because it's building expectations sky high, only for it to come out a little bit underwhelming, despite having cult classic pedigree backing it. Evil Dead is that continuation of the Sam Raimi Evil Dead films that had Bruce Campbell in the starring role, but this installment is all seriousness without the camp, which made it a little bit dreadful to sit through, and an exercise in excessiveness.

With the slew of horror and slasher films trying to out-gore one another, a plateau has been reached as to how many times something can be dismembered on screen, full on view, without the need to cut away for decency. Then comes the gushing of copious amounts of blood fit for vampires partaking in their own version of Oktoberfest. There's a limit to how much is enough, though that limit has constantly been pushed further and further away, that it's probably not far fetched to start pondering about how much more the envelope can get pushed, before enough is enough. When one's desensitized, the ability of shock-and-awe diminishes, and the obsession to drape everything in blood isn't really healthy.

But I digress. Credit has to go where credit is due, and the entire make up department deserves that pat on the back for making its main cast of five look grotesque when they needed to be, given that the Book of the DeadXX has unleashed a demon amongst the midst of five young adults, who are assembled in an isolated cabin in the woods to assist one of them, Mia (Jane Levy), to kick her drug habit. This in itself is a smart premise, because when Mia experiences spooky occurrences, it could be brushed aside and treated as just another side effect, until of course it's too late. Iconic scenes do not get replaced, so when Mia issues her threats while under possession, you'd know just what to expect.

The body count's pretty low here for obvious reasons there are only a handful of characters, but there were some nifty moments to ensure some of them got recycled as part of the plot. There's possessions and mind control, coupled with characters who can take a lot of punishment given the slew of weaponry being targeted at them, from chain saws to machetes to a nail gun. It has everything including the kitchen sink, and everything and anything can be used as fair game to stop the madness from decaying from within each of the characters.

As an expansion to the Evil Dead franchise, this has set itself up pretty neatly for future installments for this component, and the established mythos, to collide some time in the future. The soul, erm, sole redeeming factor here will be the finale, with Fede Alvarez crafting what would be an excellent scene of Man vs Monster that would be a no brainer as the poster-child of the movie, and one that's most memorable. It's a pity it had to plod along to get to the best part.

The Call
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: The Call
You'd have a fair idea just how this film would transpire from beginning to the end no thanks to its verbatim approach adopted by the trailer, which does the film no justice, leaking out every little detail, key scenes, and identifying all the major characters in the movie, giving away some supporting characters' demise as well. So what's left in the movie that would make anyone want to sit through and watch it?

Maybe it's the performances of its Academy Award winner and nominee in Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin, which the trailer also never fail to remind you of their acting pedigree, as if hinging on their past successes in order to guarantee this one. But even their experience alone can't salvage Richard D'Ovidio's story, which is kept simple, despite having an interesting premise to work on, in the centralized control centre of all 911 emergency calls in Los Angeles. It was worked well into the story as a prologue with Berry's Jordan Turner playing an emergency phone responder, and having things go down south when she's distracted and not composed in her role, causing the death of her caller (no worries, this already covered in trailer territory).

Now months later, she's no longer in the frontlines, but adopted the trainer role in induct new joiners to the occupation, explaining the job hazards and providing a lot more detail that serve as interesting nuggets of information to the audience, but little else, before the serial killer (Michael Eklund) strikes again, this time abducting Casey Welson (Breslin) from a mall's parking lot, before putting her in the boot and driving off. A cat and mouse game ensues, with Casey having in possession a pre-paid cellphone, can only feed off to the cops some bits and pieces of information, while the killer continues to violently thwart every obstacle put in his way.

There are little thrills and spills in the narrative no thanks to the trailer for just about leaking the entire story in under 3 minutes. It did however, keep the motivations of the killer at bay, although what's being revealed is neither shocking since it's somehwat expected. The kicker though, turned out to be the final few minutes, which plays completely out of character, yet in it because you know director Brad Anderson needed something more intelligent, and this was a random grasp amongst straws for anything that can be turned into a story about revenge and just desserts.

The Big Wedding
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: The Big Wedding
This could have been a fine romantic comedy and heartwarming family drama, but it turned out to be nothing more than an extension of its trailer, having revealed the entire plot, and a total waste of talent at its disposal. Directed by Justin Zackham, who also adapted the screenplay from the 2006 French-Swiss movie Mon Frere Se Marie, The Big Wedding is light on laughs, and even lighter in its dramatic, emotional moments, making it cold and distant, and never quite achieving anything in its featherweight treatment.

Imagine the likes of Robert De Niro, Katherine Heigl, Diane Keaton, Amanda Seyfried, Topher Grace, Susan Sarandon and Robin Williams in your cast list. Filmmakers will kill to get a fraction of that talent in their movies, and Zackham showed prime example just how to flush everyone down the toilet. It's true that if you get good talent, it's half the job done, but being unable to manage and direct, exposed how everyone can just go through the motions to get that paycheck for bill payments. Clocking at less than 90 minutes, everyone has a little bit of screen time, just to turn up, play their caricatures, then retire into the sunset. The premise was set, but hardly anything of note happens, with convenience pretty much summed everything up, and its supposed surprises being pulled off as desperate attempts to add flavour to the mix.

De Niro plays Don, who has for many years divorced his wife Ellie (Keaton), and is now in a relationship with Bebe (Sarandon). They all get together when their adopted kid Alejandro (Ben Barnes) is about to get married to Missy (Seyfried), and one would expect hilarity to ensue because of the clash of characters, and hidden agendas amongst all players. Then there's the big lie they have to put up with, because Alejandro's biological mother Madonna (Patricia Rae) is scheduled to attend his wedding, but seriously, at this point, everything had sounded terribly tedious.

The narrative then tried to boost its other areas and subplots to pad up the screen time, so we have Don and Ellie's other kids turn up to. Heigl plays Lyla, who has daddy issues and boyfriend woes, while Grace plays virgin Jared, who has the hots for Alejandro's biological sister Nuria (Ana Ayora), a Columbian who plays up Zackman's fantasy that South American girls are hot, and are willing to fulfill all sexual fantasies of American men. Robin Williams was nothing more than a cameo playing a priest, which he had already done to better results in License to Wed.

So expect the usual bickering when characters go head up against one another, especially with Missy's parents Barry (David Rasche) and Muffin (Christine Ebersole) doing nothing but to provide one liner revelations of their entanglements with the main family members. Surely this could have been that fine comedy when everything comes crashing down at one large, social gathering, but alas, The Big Wedding fell flat on its face, not knowing exactly what to do with talent and hand, and hampered by an extremely unmoving, and uninspiring story that didn't even try to be smart, since it can't get through to hearts, being without one of its own to begin with.

One of the worst films of the year? Well, it's a possibility, given its unbelievable criminal waste of talent.

Trance
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: Trance
To say that Trance is this year's Inception, is to do either films a disservice. But if I were to lean toward a preference, then Danny Boyle's latest movie has an edge for being succinct in its tale, little loopholes and while fewer characters, is no less complex, but equally stylish in treatment, and bold in its story-telling, dealing with the premise of a heist gone wrong, and hypnosis being the last resort to get into the deepest recesses of the mind for the secrets it harbours.

James McAvoy is probably in one of his best roles yet, opening the film as Simon, an art auctioneer who apparently has reasons to turn corrupt, giving the lowdown on the security measures on how to secure the most valuable art piece of the session in the event of an interruption of the process. And lo and behold, a team led by Franck (Vincent Cassel) comes in forcefully to seize that same valuable asset, only for Simon to have hidden it away both physically and psychologically into his mind, that it seemed a peek into his subconscious would be necessary to unlock the location of the stolen painting. Enter Rosario Dawson's Elizabeth, a hypnotist with skills so sublime, she can lull you into anything if your guard is not tip top.

But you know I'm just scratching the surface of the premise, because even understanding the premise will take away the fun you would experience when watching the narrative unfold. What worked here is the multiple perspectives and shifts in the narrative that Danny Boyle puts you under, being the real mastermind and hypnotist at work in lulling us the audience into lapping up just about everything being thrown at us. Who you thought was the lead in the film, gave way to some other character, and then more, putting you in a spot, yet being terribly engaging from start to finish that you'd want to have a go at the story again, being enlightened the second time round as to who the real puppet master was.

Credit has to go to writers Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, the former who was responsible for an earlier television movie of the same name in which this film was partially based upon. What I love about the film, is that everything was neatly planned, and didn't entail crafting escape clauses for itself for a less than well thought out narrative. Everything was in place from the start, and the movie magic came from astute direction and intricate editing to shift perspectives, chronology and the like, together with absolutely wonderful performances from all three main leads to pull off this psychological thriller.

Danny Boyle once again proves to be one of the most eclectic filmmakers of this generation, taking on varied genres without a bat in the eyelid, and delivering impressive results in coming up with a film's powerful imagery, with that knack of blending in a top notch soundtrack, and coaxing stellar performances from his cast. Trance becomes that fine balance of substance and style, extremely well made, and very much less confusing than Inception, but no less complex in execution.

James McAvoy retains his boyish qualities while contrasting that with darker emotions that hasn't been seen in most of the films he had starred in. Vincent Cassel is no stranger to playing morally shady characters, and his chief instigator and mastermind being the heist could have been a walk in the park role, but once again he brings an edge to the character like none other, if not for his experience. And the surprise performance of all was Rosario Dawson. She's been in the industry for sometime already, but nothing really stood out until now. Not to mention it being one of her boldest acts yet, and the sacrifice having to really bare herself on screen.

There are many layers to this film than I dare reveal, but let's just say at its core, I'm buying into its love story about the dangers of obsession, which touched upon a raw nerve in how perverted it developed into, and how it enveloped all motivations of the players involved. The twists and turns in the last half hour will leave you breathless, filled with some gory moments that's quite Cronenberg-like. A definite recommend for its all round solid approach, and it's little wonder if it finds itself in my top films of the year listing.

Scary Movie 5
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: Scary MoVie
I thought after some days of hectic work I'd pick the funniest film on release this week to laugh my rear off, but unfortunately Scary Movie 5 turns in a disappointing form, with the Wayan brothers abandoning their franchise for A Haunted House instead. Despite having David Zucker in a writing capacity, this installment seems finally to have run out of steam in its long-running franchise, one which took the horror films in between them and give them the spoof treatment. And the lack of material shows despite the seven year absence, having to touch non-horror films as well given the wafer thin content upon which to draw inspiration from and to make fun of.

And you would think that their crowning glory, having the two Tinseltown folks who can't seem to get out of trouble and the wrong side of the limelight - Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan - would be a tad interesting, but it's not. Both look like they were in it for the paycheck, and couldn't care less to ham it up a little. The jokes they partook in were really bad, with absolutely nothing to laugh at or about, and if they were to think they have a second career as comedians, they just might want to think again, given their lack of comic timing.

No spoof of any horror film today would be without the Paranormal Activity style of video cameras being mounted almost everywhere, with the playback naturally being remotely hilarious, especially when people tend to miss the whole point of what they were hoping to see. Forming the basis for whatever semblance of a storyline is that of Mama, which involves Jody (Ashley Tisdale) and Dan (Simon Rex) picking up three spooky kids, thrown into a mix of Paranormal Activity, complete with a haunted house, Mama, and a housekeeper whose antics were probably the best bits in the film.

Then came some other story development that linked up Black Swan, RIse of the Planet of the Apes and Evil Dead, for the most parts, and so you have one really amalgamated piece of narrative that had tried its best to blend these diverse stories together, but as it turned out, someone forgot to include genuine comedy in the film, short of tapping into the same old bags of toilet humour just for laughs. Some worked, and most didn't. Perhaps it is time to retire the franchise, for good. Even A Haunted House, was miles better than this, without having its jokes run stale, or feeling forced.

The many cameo appearances, do nothing to save the film from its depths of woeful scenes trying their hardest to pass off as comedy. And as if sitting through the film isn't torture enough, you can elect to stay until after the end credits to extend that dreaded feeling for a scene longer.

Iron Man Three
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: Iron Man 3
To tell you more about the story will be a great disservice, because whoever cut the trailers, did the perfect misdirection, with what you think you know from the trailer, being very much farther away from the real truth. So that's that. What was expected though, was how closely this narrative ties in as post-events to the Avengers, with Tony Stark now elevated to more than a hero status, instantly recognizable amongst plenty of geeks, and with countless of references back to his exploits in the finale of that movie. It's one thing being recognized, and another thing having to grapple with the reality that there are threats larger than life now, which is Tony Stark's perennial bug bear in this installment. A pity of course, since it's supposed to be the parallel of his pain and addiction to the bottle, which will never see the light of day with Disney as owner.

Fans of Robert Downey Jr, will rejoice with this better than expected installment, since he spends most of the time outside the suit as Tony Stark, battered, bruised and worn out, no thanks to the reckless stunt he pulls as part of personal vendetta, but putting his loved ones at risk and under fire. One cannot get enough of the actor's charisma on screen, and at this point, it's inconceivable to think of any other actor stepping into the role other than Downey Jr, who owns the role, and makes his "I am Iron Man" declaration all the more a truth. There are franchises that get tired after a while, but in Downey Jr, who is portraying Tony Stark/Iron Man in no less than 4 feature films already, there's no lack of enthusiasm, and it shows. Having him outside of the suit for the most parts, is also that breath of fresh air, especially well when it got written into the plot with his tinkering having brought him to a stage where he can be inside, or outside the suit, remote controlling portions of it, and having both an arsenal to count on, plus his street smarts when backed to a corner, and having to design really rudimentary weapons with items from a hardware store.

Jon Favreau continues his role as Happy Hogan, given a lot more to do this time round since he's given up the director's chair, while Gwyneth Paltrow will be that Pepper Potts we have all yet to see. The appeal of Iron Man 3 is how it takes apart the status quo without feeling like it needed to just to stand out from the crowd, but doing so in a fashion that makes it seem like natural progression. Even Don Cheadle as Colonel James Rhodes / War Machine / Iron Patriot also had the character pick up pace from the midway point, combining once again with Tony Stark / Iron Man as an effective team. Paul Bettany remains the unseen but often heard voice of Jarvis, although I thought this time he sounded a little more baritone than in the earlier films. And the standout amongst the supporting cast would be Ty Simpkins whose Harley, a kid whom Tony Stark befriends, plays something of a pivotal role, which once again brings back a little bit of the sharp wit that the previous Iron Man role seemed to lack.

The action here's slicker than what we've already seen from the earlier movies, from its large set action pieces as already seen in the trailer set to pump up some adrenaline, while Iron Man 3 pretty much showed that Tony Stark had put in dutiful hours in the gym and picking up a slew of martial arts along the way. Especially useful since he spends quite a significant amount of time outside of the suit. And the CG got kicked into high gear especially when the arsenal of Iron Men came out to the open, which is fun to watch, but ultimately really cursory and brief, which was my main gripe about it. And it's no surprise too that humour was well placed throughout the film, even when this was darker in tone amongst its predecessors.

Those of you who have been up in arms about this film's kowtow to the Chinese studios, may want to take note that the scenes involving the Chinese actors Wang Xueqi, and Fan Bingbing, were nothing more than a glorified blink-and-you-miss cameo for the former, and a non- appearance by the latter. While there exists an alternate, longer cut of their scenes for the China market, I doubt their characters were written with that much depth to have caused any real impact to the narrative, since they can be so cleanly shaven off from the international release. I am curious however, as to what those scenes exactly were, so I guess one can wait for the discs to find out how, if their scenes get re-entered as deleted ones.

We see more of Tony Stark in this Iron Man film, which is a good thing, but one which also bode some closure to the franchise if it show chooses to end on a high note at this point, no thanks to the finale in having a key cause removed. Something like The Dark Knight Rises having to come full circle with its characters. But it's really never-say-never since Avengers 2 is a go, so there's one more real outing before anyone can call it quits to bidding RDJ and the rest of the cast farewell for starting what had snowballed into the definitive Marvel cinematic universe. Stay tuned, as you would already know by now, until the end of the credits for a scene that neatly bookends this movie, since it began with a narration, and would reveal that bit of a surprise with the post credits stinger. A no-brainer recommendation for Iron Man / Avengers fans everywhere.

I Give It a Year
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: I Give It A Year
The trailer alas put in all the best comical bits from the film, so if you haven't seen the trailer yet, don't. Otherwise all that's left in this romantic comedy, is the romance portion only, which begins with the marriage between the leading characters, and I suppose we can agree that sometimes that will suck all romanticism from the film. Which it clearly did.

It's quite an unconventional tale of romance given the leading characters Josh (Rafe Spall) and Nat (Rose Byrne) having taken their vows of matrimony early on, before slowly finding out that their seven month whirlwind romance was clearly insufficient to weather the storm in their relationship any further. Just as how films featuring plane crashes won't make for comfortable viewing for inflight entertainment, so does this film for anyone intending to get hitched anytime soon. It's a film that shows how a marriage can just deteriorate from the lack of communication and honesty, when the initial spark of romance and lust wear out, and what's left is the sinking feeling that you're going to be with someone forever. And forever as it turns out, is an incredibly long time.

Written and directed by Dan Mazer, I Give It a Year began brightly with all the typical trappings of an English film, with plenty of wit on display, and the title coming from expectations that the marriage between the newlyweds wouldn't last more than a year. And we're taken on a trip both down memory lane to examine just how the flashing warning lights and alarm bells have been sounded, before taking stock on what the couple needed to do to salvage their marriage, if they truly want to, though more importantly whether they are with the right person - the one they couldn't live without. And things aren't easy when

It's easy to lay blame in relationships that don't work out, when there are opportunities that are always readily available for that quick flirt, or fling. So you the audience are given that opportunity to exercise and pass judgement, which would make for interesting post-show conversations with anyone you're watching this with, perhaps just to see where the moral lines get drawn. For Josh, there's his ex girlfriend Chloe (Anna Farris, who looked really aged here) with whom he never really had a clean break before meeting his wife, and together they still have that emotional attachment that's yet to be severed. When they each face issues both professionally and personally, they know who to turn to automatically. And having to confess feelings to Chloe and not his wife, is something that's not quite right.

And in the other corner, Nat listens to her colleagues' goading to remove her wedding ring when delivering their sales pitch to an American scion Guy (Simon Baker), an easy qualification for any eligible bachelor's list, and true to form, Guy sees Nat as someone with whom he can connect to both professionally and personally as well. The deception here was something one can easily frown upon, but as the narrative goes, again there's no black and white in issues like these, only shades of grey which you can use to decide one's personal limits and values. Rafe Spall and Rose Byrne play their roles with aplomb, especially in scenes together that highlight more of their differences than similarities, making it obviously clear that they're both heading toward more disasters as the story wore on.

Some of the best scenes in the film happen to be the highlight of the negativity within ourselves, dealing with deceit and hypocrisy, playing foolish games and denying ourselves of our true feelings, often with casualties. Scenes in which all four characters of Josh, Nat, Chloe and Guy coming together are filled with awkwardness and hidden intentions and meaning, that makes it engaging in a What If scenario. Otherwise, if you're tired with the games these adults play, there's always the support caricatures to look forward to, such as those played by Minnie Driver, Jason Flemying, and especially Stephen Merchant, whose role is to prop up the film's comedic department with tons of bawdy jokes, some of which fall flat to keep in line with his character.

I Give It a Year is the anti-thesis of marriage, so you have been warned that this romantic comedy does seem a little bit twisted with its unconventional take on a tale about forcing a romance with the wrong person, while failing to recognize one's happiness truly lies somewhere else. How it all plays out toward the end may be a little bit unrealistic and a tad too inconvenient, but by that time you'd realize Mazer was grasping for anything that can bring this story to a close.

Du zhan
(2012)

A Nutshell Review: Drug War
Quite a bit I must say, with pros and cons which Drug War seem to be caught under that crossfire. There are a few rules that the Chinese play by, and chief to that is the morals imposed where the bad guys cannot go Scot free. So even without stepping into the cinema, or hear what this film is about, the ending is already cast in stone, which takes a little shine off the fun in being able to follow through the story, and waiting to be surprised at the finale. No matter how tight one's writing can be, it leads to that inevitable finish, so that expectation is quite the bitch.

Otherwise, China presents itself a new playground in which filmmakers can go and get their vision presented through landscapes yet to be familiar playgrounds. The filmmakers here have ventured beyond the bigger and well known cities, and opted for smaller second tier ones to present that small town, rustic look where one supposes a crime syndicate could thrive under, and operate without too much attention being paid to it. Until Louis Koo's Cai is seen driving a car in haphazard fashion, suffering from injuries yet to be explained, and setting the stage for something special from the imagination of To and long time collaborator Wai Ka-Fai. That, and a trailer that's making its rounds for a delivery of its cargo, made up of ingredients necessary for the big time production of ketamine.

Then we must be introduced to the cops, where the anti-narcotic department is given the spotlight for the film's focus on a drug syndicate. Chinese actor Sun Honglei leads the charge here as the division chief Inspector Zhang, getting introduced as a no-nonsense, hands off type of leader who walks the talk, and never shying away from being in the thick of the action when the need calls for it. In many scenes, it is Sun Honglei's charismatic presence and superb acting that made this watchable, since his character dabbles in a little bit of role play while undercover, utilizing a vast array of skills within his ability to make it convincing not only to the other characters he deals with, but to the audience as well.

The crux of the story lies in the power and cat and mouse play that both Zhang and Cai engage in, with the latter under the former's custody, and facing the mandatory death sentence if convicted. Wanting to survive, he strikes a deal with Zhang to allow him access to the bigger fish in the pond, and for Zhang, this is too big an opportunity in his career, and for the wider group of population he serves, to give up. So together with his team, they form an uneasy partnership with Cai, since trust is yet to be earned, suspicion always round the corner that Cai will bolt, and whether they're walking into a known trap set up by him. The story's kept at a steady pace by Johnnie To, keeping things quite cerebral in leaving you wondering about Cai's motivation for the most parts, especially since having to reveal that Cai is quite the slimy, street smart person going all out to ensure his survival.

And I suppose a Milkyway crime thriller isn't a Milkyway crime thriller if the usual suspects don't turn up in any capacity. With a relatively fresh faced cast from the Mainland, and with recognizable faces such as Huang Yi playing Sun Honglei's able deputy, it never really feels quite right without To's stable of actors tossed into the mix, and thankfully this is one formula that's being kept. Better yet, this version screened here kept their Cantonese dialogue intact - even Louis Koo was undubbed - and that serves as a more authentic presentation. There's Lam Suet, Eddie Cheung, Lo Hoi Pang, and Lam Ka Tung amongst others who make an appearance, and contribute where it mattered most, allowing reason for fan boys to cheer.

There's a wider subtext in the film though, dealing with Hong Kong and China, where the former group sees opportunities in making money in the Mainland, but the message is that collaboration and mutual trust is key. Should one group try to breakaway from an alliance, it serves nobody any advantage, and the outcome may be dire straits. It's an unfair alliance to begin with since there's a larger body involved compared to the smaller partner who's not given a level playing field or too much of a bargaining power, but to play within the rules set will ensure survival.

Not since Election 2 has a Johnnie To film been so direct with its metaphors and allegories, and this is what sets Drug War apart from other run of the mill crime thrillers done by other filmmakers. The Milkyway team has ventured into China with their romantic comedies to some degree of success, and they've now shown the way that crime capers also have an avenue in the mainland despite having to play by the rules set by others. This is well worth a watch despite an extended sequence that vaguely resembled something out of MI:4 Ghost Protocol, which is just as gripping as it was opportunity for Sun Honglei to showoff some acting chops, and the expected moans and groans about the ending where To delivers his usual shoot out spectacle to out-gun and outlast any John Woo picture. Recommended!

Dark Skies
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: Dark Skies
Can a science fiction film be given the horror treatment? This isn't something new, like The Fourth Kind, but unlike that film, this one is truly terrifying, especially when you least expect it to be. Granted its credits never fail to remind you that the producers here were also behind Paranormal Activity and Insidious, but look hard for that ghoul set to spook, and you'll never find it. Instead it deals with alien abduction, and boy, has it never been delivered this good, and scary.

Written and directed by Scott Stewart, this is a definite improvement from his earlier efforts with Legion and Priest. Dark Skies lulls you into some complacency, introducing the audience to the Barrett family, who may seem like the typical all American one living in the suburbs, where dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton) is in between jobs, and mom Lacy (Keri Russell) supports the household for the time being as a realtor to keep the mounting bills at bay. Sons Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett) are the typical teenager and toddler growing up, with a little bit more focus on the former as he hangs out with relative geek company, and is on his first romantic brush with the daughter of his mom's best friend.

Then things start to go all strange, and at times begin to feel like Paranormal Activity in treatment for just a bit. Lacy finds herself inexplicably waking up in the middle of the night to encounter things like having her fridge raided by someone unknown, or seeing her kitchen wares and containers stacked in a geometric pattern. These are the more benign encounters, until flocks of migrating birds start to violently converge at their house, and each family member start to behave as if possessed, losing track of time, and being subconsciously unaware during their awake hours. Worse, they also seem to bear the marks of physical harm, and it's not long after that CCTV cameras got placed around the house.

But no, we're not given any found footage treatment or first person perspective, because that would be pushing the envelope of familiarity. Instead, Dark Skies relies on good old fashioned storytelling, with a fair bit of conventional devices, techniques and styles to amplify key moments in the narrative that will make you cringe at your seat, or be tightly grabbing onto that armrest when Stewart deftly builds suspense. The horror imagery got strongly built into carefully crafted scenes, which made this many times more effective than the average horror film that had blood, gore and makeup as part of its arsenal, something conspicuously absent in Dark Skies, but demonstrating that it could do a lot more with less.

The narrative was kept simple enough to revolve only around a handful of characters, and firmly around the family that allows it to be easily identifiable under a What If scenario, while building one's affiliation with them as they seem nice enough not to be suffering under such inexplicable terms. But what worked wonders here are the technical aspects, from its steady cinematography which is minus all the trappings of badly formed habits that would have made this a blur to follow, and solid editing that instills fear especially when transitioning between lost time. What stood out will be the brilliant sound design of course, adding that layer to bring that shiver down your spine. Watching this with the volume turned off would have neutered the film, and that's testament to how important, and effective this aspect was to the movie.

The finale is set to ruff a few feathers, although it may be a stretch to suggest that there would be doors left open for a follow up film. The cast delivered top performances, augmented by technical competency to make this the perfect blend of science fiction with horror sensibilities that puts many contemporary horror films of late to shame. A definite recommendation if you're looking for that heart-thumping thrill ride that's lacking in recent times for the genre fans.

Gwanghae: Wangyidoen namja
(2012)

A Nutshell Review: Masquerade
A critical and commercial success in South Korea, and that's really no surprise. For a period drama, Masquerade contains plenty in its formula that made it so, from a premise that piqued curiosity, an A-list cast, and really solid production values with attention paid to detail, recreating the Joseon period under the reign of the 15th emperor Gwanghae, giving its interpretation to a missing 15 days in the documented Annals of the Joseon Dynasty journals, which writer Hwang Jo-yoon took the liberty to introduce a tale similar to The King and the Pauper, played out with full palace intrigue.

King Gwanghae (Lee Byung-hun), like most kings when being unpopular, fears for his life, and instructs his Chief Secretary Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung-ryong) to find a doppelganger. After a search, a bawdy comedian Ha-sun (also played by Lee) was found, and brought to the palace to be groomed as a stand-in, with this secret only made known to Heo Gyun, and Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang) only, given that there are enemies of the state even in the courts, and nobody can be trusted with the secret except for the inner circle. Sure enough King Gwanghae got poisoned, and in his absence, Ha-sun has got to step up into the regal role, opening doors to light comedy, and the raising of eyebrows amongst those intent on committing treason as they slow sense some characteristics in their king that didn't seem quite right.

Director Choo Chang-min had a solid hand at the helm of this production, never scrimping on the opulence of how courts and palaces function, with its legion of servants and court officials, while drawing out excellent performances from the cast at his disposal. There's enough in the film to make anyone sit up and take note of the intricacies of political maneuvering, especially when there are vultures swirling around and ever ready to swoop in to take advantage of any perceived weakness. The story here ranks up there with just about any palace drama anywhere in the world, with loose ends opened during the narrative all neatly tied up, with strong emotions to boot.

Lee Byung-hyun is possibly in his finest role(s) yet playing the two different characters of one having the highest office in the land, while the other a poor nobody plucked from obscurity to assume a role he would have never dreamed of. As King Gwanghae, he plays him ruthless and not very well liked, but as Ha-sun, Lee shows off his acting chops in varying his styles as the need and narrative called for it, being goofy when required, or with all regal pomp when in the open with many eyes and ears. He straddles the roles quite effortlessly, which is a good dramatic break for the actor, who is probably better known for his dumbed down Hollywood exploits that prefer his rock solid abs than to his acting ability, which will convince naysayers that this man can truly act.

The supporting cast also put in top notch performances to play off Lee, especially when the narrative fleshes them out in three dimensions rather than to pass them off as caricatures. Top of the list goes to Heo Gyun as the main executer of the plot, installing Ha-sun as the King while waiting for his real master to awaken from poisoned slumber, and teaching his puppet to wise up, only to be surprised by the man's humanity, which set out to touch the lives of many others, and with it came new found respect. Jang Gwang as the Chief Eunuch was excellent too in being one of two in the scheme of things, and serves as Ha-sun's confidante, and observer during non-official periods.

And others in the story include Captain Do (Kim In-kwon), as the King's royal bodyguard who begins to suspect something's amiss, the young food taster Sa-wol (Shim Eun-kyung) who brings him his meals, and the Queen Consort Joong Jun (Han Hyo-joo) herself, all who slowly benefit from what they thought was a profound change in heart of a man whom they never would have thought to change for the better with new found humanity and grace on display, and each story arc contributing to the breadth of the story, keeping it moving at fast pace, as well as keeping audiences on their feet with each dangerously close shaves of potential exposure of plot and identity.

It's been some time since I had last enjoyed a Korean period film, so this came as a pleasant surprise. It's that kind of production that's big in scale and ambition, and delivered on all counts. Masquerade deserves all the critical and commercial success gone its way and more, and it qualifies itself into my shortlist as one of the best this year has to offer. A definite recommend!

The Place Beyond the Pines
(2012)

A Nutshell Review: The Place Beyond The Pines
Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines is that ambitious dramatic epic that tried, but failed to reach its lofty peaks. It had moments mostly brought out by superb casting, but bogged down by an average father and sons tale that didn't have much emotional punch, sagging toward the end when it failed to pull out all its stops. Which is a pity, given the talent at the filmmaker's disposal, only to get caught up in its moralistic and karmic focus.

The star of the show from the get go Is non other than Ryan Gosling, who plays Handsome Luke, a stunt motorcycle rider whose troupe travelling career brought him back to Schenectady, New York, where old flame Romina (a very anorexic looking Eva Mendes) to come visit, and learn that he's now the father of their relatively new born son. Suddenly the weight of the world comes crashing down onto his carefree days, and pangs of guilt and fatherhood responsibilities begin to fester, leading him to stay in town, and turning to crime as the quick way to provide for his family. A combination of his motorcycle skills, plenty of guts and an accomplice prove to be fruitful, until the second act that comes rolling around that turned his fortune another way.

The narrative then shifts to the heroic cop Avery (Bradley Cooper looking really old fashioned), whose exploits have brought him fame, and ill gotten fortune no thanks to corrupt forces in his chosen profession. Here is where the drama gives way to heavier examination of is themes, and looks at moral corruption straight in the eye. We get introduced to Avery, and become witnesses to the crime that took place, and the crime of who actually shot first, coupled with the incentive to cover one's tracks. The narrative here is the richest of the lot as it combines Bradley Cooper's acting chops, with the strength of the material at hand, where his Avery twists circumstances around to maximize personal benefit and opportunity. What started out as good intentions, actually had a different spin and motivation to it altogether.

And the final part of the three act structure fast forwards the story some 15 years into the future, where Avery is now running for political office, but is distracted on the side by his wayward son AJ (Emory Cohen), a good for nothing youth who, in what would be an encounter of karmic proportions, befriends Luke's son Jason (Dane DeHaan). This then turned into a classic father and son story, where the sins of the fathers, and that theme of guilt, befalls the next generation, and how they get to deal with it. It's the usual teenage stories of slacker- hood, friendship, fights, drugs, parties and so on, in direct contrast to the more adult moments the first two acts presented.

The Place Beyond the Pines becomes that intense character study piece that stayed engaging as long as the leading characters remained up on screen, but failed in its final act where the more lightweight, young actors took over the mantle that didn't seem to know which direction it wanted to go, mirroring their characters' aimlessness, and waste of time. Ryan Gosling did the best he could with limited screen time, and Bradley Cooper ably carried the film through to the finale. Eva Mendes was also grossly underutilized, disappearing for the most parts for more than half the film, making this quite the testosterone driven movie.

Some nifty cinematography and camera work – there were plenty of continuous shots in one take to make you sit up and take note of – and a wonderful score by Mike Patton propped the film up when the narrative failed to pick up speed in the final act, and the critical moment that will leave you pondering about is the turn in the film regarding who shot first. If only that was left a mystery, then perhaps it will provide more moral ambiguity, and forcing you to choose sides rather than to show-hand, and allow you to condemn from the get go.

Oblivion
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: Oblivion
Written by Joseph Kosinski, KArl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt, and directed by the Kasinski, who was also responsible for bringing a new spin to the Tron legacy, Kasinski traded the dark settings of that film for the light and bright, minimalist and futuristic look at Earth some 60 years after 2017, where unknown alien forces had taken out Earth's moon, and plunging the planet into chaos with its unpredictable forces of mother nature ravaging it, followed by an invasion that took out most of the human population. The war was won, but at the expense of the planet since the nuclear fallout made it uninhabitable. So the survivors made that interplanetary migration to Saturn's moon Titan, leaving behind a skeletal crew of two - Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) - some drones, and a forward base controller (Melissa Leo) to harness energy from the oceans. And of course to mop up what's left of the alien race still down on earth.

However, that's what we're lulled to believe, as we follow the typical day of Jack and Victoria, who wake up, get to work, with Jack essentially being a human Wall.E, repairing broken down drones, and patrolling their assigned territory from the skies. Jack and Victoria enjoy life as per any typical couple with not much for recreation at night, but there's something niggling in Jack's mind, being haunted by memories of a strange, beautiful female (Olga Kurylenko), something that shouldn't happen given their mind wipe, and whose unannounced, surprising presence threatens to upset their entire couple harmony, and their effectiveness as a team. Three's a crowd and making things worse is when jealousy enters the picture.

To say any more would be to ruin the many surprises in store, which lead to the many revelations that when pieced together will make perfect sense, since the writers kept the cards close to their chests, revealing crucial plot points at intervals, which is frustrating yet satisfying, and well worth the wait, although sometimes at the expense of pace, or editing continuity that wasn't as smooth as it would have liked to be. But no matter. Granted that the expositions won't be anything new, with genre clichés abound that the fans amongst us would be able to predict, but it's how these elements come together so perfect that makes Oblivion such a worthwhile watch. Yes there are the sleekly designed vehicles befitting a sci-fi flick here, with the necessary attention to detail and explanation to make everything seem plausible for this apocalyptic vision of the future.

But I love the emotional core that anchored the film a hell lot more, so much so that I dare say not a lot of films, and a science fiction one at that, managed to move. It deals with the longing of a normal life, which Jack had desired as he slips off the radar now and then to build that illusion of an idyllic life in a pocket of paradise he found, with reason of course to come later in the narrative. And the love triangle was well played out, where its beginnings couldn't come any simpler than a brush, a touch and a photograph, all very fleeting, to sucker punch it through to your heart. And just how all these humanity blends so well with the CG- ed technology on display, that made it unbelievably solid.

Tom Cruise is a very different animal here altogether, without his usual toothy grin, and being a lot more serious, sombre and contemplative with his character, that worked wonders. No doubt the obvious hero in the film, many elements of heroism got played down to make it a simple fight for the survival of a loved one, without grandeur plans of needing to save the day at the forefront. Olga Kurylenko may be the flower vase here, but what an effective one playing opposite Cruise for the first time, with her sheer presence making it believable the extent a man would go out for her. Andrea Riseborough, being the relative rookie amongst the three, also stood her own, playing what would be a tragic character seeing her blissful future snatched from under her feet. Her subtleness in her final scene in the film, spoke volumes of her ability to say so much with so little.

A couple of scenes that stood out for me, such as the black and white flashback scene involving Jack and Julia (Kurylenko) when they meet before going up the Empire State Building, communications between Victoria and Jack when their perfect teaming started to give way, together with just above every revelation that had Jack flabbergasted, and those sweeping cinematography of landscapes of a broken Earth. And what provided this film that extra dimension, is the excellent and hauntingly beautiful score by M83 that lifts this film into another emotional stratosphere altogether, that without which, the movie isn't likely going to be as memorable, or emotional, as it got made out to be.

Watch Oblivion on the IMAX screen no less, for those awesome visuals to envelope right up to the peripherals of your vision, and for that crystal clear pounding of the soundscapes and soundtrack right into your aural senses. This is the modern day treatment of The Wachowski's The Matrix in a certain way without the philosophical babble, but my, I'd give it five stars and a perfect ten! A definite recommendation, and a firm entry into my shortlist as one of the best films this year so far!

Olympus Has Fallen
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: Olympus Has Fallen
The release timing cannot be more coincidental than it already is, with the movie's marketers quickly jumping onto the bandwagon to link this to a potential what if given the current North Korean crisis, with the hypothetical scenario of their clandestine forces somehow making its way into the USA, and doing the audacious with the taking over of the White House, with no less than the President (Aaron Eckhart), amongst other political stakeholders being hostages.

Can this really happen? I suppose it's only possible in Hollywood, with writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt taking plenty of artistic and dramatic license to craft something remotely possible through well orchestrated attacks that must be completed within 13 minutes, coupled with plot elements contributing to the loopholes, which you must suspend disbelief with in order for it to work, consisting of a combination of suicide bombers, swarmed armed assaults, a large cargo plane, and inside jobs turned ugly. Gone were the days of the Russians and the Arabs as enemies on the silver screen, with the North Koreans making the ultimate jump from one of the Bond installments, to the reboot of Red Dawn, and now this.

So in true action-adventure fashion, a hero must rise from his rut, given a second chance which he will take to prove himself once again that he's the nation's only hope. But this is not John McClane's show, although director Antoine Fuqua's film could have been positioned as the next Die Hard installment set within Washington, D.C. and the White House. Similar to Wolfgang Petersen's In the Line of Fire, the film's protagonist is Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), the US President's chief detail Secret Service agent until the incident seen in the trailer had him step down from his position, to serve in a desk position in the Treasury. Like all heroes, he's never far away from the action, misses it in his life, and gets thrown the opportunity to take it back again by the horns.

As much as this film featured its fair share of blood and violence, with the North Koreans led by international fugitive Kang (Rick Yune), a sadistic killer who doesn't flinch from executing his threats, there really isn't much of a danger posed toward Mike. There's the requisite wife Leah (Radha Mitchell) to provided narrative pause in the action sequences for Mike's extremely little bit of a human connection to a loved one, and with enemies never really threatening when getting in the way of our hero. Sure, Fuqua does design and shoot some intense battle sequences, but nothing was left remotely memorable as Butler huffs and puffs his way too easily through the long corridors and secret passages of the centuries old presidential quarters.

Some simple twists and turns got utilized to spice up what would be an average plot with piqued interests because of the effort gone to recreate both interiors and exteriors of the iconic White House, and see it getting damaged on a scale and level yet to be seen before (Independence Day's single, thick laser beam obliteration is no count). In fact, the White House itself is a character with its nooks and crannies, real or otherwise, put into the film to become that edged advantage for our hero, and the President's young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen). Music by Trevor Morris keeps the tempo urgent, but relies probably on the same consistent bars for the main theme to be running almost forever.

Perhaps what made Olympus Has Fallen a little bit more fun, is its star studded cast. Gerard Butler proves once again he's action hero material, although too cool and hardly breaking into a sweat as he takes his orders and executes them with brutal efficiency, that you'd stop caring after a while since he's perpetually indestructible. Aaron Eckhart graduates from District Attorney to bland US President whose job is actually to give that rousing speech at the end, while Morgan Freeman strolls his way through yet another Presidency role, albeit an acting one here, since his Deep Impact days. Dylan McDermott and Angela Bassett were grossly underused as a mercenary bodyguard and Secret Service Director respectively, with the latter being nothing more than Ms Stating-the-Obvious, while Melissa Leo had a bit role as the needlessly gutsy Secretary of Defense. Rick Yune as the villain was as bland as Butler was the hero, and like all action films, the story's usually as good as how evil the antagonist is, which fell a little bit short on both counts.

It does seem that 2013 is the year for White House being under attack in the cinemas, with another film lined up with Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx headlining the Roland Emmerich film. So while waiting for that to arrive, it's still quite the action-adventure fun witnessing Gerard Butler complete his no-nonsense tour of duty with the Secret Service, before Tatum arrives reporting for active duty, and hopefully emerges as the stronger film between the two, since this one didn't set the bar too high.

The Last Exorcism Part II
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: The Last Exorcism Part II
This sequel will go down as one of those that have gone horribly off tangent to its source material and original, which is a pity because the first film had a solid finale which left it as a cliffhanger of sorts, but this direct follow up junked every good thing about the movie in no less than 5 minutes into the film, and had everything go downhill after that. For writer- director Ed Gass-Donnelly, I'm sorry to say that while you have had good intentions and decided to forward the story without the use of the found-footage gimmick, I wonder why you didn't choose to be less derivative from classics such as Carrie and Firestarter.

The first film worked because of a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it was a compelling premise, where a jaded pastor-conman decided to spill the beans in his profession, and herein lies the actual reason that it was found-footage because of an embedded documentary crew that followed him around while he exposed the secrets in his shady trade. Then there's proper character building, where we empathized with Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), and understood why he decided to make good the wrongs in his life, and this worked into a tale of faith. Then the antagonist, spearheaded by Ashley Bell's wonderful portrayal as Nell, contained all ingredients necessary that blended horror and mystery together, plus her ability to contort herself in all angles imaginable. And who can forget that goosebumps raising finale.

Not a lot of people took to that film of course, but it worked well for me. Then came Gass- Donnelly and his idea of continuing directly where the first film left off, was quite brilliant. Naturally there isn't any reason to pursue this in found footage again, so the major decision was to come up with a straight narrative film, following Nell as she ends up in a girls' home, since she did not bear any memories on what had happened in the final few moments of the first film. And here is where everything turned south as far as the story went. We get introduced to characters who were as flimsy as they were cardboard, and a romance that was totally flat from the get go.

Yes we know that Nell is given every opportunity to assimilate back to normal society, but this was boring as hell when translated for the big screen, because there wasn't much emotions involved, and made it look very artificial, with scenes included because they just should. There were attempts to spook the audience, but even this relied on the tried and tested techniques which didn't offer anything new, especially when threats were issued usually through scratchy voices that may have come from imagination. To add further insult, there wasn't much of a "last" exorcism here, so the title was nothing more than to remotely link this film to the previous one, which had every reason to be "last", because well, that's what had happened. Here, while the exorcism performed was of a different style, it was so small a portion of screen time that it was quite negligible, especially its outcome.

What made it worthwhile was went Gass-Donnelly shifted gears to add a sense of urgency into the narrative in the final act, and things were really looking up especially when we had Nell confront her inner demons, and pick a side to root for. But then the brakes got applied again when you suddenly realize that the director had gone the direction of films such as Carrie and Firestarter, both written by Stephen King, and you wonder whether that's all that Gass-Donnelly can do, to become nothing more than a derivative of those two works. This film could have been labeled as "Nell" and perhaps it may win over some thought that it's about the misadventures of a possessed character, rather than the process to get her exorcised for good. Rewatching the first film will give you better value, and thrills.

Yang jia jiang
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: Saving General Yang
Chinese historical stories have no lack of its own heroes who display virtues of courage, and loyalty, and the Yang Family of the Song Dynasty has been celebrated in countless of books, plays, operas and of course, film. There are many variations to the adventures of General Yang (Adam Cheng) and his seven sons in the face of deadly adversary, and this Ronny Yu directed period action film is yet another take that's done right, wiping off the unworthy stink that Legendary Amazons in 2011 had laced upon the family of valour.

This production brings back the creative talents of those behind the scenes of the successful Ip Man movies starring Donnie Yen, such as Producer Raymond Wong, his son Edmond who served as one of three co-writers, and musician Kenji Kawai who provided the score, and you'll be assured for that attention to detail, and high production values put into this retelling. There's good balance between the more dramatic moments in the film and the requisite war action scenes, but it only did adequately enough without pushing boundaries to have made it from good, to instant classic.

Admitedly, there are many characters here in the story, given the General and his 7 young sons, in addition to the women in the film, primarily represented by the General's wife (Xu Fan), and the Helen of Troy equivalent Princess Chai (Ady An), who drives a rivalry between the Yang family and the Pan family further when Pan's son vies with Yang's seventh son (Fu Xinbo) for the Princess' affection, only for the former to perish, and sets in motion the Pan's patriarch (Leung Ka Ying), appointed supreme commander against the invading Khitan forces led by Yelu Yuan (Shao Bing), to betray his fellow Song citizen by feeding him to the wolves with a lack of backup, and rescue troops.

Cornered at the Wolf Mountain, this film then takes on 300 proportions, with soothsayers boldly predicting unfavourable outcomes, while the strengths of the few, in this case just seven and an assortment of a handful of loyal soldiers, venture out to rescue their father/leader from impending doom. While the opening big battle sequence involving all seven brothers was a treat, this soon gave way to a fight choreography that bordered on repetition, with shots on characters on horses wielding their weapons around, and because of their bring grossly outnumbered, finding themselves backpaddling and fleeing most of the time.

But Ronny Yu, knowing the constraints of the story he wanted to tell, which is for the seven brothers to bring their father back home to their mom, while under pursuit by the Khitan Yelu Yuan possessing a personal vendetta against the Yangs, managed to keep the narrative moving at breakneck speed, leaving you breathless for its continuous swarm attacks of many against a pitiful few. It's a challenge featuring an ensemble cast battling it out against a stunt team, but these were action scenes crafted that managed to convey the sense of claustrophobia, frenzy, panic, and at times, fear. There's also that art house sensibility that found its way into the story through some shots that lingered around for a tad too long, giving us that detailed glimpse into the production effort in recreating that era.

At times though you'd feel that you want to get to know more about the individuals in the story, rather than to just get acquainted for a short period through flashbacks that highlight the brothers' diverse characteristics. While that would likely stretch this to television series proportions, I thought it would provide some deeper understanding, at least of the characters played by headliners such as Ekin Cheng, Vic Zhou and Wu Chun. The villain Yelu Yuan is obviously of one track mind and objective, and it's a good thing that we didn't get superhuman with the Yang generals, which was quite the surprise with injuries sustained from the get go, once again keeping things real, with that element of danger lurking around.

It's been a long gestation period ever since the movie was introduced at last year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, while making its world premiere recently at this year's festival edition. It's as close to a Chinese blockbuster as can be with a lightweight narrative propped up by heavy duty battle scenes. Who would have thought though, that the more dramatic moments in the film, turned out to be its key strengths, together with Xu Fan's limited moments as the wife/mom who harboured as much hope as dread as she waits out the return of her husband/boys. Recommended!

Dans la maison
(2012)

A Nutshell Review: In The House
Maybe it's just me, but there's something sexy with stories about writers and their writings making it onto film, with recent releases such as Ruby Sparks powering its way into my top film of last year. In The House looks set to do the same too, directed by Francois Ozon, well known for his feature film Swimming Pool (which was also centered around a writer played by Charlotte Rampling), and based on a play written by Juan Mayorga called The Boy in the Last Row. Words cannot deny the genius of both the screenplay and the film's direction in crafting a piece that draws and sucks you into its narrative, becoming what's akin to a page turner that captivates all the way to the finale.

Fabrice Luchini plays Mr Germain, a literature teacher in a school whose lofty ambitions of imparting his vast knowledge go up in smoke with the most uninspired students, until he latches upon the raw talent of Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), which isn't hard since his homework submission on what happened over the weekend was two pages compared to his peers' two liners, and contained all ingredients necessary that would have caught any reader's attention with its yet to be verified autobiographical nature, a hook, and a cliffhanger. Soon Germain slowly discovers that he wanted more, and takes it upon himself to bring Claude under his personal tutelage so that Claude's creative output and juices can get to be nurtured by him.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Germain's wife Jeanne, who partakes in the same, reading Claude's submissions as she struggles to get her professional art gallery in order, lest it be shut down for the lack of a good exhibition. And the interplay between husband and wife over Clude is something the film excelled in, presenting two sides to an argument whether Claude is imagining it, or telling it as it is experienced, about his near obsession with wanting and eventually getting into the house of his friend Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto), which soon evolves into becoming an integral part of the household with his presence on the pretext of tutoring his friend, but essentially being an outlet to get close to Rapha's mom Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), an infatuation that will take on epic proportions.

Interesting enough, this film works if you'd participate in it just as how both Germain and Jeanne allowed their morbid curiosity to get the better of them. We become those characters personified, and one can imagine just how powerful this is in a staged production. But its effect and impact are not diminished on film, as you'll find yourself demanding more, with Ozon often pulling the plug leaving you wanting more, and lapping everything up with Claude submitting another chapter of sorts being played out on screen. We connect the dots, and partake in the lives of the Artole family, learning about their hopes, dreams, secrets, celebrate in their success, and sympathize when they hit a brick wall. And there are many relationship types in the film, from that of lustful ones, to father-son relations, mentor-mentee, best of friends, and even the recurring GLBT ones that Ozon's films tend to feature.

In truth, watching this film becomes that guilty pleasure that is voyeur central, filled with comedy, drama, and wonderful acting that bring the characters to life, yet having the narrative mileage to pique and sustain one's interest from beginning to end by appealing to our primal curious nature, and really milking and manipulating it, with us allowing it to, and growing increasingly effective as we clamour for Claude to seek out even more intimate moments. It's a scary reflection of ourselves, yet an engagement by a film par none. A definite recommend!

Lay the Favorite
(2012)

A Nutshell Review: Lay the Favourite
Bruce Willis is everywhere it seems, from reprising his iconic role in John McClane for the fifth time, to being called on as the Original Joe in the G.I. Joe franchise. Soon he will be seen in yet another follow up film to Red, inspired by the graphic novel, and that pretty much sums up a busy release schedule in 2013. But here comes Lay the Favourite where he plays a character that's uniquely different from all of the rest so far - he doesn't wield a gun, and gone are the wisecracks. Instead, he's a serious gambler, so serious that he's made a business out of his passion, and doing so legally in the state of Nevada, USA.

But this is not the story about Bruce Willis' Dink, but rather, one that's purportedly based on the memoirs of an exotic dancer who made good while working under the tutelage of Dink, but not before some shenanigans that expectedly occur along the way, pulling in some serious lessons in life about nursing an addiction, whether the thrill of the win, or for the affections of someone. It's about Beth (Rebecca Hall), a freelance exotic dancer who decides that it's times up for her current career, and decided to embark on a new one as a casino cocktail waitress in Las Vegas.

Stroke of luck would have her meet Dink, who runs his own company, getting revenues from making bets against the odds (hence the title) for every conceivable sport and for every conceivable play. If you, like me, think that this is one film that will reveal to you the secrets to sports betting and making a career out of it, well, think again, as these scenes really just gloss over the bare basics, lest it be known as an elementary 101 instructional manual for professional gaming. But it is through this premise that life lessons get imparted, from knowing when to quit, not be greedy, to knowing how to operate within set limits.

And it's about discovering one's talents too. For Beth, her uncanny skill with numbers, and being the only female operative in Dink Inc puts her in good steed amongst Dink's peers in the industry, and for a while she personified Dink's good luck charm, until Dink's wife Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones) comes frowning especially when being threatened by a nubile upstart whom she can feel starting to bear some pangs of infatuation for her husband, who had lifted her self esteem. This leads to another automatic rote expectation of how romance will figure into the plot, with Jeremy (Joshua Jackson) being the goody two shoes boyfriend that Beth hooks up with.

Lay the Favourites tend to go all over the place narratively, with director Stephen Frears unable to keep a solid grasp on the story to keep it focused. It developed much like Beth's scatterbrain, hitting multiple plot points at the same time, and didn't fully develop their potential. There were solid moments when the story angled into a lessons learnt in how we sometimes bite the hand that feeds us. Its romance didn't go beyond the perfunctory, while the comedy seemed to be reined in for the most parts instead of letting it rip. Having Vince Vaughn play the chief antagonist guaranteed a riot of a time, until you realize that he's somewhat restrained in delivery of some of the best lines in the film that belonged to his character.

While this may not be Stephen Frears' best work, it still contained little takeaways through its themes, of heeding advice from experienced hands, and not be seduced by things that are too good to be true, because it's a high chance that they are. Bruce Willis may be playing against type here, but he does seem a tad uncomfortable in the role. Rebecca Hall however was at her element here as the trashy girl discovering her talents and herself, making good of her potential, but the rest of the supporting cast, such as Zeta-Jones who was really pedestrian, failed to keep up with her energy. Lay the Favourite is a valiant attempt that ultimately proved that the odds were stacked against its favour from the start.

Yip Man: Jung gik yat zin
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: Ip Man: The Final Fight
Herman Yau's films have got its bragging rights, having Ip Man's own son Ip Chun involved with the production, not only in making cameo appearances, but providing story input to paint a more dramatic picture of the subject. And it couldn't get more authentic than this, even with artistic license obviously taken at some points. And if you were to extrapolate them, then you'd see shades of the rest of the other films that seem to tangent off important plot points. Things such as underground fighting rings, corrupt cops, battling with other grandmasters, setting up shop, and tales of rash disciples all have its air time here as well, and this one offered a lot more than the others because it's now a snapshot of a time that the rest hasn't, and probably will not, cover. This is Ip Man in his later days when Bruce Lee was beginning to make a name for himself in the USA, and chronicles the life and times, filled with its fair share of ups, downs, moments of pride and that tragic sense of loss, that comes with ageing, with a lot more focus on his group of disciples as much as it is about Ip Man's personal life.

The surprise is of course Yau teaming up with his one time iconic collaborator Anthony Wong, who together have made classical Category III films in The Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome. Here, they reunite to bring a kung fu master to life, and a biographical one at that, and going by the trailers, Wong is no pushover as he executes the Wing Chun moves with grace and ferocity, with little that betrays the use of a stuntperson or wires to help make his a lot more graceful. What works here in the fight department is the awesome choreography that does justice to both the martial arts and the actor, obviously having trained for it, to execute the moves with as much authenticity as possible.

Action sequences may be limited in quantity given Herman Yau's and Erica Lee's story focused on the more dramatic moments, and relationships that Ip Man has with his wife (Anita Yuen), a songstress (Zhou Chu Chu) and his many disciples, but more than made up for it in terms of quality. Cinematography in action films are key in either wanting to play the cheat sheet with quick cuts and edits, with either faraway or tight shots to hide the stuntperson, but this one is done perfectly well to show off the cast members' moves and intensity of their blows, and does its action choreography justice, which for a martial arts film, matters most. Besides some speeding up detected, it doesn't have over the top style, but kept things as simple as Wing Chun's philosophy, and that battle between Ip Man and Master Ng (Eric Tsang) remains one of the best in this movie, and dare I mention also ranks as one of the best amongst the rest of the Ip Man films put together.

If there's a downside to this, it's the issue of having too many characters jam packed into this less than two hour story. There's a whole host of disciples that Ip Man had recruited, and while screen time is dedicated to these characters, their development was fleeting at best. Headlining the disciples were the likes of Gillian Chung chalking up her resume in her recent comeback, but her role was rote at best, with her relatively less well known stars given more screen time instead. Jordan Chan is the other famous headliner for the film, starring as Ip Man's disciple and a policeman, caught up with moral issues as his profession brings about opportunities for corruption at the time, and how he struggled with this moral dilemma. But it's not much of a struggle as it turned out, although the narrative steered clear on passing any judgement or ending on the character, except to remind that he was an important source of income to keep things going. Zhou Chu Chu as the songstress provided a promise of a romance that wasn't much, but this love story has its shades in Wong Kar-Wai's epic in being a love that could have been, told in a very different fashion here.

The opening film of this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, with that territory comes a certain guarantee that this has to live up to its honor with high production values, which was a plus point as the 50s and 60s Hong Kong got recreated both in terms of external sets and interior art direction and production to transport the audience into an era long gone. Giving it some artistic credibility is how the narrative blended with the history of Hong Kong as a background, making it as much of a historical epic of the colony at the time as it is about the story of Ip Man's advancing years in life. Still, as part of the Ip Man movie canon, The Final Fight has its moments, and even if you're jaded from too many films about the grandmaster in such a short duration of time, this movie still has what it takes to offer audiences a different aspect yet to be seen of Ip Man, with its Wing Chun moves and fights being the icing on the cake. Recommended!

The Host
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: The Host
This is Stephenie Meyer's other book outside of her Twilight series, and what makes it a tad interesting is the science fictional element which is a spin out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, combined with romance that only Meyer knows how to get through its convoluted best with love triangles, or rectangles now. It's a fairly troubled film project with directors coming and going, until Andrew Niccol, famed for Gattaca and In Time, came to seal the deal at the helm. Having responsibility to adapt Meyer's story for the screen, this and Saoirse Ronan's participation as the lead, will pique interest, at least at first.

What gave this film a leg up, is its science fiction premise. The resources of Earth are now being used wisely and perfectly, and voilà, the planet is thriving once again, reversing the pollution and muck that us humans have been responsible for. Homo-sapiens are still around though, but now our consciousness have been replaced by "Souls", alien lifeforms who thrive by co-opting the bodies of the planetary hosts, and given that they're peace loving, and scientifically more advanced with a penchant for all things chrome, and for standardization to cut waste - all cars are ferraris and bikes are ducatis - they are now rulers of the planet, with all that's left is to eradicate the remaining human beings.

Wait a minute, peace loving, and yet annihilation (through pain free means no doubt) going hand in hand? Yes, something's basically wrong here, but the narrative doesn't dwell too much on this. The aliens come with different roles and names that suit their functions, so it's left to Seekers (Diane Kruger) to weed out the remaining pockets of resistance, and in doing so we begin with the capture of Melanie (Ronan), whose almost dying body in a desperate suicide attempt meant the assimilation of the Wanderer/Wanda Soul into her body, only for Melanie to prove to have a stronger mind that first though, and so two minds inhabit the same body, leading to, well, as much clichés as possible.

Ronan probably have her work cut out for her, and she excels in her role of split personality really well. It's like Gollum talking to himself, except that here we're reliant on voice overs and her deadpan expression when Melanie becomes the one who's talking/thinking/directing the body's actions. Adversary is set up with The Seeker wanting Wanderer to dig deep into the recesses of Melanie's memory to fish out the hiding place of her rebel friends and family, while Melanie plays hard ball in trying to block those images out. As it progresses, having two minds sharing the same body meant something going to give, and in this case, it's basically schizophrenia as the two ladies for quite the perfect sisterhood in due course.

But to get there, here's where Meyer brings out the gravy train for her Twilight fan base. It's not enough to have two hot guys falling in love with one girl now, but having two hot guys falling in love with one girl possessing two minds. The conundrum here is of course the sharing of one single body, and like Siamese Twins, you really can't separate one consciousness from the other when things get a little bit frisky. While this may be a little bit of a situation to handle both emotionally and physically, how it played out tend to be unintentionally comedic, and this meant losing impact to the entire relationship between the characters, whom you won't feel much for, and only made worse.

The strengths of the film lay in its premise, but unfortunately that wasn't exploited much to build up the world that it's now is. Its focus on romance was inevitable, but this became the lowest denominator without real depth, and hankered much of the plot with cheesy dialogue and situations that bordered on the absurd, sometimes conveniently writing out the Melanie consciousness without any attempt at explanation, sort of like a light switch that can be turned on or off, with the switch controls being lip locks and plenty of caressing to elicit a response.

If only the same can be said of the film's less interesting bits. Max Irons and Jake Abel as the male lovers now become the rare flower vase whose presence were really rote and as superficial as can be, while Emily Browning's uncredited star appearance only pointed to the promise of a sequel if this could make decent amounts at the box office should Meyer's fan base turn up for the party. Even if Andrew Niccol was at his best, which he was not, couldn't have saved this one.

Gambit
(2012)

A Nutshell Review: Gambit
Written by the Coen brothers Joel and Ethan, Gambit is the remake of the 1966 heist comedy of the same name starring Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine, which this film had borrowed its base premise from in having what's expected played out in the mind of one of its protagonist, before having its actual execution go completely and hilariously wrong. And once this had started off as a troubled production with cast and crew suffered from a revolving doors syndrome, it finally nailed its key casting of Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz and Alan Rickman, all of whom prove to be what made Gambit an engaging movie to sit through and effortlessly hitting all the sweet spots that a heist comedy should hit.

Colin Firth plays Harry Deane, an art curator working for Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman), a mean and scrooge like businessman who doesn't think twice in hurling insults of all shapes and form at his employee base should they get in his way, in any way. Clearly unliked by many, and by Harry of course, who hatches a plot to skim millions off his employer as revenge. To do so meant to come up with an elaborate plot involving Monet's Haystacks series of paintings, and travelling the world in search of a possible bait to play along and boost the credibility of the story he concocts. This brings together The Major (Tom Courtenay), a master forger, and P.J. Puznowski (Cameron Diaz), a ditzy cowgirl from the USA to bolster his plot for a cool promise of a half a million sterling pound reward for basically sealing the deal.

And true to the original work, we get to see how the perfect heist plays out in perfect terms, as would any heist film in laying out the challenge, and the objective, with a quick run of the process and the plan in order to fulfill what the motley crew got assembled for. But when things start to swing into action, this means Murphy's Law being applied liberally by the Coen Brothers, and makes for a hilarious film with excellent comic timing brought on by all three leads. Classical moments include the entire sequence at the Savoy hotel as Harry got sidetracked into trying to go for a Ming vase, and of course, the inevitable twist within the twist as its crescendo that makes this very much fulfilling and less empty had this been nothing more than a straight-forward narrative.

Colin Firth proved to be more than capable in being the gentleman's gentleman with an axe to grind with his employer, and getting back through the only means he knows how, being surprisingly quick thinking especially toward the end. stanely Tucci makes a small supporting appearance as his professional adversary, while over the top, does suggest a thought about how we tend to think that foreign experts are the best, often overlooking equally capable, or in some instances, more than capable, locals for the job. Firth's comic timing is impeccable, and is primarily responsible for holding the narrative together. Diaz goes back to what she does best as the ditzy blonde with her own street smarts to get out of sticky situations, who is aware that she holds the key to the success of Harry's absurd plan, while Alan Rickman shows what it takes to be a fiend, and yet a likable one whose presence and background may draw a sympathetic eye or two.

Like almost all heist films, the payload is toward the end where things get revealed for what they truly are. Gambit has more than its fair share of surprises, reaffirming some plot points brought up but debunked early, and red herrings galore that got closed off. This is probably the Coen Brother's most accessible story to date, playing it in straightforward fashion, and while it's no insult to director Michael Hoffman, perhaps the film may be more interesting if we got to see the Coen Brothers' take on this. Still, for what it's worth, Gambit is recommended for the performance of its cast who delivered as expected without playing against type.

Django Unchained
(2012)

A Nutshell Review: Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino, by now, will be synonymous with taking genres and giving them his unique spin that blends pop and cinematic culture with vulgarity laced dialogue and plenty of blood spurting action. It's almost as if he started out wanting to pay homage to his favourite genres, only to find himself adding a new and separate dimension to those films with his trademark signature style. And with each film he now commands bigger and better known stars to draw crowds to the Tarantino-verse that seemed to bear no limits, as the writer- director-part-time-actor had now gone on to pick up his second screenplay Oscar in recognition of his writing.

But Django Unchained would probably be his most straight-forward narrative yet, without genre-bending nor adapting vastly different styles in his film, playing it very straight and to the point. In his earlier films, his most engaging scenes tend to be the ones that is dialogue or monologue laden, where characters banter incessantly, and most times irreverently to what is the situation at hand, and this not only draws plenty of attention, but are extremely engaging to sit through. countless of gems have been introduced in this fashion, which sadly this one didn't have many of. That's not to say that it's notches down, but is an element that's sorely missed.

While many will go on about how violent the gun-play in Django Unchained is with its bucketloads of exaggerated blood spills and splashes, and over the top gun wounds when lead rips apart flesh and bone, what made this close to three hour film work, lies in the characterization, especially with many playing against type. And it doesn't hurt to have Christoph Waltz in your corner as well, and making an entrance that's as chilling as that in his debut Tarantino work Inglourious Basterds. Here, Waltz plays Dr. King Schultz, a dentist turned bounty hunter, and a damn effective one at that, with his surprises and relentless ability to smell out opportunities. He plays mentor of sorts to Jamie Foxx's Django, a slave whom Schultz set free, and partners with, much to the chagrin of the Southern community at large, to go after a slew of wanted men, raking in the cash as well as getting closer to Django's sole objective at this point, to rescue his wife Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of the egomaniac Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The plot's easy to follow given Django's prime objective, that's paved with bounty hunter adventures through set action pieces, and comedic moments, such as Tarantino's making fun of the early version of the Ku Klux Klan, and the plenty of cameos such as Jonah Hill, and Franco Nero of the original Django fame, amongst others. These action sequences are effectively done to a perfect blend of blood, gore, and comedy rolled together. There's no question that these are elements that gone honed over the years from Reservoir Dogs right down to this film, with the filmmaker being unapologetic with his defined style, and being very comfortable with it. Those stand offs in the film are probably the best that Tarantino had tackled, and are well worth the price of an admission ticket. The writing continues to be impeccable as Tarantino develops his scenes and how his characters interact with one another, making each episode incredibly engaging and filled with high tension, especially from the last act when everything comes together in a volatile melting pot.

While Jamie Foxx makes an excellent Django with the silent D in his fish out of water ways who discovers he's a crack shot, it's quite clear that Leonardo DiCaprio stole the latter half of the film with his rare villainous turn as the Southern plantation owner who couldn't care less of his slaves, enjoying the high life with that sadistic streak of always wanting to win. Samuel L.Jackson was also a delight, being probably the only actor to date to have worked in the most number of Tarantino films, to stamp his presence as Candie's trusted man servant who at times seem to call the most shots. It's L. Jackson like we've probably never seen him before, and in a role that's on par with some of the best he had played throughout his career thus far, with unbelievable dialogue being spit out from his mouth, and sharing some excellent moments opposite DiCaprio.

Some may have lambasted Tarantino about how racist this film is, but after sitting through it, you can't help but feel they're a little jealous in not having been there first. A solid story, a great cast, and plenty of stuff to engage a variety of audience demographics make Django Unchained probably the most accessible Quentin Tarantino film to date, and I'd highly recommend it for what it achieved, a tribute to chop-slock entertainment that continues in the same vein as his grindhouse features.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: G.I. Joe: Retaliation
This was a film slated for release last Summer, before it was unceremoniously pulled out with some controversy surrounding the decision of post-converting it to 3D. Was it for an increase in box office revenue? Was it because Channing Tatum was such a star that limiting his role in this film will spell disaster? Theories are abound and only time will tell whether this move into the 3D format will result in a decent box office return, but as far as giving Tatum's rising star an acknowledgement, well, that didn't happen. Which is a pity because he would have served as one of the few who had remained from the Joe's first cinematic outing, but perhaps had smelt a stinker that he wanted out from, pronto.

This time round, like what the Fast and Furious franchise did in introducing a heavy-weight character with Dwayne Johnson's presence, GI Joe had decided it will now pass the baton given its exodus of stars, and have The Rock carry the film on his broad shoulders. As Roadblock, he plays the reluctant leader, preferring to let Tatum's Duke continue in taking the lead, until he had to step up with two other remaining survivors Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) into wondering just who had sucker punched the entire elite force. They're up against Cobra Commander - a pity that Joseph Gordon Levitt is no longer involved, but face it, with his entire face covered even I could have played the role - Firefly (Ray Stevenson) and Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), the usual Cobra suspects who now have control over the White House and the Presidency (Jonathan Pryce) thanks to nano-technology boosted face masks, and the heroes have to seek out old timer and the original Joe (Bruce Willis) whose retirement plan granted him a house full of weaponry that would make him a grade A terrorist should he go rogue.

Then it dawned upon you that this film could have had its plug pulled, in order to give more air time to Lee Byung-Hun as Storm Shadow, because out of the blue you suddenly have the Storm Shadow-Snake Eyes (Ray Park) arc thrust to the forefront as the second parallel narrative, and naturally an increase in Lee's minutes in the film in order to boost the movie's standing in the Asian territories. Smart move by scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick in linking the two GI Joe movies through the two character's rivalry, and offering that chance of redemption, sort of like giving one side the advantage since he's having a bigger fan base that can be milked.

So while it's practical and pragmatic, in comes the usual formula of set action pieces that look great, but didn't offer much, since it's nothing more than the usual fire fight, sword fight, and plenty of shoot-em-up accuracy issues that plague cartoons from time immemorial. Granted that part of the fun is to witness the GI Joes and Cobra sides go at each other with weapons uninvented and near impossible even in today's context, it turned out to be nothing more than a live action film of the cartoon it is based on, with an eye out for revenue through its merchandising and toys. You can just about predict everything from start to end since there's little story, and the dramatic moments were so painful to watch that you'd wish things start blowing up on screen just to keep the narrative going.

And while it had an ensemble cast to boast of, comparable to the first film, everyone seemed to be sleepwalking their way to their paycheck. Bruce Willis plays Bruce Willis, smirking his presence as the General retired from active duty to make menial contribution to the plot, if not to boost the star power for the film. Adrianne Palicki and D.J. Cotrona were forgettable as well, while The Rock thankfully had that final fisticuffs scene that wowed a little as Roadblock and Firefly go up against each other in close quartered combat with fists and firearms, which was a lift from its immediate preceding sequence involving his piloting a pumped up tank- busting buggy.

It may have been a tad interesting if Cobra's threat in the trailer was right from the onset, rather than a passing thought for the finale - it was a maniacal and implausible doomsday scenario - and like most American action blockbusters, perhaps offensive as well in giving the middle finger to other countries through its use of technology to annihilate rival cities. Paris got chomped down by the nanomites in the first film, and now London got obliterated without emotion. Take your pick in which other global city will be next in going down the CG way when the GI Joes return for another outing, if the box office return permits it.

Stoker
(2013)

A Nutshell Review: Stoker
Park Chan Wook probably outdone himself with Stoker given the casting coup of his leading players in the film, which surprisingly is written by Wentworth Miller of Prison Break fame. It's quite unlike any other, telling of a twisted tale of grooming, steeped in sex, violence and coming of age, with an exuberance of sensuousness draping every scene, so seductively shot that you'll clamour for a repeated viewing to partake in its themes and probably gawk at its visuals all over again in this psycho-sexual thriller like none other.

It takes a while to piece things together, where we meet up with India (Mia Wasikowska), a teenager who seems extremely disturbed, aloof and all, having to deal with the recent death of her father. Mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) seem to have taken it in her stride, then again because of the presence of her husband's brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), a man whom both mother and daughter have not met in years, who had now come as a source of comfort living under the same roof, with both women being drawn to the enigma of the man, only for a slow nightmare to unravel, and serve as India's catalyst in growing up.

Park's first Hollywood film continues in his tradition of tackling narratives that come with complexity, where nothing is just quite what it seems, providing that bit of discomfort when you finally thought you had nailed down to just what the story's about, but not quite. And credit goes to Miller for this unconventional story in what I thought was an extremely sly take on growing up, identity, and grooming even, though not of the usual positive values one inculcates in a young one. It's almost like the making of a killer with the pushing of one's boundaries with temptation, and constant goading even, as epitomized by Goode's Charlie in being there when India needed someone, and then equipping her with the confidence necessary to go over the edge, given her at her most vulnerable, and impressionable.

It's a psychological game being waged, with Charlie being the most fascinating of the characters here as the spark in one's life that throws it topsy-turvy, complete with a backstory and in current terms can be considered as the Devil incarnate, looking for that earthly apprentice to pass the reins to in becoming a walking havoc machine, and yet keeping you constantly wondering who's who, and what's what, untangling true and hidden intentions through perverse love affairs that's romantic and yet almost incestuous all at the same time, with possessiveness the main negative by product of an affair going to get, or already gone wrong.

Mia Wasikowska plays her darkest role in a character yet, as her previous roles have somehow bookended her and limited her acting range, and she has Park Chan-Wook to thank for something like this to roll along, and break out from her usual stereotype to take on something more sinister and challenging. Nicole Kidman was under-used, appearing in a few scenes and being nothing more than a flower vase, and lending star power to the marquee. Goode on the other hand stole the show being the thorn amongst the roses, and indeed if not for his fiendishly good performance, you wouldn't find it credible how one man can string both women along to an explosive conclusion.

While you grapple with the story, you're likely to be wowed by the sumptuous imagery that fills the landscape in the film, blessed with rich cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon, Park Chan Wook's frequent collaborator, that does the least in betraying the twisted tale that comes with the film. With music contributed by Clint Mansell, whose soundtrack lifts the movie up altogether into another dimension, Stoker has elements that demands repeated viewings to capture the nuances and gems layered in its story, with commanding performances being that icing on the cake. It's not an easy film to sit through for its subject matter, but boy it sure is gorgeously done.

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