21 of #52FilmsByWomen: Clueless

21-Clueless

Clueless (1995, written and directed by Amy Heckerling)

[21 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]

Alicia Silverstone plays Cher, who is introduced to us as a rich, spoiled-brat archetype that is interested in fashion, shopping, boys and other people’s relationships. Although for most movies, characters of these archetypes are usually not sympathetic, we eventually get to know Cher throughout the movie, and she shows us her genuine heart and earnestness in doing the things she believes to be right.

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Movie Review: The Angry Birds Movie

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Here we go with the game-based movies again, and I’m not even talking about the more sophisticated kind of games like Lara Croft or Warcraft (which I heard are already getting bad reviews). At least in those games, there are character development arcs, excitement or a coherent storyline. This is a movie based on repeated flinging of birds against pigs. I am more amazed they managed to stretch that premise into a full movie; it’s a game more appropriately used for Physics classes than in cinemas.

Yet it worked. Sort of. Despite performing better than expected, it’s really a hit-or-miss movie. The hits probably come from people with very low expectation. I personally rather like it, although it was probably because I went in with negative expectation, i.e. I braced myself to downright hate it.

The protagonist of the story is Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis), a cynical, annoyed bird living among happy, hippie birds. He was brought to court when he was sued for an ‘accident’, and ordered to go for anger management class. There, he met the speedy Chuck (Josh Gad), Bomb (Danny McBride) and Terence (Sean Penn in probably his easiest role ever). When the nefarious green pigs arrived supposedly on friendly terms, everyone was won over. Except the ever-cynical Red, that is.

Okay, confession right off the bat: I can identify with Red. In fact, I find him to be the most logical, practical among all the other birds, and I definitely relate to his sense of suspicion and cynicism. Also, he’s a loner who refuses to be hugged, so there’s that. As for the plot, it was obvious that the writers really struggled to cobble up something coherent. If you can just turn off your brain and ignore the convenient second-order-idiot plot, it almost works.

This is a movie that relies on its humour to pull through, and sadly, like the movie itself, it’s a very hit-or-miss affair. I enjoyed the bird and pig-related puns, lame as they are, as well as a few well-placed Easter eggs. However, I certainly do not appreciate the crass, bodily fluid jokes, or the sexist ones. An extended scene showing one of the characters taking a piss? A few segments involving bird excrement and snot? Spying at a lady taking a dip? Nope, nope and nope.

In the end, this is a movie that’s worth the price of your ticket only if you get a discount for it (which I did). It’s enough to buy one and a half hours of escapism, but with its forgettable plot and jokes, that’s as far as it goes.

 

20 of #52FilmsByWomen: Miracles From Heaven

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Miracles From Heaven (2016, directed by Patricia Riggen)

[No. 20 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]

The movie’s promotional material stating that this is a `story of a girl miraculously cured after surviving an accident’, add this to the title it’s somewhat clear that it is very clearly a highly faith-centric Christian film. Which indeed it is. [Spoilers ahead.]

Continue reading 20 of #52FilmsByWomen: Miracles From Heaven

Dissecting a Well Filmed Fight Scene

It will be an understatement to say that fight scenes can make or break an action movie. A well framed fight sequence can have a great emotional impact without being confusing, or disjointed. While Captain America: Civil War is overall an enjoyable movie, there are some action scenes that are marred by the infamous shaky-cam effect. This technique has been used effectively in the Bourne movies, but that’s as far as it goes. Most of the time, we get a mangled, hardly discernible fight scene. Examples of the blatant misuse of this effect can be found here.

One of the reasons this shaky-cam effect is used is to hide the actor’s lack of martial arts background. It’s hard to tell if the actor is moving effectively when the audience could hardly see the action. In a sense, it is an understandable sleight-of-hand, but when it is used on actors who can pull of those moves, it usually turn out to be a massive disappointment, like this Jason Statham fight scene.

I might be biased, seeing that I am Chinese and I grew up watching old kung fu movies, but the Chinese movie industry has nailed how to properly film a fight scene for decades. This is mostly due to the fact that back in those days, there are no shortage of actors and choreographers with martial arts training. Some of the trademark signs of Chinese fight scenes are:

  1. A focus on the movements of the actors. Most of the time, they know what they are doing and they can move beautifully.
  2. The choreography. Sometimes it’s a hand-to-hand fight, sometimes props are involved. If it’s the latter, it’s usually for comedic or aesthetic effect, and the fight itself tells a story.
  3. A steady camera view to support points 1 and 2. The actors can perform the stunts, the choreography is usually good, so there is nothing to hide and no reason to move the camera at all. They want the audience to get a good view.

To illustrate the points above, I present this fight scene from the movie ‘Eight Diagram Pole Fighter’. A bit of a background is required here; ‘eight diagram’ here is referring to the bagua, a traditional Chinese religious symbol. Also, the protagonist is the student, i.e. the clean-shaven guy played by Gordon Liu. The bearded, older man (Philip Ko Fei) with a red sash across his chest is the master.

For point 1, both actors are an accomplished martial artists, evident in their fluid movements and steady feet. At the 0:45 mark, we get a wide view shot showing both the fighters and the hall they are in, and this sets the background for the action.

Throughout most of the fight, we get a view of both the fighters, at least their upper bodies. Note the distinct lack of shakiness or blurriness. A few shots of their feet were slotted in here and there to highlight their nimbleness and footwork, but nothing too disruptive because after all, they are pole users and the focus is still on what they do with their poles. At 1:43, we get a few angles of the same posture because this was to be one of the highlights of the fight. When necessary, the obligatory slow motion was used, such as the sequence between 2:07 and 2:20 marks.

Now, the choreography. Here, Gordon Liu’s character is fighting his master over a clash in ideology. It was not supposed to be a fight to the death. My guess is that’s the reason for these clamping moves at 1:56 and 2:04; they are a symbol of the master’s hold over the student, an attempt to restrain the latter’s will. At 3:08, we have role reversal, in which Gordon Liu clamped the Ko Fei’s pole. That was a sign that the student is beginning to overwhelm the master. Sure enough, the master loses his shoes soon after, a symbolic humiliation.

Finally, at 3:37, where the fight has effectively ended, we see the whole point of all the props – cushions, candle holders – they used: a diagram of the bagua is formed.

So much satisfaction.

 

 

18 of #52FilmsByWomen: Winter’s Bone

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Winter’s Bone (2010, Directed by Debra Grenik, written by Debra Grenik and Anne Rosellini)

[No. 18 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]

In a rural town in Missouri, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) plays a 17-year-old girl struggling to take care of her family against all odds. Her father is missing, and she risks losing her house to the government because of that. So she goes looking for him, looking up his various criminal contacts and gets into various troubles along the way.

Jennifer Lawrence is great as Ree…looking at American Hustle, Joy, and to some extent, Hunger Games, she’s really good at playing a young person being forced to accept the role of a grownup in order to take care of children. And always, it seems, in a different time period or social context.

In the case of Winter’s Bone, it is a rural American community, where one gets used to drug dealers and gangs. Some imprints of gun culture are noticeable. In one scene, Ree’s uncle casually fiddles with a handgun that was lying around on a table. In another, Ree teaches her 12-year old and 6-year old siblings to use a squirrel gun for hunting.

Ree’s world is a community that has been caricatured a lot in popular media nowadays. So it’s nice to see an actual portrayal of this part of the country where the characters are somewhat believable people.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War – Wasted Potential

(Spoiler alert: The plot of the movie will be discussed in detail, so please do not read this before watching. Not that there is much to spoil, though.)

The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a wonderful counter-example of how an all white cast of superstars can still fail to impress. It is mindboggling how a movie starring Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron could fall so flat. We’re talking about one Oscar win and three nominations, three Golden Globe wins and six nominations, as well as six BAFTA nominations between the ladies… and then we have Thor. Surely we can’t go wrong with that?

The problem is that the storyline is an appalling mess. The first part of the movie (the prequel) is about the relationship between Ravenna and Freya. Ravenna, a powerful sorceress, has the ambition to rule and she is not beneath murder to achieve it. Freya, on the other hand, respected and revered her sister. Without magical powers, she seemed contented with her rather domestic ambition to start a family with her lover. Tragedy struck and Freya’s hidden ice powers surfaced.

It was here that the story shifted its focus to Freya. Still tormented by the loss of her baby, Freya had children kidnapped from their families in a demented obsession to ‘free’ them from the pain of love. The children were then trained in combat and grew up to be the titular Huntsmen. Eric and Sara were her two best Huntsmen, and predictably, they fell in love.

The love story was supposed to drive the story, but it was unconvincing at best. Sure, they grew up together, but it was in a strict environment that hardly left space for feelings. It is going to take more than just a few lines and two brief scenes of them together to convince us that it is a love worth dying for. To make matters worse, the lovers were almost immediately separated, and then we were told that the events of the previous movie have taken place and the whole focus shifts to Eric and his companions’ quest to retrieve Ravenna’s magical mirror. All in the space of minutes. Poor dude didn’t even get to mourn his loss on screen.

The writers should have worked with what they already have, because from then on, the story got increasingly jumbled. We have some detective work, the reappearance of Sara, they met more dwarves, a random fight scene with monsters, unresolved misunderstanding between Eric and Sara, romance subplot among the dwarves, Ravenna got resurrected, and some bad CGI. It was as if the movie could not decide if it wanted to be a heist movie, Frozen, Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings.

I would argue that the focus of the movie should have been Freya, and to a certain degree, the other women in the story. The women’s stories were the only aspect of the movie that I enjoyed. The dynamics of Freya and Ravenna’s relationship was interesting, especially when contrasted with the bland relationship between Eric and Sara. I was captivated with how Ravenna, true to her character, immediately assumed command the moment she returned and we could see Freya’s bubbling rage at having to play second fiddle again. Furthermore, Ravenna could tell Freya was unhappy, but in her mind, Freya was still the little sister she could manipulate. She was unaware, or just didn’t care, that Freya has changed. Compelling character developments; ones that I wished they had focused on.

You see, with Freya and Ravenna, we could have had a gripping story about two powerful sorceresses in a devastating rivalry. We could have a movie about Freya, who after years of being in Ravenna’s shadow, is unwilling to let go of everything she has amassed for herself. It could have the two sisters, with their contrasting ideologies, fight for what they believe they deserve. Freya, with her delusion that kidnapping children was the right thing to do, would give us compelling drama when she realized how wrong she had been, and channeled her fury at her sister.

Unfortunately, we were stuck with Eric, who had the personality of a rock. It wasn’t the first time that interesting female characters get sidelined in favour of a dull male character. Even Sara had a better story waiting to be told, about the years she spent being separated from Eric – she was physically and emotionally scarred, so whatever happened must have been tragic. In addition, the female dwarf Bromwyn was a character more complex than all of the males combined. She was a resourceful treasure hunter, and she did not need rescuing of any sort (if anything, she was the one doing the rescuing). She knew what she wanted and had no qualms working towards her goal. Definitely someone I would want to spend more time watching, rather than the male dwarves making tasteless sexist jokes.

Tragically, what we got was Eric grinning stupidly at us for a large percentage of the movie, and we will just have to live with the what-ifs.

Review: Captain America: Civil War (no spoilers)

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When the cast list for Captain America: Civil War was revealed, people have been calling this move ‘Avengers 2.5’, mostly because it involves so many characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It turns out that ‘Avengers 2.5’ is a pretty apt description for the plot, and the place of this film in relation to the rest of the MCU. Despite the filmmaker’s insistence that this is very much a ‘sequel to the Winter Soldier’, the plot is very much about the Avengers. That it is a ‘Captain America’ movie mostly holds true in the emotional sense, and the fact that the Captain is mostly the POV character throughout the story.

[No spoilers aside from the initial plot synopsis]

Continue reading Review: Captain America: Civil War (no spoilers)