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Beauty and the Beast (2017) – Part 2

Previous post here. As for the bits of Beauty and the Beast that just didn’t work for me, I reckon the largest problem lied in its two lead characters.

Emma Watson as Belle is easy on the eyes, but it’s hard to shake off that brand name look she’s built for herself coming out of her long years as that insufferable know-it-all chao mugger from the Harry Potter films. As one Facebook friend quipped, the production felt like Hermione Granger decked out in a gown in a 2 hour long prom party. Watson’s emotional range felt stunted with little subtlety, a problem only exacerbated by how the cinematographer chose to put her face squarely in the frame for many shots.

In other spots, and maybe also because of her natural facial features, Watson’s efforts to show what should be half-smiles in a couple of scenes seems to come across as inappropriate smirks. Belle as a 1991 animated character was charming and endearing. Who can forget that cute line delivered in a Southern-like accent when she enters the bookshop “Have you got anything new?” You rooted for her, the village oddball. Watson’s Belle? Not nearly so much. Her response after she rejects Gaston first marriage proposal has her sounding mean-spirited, maybe even nasty.

And how about her singing? Well, it’s serviceable and – like Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables – Watson was able to hit the high notes in her numbers, though the pieces in the film aren’t really that technically challenging for trained singers to begin with. But Watson’s voice simply lacks the tonality and sparkle we heard in Paige O’Hara’s rendition of the character from the original film. For instance, just listen to how O’Hara weaves in a small sign of resignation in the line “Ev’ry morning just the same” in “Belle”, compare it to Watson, and you’d see what I mean.

Dan Steven’s Beast has far fewer sung numbers of note. Like Lumière/Cogsworth/Mrs. Potts , he exists only as a digital creation for most of the film. Unlike the household trio though, less money seemed to had been spent recreating the Beast than those three! The computer-generated Beast looks like it was done on the cheap by C performance grade interns. This computer-generated version of the character, and specifically his facial expressions, is without life and just bland. The general consensus among many IMDB reviewers too is that the digitally created Beast was just badly done.

This low fidelity of the digital creation might not normally had been a problem – were it not for the fact that Beast is the other titular character and is in the film a lot. I’m just not sure why Disney simply did (could?) not do this character properly, when films like King Kong since 2005 and 12 years older than this one were able to digitally create monstrous creatures that look more realistic than what we get here in 2017.

Luke Evans as Gaston blew his big number, “Gaston” – his voice is positively lightweight – but thankfully did better in the Mob Song. More seriously: Evans simply doesn’t have the necessary girth nor physical size to be intimidating. And the irony? One line in “Gaston” is where he sings “As a specimen, yes, I’m intimidating!!” Nope sir, you were not in this film.

The sound engineer on this production seems to have been given a single directive: “Larger and more full-bodied orchestra than 1991? Checked! Now let’s blast out the audience’s eardrums!” I nearly lost my hearing from the film’s very high volume at Nex’s theater. I’m familiar with the sung pieces and know the lyrics from memory, but I reckon persons who’ve not seen the 1991 film would find it difficult to make out some of the sung words. Simply put: they got drown out by orchestral accompaniment. I initially thought this was just a characteristic of the audio set-up in the theater – until some IMDB reviewers posted to say they equally found it hard to make out the singing.

And lastly; the entire film felt overproduced, with the sheer abundance of not particularly well-done CG everywhere on screen only further reinforcing the fact that you’re watching something that was largely created in the computer, supposedly life-action or not. Maybe that’s why Watson looked so wooden for most of the film:  she was acting in response to green-screens. The most egregious example of this is “Be My Guest”, which is visually all over the place, nausea-inducing, and impossible to follow what’s going on in that dance number. Even Belle’s The Sound of Music moment in “Belle (Reprise)” where she sings “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere” to the sights of a soaring Windows-like Vista wallpaper scenery has its suspension of disbelief demolished – it looks utterly fake with badly integrated CG backdrops with the live-character.

Lest it be finally concluded that I don’t think the film is any good- no again, I think this Beauty and the Beast is watchable. It’s just not nearly as good as the original 1991 film in my assessment. Kenneth Branagh’s recent Cinderella, also a life-action remake of the Disney animated film, has showed that it’s possible to bring up to date animated classics with life actors, and not make it look over-processed, with a score and recording that doesn’t overwhelm the senses. Time to buy the Blu-ray of this Cinderella for the kids and watch that instead!

Beauty and the Beast (2017) – Part 1

Many of us who’re in our mid 30s and older would have seen Disney’s first preview trailer of Beauty and the Beast in May last year, and equally held our breadth to see how will Emma Watson fare as one half of the titular pair of characters would sound in the signature numbers made famous from the 1991 film. The first trailer featuring snippets of the sung numbers hit the online circuits in January this year – which is likely about when many of us might have taken a collective sign of relief. And another good number probably groaned – “Oh S H * T”.

I was in the latter. In a nutshell; the film is great if you’re squarely in Disney’s intended audience for this – i.e. a young adult or younger still – generally OK if you’ve never seen the 1991 original – and if you have, like me, then anywhere from Great to Awful. Me, I rank it a Barely Passable. I caught an early afternoon viewing of the newly released film at Shaw @ Nex yesterday afternoon – back to back with a morning screening of Kong: Skull Island just before that at the same cineplex. The afternoon screening of Beauty and the Beast was not surprisingly largely filled with adults, many of whom were retirees.

The film is of course a life-action remark of the 1991 classic, which in part stirred the short-lived resurgence of interest in hand-drawn animated films before the wave died off in preference for 3D animation. Beauty and the Beast (1991) also remains the only animated film to ever have been nominated for the Academy’s Best Picture, an award it regrettably did not win that year (that award went to The Silence of the Lambs). I don’t see this remake ever getting the same kind of recognition, though I reckon that it might be at least nominated for a couple of the technical awards.

So, the good bits, and minor spoilers:

It’s watchable. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the source, the general story remains easy to follow, characters are easy to distinguish, there are no quick-cuts to give you nausea (for the most part that is – see comment on Be My Guest in the next post), and the production is lavish. Spoken dialog is also comprehensible.

The trio of supporting merchandise antique characters – Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) – all sound like they are having a good time. You can’t be certain of course, since they exist largely as computer-generated creations until the last bits of the film. A special nod also goes to Kevin Kline, one other supporting non-digital character who brought a much needed dose of earthly grounding back to the film.

Emma Thompson’s signature number – “Beauty and the Beast” – is lovingly sung, and I reckon on par with Angela Lansbury’s rendition of the same from 1991. Kevin Kline’s song “How Does a Moment Last Forever” – a short one though and not in the 1991 film too – is also sung full of heart, and moving.

It’s significantly longer than the animated film, and at past 2 hours longer by even current films intended for kids. Some bits of that additional time are inserted into the sung pieces – e.g. there are stoppages for dialgue in “Belle”, and “Gaston“, insertions which I found disruptive –  while others are more effectively in the form of scenes that fill in the story gaps, especially in relation to both protagonists’ parents.

Likewise, the film also tries to address some oddities in the 1991 film – e.g. how and whether the Prince (Beast) reconciled with the villagers mob at the film’s end.

The last act when all seems lost and the Beast’s curse going to last for eternity is beautifully done and made me tear up. *sniff*

More in the next post!

 

My First Star Wars Posts Since 2009 – Part 3 – The EU Books

Of all the EU (“Legends”) books I’ve read, here are brief notes on a couple that I really enjoyed.

Heir to the Empire trilogy – written by Timothy Zahn and published almost 8 years before the SW prequel films. The three books were a runaway success, and is credited by pundits to have revived sagging interest in Star Wars after ROTJ in 1983, and possibly encouraged George Lucas to kickstart production of the prequel films. I read my elder brother’s copies of the three books as they were published, and of late now rely on the National Library Board’s digital copies as our original copies are now decades old, yellow and producing that old wood smell now. What especially worked in the three books – aside from that they were simply the best SW fiction at its time and still easily holding its own almost 25 years since – is that it had, for once, a principal antagonist that is nothing like the usual frothing at the mouth villain common in fantasy and sci-fiction books. In stark contrast, he – in the shape and form of a Grand Admiral Thrawn – is urbane, cultured, and a master strategist who outsmarts the New Republic even despite having far more limited resources at his disposal than the new galactic empire. We get insights into Coruscant, the Jedi before the galactic war, and how Vader was really seen by the other Imperial warlords.

All the principals also return in Zahn’s three books – the Skywalkers, Han Solo – now married to Leia – the droids, Chewie, Lando, and several of the Rebellion members, and their written personas are consistent with that of the three films. Moreover, Zahn introduces several other characters, many of which are so well-developed that other later books continued to expand upon them.

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The Black Fleet Crisis Trilogy – written by Michael P. Kube-McDowell. The set of three books present three interconnected stories: Luke journeying to find his mother’s legacy, Lando checking out new technologies on some mysterious spacecraft, and the emergence of a deadly new alien species, the Yevetha, to counter the New Republic. The trilogy doesn’t figure on many fans’ must-read list for several reasons I imagine; the first being the inconsistent styling book to book (e.g. one book continuously bounces to and fro within the three stories, another book breaks the entire text into three discrete parts that tell one story each), and the second that Luke’s search for his mother is rendered entirely moot after The Phantom Menace was released and Padme was introduced as Luke’s mother.

I however liked the trilogy for one particular thing – and it’s the story of the Yevetha against the New Republic, and the resulting (short) war that occurs. If there are fans of military strategies who’re interested to see how a might be space battle planned, prepped, and fought, this is the book. Kube-McDowell spares no expense getting into detail on many aspects of a military campaign that most other non-war fiction either gloss over or over-simplify. Surveillance operations, fleet maneuvers, chain of command, logistics and supply etc. – they’re all here. Heck – this one story reads at times more like a Larry Bond war novel than a Star Wars book!

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Shadows of the Empire – by Steve Perry. Unlike several of the early EU books, Shadows centers its plot on the immediate aftermath of the events in The Empire Strikes Back film, rather than the well after the original film trilogy. The book was so well-received that an orchestral soundtrack was recorded for it – imagine a full score composed and recorded when there is no film – and a video game made too. Steve Perry’s writing is marvelously crisp, with character portrayals exactly like what what would had been immediately after the second film, and explores a lot of subplots hinted at the third film – including Luke building his replacement light saber, and the theft of the second Death Star plans and how it was really a ploy set by Palpatine. The book’s best aspect is the inclusion of a new antagonist – Xizor – who is a criminal overlord in Coruscant, and his bitter rivalry with Vader. We get a lot of backstory on Vader too, which doesn’t get foisted into redundancy with the later prequel films. The book is an easy read and breezes along quickly, and unlike the two other trilogies, is a standalone novel.

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More in the next post that will come quite a bit later!

My First Star Wars Posts Since 2009 – Part 2 – The EU

“Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic…”, as the the opening crawl from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace read. That sums up about nicely the initial reactions from many fans who’d invested in the years of Expanded Universe (EU) books, games and magazines etc. when Disney bought Lucasfilm, and shortly thereafter announced that all the material developed since 1983’s Return of the Jedi would be (ROTJ) largely would be non-canonical, and rebranded as Star Wars Legends. If the EU was a hodgepodge of material, no one would have bothered. But while there was a humongous amount of material created over the years – and there were even books written attempting to organize and weave all that stuff into a coherent narrative to make sense of it all – and not all of it was good, there were many common themes in the hundreds of EU publications that demonstrated a willingness to seriously explore and expand the fictional universe into something that sounded real. Even the more important when one realizes that as viscerally enjoyable as most of the SW prequel and original trilogies movies were, there was just so much implied – putting aside the simply routinely awful character dialogue – that someone had to make sense of all those broad plot lines we saw in the movies.

The New Essential Chronology to Star Wars, from 2005. One book that attempted to make sense of the Expanded Universe.

The New Essential Chronology to Star Wars, from 2005. One book that attempted to make sense of the Expanded Universe.

Most of my interest in the EU were in the post-ROTJ era and what happened after the second Death Star gets blown up and the Emperor gets tossed down the bottomless shaft. I haven’t read all the EU books – there’s a lot of it – but my sense of some of the most key themes in the post-ROTJ era were along these lines:

  1. That the Empire was now divided, with former Imperial warlords trying to carve out their own niches in the Galaxy, with the expected rivalry and in-fighting to follow. For them now, it was a fight to protect first whatever little they had left.
  2. That the New Republic was going through serious settling-in problems, and facing some of the same issues the early Empire experienced – and they had it easier as Palpatine had no compunctions using force to bend systems into his will.
  3. That the Jedi order was being revived, with the rebuilding of the Jedi Temple, with Luke becoming the first Master Jedi again. Luke traveling the galaxy to find force-sensitive pupils to be his first apprentices.
  4. That there were parts of the Galaxy untouched/not involved in the galactic war, and now emerging – sometimes they did not come in peace.

In other words, the galaxy was moving on and demonstrating a realistic process of transformation after the upheaval events of ROTJ. Stuff that felt like they were in the natural sequence of things that would happen in any other setting. As I mused in my last post, I was struck by that SW: TFA used essentially none of these, but instead:

  1. The Empire was not divided – only re-branded to The First Order, with no change to their agenda: still “Crush those Rebel – whoops – Resistance scum!”
  2. There was no New Republic, only the Resistance – and still on the run.
  3. There was a brief resurgence of a new Jedi order, before Kylo Ren turned it on his head, and Luke goes into hiding in apparent shame. Huh!
  4. No new factions joining into the mix – at this point of the seventh film anyway.

So, fundamentally, I found SW: TFA bland, if visually exciting and still enjoyable to watch from at least a superficial point of view. Hopefully things will improve in the next couple of films – we’ll see.

More in the next post.

 

My First Star Wars Posts Since 2009 – Part 1 – The Film (**spoilers**)

I was once in the habit of reviewing films and books several (or maybe many?) years ago here on this blog, and did so for a couple of years. That stopped after I concluded that while it was easy to comment briefly about something I saw or read, it was much harder to write thoughtful reviews worth the digital space it’d take up. I still watch a lot of films through video on demand subscriptions, DVD rental, blu-ray and in the cinema of course, and some really continue to impress – e.g. two recent Netflix TV series Narcos and Daredevil. And we’ve been binge-watching seasons of 24, with Ling lamenting that half the time the series “don’t have head or tail” since she’s often busying with housework and thus missing a lot of episodes in-between.

It was really hard to miss the hype train for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the last 12 months, not when the daily Facebook feeds were filled with posts about J.J. Abrams forthcoming take on the venerable property. And I’d come right out to say it: I realized that there would be no pragmatic way for me to avoid all the buzz and predictions about story and character fates in the months on social media before the film’s release. The only way would be to go off Facebook altogether LOL. So, I gave up trying to avoid it, and ended up watching the theatrical screening of the completed film in December last year already pretty much knowing what was going to happen at most plot points. And yes – there were dedicated SW: TFA spoiler sites, and though one might scoff at them, they nailed an amazing number of predictions and photo leaks. I’d put their hit rate predictions at about 90% in fact.

I’m also one of many weirdos who after getting inducted into Star Wars-verse with the first film’s screening at the Odeon cinema in 1977, have continued to invest in the pop-culture phenomena, including owning the original trilogy on VHS tapes, VCDs (does anyone even remember those LOL), laser discs, DVD, and now finally blu-ray. And there’s also been the (many) books I’ve bought and read on it. So, since Star Wars has become a good part of my growing up, I figured I’d do a series of posts collecting some of my notes and thoughts on it! Starting off with the the new film, and then I’ll probably write about the other films, the books, and some of the merchandise.

I wasn’t going to cram with everybody else for the Day 1 opening of SW: TFA here in Singapore on the 17 Dec Thursday, and opted instead for an 18 Dec screening at Serangoon Nex. Truth to tell, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a cinema hall in Singapore sold-out like that evening. The audience was for the most part well-behaved, and unlike some of the other Day 1 screenings here and outside Singapore, there were scant cheers when the trademark scrawl opened the film, nor applause when John Williams’ signature Star Wars march brought on the end-credits.

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Spoilers… spoilers… spoilers!

And the good bits for me:

The cast, right at the top of the list of things that I felt went well. Harrison Ford didn’t missed a beat in his return to one of his two most iconic roles (the one being a certain archaeologist with a fedora and a bull whip) as the sardonic one-time space pirate Han Solo. He has a few outright hilarious lines with Chewie, though all rib-tickling also leads one to wonder – in at least one case about Chewie’s weapon of choice – why he’s only making the jibe now and not 30 years earlier in the original trilogy. Of the three new young leads, Daisy Ridley displayed the widest emotional range and whose character arc seemed better fleshed out than the others, and especially in comparison to Oscar Issac’s Poe Dameron who spent more time in torture chambers and behind the cockpit controls of the newly stylized X-Wing fighters cheering the other Resistance pilots onward than having a real story told of his character.

The script, for the most part, though not the overarching plot. The banter’s cute, with Finn and Rey’s lines eliciting the most chuckles among the audience. Heck, maybe a bit too much even – and I wonder if Finn’s character was included in the story largely for laughs.

Minimal lens flare. And you have to see J.J. Abrams’ treatment of the two re-imagined Star Trek films to see what I mean here. In fact, the general Internet was so fearful of his overuse of digital lens flares that fan-made parodies of the teaser trailer were made – called ‘lens flare editions’. Thankfully, this was all dialed down for TFA, and the computer generated elements were nicely integrated into the film’s practical effects and real-world sets. Totally unlike the three prequel films, where the CG was pretty obvious everywhere it was used.

Lots of story and branching possibilities. Despite the film’s already longer than usual run-length of 135 minutes, there’s clearly a lot of subplots that were not concluded or characters’ agendas explored at this point. The Internet was buzzing with speculation on Rey’s real lineage after theatrical release, and it’d be no surprise that many of the secondary characters will be mined and fleshed out in literature in the coming years. E.g. Lor San Tekka on Jakku, Captain Phasma, and General Hux.

Lightsaber duels that look like real sword fights, and not gymnast show demos and kungfu bouts. As one Youtube channel quipped, the original trilogy duels were routinely like two geezers poking each other with walking sticks, and the prequel trilogy went the other extreme – totally incomprehensible with duelists flying and somersaulting in the air, though the bits where the Jedi were hurling machinery and furniture at each other was cool. The ferocity and energy exerted in each thrust and slash in TFA are apparent, and underlines the duel’s life or death intensity.

Some very impressive action set pieces, especially the dogfight on Jakku where the Millennium Falcon gets chased through the bowels of a ruined Star Star Destroyer.

Nice updates to vehicles, including the X-Wings, Tie-Fighters, land vehicles, and the dagger-shaped descendants of Star Destroyers.

No Ewoks, no Gungans, no Jar Jar Binks. ’nuff said LOL.

And the less impressive bits:

John Williams’ score – apart from the already very familiar opening and end-credits music, the score was for the most part nondescript.

The overarching plot being – essentially – a retread of Episode IV, albeit with some minor character variations and agendas. You have Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth replayed. The hero(ine) is from a desert backwater planet. You have the shadowy main villain and the more ominous ‘master’. You have the planet destroyer weapon, this time round deployed at a planetary system.

Same old protagonist, same old antagonist. Little seemed to have changed in the last 30 years in between trilogies..One would have thought that the galaxy would had been in total upheaval since the Emperor’s demise in Episode VI and the galaxy witnessed seismic changes. But heck no – it’s still the same two loggerheads going at it. The Empire is now The First Order, and the Rebellion is the Resistance. At best, unadventurous and worse, lazy writing in my opinion.

Needless character deaths, whose so-called emotional outcome could had been achieved just as well without killing the character.

But my biggest grip of the film was how little the new trilogy used  material or even drawn general ideas and themes from the Expanded Universe (EU). Granted that the latter is pretty convoluted now with all the published books, games and comic books prior to TFA, and Disney has come out to say they’re disregarding the EU. But there’s a lot of rich material there – and some of it is far more compelling than TFA’s newly developed continuing story and context. I’ll write more about this in the next couple of posts when I reflect on some of the EU books I’ve read and really liked.

More in the next post!

Les Misérables 2012 vs 1998

This is one post I have to put on my flame-retardant suit! Even though I’ve heard the musicals, I’ve never seen the stage versions nor had an inclination to – and it’s only because apart from the odd well-known and catchy number here and there from well-known musicals, I dislike them in general. I find the music too much in-your-face with little of the subtleties, whether in the lyrics or the musical textures, that I can easily find in classical operas.

Still, whenever the first reviews of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables are all putting in bets for the filmed musical to sweep this coming year’s academy awards, I decided to give it a go over the long holiday weekend, out of curiosity if nothing else.

2.5 hours later after the experience, my opinion of musicals remain unchanged: Ling loved it, but I disliked it. To be fair, the film’s visuals were suitably epic. The slums of 19th century Paris are re-created beautifully; even the near-end scene taking place in the sewers looked so real it made Ling cringe and feel real bad for actors who had to wallow in it (I had to remind her it was all made-believe). That a good portion of visuals were computer-generated was obvious too, though I assumed that stylization was intentional. And Sacha Baron Cohen’s turn as the scheming and greedy Thénardier brings to mind the years I enjoyed his performance as Ali G.

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Hugh Jackman as Valjean in the 2012 film.

But then again, apart from Anne Hathaway (Fantine) and maybe Hugh Jackman (Valjean) at a couple of spots, I thought the rest of the main cast’s singing just awful to my ears. Amanda Seyfried’s (Cosette) voice was too lightweight, and Russell Crowe (Javert) sounded like he was straining at every near high note. And the director seemed to have an obsession with camera close-ups, not to mention weird camera angles. At nearly every solo number, you’ll find the camera literally in the actor’s face, with foreheads and necks frequently cropped off in the frame. When I have to purchase the inevitable Blu-ray for Ling later, I guess I could occupy myself counting the number of nostril hairs Crowe has in all those close-ups. The film felt like a relentless assault on my senses – might had been all that continuous non-stop singing – that I switched off and was struggling to stay awake. It got so bad that I switched on my iPad and fiddling with it, and in the darkness of the theater annoyed Ling who got distracted even by the tablet’s dimmed display LOL.

Funnily, just prior to the film, I’d dug out an old DVD I had of a 1998 film adaption of the same book the musical is based on and gave it another watch. The film starred an A list cast: two of the best male dramatic actors Liam Neeson as Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as Javert, alongside Uma Thurman and Claire Danes as Fantine and Cosette respectively. The film doesn’t follow the book as closely as the musical might nor is it as large-scale as the filmed-musical with its lower production budget. But I found Neeson’s transformation from convict to a benevolent and forgiving man a lot more believable than Jackman’s performance. Best of all and the highlight in the older film for me is Rush’s single-minded Valjean. Unlike the musical, we don’t get to hear the character sing out his thoughts and can only rely on the actor’s spoken dialog and his expressions, and Rush does not disappoint. Even Ling remarked that she thought Rush was a better Javert compared to Crowe.

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Liam Neeson as Valjean in the 1998 film.

In all; if you’ve enjoy the musical, I imagine you’d like the new 2012 adaptation. If the music holds nothing for you, go for the 1998 film as I did.:)

Movie Revisits

Over the fortnight while the Olympics was in season, most evenings were spent in front of the living room TV. Not that I was consciously watching what was going on-screen, but I like having background audio while I’m working away on my notebook. It’s a habit that I picked up during the three odd years I spent in Perth. The television was on around 18 hours a day (that’s how I got to finish all those entire 7 season TV series in days) while I was working on my thesis.

With the Olympics over, I’ve started re-watching a bunch of films on Blu-ray. I’ve blogged about several of them here before already, but I often still acquire new reflections on these movie revisits. The bunch included:

Blood Diamond; the 2006 film about the conflict diamond trade, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou. I didn’t think much of the film when I first watched it years ago, but the revisit affirmed why Hounsou was heaped with nominations for acting awards for his supporting role as a father seeking rescue of his young son who is press-ganged then brain-washed into the violent rebel factions in Sierra Leone civil war. The film doesn’t flinch from representing on-screen serious controversies, and these include mass murder of innocents and child militia executing prisoners. The film can be a little draggy at spots running at nearly 2.5 hours, and Jennifer Connelly has a supporting role which sees her all doe-eyed but otherwise doesn’t have much else to do, and the last 10 minutes feel somewhat preachy. Still, well worth a watch if you enjoy thrillers.

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Leonardo and Hounsou dashing through the war-torn city of Freetown.

The Watchmen: re-watched the butt-hurting more than 3 hours Director’s Cut of the film in a single siting. I’ve blogged about the theatrical edition of the film here, and the extended edition fleshes out numerous bits from the comic book with Rorschach benefiting the most off the additional time. I think director Zack Snyder did a great job condensing the very complicated graphic novel into a manageable size, but it still remains somewhat thick for viewers unfamiliar with the novel, given its large cast of super-hero characters spread across several generations. Most of the cast do alright, but Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach remains the real stand-out. He gets the best line in the film too.=)

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Rorschach about to barbeque an unlucky foe.

Up in the Air: Also blogged here before too. I enjoyed this comedy-drama from two years ago, and found myself paying even more attention to its subtleties in the Blu-ray revisit. There are spots of the film that reminds me of Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional, especially with regards to Ryan Bingham (George Clooney)’s love for predictable routines and having to reconcile it with love interest Alex (Vera Farmiga) and his young upstart colleague companion Natalie (Anna Kendrick). One of the major themes of the film – that of corporate-level downsizing and the reactions and sentiments from those getting fired – remain thought-provoking for me, eliciting memories of the companies I worked for pre-Millennium who went through the Asian Financial Crisis and saw retrenchment. Has a heart-wrenching ending that even surprised Ling (“So sad”… and she sniffed).

How many times we’ve also sat this like waiting for our ride.

More film re-visitation snippets to follow in the coming weeks.=)

Game of Thrones

I first started reading fantasy fiction nearly 30 years ago when my elder brother picked up the first book of the Dragonlance Chronicles. There’s been a lot of such epic fantasy book series – some spanning as many as dozens of volumes – and I must have read or at least sampled-read at least one title from most of the major series published then over the 15 years I was a fan of this genre.

Now that I’m older and rounder on the tummy, there still remain just two series out of the entire lot which I enjoyed more than the rest. It’s Dragonlance Legends, a trilogy of books that followed Chronicles, and Raymond E. Fiest’s Riftwar Saga. Interestingly, while both trilogies are very different in writing style, tone and themes, they were also both published in the 80’s. The fantasy worlds that these two series are set in have spawned off numerous other books; sometimes written by the same author, and other times either in collaboration or by entirely different writing teams.

Until recently, these novels were typically too hard to film. There were the obvious concerns of trying to show on screen complex fantasy worlds (think Orcs, Dragons etc.), and also how do you cram typically 600 page monsters into a 2 hour film. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings changed all that of course, demonstrating that with the right production team and studio support, you can turn what are normally unfilmable books into films, albeit running for almost 12 hours – each of the three special edition movies averaged 4 hours in length!

So, there’s been a somewhat resurgence of films based off popular fantasy fiction. LOTR sticks in most people’s minds as the most critically and financially successfully series, though there’s been also a couple of real turkeys (e.g. the decidedly ‘D’ grade Eragon film from 2006). A more recent production is HBO’s TV series adaption of George Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, a set of seven novels that started in 1991. The TV series is titled Game of Thrones and each of its first two seasons have been based on the first two books of the series.

I picked up the first Season a fortnight ago, and after spending about 20 hours in all watching each of its ten episodes twice, have got mixed feelings. The series has been critically acclaimed for its adherence to the literary source, quality cast which excepting three or four recognizable names are mostly unknowns, costumes, and general production quality. The first season of the series does indeed follow the book quite closely, and each scene in the series having a strong traceable source from the book, though in many cases, long dialog and conversations that you can afford in print are heavily summarized or truncated for TV consumption. Credits go to the casting too. Though several actors are younger than the characters they play – e.g. the older children from the first book’s protagonist, Eddard Stark, are played by older actors, they nonetheless perform their roles well, with a special nod going to 15 year old Maisie Williams, who plays the tomboyish daughter Arya.

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Eddard and Arya Stark glowering.

The older actors are mostly all good, especially the always recognizable Sean Bean (Boromir from LOTR), who plays the perpetually brooding Eddard Stark, an honorable nobleman stuck between his temperamental king and his master’s scheming wife, Peter Dinklage who plays Tyrion, a dwarf who easily compensates with his wit, intelligence but soft heart for all who are equally as disadvantaged, and Aidan Gillen who plays Baelish, the kingdom’s accountant and who seems to be playing both sides. The cast all look reasonably distinct, so it’s easy to tell characters apart, especially important since the cast is huge.

On the flip side. While the series is shot in some amazingly gorgeous backdrops in Ireland and Malta, there’s no escaping the sense occasionally that the series doesn’t quite enjoy Peter Jackson’s LOTR budget. There’s the odd violent and scene where medieval weapons are broken out and people get killed, but the first season has gone past without any large battle scene that we’ve come to associate medieval or fantasy productions with. You do get to see the aftermath of a battle fought between two rival houses, but that’s it. While the wide-shots of the key cities – Winterfell, the Wall, King’s Landing and the Eyrie – are gorgeously and seamlessly rendered using computer wizardry, the ground footage of its inhabitants milling about with what should be their daily routines gives away that this is a very much a made-for-TV production. And for persons who enjoy stories that move along briskly, Game of Thrones’ almost ponderous story progression at times won’t sit well for them.

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Picked up the first two books to read too a fortnight ago. About 1,700 pages in between them, and at around page 370 right now.

Still, one is short on alternatives since there just isn’t many quality epic fantasy TV series out there. It’s still a good series to watch and one that I recommend.

Stargate Universe – Part 2

Continued from the last post.

Storywise, you’ve sort of seen it before. Yep; it’s mix of Lost and Star Trek Voyager. Visually, thematically, and stylistically though, it draws its cues from recent dramas like Battlestar Galactica. The show is very dark and edgy. No more cute and fuzzy benign aliens, nor even alien of the week. Every episode is almost depressing as the Destiny’s crew struggles each week against the challenges of traveling onboard a vessel that is technologically far ahead of what they can readily comprehend. And the challenges run the gamut of finding power, oxygen, water, food, then facing off radiation, unfriendly aliens, collisions with stars, marooned crew that are left to die, alien viruses that are accidentally brought onboard, military-civilian tussles for power etc.

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The main cast from Stargate Universe

Some of these interstellar travel challenges aren’t new; we’ve seen them before in the first season of Battlestar Galactica, but SGU ramps it up a couple of notches. The series kills characters with alarming frequency, and there are only so many crew members that are onboard Destiny to begin with. Many of the challenges are also – apparently – scientifically grounded (the show’s producers note that NASA scientists watch the show), and while I don’t claim to understand all that science and astronomical mumbo jumbo for a second, it does at least sound as though the series knows what it’s talking about when a character says something about the dangers of how a white dwarf is stripping material from a neutron star in a binary pulsar and creating an accretion disc that is producing gamma radiation. I kid you not. That’s exactly one of the danger scenarios that the Destiny’s crew faces in one episode.

The cast is pretty good too, though aside from one of the two leads are all unknowns to me. I immediately recognized Robert Carlyle, who stars as Dr. Nicholas Rush, Destiny’s super brilliant but also extremely arrogant and also mentally unsound scientist. With him are Louis Ferreira as Colonel Everett Young, his military opposite who’s constantly bumping heads with Rush, Brian J. Smith as the loyal but conscientious Lt. Matthew Scott, Jamil Walker Smith as Master SGT Ronald Greer, the crew’s hot-tempered bulldog, and David Blue as Eli Wallace, a civilian who starts off as slacker but also a genius, and grows to be a real asset to the crew.

The civilian-military antagonism isn’t too different from the Adama-Roslin tug of war in the early seasons of Battlestar Galactica, and as good as Ferreira is as an actor, he’s not in Edward James Olmosclass. Carlyle’s Rush is a different story though. You love-hate his character. You hate his ruthlessness and single-mindedness in pursuing his scientific goals, but it’s hard to fault his cold-minded logic. Exactly the characterizations that make for great series viewing.

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CG’s all good. Wished there was more of it though.

What’s unquestionably impressive is the Computer Generated graphics work. Unlike Battlestar Galactica’s numerous and very large-scale space battles, the CG work for SGU is mostly in Destiny, the worlds they explore – some of them look truly alien – and also a couple of space battles. It’s somewhat sparing, but when you do see it, it’s all pretty good.

All in; not too bad. I’ll put this series at below Battlestar Galactica. but since that series has completed its run and until the prequel series, Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, is released, SGU will do.=)

Stargate Universe – Part 1

I had a housemate back in Perth who was a big fan of the sci-fi series called Stargate SG-1. For those of us who’re not in the know; the TV series was a spin-off from a 1994 so-so sci-fi film made by the then darling purveyors of pop-corn sci-fi films – the Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin duo who’d go on to make the alien-busting Independence Day film next. The film and series essentially covers the discovery of an ancient ring-shaped device in present-day Earth that serves as one-end of an interstellar wormhole that in turn makes possible travel to distant planets and galaxies.

The first series that followed the film – Stargate SG-1 – turned out to be quite the success, and ran for a whopping 10 years, becoming the longest-running American sci-fi TV series ever before getting recently surpassed by Smallville. The series was well-regarded for its adventurism, cast chemistry, and story arcs that evolved and ran for years. In fact, the producers themselves seemed surprised by how loyal a fan-base the series created – the series was to have been wrapped at several junctures, but kept going on because of its fans.

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The main cast from Stargate SG-1.

On the down side, the show – especially in the earlier years – was also rather campy at spots, with the occasional ‘alien of the week’ episodes showing up. Stargate SG-1 itself had its own spin-off. The equally successful Stargate Atlantis, which ran for five years, and most recently and the topic of this post: Stargate Universe.

Stargate Universe (SGU) is a pretty recent TV series that ran for just two seasons before getting discontinued because of development timing constraints. It follows the adventures of a multinational exploration team which is stuck on a massive starship after an offworld base they were based in is destroyed (the planet explodes in a spectacular scene). The starship, Destiny, unfortunately, is also billions of light years away from home, and the series tells the story of their difficult journey home.

Continued in the next post.=)