New Year’s Eve * * 1/2

Genre: Comedy / Drama

Director: Garry Marshall

Writer: Katherine Fugate

Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron, Robert De Niro, Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Seth Meyers, Katherine Heigl, Jon Bon Jovi, Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michele, Sarah Jessica Parker, Abigail Breslin, Josh Duhamel, Hilary Swank, Ludacris, Hector Elizondo,

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: The lives of several couples and singles in New York intertwine over the course of New Year’s Eve.

Review: Garry Marshall is back at the helm of yet another film in the ensemble cast genre after last year’s Valentine’s Day, and ups the ante this time by including even more celebrities (with some repeat appearances) and tackling a holiday far more ubiquitous than Valentine’s Day. However, the same problems that plagued Valentine’s Day resurfaces in New Year’s Eve – there are just too many things going on for one movie to address, and the result is a film that lacks focus and meat.

Although much of the film takes place around Times Square, the story involving Hilary Swank and the Times Square countdown isn’t as central as the story featuring Zac Efron and Michelle Pfeiffer. The checking off of Pfeiffer’s wishlist is an intriguing premise, but unfortunately the film simply doesn’t spend enough time to develop it further and to give it a satisfactory conclusion. The same can be said of every single storyline that develops (or more accurately, fails to develop) in the movie, and it’s tempting to imagine how much better New Year’s Eve could have been if at least half of the plots were cleaved off, and the remainder given a fairer share of the screen time.

Since most of the star wattage is simply used to power interest for the movie, a lot of the actors have roles that amount to nothing more than glorified cameos, and no one is really needed to showcase much thespian ability. The script does give pause for a few Oscar alumni to emote, but many of the scenes just feel too contrived to be able to wring much genuine emotion out from the audience. And though I am usually pretty tolerant of product placement in movies, New Year’s Eve does take it to a level so extreme that it borders on absurdity (yes, I’m looking at you, Nivea).   

As fluffy entertainment, New Year’s Eve is certainly qualified for the role. For anyone who enjoys spotting celebrity cameos the film definitely ticks all the boxes. However, the film is not as interesting as it thinks it is, and the mawkish sentimentality that pervades much of the movie actually hurts the film and take it down a notch further. It’s not a bad movie, for sure, and certainly better than Valentine’s Day, but still it barely manages to score a passing grade.

P.S. To make it the most bang for your buck, make sure to sit through the first half of the end credit sequence to catch some genuinely funny outtakes.

Rating: ** ½ (out of four stars)

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The Muppets * * *

Genre: Comedy / Musical

Director: James Bobin

Writers: Jason Segel & Nicholas Steger, based on characters created by Jim Henson

Cast: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones

Running Length: 103 minutes

Synopsis: On vacation in Los Angeles, Walter, the world’s biggest Muppet fan, his brother Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) from Smalltown, USA, discover the nefarious plan of oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to raze the Muppet Theater and drill for the oil recently discovered beneath the Muppets’ former stomping grounds. To stage a telethon and raise the $10 million needed to save the theater, Walter, Mary and Gary help Kermit reunite the Muppets, who have all gone their separate ways: Fozzie now performs with a Reno casino tribute band called the Moopets, Miss Piggy is a plus-size fashion editor at Vogue Paris, Animal is in a Santa Barbara clinic for anger management, and Gonzo is a high-powered plumbing magnate. Will the Muppets be able to band together and save the theater in time?

Review: It’s sad but true – while most children will still recognize the Muppets, they are no longer as culturally relevant as back in the 70s and 80s. Anyone who is above the age of 30, however, will likely have fond memories of watching The Muppets Show or Sesame Street during the formative years of their lives (myself included, of course). As such, although The Muppets is positioned as a movie for the young ones, the adult viewers are likely to be the ones who will find themselves enjoying the movie (and riding the incessant waves of nostalgia). It’s still a fun watch for the kids, for sure, but there’s no doubt the older audiences are the ones who will be able to tap into the emotional centre of the film.

It’s not exactly a sophisticated plot, and the human actors aren’t given much to do. However, in the same vein as the older Muppets movies, The Muppets is chock-full of cameo appearances, and it’s quite fun to spot all the stars that appear in the film. Also, the fourth wall is repeatedly broken in the movie in amusing ways, which again is a nod to the history of the Muppets, on both the small and big screen.

Although positioned as a musical, there really aren’t that many songs and performances to truly classify The Muppets as a true musical. In fact, after the first reel, which does feature a number of decent song and dance performances, director James Bobin seems to divert his attention elsewhere, resulting in sporadic songs that feel increasingly at odds with the rest of the movie. However, of the 9 songs featured, 3 are classic Muppets songs, which will definitely be familiar to anyone who has grown up with the Muppets.

Despite its imperfections, The Muppets is great fun both for newcomers to the franchise and “old-timers”, and is certainly an excellent choice for families during this holiday. Who knows – with this reinvigoration, it may represent a new era for The Muppets, moving them back into the limelight, which would not be a bad thing at all.

Rating: *** (out of four stars)

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The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part One * *

Genre: Drama

Director: Bill Condon

Writer: Melissa Rosenberg, based on the novel Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner

Running Length: 117 minutes

Synopsis: In Breaking Dawn Part One, the vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) and human Bella (Kristen Stewart) are finally getting married, but an unexpected turn of events during their honeymoon threatens to unsettle their life together. Meanwhile, werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) is torn between loyalty to his wolfpack and his devotion to Bella. 

Review: The Twilight series is practically critic-proof – there’s a whole bunch of rabid Stephenie Meyer fans who want nothing more than to see the books come to life on the big screen, and then there’s the “Twi-mom” phenomenon where normally rational women go absolutely gaga over Robert Pattinson. Who cares about storyline, thespian skills and quality when box office triumph is assured? Well, certainly not Summit Entertainment, who has deemed it fit to split the final installment of the Twilight series into two movies in an obvious money grab, even if the material does not justify such a move. The film is not a total wash – the last reel is actually pretty well done – but so much of the movie feels so perfunctory that it’s hard to look past the movie’s many shortcomings.
 
If compared to the previous Twilight films, Breaking Dawn really is marginally better – because there’s actually something else going on other than endless teenage angst that plagued the previous installments. However, the much vaunted bedroom-destroying sex scene is so tame it’s almost laughable, the showdown between Jacob and the wolf pack is actually laughable, and only the climactic delivery of Bella’s half-vampire baby actually manages to (pun intended) deliver.

There’s really no acting talent to be found here, even if the actors themselves have shown thespian quality in other films (except Taylor Lautner who’s really not much of an actor in any movie so far). And although the film’s budget is not small, the CGI is somewhat questionable, especially the wolves which just doesn’t seem at all realistic. Given the blah screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg, even a lauded director like Bill Condon can’t do much to elevate the movie to anything beyond mediocre.

It’s probably not very fair to judge Breaking Dawn Part 1, since well, it is not a complete movie. However, extrapolating what has already played out on screen, it’s hard to imagine Part 2 being much improved over Part 1. That probably won’t matter, since this far down the road in the Twilight franchise, only die hard fans should even consider watching this movie, and would probably find the experience a worthwhile one.

Rating: ** (out of four stars)

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Puss In Boots * * *

Genre: Animation

Director: Chris Miller

Writers: Tom Wheeler, based on a story by Brian Lynch, Will Davies and Tom Wheeler

Voice Cast: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris

Running Length: 90 minutes

Synopsis: Long before he even met Shrek, the notorious fighter, lover and outlaw Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) becomes a hero when he sets off on an adventure with the tough and street smart Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and the mastermind Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) to save his town. This is the true story of The Cat, The Myth, The Legend…The Boots.

Review: After playing second fiddle to Shrek for three movies, the orange tabby finally gets his own movie, which seemed like a long time coming. The good news is that this Shrek spinoff manages to retain the trademark (slightly subversive) humour of the Shrek franchise, with more puns and visual gags than one can shake a sprig of catnip at, and also looks as good as any decent animated movie does nowadays. However, the story itself lacks imagination, and exists merely as a vehicle for the visuals and jokes to ride on. It remains a fairly entertaining movie but if only there was more once one scratches beneath the glossy veneer.

Cats are a cultural phenomenon on the internet, and rightly so – they can be really cute creatures to go gaga over, and yet have a regal nonchalance that is oddly alluring. Puss in Boots captures both aspects pretty well, especially since Antonio Banderas adds a sultry Spanish flair to the voice acting. However, despite the title of the movie, the true star of the film is Zach Galiafinakis and his Humpty Dumpty, a surprisingly nuanced character with complex, adult issues that almost seems out of place in what is essentially a movie catered for the younger audience. The film does not have the universality like many Pixar films, and these adult elements will not be readily identified by the kiddy set, but it’s always a pleasant surprise to find an animated film that does not talk down to its audience. However, that having been said, little is done with the deeper material, which results in a lack of resonance with the moral of the story.

The visuals as a whole are bright, colourful and detailed, and there are some truly memorable personifications of fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters (my favourite would have to be Jack and Jill, because they are the ones that confound expectations the most). Although it’s now a prerequisite for animated films to look good, Dreamworks probably does some of the best computer animated work after Pixar. Unlike many 3D films released nowadays, the third dimension in Puss in Boots isn’t used in a gimmicky manner, but does help to augment the film in terms of immersion. However, 3D does not lend itself well to higher-speed sequences, and there are some dance and action scenes which were a little overwhelming to watch.

The one biggest redeeming factor for Puss in Boots is simply that the film never takes itself too seriously. Once that mindset is in place, it’s easy to enjoy the movie for what it is – short, cinematic fluff that won’t fail to entertain even the most jaded cinemagoers. It even throws in a Lady Gaga song for good measure – and as the leading purveyor of pop culture these days, who can really argue with that?  

Rating: *** (out of four stars)

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Immortals * * 1/2

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Tarsem Singh

Writers: Charles Parlapanides & Vlas Parlapanides

Cast: Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Stephen Dorff, Freida Pinto, Luke Evans, John Hurt

Running Length: 110 minutes

Synopsis: Eons after the Gods won their mythic struggle against the Titans, a new evil threatens the land. Mad with power, King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) has declared war against humanity. Amassing a bloodthirsty army of soldiers disfigured by his own hand, Hyperion has scorched Greece in search of the legendary Epirus Bow, a weapon of unimaginable power forged in the heavens by Ares. 

Only he who possesses this bow can unleash the Titans, who have been imprisoned deep within the walls of Mount Tartaros since the dawn of time and thirst for revenge. In the king’s hands, the bow would rain destruction upon mankind and annihilate the Gods. But ancient law dictates the Gods must not intervene in man’s conflict. They remain powerless to stop Hyperion, until a peasant named Theseus (Henry Cavill) comes forth as their only hope.

Secretly chosen by Zeus, Theseus must save his people from Hyperion and his hordes. Rallying a band of fellow outsiders – including visionary priestess Phaedra (Freida Pinto) and cunning slave Stavros (Stephen Dorff) – one hero will lead the uprising, or watch his homeland fall into ruin and his Gods vanish into legend. 

Review: It is undeniable that Immortals is a visually gorgeous film – this really comes as no surprise since the director is Tarsem Singh, who has helmed two breathtakingly beautiful movies prior to Immortals (The Cell and The Fall). If you’re looking for a film with eye candy, Immortals has that in spades – every visual aspect is immaculate, from the magnificent digitally-created locales (Greece seems to be composed entirely of cities carved out of mountains and villages residing on precipitous cliffs) to the Oscar-worthy costumes designed by Eiko Ishioka, and the sumptuous colours employed to great effect in many scenes, this is probably one of the most aesthetically pleasing films I have seen in years.

Even the action sequences are choreographed with a hyper-realistic sensibility. Rarely has blood and brains splattering looked so interesting and beautiful, although it can really be too much to take in at times, especially when viewing the film in 3D. However, it must be said that the implementation of 3D in Immortals is pretty accomplished, and subtly enhances the look and feel of the movie.

Yet, Immortals’ beauty is really only skin deep. The storyline is weak and uninspired, taking liberties with Greek mythology and at times not really making much sense at all. Various scenes seem to be building up to something greater, but never really go anywhere. There’s virtually no character development, and some of the Greek gods are given such inexplicably short screen times that it almost seems blasphemous. Thankfully the cast is good looking and distracts somewhat from their one-dimensionality – the men are all muscle and machismo, whereas the women (Freida Pinto in particular) are curvaceous and gorgeous.   

When compared with recent films in a similar vein, Immortals does not surpass what has been achieved by 300, but is far better than Clash of the Titans. However, it scores a perfect ten in terms of looks, and if one’s expectations are adjusted accordingly, could be worth the time in the cinema.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four stars)

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The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn * * * 1/2

Genre: Action Adventure

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Steven Moffatt and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, based on the comic series Tintin by Hergé

Cast: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost

Running Length: 107 minutes

Synopsis: Uniting elements from three Hergé Tintin adventures: The Crab With The Golden Claws, The Secret Of The Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, intrepid Belgian reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell), along with his intelligent canine sidekick Snowy, is on the trail of sunken treasure, together with the brutish alcoholic Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis).

Review: Count me in as one of the skeptics when this Tintin project was announced – performance capture animation has been pretty hit and miss (mostly the latter) and Tintin is such a well-loved classic that it seemed at first glance that this is surely destined for disaster, even with Steven Spielberg at the helm and Peter Jackson on board as producer. Turns out that all the fears are unfounded – this is an excellent action adventure – a spiritual successor to Spielberg’s seminal Indiana Jones trilogy (yes, I am ignoring the Crystal Skull installment for obvious reasons), and certainly one of the best family films to be released this year.

Having now seen the finished product, it’s hard to imagine what Tintin would have been if it had followed Spielberg’s original vision of a live action movie – kudos to Peter Jackson for apparently convincing Spielberg to go with a digitally animated version. The benefit of existing solely in a digital space is readily apparent, particularly with an amazing mid-movie sequence where Captain Haddock recounts a part of his family history. The number of inventive transitions, crossfades, and other visual flourishes that fill that sequence simply could not have been achieved with live action, even with copious amount of CGI thrown in. This is also a rare film that does well in 3D, while not being in-your-face, helps to immerse the viewer further into the surroundings.  

Previous films done in a similar manner – namely, The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol – have made the error of trying too hard to make the characters look human, resulting in a look that is firmly lodged in the Uncanny Valley. In Tintin, the approach is slightly different, with characters taking on an obvious cartoon quality while still imbuing them with a lot of human detail. This is probably one of the best examples of performance capture so far, alongside with what was achieved in Avatar.

The cast fares well too, with Andy Serkis again providing an excellent, scenes-stealing performance though not being “physically” present. Given that Tintin himself is pretty much an intentional blank slate for audiences and readers to project themselves onto, Jamie Bell also does a pretty good job. Unfortunately, one of the characters that have been somewhat given shorter shrift is Daniel Craig’s Sakharine, who is probably the most forgettable character in the whole movie, despite ostensibly being the villain.  

In other aspects, this is a quintessential Spielberg movie, even though it’s his first foray into animation. There are plenty of great action set pieces to be found here (though if one is critical, it actually borders a little on overkill), a good dose of humour thrown in, and a universality that means it will be equally well-received by both adults and children alike. A caveat – given the liberties that were taken with the source comic series, fanboys of the original Tintin may feel a fair amount of cognitive dissonance with the big screen rendition.

Before his passing in 1983, Hergé had commented that if his work was to be brought to the big screen, the only director he could envision accomplishing it would be Steven Spielberg. Almost three decades later, it turns out that he was right after all.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of four stars)

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You Are the Apple of My Eye * * *

Genre: Drama

Director: Giddens Ko

Writer: Giddens Ko

Cast: Ko Chen-Tung, Michelle Chen

Running Length: 110 minutes

Synopsis: A coming of age tale revolving around Ko-Teng (Ko Chen-Tung) and several close friends, who are all nursing crushes on honour student Shen Chia-Yi (Michelle Chen). Naughty in nature, Ko-Teng is ordered by their homeroom teacher to sit in front of Chia-Yi for her to keep close tabs on him. The two don't see eye to eye at first but Ko-Teng gradually falls for her, who is always pressuring him to study hard. On the other hand, Shen becomes impressed by the contrasting values he represents. A tentative courtship begins between the two, but both parties seem hesitant to commit to each other. 

Review: Nostalgia is a very powerful tool, and anyone who has loved and/or lost a sweetheart in the growing up years (and who hasn’t?) will certainly find You Are the Apple of My Eye to be a gently evocative, bittersweet experience. Based on Gidden Ko’s semi-autobiographical novel (the literal translation of the title for both the novel and movie is The Girl We Pursued Together In Those Years), this is a reasonably well-directed and well-acted film, and is largely (sadly, not entirely) devoid of the soppy melodrama that is rather prevalent in Taiwanese film and TV productions.

The film is split into three distinct portions, high school, university and the post-school years, with the high school part taking up the most screen time. It’s also the best segment of the film, with Giddens balancing drama and (admittedly puerile) humour with a deft hand, and is bolstered by excellent performances all round. The fresh-faced, young actors are perfectly cast, and newcomer Ko Chen-Tung is particularly impressive, exuding a charisma that is undeniable and hence a great fit for Giddens’ alter ego.

However, the latter two portions of the film take a little of the shine away, as the plot starts to wear the audience down, especially because much of the proceedings run along a pretty predictable line. The upside is that audiences who hate unresolved plot threads will have nothing to worry about, as everything is fully resolved by the time the credits roll. A more minor niggle is that there’s almost no attention paid to the aging of the characters, and they look almost the same throughout, even though the progression is approximately 16 years.

Though not a perfect film by any measure, there’s so much heart in You Are the Apple of My Eye that it’s easy to forgive its flaws. On a personal level, it turns out that Giddens (and hence all the characters in the film) is the same age as I am, and perhaps this is the reason why the film resonates with me on so many levels. If you are planning on watching only one Asian mainstream release this year, make it this one.

Rating: *** (out of four stars)

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