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The Commuter (2018)
Part Hitchcockian whodunnit and part white-knuckle thrills, 'The Commuter' overcomes what it lacks in logic with well-executed suspense and action
Hard to believe that it has been 10 years since Liam Neeson became an unexpected action star with the lean, spare but brutally effective thriller 'Taken', and in the decade that's passed cemented his late renaissance with well-executed B-movie fare like 'The A-Team', 'The Grey', 'Unknown', 'Non-Stop' and 'Run All Night'. The last three were also notable for being collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra, and the now 65-year-old has extended their team-up with 'The Commuter', which sees Serra further lay claim to a modern-day Alfred Hitchcock with a couple of high-wire scenes that would certainly make the latter proud.
As with before, there is a high-concept scenario at the heart of this deliberately old-fashioned thriller: an everyday insurance salesman Michael McCauley (Neeson) finds his routine evening commute back home from work disrupted by the enigmatic stranger Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who sits opposite him on the Metro-North train and offers him a hefty financial reward if he is able to spot someone on the train who isn't a familiar face. In order for Michael to be tempted in the first place, first-time screenwriters Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi set him up to lose his job on that same day, leaving him floundering over his two mortgages as well as tuition fees for his college-bound son - although because this is Neeson we're talking about, you know Michael will eventually do the right, honorable and even heroic thing.
To up the ante, Michael is only given slightly more than half an hour before the train reaches Cold Spring to find the individual he is told later on goes by the name of Prynne; and to raise the stakes, it turns out that Joanna has also held his wife and son hostage, both of whom she threatens to kill if Michael fails to complete his mission. True to his Hitchcockian ambition, Serra spins an intriguing web of mystery over most of the middle act, and there are at least three riveting questions that are teased. Who is Prynne? Who is Joanna and/or the people she is working with or for? And finally, what does Joanna want with Prynne? These in turn translate into solid character work for the proverbial strangers on the train whom Michael probes to locate his mark - among them a feisty college student (Florence Pugh), an arrogant Wall Street banker (Shazad Latif), an emotionally distraught nurse (Clara Lago), a tattooed bruiser (Roland Moller) and a taciturn teenager (Ella-Rae Smith).
Yet Serra is all too aware that a whodunnit in and of itself is unlikely to satiate a good proportion of his audience, who are here to watch Neeson engage in the sort of close-quarter fisticuffs a la 'Taken'. So in between playing detective, Michael also gets a couple of well-choregraphed brawls - one of them takes place in the confines between carriages, while another that is impressively done in a single take plays out over an entire carriage with everything from a gun, an ax, a guitar and seat cushions used as weapons. There is visibly concerted effort to keep these fight sequences real, so even though Neeson's character is revealed earlier on to be an ex-cop, the film doesn't (thankfully) use that as an excuse to gift him with "a very particular set of skills" to take down his opponents too easily, skilfully or neatly.
Like other locomotive-set thrillers, this one doesn't escape without the train in question going out of control and then literally off the rails. That it is well-staged is undeniable - not even some subpar CGI in some shots can detract from the sheer white-knuckle tension of seeing almost the whole train flip into the air - but this spectacle-fuelled conclusion arguably strains the credibility of the high-concept movie even further, and is therefore both better and worse off for it. Notwithstanding, Neeson remains through and through the film's emotional centre, conveying the frustration, helplessness and resolve of a regular guy who is trying to get his life back in control from those that have snatched it away from him. Lest we forget, this is a role that the thespian can easily do in his sleep, but Neeson still brings his considerable gravitas to bear.
Mind you, not all the gaps in the narrative will be filled in by the end (which seems to set up the possibility of a sequel) nor will some of the explanations pass muster under closer scrutiny. Still, a film like this isn't meant to be held up under such examination or intended to offer any more than solid B-movie guilty pleasures; on the latter count though, it does succeed brilliantly and beautifully by mixing classic Hitchcockian tension with adrenaline-pumping action. We dare say that it ranks among one of Neeson's best in his action oeuvre, and if you're in the mood for some pulpy thrills and suspense, then you'll definitely want to get on this train.
Insidious: The Last Key (2018)
Just as, if not worse, than the previous entry, this fourth chapter confirms that life is fast running out of the "Insidious" franchise
Few horror franchises have found life beyond their third chapter, and "Insidious" proves no different.
Picking up right after the events of "Insidious: Chapter 3", this fourth entry further (pun intended) explores the backstory of demonologist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), who was murdered in a memorable twist at the end of the first film. Here, Elise is first introduced as a young girl living in a foreboding two-storey house on the outskirts of a New Mexico prison in 1952 where her stern father (Josh Stewart) works as a prison guard. Turns out that Elise already had a gift (or curse, depending on which way you look at it) for seeing ghosts then, but when she disobeys her father's order to deny her paranormal abilities, he locks her in the basement. It is there she first encounters this movie's demon - a tall lanky beast with old-timey keys for fingers - and unknowingly unlocks a mysterious red door for the monster to cross over into our world.
Back in the present day, Elise receives a phone call from a stranger who asks for her help with the ghosts in his house. That house turns out to be her childhood home, and despite her initial reservations at literally revisiting past demons, she eventually musters up the courage to confront what she recognises she had previously unleashed. It helps that she isn't alone; thanks to the events in the last movie, she is now accompanied by a pair of dopey sidekicks Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell). To be sure, their signature high-tech gizmos aren't of much use (certainly much less than they were in the first two movies), so their presence is really as comic relief - like Tucker loves to repeat, "She's psychic; we're sidekick."
What distinguished "Insidious" from other haunted-house movies was its creation of 'The Further', a terrifying place between life and death that exists on a different realm from ours where evil spirits trapped not just the souls of the dead but also those who were able to project themselves astrally while asleep. Elise was established to be one such individual, and it isn't reasonable that she would quickly return to 'The Further' in order to seek out the entity which had terrorised her and is terrorising the house's current inhabitant as well as the spirits she sees around the property. But Whannell, who had written every one of the "Insidious" movies, has other intentions; in fact, the middle act sees Elise come face-to-face with a different real-life horror, which while well-intentioned, is not nearly as developed as it needs to be and is hardly as interesting as the ghouls of 'The Further'. Only in the final act does Elise finally return to that purgatory, but that homecoming is over too fast, too soon and too conveniently, almost as if it were simply an afterthought to form a narrative bridge into the first movie.
Even though the earlier 'Insidious' films had similarly spare scripts, they benefited from the taut direction of James Wan, who knew how to build perfectly good scares with icy dread. Unfortunately, series newcomer Adam Robitel doesn't quite have the same knack. Not only is he able to generate the same atmosphere as Wan did, Robitel often betrays his own lack of confidence by resorting to the sort of jump-cuts which quickly tire out. This being his sophomore feature, he also lacks the experience to properly smooth over the rough edges of Whannell's writing - in particular, the parts intended to be poignant, such as Elise's estrangement from her skittish younger brother Christian (Bruce Davison), come off feeling contrived and sit awkwardly with the rest of the parts designed to frighten.
Ultimately, it is Shaye who holds the rickety film together, portraying Elise with just the right balance of vulnerability and fearlessness. While it may seem opportunistic that the "Insidious" series goes down the same road as "The Conjuring" (by using the same parapsychologist(s) across its entries), Shaye very much holds her own as the film's septuagenarian heroine. That said, it is not quite nearly enough to reinvigorate the franchise itself, which seems imprisoned in its own creative limits and cannot quite go any further (that's another pun, fully intended). Perhaps its title is ominous of its fate, and even if 'The Last Key' isn't the last we hear of "Insidious", then the next chapter better have a much more compelling raison d'être.
The Outlaws (2017)
Don Lee's macho yet suitably wry lead performance is worth the price of admission alone
With the real-life 'Heuksapa Incident' as backdrop, writer-director Kang Yun-sung makes an impressive feature filmmaking debut in the gritty yet colourfully entertaining crime thriller 'The Outlaws'. Like the 2007 gang turf war that took place in Seoul's notorious Garibong-dong district, Kang builds his film around the entry of ruthless Chinese gangsters who are not afraid to resort to brutal methods in order to muscle into the lucrative criminal underworld of moneylending, gambling and prostitution. Here, their leader is the pony-tailed Jang Chen (former boy-band singer Yoon Kye-sang), who in one of the opening scenes is seen demanding payment of two hundred thousand dollars upon a loan of just thirty thousand and then smashing the debtor's wrist when he pleads for leniency.
Jang is pitted against the tough but kind-hearted Ma Seok-do (Don Lee, otherwise known as Ma Dong-seok) of the Geumbong Police's Serious Crimes Unit - in contrast to Jang, Ma's introduction sees him first walk right up to two men during a knife fight on a public street in broad daylight while on his mobile phone and disarming them without even breaking a sweat. Rather than weed out the various factions of Chinese-Korean gangs who have taken root in the neighbourhood, Ma's approach has been to accommodate them by preserving the balance of power among them, even if it means getting them to sit down in the same room and hug it out as an early sequence involving two rival gangs Venom and Isu demonstrate. Obviously, Jang's entry upends that fragile peace, as the vicious former Changwon gangster takes care of the competition by either stabbing them to death (and disposing them in parts all over the district) or pitting the other gangs against one another.
Though the opening titles suggest some massive clean-up operation, what ensues is really a tactical play orchestrated by Detective Ma and his superior Captain Jeon (Choi Gwl-hwa), who are forced by their bosses to make a PR demonstration that they are in control lest cede charge of the situation to the Seoul Metropolitan Police's homicide department. Ma's plan involves getting the assistance of the local shopkeepers to collect ground intel on Jang's Black Dragon gang - although it does take some persuasion before they are willing to overcome fear of possible reprisal - culminating in a well-coordinated crackdown over the course of a single night to ensnare the entire gang, especially Jang, in one fell swoop. We might add too that viewers will get the pleasure of seeing Ma and Jang go mano-a-mano at each other, and that bruising sequence is as fierce as it is gratifying.
Not surprisingly, the storytelling largely follows the template of a procedural that sees Ma investigate the brutal murder of the Venom gang boss Ahn Sung-hee, following the latter's run-in with Jang over one of his associates' debt. In between, the narrative makes good room for character beats, such as the camaraderie between Ma and his men, the coming-of-age of the team's latest addition Hong-suk (Ha Joon), and Ma's quasi father-son relationship with a teenage boy running a snack cart along one of the district's busy pedestrian street. Through these scenes, Ma's uncompromisingly bad-ass but unmistakably sweet character rises above caricature, elevated by a textured performance by Lee of unexpected emotional heft. Compared to Ma, Jang isn't all that interesting at all, not least because the broad, flowing wig he wears comes off more an unnecessary distraction than some show of true unhinged menace.
On his part, writer-director Kang is just as deserving of credit for his grasp of authenticity. From the bar rooms to the BBQ restaurants to the back alleys and right down to the makeshift container that is Ma's office, each one of the settings feel vivid and real. Kang also eschews the usual stylized fight sequences for messy real-life brawls, and the result is satisfying old-school action that is right at home in a gritty crime picture like this. In fact, there is a lot to admire about what Kang has pulled off in his debut film, which makes up for what it somewhat lacks in narrative polish with sheer visceral realism. It also helps that Kang has a wry sense of humour, knowing exactly when to play it straight and when to inject some levity into the proceedings. Of course, through it all, Lee's larger-than-life lead role shines through, and 'The Outlaws' gets a whole lot more lively, engaging and affecting thanks to him.
Qi men dun jia (2017)
Enjoyable enough but hardly hitting all the notes, this film would serve as good entertainment if you don't need to keep track of what's actually happening
There are a few stalwarts in the Hong Kong movie industry, and two of them are in this film.
Tsui Hark's hand in creating commercial cinema during the "Golden Age" is legendary. Both entertaining and original, his classics such as A Better Tomorrow, A Chinese Ghost Story and Green Snake have all been milestones of any Gen X's cinema experience.
Yuan Wo Ping is the other heavyweight, and is renowned for his martial arts choreography in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, Ip Man and the Matrix trilogy. His innovative sequences rejuvenated the genre, keeping audiences riveted with his fresh treatments.
The Thousand Faces of Dunjia sees them as producer and director respectively, so expectations can hardly be faulted. The scale doesn't disappoint because we transcend both galactively and spiritually spheres, but the storyline feels fragmented and occasionally aimless, and I think I know why. The fantasy action flick seems firmly handled with the F word in mind - I'm talking Franchise.
Let me first lay it out there - there is a sequel planned for this movie. That said, the film does provide closure with part one.
Dao Yichang (Aarif Lee) is the village's newest constable. The motivated young man, thick-browed and sharp jawed doesn't always play by the rules, but always does the right thing in the end. While fighting a criminal-turned-demon one day, he gets tangled up with Iron Dragonfly (Ni Ni), who subdues the imp and brings it back to her clan.
Turns out that an unspeakable evil force is gathering, and already demons both trapped in the earth and comets are emerging to prepare for its arrival. While this is happening, Dragonfly's Wuyinmen clan hunts for their new leader, and clansman Zhuge Fengyun (Da Peng) sees hope in the form of Xiao Yuan (Zhou Dong Yu), a child-like waif locked up in a prison for an incurable disease. This flimsy urchin turns out (expectedly) to be their potential salvation.
While the film has lofty goals, featuring stunning sets and a plethora of characters, it's not something that impresses all that much.
First of all, the plot feels like its setting up too much for the sequel, with story nuggets dropped but never picked up. Even when it does, such as the painting or the powerful sword, questions are still left unanswered. All this might be considered a purposeful cliffhanger, but it's only a metre drop down. Without background or context, the tidbits answered with more jargon just leaves the audience uninvested in what's coming. Maybe if Hark and Yuan had spent more time in fleshing out the story than focusing on distractions like piddling jokes or abrupt titles, The Thousand Faces of Dunjia would have had a better chance at being exceptional.
There's also the matter of - the effects. CGI has come a long way, and even though Asian cinema has always struggled, in The Thousand Faces of Dunjia it's like the whole team gave up. The renderings are so awkward with the scenes they are in, you never obtain the full wonder it's meant to deliver. Blasphemously, they also ruined a lot of great action sequences. Half blocked by water serpents masquerading as blows, or fuzzy discs that spin so fast you can barely see what's the damage, the impact meant to be delivered landed like an apology from SMRT - unbelievable and detached.
I will say the production design is still as gorgeous as ever, and the colours are trademark Tsui. Lush and romantic, it will no doubt still engage the visual senses. The actors also do a decent job of filling up their personas, though Lee and Da Peng do stand out for their natural performances.
Hark's recent repertoire have received more box office success than critical acclaim, and it would seem that The Thousand Faces of Dunjia would continue that streak.
Kuang shou (2017)
With brutal visceral fights thanks to Li Chung-chi's direction and Zhang Jin's superb execution, 'The Brink' delivers the action as a straightforward gritty crime thriller
It may not carry the 'SPL' brand name, but Jonathan Li's filmmaking debut would have fitted right in not least because its action director Li Chung-chi was also responsible for the hard-hitting brawls in the middle instalment.
Here, both Lis have teamed up for a gritty crime thriller that uses the ocean and those who ply their trade in it as a unique thematic backdrop. At the heart of the story is a gold smuggling ring run by a crew of fishermen, masterminded by a Big Boss whose lair is a floating gambling cruise liner.
Among the crew is Jiang Gui Cheng (Shawn Yue), who early on the film is established as a cold-hearted mercenary. The adopted son of former ringleader Shui (Tai Po), Gui Cheng murders Shui's entitled son Sheng (Derek Tsang) by gutting him in front of his father after the latter tries to eliminate him. Shui gets to live a little longer only because he is the sole point of contact among the crew with Boss Kui (Yasuaki Kurata), and the former needs to locate Kui in order to ensure that he can properly usurp the lucrative illegal enterprise.
Pitted against Gui Cheng is the hot-headed cop Cheng Sai Gau (Zhang Jin), who in the film's opening minutes is seen taking down suspects like punching bags before letting one of them resisting arrest plunge several storeys to his death. Despite this, Sai Gau is supposed to be the film's moral centre, one whose ruthless ways are but service to a strict moral code that abhors greed and thinks that jail time is ultimately scant punishment for his accused's abhorrent acts.
Six months after getting suspended for unwittingly killing a fellow officer in the midst of that earlier drug bust, Sai Gau receives a tip from his erstwhile partner A-de (Wu Yue) about a possible smuggling operation at Ma Wan Village next to the sea, hence placing him in the crosshairs of Gui Cheng. Both are clearly pitted against each other as equals or to be more precise equally aggressive and what differentiates one from the other is simply which side of the law they are fighting on.
Like most such Hong Kong thrillers, the focus is on the elaborately choreographed action showpieces; and sure enough, they do not disappoint. From a one-against-many fight along a narrow alley, to a chase through a crowded indoor fish market in Jordan, to a one-on-one with a knife-wielding assassin in an open car park, to an underwater brawl, and last but not least a climactic three-way fight on board a fishing trawler in the middle of a raging storm, Li Chung-chi's direction keeps the action visceral and thrilling, complemented of course by Zhang Jin's martial arts prowess.
Oh yes, this is Zhang Jin's showcase through and through, the supporting star from 'The Grandmaster', 'SPL II: A Time for Consequences' and 'Ip Man 3' finally getting leading man status. To be sure, Zhang doesn't disappoint at all not only in terms of his moves but also in the acting department, by carrying the more mawkish moments with surprising conviction. On the other hand, Yue fares less encouragingly playing against type as a stony-faced villain, coming across somewhat stiff and bored. It doesn't help that he isn't and is not depicted as Zhang Jin's fighting equal in the movie, relying instead on a pocket harpoon gun to do his killing and Janice Man's underdeveloped assassin/ girlfriend to bail him out time and again.
These flaws are made more glaringly obvious in a script by Li Chun Fai (who also penned Soi Cheang's 'Dog Eat Dog' on which Jonathan Li was assistant director) that is all too content to let the fights take centre stage. There is not much by way of plot except as filler in between the action, and what is there appears too patently obvious like genre clichés you know that something bad will befall A-de when he keeps telling Sai Gau that he simply wants to lead a different life and go off to Europe on holiday; or that Sai Gau's boss Chan (Gordon Lam) whom he pays no heed to will eventually join forces with him but end up suffering some misfortune too. There is even less to say about characterisation or character development for that matter, especially given how clearly and perhaps simplistically the lines between hero (read: Sai Gau) and antagonist (read: Gui Cheng) are drawn.
And yet, if one simply focuses on the action, then there is little doubt that 'The Brink' does deliver. It deserves mention too that first-time director Li has a strong grasp of location setting, and together with veteran cinematographer Kenny Tse, makes great use of the grimy side of Hong Kong one wouldn't normally see (such as the remnants of its fishing trade and wet markets). It's not easy working with and on water, which only proves the effort Li and his crew took to get the underwater fight scene and the turbulent finale right. So even if the story and characters aren't as compelling as they could have been, fans of old-school action will still find a lot to love about this hard-hitting thriller. After all, in this day and age, such genre films are probably the hallmark of Hong Kong cinema.
Fireworks is significantly simple and dissatisfying in terms of plotting compared to the wondrous visuals displayed
Despite the baffling title, Fireworks, should we see if from the side or bottom? is very much a simplistic tale about two young star- crossed lovers with a magical gimmick thrown into the narrative. Though it's essentially a remake of a 50-minute live-action TV movie made in 1993 by Shunji Iwai (Love Letter), fans of last year's megahit, Your Name will be curious to check this one out.
Norimichi (Masaki Suda from Gintama) and Yusuke (Mamoru Miyano) are two best friends who both developed a crush on their classmate, Nazuna (Suzu Hirose from Let's Go, Jets!). With the intention of eloping with the one she loves on the night of the annual fireworks festival, Nazuna has quietly chosen Norimichi to be the fateful one. However, Nazuna's plan is thwarted by her mother and Yusuke until Norimichi figured out the only way to escape is to make use of the strange orb which Nazuna has picked up from the beach earlier.
Last summer, Makoto Shinkai's hit body-swapping, time-travelling animebrought a new viewing experience especially to non-anime fans. Your Name was funny, throughlyengaging from start to finish and utterly touching. No doubt, Fireworks attempt to embark on the same formula though this time, the narrative is tedious, repetitive and mostly frustrating to last a mere 90 minutes.
The title refers to a running gag by Norimichi and his group of class buddies, a pointless argument about whether fireworks are round or flat when see from the side. It's very much a side gag just like the one about their form teacher's bust and her underground relationship with a fellow colleague. The gist of the story revolves around Nazuna, the torn teenager who refused to move to a new place with her mother who is remarrying for the third time.
The strange magical orb is an unexplained gimmick or device to allow Norimichi to relive the day with Nazuna else there wouldn't be much of a story to tell. By throwing the orb into the air, Norimichi is able to turn back time and changed their ending. The time spent with Norimichi and Nazuna however happened to be the most meaningful aspect of the anime as we get to learn more about the struggle and backstory of Nazuna, an angst teenager who dreams of leaving her current state to be a pop idol and wondering if she is following in her mother's shoes as she eloped with Norimichi.
Unfortunately, the narrative makes little effort to delve more into it and instead of giving the story a more rounded emotion feel, the anime is contend in delivering outstanding visual and breathtaking effects and colours especially during the fireworks climax. It's definitely a good thing for SHAFT Studio which is renowned for their acclaimed technicalities though not anyone will appreciate the blending of 3D objects and traditional 2D animation.
After two recent satisfying animes, Your Name and A Silent Voice, Fireworks turned out unexpectedly to be a huge disappointment. Suzu Hirose is pefect as the voice of Nazuna, Masaki Suda on the other hand sounds way mature for a junior high student. I for one have no problem with the sometimes photo-realistic often visually striking animation and the mesmerizing theme song by DAOKO. It's the somewhat disjointed and unfulfilled message that disappoints.
Justice League (2017)
Fun, amusing, charming, thrilling and with moments of unexpected poignancy, 'Justice League' kicks off the league of DC superheroes on a rousing high
'Justice League' marks the culmination of an unofficial trilogy that began with the flawed but fascinating 'Man of Steel' and continued with the ponderous but polarizing 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice'. Unfortunately for DC, the deck was stacked against it from the beginning of this 'Avengers'-style teamup not only did critical and commercial derision of 'BvS' force a change in tone from the grim grandiosity of its predecessor, a personal tragedy led its director Zack Synder to step away late into production, with Joss Whedon stepping in to punch up the banter as well as complete post- production work on the film. Both considerations will certainly colour fans' perception of 'JL', though if one is prepared to set aside these biases and comparisons with this-and-that Marvel and/or DC comic-book movie that's come before it, you'll find a fun, charming and even uplifting movie at its core.
In Synder's trademark style, the opening credits set to the Leonard Cohen/ Sharon Robinson classic 'Everybody Knows' reminds us of Superman's (Henry Cavill) passing via a headline in an old issue of the Gotham Free Press. His absence has left Batman (Ben Affleck) dealing not just with the lowly criminals on the street but also the possibility of a more malevolent evil, whose impending appearance is heralded by its scouts of winged metallic vampire-like creatures. Halfway around the planet, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is dealing with a London besieged by anarchists looking to take advantage of Superman's death; although when a huge fire goes off at the ancient Statue of the Amazonians, she similarly realizes that a much more powerful force of destruction may be imminent.
So the pair set off to recruit the titular league of superheroes the fully tattooed Aquaman (Jason Momoa) from the tiny Iceland town of Djupavik; the haunted half-man, half-machine Cyborg (Ray Fisher); and last but not least the glib-tongued but even more lightning-paced The Flash (Ezra Miller). These three characters are appearing in DC's Extended Universe for the first time, and co-writers Chris Terrio and Whedon ensure that they all get due emphasis amidst the ensemble. Including Batman and Wonder Woman, each one of these characters have to face up to their respective inner demons before confronting the supervillian Steppenwolf (an unrecognizable Ciaran Hinds) and his army of Parademons Batman has to get over his guilt of indirectly causing Superman's death; Wonder Woman is still reeling inside from the death of her one true love Steve Trevor (remember Chris Pine from this summer's 'Wonder Woman'?); Aquaman has to overcome his fear of isolation in order to work with the team; Cyborg has to deal with the angst from being a living abomination; and The Flash has to conquer fear of his own inexperience in the heat of battle.
Truth be told, it was never going to be easy bringing each one of these superheroes into the same movie without diluting their own distinctive identities, personalities and idiosyncrasies, or for that matter without coming over as a jumble of five or six mini-movies, but Synder (no doubt with assist from Whedon) manages to do so not just coherently but even compellingly. This isn't a dark Batman movie, nor a sunny Wonder Woman movie, but one perfectly balanced on hope, gravitas and gloom.
Oh yes, unlike the out-and-out circus act that was 'Thor: Ragnarok', 'JL' mixes comedy, drama and action deftly so that it never sacrifices one for the other. There is humour and fun in the way the superheroes riff each other; there is drama in the tussle between the characters about how far they are willing to go in the name of expediency versus ethics (hint: it's about bringing Superman back to life); and there are a couple of electrifying action sequences, including one set within the cavernous tunnels underneath Gotham Harbour where they first get a taste of Steppenwolf's might and the CGI-heavy finale where the complete alliance (yes, including the Man of Steel himself) get to demonstrate their individual powers as well as what they are capable of when they finally learn to work together as a team. You'll find plenty of cheer-worthy moments whether you're a fan or a casual viewer, and even some surprising poignancy from the emotional reunion between Superman and his family.
Credit for that goes to Synder/Whedon and to the A-list actors/actresses that have become invaluable to the DCEU Affleck as Batman is front and centre of course, but his overbearing bitterness in 'BvS' is now moderated by purpose and even optimism; Gadot is as magnetic and in command of her role as ever, and fans need not be worried that she is playing second fiddle here; Momoa is a vibrant larger-than-life presence who will leave you looking forward to his solo outing next Christmas; and Miller is a delightful mix of earnestness, enthusiasm and naiveté.
We'll be honest that we're completely disgusted by the vitriol that some critics have heaped onto 'JL' one calls it a 'big, bloated, superhero mess' that we think is motivated by their utter bias against the DCEU than any objective basis of assessment. In fact, we enjoyed 'JL' a lot more than we expected, and that's not because we had low expectations to begin with. It's too tempting to try to reinvent the superhero genre what with the current and upcoming deluge of comic-book movies, but this is a perfect example of how not to lose your raison de'etre in the process. Sure there are generous (and we may add, genuine) laughs here, but never at the expense of diminishing the mission and/or stakes of saving the world. Ignore all the naysayers 'JL' concludes the trilogy and kicks off a new league of superheroes (and supervillains, though you'll have to stay till the end of the credits to know what this means) on a rousing high.
Ah Boys to Men 4 (2017)
Not nearly as accomplished as its immediate predecessor, this slapdash follow-up still boasts poignant moments that will resonate with any and every NSman
Thanks to the commemoration of 50 years of National Service, Singapore's favourite band of brothers is back to remind NSFs, NSmen and the rest of the Singapore resident population just how fundamental NS is to the survival of the nation. Oh yes, make no mistake, the 'Ah Boys to Men' (ABTM) films were first and foremost great PR for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and its mission to ensure peace and security, but under Singapore's most commercially successful director Jack Neo's hands, they have also become an opportunity for anyone and everyone who has gone through NS to reminisce about their own one-of- a-kind life-changing experience, as well as to compare notes on the evolution of the NS experience through the years.
Like the previous chapter, this sequel is only a continuation from the earlier films in the loosest sense of the word. The cast, characters and their personalities remain the same among them, Joshua Tan's self-absorbed Ken Chow, Maxi Lim's earnest and eager-to- please Aloysius Jin, Wang Weiliang's street-smart Lobang King, Noah Yap's brash IP Man, and last but not least Tosh Zhang's stern but caring platoon sergeant Alex Ong but their vocations have been entirely switched out (surely you weren't expecting them to go from 'frogmen' to Armour troops?). Neo has also added here Ryan Lian's stoic Keng Long, Ben Logan Sng's arrogant C E Oh (he is also Alex's boss at work get it?) and two token minority characters played by Hafiz Aziz and Kishan J. who deserve way more screen time than they get. Except for Lobang (whom you can count on to deliver the wise- cracks) and Alex (who gets a thankless side plot involving his loving grandmother's efforts to find him a girlfriend), the rest are intended as stock types of the kinds of people you meet in army, so there is even less character development here than in any of the earlier three movies.
While the first two movies were structured around the ten-week Basic Military Training and the third around the Naval Diving Unit training, this one is built around a two-week In-Camp Training (ICT) or more accurately, the fourth such call-up for SGT Alex and his men. Within that, Neo and his co-writer Ivan Ho build the narrative around three issues one, the cavalier attitude that NSmen bring to their ICT training; two, the commitments that NSmen need to juggle outside of camp (i.e. work and family) during ICT; and three, the 'culture shock' that NSmen would probably have to adjust to if they were under the authority of a female officer, played here by Apple Chan's by-the- books LTA Zhuang Xinyi.
Even with a generous two-plus hour runtime, these are hefty themes to juggle at the same time, and true enough, the storytelling doesn't flow as coherently or as fluently as it should. In particular, the character dynamics are somewhat awkward and unwieldy a disagreement that starts between IP Man and Keng Long that escalates to involve Lobang is too easily resolved; IP Man's sexist bias against LTA Zhuang plays out in cartoonish ways and comes to a head in a contrived kickboxing match; and last but not least, Ken's conflict with Aloysius is re-ignited then doused all too conveniently after an unfortunate encounter with a swarm of bees. Notwithstanding, Neo does manage some poignant moments, such as the display of brotherhood that eventually wins over LTA Zhuang and the latter's own professionalism that eventually wins the respect of the men.
More significantly, ABTM4 offers a never-before-seen display of SAF armour drills, outfield training and firepower on the big screen. To be fair to Neo, it would not have been possible to construct a hypothetical war scenario in order to show the full tactical response of our armoured regiment (you can imagine for reasons of sensitivity why the SAF would not agree to that at all), but there is enough that he tries to demonstrate within a highly abbreviated 'war game' to impress. It should however be said that those looking forward to watching the tanks deployed in urban warfare (which, to be fair, the promotion for the movie had teased) would be sorely disappointed, as these scenes are left to an epilogue that is honestly redundant and pointless. Where he has been given leeway and which he does capitalise to the movie's advantage is to film within the confined interiors of an actual SAF armoured vehicle, capturing intimately the sweat, discomfort and even claustrophobia of the men squeezed shoulder to shoulder inside.
Yet coming after the series high-water mark of ABTM3: The Frogmen, this succeeding instalment is more than a little underwhelming. Sure, Neo has gotten better at weaving the inevitable (and copious) product placements into the story, but apart from that and the novelty from watching our SAF armoured vehicles in action, everything else feels like an inferior rehash from the earlier trilogy. We've seen the personality conflicts done better, we've seen their camaraderie expressed much more stirringly, and we've heard the PSAs in every one of the past three movies before. The chemistry between the boys is still just as infectious, but the unfortunately scattershot plotting and the clumsy character work make ABTM4 a disappointing sequel on the whole. Because NS is so close to people's hearts, there will be bits that resonate with the male citizen demographic, and in that regard and that regard alone, ABTM4 has just about enough reason to justify its otherwise superfluous existence.
Only the Brave (2017)
Brimming with heart, spirit and emotion, this character-driven portrait of real-life bravery is a deeply moving tribute to its ordinary heroes
The elite group of firefighters known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots came into national prominence because all but one of them perished in the deadly Yarnell Hill Fire of June 2013, thus marking the highest death toll for US firefighters since 9/11. But this portrait of a fraternity of men who risk their lives day-in and day- out containing fast-spreading wildfires is much, much more than just that fateful incident alone. Oh no, as adapted for the screen from a harrowing GQ article by Ken Nolan ('Black Hawk Down') and Eric Warren Singer ('American Hustle'), it is a celebration of ordinary, sometimes- flawed men doing extraordinary things that pays homage to their indomitable courage and self-sacrifice, but never does turn reverent to the point of idolatry. These are men with real struggles and issues of their own, and in portraying these alongside their heroism, this well-rounded tribute becomes all the more compelling and poignant.
When we first meet these firefighters, they are no more than a municipal squad doing Type II fire mitigation duty, viz. clearing brush and burning firelines relatively far from the danger itself. That diminished status is a sore point for their superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), who implores the division chief and close confidant Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) to get them certified as 'hotshots'. That journey to cherished Type I status will see Eric recruit a bunch of newbies to augment their numbers, including the local screw-up Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) looking for a chance to straighten his life out not only will Eric have to ensure that Eric does not end up becoming their Achilles heel, he will also have to manage the dynamics between Brendan and fellow hot-blooded member Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch). Thus sets the stage for a good number of scenes which show how the men train committing rules to memory, conducting deploy drills and creating control burns which will pay off in unexpected ways in giving context of what the men will be doing in the heat of duty.
That they will be recognised as top-tier firemen is no surprise, but it is how the relationships between these men evolve that is truly engaging to watch. There is plenty of camaraderie to go around, built up over months of training together and fighting fire alongside each other, such that Brendan and Chris will just overcome their initial enmity but become best buddies in a way that feels completely authentic. Due focus is also given to the families of these men, in particular Eric's fierce but loving relationship with his strong- willed wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) as well as Brendan's strained relationship with the girl whom he got pregnant and their baby daughter. In fact, the film is as much homage to the men as it is honouring their wives and children who endure long stretches of their absence and persistent anxiety over their safety and wellbeing. Deserving of special mention are the emotionally charged scenes between Eric and Amanda, which not only portray the complexities of being in a marriage with someone so consumed by a profession that may one day claim his very life, but also later on underline the unavoidably profound grief felt by his subsequent demise.
Just as he does with the characters, director Joseph Kosinski keeps the firefighting footage real and authentic. Unlike other such genre films, there is no attempt to inflate or sensationalise the scale and intensity of these conflagrations; instead, each one is approached by the crew in an almost routine fashion a call for help, a long ride out in their vehicles where they sing songs and trade jokes, and an equanimity on the ground borne out of skill, confidence and professionalism much in the way that any one of us would our day- to-day work, with the notable distinction of course being how extremely dangerous each one of these missions is. Combining actual fire, special effects and CGI, the five different blazes we see on screen showcase the stunning and terrible beauty of fire, each one magnificently captured by Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda.
But more than the visual spectacle of the blazes is the brotherhood of the unit, the bonds between the men forged over sweat and soot. It is their camaraderie, their true-to-life challenges and their bravery, determination and perseverance that will stay with you long after the lights come on. Each one of the actors that make up the stellar acting ensemble portraying these real-life heroes puts in some of his or her best work we have seen, no more so than Brolin, who anchors the film as the strong-willed leader with dignity, gravitas and pathos. You'll already know right from the start that there is no happy ending for these men, not even the only one among them who survives out of pure luck and is therefore saddled with a profound sense of guilt, but their eventual fate still hits you like a blast. This is as befitting a homage as it gets to these ordinary men, deeply moving, immensely affecting and thoroughly realistic.
Never Say Die (2017)
Not quite as consistently and refreshingly funny as their 2015 runway hit, Mahua Fun Age's spiritual follow-up nevertheless boasts some good laugh-out-loud moments
Allen Ai Lun and Ma Li may not be immediately recognisable names as say Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan or even Donnie Yen and Andy Lau, but the duo from the stage comedy troupe Mahua Fun Age handily beat their other celebrity counterparts to claim the box-office crown over China's lucrative Golden Week holiday with their latest outrageous body-swap comedy.
Based upon their 2014 play of the same name, the premise has Ai Lun's disgraced MMA fighter Edison switching bodies with Ma Li's sharp- tongued sports journalist Maxia following a personal confrontation that results in them locking lips while falling into a rooftop swimming pool one stormy evening. It isn't the most original conceit we'll give you that in fact, their earlier 2015 box-office hit 'Goodbye Mr Loser' had also employed a similar premise but within the same person's younger and older selves but spirited performances from both actors make this slapstick-driven laugh-fest mostly enjoyable from start to finish.
Broadly structured into three parts, the first third trades in the sort of gender-bending laughs you would expect from its very setup. Instead of the elegant sophistication we see in the first few scenes, Maxiao transforms into a loud, boorish and even tomboyish figure; on the other hand, Edison loses his self-confident poise and becomes an effeminate coward you'd love to dislike. Both actors do the obligatory coming-to-terms-with-their-predicament scenes with great comic timing a montage that sees them return to where it started with taser batons in a vain attempt to reverse the course of lightning is thigh- slapping hilarious; so is another sequence where Edison exploits the gender of his physical body to enter a female- only spa for his own personal amusement.
Not all though is played for laughs; not only will Maxiao get to learn the less-than-savoury secrets of her MMA champion of a fiancée Wu Liang (Xue Haowen), she will also realise how she has been unwittingly complicit in his deceitful plan three years ago to ruin the reputation of then up-and-coming fighter Edison after intentionally breaking his left arm during their match.
Oh yes, it becomes clear early on that Wu Liang will be their mutual enemy, and to prepare herself I mean, himself to defeat Wu Liang in the ring, Edison will take the advice of his fight promoter Ma Dong (Tian Yu) and journey up to the mountain to find the master of the reclusive Curtain Lotus kung fu sect.
As convention would have it, their subsequent training with the Vice Master (Teng Shen) will involve seemingly ridiculous acts such as engaging in a staring death match with a hawk (that will last a couple of sleepless days and nights), attempting to slot flyers onto speeding vehicles along an expressway (hint: it doesn't go on the windscreen), and last but not least deflecting two different types of coloured fish left and right with one's palms while standing in the middle of a stream (ok, this one's pretty clear that it's about the reflexes). The middle act with its 'mo lei tau' jokes feels like it belongs better in a Stephen Chow comedy, but there are a couple of good bits here amidst an otherwise unnecessarily extended and altogether less than engaging detour into the wilderness.
In contrast, the final third sees the plotting go almost into overdrive, what with Edison staging a stunning comeback through a series of knockout wins to earn the climactic match against Wu Liang and the latter countering in his usual conniving ways in order to 'fix' his showdown with Edison. That piece de resistance set in the heart of Macau's glamorous Studio City is quite thrillingly choreographed and staged, though purposely engineered to milk our audience sympathy for Edison before his expected triumph.
There are hardly any laughs to be found in this last stretch, which is supposed to drive home the message encapsulated in its title especially in the last two fights, Edison gets plenty of bruising, battering and bloodying, but never yet yields to his opponent through sheer grit and inner steel. It must be said though that while the narrative certainly intended for him to be a formidable fighter, Allen's consistently less-than-muscular physique means that there is a fundamental disbelief about his competency vis-à-vis clearly more well-toned challengers.
Compared therefore to 'Goodbye Mr Loser', their spiritual follow-up is somewhat less entertaining, no thanks to a strong start that is subsequently undermined by a sluggish middle and an overcompensating finish. There is punch and pace to the jokes and storytelling at the start, but first-time directors Song Yang and Zhang Chiyu seem unsure how to sustain the energy for the film's entire length, eventually resorting to the sort of low-brow farcical humour that cheapens the movie and feels rather incongruous with its other true-to-life parts and by that, we don't mean the jokes where you know for sure were made squarely with the Mainland Chinese audience in mind (much like how some of the gags in our Jack Neo comedies won't resonate with a non-Singaporean audience).
Like we said at the start, it is Ai Lun and Ma Li's lively performances that ultimately sustain the film, especially in playing against gender stereotype following their body-swap. It hardly is a winner like their previous 2015 runaway hit, but neither is it a loser by any measure, so if you're in the need for some broad laughs, this should do the trick.
Chui lung (2017)
Featuring Donnie Yen in his most significant acting breakthrough since 'Ip Man', this compelling gangster drama is his and Wong Jing's best in a long while
Just when you've come to hate him more than love him for truly frustrating duds such as 'From Vegas to Macau 3' and 'Mission Milano', Hong Kong's most prolific filmmaker Wong Jing compels you to take him seriously once again with the best gangster drama we've seen in a long while.
Written, produced and co-directed by Wong Jing, his latest period epic charts the rise and fall of two of Hong Kong's most infamous real- life characters from the 60s and 70s the one-time most powerful drug lord in Hong Kong Ng Sik-ho (or better known as 'Crippled Ho') and the notoriously corrupt detective Lui Lok (or otherwise known as 'Lee Rock').
Perhaps because he had already previously told Lee Rock's story, Wong Jing anchors this movie around Sik-ho (Donnie Yen), who first steps foot in Hong Kong in 1960 as an illegal immigrant from Chaozhou with his three buddies (Philip Keung, Wilfred Lau and Kang Yu) and younger brother Peter (Jonathan Lee). Although engaged in odd jobs, the quartet find more lucrative means of employment by being paid to make up the numbers in street fights. One such fight is that purportedly between rivalling triad heads Comic (Jason Wong) and Grizzly Bear (Ricky Yi). Unfortunately, the fight turns ugly with the arrival of the riot police led by the British Superintendent Hunter (Bryan Larkin), and before the night is over, Sik-ho ends up in a run-in with the arrogant and supercilious 'gwei-lo'.
All that is witnessed by Lee Rock (Andy Lau) and his right-hand man Piggy (Kent Cheng), who spies Sik-ho's superior fighting skills and decides to recruit him and his buddies while they are in lock-up. As circumstances would have it, in order to save one of his buddies caught stealing from mafia boss Bro Chubby (Ben Ng), Sik-ho will end up working too for the former, running his drug business within the legendary Kowloon Walled City.
It is within this hotbed of lawlessness that Lee will venture into one day. Things go south obviously, and the subsequent turn of events binds Sik-ho and Lee in a complex brotherhood embrace Sik-ho springs to Lee's rescue but ends up caught in the crosshairs of another parallel ambush sprung by Sir Ngan in collusion with Chubby. In the ensuing scuffle, Chubby breaks Sik-ho's right leg as punishment, thus birthing a hardened and even more driven 'Crippled Ho' upon his discharge from hospital.
Sik-ho's transformation comes at the midway point, and it is in the second hour that he truly comes into his own. Not only does he resist Lee's manoeuvres to alter the state of play, Sik-ho takes matters into his own hands against Lee's better advice in order to exact his own vendetta against Superintendent Hunter. There is a lot of plot crammed into a slightly-past-two-hour runtime, but its machinations consistently revolve around the dynamic between Sik-ho and Lee; an especially poignant scene near the end has a visibly embittered Sik- ho pointing out squarely to Lee the personal costs and consequences of the latter's actions over the decade plus on the both of them, and the duo coming to recognise how little of life, death, or anything in between they can truly control.
Oh yes, the movie is equal parts plot and character-driven, and Wong Jing's (rare) achievement is how he balances both perfectly to deliver a sprawling but constantly spellbinding account of the fates and fortunes of his two key male protagonists. Due credit also goes to his co-director cum director-of-photography Jason Kwan, who not only brings a vivid cinematic feel to the visuals but also imposes rigour in crafting and building up several pivotal sequences, both of which are too often lost on a frequently sloppy Wong Jing.
More prominently, 'Chasing the Dragon' has been sold as a showcase of Donnie Yen's acting chops, and sure enough, Yen doesn't disappoint; in fact, as Sik-ho, Yen probably makes the most significant breakthrough of his career since 'Ip Man'. His portrayal of Sik-ho is understated, nuanced and impressively authentic, especially in depicting his character's transformation from underdog to kingpin. Yen and Lau don't share as many scenes together as we'd have liked, but the duo have great chemistry when they do, embodying the genuine camaraderie between their characters as well as the seeds of distrust, suspicion and resentment sowed by their own respective ambitions, egos and greed.
It should also be said that this gangster tale is always careful not to glorify its socially deviant protagonists principally for fear of running afoul of Chinese censors and is therefore less unhinged than the early 90s flicks of Sik-ho and/or Lee. In fact, Yen and Lau aren't playing so much criminals as they are anti-heroes, so not only are there redeeming qualities about their characters in this movie, both will come in an epilogue set thirty years later to realise and regret the folly of their ways. Yet these politically (and commercially) savvy considerations aside, Wong Jing's latest is still a solid and solidly entertaining example of the genre that is bloody, violent and thrilling.
Indeed, there is much to enjoy in this period gangster epic, from the storytelling to the characters to the actors and as well to the richly detailed sets of Tsim Sha Tsui, Wan Chai and Kowloon Walled City. This dragon is one you won't mind chasing from start to finish, and we guarantee you it will leave you on a visceral high.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)
Even more over-the-top than its predecessor, this overlong and overstuffed 'Kingsman' sequel still offers plenty of fun but is also a lot more cartoonish and a lot less lively
As is typical for a sequel of this nature, 'Kingsman: The Golden Circle' succumbs to the tendency to do everything its predecessor did bigger, louder and wilder.
That pretty much sums up the rollicking car chase scene which kicks off the movie, as our teenage protagonist Eggsy (Taron Edgerton) finds himself attacked by a former turncoat Kingsman agent Charlie (Edward Holcroft) whom he thought had perished. Besides their close- quarter skirmish in the back of a retrofitted London cab careening down the streets of London at night, Eggsy also finds himself shot at by heavily armed gunmen on three other vehicles, which he eventually takes out with a trio of miniature missiles in the middle of a park.
Soon after, the entire Kingsman is nearly wiped out, save for Eggsy and his handy tech guru Merlin (Mark Strong), triggering the so- called 'doomsday' protocol that has both of them travelling to Kentucky to seek the help of their US counterpart called the Statesmen. There is now not one but two espionage organisations, and consequently a surfeit of secret agents joining the fold, including Statesmen head Champagne (Jeff Bridges), trigger-happy Tequila (Channing Tatum), tech nerd Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) and Burt Reynolds-style Western hero Whiskey (Pedro Pascal). Oh yes, the other audience favourite Harry Hart (Colin Firth) whom was shot point-blank in the head in the first movie is back too, courtesy of a McGuffin that inadvertently sucks any sense of real-life peril from the proceedings.
But then again, the same can be said of the cartoonish villain this time round a nefarious drug kingpin named Poppy (Julianne Moore) who lives in her '50s 'Happy Days' vision of Middle America, complete with movie house, hair salon and diner, right in the heart of a remote Cambodian jungle village she calls 'Poppy Land'. Using her global domination of the drug business, she threatens to kill millions of people infected by her poisoned 'weed' unless the US President (Bruce Greenwood) legalises drugs. The caricature doesn't stop there; she has two killer robot dogs to protect her as well as a kidnapped Elton John (no kidding!) for her own entertainment/ amusement. It's silly all right and even more kiddish than before, notwithstanding Poppy's penchant for turning her disloyal subjects into cheeseburger filling using a heavy-duty industrial meat-grinder.
There is indeed a lot going on at the same time on top of taking down Poppy and her henchman Charles, Eggsy has to contend with a somewhat off-form Harry who doesn't quite have the same aim, reflexes and worse, occasionally experiences fluttery butterfly hallucinations (before he chose military service, Harry had ambition to be a lepidopterist); a third-act turn also has Harry suspecting that Agent Whiskey has been working against them all along; and last but not least, a US President who has schemed to let millions of infected people, including his own Chief of Staff (Emily Watson), perish in order to fulfil his personal agenda of ending the war on drugs in one fell swoop. Yet even at close to two-and-a-half-hours, director Matthew Vaughn and his long-time screen writing collaborator Jane Goldman struggle to tie all the strands together compellingly, resulting therefore in a narrative that has a lot of ideas spinning around but not quite cohering fully with one another.
That many characters and story lines also means less time for Eggsy or for that matter, Eggsy and Merlin as well as Eggsy and Harry, the sum of which arguably gave the first movie genuine poignancy alongside its madcap action. Without a similarly robust emotional anchor, Vaughn predictably ratchets up the scale and tempo of the big action set-pieces, although none quite matches the same breath-taking audacity as the piece de resistance from the previous movie (remember the church massacre?). There is a bar fight which sees Agent Whiskey teach some sneering local troublemakers a lesson with his electric lasso (which is intentionally reminiscent of an iconic sequence in the last movie when Harry was in much better shape), followed by a wild shootout at a deserted lodge high up in the snowy Italian mountainside (which is also intentionally reminiscent of the classic James Bond flick 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'), and finally the climactic showdown at Poppy Land that sees Eggsy and Harry (with Elton as an unlikely ally, no less) confront their arch nemesis and her array of gadgets. To be sure, Vaughn hasn't lost his imagination, verve or irreverence in the able blend of high-octane action and tongue-in-cheek humour, and these aggressively stylised sequences are undoubtedly the highlight of the film and worth the price of admission alone; but the generous use of blood and gore doesn't disguise the fact that the loss of danger diminishes the thrill and edge in the original.
If therefore your intent is to enjoy more of the same stylistic pizazz which Vaughn brought to the breathless fight scenes, then 'Kingsman: The Golden Circle' will surely satisfy not only in its audacious defiance of the law of physics but also in its signature trick of making them sequences look like one single, long, unbroken shot. As with its predecessor, this sequel is firmly rooted in Vaughn's vision of the Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons' comic-book series as an over-the-top James Bond pastiche that cranks up the graphic violence while retaining the classic spy franchise's classy air of sophistication. To be sure, we never expected the sequel to feel as fresh and original as its predecessor, but by trying to do so, it inadvertently turns what made it unique into sheer overkill, further exacerbated by a bloated plot that feels busy yet laboured at the same time. It is still plenty of fun all right, but it is nowhere as exciting, lively or distinctive as its claim to fame.
Utter bullshit masquerading as art, allegory or whatever excuse some deluded critics are calling it, 'Mother!' is a loathsome exercise in self-indulgence
I'll be honest I f**king hated 'Mother!', and by that I mean I absolutely loathed it. If you thought 'Black Swan' was pretentious, well you haven't yet seen writer-director Darren Aronofsky's latest self-aggrandizing piece of 'artistic filmmaking'.
The titular character is never named, and as played by Jennifer Lawrence, is the adoring wife of an also unnamed middle-aged poet referred to as 'Him' (Javier Bardem) stuck in writer's block. They live in a gorgeous octagonal Victorian mansion, which she is painstakingly renovating. We find out later that the house was burned down in a fire which consumed her husband's first wife, and that he had pulled from the ashes a burnished crystal which he now displays proudly in his study.
Then out of the blue, a stranger (Ed Harris) turns up at their doorstep. He says he's an orthopaedic surgeon who's looking for a place to stay, and that he had mistaken their house for a bed-and- breakfast. To her horror, 'Him' invites the 'man' to stay; and by the next day, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, followed by their two quarrelling sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson). Before the day is over, one son will bludgeon and accidentally kill the other, resulting in a pool of blood on the wooden floorboards that she will scrub clean save for a patch shaped in a vagina.
It doesn't take a genius to see the parallel with the Cain and Abel story in the Bible, or the 10 plagues that make a brief appearance one by one. Those familiar with Aronofosky will know that he has been fascinated with Christianity from his first feature 'Pi' to 'Noah' to 'The Fountain', Aronofsky has consistently drawn allegories and imagery from Biblical stories. 'Mother!' is no different, but there is no coherence, no logic and no purpose in his references here.
The anything-goes, anyhow-told narrative has unwelcome strangers turning up at her house to mourn the death of the 'man's' son, an unleashing of pent-up passion between her and 'Him', her unexpected pregnancy afterwards that lets her morph into the Virgin Mary, her husband's sudden inspiration and overnight success, the arrival of cult followers that want to use her newborn son as blood sacrifice, and last but not least plenty of sectarian wars and conflict that culminate in a full cycle of destruction and reincarnation. Only those enamoured with 'bullshit' will think that revealing any of these unexpected twists and turns amounts to 'spoilers'; but really, it's a lot of shock-and-awe wrapped around a bastardisation of notable Biblical tales for absolutely nothing.
Indeed, even more absurd than the movie itself is how some have tried so strenuously to justify its nonsense. One reading has it as an allegory for the abuse of Mother Earth, a warning for climate change; another explains how it describes the process by which art is created and how the artist eventually becomes a slave to that art; another talks about how some men have treated their women in marriage, reducing them to supporting roles and robbing them of agency and respect. Neither of these interpretations disguises the fact that the movie is a haphazard mess of ideas that never amounts to anything substantial or compelling.
Why then should we put up with its misogyny? Why then should we put up with the overwrought delirium that just gets more and more sickening? Or more fundamentally, why should we even care about what's happening on screen? Not even Lawrence, or Bardem, or Harris, or Pfeiffer can add depth to their characters, which are so thinly written that we wonder why the actors even bothered. And therein lies the stark truth about the madness we are supposed to discern as an expression of profound ideas there is simply nothing behind it, no meaning, no wit and certainly no redemption.
'Mother!' is the sad product of an artist's self-indulgence taken to its own grotesque extremes. It is no art, it is no genius, and it is definitely no masterpiece, despite critics caught up in the same pretension will try to convince you. If you're curious about why we hated it so much, then go see it by all means; otherwise, stay away from this motherf**king disaster.
Sha po lang: taam long (2017)
Every bit as fast, furious and fierce as its predecessors, this third 'SPL' installment is a great action thriller itself and a worthy addition to the series
The 'SPL: Sha Po Lang' brand in Hong Kong action cinema has come to stand for brutal, bone-crunching action in such memorable duels as Donnie Yen and Wu Jing's alleyway brawl in the 2005 original, Yen and Sammo Hung's mano-a-mano on a nightclub stage in the same, and more recently Wu Jing, Tony Jaa and Zhang Jin's fight-to-the-death in the 2015 sequel.
'Paradox', the third in the 'SPL' canon, continues that grand tradition with director Wilson Yip returning at the helm and Hung as action director. Both franchise veterans ensure that the fights are just as fast, furious and fierce as their first film, but only judiciously bloody, so that the bloodletting never comes off as excessive. Among the highlights here are a daytime scuffle in an open bar that is followed by a breathless chase down Bangkok's busy streets, a close-quarter skirmish in a flat that continues into the dilapilated apartment building's corridor and onto its crowded rooftop, and last but not least a no-holds-barred showdown in a meat depot that is also a front for a mortuary of an illegal organ trafficking business. Each one of these action set-pieces are meticulously choreographed and beautifully executed, which is also credit to its stars Louis Koo, Wu Yue, Chris Collins and Jaa.
Besides Jaa, the rest are not quite as well-known for their martial arts skills, but the training, practice and hard work that each one has put in is clearly evident. In particular, Koo's months of intensive training have paid off tremendously especially in the extended climax, which sees his character turn absolutely badass on tens of baddies successively in a vengeful rampage. Yue also proves quite the revelation; better known for his roles in Mainland TV drama serials than in movies (remember him in Police Story 2013?), the actor who holds a National Martial Arts Championship grade in wushu is less showy than his predecessors Yen and Wu but is no less precise or ferocious than them. Notwithstanding, you should know that Koo and Yue's top billing here isn't misleading; whereas Jaa took centrestage alongside his Chinese stars in the last movie, his presence here is no more than a glorified cameo and it should also be said that his absence is sorely felt, given that his one-on-one rooftop fight with Collins is arguably the most breathtaking sequence in the entire movie.
To Yip's credit, as much as the fighting is the movie's top draw, it never becomes its raison d'être but in service of the overall narrative. In that regard, all three movies have been thematically related, based upon the Chinese title's astrological reference of three individuals whose position relative to one another signified death and destruction. Here, these three are Hong Kong detective Lee Chung-chi (Koo), who has arrived in Bangkok to search for his missing teenage daughter (Hanna Chan); local Thai-Chinese cop Chui Kit (Yue), who has a six-month pregnant wife and whose father-in-law is the police commissioner Chai (Vithaya Pansringarm); and political aide Cheng Hon-Sau (Gordon Lam), who will resort to any means necessary to get an urgent heart transplant for the ailing Bangkok mayor in order to sustain the latter's re-election bid. Caught up in the ensuing melee is Chui Kit's fellow police colleagues Kit (Jaa) and Ban (Ken Low) as well as the leader of an illegal organ trafficking syndicate Sacha (Collins).
It isn't hard to guess just how the characters are connected to one another, but returning series writer Jill Leung builds the story nicely to have us empathise with Chi's desperation, grief and vengeance as a single father at the loss of his beloved daughter. Just as visceral is the sense of powerlessness he feels against the corruption of those more powerful than him, so much so that despite responding in shockingly vicious ways, our sympathies remain firmly with him and his fists. More so than the earlier two movies, the storytelling here is a lot more fluid, confident and propulsive, good enough at least for us to overlook some of the obvious coincidences (like how Chui Kit and Tak's vehicles seem to agree not to start one after another so both can end up at the same place at the same time).
So really, 'Paradox' is as solid an hard-boiled action thriller as it gets. The plotting is not just functional, endeavouring and largely succeeding to tell a story about karma, retribution and reconciliation. The acting is solid, each one of the performances a strong emotional anchor for the flawed characters whose relationships next to one another are defined by their respective choices and consequences. And perhaps most importantly to its fans, the action is as awesome as its predecessors, the fisticuffs often white-knuckle intense. This is as raw and real as it gets, set entirely against appropriately grimy backdrops in Thailand. As far as the 'SPL' canon is concerned, 'Paradox' is as fitting and satisfying an entry as it deserves, demonstrating not only that there is life yet to the series but that it is very much alive, kicking and definitive to Hong Kong action cinema itself.
Xia dao lian meng (2017)
The locations are exotic, the cast is pleasing, and the heists slick and exciting; 'The Adventurers' is good for some breezy but forgettable escapist fun
As far as caper/ heist films are concerned, 'The Adventurers' is a breezy, enjoyable but ultimately unremarkable entry to the genre. All the trademark elements are here the exotic European locations that span Cannes, Prague and Kiev; the impressive high-tech gizmos to override the most sophisticated security systems as well as to get into places no human could ever fit into; and last but not least the code of honour among thieves, which not only drives the narrative but also defines the relationship between our central trio played by Andy Lau, Tony Yang and Shu Qi yet director and co-writer Stephen Fung's Chinese makeover of a classic Hollywood staple comes off too familiar and predictable by the time it is done with its double-crosses and shootouts.
The story begins with Lau's career thief Dan Zhang after a five-year stint in prison for stealing the prized 'Eye of the Forest' artefact from the Louvre Museum, which we are informed in a snazzy prologue is one of three pieces that form a precious necklace called 'GAIA'. Dan is greeted upon his release by the French detective Pierre (Jean Reno), who warns him that he will be closely watched. Shortly after slipping away from one of Pierre's associates, Dan assembles his wingman Po (Yang) and hotshot recruit Red (Shu Qi) to steal another part of 'GAIA' and it isn't any spoiler that they eventually make off with the 'Wings of Destiny'. The third and final piece 'Rope of Life' happens to be in the possession of a nouveau riche Chinese oligarch Charlie (Sha Yi) living up in a castle in Prague, and before Dan makes off with it and presumably disappears into the sunset, Pierre brings in Dan's former fiancée Amber (Zhang Jingchu) to help apprehend him the latter apparently still being resentful at Dan for not telling her at the start of his criminal profession.
It isn't hard to guess that Fung has built his movie around a series of action sequences the posh Cannes hotel where a livid demonstration against animal fur is taking place outside at the same time as an auction for the 'Wings of Destiny' is ongoing inside; the sprawling castle that Dan and Po will infiltrate in order to steal the 'Rope of Life' while Red exercises her seductive charms to get Charlie's fingerprints; a quad chase through the woods surrounding the castle immediately following the break-in; and finally, the climactic showdown in an abandoned factory in Kiev where Dan will confront the person who betrayed him to the authorities five years ago and one of the other key players will come to choose his or her loyalty. Each one of these set-pieces is nicely choreographed and expertly executed, although the last one is a little less exciting than it needs to be to end the movie on a thrilling high, paling even in comparison to the earlier ones that precede it.
Whereas the sleekly performed stunts and the impressive gadgetry appeal on a visceral level, it is the characters involved and their stakes which make these sequences emotionally stimulating. Sadly, that is sorely lacking here, which is a result of the sketchy character work. The tension between Dan and Amber is hardly developed before it is resolved; ditto the budding attraction between Po and Red. We are primed for an intriguing cop-versus-robber dynamic between Dan and Pierre, but that sense of respect for the two individuals on diametrically opposite sides of the law is never quite established compellingly. Same goes for the relationship between Dan and his former mentor Kong (Eric Tsang), given how Kong sees Dan as having betrayed him for wanting out to settle down with Amber five years ago. That no less than four writers, including Fung himself, had worked on the script makes it even more disappointing that the characters are so one-dimensional in and of themselves as well as next to one another, relying instead on the sheer chemistry of the actors to give them pizazz.
Not that the cast isn't up to it Lau is as charismatic and suave as he's ever been, perhaps even more so than Tom Cruise was in any one of the 'Mission Impossible' movies; Qi is at her playful and sexy charming best; and character actors Reno and Tsang lend solid supporting turns to anchor the picture. As far as fun is concerned, there is definitely much to embrace in their lively performances. There is also much escapist pleasure to be had watching them elude and delude their way around their targets, often set to a jazzy, upbeat score by Tuomas Kantelinen. As beautiful as the European locales themselves are, it is also to Shane Hurlbut's credit that the movie looks as visually gorgeous as it does. Like we said at the start, 'The Adventurers' knows the tropes of the genre and performs them flawlessly; but without an engaging plot and/or characters we can root for, it remains a solid but unremarkable entry into the well-trod caper genre.
More delightful than we expected this to be, 'Meow' is family-friendly entertainment with some wacky laughs, consistent cheer and a heartwarming affirmation of family love
If you've ever wondered whether your family cat is really an alien from another planet, then 'Meow' is the movie for you. No seriously, 'Meow' imagines an alien planet of the same name whose feline inhabitants have been dispatched by their King to Earth for thousands of years to colonise mankind, although none have so far proved successful in their respective missions as a result of being pampered by their human hosts. Their latest attempt comes in the form of a Meowian warrior called Pudding, who is sent to Earth with a Secret Weapon in order to rally the rest of his kind. Some bad weather upon his descent however causes him to lose the Weapon and adopt the form of an orange tabby cat in order to survive in Earth's environment, albeit in much chubbier and oversized form. And last but not least, a mix-up sees him being renamed Xixili and adopted by former-soccer- star-turned-hopeless-businessman Go-lee Wu (Louis Koo), who has agreed to babysit the cat as a favour for a potential client.
Sure enough, its absurd premise has led to much online brickbats, some of which have been lobbed at its lead actor Louis Koo as well as its director Benny Chan. But face it, is the idea of a giant, adorable alien cat any more ridiculous than say three talking, singing and dancing chipmunks? Or say a couple of talking dogs a la 'Marmamuke'? Or better still, a fat, free-spirited orange cat whose name happens to rhyme with 'Garfield'? Sure enough, 'Meow' belongs in that category of family-friendly live-action comedy films and in our opinion, one of the more entertaining, hilarious and heart- warming ones we've seen. Oh yes, the man-sized feline Xixili is funny and likable all right, but the movie's charm also belongs to its human characters besides Go- lee Wu, his highly-strung wife/ aspiring actress/ power mum Pearl Zhou (Ma Li) and their two children comprising an older son Yoho Wu (Andy Huang) with filmmaking ambitions and younger daughter Yoyo Wu (Jessica Liu) who suffers from a congenital skeletal anomaly in her right leg.
As conceived by writers Ho Miu-kei and Poon Jun Lam along with script consultant Chan Hing-kai, 'Meow' is as much about Xixili learning about the beauty of family as it is about this family of four uniting around one another. So it will go that Xixili will become intertwined with Go-lee and Pearl's familial and marital challenges, the latter precipitated by the former given how gullible and even naïve Go-lee is not just in his failed business ventures, but also in how he ends up chalking a two-million debt by agreeing to be guarantor to a shady individual (Lo Hoi-pang in a cameo) and then falling prey to an elaborate scam led by three career criminals (played by the 'Grasshopper' trio). A fangirl crush that Yoyo's PE teacher (Michelle Wai) has on Go-lee and a chance meeting with a former schoolmate Boss Liu (Louis Yuen) that used to have a crush on Pearl further complicates their already financially strained husband-wife relationship.
The busy script juggles two other subplots first, the bond between Xixili and the family through a couple of amusing sequences including one where Go-lee tries to teach Xixili to play fetch and another where Yoyo brings a heavily disguised Xixili into a parent-teacher meeting; and second, Xixili's call of duty in his capacity as Pudding, which he (unsurprisingly) abdicates after being moved by the display of family love. Amidst the character dynamics are a couple of genuinely amusing sequences a few where Koo gladly hams it up trying to pacify Xixili; a series of endorsement shoots driven by Xixili's accidental fame, especially a 'Journey to the West' spoof that has Xixili as the Monkey King, Pearl as Xuanzang and Go-lee as a demon; and last but not least Xixili's fruitless meetings with the elder Meowian warriors turned tamed kitties who had come to Earth before him. As you may expect, it all culminates in a melodramatic but undeniably effective finale where Go-lee and Pearl rallies behind Yoyo and her fierce determination to break free of her physical impediment.
Yup, originality isn't exactly the film's strong suit, what with obvious elements from 'Men in Black' and 'Forrest Gump'. Still, the veteran Chan, in a marked departure from the action genre he's made his name in (think 'New Police Story' or 'The White Storm'), keeps the tone light and the pace brisk so that the movie on the whole remains enjoyable and engaging. Chan also brings along here his regular collaborator Koo, who throws himself dignity be damned into the role, and assembles an equally game cast in Mainland comedy actress Ma as well as lovely child actors Liu and Huang. There is real chemistry among them as one dysfunctional family, and you'll no doubt be rooting for them by the time the saccharine-dripped climax comes along.
It must also be said that 'Meow' represents a technical achievement of sorts for Chinese cinema in the CGI work behind Xixili. Comparisons to Hollywood are unjustified, given the size of the budgets no less, but Xixili is unexpectedly well-animated particularly in the close-up shots emphasising his luxurious orange fur. And if it isn't obvious by now, let's just say that we were pleasantly surprised by 'Meow', which could have easily turned out messy, infantile and embarrassing as many have unfairly criticised it to be. Like any of them Hollywood live-action family films, this is surely intended to be family-friendly entertainment and on that account, is just as, if not more, delightful than 'Alvin and the Chipmunks', 'Marmaduke' or 'Garfield'. That's still not enough for it to qualify as a family classic, but for a weekend family outing to the movies, 'Meow' will have the kids grinning from ear to ear.
Gam man da song si (2017)
It is unlikely that you will enjoy yourself while watching this zombie flick, but there are some truly bizarre sequences that will make you sit up and stare
The title of this zombie horror flick makes people guffaw. Why "Enjoy Yourself Tonight" when there are undead corpses running after you? Or does the enjoyment belong to the zombies? Something about the title tells us that the movie has the potential to be a cult classic with out of this world characters and crazy sequences that will be long remembered in the history of Hong Kongcinema.
Indeed there are out of this world characters: watch out for a giant stuffed chicken that gasp - may just be a figment of imagination leading to the fact that the whole story is nothing but an episode happening inside the protagonist's head. How trippy is that! Does this mean that this 107 minute movie is an existentialist piece of work that is deeper than what it appears to be?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Alan Lo makes his directorial feature length debut with a screenplay based on a popular novel and his own 2012 short film Zombie Guillotines (search for it online).
After taking home the Best Supporting Actor and Best New Performer prizes at the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards and the Best Supporting Actor accolade at the 52nd Golden Horse Awards for his memorable performance in Port of Call (2015), Michael Ning plays a young man who believes that he is a world saving superhero. He is joined by an equally eccentric friend played by Louis Cheng (Line Walker), and together, the duo battles zombies after an unexpected outbreak happens in the city.
In the mix is a Cantonese opera singer (Carrie Ng), a father who suddenly shows up after spending 15 years in prison (Alex Man) and a paranormal nerd who happens to be really cute (Cherry Ngan).
World War Z (2013) and Train to Busan (2016) this is not. Just when you thought it will be a straightforward chase and run zombie flick that you can enjoy without much thinking, the last bit of the movie throws things off balance.
First, there are those ridiculous exploding eggs that reduce human heads into skulls while leaving the bodies intact. Yup, you read correctly exploding eggs. The somewhat hilarious weapons of choice were novel for a while, before you realise the good guys are just dodging from these eggs shooting out of nowhere. Then comes the giant stuffed chicken. You will giggle at the absurdity of the setup, before realising that the filmmakers are using it to explore teen angst. We are not sure how all these exactly add up.
The best parts of the movie are helmed by Ng and Man, two veteran actors older viewers would find familiar. Ng plays a cripple, and Man (who has put on quite a bit of weight since we saw him on local TV series Golden Pillow and Brave New World) plays the man responsible for that unfortunate accident. The two effortlessly play out the chemistry between the two characters, proving that the older generation of actors still have what it takes to command the screen.
Soccer Killer (2017)
Hardly as witty or laugh-out-loud crazy as it should be, this part-martial arts, part-superhero spoof is nevertheless a harmless time-killer of uninspired inanity
Two decades after it was first released, 'A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella' was re-released in Mainland cinemas earlier this year with about ten minutes of additional footage. By the time it ended its month-long run, the Stephen Chow cult classic had become the top- grossing re-release ever. Despite critics' decrying it as a blatant cash grab that adds little to the original cut's interpretation, audiences were seemingly unfazed, demonstrating just how much love there is for Chow as well as the 'mo-lei-tau' brand of wacky anachronistic period comedy which he and writer-director Jeffrey Lau patented in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And yet ironically, the greater your sense of nostalgia, the more you will be disappointed by Lau's attempts in the past few years to recapture the same comedic spirit. From 2010's 'Just Another Pandora's Box' to 2011's 'East Meets West 2011' to 2014's 'Just Another Margin' and right up to last year's in-name only sequel 'A Chinese Odyssey Part Three', not one has come close to matching the genius of Lau's earlier films.
His latest, titled 'Soccer Killer', unfortunately belongs more to the former than the latter. Written and directed by Lau, it tells of how Princess Changping (Gillian Chung) of the Song Dynasty recruits the masters of the eight once-glorious martial arts sects to play in a soccer match against a formidable team named the Eagle Claws under the charge of the Mongolian barbarian Leopard Khan. At stake is the very sovereignty of the kingdom itself, no thanks to the corrupt Prime Minister Qin (played by Lau himself). As we learn from the prologue, no less than the likes of Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Storm, Cyclops, Spider-Man, Logan and Captain Fantastic make up the Eagle Claws; though we're quite sure Marvel will be none too happy to learn what their band of superheroes have been doing in between blockbusters; by the time we get to the pivotal match, no less than the Monkey King, the Eight Immortals and Buddha will have come to the Song's rescue and that is fair warning of just how illogical you'll have to prepare it will get in this spoof where anything goes.
Frankly, that isn't a deterrent in and of itself; indeed, such silly, even nonsensical, humour has always been a defining feature of Lau's comedies. What distinguishes the classics of the past from the ignominies of the more recent is the hilarity of the gags within, which this latest again comes up short. Among the three chapters the movie divides itself into, the most entertaining is in fact the first titled 'The Phoenix becomes the Pheasant', in reference to how Princess Changping sheds her image of royalty to adopt a male disguise in order to recruit the eight Sect masters. As it turns out, these masters including Sword Master Guo Huaqiang (Corey Yuen), Palm Master Zhang Sanfeng (Li Jing), abbess Miejue (Stephy Tang) and abbot Master Yideng (Lam Tze Chung) are but a pale shadow of their former glorious selves, and between them and the two disciples Lang (He Jiong) and Ling (Charlene Choi) of a ninth now-defunct Mount Mao Sect, there is plenty of good humour to be had spoofing the genre elements of the typical 'wuxia' film.
In comparison, the ensuing two chapters prove duller and a lot less inspired. The middle chapter titled 'Finding True Love in Adversity' develops a budding romance between Lang and Princess Changping as both are held captive at a remote mountain village after being kidnapped by a band of assassins who call themselves the Jiangdong 108; but their unlikely relationship has few laughs and little chemistry. A running gag sees Lang introduce the villagers to Super Barbie inflatable dolls which become instant playmates for the children as well as companions for the grown-up males, but it is at best bemusing and never quite amusing. The obviously titled third chapter 'Kingdom of Xianglong versus the Eagle Claws' sees Prime Minister Qin exploit the romantic rivalry between Ling and Princess Changping for Lang's affections, before culminating in an over-the- top duel between the aforementioned teams that stands out as a showcase of terrible CGI. Not even the references to Pandora's Box can save the last act from being creatively bereft, nor for that matter the invocation of mythological Chinese characters for an eventual Eastern-meets-Western superheroes showdown.
Certainly, not the combined star power of the TWINS or the 'Happy Camp' hosts are a match for the powerhouse combo of Chow, Athena Chu, Karen Mok, Ng Man-tat and Law Kar-ying, but that isn't the main reason why 'Soccer Killer' is barely even a poor cousin of 'A Chinese Odyssey' simply, it just isn't as witty or as laugh-out-loud crazy as it should be. Lau himself seems to acknowledge the same at the obligatory happily-ever-after ending, with one of the palace servants reflecting on everything that has happened and telling his partner that it is no better than a stupid movie which should be quickly forgotten though frankly, that's hardly a tall order given how unmemorable the events within are. If for whatever reason you feel you have nothing better else to do and find yourself in the mood for some inanity however uninspired that may be, then 'Soccer Killer' is an 84-minute harmless time-killer you probably won't mind.
A couple of well-choreographed, exciting chase sequences and some unexpected narrative twists and turns make this heist thriller enough escapist fun
To its credit, 'Overdrive' never does try to be a 'Fast and Furious' movie; instead, it draws its inspiration from heist thrillers like 'The Italian Job', 'Gone in 60 Seconds' and even the 'Ocean's Eleven' series to deliver decent escapist fun within a brisk 96 minutes.
The prize here is a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, owned by local mob boss Max Klemp (Fabian Wolfrom), which half-brothers Andrew (Scott Eastwood) and Garrett Foster (Freddie Thorp) offer to steal for another mob boss Jacomo Morier (Simon Abkarian) as trade for their lives. Andrew and Scott had earlier on stolen Morier's 1937 Bugatti right after the man had paid $41 million euros for it at a Sotheby's auction, and Morier had agreed to the exchange only because Klemp is his longtime business arch-rival. Besides Andrew and Garrett, the crew consists of Andrew's gorgeous soon-to-be fiancé Stephanie (Ana de Armas), Stephanie's serial pickpocket friend Devin (Gaia Weiss), demolitions expert Leon (Joshua Fitoussi) and a bevy of other nameless professional drivers. The plan is textbook masquerade roll up to Max's sprawling residence pretending to be GIGN on a raid, then drive the car away after Leon has fled from the compound.
As you can probably expect, there are more than a few complications along the way. Mourier sends a distant cousin Laurent (Abraham Belaga) to join in the mission, in order to make sure that the Foster brothers carry through their end of the bargain. Two Interpol officers pop up midway through their planning preparations, threatening to keep a close watch on Andrew and Garrett. Stephanie is kidnapped the day before they are scheduled to execute the heist, intended as Mourier's further leverage against Andrew. Screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas also throw in a web of shifting alliances to keep us guessing. Is Andrew and Garrett working for Mourier or Klemp? Whose side is Laurent on? What about Stephanie and Devin? There are surprisingly more twists and turns to the plotting than we'd expected, and for the most part, these are satisfactorily resolved by the time the engines cool and the credits roll.
Not surprisingly, with so much going on amidst the car chase sequences we will get to below, there isn't much attention paid to character dynamics. One of the earlier scenes has Andrew telling Garrett that he wants their life of crime no more, content instead to settle down with Stephanie after this job is done, to which Garrett responds with indignation. Yet their potential falling out never quite develops into anything substantial; instead, the relationship between Andrew and Garrett continues to be defined no deeper than the playful jibes they take at each other. Ditto that between Andrew and Stephanie, which stays stuck at the former being overprotective of the latter. Perhaps the only relationship that sees some progress over the course of the movie is that between Garrett and Devin, who find themselves unable to resist the other and end up falling in love and in bed with each other.
But frankly, our low expectations heading into the movie were still pleasantly exceeded with an unexpectedly knotty plot as well as the exciting setpieces: the first which sees Andrew and Garrett steal the Bagutti from a moving truck; the second which has them pursued by Mourier's men along the streets of Marseille; and the last which puts them in vintage cars engaged in a high-speed chase along the French Riviera. Though he is credited only as producer, Pierre Morel's handprints are unmistakable, emphasising practical stunts over CGI and medium to wide shots in order to keep the action real, palpable and discernible (yes, Morel is the director of the very first 'Taken', before his fellow French compadre ruined it all with 'Bourne'-style jerky-cam). Such is the stuff that the 'Fast and Furious' movies were borne out of, and the pedal-to-metal action is choreographed and executed here with flair, imagination and sheer white-knuckle suspense.
To be sure, 'Overdrive' never rises above its B-movie trappings, but director Antonio Negret harbours no such ambition from start to finish. Rather, he knows his audience is here to see cars chasing each other and on that count alone, he succeeds admirably, inserting enough narrative amidst the action to keep you engaged throughout. You'll need to set your expectations right in order to enjoy this one, but if you, like us, expected no more than a string of thrilling French-set action sequences, then you'll find that there is more than enough juice here in the can to make your adrenaline go into overdrive.
The absolute worst of the 'Transformers' franchise, this fifth - and hopefully last - entry by Michael Bay lacks even the thrill of his signature action bombast
Michael Bay had said that 'The Last Knight' would be his last 'Transformers' movie. We'd thought at first that he would go out on a hurrah; after all, despite their barrage of criticism, the last two entries 'Age of Extinction' and 'Dark of the Moon' had each managed to clear US$1billion at the global box office. We'd thought too that the writers room, comprising such notable Hollywood screenwriters as 'Iron Man' scribes Art Marcum and Matt Halloway, 'Black Hawk Down' scribe Ken Nolan and even 'A Beautiful Mind' scribe Akiva Goldsman, would have ensured a more compelling story, a hope that was further boosted by the intriguing twist of Autobots leader Optimus Prime going rogue. Alas, this fifth instalment is even worse than all its predecessors: the plot is even more incoherent, the dialogue is even more grating, and the action is almost thrill-less.
It starts off as a King Arthur/ Lancelot ripoff, going back to the Dark Ages when the fate of Britain was hanging in the balance. A hopelessly sloshed Merlin (Stanley Tucci) approaches an alien spacecraft to beg for help to save his country, and receives in return a magical staff as well as a fire-breathing metal dragon. There is no secret King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table end up winning the war, but even better, they are joined around the Table by twelve guardians who swear to protect the staff. Fast-forward to 1,600 years later and things have apparently only gotten worse on Earth despite the Autobots' victory at the end of 'Extinction': humans have gotten even more jaded of the robots, establishing a new paramilitary force dubbed the TRF to keep them in check; Prime remains MIA in deep space, leaving his fellow Autobots Bumblebee, Hound (John Goodman) and Drift (Ken Watanabe) in limbo; Mark Wahlberg's scruffy reluctant hero Cade Yeager is on the run from the authorities for harbouring the Autobots, forced to spend his days at a junk yard apart from his daughter; and there is no seeming end in sight to the robots who keep raining down from the sky to threaten Earth's peace.
It will end as an Independence Day ripoff, fuelled by maniacal villainess Quintessa (voiced by Gemma Chan) who brainwashes Prime into helping her retrieve Merlin's staff to revive their once- majestic planet Cybertron. Cade, along with a skeptical British historian Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) and a loose alliance comprising of TRF and US Army forces led by returning character Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel), will eventually have to fly up 21,000 feet into the sky, evade Decepticons disguised as fighter jets, and destroy the chamber where Quintessa is using the power of the staff to drain Earth's core. Everything else in between is just filler including a somewhat supercilious English lord Sir Edmond Burton (Anthony Hopkins) who dutifully helps Cade and Vivian unpack the Arthurian/ Transformers legend, a precocious 14-year-old orphan Izabella (Isabella Moner) who insists on tagging along with Cade, and the new Transformers additions of a smart-talking C3PO-ripoff butler Cogman (Jim Carter), a French-accented bot Hot Rod (Omar Sy) capable of freezing time as well as a cute but ugly BB8- ripoff Sqweeks that Izabella puts into service.
Whatever promise that Prime turning against his Autobots might have suggested turns out to be little more than a gimmick not only is Prime missing for about three-quarters of the movie, his confrontation with Cade, Lennox and eventually Bumblebee lasts for ten minutes at most. That leaves the rest of the story a largely crude recycled assembly: some parts adapted from 'The Da Vinci Code', some parts from 'Terminator' and even one part from straight out of a World War II movie. The banter, frenetic as ever, is shockingly devoid of humour. Besides a scene where Edmond chides Cogman for adding unnecessary dramatic emphasis to his narration of the revisionist Merlin legend, the back-and-forth between the characters is leaden and even exasperating, with often no other purpose than to fill out whatever silence is left between the clanging of metal and the overbearing Steve Jablonsky score. If there is any consolation, it is that Wahlberg proves a more engaging leading man than Shia LaBeouf ever was and that Hopkins adds dignity that none of the other chapters ever had.
But perhaps the most disappointing element of 'The Last Knight' is its action, which is terrible by Bay's standards. You could argue that the sequences in 'Age of Extinction' were somewhat protracted, but they had at least proper rhythm and pacing. Here, except for the finale, Bay never seems to finish what he starts. The prologue with Arthur's army besieged by enemy forces never gets a rousing end; the confrontation between Cade and the TRF at a no-go zone in Chicago ends prematurely when Lennox shows up; a surprise attack by the Decepticons on Cade's hideout stops abruptly with the former's retreat; the TRF's pursuit of Cade, Vivian and Sir Edmond unfolds in stops and starts and never builds into anything engaging; and last but not least, a showdown between an Autobot submarine and one of the US navy's ships concludes with two warning shots. Even the climax lacks scale, scope and impact that should be expected of no less than global annihilation, reduced to aerial shootouts and a lot of weightless spinning.
If the last four critically derided 'Transformers' stood for anything, it was for Bay-hem in other words, Bay's signature bombastic, overblown action complete with slo-mo shots and plenty of explosions and the fact that 'The Last Knight' cannot pass muster on that account makes it an unmitigated failure. Like we said at the start, we'd thought Bay would go out on a bang. This isn't just a whimper unfortunately; it's an unmitigated disaster that leaves us hoping that it will indeed be the final, the end, the last ever 'Transformers' movie we'd have to endure.
Despicable Me 3 (2017)
Nowhere near as clever, funny or sweet as its predecessors, this threequel is a disjointed jumble of some amusing, some tedious and mostly under-developed parts
As the 'Minions' movie demonstrated, too much of the adorable, pill- shaped, banana-obsessed creatures isn't necessarily a good thing; indeed, they were probably best in smaller and supporting doses, playing bumbling sidekicks alongside Gru as he went about his villainous, then anti-villainous, ways in 'Despicable Me' and 'Despicable Me 2' respectively. Unfortunately, they aren't given much, if anything, to do in this threequel, who as it turns out, are fed up of working for a good guy and decide to part ways with Gru early in the movie. That means they are here no better than occasional irreverent comic distractions, much like how Scrat was in the 'Ice Age' movies, notwithstanding a laugh-out-loud jailbreak sequence set to Pharrell Williams's hit 'Freedom'.
And unfortunately, that sums up how 'Despicable Me 3' feels as well always distracted, sometimes amusing, but never really engaging. It wants to be about the rivalry between Gru (Steve Carell) and all-new supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), the latter a disgruntled former 80s child TV star who had fallen out of favour with the general public after hitting puberty and has since turned to a life of crime. It wants to be about Gru's new fellow super-agent wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig), who is trying to be a mother to his three adopted daughters Margo, Edith and Agnes. It wants to be about Gru reconciling with his long-lost twin brother Dru, an empty-headed but successful pig farmer who yearns to follow in their father's footsteps of being a super-villain. Amidst all this, it also wants to be about Agnes and her longing to find a unicorn.
No wonder then that the sweetness between Gru and his daughters from the earlier two movies is somewhat lost here. No wonder too that the Looney Tunes-esque gags seem to unfold at an almost breakneck pace, sacrificing wit and inventiveness for sheer visual spectacle. No wonder that it all feels drawn-out and overstuffed, cramming too many plot lines without ever developing any satisfactorily except perhaps for the complicated sibling relationship between Gru and Dru, seeing as how the former tricks the latter into helping him break into Bratt's Rubik's Cube-like fortress perched at the tip of a pyramid. It is understandable how returning writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul had felt the need to up the ante with each subsequent instalment of the franchise, but like the 'Minions' spin off, less is sometimes a lot, a lot more.
There are good bits though: Bratt, complete with shoulder pads, pump sneakers and 80s pop tunes of Michael Jackson, Van Halen, a-Ha and Madonna among others, is a hoot; so too the barrage of other 80s references, including Bratt's army of weaponised figurines christened 'Bratt Pack'. Carell and Wiig lose none of their verve reprising Gru/ Dru and Lucy, and Parker is a lively, dynamic addition to the ensemble voice cast in particular as a substitute to Russell Brand, whose Dr. Nefario spends the movie frozen in carbonite. Co-directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda try their best-est to keep up the energy and enthusiasm from start to finish, and largely succeed in spite of a somewhat tedious detour on Dru's fictional European island in the middle act.
Yet even on the same level of fun as its predecessors, 'Despicable Me 3' falls way short. We wish it were simply that what was once fresh has now become familiar; but oh no, the gags are nowhere near as funny nor as clever, and even the minions are starting to lose their subversive edge. Whether that is the cause or consequence of having too many things going on at the same time is anybody's guess, but the sum of some hilarious bits, some tedious ones and a lot of underdeveloped elements in between is a sporadically amusing affair that hardly lives up to the charm of the previous two chapters. When even kids below the age of five find their patience tested, it's as sure a sign as any that this franchise is fast turning yellow.
Yat nim mou ming (2016)
Anchored by career-best performances from Shawn Yue and Eric Tsang, 'Mad World' is a deeply meaningful and genuinely moving portrait of mental illness
'Mad World' is not an easy film to watch, but it is well worth the discomfiting experience. Not quite enough attention has been paid to the plight of mental health patients who try to re-integrate into the community, and certainly too little attention has been placed on the frustration and even exasperation of their caregivers. While the former often find their best attempts thwarted by the fears, biases and outright discrimination of general society, the latter has to contend not only with the same but also the outbursts of their loved ones struggling to overcome their condition, so much so that many often end up in burnout.
Both perspectives are vividly portrayed in director Paul Chun's feature debut, which follows Tung's (Shawn Yue) acclimatisation to the outside world after spending a year in a mental hospital for bipolar disorder. Seeing little more that institutionalisation can do for Tung, the hospital contacts his estranged father Wong (Eric Tsang) to look after him, but the latter is frankly completely ill- prepared. A cross- border truck driver who was often absent from home, Wong had pretty much abandoned his mentally disturbed wife (Elaine Jin) and Tung years ago, which Tung inevitably still begrudges him for; after all, that had led to Tung needing to quit his job to take care of her when she became bedridden, and that stress of being the only caregiver, aggravated by her verbally abusive ways, had ultimately led to her accidental death one day and his subsequent admission into psychiatric care.
There is plenty in the past that Tung needs to come to terms with on his own, and equally just as much in the present. His friends had deserted him ever since the much-publicised incident a year earlier, and his surprise appearance at a former colleague's wedding soon after his discharge shows how ignorant and bigoted they can be. He wants to make things right with his former fiancée Jenny (Charmaine Fong), who had to repay not just the flat they had bought together but also the moneylenders Tung owed because of a huge loan he took out to finance some risky investments that eventually went south. It doesn't help that social media has fuelled a gallery of judgmental jury, who seize on his unfortunately public meltdown after hearing Jenny's emotive confession of her ordeal to question his mental state and weigh if he should be sent back to hospital after all.
Oh yes, the title could refer to Tung's own mind as much as it could of the external environment he has to navigate and Wong takes swipes at everything from our prejudice against the mentally ill, to the terrible living conditions of Hong Kong's lower-class, and even to the spate of 'banker' suicides in the financial district back in 2014/15. It is to his credit as well as that of screenwriter Florence Chan that their movie never feels the need to scream at or, for the lack of a better word, get mad at these social ills; rather, both display remarkable restraint at simply keeping it authentic, letting their audience make their own discernments rather than lay out the critique for us.
In fact, 'Mad World' is much better off by simply remaining at its heart a frank and intimate portrait of Tung's struggle to get back on his feet, anchored by the initially tense but ultimately tender father-son relationship between Tung and Wong. Like we said at the beginning, the struggle is as much Tung's as it is Wong's. Through the course of the movie, Wong has to seriously evaluate if he has the means and wherewithal to care for Tung, especially given how little support he has from his family (his eldest son, or Tung's older brother, has resettled in the United States, staying conspicuously absent and callously disengaged throughout), friends and fellow tenants and let's just say it says a lot when another caregiver at a carer support programme Wong enrols himself in advises him to consider re-admitting Tung back into hospital under the false pretence that the latter is suicidal.
Though more commonly known for his comedic roles, Eric Tsang is in top form here as Wong. In perfectly low-key fashion, Tsang lays bare his character's uncertainties and anxieties at the beginning when asked to look after Tung, subsequent guilt and pain when forced to confront the sins of his past, and eventually resolve to not 'outsource' his responsibilities as a father. Tsang doesn't overplay or overstate Wong's dilemmas, allowing his audience to make sense of his character on their own terms. For that matter, so does Yue, who eschews histrionics in his portrayal of Tung's manic/ depressive state. Proving his mettle as one of the most underrated actors of his generation, Yue gives a layered, nuanced performance that earns empathy without ever playing the 'pity' card.
Aside from the fact that Tung's journey to reintegrate back into the community is not an easy one, 'Mad World' is also not an easy fact simply because there are no easy solutions to the issues faced by people like Tung. At the individual level, it isn't easy for the caregiver, as Wong's own experience here shows. At the community level, it isn't easy for neighbours, friends and even relatives to put aside their fears or biases. And at the societal level, it isn't easy to change mindsets borne out of ignorance or worse convenience. But like the quote which bookends the movie, it starts with having a heart for these individuals we often shun, so that however idealistic it may sound, the world may be a little less crazy for them and for us.
Yuen Loeng Taa 77 Chi (2017)
Despite failing to bring its emotional saga to a satisfying finish, there is poignancy and meaning in this true-to-life portrayal of the emotional upheavals of relationships
How many times will you forgive the one you love? According to author and screenwriter Erica Li, who adapts her own novel of the same time for this modern-day romance, forgiving someone seven times isn't enough; 70 x 7 times is too much, so 77 times sounds just about right. And so upon purchasing the titular journal from a pop-up bookstore run by a brother and sister couple named Heartbeat and Shutter respectively (played by Gillian Chung and Francis Ng in cameos), Eva (Charlene Choi) starts to take note of the occasions when she had forgiven her boyfriend Adam (Pakho Chau) for being selfish or irresponsible or insensitive or dishonest. In fact, when we first meet Adam and Eva, she had already reached occasion number 77, which prompts her to decide that enough is enough and move out of the apartment she had shared with him since graduating from law school. Distraught, Adam gets himself drunk at his student Mandy's (Michelle Wai) birthday party, and the pair end up spending the night together at his place, where Mandy will find Eva's journal and read her account of their relationship together.
'77 Heartbreaks' therefore unfolds in two parallel timelines: first, in the present, where Adam and Eva adjust to life apart from each other; and second, as flashbacks, to the numerous occasions that Eva had pencilled in her journal. The former sees Adam succumbing to his worse tendencies without Eva looking out for him, such as deliberately spiting his father whom he begrudges for divorcing his mother and making him study law when he had no intention or interest to do so, and contending with the advances of Mandy, who seems almost desperate to hook up and even get married with Adam. On the other hand, Eva immerses herself in legal work as a divorce lawyer no less not only pointing out to clients the unreasonableness of their demands but also fending off the advances of one particularly philandering rich man and spends the rest of her time with her girlfriends (played by Candy Lo, Yumiko Cheng and J.Arie). She also moves in with one of them briefly before moving back to stay with her widowed mother (Kara Wai), following the death of her father (Lawrence Cheng) in an accident.
Li's screenplay jumps back and forth between past and present often without warning, so you may be a little caught off-guard at the start of each scene where to situate it. Notwithstanding, she and director Herman Yau at least maintain the consistency of keeping Adam and Eva apart from the point they separate till their reunion at the end, so it's safe to assume that anytime you're seeing them together is in fact sometime from the past. Of these, only the first and the seventy-seventh are noted, with enough of those in between for us to understand the nature of their disagreements, how Adam's stubborn, self-righteous and self-centred nature has led to one heartbreak after another, and most importantly how much Eva must love Adam to have stayed with him despite his shortcomings. Whether out of coincidence or otherwise, the dynamic between Adam and Eva is not unlike that between Jimmy and Cherie of Pang Ho-cheung's contemporary romantic trilogy, i.e. that of a more mature woman and a less mature, even childish, boyfriend.
Trying though they may be to see Adam repeatedly behaving so self- absorbed, it is precisely through these episodes that the movie finds poignancy. Not simply because they are well-acted by Choi and Chau, these episodes will resonate with any couple because their disagreements are based on fundamentals that each and every relationship couple will have to work through be it discussing each other's decisions in life when it comes to work and/or family, or determining who it is will plan a vacation to its details, or simply when to give-and-take to accommodate each other's parents. More than what Adam said or did, or what Adam did not say or do, are the basic values that undergird every healthy and happy relationship, i.e. values of mutual respect, consideration, trust, self-sacrifice, and above all honesty. Not to spoil the surprise, it is the absence of the last that causes Eva to ultimately end their relationship, and indeed on the basis of an honest confession by Adam of his faults and shortcomings in the past that moves Eva to re-consider her decision after all in the tearful but moving finale.
This is the ever-prolific Yau's third studio release this year, and competent though the veteran director may be, there is also an unmistakable workmanlike quality here that undercuts the emotional impact of the last third. As significant as the seventy-seventh heartbreak is, it is over and dealt with too quickly, not only turning it somewhat into a narrative cliché but also diminishing the psychological scar that it would leave on any female. It should also be said that those looking for a happy ending will not get it, for Eva's discovery of his one-night stand with Mandy dooms their happily-ever-after reunion and indeed leaves the door wide open for a sequel. And so, though it begins on an intriguing note and follows through compellingly to reveal the in-and-outs of a loving but troubled relationship, '77 Heartbreaks' fails to bring its saga to a satisfying close. Notwithstanding, it does bear meaningful lessons for relationships in general and, despite their upheavals, has a perfectly adorable couple in Adam and Eva that we do root for to be together. As antithetical as it may sound, this is still a sweet and touching film that is a timely reminder of just how important forgiveness and empathy is to any successful relationship.
Duk gai (2017)
A lot better when it is dealing than healing, this bad-guy-makes-good drama is strong on Hong Kong flavour and nostalgia but weaker on character, narrative and theme
'Dealer/ Healer' is the 'bad-guy-makes-good' story of Chen Hua (Sean Lau), the once infamous gang leader of the '13 Tsz Wan Shan' who renounces his bad habits of drug abuse and trafficking after a prison stint and starts a rehabilitation centre to help those who were lost like him but are looking to turn over a new leaf. Chen also had a reputation for being a 'fixer', often acting as a mediator between two rival gangs before their enmity threatened to get out of hand and necessitated formal police action. Chen was also known to be fiercely loyal to his two buddies Trumpet (Lam Ka Tung) and Kitty (Zhang Jin) whom he made sure kicked the drug habit with him after they were released from prison. And last but not least, he was just as fiercely loyal to his one true love, Ke Rou (Jiang Yiyan), whom he first courted as a brash teenager, gave plenty of grief as a reckless gangster, and tries to win back the favour of upon his transformation.
It's a lot to (pardon the pun) deal with in the span of just 100 mins indeed, these events span in real life over three decades and could arguably be material for an entire TVB series and true enough, veteran director Lawrence Lau's movie could really do with some (pardon the pun, again) healing of its own. Chiefly, neither Lau nor his screenwriters, Chan Man Keung and Lin Huiju, are sure of just what they want their movie to be or what they want their viewers to take away from it, so much so that it simply ends up being completely scattershot. As a cautionary tale on drugs, it is hardly compelling enough; as a tale on brotherhood, it fails to convey that deep sense of loyalty between Chen Hua, Trumpet and Kitty; and as an inspirational story, it lacks a strong enough character arc for us to identify and empathise with Chen Hua's decision, determination and conviction to make a fresh start. Probably the only thing it does fairly well is to transport you back to Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s, when crime was rampant, cops were corrupt and gangsters were the rage.
As much as this China-approved production doesn't intend to glamourise the heydays of the triads, 'Dealer/ Healer' is ironically much more engaging when portraying the ins and outs of how drugs were peddled by these organised thugs. Oh yes, you can almost feel the conscious effort by the producers to denounce such behaviour by interrupting scenes of Chen Hua and his cohort dealing drugs in Kowloon's infamous Walled City with that of Chen Hua being interviewed by a panel assessing his suitability for the 'The JCI Hong Kong Ten Outstanding Young Persons' award many years later, where he describes how and why he had renounced his erroneous ways of the past. And yet the former is probably the most captivating part of the film, portraying vividly the dark, dank alleyways of the City carved into districts by various gangs, the addicts hooked to its lifeblood and the police officials which help the gangs safeguard their turf and/or muscle into their rivals' territories.
One of these aforementioned officials is Halley (Louis Koo), who saves Chen Hua's life when the latter is found trafficking drugs on his own outside the gang and will come to develop a close bond of friendship with when he is released from prison. Unfortunately, Halley is treated as much an afterthought as Trumpet and Kitty, ultimately squandering the strong chemistry between Lau and Koo in no less than their sixteenth collaboration together. Ditto for Trumpet and Kitty, who aside from underscoring how Chen Hua remained loyal to his childhood buddies through the years, don't seem important enough to warrant much attention or detail and therefore manifestly wasting the talents of two over-qualified supporting actors Lam and Zhang.
Undoubtedly, both wouldn't have passed on the chance to star beside Lau, who is not only one of the most well-respected Hong Kong actors of our time but also one of the very best. Lau brings his everyman likability to a role that could easily have come across as sanctimonious especially in the latter half; instead, he plays the redeemed Chen Hua with dignity and humility, and is the reason we still manage to root for his character (such as to reunite with Ke Rou) despite the script's slipshod character work. Lau also proves his versatility yet again playing an entirely different Chen Hua in the early bits of the film, so consumed by his own drug habit that he fails to see how that is destroying his relationship with Ke Rou as well as endangering the lives of his own buddies.
Truth be told, 'Dealer/ Healer' would probably be a tidy little drama were it made in director Lawrence Lau's heydays in the 1990s, given its strong distinctive Hong Kong flavour in theme, character and backdrop. Lau's sensibilities, as well as probably that of veteran screenwriter Chan Man Keung, have not changed since that era, and on that account of being a full-bodied Hong Kong movie, 'Dealer/ Healer' would surely be good enough to recommend. Yet in the wake of much more arresting drug-themed movies like Derek Yee's 'Protégé', Johnnie To's 'Drug War' and Benny Chan's 'The White Storm', 'Dealer/ Healer' comes off a lot less outstanding for its unfocused narrative and under-developed characters. And like its title suggests, it is also ultimately bipolar in how it wants to 'deal' and 'heal', the former half proving to be intriguing and even gripping compared to a latter half that is always bland and occasionally boring.
This Is Not What I Expected (2017)
A perfect combination of screwball humour, heartfelt intimacy and infectious chemistry, this 'opposites attract' rom-com is 'Michelin-grade' excellent
At its core, 'This is Not What I Expected' is about two diametrically opposite individuals who start off butting heads with each other but end up falling in love.
On one hand is Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the CEO of a multibillion international company called VN Group who flies around the world evaluating hotels for their worthiness before deciding whether to acquire them or not.
On the other is Gu Shengnan (Zhou Dongyu), a junior sous-chef at the boutique hotel Rosebud in Shanghai where Lu Jin and his subservient assistant Richard Meng (Sun Yizhou) has just checked into for business (not pleasure, mind you).
It isn't just their statuses that are different; their personalities are just as dissimilar Lu Jin is a tightly wound, clinical individual who prides himself at being a perfectionist; whereas Shengnan is by and large a free-wheeling lark whose blithe attitude to life is only disturbed by her recent breakup with the hotel's (douche-bag) general manager Cheng Zixian (a very suave-looking Tony Yang).
As much as scriptwriters Li Yuan and Xu Yimeng draw from the oldest trick in the rom-com playbook, their adaptation of renowned web novelist Lan Bai Se's 'A Long Time Coming' is no means stale. Oh no, the result is quite the contrary in fact. Mixing the familiar elements of an 'opposites attract' rom-com with the ingredients of a culinary comedy has proved quite the inspiration, and even if it does feel familiar on the whole, there's no denying that veteran editor Derek Hui's directorial debut still tastes fresh, delightful and often hilarious.
Benefiting immensely from his years working with some of the best in the industry including Peter Chan himself, Teddy Chan and even Chen Kaige, Hui demonstrates confidence, discipline and clarity right from the get-go, displaying none of the shortcomings that usually plague first-time directors.
That is clear right from the get-go: within the prologue, he establishes succintly not only Lu Jin's exacting standards in the food he eats, but also the businesslike approach with which he handles staff performance, telling an under-performing senior manager seated across a long table that he is fired. And then without letting up, Hui stages the first meet-cute between Lu Jin and Shengnan in a classic case of mistaken identity, as the former catches the latter vandalizing the hood of his car to avenge her heartbroken female buddy Xu Zhaodi (Meng Xi) and only agrees not to call the police after she lets him humiliate her, i.e. by writing on her forehead the telephone number of the company she is supposed to call to fix the damage she caused to his car.
Oh yes, there is a precision to the way Hui approaches his scenes, such that each makes its point without outlasting its welcome. That same exactness also ensures the movie remains pacey from the point Lu Jin steps into the Rosebud criticizing the customer service, room soundproofing and Michelin-starred food in turn; to his enchantment with the last-minute dish prepared by Shengnan and each one of her exquisitely plated dishes thereafter; to the series of encounters between Lu Jin and Shengnan that reinforce his annoyance towards her before he discovers she is the chef he has been enamored with; and last but not least to the pranks he plays on her before she realizes that he already knows her identity.
There is plenty of screwball humour in between, and before the madcap antics turn repetitive, the second half switches gears for intimacy and even pathos. Over a nicely edited montage, we see Lu Jin turning up unannounced at Shengnan's messy but homely apartment where she lives with her dog named 'Boss', treating her as his personal chef, turning her place into his own home, and in the process discovering a much more human side to himself that he has been repressing. There is both sweetness and tenderness in a whimsical sequence where both hallucinate rain after having some poisonous blowfish for steamboat, and end up taking an umbrella out for a walk around the neighbourhood and on board a bus through Shanghai's beautifully lit streets. A late twist that sees Lin Chiling emerge as Lu Jin's personal chef is somewhat under-developed, but still makes the point of reinforcing how food has been a special bond between their hearts.
And as a final note, it is admirable that Hui stays true to the quirks and eccentricities of his characters as well as their relationship during the heartfelt finale. That same consistency extends to Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhou Dongyu's performances, so that we not only believe that their characters are authentic but are also invested emotionally in them.
True to its title, 'This is Not What I Expected' is an unexpectedly enjoyable rom-com the jokes land mostly where they should, the romance is sweet but never cloying, and the presentation is brisk, lively and engaging. It also boasts a pair of leads with sharp comic timing and great chemistry that you'll miss hanging out with the minute it's over, and with the venerable Peter Ho-sun Chan and his regular partner Jojo Hui as producers, you can be assured of a finale that is touching, poignant and genuine. Just be sure not to go into it hungry, because the wonderfully delectable food porn shots within will make sure that it isn't just your heart that will be stirred.