Movie Review – SPL II: A Time for Consequences

EXPECTATIONS: A disappointing follow-up to the first SPL (Kill Zone). And no elephants.

REVIEW: 10 to 15 years ago, Hong Kong action films were suffering over audience fatigue, contractual obligations to introduce popstars in their acting debuts and over-reliance on aping Hollywood films. But then one film in 2005 came out that was a throwback to the prime of Hong Kong 80’s action films. With a plot that is noir-ish and operatic, brutal and gritty action and thankfully no aping of Hollywood artifice. That film was SPL. Many people claimed it to be an action classic for the lead, Donnie Yen and to this day still thrills people with its spectacular fight scenes. The alleyway fight scene is iconic due to the fact that it never looks choreographed and Donnie Yen’s fight choreography was inspirational for future action films due to its integration of MMA (mixed martial arts). And now, 10 years later, a sequel-in-name has arrived and has some of the same actors (Wu Jing and Simon Yam) but in different roles. Replacing Donnie Yen as the martial arts lead is Thai massage enthusiast martial artist Tony Jaa, star of Ong-Bak, Tom Yum Goong and the recent Furious 7. Do Tony Jaa and Wu Jing compensate for the lack of Donnie with their own brand of martial arts action? Unfortunately, no. The movie is still entertaining, but if you’re expecting anything like the first film, then you’re going to be disappointed.

Chan Chi-kit (Wu Jing) is a drug-addicted undercover cop who is sent to prison due to his job working under a human trafficking ring run by Hung Man-kong (Louis Koo), which he and his uncle Chan Kwok-wah (Simon Yam) are investigating. As Wah is trying to save Kit, Kong is trying to kidnap his brother because he has something valuable that he wants. Alongside this story is Chatchai (Tony Jaa) a security guard at the prison Kit goes to. He has a terminally ill daughter, who needs a bone marrow transplant AND has a rare Bombay phenotype, which means that only one in a million people can be her donor. Coincidentally, one of those people is Kit and Chatchai cannot contact Kit yet Chatchai sees him everyday in prison.

Now you’re probably wondering, is this film as contrived as you think it is? No, it’s worse. First off, the positives. The story between Chatchai and his daughter is very well-handled and Tony Jaa is surprisingly impressive in his acting. He underplays his character’s sorrow perfectly and has great chemistry with Unda Kunteera Yhordchanng, who plays Sa, his elephant daughter. The daughter story gives Tony Jaa a good acting showcase that elephants would have never offered him. Another positive is Wu Jing’s acting. His acting has improved quite a bit since he became a leading man in Fatal Contact. He still suffers from some overacting, but his acting seems more controlled, and even affecting at times. The supporting cast are fine in their roles with Ken Lo making the most out of his role as Chatchai’s fellow workmate, although Louis Koo is too dour in his role.  Then there’s the standout role from Zhang Jin. Honestly, he sticks out like a sore thumb and he seems to have come from a different movie, but damn was he entertaining in his role as the Warden. All dapper and handsome (in a stuffy prison, no less) in a perfectly tailored power suit (with power tie and power steering, I bet) and incredibly intense presence, he steals the film just by showing up. Hell, I even like the use of wirework for his character, since it gives him a “final boss” feel, making him a bigger challenge for the heroes.

You would think that with that type of silliness from the villain that the story would carry that type of tone. The story in the first SPL was generic, but it was edgy and focused with Wilson Yip’s “character-over-style direction”, but in SPL 2, the story is much more ambitious, with an epic scope spreading out into two countries, Hong Kong and Thailand, and has many characters to keep track of and it is supposed to tie together neatly. But unfortunately, it never does in a compelling fashion. If anything, it’s laughable with what the film-makers came up with. First off, the film has no comic relief, but the use of mobile phones may have taken the spot. A mobile phone can apparently survive going through the waters of Hong Kong Harbor, stays down there for 4-5 days and gets found with battery life to make an international call. Another moment is when a mobile phone supposedly has an app that can have two people who speak different languages communicate to each other by letting the app do the talking. Oh wait, there’s one more. There’s a moment when a character cannot speak to the other character due to their different nationalities so the perfect solution to that is to message each other with emoji? BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! There’s a scene in a prison riot when Kit is desperately trying to get a signal whilst fighting Chatchai and various prisoners. Screw Zhang Jin stealing the movie, these mobile phones have intercepted the film. I haven’t even started with the film’s ending (The movie was China-funded, so you’ll definitely know how it ends). The first SPL was contrived as well (Why did the mentally disabled guy have a copy of the tape? Where were the bad guy’s hundreds of men in the climax?) but it never came off as contrived as this.

But who cares about the story as long as you have good action and to a degree, the film works in that context. Tony Jaa, Wu Jing and Zhang Jin have good fight scenes together that are well-edited, well-shot and well-choreographed. There’s even a scene that is a throwback to the first SPL that involves knives and batons (with Zhang Chi aping Wu Jing’s character from the original SPL) that uses the original music from Chan Kwong-wing. Speaking of music, even the use of classical music is well-implemented.  If anything, the planning of the fight scenes is very reminiscent of the Indonesian film, The Raid 2. The prison riot, the use of classical music, the supposed long takes in the action, it’s almost as if the film-makers had seen the film and thought they needed to step up. But it’s a shame that there are many flaws that mar the impact of the fights. For example, there are many cutaways in the end fight scene, to scenes involving Louis Koo with his brother or Chatchai’s daughter and a CGI wolf. Yeah, you read that right. The climax tries to get emotion out of the audience by doing this but it ends up being very distracting and frankly, annoying. Another flaw is the CGI blood. I can see CGI blood being okay in films that don’t need to be taken seriously or just films that are not action films. But in a serious film like this, and especially compared to the first SPL, it just doesn’t make the cut. Then there’s the wirework. As stated earlier, I enjoyed the wirework from Zhang Jin’s character but it will annoy many people, especially how his wirework is so much more noticeable than the others.

I wanted to like this movie more than I did, but I couldn’t. It still offers some entertainment and surprise (Tony Jaa), but it’s just a disappointment to what it could’ve been. Next time, a little plausibility would be nice.

Quickie Review

PROS

Tony Jaa and his surprising acting

The action is still entertaining

CONS

The story is ridiculously contrived that it’s laughable

The fight scenes are flawed and lack impact

SCORE: 6/10

NOTE: Thanks to Madman Films for releasing this film in Australia. Much appreciated.

Cast: Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, Zhang Jin, Louis Koo, Simon Yam, Unda Kunteera Thordchanng, Dominic Lam, Kenneth Low, Philip Keung, Babyjohn Choi, Jun Kung, Aaron Chow

Director: Cheang Pou-soi

Screenwriter: Jill Leung Lai-yin, Wong Ying

Movie Review – Attack on Titan: Part 1

EXPECTATIONS: Half a movie, filled with fun kaiju scenes of building destruction and good old-fashioned Japanese over-the-top acting.

REVIEW:  I have to make this point immediately, but I have never seen or read any material related to Attack on Titan (Just a few minutes of the anime, at best). But boy, do I know that a lot of people were waiting for this, eh? Based on the best-selling manga by Hajime Isayama that started in 2009, this became one hell of a big hit that eventually sold 52.5 million copies in print as of July 2015. And now, a movie has arrived, split into two parts, as it is more profitable to do so, thanks to Harry Potter.  At first, it was Tetsuya Nakashima that was hired as the director.  Despite not knowing the source material, this excited me to no end, since this is the director that made the lovable glitz-pop buddy comedy “Kamikaze Girls”, the emotional roller-coaster “Memories of Matsuko”, the surreal revenge why-dunnit “Confessions” and his recent film, the kaleidoscopic thrill ride “The World of Kanako”. But alas, this was not meant to be, since he was replaced by Shinji Higuchi, a renowned special effects director that has worked with anime director Hidaeki Anno on many projects, has made special effects films that have variable critical reception due to his focus on special effects, but not enough focus on character. (I didn’t like HIdden Fortress: The Last Princess, but I enjoyed The Floating Castle a lot) and is slated to work with Anno on the new Godzilla film, which I am looking forward to. But the bad buzz happened. Many people in Japan and people from early screenings were outraged by the changes the filmmakers had made (like the change in settings and appearances, removal of characters etc.) and some of the filmmakers had fought back. So is this film as bad as the buzz had claimed it to be? From a neophyte like me, it certainly surprised me, that’s for sure.

The film starts off with a narration, talking about the Titans and their attack on humanity starting 100 years ago. Then, we go to the present day, introducing characters Eren Jaeger (Haruma Miura), a cynical yet starry-eyed man who yearns to see what is outside the walls of the Monzen District; Armin Arlert (Kanata Hongo), Eren’s best friend, who serves more of a tool of exposition than a character and Eren’s girlfriend, Mikasa Ackerman (Kiko Mizuhara), a typical damsel-in-distress character with more than meets the eye. After they explore close to the walls, a Titan appears which alerts the town but there are many more to come that leaves the town into ruin, eating and crushing humans in their wake. Two years later, Eren and Armin reunite to volunteer in a special attack force, the Scouting Regiment (consisting of characters such as Shikishima, Jean, Sasha and others) is called to take down the Titans and reclaim their right to survive.

First off, the visual aspect of the film truly surprised me. I thought that this film would be a fantasy kaiju film, with a PG-13 aesthetic, meaning lots of destruction but very little perceptions of the consequences these moments of destruction would have. Well, I was dead wrong. The first action scene of the film is truly nightmarish. These Titans are technically giant zombies that just wolf down humans, with gore and blood spraying all over the place and the mix of CGI and practical effects (courtesy of special make-up effects master Yoshihiro Nishimura who has done many films) work wonderfully and really makes the Titans feel like a genuine threat. The nightmarish feel culminates into a surreal and refreshing tone that blockbusters would rarely ever go for, making the action scenes fun yet pack a punch. Dulling the action scenes a bit is the musical score. Some of it is effective (the use of the harpsichord is cheesy but fitting) but some of it is out of place, that it sometimes takes you out of the movie.

Speaking of genuine threats, the horror tone rarely permeates to the characters, as they all act in the iconic over-the-top fashion that hearkens back to Godzilla films of old. Apparently that irked a lot of the viewers, but it sometimes makes perfect sense within the film, especially when the Scouting Regiment fights back against the Titans. Most of the group are not soldiers and they are clearly not capable of combat so when they do, they are scared out of their wits and behave in irrational ways. Sometimes, the characters are appropriately cynical like Eren, claiming, at one point, “paradise seems like a prison if one sees its walls.”, adding to the nightmarish film. The meshing of the tone and the characters It makes the film bizarrely entertaining, filled with unexpected surprises (like the development of Mikasa) and unintentional laugh-out-loud moments (Eren’s standoff against the Titans) but it makes the film schizophrenic, creating emotional whiplash.

You just wished that they took the same unexpected approach to the characters. Unfortunately, they are all stereotypes and the actors suffer from it. It is expected though, considering the story is told with a swift pace that strips the story into its bare essentials. We get the reluctant hero, the loyal best friend, the damsel in distress, the war-hero, the scumbag, the promiscuous one and so on. Only a few of the actors give life to their roles that make them stand out or hopefully foreshadow character arcs being fulfilled in the second film. Satomi Ishihara is a hoot as Hans, who’s the IT person of the Regiment whilst Hiroki Hasegawa (who’s versatility is fantastic from Lady Maiko to Why Don’t You Play in Hell and Love & Peace) has strong presence as Shikishima and Kiko Mizuhara plays the different facades of her character well.

That being said, it all builds to an exciting cliffhanger, filled with many revelations, battles and over-the-top acting that make it a riot. It’s a shame that the film doesn’t thrill in an emotional level. I still had a hell of a fun time watching this film and I hope the second film carries that sheer thrill and maybe, a little emotional touch.

Quickie Review

PROS

Bravely tackling a popular source material and adding a refreshing nightmarish tone that thrills and haunts

The mix of CGI and practical effects works really well

Swift pacing that never bores

The action scenes and performances are incredibly over-the-top, they’re laughably entertaining

CONS

Not very faithful to the source material

Schizophrenic tone may leave viewers feeling befuddled

Basically half a movie

Most of the actors try their best, but fail to add life to their character archetypes

SCORE: 6.5/10

NOTE: Thanks to Madman Films for releasing this film (as well as the second part) in Australia. Much appreciated.

Cast: Haruma Miura, Kiko Mizuhara, Kanata Hongō, Hiroki Hasegawa, Satomi Ishihara, Takahiro Miura, Pierre Taki, Jun Kunimura, Nanami Sakuraba, Rina Takeda, Shu Watanabe, Ayame Misaki, Satoru Matsuo

Director: Shinji Higuchi

Screenwriter: Yūsuke Watanabe and Tomohiro Machiyama

Movie Review – Pitch Perfect 2

EXPECTATIONS: A sequel that’s out of sync compared to the original. Hailee Steinfeld is my bias though. She ought to be a plus.

REVIEW:  Another year, another hundred sequels. And in this hundred is Pitch Perfect 2, a sequel to the 2012 sleeper hit that came out at the time the hit TV show Glee was still relevant. Comparisons and predictability aside, Pitch Perfect was a great musical comedy that had incredibly likable characters, catchy music and a great sense of fun that didn’t feel forced or cringing that would make your eyes bleed. Ahem, **Sister Act 2**, ahem. But can the sequel recapture the magic of the original and sing it to the world? Um, Aca-not really?

Set three years after the original, The Bellas are singing at a Presidential Gala for Barack Obama and under stressful circumstances, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) has a wardrobe malfunction that destroys the act and almost destroys their reputation (Muffgate was amusing to read). After the embarrassing display, the Bellas are banned from from showcasing their a capella talents. But Beca (Anna Kendrick) proposes a deal that if they compete in the Worlds and win the competition, they can be reinstated. And inter-sped through the main story are subplots like a new Bella recruit Emily Junk (awkwardly AND amusingly played by Hailee Steinfeld), Beca working in an internship to become a music producer and Fat Amy’s romance with Bumper (played by Jack Black-wannabe, Adam LeVine).

No one watches a movie like this for the story and the story (like the first film) is as predictable as it gets. But what is the rock for these films are the characters, and they are still as lovable as ever, with a few debits.  Anna Kendrick, as Beca, seemed to be a bit tired in the role. The chemistry is still there between her and the others, but something about her performance seemed a bit off. Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy clearly makes the most of her increased screen-time and amuses as always, but what irked me about her was the fact that she bullies Emily for no particular reason. Is there something I missed? Hailee Steinfeld is new in comedy and it shows, but fortunately, director/star Elizabeth Banks uses that to the film’s advantage and it pays off, making Steinfeld likable and even easy to relate to. Another newcomer in the Bellas is Chrissie Fit as Flo and she was funny at first, but her jokes about her race just got old over time. The rest of the stars are thankfully the same, with Rinko Kikuchi-lookalike Hana Mae Lee still stealing scenes with no effort whatsoever and Anna Camp thankfully returns to suck souls and replenish them once again.

As for the new characters in the supporting cast, Katey Segal (from “Married with Children”…damn I’m old) is underused as Emily’s mum, but Keegan-Michael Key (of Key and Peele) steals all the scenes he’s in as Beca’s boss and the supposed villains played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (from Borgen, a great show) and Flula Borg (a YouTube star) are great, particularly when Anna Kendrick confronts the two and loses herself. Even a cameo from Snoop Dogg was hilarious to witness, particularly on what he’s actually singing and how enthusiastically he sings it. Elizabeth Banks’ direction isn’t as smooth as Jason Moore’s in the first film as her directions towards actors are inconsistent (Anna Camp’s performance, while amusing, is more over-the-top than usual), but some scenes are really funny, like a scene where all the Bellas are in a tent.

A pretty short review today, Pitch Perfect 2 is what most sequels are. It’s not as good as the original, but thankfully, the characters are still great to revisit but I do hope that they don’t stretch themselves thin and end on a sour note (pun totally intended).

Quickie Review

PROS

Performances from main cast and newcomers are overall great

Many highlights (the tent scene)

CONS

Inconsistent/underused performances

Jokes are stretched a little bit too thin

SCORE: 6.5/10

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Adam DeVine, Katey Sagal, Anna Camp, Ben Platt, Alexis Knapp, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Chrissie Fit, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, Flula Borg, Kelley Jakle, Shelley Regner, John Hodgman, Jason Jones, Joe Lo Truglio, Reggie Watts, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks, Keegan-Michael Key, Shawn Carter Peterson, David Cross
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Screenwriter: Kay Cannon

Movie Review – Avengers: Age of Ultron

EXPECTATIONS: A sequel not as good as the first (in my opinion, overrated) Avengers film.

REVIEW: Never has a sequel has gathered as much hype as Avengers: Age of Ultron since maybe, The Dark Knight Rises. Look at the picture below. How can you not get psyched? This never would have happened more than 15 years ago, when I watched my first superhero film in the cinema after only successful films were from Batman and Superman. And they both ended terribly with a sequel that we want to quickly forget, like Batman and Robin and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. But in 2000, X-Men came out and it show it can expand into other properties with the same amount of talent that started off the Batman and Superman film franchises in the first place, and it got Marvel Comics films into the map after many failed attempts. And look at Marvel now. From Iron Man in 2008, they have skyrocketed into the film stratosphere that would leave DC Comics in envy. At least until Batman v Superman comes out next year. But now, we have Avengers: Age of Ultron, the long-awaited sequel that, in my opinion, improves in some points but disappoints a lot compared to its predecessor(s).

In the sequel, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) alongside reluctant Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) have created a program that was meant to guarantee peace in the world. But the program backfired and it has become a worldwide threat, who calls itself Ultron (voiced by James Spader). So all the Avengers (including Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner) have to reassemble and stop Ultron, with his allies Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) from “cleansing” the Earth.

So far, the story is old hat for the Marvel Universe: villain poses a great threat due to Stark’s creation. So Joss Whedon has to either compensate on the rote story with great storytelling and memorable characters. For the most part, he succeeds with the characters.  Robert Downey Jnr is still likable as Stark and it is refreshing to see him and make you question your affection towards him and where it could lead to in Captain America: Civil War. Or it could seem like Stark is incredibly stupid, completely ignoring the lessons he learnt from the first and third Iron Man, you be the judge. Chris Evans is still genuine and portrays honour and righteousness in an affecting way, while also paving a hint of darkness alongside Downey that could make the conflict in Civil War worth waiting for. Chris Hemsworth is more comic relief as Thor this time around, but he still has the brash swagger that made him so lovable while Mark Ruffalo as Banner still sells emotional turmoil without really doing anything. But the character who makes the biggest impression is Hawkeye, by Jeremy Renner. Getting the shirt shrift in the first Avengers film, he gets the most character development and even develops a sense of humour considering his position in the team, and Renner plays both dramatic and humourous sides with aplomb. His scene with Scarlet Witch during the climax is a highlight and he really convinces. Out of the newcomers, only Elizabeth Olsen makes a good impression as Scarlet Witch, despite her questionable accent and Paul Bettany, who finally gets an on-screen role in a Marvel film, as Vision.

But some problems exists with the character work. First of all, Quicksilver is not nearly as compelling as a character as he was portrayed in X-Men: Days of Future Past. It’s not really the fault of Aaron Taylor-Johnson mainly because he does not really have anything to sink into. Another problem is Black Widow. I personally think she was best portrayed in Captain America: Winter Soldier. She was tough, in control, charismatic, cared about her comrades and never felt like a character a person wrote initially for a man, but changed to a woman at the last minute. But here in Ultron, she’s saddled with a romance between Banner, but the romance, if you could even call it that, never convinces. We never see an effort by Whedon showing why she likes him in the first place and her character backstory completely changes, from being a mother to Banner to supposedly losing the will of being a woman, and that makes her, in her own words, a monster. This was, to me a major miscalculation, and completely undoes her character foreshadowed in The Avengers, when she indirectly opens up to Loki. Another miscalculation would be the villain himself, Ultron. It’s really James Spader in a metal suit, but it is still highly entertaining and Spader nails it. But it’s the progression of the character that’s the problem and it happens so fast, that you wonder if some parts of the film were missing (Apparently, there were). And his plan to destroy the world is so moronic, you figured it would’ve came from an episode of GI Joe.

As for the storytelling, some of it is incredibly rushed (as evidenced with Ultron’s character) and there are numerous plot holes. One example would be the time after the Avengers obtain Loki’s scepter at the location filled with dangerous technology, didn’t anyone in the Avengers think that it would be wise to defend the location filled with technology that people might stumble into, after they left? Or the time how Banner easily comes into Ultron’s base and to rescue Black Widow? Also, would you show a safe house with family members that could have been easily captured if Ultron hacked the technology on the plane they used to travel there? I could go on and on. It also suffers, but not to the same degree as Iron Man 2, from excessive foreshadowing of future installments, like the scene of Thor going to the pool, in search of the Thor: Ragnarok trailer answers.

Fortunately, the action thrills and excites, with every character having their memorable moment and that may be worth the price of admission. I also liked the fact that the Avengers actually avenged (the first film doesn’t count). It may seem that I am coming down a bit hard on the film, but considering the films that came before it, the sequel should have been a lot better.

Quickie Review

PROS

The actors, old and new, are all game (Jeremy Renner is a highlight)

The action excites and thrills

CONS

Numerous storytelling problems

Characters are inconsistently written and portrayed

SCORE: 6/10

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Linda Cardellini, Stellan Skarsgard, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Serkis
Director: Joss Whedon
Screenwriter: Joss Whedon, based on the Marvel comic book characters

Movie Review – Unfriended

EXPECTATIONS: Another shitty found footage film with a good premise but crappy execution.

REVIEW: I remember back in 1999, the Blair Witch Project came out, and it was causing hysteria within film audiences all around the world. Everyone was questioning the theory of whether the film was real or not. The film even revolutionized internet marketing and inspired many film and TV parodies. Sure there have been a few found-footage films before then like Man Bites Dog and Cannibal Holocaust but The Blair Witch Project reaffirmed the genre’s existence and brought it to the new age. Ever since then there have been middling efforts to copy off the film, with notable exceptions like Noroi: The Curse, but it is around 2007 when great examples like REC and Cloverfield hit the screens, and the former showed that it can expand beyond the horror genre. Then a little film called Paranormal Activity came out and it showed again, with very little money, you can make a film that can scare audiences. But what happened afterwards was not for the best, and the genre diluted itself with many bad entries like The Gallows, Devil’s Due, Apollo 18, the Paranormal Activity sequels etc. that were just plain lazy with stupid jump scares lack of atmosphere/mood and jarring methods that take you out of the movie (eg. a film score in a found-footage film?). As for Unfriended, it may not be a prime example, but it is creative, timely, darkly funny and quite disturbing.

The film revolves around six teenagers Blair, Mitch, Jess, Ken, Val and Adam who are Skyping over for a group chat as they plan to go to a concert. But during the chat, a mysterious user joins in, annoying the group. Assuming that it is a technical glitch, they ignore it until it supposedly reveals itself to be Laura Barns, a former classmate who killed herself exactly one year ago. As the group try to get rid of her, the user exposes all of their dirty secrets and lies. I admit, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this film, especially when I watched it in the cinema. The film is surprisingly immersive despite the fact that it is set on a computer screen for 80 minutes.

Speaking about the setting, the director and writer really attacked the material with a lot of verisimilitude, using the exact sounds and layouts of the programs like Skype, YouTube and Mac programs, and it really adds to the storytelling. Even the video freezes and sound lags are used to great effect, adding to the atmosphere and immersion. Also adding to the storytelling is the acts of the characters on how they use technology. One example is how a character would start typing a message and then erase it and change it completely. That is a clever bit of storytelling that adds much-needed character development and is realistic within people’s use of technology. Another example is how these characters think they are invincible behind anonymity, thinking they can get away with their bad deeds, but when their secrets are revealed, we know more about the characters. The progression between their anonymity and clarity is scary since again, it stems from reality. The film even drives the point of internet addiction into the tale (i.e, not resisting opening e-mails, many tabs on the internet browser) and it sells the horror premise quite well as it alleviates supposed plot holes.

Another plus to this film is the actors. In films like this, all I ask is that the actors are genuine within the film’s context and in this regard, the film succeeds. All the actors give life to their stereotypical roles and although not all of them are exceptionally likable, they add to the realism of the tale, since the story involves horrific bullying that these people may or may not have done.

A story like this would be really dark and almost downright depressing to go through, but both director Levan Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves litter the film with nice dark humour like well-timed uses of songs or pop-up ads. One song in particular had me laughing mainly because of the timing it was used. The film does not fall into the trap of overusing blood and gore, with some kills that pack a punch and are cleverly foreshadowed. The scares that do work effectively come from the well-worn trope that is the power of suggestion. Like the film Jaws, the reasons for its effective scares is that you don’t see what the fearful characters see and it is through the power of suggestion (i.e our minds) that make the scares work.

As for glitches flaws, the film does have a reliance on jump scares, although not as much as previous horror films and the characters do sometimes resort on stupid decisions (i.e the Chatroulette scene). The characters are still horror stereotypes (i.e the “virgin”, the promiscuous one, the jock, the stoner, the saintly boyfriend) and, to be honest, I wished the film ended five seconds earlier. When you see the film, you’ll know.

Fortunately, the film is foreboding in its atmosphere and with the clever storytelling, the director’s realistic approach and the game actors, Unfriended is a surprisingly above-average entry in the found-footage genre.

Quickie Review

PROS

Clever storytelling

Actors give genuine performances

Realistic approach to the use of internet technology and its consequences

Great use of dark humour peppered throughout the film (It was an accident! It was an accident!)

The atmosphere of the film is very palpable in its less-is-more approach

CONS

Stereotypical horror characters

Overuse of jump scares

Dumb decisions from characters

SCORE: 7/10 (Unfriended gives much-needed life to the found-footage genre with clever storytelling, chilling atmosphere and timely themes.)

Cast: Shelley Hennig, Moses Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki
Director: Levan Gabriadze 
Screenwriter: Nelson Greaves

Movie Review – Kingsman: The Secret Service

Now that’s a dope-ass cast!

EXPECTATIONS: An energetic family friendly spy film that thrills and stirs similar to Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class.

REVIEW: Matthew Vaughn has always been a director who’s work I really admired. All variable yet well-made fun pieces of work from Layer Cake (Daniel Craig’s calling card for James Bond), Stardust (aka The Princess Bride 2.0), Kick-Ass (which gave us something I never thought we needed, Nicolas Cage imitating Adam West) and of course, X-Men: First Class (which re-energized the franchise after the other X-Men films that shall not be named). But now, he gives us another thrill ride, and that is Kingsman: The Secret Service, based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar (who also created Kick-Ass). Seeing his love of spy films in Layer Cake, it is apparent that Vaughn is happily unhinged, and fortunately has learned from his mistakes, which were awkward handling of tone (Kick-Ass), lack of balance between cartoonish violence and human drama; and pacing (Stardust).

See what I did to that princess?

Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) is a young, rebellious teenager whose aimless life could lead him behind bars, due to the heavy circumstances in his life, not to mention the facts that his father died when he was young, his care and responsibility for his younger half-sister and his mother is going out with an abusive drunk. Fortunately, a secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) sees endless potential and recruits him to become a trainee in Kingsman, a secret service organization. Meanwhile, a super-villain, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) unleashes a plan to kill off the vast majority of Earth to solve the problem of climate change. It may not sound much, since I’m not providing spoilers but this sure as hell ain’t a Daniel Craig Bond film, you can count on it.

When I first heard that Matthew Vaughn passed on directing X-Men: Days of Future Past for this, I was very skeptical, assuming that this would be a family friendly film. And seeing the first trailer didn’t sway my expectations. But my expectations were knocked out. This film is as R-rated as it gets. Even more provocative than Kick-Ass. Yet Vaughn has grown more experienced over the years and he finally gets the consistency right. Unlike Kick-Ass, we can revel in the comical violence of Kingsman but we can get swept up by the drama of the stakes without jarring us out of the movie. Also unlike Kick-Ass, Vaughn also gets the balance between parody and homage right, without becoming a film that it is legitimately spoofing.

The cast consisting of newcomers and veterans certainly add to the proceedings. Colin Firth finally gets a role of a secret agent every Pride and Prejudice fan was secretly yearning for and he nails it, showing seniority and charm, while lending a surprising physicality into the stunts and fight scenes. The church scene that he leads is fantastically well-done, with unbelievably gory results all done in a seemingly single take. Whereas Samuel L Jackson was a hoot as Richmond Valentine, with a delightful lisp and cowardice towards violence, adding a twist to his iconic attitude as well as the Bond villain archetype. As for the newcomers, Taron Egerton plays both sides of rambunctious teenager to charismatic secret agent better than I could’ve imagined, and it never feels forced. Sophie Cookson provides a nice compliment to Egerton as Roxy, Sofia Boutella steals the show with her athleticism as Valentine’s bodyguard, Gazelle while supporting veterans Mark Hamill and Michael Caine add (first?) class.

As for the action scenes, they are well-shot and well-conceived (the church scene mentioned above is a highlight), but they sometimes suffer from a digital sheen that is quite distracting, particularly in the final fight between Eggsy and Gazelle. But what gives the action scenes their oomph is the use of music. Much like Kick-Ass, Vaughn uses music to spectacular effect, with a great musical score by Henry Jackman (who also scored Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class) especially with the use of “Freebird” by Lynrd Skynyrd and “Give it Up” by KC and the Sunshine Band. They give the film a great sense of fun and an amusing off-kilter edge that makes the delicate balance between parody and homage stand out.

All in all, apart from some quibbles, mainly with the CGI and pacing, Kingsman: The Secret Service is sure to be a favourite for some this year. I declare this to be a dope-ass movie. Manners maketh movie.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast of newcomers and veterans add heart and fun to the film

The action scenes are well-done and thrilling

Director Matthew Vaughn has learned from most of his mistakes

Delicate balance between parody and homage has been achieved

CONS

The pacing can be a little inconsistent (particularly when entering into the third act and the scenes introducing Princess Tilde)

CGI effects are noticeably dodgy

SCORE: 9/10 (Director Matthew Vaughn gives the spy genre a real shot of adrenaline, creating a roller-coaster of an action film that is sure to thrill.)

Cast: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Mark Hamill, Taron Egerton, Sophie Cookson, Jack Davenport, Sofia Boutella, Geoff Bell, Samantha Womack, Bjorn Floberg, Hanna Alstrom
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenwriters: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn

Movie Review – Mad Max: Fury Road

Wait…which one is Max? The ugly one?

EXPECTATIONS: An action-packed film compensating from lack of character with gallons of forced nostalgia.

REVIEW: When I first heard of this film in development, I was pumped, despite the lack of Mel Gibson. Tom Hardy was cast as Max? I was sold. Charlize Theron was cast, I was sold. George Miller came back to continue the franchise, double sold. But what made me hesitant, even recently before I wrote this review, was that continuations of dormant franchises have been very mixed, mostly disappointing. Movies like Terminator Genisys and Jurassic World were incredibly reliant on people’s nostalgia of the franchises that it comes off as lazy and derivative, and I was scared that Mad Max: Fury Road would come off as the same way. Another fear I had was that I was scared that this film would be more of  an advertisement to future films, instead of an actual film itself, like Iron Man 2 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Well, guys, I was wrong. Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the loveliest action films this year. Fuck it, probably the loveliest action film this decade.

The film starts off with a voice-over from Max (Tom Hardy), introducing himself and the story universe for those who are unfamiliar and he is, again, a broken man with his beloved Ford Interceptor, wondering in the world, with only one purpose in his mind, to survive. Until one day, he is attacked and captured by a bunch of War Boys, and he is used as a blood bag. Meanwhile, Furiousa (Charlize Theron), an Imperator for Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the leader of a city called “The Citadel”, suddenly takes off into the desert with Joe’s five wives, all played distinctively by Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Zoe Kravitz and Riley Keough. This, of course, pisses Immortan Joe off and he sends his entire army, including overeager zealot Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who is desperate to make an impression to Joe and die for ultimate glory. And somehow Max ends up in the middle of all this and he has to pick a side to survive this “family squabble”.

Now you’re probably wondering, that’s it for a plot? True, but it’s not what the plot entails that makes the film worthwhile, but how the plot is executed and exists. And director George Miller, alongside his fellow writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris have created a magnificently macabre world that demands repeat viewings just to take it all in. The vehicles, the settings, the people are all meticulously crafted (the War Rig, a truck that Furiousa is a world all on its own). Names like Organic Mechanic, Rictus Erectus and Toast the Knowing are wonderfully weird and could only exist in the Mad Max universe. Too bad Vin Diesel was taken. And unlike other film franchises, there is no set-up for sequels and the nostalgia factor is refreshingly low. Some references to the previous films are present (i.e the music box, Toecutter’s eyes etc).

Speaking of the characters, they are well-defined and portrayed and Charlize Theron as Furiousa will be seen as an icon of action heroines, I guarantee it. She portrays the mix of determination, grittiness and care with such skill that we sympathize with her as soon as we see her on screen. Tom Hardy is just as good as Theron, portraying Max as animalistic and brutally efficient, yet is incredibly closed with this emotions. Hell, he barely even speaks (despite the opening voice-over) for more than 40 minutes into the film and when he does, his accent is endearingly all over the place (how would you speak if you haven’t spoken in years?). But once we reach the end of the second act, he opens up quite a bit, speaking in actual sentences and its a testament to Hardy that he carries Max’s arc from silent animal to survivalist savior so effortlessly. As for Nicholas Hoult, his character, Nux, has the most complete character arc, from brainwashed zealot to his character’s fate, and he is surprisingly likable and even sympathetic. Never has anyone failed miserably in his duty as he does. His character could have been very annoying, especially with his overjoyed enthusiasm, but his character development, alongside the others, add emotional resonance to the story, that we actually care for them, especially from the hands of the villains like Immortan Joe, hauntingly portrayed by Hugh Keays-Byrne.

Now for the selling point, the action. It is true, that the film is almost entirely made of action. But since the story is set within a long-spanning chase, what else did you expect? The action is eye-fetchingly fantastic, filmed with wide-angle shots, clearly shot and edited and mostly done with practical effects (CGI is sparingly used), that it is a joy witnessing the beautiful chaos of vehicles exploding and crashing. Director George Miller is obviously having the time of his life, like a child with the most expensive toy-box. But what makes the action more than just beautiful chaos is the how much we care for the characters and how they are all in constant peril, changes in action film conventions (i.e none of the female characters are damsels-in-distress), the emotionally stirring music from Junkie XL (the scene when Furiousa supposedly reaches the end of the journey will touch audiences) and having just the right amount of scenes of character development. There’s even character development within action scenes themselves. In a fight scene between Max and Furiousa, pay strict attention to what the Wives are doing in the background, as their actions hint of who they are, particularly Cheedo the Fragile, portrayed by Courtney Eaton.

As for flaws, and there are few, is that there is some obvious green screen in the climax and the character of Immortan Joe could be more developed as a character. But overall, I’ve never been more satisfied watching an action film this year. Go see it.

Quickie Review

PROS
The entire cast give fantastic performances (Charlize Theron is a highlight)

The action scenes are spectacularly filmed

The story is tight, the world is infinitely intricate and it has surprising emotional power

Does not fall into action film conventions (like problems associated to females in action films)

CONS
Obvious green screen/CGI at times

The character of Immortan Joe could be more realized

SCORE: 9.5/10 (George Miller shows how action films should be done.)

Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, John Howard, Richard Carter, iOTA, Angus Sampson, Jennifer Hagan, Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer, Melita Jurisic, Gillian Jones, Joy Smithers
Director: George Miller
Screenwriters: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris

Humble Beginnings (or How I Strolled into the World of Film)

Hello everyone, Film-momatic here!

As you may have guessed, this is my first post, and I am so happy to finally start my own blog of film reviews. For as long as I remember, I’ve always loved film. From my first memories (vivid, anyway) of watching films when I was 9 years old to exploring fantastic directorial work from Spielberg, Miyazaki and discovering foreign films from Hong Kong (Stephen Chow fanatic), Japan (my first live-action film I watched was Hana and Alice), Korea and others.

The first film I watched and became enraptured was “The Princess Bride”. I remember watching it on the school bus one the way home from an excursion. I was one of those kids that would complain about girls, as kids would do, and I immediately thought that the film was a girly film, just due to the title.

Boy, was I was wrong.

Like a lot of viewers, especially children, we were the very the audience surrogate of Fred Savage’s character in the film. Pessimistic, quick-to-judge, plain cynical. But when we opened our minds, we were rewarded with riches upon riches. I was fist pumping when I saw the first sword fight between Westley and Montoya. I was laughing my head off whenever Fezzik started to rhyme. I thought Buttercup was incredibly beautiful (and she still is) and I thought the climax was perfect, although my friends thought otherwise. Why fight people when you don’t have to? A razor sharp with should more than suffice.

Encompassing all genres and succeeding them with aplomb, The Princess Bride will remain one of my favorite films and the film that got me into the world. Another film that got to me was “The Karate Kid”. A true underdog story that got me wanting to imitate LaRusso with his Crane Kicks at people, and injuring myself a lot in the process. It taught me that life really is all about balance and that we should all stand up for ourselves against adversity.

Practicing the Crane Kick on Miyagi’s chin. Boss.

As for my reviews coming up, they will be just random ones that I’ve seen, with some cinema releases and a whole pack of Japanese film reviews coming soon, due to personal acquaintances. My first review will be released on Monday and I hope the film is good enough for a good start. I will also have other plans like special articles about film in general and other fun stuff.

Gotta jet,

Harris Dang (aka Film-momatic)