Movie Review – The Nice Guys

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EXPECTATIONS: A damn good Shane Black film.

REVIEW: It has been a long time coming, but it is here. It is finally here. A brand-spanking new film by renowned action-maestro Shane Black. For those who don’t know, Shane Black is responsible for writing cult-classic 80’s/90’s films like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Last Action Hero and The Monster Squad. He knows his action films and all of its tropes. He made his directorial debut in 2005 in the neo-noir buddy comedy, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, an underrated gem that led Robert Downey Jr. To the role that got him back to stardom, Iron Man. And 11 years later, we have The Nice Guys; another film-noir buddy comedy set in the seedy 70’s starring talented actors, not known for their comedic chops, Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling and newcomer Angourie Rice. But does this film measure to Black’s directorial debut as well as his previous ventures?

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Set in 1977 of Los Angeles, Ryan Gosling stars as Holland March, an inept private detective who is on a case of finding Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a porn star whom other people are after to kill. Russell Crowe stars as Jackson Heely, a hired enforcer who essentially beats up people to send a message for money; as amusingly stated by March’s daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). March and Heely cross paths and the two team up to find Amelia and the two are swept up in a story of corruption and murder that anyone involved in the case ends up dead. Will they be able to solve the case before more people die, including Amelia?

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Don’t be so sure. Director Shane Black is well-known for turning action movie tropes on its head, even in his Marvel superhero film entry, Iron Man 3. And that talent is back in full-bore in The Nice Guys. One, the action buddy-comedy trope is refreshingly different. In all buddy comedies, the characters contrast from each other like the straight arrow and the loose cannon in Lethal Weapon. But in The Nice Guys, the two leading characters are not that different from each other. They both have troubling pasts; they both have troubles with alcohol and they both question their contributions to society. This is a refreshing viewpoint that does not lend off to clichés that involve bonding and pure bickering due to their incredible accessibility towards each other. Another trope that is turned on its head is the fact that the characters deliberately avoid any confrontation and it pays off to hilarious effect. A scene in an elevator involves the two characters peeking out of it and seeing a violent confrontation and they quickly decide to yield and Ryan Gosling plays his character’s hesitance brilliantly. It is the subversion of genre tropes that Shane Black does so well that it ups the entertainment value significantly.

The witty dialogue that Black comes up with is still here and there are many zingers to choose from, like a negative viewpoint on marriage to a criticism on porn that involves a meaningful plot to even lines where Gosling’s character completely misses the plot. And the storytelling is pure film noir, but filtered with a Shane Black lens. The private detective, the femme fatale, the increasing amount of murders, themes of corruption, it is all here. But the treatment is all breezy, not too serious of itself and it is oozing of seedy 1970’s atmosphere that it comes off as a very fun watch. The two leads are not really good at their jobs and there is a funny scene involving the misreading of an address that leads them on a minor goose chase. The soundtrack sure contributes to the seedy feel, with a great use of A Horse with No Name by America in a surreal scene and the opening credits with Papa was a Rolling Stone by The Temptations.

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But the movie wouldn’t be anywhere near as successful without the wonderful three leads. That’s right, three. Russell Crowe, we already know he can play tough guys with films like Gladiator and Romper Stomper, but here in The Nice Guys, he plays a wonderfully straight counterpoint to the shenanigans in the film. His spit-take must be seen to be believed. As for Ryan Gosling, he is a consistent delight with his surprising comedic chops, whether it is physical comedy (like a scene involving an ankle gun) or line delivery (his mention of Hitler is a howler) or even just noises of guttural fear like when he discovers a corpse. But the revelation here in the film is Angourie Rice. Already a rising talent due to her performance in the Aussie apocalyptic thriller, These Final Hours, she valiantly stands on her own alongside Crowe and Gosling. She never comes off as precocious or overly cute or intrusive. Even when she swears, it never comes off as forced or tongue-in-cheek, it comes off as genuine. Or when she wants a villainous enforcer to live, again, it never comes off as forced. It is her conviction to the role that makes her the heart of the film.

As much as I am praising the film, it does have some problems. The plot of the film is quite similar to Roman Polanski’s film-noir film Chinatown, but instead of the corruption involving water in the latter, The Nice Guys involves the air. Although the plot of The Nice Guys is interesting and well-told, it can’t quite compete due to its plot not holding up to scrutiny. Plus, the supporting cast aren’t really given characters to play with, just sketches of unrealized potential, like Yaya DaCosta as Tally. Although a stand-out is Matt Bomer as the haunting villain as John Boy. who does a lot with his limited screen-time.

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Films like this don’t come every day and with the current state of cinema drowning in overly CGI messes (Gods of Egypt), products by committee (The Angry Birds Movie), the over-saturation of comic book adaptions (too many to list) and the constant sledgehammering of remakes and reboots, The Nice Guys is a breath of fresh air that gives us new perspectives on Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, but also a new star on the rise in Angourie Rice. Don’t ever stop making movies, Shane Black.

P.S – Did I mention that there’s a giant talking bee in this movie?

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Quickie Review

PROS

The three leads provide fantastic work and have a wonderful chemistry

Shane Black’s writing and directing turns movie tropes in a hilarious fashion

The production values provide an immersive atmosphere of the 1970’s

CONS

Supporting cast are a little bit short-handed

The story does not really hold up if one really thinks about it

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Murielle Telio, Gil Gerard, Daisy Tahan, Kim Basinger
Director: Shane Black
Screenwriter: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi

Film-momatic Flashback – Hana & Alice

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EXPECTATIONS: I had none whatsoever.

REVIEW: I knew this review had to be written sooner or later. To clarify this statement into detail, this is the very first live-action Japanese film that I witnessed without intent. It was a time when I was in high school and I was basically discovering who I am and after a long day of school, I was watching afternoon television; obviously the perfect time for top A-grade programming. Skimming through channels, I switch to SBS and I see two schoolgirls walking in an early cloudy morning. Sounds uneventful and boring but what really captured me was the cinematography and how clean it was. Little did I know, it was a Japanese film, especially when the title of the film was shown in English. Ever since, I was hooked and I have never looked back. Until now. Hana and Alice is definitely a Shunji Iwai film through and through. But is it worth a viewing for the uninitiated or will be a long-trudging slog?

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Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi star as the titular characters; junior high school classmates, ballet students and they are the best of friends. Hana is the closed book who conforms with others like a passenger while Alice is the free spirit who acts on her impulses. On one morning, Alice leads Hana on a trip to a strange train station, where they begin to spy on a tall foreign man and someone they presume to be his Japanese younger brother. While an incredibly random conversation about Hannibal Lecter abruptly and amusingly ends Alice’s schoolgirl crush, Hana serendipitously encounters the young Japanese man, named Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku), again when she joins the Japanese comedy club in high school. Instantly taking a liking to Miyamoto, she begins to follow him after school when he accidentally hits his head against a metal gate. Hana immediately seizes the opportunity and tells Miyamoto that he has not only suffered amnesia, but also that he is dating her.

Miyamoto plays along with despite his skepticism, until he discovers the pictures Hana took months earlier during her stalking sessions with Alice. Suddenly, Hana has turned Alice into Miyamoto’s ex-girlfriend, whom he has also supposedly forgotten, thanks to his supposed amnesia. As Miyamoto tries to put together his “lost” past with Alice, Alice realizes that she, too, has started to like him. However, Alice has issues of her own: her divorced mother (Shoko Aida) would rather spend more time dating than parenting; her father (Sei Hiraizumi) treats her well, but rarely sees her; and she gets scouted by a talent agency, even though her acting skill is amusingly next to nil.

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The story sounds like a sappy love triangle that would be right at home for a sappy Nicholas Sparks film, but fortunately, it is anything but. The story has a lot of fascinating details and odd quirks that gives the film good replay value, like the Hannibal Lecter reference or the barbed commentary on the Japanese entertainment industry or the use of snails or how the leads subtly practice their ballet stances while waiting for the train to arrive. Just in the recent viewing of the film, I realized that despite Hana’s persistence in her fabrication of a relationship with Miyamoto, the film gradually features the presence of flowers throughout. There might not be a growth of a relationship, but there is growth of Hana as a person. The film-making is absolutely stellar, with magnificent production values considering the budget. The cinematography by Noboru Shinoda (R.I.P) is done on digital cameras, but it preserves Iwai’s feel for soft-lighting that gives the film a magical atmosphere that is usually reserved for fantasy films. The music, the editing and the directing, all done by Iwai, is above reproach. The music in particular is a piano-melodic delight to hear and accentuates the breezy magical feel of the film.

But we all know the real reason why the film works: the two leads. The film just comes to life spectacularly whenever they share the screen together and their chemistry is fantastic to witness. Like I said in my The Case of Hana and Alice review, the two have such a good chemistry, it is incredibly hard to believe that they weren’t friends before filming. Don’t get me wrong, the film does not fall apart when the leads are apart; they are just as good when they are separate. Anne Suzuki (who is famous for her role in Initial D) is a joy as the lovestruck Hana (which is Japanese for flower) who causes quite a bit of trouble to get the love she desperately strives for. Her character isn’t the most developed out of the two, but her role in the story is the most important and although her methods almost endanger her to become a bit unsympathetic (she gets Alice into her deceptive ways), her character is quite relatable and Suzuki sells it with conviction, particularly in a scene when she is in a confrontation with Miyamoto backstage.  The standout of the two is Yu Aoi, as Alice (short for Arisugawa) who plays the high-spirited side of her character perfectly. Her character has the best moments in terms of scenes (her ballet dance is a highlight) as well as her character development (her scenes with her mother and father exemplify that).

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The supporting cast are just as good in their roles, with Sei Hiraizumi providing a subtle sadness as Alice’s father, due to their disconnect (the scene he has with Yu Aoi is a very touching scene) and Shoko Aida as Alice’s mother, who is busy focusing on dating rather than parenting. She has a scene where she comes out in her underwear, which leads to a  shock for Miyamoto, and it is awkwardly hilarious as you expect. As for Tomohiro Kaku, it took quite a bit to me to warm up to but his quirks (including his well-timed hiccups) shy attitude got to me. His character is not so much a fully-formed person, but is essentially a catalyst of what obstacles the two leads will end up going through. Who knows, if two pubescent girls were yearning for an average guy like myself in my high-school days, I’d probably react the exact same way. There are some surprising cameos that all amuse; from Sadao Abe, Ryoko Hirosue, even Hiroshi Abe, who plays a suitor of Alice’s mother.

As much as I can rave on and on about this film, there are some flaws that stick out to me like a sore thumb. For one, at 135 minutes, the film is quite long for a simple story such as this. Secondly, the film tends to focus more on details and character and not enough on the storytelling. Those who want their films focused and plot-driven will definitely be irked.

But overall, with an odd, yet amusing sense of humour, a plot that dwells more on details than actual storytelling, beautifully melodic music, captivating female characters and immersive cinematography, Hana and Alice is a great starter for those who love slice-of-life films as well as getting into Shunji Iwai’s work.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The leads have such fantastic chemistry, it’s hard to think that they weren’t acquainted before the film

Many minute details add to the joy of the film (like how the leads stand on the train platform, subtly practicing their ballet)

Cinematography looks great, especially when it was filmed on HD digital video

CONS

Not much of a plot (reliance on minute details and character than plot, like many Iwai films)

Overlong running time

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Yu Aoi, Anne Suzuki, Tae Kimura, Sei Hiraizumi, Shoko Aida, Tomohiro Kaku, Takao Osawa, Ryoko Hirosue, Hiroshi Abe
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenwriters: Shunji Iwai

Movie Review – Journey to the Shore

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EXPECTATIONS: A slow, contemplative romantic journey that eventually makes a reasonable impact. Plus YU AOI!

REVIEW: Kiyoshi Kurosawa is known to the West as a master of horror due to his films like Pulse (Kairo), Cure, Seance and others. I personally disagree, not because his films are bad as horror films (they are certainly not), but he is a master of using stillness and silence to induce tension, whether it is dramatic or horrific. Even in slice-of-life family dramas like Tokyo Sonata, his films can be quite hard to watch. But like every director, they have their misfires. The horror film Loft, which in my mind is underrated and misunderstood, was seen as unintentionally funny while the sci-fi film Real was seen as incredibly misguided and a complete mismatch between director and the source material. Now we have Journey to the Shore (nothing to do with the Chinese fantasy tale, Journey to the West), a contemplative and tender story, based on a novel by Kazumi Umoto, that joins tropes of romance and ghosts. Will this film be a perfect match between Kurosawa and the source material, or will it be another misfire?

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Widowed three years ago when her husband drowned, Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) works as a private piano teacher. Her father died when she was 16 and her mother passed away five years ago. One evening, her husband Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), a former dentist, appears in her apartment and asks her to come with him on a final journey – to places and people who have meant a lot to him in the past three years – prior to the final passage of passing on. Basically, it is a road movie where we meet various characters, played by a fantastic supporting cast, we find out more about the predicament of the leads as well as character growth.

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa adapts the story through a naturalistic means as well as adopting his methods of stillness and silence, Journey to the Shore is a touching exploration of love and death. Kurosawa’s direction elevates this film, taking the fantastical plot into heights that ring true to the audience, i.e. how we deal with deaths of loved ones. The world the characters inhabit is hyper-realistic, yet the characters themselves are intentionally lifeless, almost letting go of their spirit and struggling to survive in their conditions. Even little touches i.e. Fukatsu’s hair covering her face and gradually uncovering throughout the film compliment the film in terms of character. The cinematography by Akiko Ashizawa compliments that really well, especially in terms of lighting at certain times of the film when characters reach a certain point in growth, like how Mizuki confronts Tomoko (Yu Aoi) a former girlfriend of Yusuke. The music by Yoshihide Otomo is delicate yet emotionally stirring, but it can be overly used at times, becoming more cloying than rewarding.

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The wonderfully talented cast certainly helps the film, with leads Eri Fukatsu and Tadanobu Asano making their keep, particularly Fukatsu. Having done a ton of various roles from comedic roles (Bayside Shakedown) to tortured roles (Villain) and villainous roles (Parasyte Parts 1 & 2), Fukatsu does one of her best performances as Mizuki. The way she portrays her passion and lost love for her husband with such restraint is captivating to watch, like in a scene where she expresses anger to Yusuke for her past relationships. Asano isn’t that far off in his likable yet enigmatic performance that is hiding a past life that is not so easy to like. For the supporting cast, Yu Aoi is fantastic in her one scene as she is confronted by Fukatsu, while acting veterans Akira Emoto and Masao Komatsu, ironically, give much-needed life to their characters, particularly Komatsu, who plays a character who is halfway towards passing on.

As much as the acting and the directorial technique is, the film is not without its flaws. Besides the overuse of music in dramatic scenes, the pacing can be a bit vexing. Although the intent for the pacing is there i.e. in becoming more lively as the film goes on, it can be annoyingly glacial for audiences. The storytelling can be a bit messy in its episodic structure. There is one subplot that involves another couple going through the same situation as the two leads are and it drags the film while driving a point to the audience that they already know. Fortunately, it reaches a powerful ending that is parts beautiful and concise.

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Overall, it is a nice change of pace for Kurosawa, as he ventures towards another genre and with an amazing cast to back him up, Journey to the Shore is a touching love story with a twist that shows that Kurosawa still has his directorial skills intact.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s assured and composed direction

Production values are great, especially the cinematography

The cast give fantastic performances

CONS

Music can intrude to the point of being melodramatic

The storytelling can be a bit messy

The pacing can irk some

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Eri Fukatsu, Tadanobu Asano, Yu Aoi, Masao Komatsu, Akira Emoto
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenwriter:  Takashi Ujita, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Kazumi Umoto (novel)

Movie Review – Keeper of Darkness

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EXPECTATIONS: A potentially fun film brought down by Nick Cheung’s lack of directorial experience.

REVIEW: Hong Kong films are gradually losing their identity these past years. Once filled with genre films of crime, horror and social commentary, they have become diluted to the point of no significance. One of the main reasons is the rise of China co-productions. Knowing the lack of a film rating system in China AND the financial opportunities you can get from China, Hong Kong films that cater to China are rendered predictable, unambitious and, in other cases, even xenophobic, homophobic and propagandistic. An extreme example of such a film would be Donnie Yen’s Iceman, a film, released in two parts, so horrifically terrible that the second part is unreleased, to this day. So why am I explaining such details for this review? Because it is becoming increasingly rare that films involving themes of superstition, blood and gore, corruption, magic and other “taboo” themes are being released these days. And now we have Keeper of Darkness, a ghost film directed by acclaimed actor Nick Cheung Ka-fai that encompasses all those themes. Considering the mixed reception of Cheung’s first film, is Keeper of Darkness any good?

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Nick Cheung Ka-fai plays Fatt, a gangster/exorcist with a tortured past due who deals with ghosts, but not in an violent way. What makes him different from other exorcists (or ghostbusters, for that matter) is that he empathizes with them and tries to get them let go of their hatred or anger and pass on. He lives in his dilapidated apartment, with his girlfriend, Cherr (Amber Kuo) who just so happens to be a ghost of 88 years. His partner, Chung (Louis Cheung Kai-chung) also claims he can see ghosts and tries to advertise their activities by uploading videos of them online. The videos go viral and it makes Fatt an overnight sensation. It then captures the attention of Ling, (Sisley Choi) a rookie reporter, looking for her one big break. Elsewhere, a vengeful and malevolent spirit, Hark (Xing Yu) is causing chaos, killing numerous people by burning them into scorched earth and it is up to Fatt and the others to stop him. But can Fatt stop him while keeping his personal issues involving his deceased mother (Karena Lam Ka-yan) and Cherr’s transmigration at bay?

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Despite ghosts being integral to the plot, Keeper of Darkness is not a horror film per se. The plot involving the catching of ghosts is just a throughline for Cheung to focus what he is really going for: character. The film is surprisingly character-driven and it is quite endearing and refreshing to see, especially in a genre like this. We get to see flashbacks to not only Fatt’s past, but the villain’s and Cherr’s as well. Having a capable cast as assembled here doesn’t hurt. Nick Cheung Ka-fai is fantastic as Fatt, portraying his character’s enigmatically tortured side as well as his romantic side perfectly. His chemistry with Amber Kuo certainly proves that, and she gives a lovable performance as the long-suffering Cherr, even when dubbed. Louis Cheung Kai-chung is funny as the sidekick and even has some well-timed zingers, even in a tragic situation. Sisley Choi is a good sport for all the haunted shenanigans and could easily move on from TVB to film acting if she wanted to. The rest of the supporting cast are fine, with great cameos from Chin Kar-lok, who’s amusing as a impostor exorcist, to Karena Lam Ka-yan, who’s fantastic as Fatt’s mother and there is a cameo in the end of the film, who I won’t spoil, that opens a sequel.

What also makes this film a fun time is the odd sense of humour that Cheung peppers throughout the film. Scenes where Fatt reacts in a too cool and collected way to horrific details can be  amusing. Digs at the political position of Hong Kong are funny as well, particularly when delivered by Phillp Keung Ho-man, who plays a mob boss looking to do good deeds. One joke from his character had me in stitches and it involves an ash tray. There are scenes that take advantage of the horror genre for laughs, like a scene where Cherr scares Ling as she visits Fatt’s home. Scenes like that are reminiscent of old-school HK horror comedies like Out of the Dark and Haunted Cop Shop and it gives Keeper of Darkness a nice retro feel. As for the production values, the cinematography by Chan Chi-ying and production design by the acclaimed Yee Chung-man is appropriately ugly AND beautiful; and the CGI is great, when it is not overused.

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What is unfortunate is the unfocused storytelling and odd directorial choices. The film introduces the characters and their interactions, but it lacks a narrative drive as it jumps from scene to scene with not much cohesion. The main plot is also given the short-shrift due to the lack of tension and an overreliance on CGI, which is strange considering the villain’s tragic backstory. The drama focuses more on Fatt’s past and his relationship with Cherr and it overrides the main plot in terms of screen-time and even tone shifts. You can’t get a lot of thrills when you see two characters pantomime a game of ping-pong, can you? Like the latter, there are some scenes in the film that are just mind-boggling to witness and it does take you out of the film. For example, a flashback is meant to explain the backstory and answer some questions, but it is rendered confusing and even befuddling when certain irrational actions from two of the characters are done in quick succession within the same scene. It did shock me, but the execution was so random, it only resulted in puzzlement.

Overall, Keeper of Darkness is inconsistent but a distinctive and entertaining ride that is a huge improvement over Cheung’s directorial debut, Hungry Ghost Ritual. The film ends on a sequel-bait moment and I honestly would look forward to it, since the characters are so well-defined, I would love to see what they would do in the future.

Quickie Review

PROS

Actors give great performances

Refreshing focus on character

Production values are great

CONS

Unfocused storytelling

Lacks thrills and scares

Muddled tone

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Nick Cheung Ka-Fai, Amber Kuo, Louis Cheung Kai-Chung, Sisley Choi, Xing Yu, Philip Keung Ho-Man, Angie Cheung Wai-Yee, Karena Lam Ka-Yan, Lawrence Ng Kai-Wah, Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Emotion Cheung Kam-Ching, Ben Wong Chi-Yin, Elena Kong Mei-Yi, Chin Kar-Lok, Shawn Yue Man-Lok, Deep Ng Ho-Hong, Chu Kin-Kwan
Director: Nick Cheung Ka-fai
Screenwriter:  Nick Cheung Ka-fai (story), Leung Siu-ling (screenplay)

Movie Review – Thanatos, Drunk

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EXPECTATIONS: Typical art-house drivel.

REVIEW: Slow is deliberate. Beauty is substance. Silence is emotional. If you are wondering about what I mean by those statements, I am talking about art-house expressions, told in simple layman terms. Why am I mentioning this? Because the term “art-house” applies to the film, Thanatos, Drunk. Winning many awards at the 17th Taipei Film Awards and the 52nd  Golden Horse Film Awards, it did get my expectations up. But I have been fooled by critically acclaimed art-house films before. Despite all the film-making prowess that you can muster; it can result in nothing pretentious stylistic flourishes and an astounding lack of substance in getting ANY audience to care. Case in point: some of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films like The Flowers of Shanghai. So when I started to watch Thanatos, Drunk, I was afraid it might be a chore to watch. But to my surprise, it was worse.

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Synopsis from FilmBizAsia: Whenever Rat (Lee Hong-chi), who works at a market stall, visits his alcoholic mother (Lü Hsueh-feng), a former actress-turned-mama-san who lives by the banks of the Tanshui River, she nags Rat to get a proper job and stop hanging out with Shuo (Chen Jen-shuo), an underworld gigolo whom he looks up to and with whom he shares a flat. Shuo’s girlfriend, a club dancer, is Rat’s cousin. Rat’s older brother, Shang-ho (Huang Shang-ho), had earlier upped and left one day for the US; now he’s returned, after losing his boyfriend there. He stays with Rat and gets a job with a film company in Hsimenting district, urging Rat to cut down on his drinking and also find a steady job. One night, Rat rescues a mute young prostitute (Chang Ning), for whom he has a soft spot, from a violent client, cutting him with a hooked knife he carries. The two gradually fall for each other. Meanwhile, Shuo finds his past catching up with him; he’s beaten up and also told that Rat will pay for the scar he caused. Back at the flat, Shuo has his wounds tended by Shang-ho, who then starts coming on to him.


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The film starts off with a long-winded prologue about Rat’s mother droning on and on about her suffering while recounting her life story before giving birth to her two sons. Which, by the way, you can tell that the microphone is being covered when you hear the actress’ dialogue being muffed. Then it jumps (I don’t know how far in time, the editing is unclear in a lot of scenes) to the main character, Rat, working, and looking outside a window of his friend’s home, seeing a rat dying outside, while his friend Shuo is banging his cousin. That’s when I knew, I was not going to like this film. Rat seeing a dying rat, while he mopes around in his drunken stupor? Could that not be any more obvious as a metaphor? It also has characters staring into the horizon or the sky as some sort of emotional reflection. It may have some effect on me if the characters were defined, but they remain annoyingly one-dimensional. Rat is meant to be  the main character, but his actions are so random in their purpose, he just looks like an complete idiot, especially in scenes where he is playing with ants or pig heads.

Other characters such as Shuo and Shang-ho are just as ill-defined. In the case of Shuo, he is a ladykiller, but when he encounters Shang-ho, it is so obvious that he is somehow attracted to Shang-ho, but the direction from Chang Tso-chi is so blatant instead of ambiguous that when the so-called crescendo of the two happens (with a strong sex scene), it comes with a finality that the audience can appreciate just so we can get on with the film. It does not help that the acting is quite mixed. Lu Hsueh-Feng is over-the-top as Rat and Shang-ho’s mother to the point that her character could be the reason that her sons are messed up. Director Chang sure as hell does not know for sure. Lee Hong-chi plays his role just fine, portraying the rebellious nature well, but he can’t add inner life to his character that makes him sympathetic or even grounded. The biggest impressions goes to Chen Jun-shuo and Chang Ning, since they either are animated or add life to their roles, especially in the case of Ning, who is basically the only source of hope in this film.

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Since the acting is quite flawed, the characters should make the journey worthwhile, but it never happens. Like many films of this type, it suffers from characters who are wholly unlikable, irresponsible and downright implausible in their motives. A character in the film gets pregnant and yet they attack their partner for their faults in their position. Do not expect much of the audience to care about characters who know the ramifications of their actions, yet they do them anyway, and expect them to care. It just makes them look like total idiots, or people who have off-screen head injuries. The climax of the film concludes in gory moments, with plenty of stabbings and killings, but the result can be seen in unintentionally funny ways, since some of the execution (pun definitely intended) of the deaths is poor, particularly in a case of a suicide, which just looks really cheap. The storytelling is just as bad, since the time jumps are so out of order, I have no idea how much time has passed or know if a certain character died at that time or not.

I did expect the film to be a chore in terms of its art-house ambitions, but the characters make the film a lot worse to the point that I got a bit infuriated. Do not expect me to care if the badly-defined characters are their own faults of their incredibly stupid actions in their eventual fates. Thanatos, Drunk is just an empty shell of a film it wants to be and I’ll leave it on this note.

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When your film has a sex scene between two men realizing their sexuality AND a gory climax and they both elicit unintentional laughter and relief, your film has serious problems.

Quickie Review

PROS

Some of the acting, cinematography and music is good

CONS

Frustrating and pretentious storytelling

Inconsistent acting

Insistent and blatant directing

Unsympathetic, ill-defined and idiotic characters

SCORE: 2/10

Cast: Lee Hong-chi, Cheng Jen-shuo, Huang Shang-ho, Lv Hsueh-feng, Wang Ching-ting, Chang Ning, Lin Chin-yu, Chin Tsu-yen
Director: Chang Tso-chi
Screenwriter: Chang Tso-chi

Movie Review – Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising

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EXPECTATIONS: An inferior sequel to the original, just like most comedy sequels.

REVIEW: Teen comedies have been a strong staple in bringing laughter and with such cult classics such as Animal House, Superbad and American Pie, but there have been disasters like the recent Dirty Grandpa, Project X, The Hot Chick and many others. So when I watched Bad Neighbours for the first time, my expectations were met, especially since the film was made by the involvement from the creators of Superbad.  Which leads me to the concept of comedy sequels. There are very few sequels that can better the original, but in the case of comedies, even less so. Films like Ghostbusters 2, the Hangover sequels, the American Pie films and others all failed to capture and improve on what made the originals successful in the first place. So when I watched Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising, I was very cautious. But I am happy to report that not only is this film just as funny as the original, it takes issues from the original and fixes them.

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Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne reprise their roles as Mac Radner and pregnant wife Kelly (whose last name reveal is amusing). Their life is seemingly great, with their purchase of a new house and another child on the way. But then come the unruly sisters of Kappa Nu (consisting of a game Chloe Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein) move in next door. As loud parties continuously disrupt the peace, the couple turn to former neighbour and onetime rival Teddy Sanders (an even more buffed up Zac Efron) for help. Now with an unstable yet new alliance, the group (including Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo reprising their roles) devises schemes to get the wild sorority off the block. Unfortunately (for them, not for the audience), the rebellious young women refuse to go down without a fight.

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The cast of the film look like they are having a hell of a time and they make the most out of it. Seth Rogen is still playing the “man-child” role out of the group but he is a lot more confident in doing it and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Rose Byrne has a little less to do (her character is pregnant, for one thing) but she still holds her own and takes part in the shenanigans and even has a couple of zingers. Let’s just say that no one can pull off a bribe the way she does. Zac Efron is still a delight and even adds a little more depth to his character as he is also going through a phase in pre-adulthood. His committed line delivery to such lines as losing his 401K or the spelling of the word “sorority” provide lots of laughs. But the weak link to the cast is Chloe Grace Moretz. She’s not bad at all, but mostly it’s not her fault as it is the fault of the script. Her character changes quite abruptly at times, from likable, charming and independent to rebellious in such quick succession, that she seems to find it difficult to keep up. Some of the supporting cast reprise their roles in small parts and they all contribute to the fun.

The cast are committed, but what about the jokes? Oh, yeah, the laughs are consistent throughout and are quite witty and shocking at times. The reprisals of jokes and plot-points in the previous film are turned upside-down and it adds some much-needed unpredictability to the film i.e. the hilarious use of airbags. Some of the jokes are downright gross or controversial (like the intentionally bad portrayal of Jewish people), but it is so over-the-top and delivered with glee from Nicholas Stoller’s direction, it’s easy to get swept up by the enthusiasm of it all. There is even a surprising undercurrent of social commentary in the subject of sexism that is relevant and is also satirized for laughs, like the existence of reverse racism but on the contrary, there is no reverse-sexism, since men supposedly cannot be offended or objectified. And like the first film, the story is character-driven and the characters actually show growth and development throughout the story, which is refreshing nowadays, especially in a comedy like this.

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Aside from the inconsistent character portrayal of Chloe Grace Moretz’s Shelby and the humour sometimes clearly aiming for shock value, Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising is a worthy sequel that feels, like the characters, a little more grown-up, a little more timely and a lot more confident in what it strives to be: a damn good comedy.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast give their all to their roles, exhibiting wonderful chemistry and lots of fun

The jokes are more witty, self-referential and timely

CONS

Inconsistent character portrayals

Some jokes are purely for shock value than actual laughs

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Chloe Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons, Beanie Feldstein, Dave Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Selena Gomez
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Screenwriter: Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O’Brien, Nicholas Stoller, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg

Movie Review – The Bodyguard (HK/2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: A kick-ass return to the glory days for actor/director Sammo Hung!

REVIEW:  Director Sammo Hung is responsible for directing/starring in some of my favourite martial arts films. All with hard-hitting action, childish yet genial comedy and the incredibly abrupt tone changes that would give you emotional whiplash. A prime example of such a film of his would be Pedicab Driver. Are they perfect films that should be on pedestals for critical acclaim? No way. But they are damn good examples of full-bore entertainment. As to the current film, I can’t believe that it has been 19 years since his last directorial effort (Once Upon A Time In China and America), but actor/director/all-round bad-ass Sammo Hung is back in the director’s chair for The Bodyguard. But is the film worth the 19 year wait? Or will it be one major letdown?

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Sammo Hung stars as an old, overweight man (What else?) named Ding witnesses a man being stabbed by a gang, but when he is summoned by the police (involving cameos from Hu Jun, Yuen Biao and others) to identify the suspect, he hesitates and is unable to. The police research Ding’s background and discover that he is a retired Central Security Bureau officer from Beijing, and they figure that he is suffering from dementia. Back at his home, Ding is frequently invited for supper by his land-lord, Park (Li Qinqin), an elderly lady who is attracted to him. Ding, in turn, frequently cares for a little girl next door named Cherry (Jacqueline Chan), whose father, Li (Andy Lau), is an abusive gambler/deadbeat dad. Due to his massive debts, he is ordered by gang leader Choi (Feng Jiayi) to steal something valuable from Russian gang members. This then results in destructive events that can disrupt and possibly put Ding’s life and everyone he holds dear at stake.

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Well, the first thing that people want to know about this film is how are the fight scenes? First of all, there are very little of them in the film. Secondly, they are surprisingly sloppy, over-edited and over-stylized to the point that it could make any non-martial artist look good. So why wasn’t I truly disappointed by them? Tempered expectations are the main reason. Sammo Hung is hitting 70 soon, so anyone with a brain stem can figure out that he is not young and agile anymore. And a fellow reviewer (see his review for the film here) brought up a surprisingly adept argument regarding the editing of the fight scenes. Since Sammo’s character Ding is suffering from dementia and his state of mind is deteriorating, the climax reflects his condition through the fight scenes. Whether you agree with that argument or not, it does make a sound case.

Speaking of expectations, those who expect a kick-ass action film like I did (the marketing materials certainly reflect that) will be disappointed with this film. Essentially, this film is a drama and it’s not really a good one either. Supposedly working with an award-winning script, the film is a lousy patchwork of badly developed drama, sub-par action and obvious attempts to downright suck up to Mainland China. The drama comes off as weak because Sammo does not look like he is giving his all as Ding. And his portrayal of dementia is inaccurate to the point that the scriptwriter seems to confuse dementia with Alzheimer’s. Or was the film targeting both? Who the hell knows? It certainly does not help that his chemistry with Jacqueline Chan does not give the film the emotional punch it desperately strives to reach. A cameo by Eddie Peng epitomizes the China censorship of film so blatantly, it almost comes off as unintentionally hilarious. I expected a bad or morally wrong character to die from a hit-and-run like in many other China co-productions. Cases in point: Going Home (part of Three), Kidnap, Firestorm, Chongqing Hot Pot and others.

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Speaking of cameos, those who are expecting the likes of Yuen Wah, Yuen Qiu, Yuen Biao (that’s a lot of Yuens) and others to engage in combat, will be further disappointed. But I knew it wasn’t going to happen because it reminded me of Yuen Woo-ping’s film, True Legend, where there were cameos everywhere, but none took part in fighting. I do admit I found some joy in seeing Karl Maka, Tsui Hark and Dean Shek together, just jokingly commenting about life. It reminded me of the three old men in the anime series, Cowboy Bebop. But others are just walk-ons or speaking roles that have little to no effect. A cameo from Chinese actress Song Jia is incredibly irrelevant and pointless that it will befuddle the audience, especially when it happens in the end credits, out of chronological order. As for Andy Lau’s second-billed appearance, he has a small role as a gambler/deadbeat dad and takes part in an action scene that is quite irrelevant to the plot. Overall, it is just an excuse to bring foreigners into the movie to, again, placate to the China audience that foreigners are bad and the Chinese are virtuous!

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I feel terrible for bagging out this film, but it is what it is. The fight scenes are disappointingly mediocre, the drama is ill-advised, the acting is unconvincing, the cameos are overhyped, the script is a mess and even the tone shifts seem desperate instead of providing thrills. Even the China censorship is more overstated and insistent than usual. Although I’m happy to see Sammo Hung directing again, and apparently, he has another project lined up already, I am sorry to say that this was a full-blown disappointment.

Quickie Review

PROS

Some of the cameos amuse

The fight scenes (what little there are) can thrill some

CONS

The cameos are overhyped and add very little to the proceedings

The drama does not work

The acting is tired and unconvincing

The tone shifts come off as desperate and are badly executed

SCORE: 4/10 (If only the film was as good as its marketing.)

Cast: Sammo Hung Kam-bo, Andy Lau Tak-wah, Jacqueline Chan, Feng Jiayi, Li Qinqin
Director: Sammo Hung Kam-bo
Screenwriter: Jiang Jun

Movie Review – Hooligan Sparrow

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EXPECTATIONS:  Considering that the subject is from Communist China, something controversial, no doubt.

REVIEW: There are a LOT of crazy, yet infuriating stories that happen in Communist China. Some of the stories include an annual dog-eating festival to its catastrophic levels of pollution to hundreds of dead pigs in rivers and many others. But none of them had prepared me for this hard-hitting and shocking documentary. When I first heard about this film and its subject matter, the factor that intrigued me about it was not the exploration of the subject, but how the filmmaker got away with the footage she had from a place that is very strict with its censorship rules and communist rule. That alone made it a must-see for me. So imagine my surprise to see the footage director Wang Nanfu compiled in Hooligan Sparrow.

The film starts off with Wang holding her digital SLR phone camera. The camera captures a bunch of young men who are whispering and glancing until a scuffle happens between Wang and the group of men, trying to retrieve the camera. With such a gripping and suspenseful moment as the intro of the film, it hooks the audience and it keeps up the tension throughout.

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The documentary follows Ye Haiyan aka Hooligan Sparrow, and her group of activists, who are protesting a case where six public-school girls were sexually abused by their principal. But in the case, the corrupt bureaucracy of education and government favoured the accused and are now targeting Ye for her actions in exposing the injustice. Ye Haiyan was famous for her unorthodox methods of activism like offering sex at one of China’s brothels for free, even targeting the principal. The media swarmed over that story and it gained her impossibly high levels of notoriety, conveying the conditions of China’s sex-service industry.

The story follows director Wang as much as it follows Ye, since she follows Ye around for her documentary, she is also being targeted by the government to the point where she is threatened to be beaten up and she is forced to hide, fearing for her safety as well as questioning whether her footage would ever make it out of China.

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After the protests, Ye is assaulted in her home and is then arrested for attempting to defend herself. Wang accompanies Ye’s lawyer, Wang Yu, to the prison in an attempt to visit her, but they are denied entry. On this occasion, the public outcry and media attention results in Sparrow’s quick release. However, she continues to be followed and is intimidated by a bunch of thugs presumably in the pay of the government and is eventually hounded out of her home. At one point, she says “You can kill me, but you can’t kill the truth.”

The camerawork, while unpolished and inescapably sloppy, adds urgency and a kind of down-to-earth feel that makes the documentary immersive and, at times, makes it feel like a found-footage thriller. The revelations that come from the footage are shocking to behold, like an incredibly stupefying law that rape is life in prison BUT if you were involved in underage prostitution, the sentence is much lower. Even when Ye was attacked by a bunch of thugs and the police became involved, the police stated that “Don’t make such a fuss, it could’ve been murder.” Statements like that are littered throughout and are delivered in such a mannered tone, that it would send chills. A sense of paranoia is also present throughout the film, as ANYONE could be considered a government spy. As director Wang states at one point in the film, a man with five children on the motorbike could potentially be a spy.

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As much as flaws go, the film is not professionally produced as other documentaries and Wang does over-rely on narration to get her point across, especially when she tries to manipulate the audience on who to suspect, but when you get footage as palpable and revealing as this that SOMEHOW got away from the Chinese government, Hooligan Sparrow must been seen by the widest audience possible.

Oh, by the way, on a comforting note, children can be offered as “gifts” to government officials. Oh, did I say “comforting”? I meant “infuriating”.

Quickie Review

PROS

Incredibly powerful footage captured with all its nitty-gritty feel

Shocking revelations about its subject matter

CONS

Not professionally produced

Over-reliance on narration

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Wang Nanfu, Ye Haiyan, Wang Yu
Director: Wang Nanfu
Screenwriter: Wang Nanfu, Mark Monroe