Movie Review – Girls Trip

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EXPECTATIONS: Some girls, some tripping (in more ways than one) and some fun.

REVIEW: Director Malcolm D. Lee is a filmmaker whose work has been quite the mixed bag. While he has good pieces of work like the action/comedy cult hit Undercover Brother, The Best Man films and the incredibly underseen coming-of-age film Roll Bounce, he also has terrible pieces of work (which is one way to put it) like Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (one of many examples that made me almost hate Martin Lawrence) and Scary Movie 5 of all things (a perfect example of kicking a corpse and setting it on fire).

And now we have his latest work, Girls Trip, which has a very talented supporting cast who have done wonderful work, although I have no familiarity of seeing any of Tiffany Haddish‘s work before this, and an incredibly simple premise with tons of comedic possibilities. Is this film worth the trip or is it better to stay home and be tripping?

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The film follows the story of four lifelong friends (known as the Flossy Posse) as they go to a getaway to New Orleans for the Essence Music Festival. First, we have Regina Hall, who stars as Regina Pierce, a famous self-help author with the perfect marriage, the perfect career and the perfect life. In the public eye, anyway. She decides to fix the dying friendship and invites the other three on a girls trip.

Then we have Queen Latifah, who stars as Sasha Franklin, a journalist who currently manages her own blog, which focuses on dishing out dirt on celebrities. And we have Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays Lisa Cooper, a nurse/single mother whose life with her two children while living with her mother is probably more sterile than the workplace she works in.

And last but definitely not least, we have Tiffany Haddish, an office worker who recently got fired (in one of the film’s best scenes) but she happens to be a very committed purveyor in the horizontal and vertical refreshment industry. As well as a healthy connoisseur in the art of fine alcohol. Or in this case, 200 year-old absinthe.

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So basically the story is a bunch of people go on a trip to party and hijinks ensue. There is a plot involved in there but to be honest, it is quite inconsequential and perfunctory. Like most comedies, the laughs (if any) just plummet when the plot is involved so there really is no point. What matters is whether the film is funny or not? So is it?

Girls Trip is an R-rated raunchy comedy done right and it is thanks to the clever script by Erica Rivinoja, Kenya Barris (creator of TV series Black-ish) and Tracy Oliver and of course the outstanding leads. There are plenty of R-rated comedies such as this out there but most of these are done wrong due to three essential arms: characters we can relate to, cast chemistry and a strong script.

Two examples that get it wrong are The Hangover, the film that apparently started this whole ensemble partying thing and is grossly overrated; and this year’s similarly themed Rough Night. In the case of The Hangover, I found it very unfunny because I didn’t have any engagement with the characters and it just came off as annoying.

In the case of Rough Night, that film failed to be engaging not because the characters were not relatable but the chemistry between the four leads were not only non-existent but it is almost as if they have never met before.

The script for Girls Trip is jam-packed with great moments. To name some, it includes the scariest “shower” scene since Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho; the laugh-out-loud treatment (or straight-up abuse) of fruits and certain meats that would make men repeatedly cross their legs and of course a nightclub scene where the film’s title takes on more than one definition. It also features the best “human kebab” since Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. It is at that moment where I thought I’m glad that this movie wasn’t in 3D.

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But to bring all that wondrously dirty humour to life, we have to, once again, relate to the characters. The four leads are all fantastic in their roles and if it weren’t for them, the film would’ve sunk dearly. They all share great chemistry and the script gives them characterizations and enough moments for them to shine.

Regina Hall, who has proven to be a capable comedian thanks to the Scary Movie entries (satirizing the ghetto role with ease, except in the last one), gives her best performance as Ryan, since her character has a conflict of whether to stand up for herself at the risk of her career and the reputation she has worked so hard for. While her character is seen to be the “straight and responsible” role of the film, thankfully the role never restricts her from having fun and reminds everyone why she was such a hoot in the first place.

Queen Latifah is reliably sticking to her character type as Sasha, as she plays her character as headstrong, with an almost no-nonsense attitude towards the falsities of life (Sorry, this is a family site). It is the pairing of Latifah and Hall that grounds the film and lends it heart so that the plot kicks in, while the laughter dies down a bit, at least it is in support of the characters, which is what the audience should stay and root for.

Jada Pinkett Smith is thankfully against type (well, at least compared to her entertainingly vamp and icy role in the TV series, Gotham) as the socially repressed Lisa, whose fiery reputation in the past seemed to be behind her. But fortunately, she ends up putting her behind on her past as her reputation ends up being reignited as she goes on the trip to look for a fling. The scenes where she tries to get back in the game, so to speak, are hilarious since her character is more on a mothering level, rather than a smothering level (in more ways than one) as her friends what her to be.

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And now we have the wild card (in more ways than one), Tiffany Haddish. She is given the lion’s share (or lioness, in this case) of the vulgar humour and she is completely fearless and handles it like a pro. Many of her antics will remain in one’s head for a very long time and when it comes out on home video, her antics will live on in history as animated gifs in social media forever. This is the role for Haddish that is surely to break her out into the spotlight. Thankfully not in more ways than one.

The supporting cast are all fine in their roles. Kate Walsh is very amusing as the token white woman (Yes, I went there); TV show Luke Cage‘s Mike Coulter comes off looking solid (in more ways than one) as the nth-timing husband of Ryan; Larenz Tate is blandly likable as the old college friend whom Ryan has an inkling for and Kofi Siriboe is a good sport as Malik, the man with the third “arm” that Lisa has an inkling for. Malik, I mean, not the arm. I think.

We also get cameos from music artists like Diddy, Common, Mariah Carey as well as filmmaker Ava DuVernay, singer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and actor Morris Chestnut. There’s even an amusing cameo from Mike Epps as a street hawker.

The film isn’t without bumps on the way, as it does run a bit too long (more than two hours) and the script could afford to be more creative or subversive with its comedic tropes, like the antagonist character Simone (Deborah Ayorinde), who is played out in a boring and predictably safe fashion.

The film also switches from well-executed raunchiness to moments of drama involving friendship conflicts and a climax that involves female empowerment and knowing your own self-worth, but the transitions aren’t always well-executed.

But those flaws can be easily brushed off (or in this case, danced off) as Girls Trip is a film that is a hilarious time at the movies thanks to the energetically raunchy script, the wonderful cast and the dynamite chemistry; the latter being the longest arm, I mean, the strongest arm of all. In more ways than– Okay, I’ll stop now.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The four leads have a winning chemistry and all give hilarious performances

The four leads are personable, relatable enough for us to root for

Many moments of inspired raunchiness

CONS

Overlong running time

Plot overrides humour

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: Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Larenz Tate, Mike Colter, Kate Walsh, Kofi Siriboe, Deborah Ayorinde
Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Screenwriters: Erica Rivinoja, Kenya Barris, Tracy Oliver

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Movie Review – Death Note (2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something not resembling a trainwreck.

REVIEW: Whitewashing! Americanized! Lack of ethnicity! Yeah, I’m gonna talk about that in much detail, just to make that clear. Anyway, a lot of negative buzz has been going around this project due the things mentioned above and it definitely is a valid argument since the source material is distinctly Japanese. So to retroactively set the story in another location would potentially leave a lot of things lost in translation, so to speak.

To give some hints about my prior expectations about this new film, I have never seen the anime nor read the manga, but I have seen the Japanese live-action films and I thought they were tedious and dull, due to massive amounts of exposition and shoddy filmmaking that makes it look like a television show, rather than an actual film. So, there really isn’t a high bar to reach here.

Another hint, I like Adam Wingard‘s work. From the well-made slasher flick You’re Next to the stylish neo-noir thriller The Guest and the proficient sequel Blair Witch, he does good work. When I heard his name was attached to this film, I had a glimmer of hope that this film would actually be quite good. Does the film stand out or does it deserve to be written in and taken out of circulation?

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Death Note follows Max Landis a high school student, Light Turner (Nat Wolff) who comes across a supernatural notebook, realizing it holds within it a great power; if the owner writes someone’s name into it while picturing their face, he or she will die.

Feeling a sense of purpose with his life and driven by his anger due to an unjustly death in the family, thanks to his new godlike abilities, Light begins to kill those he deems to be unworthy of living. As the long number of kills gets ever higher, it draws the attention of “L” (Lakeith Stanfield), a enigmatic detective, hot on his trail.

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My opinion on Death Note? Surprisingly enjoyable in parts, but for all the wrong reasons. With all the mythology that the source material has, the film just blitzes through it, rendering the film emotionally inert and amusingly ironic, since the Japanese counterparts suffer from too much exposition. You just don’t really care for any of these characters and when you are meant to, the film just turns into an unintentional comedy.

Wingard, who has used great soundtracks with his previous films has lost it here, executing scenes (in more ways than one) that are meant to be emotionally involving just got shrieks of laughter out of me. The film still looks great like Wingard’s prior films, thanks to cinematographer David Tattersall, but the style is all for naught. One change from the source material involves the executions of the death scenes. In the 2017 film, the keeper can write how people can die and it leads some surprisingly gory denouements.

But the problem is, the deaths are so overstated and serious, that it again becomes hilarious. The deaths are very similar to the Final Destination films but the tone of them all are similar to the deaths in The Happening. And no, that is not worthy of praise.

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Also not worthy of much praise is the performances. Nat Wolff, who was fine in The Fault in Our Stars, is just awful here as Light Turner. Most of the time, he can’t live up to his character’s name and becomes dim but when the dramatic stakes are up, he goes for hysterical shrieking that made me laugh uproariously. Seriously, his shrieking makes Shia LaBeouf‘s shrieking in the Transformers films look thespian.

As for L, Lakeith Stanfield is fine in the role, although when the going gets tough, he is meant to play the character with fiery anger, but he comes across as annoyingly petulant, ruining the mystery and enigmatic feel of the character. Margaret Qualley does the best she can with the character of Maya Sutton, but her backstory is literally stated as being a cheerleader, not giving her anything to work with than just being a love interest, and when her gradual character change is revealed, it becomes hard to buy since we never really know her motivations.

The supporting cast are all okay, but nothing worthy of praise like Shea Whigham as Light’s father and Paul Nakauchi as Watari, L’s assistant. But the real (and only) standout is Willem Dafoe as Ryuk. He lends a lot of creepiness to the part as well as some much-needed sadistic sense of humour. But I wished they didn’t do the motion-capture route and just did some light touches of make-up on him. He looks like Ryuk already!

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So that’s the American incarnation of Death Note folks. It’s good for a couple of unintended laughs, all sealed up in a candy wrapper. There’s nothing here worth getting angry about, nor is there anything worthy of praise; the resulting film is more of a footnote than a Death Note.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Some unintentional laughs from the acting and stylistic cues

Willem Dafoe as Ryuk

CONS

Tonally misguided

Awful acting, especially from Nat Wolff

Incredibly rushed storytelling

SCORE: 4/10

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

Cast: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles, Willem Dafoe
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriters: Charley Parlapanides & Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater, based on the manga by Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata in Shonen Jump

Movie Review – Wolf Warrior 2

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EXPECTATIONS: A jingoistic and entertaining piece of garbage.

REVIEW: Chinese action star Wu Jing is an actor that I have been following for quite a surprisingly long time. Ever since he was appeared in Tai Chi Boxer, a low-budget martial arts film, he has shown his martial arts skills, but never really standing out from the crowd. It was only until SPL, where he played a formidable and sadistic henchman and fought against Donnie Yen, that was when he was recognized worldwide.

Since then, he has appeared in more movies, playing more villains like in Invisible Target and Fatal Move, and also playing more heroes with ample charisma like in Twins Mission and City Under Siege. It was after all the action roles, he gained an interest in directing, which he achieved in his directorial debut, Legendary Assassin, which was a passable action film that drowned in its self-importance and excessive wirework.

He then tried again with Wolf Warrior, a solo-directorial debut about the Chinese Army fighting against foreign mercenaries. The film was ripe with B-movie goodness, but it never harnessed it due to its low budget, shoddy film-making and excessive (if amusing) flag-waving, leaving the film to be a disappointment.

Now, we have Wu Jing returning to the director’s chair with Wolf Warrior 2, a country-trekking sequel with a bigger budget and input from the makers of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, including the same stunt people and even Frank Grillo. Will the film be a marked improvement over the sloppy original or will it end up being a disaster for all involved?

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After the events of Wolf Warrior, Leng Feng (Wu Jing) returns to his hometown, but he doesn’t get the welcome committee he expected and due to a conflict (among many in the film) he gets sent to prison and expelled from the Chinese Special Forces.

And faster than you can say “Chinese Rambo“, he goes into exile in Africa, drowning in gallons of alcohol and pining over the death of his superior officer/love interest Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan, in a cameo).

But the peace is interrupted when an uprising occurs and he must retreat to a Chinese destroyer, which strictly evacuates Chinese civilians. But when he overhears guards talking about needing someone to rescue workers at a factory and an important doctor who knows the vaccination for Lamanla (Yes, that’s actually what it’s called), Leng Feng volunteers.

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To be perfectly blunt, no one watches these types of films for the plot; people want to see these films for the action and the momentum that can carry the audience to see more action. And thankfully, Wolf Warrior 2 is a huge improvement over the original in that regard.

Utilizing long takes, a bigger budget and vast locations, Wu really went all out with the fight scenes, which are brutal and hard-hitting; the car chases, which involve driving through a village and a tank battle; and the gun battles which crash, bang and wallop as they should. Action scenes involving drones and an uprising are the standouts in the film, as well as the final fight scene between Wu and Grillo, which is an improvement over the underwhelming climactic fight in the original film involving Wu and Adkins. The opening action scene involves a fight underwater and it is both ridiculous, thrilling and very reminiscent of the climactic fight scene in the Jackie Chan film, First Strike.

There are also many unintentionally hilarious moments which suits its throwback B-movie tone. Scenes with absolutely no care about logic, storytelling or even basic human decency. Like the use of a piece of glass used to kill many people, how Leng stops a rocket in a way that has to be seen to be believed, incredibly offensive portrayal of Africans to the point that it ends up being moronically laughable eg. when an African mother throws an elbow drop on a soldier that would make Dwayne Johnson cringe; and the flag-waving (which isn’t as much as the original) that is taken to its logical conclusion where Wu literally fashions himself as a flagpole to wave the China flag, there is plenty of things to laugh at, and definitely not to laugh with. It is the sheer ineptitude that makes all these moments funny.

But here’s the thing: we’re not living in the 80’s and early 90’s anymore and nowadays, the many things in Wolf Warrior 2 that would have been expected back in the past, would be strongly frowned upon today and rightfully so. The killings of the African people in particular are incredibly excessive to the point of being mean-spirited; some of the portrayals are quite racist and embarrassing (like the elbow drop) and like many of the China-market films (eg. Operation Mekong and The White Storm), China steps into foreign territory to solve something without any assistance from home authorities. Basically, it’s them saying “Get the hell out of our way, we’ll take it from here!”. Some of these criticisms can be overlooked, but there will be people out there who will be offended, if not outraged.

Speaking of outrage, for those who are gung-ho on plot and filmmaking as well as the action, will be laughing at how the story is told. There are numerous plot holes (How does Leng know where the hostages are when he crashes through a building with an SUV?) and contrivances (A character gets cured of a virus overnight), incredibly bad dialogue (A henchman actually cries angrily about manners peoples’ mothers should be teaching) and lapses in basic logic (Injuries heal as soon as they’re inflicted).

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And the performances is just as haphazard as the storytelling. Wu Jing as Leng Feng is a solid leading man, who clearly knows his action and has great presence on screen. It’s a vanity project of his as his character is seen as the saviour of everyone on the bloody planet, but does more than enough in the role.

Regarding the supporting cast, that’s where the acting drops down a notch. Celina Jade, who is famous for the TV series Arrow, works with Wu Jing for the second time after Legendary Assassin is likable and charming in her role as Dr. Rachel Smith, even if she isn’t much of an actress. Frank Grillo, in his limited screentime, exudes some much-needed menace while Wu Gang is quite good as the veteran soldier who aids Leng Feng.

As for Hans Zhang, when I was sitting in a packed theater, when he first appeared on-screen, the audience went hysterical, laughing derisively at his presence. Thankfully, his character is meant to look and act foolish, since he is a fuerdai (meaning rich second generation) and a fanboy of the PLA. But through Zhang’s performance, he comes off as annoying and really should have been killed off. Other performances go from wooden (most of the African actors and henchmen) to downright laughable like Oleg Prudius, who is a hoot as the moody Bear and Ding Haifeng, who shouts an order that made me laugh out loud!

Overall, Wolf Warrior 2 is a marked improvement over its predecessor that provides the requisite thrills and action that one would definitely look for. But its sheer moral ineptitude combined with its throwback B-movie tone makes it one of the most unintentionally hilarious films of the year. Or it could outrage and offend many because of it. You be the judge.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great action scenes

Plenty of unintentionally hilarious moments

Wu Jing is a great action star

CONS

Moral ineptitude involving racism and propaganda

Shoddy storytelling

Laughable acting

SCORE: 7.5/10

Cast: Wu Jing, Frank Grillo, Celina Jade, Wu Gang, Hans Zhang, Ding Haifeng, Chunyu Shanshan
Director: Wu Jing
Screenwriters: Wu Jing, Dong Qun, Liu Yi