Movie Review – Incredibles 2

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that doesn’t equal the original, but is a fun time nonetheless.

REVIEW: It has been a very, very long 14 years, but the long-awaited sequel that many were asking for is finally here. Toy Story 4 Incredibles 2 has finally arrived! The first film was branded as the Fantastic Four film that people deserved and it catapulted the career of director Brad Bird to new heights, including live-action ventures like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland.

And with the vast amounts of superhero films we have today and many more on the horizon, it is clearly a no-brainer for Bird to make the sequel. Will Incredibles 2 succeed as a sequel that stands on its own as well as a great superhero film in its own right?

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Incredibles 2 starts off where the first film ended, where the Parr family encounter the villain, The Underminer. Although, as a family, they have foiled his plan to rob the major banks, he escapes, leaving the Incredibles with a worse reputation than they already have from government officials.

It only gets worse when Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks, replacing Bud Luckey who sadly passed away) reports that the superhero relocation program is shut down, leading the family to dire straits. But hope comes into the picture when Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) informs Helen (Holly Hunter) and Bob (Craig T. Nelson) about Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), the CEO of a telecommunications company who’s also a superhero fanatic. Alongside her sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener) who is a technological marvel, the two want to bring supers back into the spotlight by changing the public’s perception of them.

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Since Helen is chosen for her light approach to saving the day (in comparison to Bob’s sloppy approach), she is out, doing all the work, advocating superhero rights while Bob is at home, as the stay-at-home dad, taking care of the moody Violet (Sarah Vowell), the hyperactive Dash (Huck Milner, replacing Spencer Fox) and the increasingly troublesome Jack-Jack, who’s experiencing his own super phase.

As the two adjust to their new change in lifestyles and as superheroes come back into the spotlight, a new supervillain comes into the midst, called the Screenslaver, who has the ability to use any screen to hypnotize and control people who look at them.

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Was Incredibles 2 worth the 14-year wait? Thankfully, it is, as it provides younger children a very entertaining respite from the high-stakes storytelling of other superhero films like Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther. And no, Deadpool 2 is not for young children!

One of the best factors of the first Incredibles film is the integration of the family dynamic into the superhero genre and thankfully, it is kept intact in the sequel; the much-needed grounded feel that audiences can relate to. But this time, focusing on how Bob takes care of the family.

And it is because of that, it ends up being surprisingly funnier than the original. Bob’s reactions to mundane tasks like helping Dash with his homework or trying to put Jack-Jack to sleep are hilarious. Jack-Jack in particular, is the funniest thing in the film. His interactions with the family and a certain creature pay off with the biggest laughs.

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The action sequences, while not emotionally thrilling like the airplane set-piece in the first film, are still a lot of fun to watch, especially when one of them is similar to a set-piece in an infamously maligned sequel. It helps a lot when Bird comes up with new superpowers for the Incredibles to fight against eg. teleportation or hypnosis; or when he gives something new for the Incredibles to do eg. when Helen (aka Elastigirl) rides her motorcycle to scale and jump on tall buildings by splitting apart, similar to parkour.

Like all of Pixar films, they always choose actors who are right for the parts, and not just choose people with massive star power. All the cast members assembled are on point with their characters, including Bird himself as the hoot-and-a-half Edna Mode. The newcomers including Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush and Isabella Rossellini (just her appearance alone makes me laugh) all commit with ease and sound like they are having fun while they’re doing it. Bob Odenkirk needs to do more voicework, that’s all this I’ll say. And the biggest laugh for me is when Samuel L. Jackson (as Frozone) almost does a trademark of his. Almost.

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As for its flaws, it basically comes down to expectations. Since the film came out 14 years after the original, there would be a build-up of audience anticipation that may affect how people would feel about the film. It could easily had come out 2 years later, it’s possible the film would have a better reception.

Back to actual flaws, the film isn’t as emotionally stirring as the original, as the film focuses more on fun and less on stakes. And the motivation for the villainous scheme for what he or she (or they?) isn’t as involving as it could’ve been, particularly in comparison to the motivation of Syndrome, the villain in the first Incredibles film.

Overall, Incredibles 2 is a hell of a fun time for the entire family, providing lots of superhero antics that rival films in the MCU and DCEU, loads more laughs than the original film and the cast and crew all back in the height of their game. Don’t ever get get old, Jack-Jack.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic action scenes

Many, many hilarious moments

Keeps the compelling family dynamic intact

Many memorable side characters, including the villain, the Screenslaver

CONS

Not quite emotionally stirring as the original

Could’ve easily came out much earlier and not have the pressures of the long waiting time

The motive of the villain isn’t as good in comparison to Syndrome from the first film

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: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush, Isabella Rossellini, John Ratzenberger, LaTanya Richardson Jackson
Director: Brad Bird
Screenwriters: Brad Bird

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Movie Review – Believer

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EXPECTATIONS: A vastly different, yet satisfying remake of Johnnie To’s Drug War.

REVIEW: Everyone knows how I feel about remakes, being mostly unnecessary and the ones that stand out strive to be different and so on, yada-yada-yada. Therefore, I won’t be singing the same tune again.

In the case of Lee Hae-young’s Believer, it is a remake of Johnnie To’s stellar crime-thriller Drug War, a film that stood out due to To’s fantastic direction that not only makes thrills with its boilerplate procedural narrative but also sidestepping Chinese film censorship, which is no easy feat.

Believer doesn’t have those obstacles but just the elephant in the room; being that it is a remake of a critically acclaimed film. It can be a simple cut-and-paste of the original, or it will make a deviation from it and stand out from the crowd. That’s where director Lee Hae-young comes in.

Standing out with his directorial debut, the delightfully strange comedy-drama Like a Virgin, which involves a trans-woman who competes in Korean wrestling in order to win money to pay for her sex change operation. That alone already sounds like the type of director who takes the road less traveled. With a talented cast (including the late Kim Joo-hyuk) and crew in tow, will Believer be a remake that finally stands out?

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Basically following the framework of Drug War, the film follows detective Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) who, to bring down the boss of Asia’s biggest drug cartel, conspires with a drug pusher named Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol) who is a lowly member of the gang seeking revenge against the boss, Mr. Lee, who has never been truly seen as many people out there claim to be him.

From the second the film started, it is very clear that Believer isn’t a straight cut-and-paste remake of Drug War. Taking a different approach in comparison to the almost laser-focused procedural pacing of Johnnie To’s film, Lee Hae-young’s film takes on a more stylish and cinematic approach, adding dimensions to the lead characters, utilizing more unorthodox shot placements (one used on the revolving platter), adding more gore and prurience and making the villains even more larger-than-life (courtesy of actors Kim Joo-hyuk and Cha Seung-won, as a new character not in the original).

In simpler terms, director Lee and scriptwriter Chung Seo-kyung (a collaborator for the acclaimed director Park Chan-wook) takes the framework of Drug War and puts a lot more “movie” into it. Cinematographer Kim Tae-kyung lenses the film stylishly with great results and the propulsive electronic score by Dalpapan adds a lot of energy to the proceedings.

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And on that note, Believer succeeds overall. Starting from the smaller details, the humour is more from the macabre variety, rather than the dark humour in Drug War, and it lends some ample laughs. Whether it’s a character that uses his tongue for more than just profane swearing or a particular use of gore that is reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the depravity is sure to startle and induce awkward laughter.

The characters are more overstated than in the original and the actors are more than up to the task in portraying them up to eleven. Last seen in roles like the perverted stepfather in The Handmaiden and the fiendish villain in A Hard Day, Cho Jin-woong fits into the role of Won-ho like a glove and while the script initially gives him an emotional throughline to play with via a character death, it’s largely forgotten until the ending.

Ryu Jun-yeol, fresh from the biggest Korean film of 2017, A Taxi Driver, is compellingly enigmatic as the taciturn Rak. Since the drama is pumped up, the relationship between Won-ho and Rak is put into the spotlight but unfortunately, it’s not developed very much beyond petty squabbles about mistrust and dependence on one another. It also doesn’t help that it’s overshadowed by the vast amount of quirky characters i.e. the villains. And it’s because of that, the contemplative ending, which is incredibly out of place with everything that proceeded it, falls flat.

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But the actors who play the villains do their very best to compensate and they are definitely the most entertaining parts of the film. The late Kim Joo-hyuk gives a spectacular performance as the deranged Ha-Rim, who can be set off by something innocuous as the noise of a LED light bulb. Park Hae-joon is entertainingly boisterous as Sun-chang, a lieutenant of Mr. Lee who can’t keep his mouth shut.

Others include Jin Seo-yeon, who is hot-headed as Bo-ryeong, Ha-rim’s eccentric and fanatical (of Lee Min-ho, of course) girlfriend, while Cha Seoung-won effectively plays Brian, a drug-peddling minister/estranged son of a dead industrialist with a bit of a screw loose. Best of all are Kim Dong-young and Lee Joo-young as deaf/mute brother-and-sister (unlike the two mute brothers in Drug War) drug cooks who are amusingly menacing in dirty clothing, firing off machine guns as well as bicker in hilariously exaggerated sign language.

But the majority of the female characters (apart from Lee Joo-young and Kang Seung-hyun as a member of Won-ho’s team) are portrayed problematically, including the character of Bo-ryeong. Whether they are meant to be leered at as eye candy or only serve as a plot device/character motivator, it’s a problem that not only brings down Believer, but other South Korean films, especially V.I.P.

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The action, which most of it is in the third act, is well-done and ferocious as many South Korean action films can be. Although none of the action scenes are immaculate as in Drug War, it relies on more of an extravagant approach (including scenes of hand-to-hand combat) that works. And there are scenes that are intensely gripping, the stand-out being an elaborate undercover scheme involving scripting and acting skills that shows ,like in Stephen Chow’s King Of Comedy, that undercover cops are the best actors.

And speaking of the best, Believer is the best we could’ve hoped for a remake nowadays. Retaining the framework of the original whilst going on its own path, the cast and crew all deserve kudos for their genuine effort, even if the destination is not as satisfying as the journey. And it serves as a substantial swan song for Kim Joo-hyuk, who steals the show with his towering performance.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The cast give good performances, especially Kim Joo-hyuk

Macabre sense of humour lends plenty of laughs

Quirky supporting characters add loads of fun

Well-executed action, gripping scenes of tension and good pacing

CONS

Problematic portrayal of female characters

Ill-fitting ending

Ineffective human drama between two leads

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Cho Jin-woong, Ryu Jun-yeol, Kim Joo-hyuk, Kim Sung-ryung, Park Hae-joon, Cha Seung-won, Jin Seo-yeon, Kang Seung-hyun, Seo Hyun-woo, Kim Dong-young, Lee Joo-young, Jung Ga-ram
Director: Lee Hae-young
Screenwriters: Chung Seo-kyung, Lee Hae-young, based on Johnnie To’s Drug War

Movie Review – Re:Born

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EXPECTATIONS: A satisfying swan-song for Tak Sakaguchi.

REVIEW: If I heard someone told me that a movie star became famous because he was found by a director while doing underground street fighting, I wouldn’t have believed it. But that is the origin of the film career of the Japanese actor/writer/director/producer/martial artist Tak Sakaguchi.

From humble beginnings with short films with Yudai Yamaguchi, he got his first break with working with Ryuhei Kitamura on the zombie/martial arts/yakuza cult hit, Versus. And that started a fruitful collaboration where they worked together on many other films like Alive, Godzilla: Final Wars and Azumi.

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With other collaborations with martial artists and stuntmen like Yuji Shimomura, Seiji Chiba, he got a taste of going through the behind-the-scenes of filmmaking and became a director with films like Mutant Girls Squad, Be a Man! Samurai School and Samurai Zombie.

But in recent years, shocking news came about when he announced his retirement. Rumours of conflicts with film staff, family issues, health issues came about, but in a recent interview, the reason for his retirement was for him to focus more behind-the scenes, rather than being in front of the camera.

But now, he has come back for one last hurrah. Collaborating with regulars like director/action choreographer Yuji Shimomura, his ZEROS stunt team, fellow actors like Takumi Saito and Mariko Shinoda, he seems determined to make this a treat for his fans. Does Re:Born live up the the hype?

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A legendary covert soldier (Tak Sakaguchi) with a mysterious past now decides to once again unleash his beast inside of him to stand up for what he cares about when his adopted daughter is kidnapped, luring him out of his peaceful existence.

Well, that’s it for the plot synopsis because no one really watches these types of films for the plot; people watch these types of films for the action. And as the swan song of Tak Sakaguchi, Re:Born more than suffices.

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The action was formulated alongside Sakaguchi and Shimomura and fight choreographer Yoshitaka Inagawa to craft a style action fans have never seen, and the result is something called Zero Range Combat; which is basically a close quarters fighting technique, often involving small bladed weaponry, that uses speed and closeness to defeat opponents with pure efficiency.

And while that would sound very repetitive and quite frankly ridiculous in the context of action scenes involving a one-man army, Sakaguchi sells it, making the action scenes thrilling and quite believable.

There are action scenes of brevity that are just flat-out cool in their speed, like a sneak attack in the middle of a crowd that involves the ingenious use of a pen and a gun cartridge.

And there are one-on-one fight scenes involving the setting of a phone booth and a warehouse, one-man-army fight scenes in a forest (Sakaguchi’s favourite setting) but the stand-out one is a one-on-one fight scene between Ghost and the Abyss Walker (yes, really).

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Their movements, which are very loose and free-flowing, along with the dark cinematography by Tetsuya Kudo and composer Kenji Kawai’s imposing score, add a certain surreal and illusive feel, that it comes off as nightmarish. Or the free-flowing movements of the actors may come off as laughable, but it’s certainly one of the more original fight scenes that have come out in recent memory.

While the action of the film is great, how does the rest of the film go? Therein lies the rub. The supporting actors, which include Yura Kondo, Hitomi Hasebe, Takumi Saito, Akio Otsuka, all do what they can with their roles, trying to give the story a sense of credibility, but they all come off as superfluous; just means to an end, which is the action.

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The other cast members, who are involved in the action, fare better, including standouts like Mariko Shinoda, who obviously had a successful collaboration with Sakaguchi since working together in Sion Sono’s bonkers extravaganza, Tag; and of course Makoto Sakaguchi, the standout in films like Sion Sono’s rap musical Tokyo Tribe, as a sadistic soldier.

As for the story, it is simple in retrospect, but as told in the film, is needlessly convoluted to make it more important than it actually is, burdened with needless flashbacks, drawn-out scenes of self-introspection that drag the film a bit.

Overall, Re:Born is a more than sufficient entry to the action genre with Tak Sakaguchi and Yuji Shimomura doing what they do best: kicking ass and taking names, hundreds upon hundreds of them, with style.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic action scenes

Production values like the cinematography and musical score add to the film

CONS

Wasted supporting cast

Superfluous storyline

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Tak Sakaguchi, Yura Kondo, Takumi Saito, Mariko Shinoda, Akio Otsuka, Orson Mochizuki, Kenta Akami, Masaya Kato, Rina Takeda (narrator)
Director: Yuji Shimomura
Screenwriters: Benio Saeki, Tak Sakaguchi

Movie Review – Ready Player One

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EXPECTATIONS: Flash! Bang! Reference!

REVIEW: Of all the literature out there that caters to geek culture like the sci-fi extravaganza The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the bonkers detective noir The Eyre Affair, very few of them are as controversial as Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Although it is a best-seller and has some many popular reviews for it, many have said it is a major detriment to geek culture due to its pandering i.e. references, terrible prose and many claims of misogyny, racism and homophobia.

But like how life finds a way, the most terrible books can be adapted to become films. Critically acclaimed books adapted to be live-action films can result in critically acclaimed films. Sounds simple enough that you can assume that terrible books that are adapted to be terrible films. But can a problematic book be adapted to become a great film? This is where the director, Senor Spielbergo Steven Spielberg comes in.

All of Spielberg’s films can be fit into two categories, and it has been more apparent in recent years. In his filmography, he has The Post, Bridge of Spies, Munich and Lincoln; all films that have aspirations for gravitas and respectability. In other words, they are made “For Your Consideration”. And then we have films like The BFG, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, The Adventures of Tintin; all films that are made purely for entertainment value as well as being tentpole releases. In other words, they are made “For Your Money”.

Now we have Spielberg’s latest film, Ready Player One, an obvious entry for the latter category where he clearly thought he needed a bigger boat budget since his last highest-budgeted film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. With all his talent and filmmaking skill to back him up, will be able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? Or will it be like taking dinosaurs off the island like in The Lost World: Jurassic Park; that being the worst idea in the long, sad history of bad ideas?

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The film is set in 2045 (in the future), with the world on the brink of chaos and collapse (like the present). But the people have found salvation in denial the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant and eccentric Willy Wonka Steve Jobs James Halliday (Mark Rylance).

When Halliday dies (or does he?), he leaves his immense fortune to the first person to find a digital Easter egg (not the chocolate kind) he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, starting a contest that entices everyone. And I don’t just mean a group of people, I mean what Gary Oldman yells in Leon: The Professional, which is EVERYONE!

Anyway, when a very likely young hero named Marty McFly Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to join the contest, after witnessing his Aunt May Aunt Alice being assaulted by Uncle Ben her boyfriend (who is part of a long line of them), he is thrown into a reference-packed pop culture world filled with colour, fun and thankfully eventually, danger.

And of course, there is the evil megalomaniacal company IOI, headed by greedy CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) wants to get this egg to satiate his greed, all of which is linked to earning higher profits because money! Everybody likes money! That’s why they call it money! The race is on, like Donkey Kong!

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Does Ready Player One fix all of its problems of its source material to become a legitimately great film that belongs to the pantheon of Spielberg’s filmography? The answer is 42 no. Although there are some fun sequences and genuine wonder to be had, the film itself is a pandering, noisy, visual mess with a thin plot and even thinner characters.

Let’s begin with the positives. The veteran actors, Ben Mendelsohn and Mark Rylance have fun with their roles as the sinister villain and the creator, respectively. But they are basically performances that they have done before. Mendelsohn basically does the generic, villainous Mendo performance, where he attempts an American accent and grimaces frequently, while having Scooby-Doo aspirations. If you’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises and Rogue One, you’ve seen Mendelsohn’s performance already. Same goes for Rylance, whose performance is similar to his one in The BFG, also directed by Spielberg.

Another positive is when Spielberg focuses on the wonder of film, particularly filmmakers that he admires, and this is when the film soars. In an extended sequence, the characters venture into a world of a particular horror film (which won’t be spoiled) and the reason the scene works not only because it is quite funny, it is one of the few scenes where it actually introduces the stakes for characters in a way that the pop culture references actually serve the story i.e. characters that know the film can survive the traps of the world while characters that don’t know the film will suffer.

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And now we get to the negatives, and like the horror movie the film references, this is where the blood flows. The characters (if you could call them that) are incredibly thin and boring, with no dimension or arc whatsoever, especially when the film is a hero’s journey. Tye Sheridan (who’s fantastic in indie films like Mud and Joe) comes off as bland while Olivia Cooke (who’s great in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Limehouse Golem) takes her role and lends it credence that clearly wasn’t in the script.

And the interactions between the two are pretty embarrassing and mildly creepy. Apparently, quoting pop culture references to each other quantifies as developing a rapport or a sense of chemistry. It’s quite reminiscent of Spielberg’s The Terminal, where Diego Luna’s character and Zoe Saldana’s character never meet, but they exchange messages to each other, much like Ready Player One, and in the end, they’re newlyweds, kind of like Ready Player One. It just comes off as forced and awkward.

And let’s not skim over the problem with the female characters, being that they can’t be seen as anything other than plot devices to serve the main character. Samantha (or Art3mis) has her own motivations involving her family but it only ends up being a means to an end, which is Wade. And of course in the OASIS, she’s an avatar with an attractive body, anime-like eyes and happens to be the person that actually likes Wade’s references. And she has a birthmark (Sure, Jan.) across her face that makes her vulnerable and she only gets over it when Wade does.

And there’s Aunt Alice, who’s a woman who’s been abused by countless lovers because that’s what all single moms do, like in Kingsman: The Secret Service. One of the challenges the characters must achieve in order to get the next artifact involves wooing a woman. Hell, the character of Aech can’t be taken seriously in the film because she’s in fact [SPOILER ALERT] a woman!

The rest of the roles from the heroes are interchangeable (apart from Lena Waithe, who’s amusing) and they come off as lame attempts at rekindling child roles from Spielberg’s prior projects like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies. Yes, I see you, Short Round 2.0! And even Simon Pegg (who’s a geek thanks to projects like Spaced) is wasted here. Not Shaun of the Dead-Winchester wasted, but his talent sure is.

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And let’s get down to the nitty, gritty and pithy part of Ready Player One: the references. Now, like I said in my prior reviews (yes, I’m referencing myself), in order to find comedies funny, you have to engage with the humanity of the film and the same goes with the references. Do they serve the story? Do they serve the characters? Do they add a sense of fun?

Other than the extended sequence that ventures into a horror film, they don’t add much to the film, apart from being visually splendorous and that it can make people go Ooh, there’s The Iron Giant! Ooh, there’s Freddy Krueger! Ooh, there’s Chucky! Ooh, there’s the DeLorean! Ooh, there’s King Kong! Ooh, there’s Kratos! If you thought that was annoying, try experiencing my Ready Player One review 140 minutes of it.

But even with Spielberg’s handling of the visuals, the camerawork and visual information is so dizzying and assaultive that it becomes blurry, exhausting and nauseating. There’s just so much references flying around, that the filmmakers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

And of course there’s the implications of the knowledge of the references in the film. Apparently, you’re seen as a bad person if you do not know what the references are, which is evident in a confrontation between Wade and Nolan. And it has the nerve to share lines of dialogue like how a fanboy can spot a hater. If this is the standard of how hero-villain exchanges go, then we’re kinda screwed.

Ready Player One isn’t a terrible movie but considering the talent (both in front of and behind the camera) and the potential from the novel (if not the execution) that could have been adapted, it doesn’t feel like anything like the OASIS in the novel. Instead, it should be thrown in the Boo Box in Spielberg’s Hook.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic visuals

Has moments of genuine fun and wonder

The cast do their best with what they got

CONS

Thin plot

Thinner characters

Overuse of pop culture references that come across as pandering

Problematic female character portrayals

SCORE: 5/10

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This review can be also seen at IMPULSE GAMER. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, Philip Zhao, Susan Lynch, Hannah John-Kamen, Ralph Ineson, McKenna Grace, Letitia Wright
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline, based on his book of the same name

Movie Review – Guardians of the Tomb

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EXPECTATIONS: A fun B-movie creature feature along the lines of Big-Ass Spider.

REVIEW: It is great to watch films that stimulate the mind and dazzle the eye through fantastic filmmaking chops and directorial skill, but sometimes it’s nice to sit back and watch an unpretentious B-movie that simply exists to entertain. And one of the best genres to provide just that are creature features.

With recent films like Kong: Skull Island and Big-Ass Spider; or classics like Jaws and Alien; or even so-bad-it’s-good efforts like Troll 2 and Zombeavers, these are films that know what they are, achieve what they say on the tin and they do it well, with genuine effort.

But these types of films can go very wrong and it can be narrowed down to two reasons: putting in a bad effort and putting effort to be bad. Putting in a bad effort would result in films like The Swarm, which was ripe with potential, but ended up being boring. Or there are films that are deliberately terrible like Sharknado, which adds a sour taste of post-modernism and self-awareness that excuses bad filmmaking and shoddy skills.

So where does the China/Australian creature feature Guardians of the Tomb fit in? The film is directed by Kimble Rendall, who directed the goofy shark film, Bait 3D and it stars a mix of Chinese, American and Australian talent. So will it be an entertaining film for earned or unearned reasons? Or will it be a costly and incompetent bore?

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A team of scientists who lose a colleague in an ancient labyrinth while trying to make the discovery of a century. The group must battle their way through a swarm of deadly, man-eating funnel web spiders and discover the secret behind the arachnid’s power and intelligence.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Did I just copy that synopsis word-for-word from Wikipedia? Why yes, yes I did. At least in this case, I admitted it and I credited it where it’s from but in the case of Guardians of the Tomb, which steals from many, many films, it just comes off as lazy and stupid. To think that this film was credited to four writers. Four people wrote this thing!

You could make a drinking game out of it, pointing out things like this part is from Jurassic Park (the helicopter landing), this part is from Jurassic World (Kellan Lutz’s character), this part is from Aliens (the introduction of Eva Liu’s character), this part is from Psycho (the jump scare involving a corpse and a revolving chair), it just goes on and on and on. You can just hear the producers of the film high-fiving each other as they came up with this thing. Funnily enough, two of the credited writers are film producers themselves, so I guess it’s quite a fitting analogy.

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But first, let’s start off positively before an aneurysm might start off. The CGI of the spiders themselves is quite well-executed (yet jarring with the practical effects surrounding then) and Li Bingbing treats the film with utmost sincerity, as she seems to be the only actor in the film that’s actually trying to make the film good. Or it could be that her acting efforts (as well as her producing efforts) were made to make China look good due to news that she tried to incite propaganda about medical care in China and Australia. But that’s another story.

And that is it for the positives because Guardians of the Tomb is complete garbage. Known under many titles like 7 Guardians of the Tomb aka Nest 3D aka Funnel-Web aka Nest 3D and the Search for the Venom of Eternity, that alone shows that the filmmakers (or anyone really) had no clue with what they wanted to make.

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Let’s start with the actors. While Li Bingbing is fine, the rest of the cast are all either slumming it or clearly can’t act to save their life. Kellan Lutz, whom I have nothing against as a person, has always been a block of wood in films like The Legend of Hercules and the Twilight series, but in the case of Guardians of the Tomb or whatever the hell it’s called, he is saddled with a character that is clearly Chris Pratt’s character in Jurassic World. The entrance is the same, the costumes are the same and even some of the dialogue is the same, word-for-word. But clearly without the charisma or indeed the talent.

At one point, he introduces himself to Li’s character and he says to her to follow his rules because he’s the man. And it was at this point that I wanted Li’s character to punch him in the face for that chauvinistic, self-entitled attitude. And his character is practically drooled on by Stef Dawson’s character, which is just annoying, despite Dawson’s likable presence.

Shane Jacobson can be a good comedic actor with films like the mockumentary Kenny, but here he’s saddled with terrible lines of dialogue (involving Twitter and Willy Wonka of all things), but what makes it worse is that half of the lines are thrown in the film via ADR (additional dialogue recording) but it’s done so badly, it feels like leftovers from an audio commentary that was meant to disparage the film. And the other half of his lines are variations of “We should leave now.” Boy, did I regret not listening to him.

And then there’s Kelsey Grammer, who has a character that might as well have “I AM EVIL, PAY ME NOW!” tattooed on his forehead. He genuinely looks angry to be in the film and it becomes a waiting game just to see him let loose and when he does, it’s too little, too late. He does however have the best moment in the film where he explains his motives by actually yelling “I’M A BUSINESSMAN!”.

And of course we have Jason Chong, who plays a character that might as well be a cardboard cutout with a tape recorder attached to it, playing lines of plot exposition, because that’s all he spouts out, just in case the people in the back of the cinema can’t hear, understand or even care! And there’s Wu Chun, the pretty boy of the film who clearly can’t have his appearance ruined despite the fact that he has been lost over the course of many days in a nest of spiders.

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If you know your creature features and especially the working of the China-market, you can easily guess who is going to survive or die in the film. But honestly, all of these faults can be excused or even glossed over if the film actually had a sense of fun, but it never elicits any sense of thrill, suspense, tension or even unintentional laughter. It’s an absolute bore that believes that it’s delivering entertainment and characters worth caring for.

There are scenes that are meant to be dramatically involving, but they end up being incredibly tedious and overbearing with the point it is trying to make (Li’s brother, Wu Chun is lost out in the desert and it’s conveyed as a metaphor as their younger selves being trapped in a maze. Really?!). And the filmmakers are so intent on thinking that this would make us care for the characters that they repeat the same flashbacks over and over, that I’m sure that they take 20% of the total runtime. They even include dramatic flashbacks for Lutz’s character and integrate real footage of people dying in earthquakes. So not only does it make the film tedious, but it also make it tasteless as well.

The spiders themselves are just that: spiders. There’s no ingenuity or inspiration in the portrayal of them and the big spider of them all is as big as a turkey platter, meaning that it has no menace whatsoever. And the climax of the film, which is clearly meant to be some big battle, is so anti-climactic that people in the audience would demand refunds. There was no battle, there was no conflict, the film just stops, with a stupid jump scare that if you didn’t see it coming, you clearly fell asleep.

With films like this, The Dragon Pearl and Bleeding Steel, if this is the best the Chinese and Australians can do with their collaborations, then they should just cut ties because films like this shouldn’t be in the cinema. Guardians of the Tomb is a terrible, incompetent, cynical cash-grab that everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Li Bingbing’s performance

CONS

Everything else!

SCORE: 2/10

Cast: Li Bingbing, Kellan Lutz, Kelsey Grammer, Wu Chun, Stef Dawson, Shane Jacobson, Ryan Johnson, Jason Chong
Director: Kimble Rendall
Screenwriters: Kimble Rendall, Gary Hamilton, Jonathan Scanlon, Paul Staheli

Movie Review – The Shanghai Job (aka S.M.A.R.T Chase)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something unintentionally funny.

REVIEW: Christian Bale, Tim Robbins, Adrien Brody, John Cusack, David Carradine. What do all of these actors have in common in terms of their filmography? I’ll give you a clue: China-market. All of these actors have starred in films for the China-market with varying levels of success. Whereas Bale, Robbins have great box office successes with films like The Flowers of War and Back to 1942, some have been in box office failures like David Carradine in True Legend.

And now we have Orlando Bloom. More known for his looks and nonthreatening presence that makes him the perfect idol for teenagers, he has never been known for his acting prowess. Despite the kick-start to his career with the two franchises (Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean), he has been struggling to maintain his position in the spotlight with box office failures like Kingdom of Heaven, The Three Musketeers and Elizabethtown.

Now he’s gone into the China-market with his latest film, The Shanghai Job (known as S.M.A.R.T Chase in China). The film was a box office flop in China despite the well-known cast and the presence of Bloom, but box office takings do not indicate the quality of the film. Now that the film is released On Demand and DVD/Blu-Ray, will the film entertain and please fans despite the rough origins?

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Orlando Bloom stars as Danny Stratton, a washed-up private security agent, who is given the rare opportunity to escort a valuable Chinese antique (a Van Gogh painting) out of Shanghai, but he ends up ambushed en route, while he was talking to his girlfriend Lin Dong (Lynn Hung).

A year later, he has lost his girlfriend and his reputation has dwindled over time. When he gets hired to do another job, he sees the same people who ambushed him and now realizes that in order to get his reputation back, he has to steal back what was stolen with his Security Management Action Recovery Team members (Simon Yam, Hannah Quinlivan and Leo Wu) by his side. But little do they realize that they are about to step into a major conspiracy that will endanger them as well as the people they love.

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Does The Shanghai Job provide ample entertainment despite the dull synopsis and its reputation of its low box office takings? Unfortunately, not really. The film isn’t terrible by any means, but it’s just not any good at all.

The film is terribly routine with its storytelling and direction. There are no moments of creativity or inspiration whatsoever. Not with its action scenes, not with its filmmaking and definitely not with the acting. The cinematography is just neon lights, which has been done over and over since the films of Nicolas Winding Refn and the John Wick films. The director of the film is Charles Martin, who has directed episodes of Skins and Wallander, so it comes as to no surprise that the film feels like a pilot to a television series, which could explain the lack of cinematic inspiration.

Scenes that are meant to pump the audience up with thrills and tension are efficient enough, but the characters and storytelling are so dull that there really isn’t any of that. It becomes very hard to care about what happens on screen. And with the norm of action films, the climax should have a lot of impact in comparison to the action scenes proceeding it, but the climax ends with a whimper, as it just involves a few fisticuffs and a game of catch. No joke.

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With lines of dialogue like “love is an illusion” or many references to time (and if that doesn’t get to your head, we head watches ticking constantly), it does become quite laughable at times and you feel a bit sorry for the actors who are saddled with this type of material.

The acting is a very mixed bag from all involved, but the fault with that is both equally theirs as well as the script. Orlando Bloom is fine as Danny Stratton, as he loosens up a bit to be charismatic and humourous in the role, but the script doesn’t do him any favours with the dull attempts at humour and the choice to dye his hair back to blonde again is misguided. Thankfully, he is committed to doing most of his stunts, as it is clearly him doing the fight choreography and jumping out of balconies.

Simon Yam is just Simon Yam as Mach, Bloom’s partner as well as Lin Dong’s uncle. He is professional enough to not to embarrass himself but again, does nothing to stand out with his character apart from one character trait where he has a inkling for cutting limbs off people for access.

And then there’s Leo Wu. Whether using his drone to provide support for his teammates (or providing lazy narrative shortcuts, you be the judge) or looking out for the girl that he likes (or stalking her, again, you be the judge), he comes off as bland. The only thing that makes him stand out is his handling of the English language, which is just hilariously bad and it ruins the urgency of the action scenes.

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On the female end of the ensemble, Hannah Quinlivan comes off as petulant as J. Jae, who annoys every time she shows up. She’s supposed to be a security agent but she comes off more like a overly privileged, rich person who suddenly didn’t get what she wanted.

Lynn Hung is fine as Lin Dong, as she handles her role with dignity and grace, but her role is essentially a damsel-in-distress and nothing more, which is a real shame. It also doesn’t help that she and Bloom share no chemistry whatsoever. And the same goes for Wang Ruoxi as Nana, who is literally a plot device that just happens to like pet names like Baby and again, there is no chemistry between her and Wu.

And then there’s Liang Jing as the villain. Immediately, we know she’s the villain because she has very long fingernails. And that’s about the only thing that stands out about her character. Jing tries to vamp it up but none of the actors seem to respond to her properly, making her scenes fall flat. And as her henchman, Shi Yanneng’s talents are wasted due to the filmmakers not realizing his true potential.

There really isn’t much more to say about the film so it feels suitable to end this review like the climax, by going out on a whimper. Despite having Orlando Bloom trying to branch out away from his image, The Shanghai Job robs any chance of that happening with its dull storytelling, cardboard cutouts of characters, tension-free action and lame attempts at humour.

You know you got a problem with your film when the best thing about it is the Katy Perry song “Roulette”, that accompanies it.

Quickie Review

PROS

Orlando Bloom tries his best

The song “Roulette”

CONS

Inconsistent acting

Dull characters

Suspense-free action

No creative inspiration in the filmmaking

Lack of cast chemistry

Mediocre storytelling

SCORE: 3/10

Cast: Orlando Bloom, Simon Yam, Leo Wu, Hanna Quinlivan, Lynn Hung, Liang Jing, Wang Ruoxi, Shi Yanneng
Director: Charles Martin
Screenwriters: Kevin Bernhardt

Movie Review – Den of Thieves

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EXPECTATIONS: A rip-off of the Michael Mann film, Heat.

REVIEW: Heist films are a dime-a-dozen these days, but they essentially films that fit the “people on a mission genre”, where you can get an ensemble cast of stars and character actors and put them on an exciting plot where cast chemistry, filmmaking chops and fun storytelling mix together to make a fun time for cinemagoers.

The best of heist films, people would usually think old-school classics like Ocean’s Eleven, The Sting and Dog Day Afternoon. Or they would think of enjoyably off-kilter entries like Inception, Bad Genius or Logan Lucky.

But the biggest and most acclaimed heist film entry that has other directors trying to ape it is Michael Mann‘s epic heist saga, Heat. With its distinct characters, propulsive action scenes, suffocating suspense, strong thematic hold and uncommon narrative depth, Heat is not only considered as one of the best heist films ever, but one of Mann’s best films.

Since then, we have other films that try to ape its success, but one film has come close (but not intentionally) and that is Ben Affleck‘s The Town. Despite having been adapted from known source material, the final product is so reminiscent of Heat, that it cannot have been just a coincidence.

So now we have Den of Thieves, which marks the directorial debut of Christian Gudegast, the co-writer of London Has Fallen. Starring leading animal [sic], Gerard Butler and backed up with an ensemble cast including Pablo Schneider and O’Shea Jackson Jr., it looks to be another heist film following the footsteps of Michael Mann‘s Heat. Will the film succeed on its own terms?

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Gerard Butler plays Nick O’Brien, the leader of the Regulators, an elite unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He is a hard drinker and that and his work makes him more and more distant with his wife (Dawn Oliveri) and children.

Pablo Schneider plays Ray Merrimen, the leader of the Outlaws, a gang of ex-military men who use their expertise and tactical skills to evade the law. He is recently paroled out of prison and like all thieves do, they plan their next heist as soon as they step out of the prison grounds.

O’Brien, Merrimen and their crews soon find themselves at odds with each as the criminals hatch an elaborate plan for a seemingly impossible heist: to rob the Federal Reserve Bank.

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From the moment the film started, it becomes obvious to the point of being blatant that Den of Thieves is a beat-for-beat version to Michael Mann‘s Heat. Like the past film, it’s shot in L.A, it has an action scene involving an armored car, it involves an impossible heist, the sound design and music are eerily similar, you would think that this film is more like a mockbuster version of Heat, but I think it comes off as a homage.

The reason I use the word “homage” instead of terms like “recycling”, “rip-off” or “mockubuster” is because homages do not make one cringe. And thankfully, Den of Thieves never does that, aside from one major point in the film, which funnily enough is a moment that isn’t anything like in Heat.

The action scenes are well-done, making use of its geography well and even has the same intense sound design that again, is reminiscent of Heat. And the heist itself is done competently enough that it does provide some thrills and tension in that it never comes off as a cash-grab for aping better heist films. The score by Cliff Martinez certainly gives the film some much-needed punch.

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The acting from its ensemble cast are all fine with what they have got, with a surprisingly magnetic performance from Gerard Butler. Despite doing all the grunting, roaring and yelling that we expect from him, it looks like he finally found a character that suits his acting range, with the flawed creature of a man, Nick O’Brien. At one point in the film, he eats a donut that he picks up from the ground of a crime scene, stained with blood. That sums up the character perfectly and Butler does well.

Pablo Schneider isn’t given anything that is near the level that Butler has (he is the star/producer, after all), but he does provide a nice complement to Butler’s feral demeanor. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is fine, as he shows a compelling sense of vulnerability to the part while the rest of the cast including Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (who is surprisingly charismatic here) and Dawn Oliveri do what they can with their small parts.

Maurice Compte and Gerard Butler star in Den Of Thieves

So far, so…fine. Den of Thieves could’ve easily have been a three star film with its filmmaking competency, but there are flaws which bring it down. One is the overlong running time. While it does spend it well with scenes involving the planning, there are too many extraneous scenes that serve very little purpose to the story i.e. a comedic scene involving the family of 50 Cent‘s character, the relationship drama between Butler and Oliveri and so on.

But the biggest problem is the ending, which involves one of the stupidest twists that I have seen in a long time. It’s not so much the twist itself that is stupid, but the handling of it all is just awful. It adds nothing to the film; it doesn’t contextualize anything that came before it and it makes one of the actors look really bad.

Overall, Den of Thieves is a entertaining, if rocky entry in the heist genre, even if it is an homage to Michael Mann‘s Heat. But the overlong running time and the awful twist ending bring it down to the point that the film is a rental at best.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good action scenes

Fun performance from Butler and a good performance from Jackson

Good musical score from Cliff Martinez

CONS

Rehashes too much of Heat

Too many unnecessary scenes that pad out the run time

A terrible twist ending

SCORE: 5/10

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

Cast: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Dawn Olivieri, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Evan Jones, Cooper Andrews, Lewis Tan, Maurice Compte, Mo McRae
Director: Christian Gudegast
Screenwriters: Christian Gudegast, Paul Scheuring

Movie Review – Chasing the Dragon

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EXPECTATIONS: A good throwback to the Hong Kong gangster films of the 90’s.

REVIEW: Co-director/writer Wong Jing is one of Hong Kong’s most successful directors due to his attuned commercial instincts, audience-pleasing ability and he was such a prominent fixture back in the 90’s. Choosing genres that would maximize the amount of audience goers such as comedies, erotic thrillers, gangster films while spreading his filmmaking expertise (or exploitation habits) as far as he can go in terms of quantity (if not quality), it’d be hard to reside in Hong Kong and not know about Wong Jing’s films.

But like most of Hong Kong filmmakers, the quality of his films have waned in recent years, although he has gained a resurgence in popularity in the China-market. Considering his commercial instincts, it’s not a surprise that started to cater to that big slice of pie, at the expense of reducing his already dwindling critical reception i.e Mission to Milano and From Vegas to Macau III.

And now we have Donnie Yen, who is definitely no stranger to catering to the China-market. He has grown exponentially in popularity due to his above-par martial arts skills and charisma over the past decade, with popular films like SPL, Flashpoint and others. But like all action heroes, time catches up with them and there’s only a matter of time where Donnie Yen decided to hone on in his acting chops and so far, it hasn’t been entirely successful.

With successes like Wu Xia and the Ip Man films, he has shown signs of acting potential, but in films like Iceman and Special ID, it basically torpedoes him back down again. So now we have Chasing the Dragon, a gangster film throwback that is the first Donnie Yen/Wong Jing collaboration since the 1996 horror schlock film, Satan Returns. Will the two succeed in becoming an entertaining film as well as a showcase for Donnie Yen’s acting chops?

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Donnie Yen plays Ng Sik-ho (aka Crippled Ho or Limpy Ho), an illegal immigrant who came to Hong Kong in 1963 and gets by with his life with lowlife criminal activities. During one massive brawl with two opposing sides, Ho catches the eye of Lee Rock (Andy Lau), a corrupt policeman who sees his fighting skills as a valuable asset.

As the two cross paths again in an attempt on Rock’s life, the two collaborate in regaining the empire of Hong Kong, with Ho becoming the biggest drug lord while Rock climbs up the ranks of the police force. Little do they know what they eventually will come up against…

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Like the title implies, let’s begin with the positives. Wong Jing’s regular cinematographer Jason Kwan makes his directorial debut here and he makes the film visually striking, lending the period setting some much-needed gravitas to compliment the ugly actions of the characters i.e. the drug use, the drinking, the fornicating, the fighting etc.

The supporting cast of Hong Kong veterans and stalwarts all make welcome appearances here, lending the film some credibility and fun, including Felix Wong (noble as always), Chan Wai-man (shifty as always), Philip Keung (brash as always), Ken Tong (ruthless as always), Kenneth Tsang (welcome as always), Lawrence Chou and Terence Yin (both slimy as always).

And while Andy Lau is credited as a guest appearance in Chasing the Dragon, he has almost as much screen-time as Donnie Yen does, and he provides his usual combination of charm and smarm to the role, but later in the film, he’s given a bit more to do and elicits a sense of menace that made his role in the Infernal Affairs films and Firestorm stand out, which is a welcome sight.

As for the action scenes themselves, which were lead by Donnie Yen and choreographed by Yuen Bun (a veteran action choreographer) and Yu Kang and Yan Hua, both of whom are members of Donnie Yen’s stunt team. While they are not much of a martial arts showcase (except a brief one-on-one fight between Yen and Phillip Ng), they are well-executed brawls and shootouts that lend the film some excitement, if only in of itself, rather than complimenting the scope of the film.

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And now we have the negatives, which are large in amount. First of all, supporting characters who are given very little to do in terms of backstory or agency (especially the female characters) are killed off in a supposedly dramatic fashion and it becomes blatantly obvious that director Wong Jing thinks we were meant to care for them (with the added syrupy music and slow-motion), but we don’t, and it only comes off as baffling and even unintentionally funny.

Speaking of unintentionally funny, the one big eyesore of a China-market trope is back tenfold. And that of course is the xenophobia. While of course, the British were involved in the time that Chasing the Dragon is set and they definitely did partake in criminal activities, the film however heavily implies that the British were responsible for the behaviour and actions that the Chinese did, particularly in terms of the main characters.

Not only is it a blatant ploy for catering to Chinese censorship to make the British more evil than the corrupt cop and the drug lord to make the Chinese characters heroes, it comes off as hypocritical, duplicitous and incredibly insulting to the audience, to think that they would go along with such a thing. There’s a scene where Yen’s character is lecturing his younger brother to stop using drugs while his brother calls him a hypocrite for selling them in the first place. No truer words have been spoken in the film.

And let’s not forget that in order to present how foreigners are in China-market films, it’s very much how an actor would try to give an Oscar-nominated performance but with the added amount of cocaine: talk with a funny accent and/or shout. Bryan Larkin, who plays the British baddie, Hunter, gives a impression of a human being as played by a war-hungry alien. His performance is so bad and so over-the-top that it would make cartoon characters hang their head in shame.

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And speaking of over-the-top, let’s talk about Donnie Yen’s performance. For his role in the Peter Chan film, Wu Xia, Yen played the main role of a serial killer (or was he?) who decides to live in exile for a quiet existence. In the hands of Chan, Yen displayed subtlety, nuance and displayed his many emotions and side of the character convincingly.

However, in the hands of Wong’s direction in Chasing the Dragon and counting the desperation of trying to prove that he can act, Yen comes off as unintentionally funny and unconvincing. With many bad wigs (which the filmmakers clearly didn’t spent much money on) and trying to play a character much younger than his actual age (for the first act), it just comes off as funny. And when Yen tries to portray Ho’s outbursts of rage due to deaths of certain characters, he almost comes off as if he’s having a severe stroke that it’s hard for one to take any of it seriously.

Hell, the whole film comes off like that. It becomes incredibly exhausting and tedious. There are parts of the film that try to be humourous, but they only end up as laboured, with the lowest of the low being a tired reference to God of Gamblers. The climactic action scene even features Wong Jing’s typical plagiarism such as Donnie Yen using a shotgun and killing off people in the manner of Brian De Palma’s Scarface, but it comes off poorly in an attempt to be cool.

And cool, this film does not come off. Chasing the Dragon is a bombastic failure as a throwback to 90’s gangster films, as a Donnie Yen acting showcase and worse, as a Wong Jing exploitation film. The only thing the film ends up chasing down is its own tail.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good supporting cast of veterans

Andy Lau delivers a subtly menacing performance

Vibrant cinematography

Good action scenes

CONS

Tedious and exhausting storytelling

Rampant xenophobia

Hypocritical and duplicitous portrayals of characters

Female characters are mere plot devices

Donnie Yen’s hilariously bad performance

SCORE: 4/10

Cast: Donnie Yen, Andy Lau, Philip Keung, Kang Yu, Kent Cheng, Bryan Larkin
Director: Wong Jing, Jason Kwan
Screenwriters: Wong Jing

Movie Review – The Commuter

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EXPECTATIONS: The same entertaining B-movie garbage that Collet-Serra and Neeson usually churn out.

REVIEW: It’s hard to believe but at this present time, whenever you ask young people who Liam Neeson is, they often tend to quote his action films and then not know or forget about his critically acclaimed films like Schindler’s List, Michael Collins, Rob Roy and others. But ever since the 2008 action film Taken, Liam Neeson went from thespian to all-out action hero and the person who cemented that status was Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra.

Apart from Goal II: Living the Dream, all of Collet-Serra’s films are entertaining B-movie garbage. From horror films like remake of House of Wax, which has Paris Hilton hilariously impaled by a metal pole (No, that’s not a euphemism.) to Orphan, a gloriously silly and overstated horror film involving a killer child.

Collet-Serra then started a long trail of Neeson collaborations like Unknown (an entertaining rip-off of Frantic), Non-Stop (an entertaining rip-off of Murder on the Orient Express…on a plane) and Run All Night (an entertaining rip-off of Road to Perdition). Am I sensing a pattern here?

After all that, he went back to his horror roots and made the sleeper hit The Shallows, a contained thriller starring Blake Lively that just so happens to feature sharks. And now, just when you thought Liam Neeson was too old to play an action hero, after he declared that he was retiring from action films (and took it back), here he is again, reuniting with B-movie scholockmeister Jaume Collet-Serra for their fourth film project, Train to Neeson The Commuter.

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Leon Nelson Liam Neeson plays a loving insurance salesman, Michael. He has a loving wife (Elizabeth McGovern), a loving son, a loving home and every day, he travels to his loving workplace via the loving train station and has been doing that for the past loving decades. Then one day, his workplace stops being loving and starts a little firing, starting with Michael.

Unable to tell his loving wife, he drifts along until he goes on his daily loving commute home. While on the loving train, Michael encounters a seemingly loving and mysterious stranger (Vera Farmiga) who intrigues him to a loving deal: he will be paid a huge amount of loving money if he can uncover the loving identity of a hidden loving passenger on his loving train before the last loving stop.

Considering the fact that he has lost his loving job, he agrees. As he works against the clock to solve the loving puzzle, he realizes a deadly and unloving plan is unfolding and is unwittingly caught up in a criminal conspiracy. And it is up to Michael and his particularly loving set of skills to do something about it before the train, for a lack of better word, terminates.

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But enough with the love. Does The Commuter live up to the standard of a Neeson/Collet-Serra joint? It most certainly does and not much more than that. It’s purely a genre exercise that does what it says on the tin, which could have only be seen as remarkable just because Liam Neeson is in it. But since this is the fourth collaboration between the two, you might start to consider whether they should do something different.

The film starts off okay with showing the motivations for the character of Michael. The editing by Nicholas de Toth (who worked on Park Chan-wook’s Stoker) is intricate in showing the passage of time and the increasing baggage of Michael and his family. But later in the film, boy, director Collet-Serra lays it on pretty thick. Neeson actually tells his backstory to a couple of clients and while he gets fired, he explicitly states his age and does it again in anger in an extreme close-up shot while almost staring at the camera. We totally get it! And that’s just the first ten minutes.

And when we gradually know more of Michael’s backstory and the inclusion of Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill, don’t be surprised if you hear a collective groan from the audience because the reveal of his backstory is so obvious, you can almost hear the loud honking that comes with it.

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All of what is said above happens before the actual plot even starts and you’ll already be thinking that you’ll know where this is going because you’ve seen this movie. But then we see Michael go on the train and encounter the mysterious stranger and then it turns into another movie that you’ve probably already seen. All elements of the The Commuter have been done before and much better in other films, but what’s thankfully there is a lack of pretension; the film knows what it is and never becomes self-important nor takes itself too seriously and that helps a lot in the fun factor.

Like his prior film, Non-Stop, director Jaume Collet-Serra for the most part maintains a fast pace (until the third act when the film comes to a complete stop both figuratively and literally) and still brings visual flair to the proceedings. The zooms, the long takes, the dutch angles, the slow-motion and other flourishes are all over the film and they bring a bit of zing to the film. And just like Non-Stop, the third act goes into heights of ridiculousness involving hilarious slow-motion stunts, iffy green-screen effects and a character reveal that again goes HONK-HONK! Twist incoming!

And once again, going back to Non-Stop, the supporting cast of talented thespians and newcomers are all pretty much wasted. Vera Farmiga (who last collaborated with Collet-Serra in Orphan) spends most of the film off-screen on the phone, while Patrick Wilson does what he can with a thin role (named Alex Murphy, which got a laugh out of me). Sam Neill has like two scenes in the film while actresses Florence Pugh (fantastic in Lady Macbeth), Clara Lago (great in The Hidden Face) and Letitia Wright (a revelation in the TV show Black Mirror) barely make an impression. It was nice to see Jonathan Banks play a role that isn’t a repulsive scumbag like in Mudbound or Beverly Hills Cop though and Shazad Latif was amusing as the businessman who is so slimy, he basically leaves a trail wherever he walks.

But even after all those flaws, what keeps the film watchable is the man himself, Liam Neeson. The big man still commands the screen and dons the action hero role with ease. Even in his advanced age, he still grunts, growls, yells and packs a severe punch in the action scenes, particularly in one fight scene that’s seemingly shot in one singular take, which involve fire axes, guns, flying knees and even an electric guitar.

To stave off risk of derailing this review, let’s terminate this one here. The Commuter provides exactly what you expect and if you’re not tired of the Neeson/Collet-Serra formula then you’ll have a good time.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Liam Neeson still delivers the goods

Collet-Serra’s stylish direction lends the the film some much needed oomph

Action scenes are well done

CONS

Sloppy and derivative story

Underused supporting cast

Many unintentionally funny moments

SCORE: 6/10

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This review can be also seen at IMPULSE GAMER. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Florence Pugh, Dean-Charles Chapman, Shazad Latif, Clara Lago, Andy Nyman, Roland Møller, Colin McFarlane, Dilyana Bouklieva, Adam Nagaitis, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Letitia Wright, Damson Idris, David Olawale Ayinde, Jamie Beamish, Nakay Kpaka, Nathan Wiley 
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriters: Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, Ryan Engle

 

Movie Review – Bleeding Steel

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EXPECTATIONS: More Jackie Chan China-market garbage.

REVIEW: Can you believe that Jackie Chan is 63 years old? Time has gone by since his classic films like Police Story and Drunken Master and you wonder where has it all gone? But then you realize, not all that much has gone in terms of Chan’s dexterity. Even at his advanced age, he still makes plenty of action films like Kung Fu Yoga, Skiptrace and the recent film, The Foreigner, where he still shows his agile action chops.

But what has gone away is Chan’s lack of judgement, because most, if not ALL his film in the past nine years have been middling at best or incredibly awful at worst. Whether it’s the terrible filmmaking, the film patchwork China-committee scripts or just the lack of effort from everyone involved, his recent films are disappointing to say the least.

Speaking of disappointing, what was the last good science-fiction film from the Chinese market that was actually good? Aside from Battle of Memories (which also came out in 2017), it was possibly Stephen Chow’s CJ7, and that came out 9 years ago.

So now, we have Bleeding Steel, Jackie Chan’s first foray into the science-fiction genre. With two hints of disappointment, there is some hope. Filmed almost entirely in Sydney, Australia (my hometown), it was a bit of a big deal over here, especially with the action setpiece on top of the Sydney Opera House and with some Australian talent involved in front and behind the camera, the film might actually exceed expectations. Will it look like a well-executed sci-fi venture or will be a sci-fi venture that looks…executed?

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Jackie Chan stars as Lin Dong, a loving father (who of course, put a teddy bear under a seatbelt) and supercop (What else?) who is in charge of handling protection for Dr. James (Kim Gyngell), a scientist specializing in “bioroid” soldiers, who is on the run from one of these hybrid mercenaries, Andre (Callan Mulvey), one of his experiments gone wrong. Lin is on his way to see his young daughter Xixi, who’s dying from leukemia (that’s what it said in the English subtitles), when he’s called to rescue James from an ambush led by Andre and his cronies.

When it spectacularly goes wrong, 13 years pass (where some characters don’t age a day, apparently) and we see Nancy (Taiwanese teen idol-cellist Nana Ouyang), a Chinese girl raised in an orphanage, who is tormented by nightmares of a past life, interspersed with visions of a beating full-metal heart. She seeks advice first from a witch doctor, then a hypnotist and so on (consisting of people dressed up like rejects of Pirates of the Caribbean).

And every time she goes on these errands, Leeson (Show Lo) a thief is always on her trail to lend a hand. The two stories eventually go hand-in-hand and it becomes an all-out showdown between Lin Dong and Andre, with Nancy and Leeson into the mix.

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To get the jist of where this review is going, Jackie Chan is credited as “Excetutive Producer” [sic] in the opening credits of Bleeding Steel. That pretty much tells you the amount of effort that went into this film, because Bleeding Steel is one of the worst films, not only of 2017, but in Jackie Chan’s career. Yes, even worse than the execrable Kung Fu Yoga.

Let’s begin with the positives. The opening action scene is actually well-executed. The action choreography of the shootouts, along with the Hollywood-like editing and the professional use of pyrotechnics are well-done and it promises to be a good start for the film, at least from an action stand-point.

And that is it for the positives, because the rest is just putrefying garbage. The action scenes are incredibly underwhelming and furiously edited to the point that it becomes exhausting rather than exciting. The highly-anticipated action scene set on top of the Sydney Opera House is hugely disappointing due to the routine fight choreography, the distracting green screen and the sloppy direction from Leo Zhang. Having the camera closer to see the performers would be nice, but little to that type of invention rarely ever happens.

It also doesn’t help that none of the supporting actors who play the villains are actual martial artists nor they are a decent compliment to Jackie Chan himself. It just feels rote, even with the supposed one-take action sequence in the climax involving three opponents.

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And now we get to the comedy. It is quite apparent that infantile, low-brow comedy is one of the hallmarks for the China-market and Bleeding Steel is no exception. But even by China-market standards, this is just god-awful.

And as expected, the strong xenophobia is back.  If you think Australians were portrayed horribly in Jackie Chan films like First Strike and Mr. Nice Guy, you should see Bleeding Steel. Apparently, every Australian in the film is either a rapist (every man in the slum Nancy visits wants to rape her), a racist (a Uni student claims she doesn’t understand Chinglish), a bully, an idiot, an insane person, (a TV reporter sounds like she’s having a stroke) a killer, a thief or even Australians playing foreigners, badly. But hey, what do I know about people in Australia? I was only born there.

The story is treated with utmost seriousness, but the film is always pummeled to the ground with unfunny comedy, and the main culprit for that is Show Lo. Despite proving to have solid comedic chops in Stephen Chow films like Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and The Mermaid, in Bleeding Steel he is an incredibly annoying presence that you just want Jackie to break his neck.

His introduction into the film involves crossdressing and implying to go down under a man from Down Under. And boy, it only gets worse from there. Another comedic setpiece involves Lo fighting slum-residing rapists (who happen to know parkour because every person who lives in the slums knows parkour) with his belt, doing a terrible Bruce Lee impression with his pants down.

There are unfunny references to Jackie Chan himself despite the fact that he’s in the damn film! There’s even a scene where Nancy punches out a uni girl (that’s exactly how the actress is credited, no joke) for saying racist things and Lo praises her as a credit to the Chinese. You can’t get any worse than this.

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Other than Show Lo, the supporting cast are nothing to write about. Nana Ouyang (known as a talented cellist) has a charming presence but she isn’t much of an actress due to her wooden delivery while Erica Xia-hou gives a bland performance as the superfluous cop partner of Lin Dong, who presumably is in the film because she’s a co-writer of the script.

Tess Haubrich (famous for Australian TV shows Home and Away and the upcoming second season of Wolf Creek) is stuck with a bad European accent while looking like a mix of Jessica Chastain from Mama and Asia Argento. She does her best with her action scenes and the role but the terrible script and sloppy direction let her down.

And last and definitely the least, there’s Callan Mulvey as the main villain, Andre. Last seen in Beyond Skyline in a likable role as a doctor and Batman v Superman as an okay villain, in Bleeding Steel, he just looks laughably bad in his make-up that you almost feel sorry for him. Every Australian actor is directed so terribly and given such risible dialogue, that you almost think they’re being forced to be on camera at gunpoint, like that Barnaby Joyce video with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.

But wait, there’s also the story, which is completely patched up with parts of other Hollywood films, which strangely enough, the filmmakers chose to plagiarize G.I Joe – The Rise of Cobra, of all things. And the drama is incredibly mishandled, with a dramatic character reveal so obvious that even a coma victim could figure it out. And there are so many details in the film that are so stupid or inexplicable that it’s hard to believe that there ever was a script to begin with.

Why is there a well of lava on the spaceship? How does transferring blood transfer memories? Why aren’t there police around the Sydney Opera House when there is a major commotion? Can costumes be susceptible to gas? How does Leeson escape many situations that guarantee death? Why is the covert found footage in the video camera filmed like a documentary, complete with narration? Oh God, my head hurts!

Speaking of head injuries, the costumes for the bioroids (more like hemorrhoids) look incredibly cheap (there’s a scene where Lo plays with the broken visor that looks like an outtake shoved in the film) and the CGI (for a budget that is apparently the highest budget for a Chinese film set in Australia) and make-up prosthetics look so ghastly that the film looks it belongs in the SyFy channel. There’s even obvious CGI water where characters are swimming in the ocean.

To think that the best thing in the film is the end credits (and no, not because the film ended) because Jackie sings the Police Story theme song in Mandarin. Okay, you got me, it’s because the film ended. Bleeding Steel is just one big pile of awfulness that it becomes shockingly funny. Unlike Kung Fu Yoga, the quality of the film is so low that you can invite your mates for a drinking night to watch the film and you’ll be guaranteed fits of laughter. And in the case of blockbusters by Jackie Chan, we’ll take what we can get.

But what people will not get is the Jackie Chan magic. There’s a scene in the film where Chan fights opponents with props from a magic show that is quite amusing, but unfortunately, there is too little of it and it just fades away. And like Jackie Chan himself, the magic is gone and that is no laughing matter.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The first action scene is quite good

Many unintentionally funny moments

CONS

Too damn many to mention

SCORE: 2/10

Cast: Jackie Chan, Show Lo, Nana Ouyang, Erica Xia-Hou, Callan Mulvey, Tess Haubrich, Kim Gyngell
Director: Leo Zhang
Screenwriters: Leo Zhang, Erica Xia-Hou, Siwei Cui