Movie Review – Girl’s Blood

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EXPECTATIONS: A trashy, sexy and fun experience.

REVIEW: For those who want to get down to the nitty-gritty, here’s the basis of the story in the film, Girl’s Blood. It involves women kicking ass in cages, with ridiculously tragic backstories of most of the characters and a lesbian love story. Now for the kicker: this is all set and wrapped up in a backdrop of female empowerment.

Now I know what you’re thinking. A film with a story such as this could only possibly be seen as a trashy and prurient experience that would feel right at home back in the 1980’s. But this film came out in 2014 and it is actually based on a novel, written by Kazuki Sakuraba, the author who also wrote My Man, which was made into a critically acclaimed film of the same name, starring Fumi Nikaido and Tadanobu Asano.

So you would now expect the film to be more conservative. BUT, the screenwriter of Girl’s Blood is Takehiko Minato, who’s responsible for many pinku films such as Be My Slave, What’s Going On With My Sister, Flower and Snake: Zero and of course, Legend of Siren XXX. But he has also written the screenplay of Bitter Honey, which is basically an adult version of Ponyo.

Moreover, the film is directed by Koichi Sakamoto, who’s famous for directing tokusatsu series like Kamen Rider, Power Rangers and specializes in fight stunt-work. So potentially, we have a film that is directed by a former stuntman, which has a story that could have a tone of both equal prurience and puritanism (sort of), based on source material from a critically-acclaimed female author, written for the screen by a screenwriter who specializes in pinku films. Will this film be a trainwreck or will it somehow transcend its origins to be more than the sum of its parts?

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The story starts by introducing four of our main characters. The first one is Satsuki (Yuria Haga), a woman who has a sexual identity crisis. The other character is Miko (Ayame Misaki), who is a S&M queen who has a haunted backstory involving being estranged from her family. The third character is Mayu (Rina Koike), a young woman who has psychological problems due to her youthful image and lastly, Chinatsu (Asami Tada), a fighter who, through numerous attempts, tries to run away from her abusive husband (Hideo Sakaki).

All four women are competing in a cage fight tournament after a martial arts faction threatens to take over the territory of Girl’s Blood. But their differences make them more like foils rather than comrades.  To make matters worse is the fact that the faction is run none other by Chinatsu’s husband. Bonds will be made, minds will be tested, demons will be unleashed; will the women overcome all obstacles and win?

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First off, it is really quite a miracle to say that this type of story actually has a sizable budget and it shows. The production values, the cinematography, the music are all well-done. Special credit goes to the sound design, which is quite striking and adds to the brutality of the fight scenes.

And now the cast. All of the main actresses acquit themselves to their roles with such sincerity and straight-faced conviction, that they give the story a lot more credibility that it ever requires. Yuria Haga is convincingly tough and conflicted as Satsuki and it must be said that she deserves credit for her brave decision to go nude for her love scenes.

Ditto to Asami Tada, who plays Chinatsu as a interesting, enigmatic presence and is quite a good sport in the fight scenes. The chemistry between the two is subtly present as they make glances and eventually become intimate with each other. Ayame Misaki is very charismatic as Miko, as she certainly has a fun presence about her; while Rina Koike is cute, but almost to a fault. Few stand out of the supporting cast, including Misaki Momose (who stood out in Gothic Lolita Psycho) who again combines cuteness and sadism in an entertaining fashion.

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As for the men, they all go over-the-top to the point that bounces between cartoony and pantomime. Hideo Sakaki is beyond sickening (in a good way) as Chinatsu’s husband while Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi is a hoot as the manager of Girl’s Blood, whenever he shows up.

It’s a credit to the above that it is as stellar as it is, since the story is incredibly ridiculous, bizarre and blatantly empowering/exploitative to the female gender. The backstories of the characters are so outlandish (one of them is haunted by her past involving cosplay while another is haunted due to confinement and, ahem, spillage) that it is a minor miracle that the film manages to become mildly poignant and affecting in the final act.

And it is because that every aspect of the film plays it out as sincere as they can. The story is told completely straight, without a sense of irony or any amount of winking from the actors. It also helps that the characters have clear motives as to why they choose to fight in the ring and they all pay off in a satisfyingly cathartic fashion.

Or the film can be seen as the ridiculous story that it is and can be unintentionally laughable when it passes its plot points and backstories as a source of drama. Fittingly, that type of shoddiness is expected from the pinku genre, but it stands out more due to its sizable budget. Either way, entertainment is still entertainment.

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And best of all, the fight scenes. Director Koichi Sakamoto knows his way around filming action and the fights are well-choreographed and well-shot, considering the numerous stunt doubles on display. The approach to the fight scenes focuses more on brutality and grappling, rather than grace and fluidity, as the editing and sound design clearly dictate, and they are thrilling to watch.

And now with the flaws. With a running time that is close to two hours, the film is overlong and could use some trimming during the character moments. Also, as much as the film is sincere in its storytelling, the tone shifts can be quite abrupt at times i.e. a scene of brutal violence can lead up to a comedic scene involving BDSM.

Also, it is quite leery and exploitative, although it is expected from the genre it inhabits. We see the women participating in mud wrestling, cosplay, shower sessions, lesbian sex scenes, training montages, BDSM sessions, sex dreams and of course the congratulatory moments that involve the use of the garden hose. If the film had a pillow fight, it wouldn’t be out of place at all, to be honest. But despite all of that, the film never goes into vulgar territory, despite a scene of sexual violence that fortunately the filmmakers convey as just that: a sickening display.

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Overall, Girl’s Blood is a bizarre mix of prurient pinku tropes and conventions told in an ultra-sincere manner that somehow makes it better than it should have been. With committed performances, brutal fight scenes, fun exploitation and outlandish characters, the film certainly earns its reputation as a guilty pleasure.

Quickie Review

PROS

Committed performances from its female leads

Well-executed fight scenes

Ultra-sincere approach to its story is surprisingly cathartic

CONS

Quite exploitative

May engender unintentional laughs

Overlong running time

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yuria Haga, Asami Tada, Ayame Misaki, Rina Koike, Misaki Momose, Hideo Sasaki, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi
Director: Koichi Sakamoto
Screenwriters: Takehito Minato, based on the novel “Red x Pink” by Kazuki Sakuraba

Movie Review – Extraordinary Mission

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EXPECTATIONS: A jingoistic and eventually tiresome action film.

REVIEW: Director Alan Mak is perhaps well known as the co-director of the classic HK crime films, the Infernal Affairs series, but he can be a good director in his own right, with A War Named Desire as a shining example. But for the most part, he co-directs with other collaborators like Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs, Initial D), Felix Chong (Moonlight in Tokyo and the Overheard films).

But ever since the immensely crushing disappointment from Confession of Pain, his output has been up and down with the middling The Lost Bladesman, the Overheard sequels and The Silent War. But now, he has teamed up with cinematographer Anthony Pun, who makes his directorial debut, with Extraordinary Mission. From its previews, it looks like a throwback to 80’s action films starring Chuck Norris, but having Alan Mak could show that it’s aiming for a thriller vibe. Will the film live up to its boastful title or will it end up being a jingoistic and distasteful mess like Operation Mekong?

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Huang Xuan stars as Lin Kai, a cop who is enlisted by his superior, Li Jianguo (Xing Jiadong) to infiltrate a drug cartel, known as the Twin Eagles. In order to do his job, he befriends Eagle (Duan Yi Hong), a duplicitous and conniving man whose motivations seem to hint a lot more than just monetary gain.

Eagle also has a daughter, Qingshui (Lang Yueting) who also serves as his right-hand man, and she has reservations about Kai’s introduction into the cartel. But as time goes on, Kai’s operation starts to gradually spiral out of control when he becomes addicted to heroin, which unearths hidden demons from his past. And speaking of hidden demons, Jianguo also has some that could drive the operation amok and risk the life of Kai. Will Kai succeed on his mission?

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From glimpses of the trailer and posters, Extraordinary Mission looks very similar to Operation Mekong, an action film which also dealt with drug cartels and undercover missions AND was also based on a true story. But Operation Mekong was also unbearably jingoistic, incredibly distasteful and thin story-wise.

Thankfully, Extraordinary Mission is almost nothing like Mekong, as it has the hard-hitting action that audiences want, but it also has storytelling chops and superior acting that make it a much more substantial experience than one would expect.

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Firstly, the positives. The story may not stand out in terms of ingenuity, but it is well-told and Mak’s reliance on thrills, rather than action, makes a nice alternative approach with such a story. It also helps that Mak cares about his characters and his story, that he develops them efficiently and succinctly, without resorting to much jingoism (like Operation Mekong).

The cat-and-mouse games between Kai and Eagle makes for enjoyable viewing and adds a palpable tension that pays off in its insane climax, which contains some of the most insane stunts I’ve seen in recent years. All crisply captured with Pun as co-director/cinematographer, it must be said that cars should never be used in that type of way around humans. That’s all I’ll say on that matter.

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Another positive is the actors. While the cast are not known for their star-power, they all do very well with their archetypal roles. Huang Xuan is likable, charismatic and convincing in his action scenes as well as his dramatic scenes. In particular, the scene where his character goes through massive bouts from his heroin addiction, he never resorts to histrionics and that makes the scenes all the more powerful.

Duan Yi Hong is quite great as the villain, Eagle. Duan plays the role as surprisingly understated, considering the character’s reprehensible actions, but thankfully the script (by Felix Chong, co-writer of Infernal Affairs films; and film director) gives Eagle a backstory that makes the role more than just a moustache-twirling villain, imbuing him with surprising empathy.

Lang Yueting, whom I’ve enjoyed her performances in Office and Mountain Cry, makes the most out of her small role as Eagle’s daughter/henchman. She has very few lines of dialogue, but her subtle expressions make her stand out, making the most out of her underwritten role. The supporting cast all do well with their roles, but it is the three above that ensure credibility to the film.

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As for flaws, the story does follow a predictable path (with some twists), the drama may be a bit melodramatic (the musical score and contrived dramatic beats) and the overblown climax may take some out of the film, Extraordinary Mission is a solid thriller that lives up to its marketing, if not its title.

Quickie Review

PROS

The acting is quite impressive

The stunts are unbelievably audacious

Focus on character and plot lends power to the drama (particularly the climax)

CONS

Nothing new in terms of storytelling

Can be a bit overly dramatic at times

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Huang Xuan, Duan Yihong, Lang Yueting, Zu Feng, Xing Jiadong, David Wang
Director: Alan Mak, Anthony Pun
Screenwriters: Felix Chong

Movie Review – John Wick: Chapter 2

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EXPECTATIONS: More bang for your buck.

REVIEW: Keanu Reeves is by far the most versatile actors ever, when you consider his acting range. From comedic roles like his iconic slacker character, Ted “Theodore” Logan to the action heroes like Jack Traven from Speed and Neo from The Matrix films; dramatic roles like in River’s Edge and Hardball; and even villainous roles like in The Gift and Man of Tai Chi. Clearly from his filmography, you can’t criticize the man for lack of trying.

Although his choices have not always resulted in successes i.e. his performances in Dracula and Much Ado About Nothing, when he picks the right project, you can bet you are going to hear about it. Case in point: John Wick.

An independent action film with no Hollywood backing, directed by talented stuntmen making their directorial debut and starring many talented character actors. When it gathered incredibly positive buzz at screenings, it became a cult hit, mainly thanks to video sales.

And now we have the long-awaited sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2. Promising more hard-hitting action, more memorable characters, more ample story, more world explorations and no deaths of canines, will it live up to the immense hype and equal the quality of its predecessor?

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The film starts off basically minutes after the events of the first film, where John Wick ties up one loose end that involves a fun action scene in a warehouse; complete with a fun cameo by Peter Stormare.

Then Wick tries to go back to his self-imposed retirement, but an old acquaintance of his (played by Riccardo Scamarcio) comes back into his life and demands a favour that can only result in Wick getting back into the killing floor once again.

Bounded by a sacred blood oath (as encapsulated by a marker), he is hired to assassinate a high-ranking mob boss but little does he know is that this will spur a tumultuous turn of events that will make the retirement of John Wick cut short once again.

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First things first, is the film as good as the original? Unfortunately, no, but it is definitely not from lack of trying. Let’s start with the problems. In the first film, Wick had an emotional motivation that linked to the death of those dear to him, whereas in the second film, he feels obligated due to a oath made years prior. It is not as compelling as it should be, and it does harm the film somewhat.

Secondly, since audiences were raving about the world that the first film built and teased, director Chad Stahelski decided to explore the world in a more expansive way. While there are some moments and features that are quite fascinating (seeing veteran actors like Laurence Fishburne and Franco Nero will never be a flaw), it does very little in the long run due to the fact that it hinders the pacing as well as making some of the action scenes strangely anti-climactic. Clearly, Stahelski is aiming to make another sequel, but his directing chops are not good enough to make the disparate moments anything more than they really are.

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But if you can get over those flaws, John Wick: Chapter 2 is still a blazing time at the movies. As with most sequels, the action is bigger and John Wick: Chapter 2 is no exception to that rule.

The use of long takes are more plentiful, the environments are more expansive and the choreography is much more ambitious. One scene in a train station is striking due to the fact that it combines both character and action together to make a thrilling and oddly amusing experience.

The actors are clearly committed to the physical toils they go through with their action scenes and it pays off in the long run. Common, in particular, proves a worthy foil to Reeves as they fight twice (in the scene mentioned above) and it is quite a thrill to watch.

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Speaking of moments that are odd, John Wick: Chapter 2 has a more comedic touch that yields surprising results. At times, it is quite reminiscent of the old Pink Panther films, where an antagonist would attack our hero at any moment.

There are moments where Stahelski is expanding his directing chops by establishing mood and it becomes very effective in conveying the stakes of the plot. A scene where Wick meets his mark (played by Claudia Gerini) is quite haunting and unexpected.

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And the performances all hit their mark with ease, even down to the smallest of parts with Reeves leading the pack with his sheer presence and commitment; and to the smallest part from Gerini, who makes a big impression in her one scene.

Overall, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a very serviceable sequel that could have been an improvement over its predecessor if it weren’t for its ambitions far exceeding the film’s grasp. A gunshot can only travel so far, but at least Wick still has a few surprising tricks up his sleeve.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Action scenes are much more creative

Acting is spot-on

Stahelski expands on his directing chops

CONS

Muddled storytelling

SCORE: 7.5/10

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

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, Claudia Gerini, Ian McShane, Bridget Moynahan
Director: Chad Stahelski
Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad

Movie Review – Free Fire

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EXPECTATIONS: A fun time with guns-a-blazing!

REVIEW: The films by British director Ben Wheatley have all been incredibly distinct from another and are all very well-done. Whether going through the genre of crime, psychological horror, dark comedy, dystopian drama and historical surrealism, you can never accuse Wheatley of doing the same trick twice. But the crucial through-line that Wheatley applies into all of those films is a streak of black humour.

In his most commercial film to date, Wheatley has assembled a who’s who of talented character actors in a simple premise that is so ingenious, that I’m surprised that no one has done it earlier. But the premise can be both easy to achieve and to fail so will Wheatley and his cast/crew succeed with a perfect headshot?

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Set in 1970’s Boston, Justine (Brie Larson) plans a handover with two groups of arms dealers (led by Vernon and Ord, played by Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer) to meet up in a dilapidated warehouse for a huge arms deal.

With character actors like Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor, Enzo Cilenti, Babou Ceesay and others) as the dealers, it only takes one of them to be the party pooper and once the shit hits the fan, it’s every man (and woman) for themselves.

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Basically, what we have here is an elongated and grimy shootout with two sides going at it. Or is it three? Or more? Who the hell knows? The characters sure don’t! Funnily enough, the obliviousness, the unruly feel and the realistic approach to the film-making is what makes the film a hilarious time at the cinema.

One of the reasons Free Fire is a fun time is due to how Wheatley gets rids of the Hollywood sheen of filming action scenes and goes for a painfully realistic vibe, that elicits lots of laughs. No one poses, no one does any amazing feats (like diving with two guns blazing) and no one ever comes out looking cool. This ain’t no John Woo film, folks. People get hurt. Really…really…bad.

Wheatley also utilizes the environment effectively, as he ups the difficulties the characters face to survive with humourous aplomb. People crawl on the gravelly dirt with sharp rocks, broken glass and jagged metal poles everywhere and wince in pain and it makes the experience both cringe-worthy and groan-worthy in the best of ways.

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The script is also very-well written by Wheatley and prime collaborator Amy Jump, with many quotable lines that are guaranteed to leave you in stitches at some points (Protection from infection!) and numerous character touches add much colour to the film. Like the fact that most of the dealers wear fancy suits or the amusing resilience of some of the characters (Drugs can have that effect on people).

But the almost-miraculous feat of the film is that the film sustains the interest of the audience with its short running time, location shifting and tight editing. The economy and efficiency of Wheatley‘s storytelling certainly helps, as he introduces his characters swiftly, shapes the dynamics distinctively, sets the wheels in the motion and he never throttles back on the momentum of the plot.

But the film wouldn’t be entertaining as it is without the talented ensemble cast. Brie Larson charms whilst convincingly standing her ground; Armie Hammer effortlessly exudes cool with a bit of a sinister edge; Cillian Murphy makes for a surprisingly shy lead; Jack Reynor is amusingly aggressive; Enzo Cilenti and Noah Taylor bicker nicely; Sam Riley is hilariously resilient and unhinged; Michael Smiley is sharp while being world-weary and Babou Ceesay is likable as the smooth, straight man of the group.

But the man that steals the show is Sharlto Copley. Clearly a very talented actor, but somehow, people don’t utilize his talents very well. Whether he’s overacting for all the wrong reasons like in the remake of Oldboy or appearing in films with terrible scripts like Chappie and Elysium, he can barely catch a break.

Ironically enough, neither can his character and Copley damn near steals the show as Vernon. Whether he’s making terrible flirtatious exchanges with Justine, making deals for survival with Ord or improvising so-called safety measures, Copley is a total blast in the role.

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Despite all the things the film gets right, there are flaws that prevent it from being truly amazing. The ending ventures towards the familiar, which is surprising and disappointing, considering Wheatley‘s prior films. And it is because of the ending that the film doesn’t leave a big impression when one leaves the cinema, leaving the film to be nothing more than a very entertaining genre exercise, instead of the grand film it could’ve been.

Free Fire is Wheatley‘s most accessible film that entertains with its wonderful cast, the witty, quotable script and Wheatley‘s confident direction. It may not hit a bullseye with perfect accuracy, but unlike the characters, it’s certainly ain’t a bad shot.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic cast

Wheatley’s assured direction

Realistic approach provides shocking laughs

CONS

Ending doesn’t quite hit the mark

Doesn’t leave a huge impression overall

SCORE: 7.5/10

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

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Noah Taylor, Patrick Bergin
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenwriters: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley

Movie Review – Kong: Skull Island

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EXPECTATIONS: An incredibly silly, yet very entertaining monster mash.

REVIEW: Monster movies were my jam back when I was a kid. Just seeing two colossal creatures beating each other with whatever environment they are in at their disposal was such an incredible delight. With fantastic examples like the various Godzilla films, King Kong films, Mighty Peking Man, The Host (2006) and War of the Gargantuas, it just goes to show that sometimes, the simplest pleasures can be the best.

And it seems that Western films are getting back into the genre, with sterling examples like Cloverfield, Peter Jackson‘s King Kong, Pacific Rim and of course, the latest Godzilla entry. And now we have the latest reiteration of Kong with Kong: Skull Island. With an up-and-rising director (this being Vogt-Roberts‘ first studio film), a vast and talented supporting cast (with multiple Oscar winner/nominated actors and rising stars) and a huge budget (almost $200 million) in their disposal, will this be the entertaining monster mash the trailers hint at?

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Set in 1973, Tom Hiddleston plays James Conrad, a former British Special Air Force captain who served in the Vietnam War, who is hired by William “Bill” Randa (John Goodman), a senior official for Monarch, a secret government organization, to head an expedition to go to an uncharted island for extensive research.

Those who come along in the expedition include army personnel like Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) a US Lieutenant Colonel and leader of his helicopter squadron (consisting of Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann, Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell and others); Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a war photojournalist and peace activist and Houston Brooks and San Lin (Corey Hawkins and Jing Tian), whom both work for Monarch, and others.

As they arrive on the island, they quickly realize that they have stepped in a place that they should have never stepped in as the inhabitant known as Kong (motion-captured by Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell) takes a stand to defend his land from the intruders. As the expedition crew makes plans to fight for survival against Kong and the other monsters on the island, some of them begin to see that Kong is worth saving.

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Let’s get one thing straight: this film does not have the tone of Gareth EdwardsGodzilla. So for those who want their monster films dark and serious would probably be deterred by the film’s lighter tone. But for those who relish the campy, silly monster films of yore will be highly entertained.

The trailers for the film promise loads of monster battles and boy, do we get them! Unlike the relentless teasing of showing Godzilla in the 2014 film, Kong is shown in the very first scene and has a constant presence throughout the film. The action scenes are plentiful, distinct and pack a massive punch.

The scene where Kong appears before the expedition crew for the first time is the highlight of the film. Other action scenes include giant insects, pterodactyls, octopi and of course, the Skullcrawlers, and they are spectacular to behold, thanks to Jordan Vogt-Roberts‘ direction, Larry Fong‘s graphic novel-like cinematography and John Dykstra‘s handing of the special effects. There are some inventive touches in the action scenes that also add to the fun like the use of a flashing camera or the use of toxic gas.

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Speaking of Vogt-Roberts, it is very clear that he is a huge fan of genre cinema and animation, particularly with Studio Ghibli. Besides the obvious references to Apocalypse Now and Platoon, the visual splendor and film-making references acclaimed animated films like Princess Mononoke (the settings and monsters), Spirited Away (the monsters) and even Laputa: Castle in the Sky (the scene where the expedition crew go through the storm to enter the island).

Although the splendor may interfere with the logic in the story (Would anyone stand still if an explosion happened that close?), thankfully, the film doesn’t really take itself seriously, therefore the splendor always adds to the fun. I also liked the fact that there are no shoehorned references or excessive foreshadowing to future films, unlike films of other established universes.

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The violence of the film is also a surprise that actually shocked me quite a bit. Considering that this is an M-rated film, the implications of said violent scenes still make a huge impact, like how a soldier meets his end with an incoming helicopter or how another soldier meets his end in a bamboo forest that is similar to a scene in Cannibal Holocaust.

Speaking of the lighter tone, contrary to the 2014 Godzilla film, Kong: Skull Island actually has a sense of humour. Everyone in the film clearly knows the ridiculousness of the story and the premise and they all have fun with it. So much so, that it’s quite hard to believe that this film is set in the same universe as the 2014 Godzilla film.

Almost every monster film has weak characterizations and Kong: Skull Island is no exception. Fortunately, the majority of the ensemble cast are all charismatic enough to stand out regardless. Tom Hiddleston basically reprises his role from The Night Manager as James Conrad; meaning that he gives a stoic, heroic and controlled performance that suits the film. Brie Larson capably exudes charm, sympathy and some much-needed wit to the proceedings, while John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson chew some scenery with gusto.

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The majority of the supporting cast have their moments like Corey Hawkins as a passionate geologist and Thomas Mann, who gives an amusing performance that is clearly inspired by Bill Paxton‘s performance in Aliens while Shea Whigham and Jason Mitchell are an amusing duo with their banter. Toby Kebbell is fine as the sympathetic family man of the squadron, but he isn’t given much to do, probably because he was too busy helping out with the motion-capture process of the film.

It doesn’t excuse the wasted talent of Jing Tian, who contributes nothing to the film. It’s a shame because she has made big impressions as an action heroine in films like Special ID and The Great Wall. She is basically a shoehorned plug-in for the China market (since one of the production companies for the film is a Chinese film company), therefore she ends up joining the list of highly talented, yet wasted actors like Zhang Jingchu (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), Fan Bing-bing and Wang Xueqi (Iron Man 3).

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Fortunately, the film compensates with John C. Reilly, who is the standout of the film. The trailers seem to hint that he was cast in the film for comic relief, but he ends up more than that and registers as a convincing action hero. His character has a solid backstory and also has a scene during the credits that was surprisingly poignant.

As for flaws, alongside the thin characterizations, the light tone can sometimes conflict with the serious parts of the film, which can confuse some on how to react. There’s a scene involving Shea Whigham‘s character that felt so out of place that I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be taken seriously or it was meant to be funny. Although the film lacks an emotional through-line unlike the last Kong film, it makes up for it with fun.

Overall, Kong: Skull Island was a lot of fun, with many spectacular monster battles, a likable ensemble cast, outstanding visual splendor and a standout performance from John C. Reilly.  Don’t leave the film during the credits, as there is a scene proceeding it for your pleasure.

Quickie Review

PROS

Spectacular monster battles

Astounding visual splendor

Vogt-Roberts’ enthusiastic direction

Likable and self-aware ensemble cast

CONS

The light tone conflicts with the seriousness of some scenes, leading to some unintentional laughs

Waste of Jing Tian

Thin characterizations

Lacks emotional through-line

SCORE: 7.5/10

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

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell, Jing Tian, Corey Hawkins, Terry Notary, Thomas Mann, Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell, John Ortiz, Miyavi
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenwriter: John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Conolly

Movie Review – Assassin’s Creed

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EXPECTATIONS: A videogame film adaptation that finally breaks the videogame film curse.

REVIEW: The majority of videogame films are, for a lack of a better term, complete tosh. From catastrophes like Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros. and most of Uwe Boll‘s filmography to films that are close to viewer satisfaction like Final Fantasy VII – Advent Children and Ace Attorney, the reputation of videogame films is not something you would proudly put on a pedestal.

So when Creedy Assassin Assassin’s Creed was announced to be made into a film, I admit that I had zero expectations whatsoever. Granted, I have never played the games before, but upon discovering the incredibly talented cast and crew (which most of them made the fantastic Shakespeare adaptation, 2015’s Macbeth), my expectations went up. So do they manage to break the so-called videogame film curse or will the film just end up in the critically maligned dung-heap?

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The film starts off during the Spanish Inquisition, with the Assassin’s Creed (consisting of Aguilar de Nerha and Maria, played by Michael Fassbender and Ariane Labed) taking a vow to get a certain artifact called the Apple of Eden, which is known to have powers that can stop violence and aggression in the world. They must obtain the artifact swiftly before the Templar Order obtains it for their unknown deeds.

Cutting to the present day, we see Callum Lynch (also Michael Fassbender), a criminal who is about to be given the lethal injection (that’s not a euphemism). He is then rescued (or revived?) by Abstergo Industries, which just so happens to be the present-day version of the Templar Order, headed by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his daughter, Sophia (Marion Cotillard).

Callum is then forced to participate in the Animus Project and relive the memories of his ancestor, Aguilar, to investigate the whereabouts of the Apple of Eden in exchange of his freedom. But during the experiments, Callum begins to understand and inexplicably immerse himself to his ancestor to the point that Alan and Sophia might have bit off a bit more than they could chew.

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Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Does the film break the videogame film curse? Absolutely not. The storytelling is incredibly baffling, the action scenes are perfunctory and uneventful and the exposition is overwhelming to the point of absolute tedium. Hell, many of the story elements don’t make any sense.

For example, the Animus is portrayed as a machine that locks on to the participant to allow mobility within a circular room. So when the participant is running straight during the past, where is the participant going during the present? And this applies for tall heights as well. How high is too high when the building of the present day is quite limited?

It’s not even fully explained if Callum died during his sentencing or he was rescued before he got the injection. How do the people at Abstergo know where and when Callum in the Animus end up to become Aguilar in the past? There are so many illogical inconsistencies and plot holes that if the film was a bulletproof vest, it would be destroyed and mangled beyond recognition.

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Well, the sheer talent of the film absolutely try their best with the crummy script and cardboard cutouts substituting as characters. Michael Fassbender really tries to tap into the essence of his character(s), but he only succeeds in showing his own charisma and star power, instead of giving anything memorable that could’ve come from the script.

This can be due to the fact that main characters in videogames are in fact ciphers; basically proxies of the players that they can put themselves into to experience the story. But this is a film, not a videogame.

Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Michael K. Williams, Charlotte Rampling, Ariane LabedBrendan Gleeson; how the hell did they end up in this film? All of them struggle valiantly to give life to their characters and only Cotillard ends up with an arc that actually has some impact and that is only due to her performance. Much like the viewers, the cast were probably all present due to the involvement of rising director, Justin Kurzel. Even with films like Snowtown and Macbeth, he can’t even save this mess.

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The action scenes, which are the biggest selling point of the film, are incredibly over-edited, sanitized and shaky to the point where it is blatantly obvious that the film is sucking up to the teenage crowd to spend their money. The games were already made for people older than 17 years of age, so why doesn’t the film get made the same way? Oh that’s right, the almighty dollar, of course. There is little impact, little suspense and especially little fun be had.

To be honest, I actually fell asleep during the first action scene, since it was just so ho-hum. It also doesn’t help that we know that Fassbender’s character will survive due to the fact that Fassbender himself announced that the story is a part of a three-film arc, so there’s no stakes whatsoever. What happened to making films that were so good that people want more; instead of making feature-length commercials for future sequels and spin-offs?

But the biggest problem with the film is the storytelling. The pacing is all over the place, with exposition scenes either going way too fast (in explaining the Animus) or way too slow (in explaining the connections with Callum’s past and the present). The editing is so choppy, that it kills the little suspense the film could have earned.

The premise is interesting within of itself, but the execution would leave one incredibly puzzled. There’s even a joke in the film when Fassbender actually says “What the fuck is going on?”. Nothing else in the film is more amusing, self-aware and meta than that statement.

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With so many flaws, there are some positives. Besides the insanely committed and overqualified cast, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw makes the film look epic in scope (similar in 2015’s Macbeth) during the scenes set in the past, but can only do so much in the scenes set in the present. The scenes set in Abstergo actually reminds me of the lab scenes in Fantastic Four (2015), and no, that is absolutely not a compliment. The musical score by Jed Kurzel also adds a sense of credibility but like the rest of the crew’s work, it can only go so far.

Another videogame film adaptation, another epic fail, I’m afraid. As if the story of the film doesn’t do that already, it seriously boggles the mind that the film can assemble so much talent and yet achieve so very little. Creedy Assassin Assassin’s Creed is a disappointment on almost every level.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast try their darnedest to give the film credibility

The production values are good

CONS

So many plot holes and illogical inconsistencies

The storytelling is all over the place

The action scenes do not thrill or excite

The pacing is incredibly haphazard

Too much exposition, which results in tedium

SCORE: 3/10

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

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, Ariane Labed, Callum Turner, Brendan Gleeson, Essie Davis, Denis Ménochet
Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenwriter: Bill Collage, Adam Cooper, Michael Lesslie

Movie Review – Phantom Detective (London Korean Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: A silly, half-hearted noir that grates due to its long running time.

REVIEW: Whether if you have noticed or not, Korean cinema has been on a roll lately with their films and they have all been critically acclaimed as well as financially successful. With films like The Wailing, The Handmaiden, Train to Busan, The Age of Shadows and others, how could a committed moviegoer cannot be psyched about that?

Enter director Jo Sung-hee, a film-maker that has gone through a blockbuster phase lately. His debut feature-length film, End of Animal, was an independent, gritty drama that both equally impressive as well as frustrating. Then surprisingly, he ventured into the fantasy genre with A Werewolf Boy, which was a box office success and I was entertained, although it was too much like Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands for my liking.

And now he has ventured into the neo-noir genre with his latest film, Phantom Detective. Will the film keep up the high-standard winning streak of the recent films that I’ve seen, or will it let it down and become the first black sheep of the flock?

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Lee Je-hoon stars as Hong Gil-dong, a talented sleuth who runs an illegal detective agency with the wealthy and vamp President Hwang (Go Ara). Hong is able to track virtually anyone down in record time, except for Kim Byeong-Duk (Park Geun-hyung) who has eluded him for many years. Kim is the man who killed Hong’s mother, although Hong’s memory is quite blurred, rendering it unreliable.

One day, Hong learns of Kim’s location and drives there late at night. Right before he arrives, Kim is kidnapped and only his granddaughters Dong-Yi (Roh Jeong-eui) and Mal-Soon (Kim Ha-na) are left. Following his urge for revenge, Hong reluctantly takes the granddaughters to find their grandfather. Soon, Hong finds himself embroiled in more than he bargained for when he uncovers a large conspiracy that could involve the deaths of many innocent people.

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First things first, I enjoyed Phantom Detective in the long run. But for the first act, I have to admit, I had huge doubts about whether the film was worth the viewing. Firstly, the main character, Hong Gil-dong, is a dick. And I don’t mean a private dick (short for private detective), I mean, in a derogatory sense, he’s a dick. I didn’t know whether it was Lee’s performance or it was the intentional character portrayal but the smug attitude really bugged me.

Secondly, the child characters were also quite annoying as well. Overly cute to the point of making one’s teeth rot and incredibly intrusive to one’s work, it’s no wonder why Hong gets annoyed with them, let alone that he wants to kill their grandfather for murdering his mother. And lastly, it takes quite a while for one to discover the real plot of the film, so it makes the film drag in its first and partly second act.

But if one is patient enough to make it through all that, it becomes an entertaining film that is ultimately worth your while. The film instantly becomes better as soon as the motivations of the villains come into play. Characters become more human and likable, action scenes become more noteworthy, the drama even packs an extra punch and everything that preceded it becomes more clear. And that is all thanks to Jo Sung-hee’s patient direction.

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The visuals and cinematography by Byun Bong-sun give the film a comical, yet nostalgic vibe, reminiscent of film noir and graphic novels, yet it never interferes with the surprisingly dark tone of the film. The action scenes are overall well-conceived, particularly with the use of a fire extinguisher that gave off unexpected tension and suspense. But the hand-to-hand combat sequences are a bit of a letdown, since they suffer from fast-cutting, with hinder the impact of the action.

But the heart of the film are the characters, which the actors truly give their best to their parts. Lee Je-hoon, an underrated actor who has done impressive work in the war film The Front Line and the indie drama Bleak Night, does well in the leading role. He gradually fits into the role of the talented sleuth and he plays the dilemmas of the character quite well, especially in the third act.

The child actors, Roh Jeong-eui and Kim Ha-na, are both good in their roles, especially Roh, since she has moments to shine. Park Geun-hyung makes the most out of his integral role as Kim Byeong-duk due to his tenderness with the scenes between him and the child actresses as well as the scene when he is confronted by Hong, which turns the present cliche on to its head.

Go Ara is delightfully vamp in her small role as President Hwang, who is clearly more busy with other tasks than helping Hong out. Jeong Seong-hwa is likable as the comic relief/hotel innkeeper/former crime thug but Kim Sung-kyun is the biggest standout as the villain. With very little backstory on the script, Kim still manages to stand out thanks to his acting. It also helps that his look (the lighting on his glasses) adds to the sheer menace Kim brings to the part.

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Alongside the problematic first act, there are other flaws which prevent the film from reaching greatness. There are many genre elements in the film which can work on their own but when mixed together, it can become quite jumbled, if not take you out of the film. When you mix a tortured heroic character with a pair of precocious kids and throw them into a plot that involves a villainous cult, it becomes quite bizarre. Plus, the final act does take a bit too long (suffering from the too-many-endings syndrome) to reach its predictable conclusion.

But overall, Phantom Detective is greater than the sum of its parts, and although it doesn’t reach greatness like the other films of its home country, it is an entertaining diversion that packs committed performances, surprising direction from Jo Sung-hee and an appealing visual style.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good performances

Well-thought out action scenes

Character backstories give punch to drama

Cinematography adds to the offbeat feel

CONS

Genre elements don’t always mesh

Draggy ending

Problematic first act

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Lee Je-hoon, Kim Sung-kyun, Go Ara, Roh Jeong-eui, Kim Ha-na, Park Geun-hyung, Jung Sung-hwa, Kwang Bo-ra
Director: Jo Sung-hee
Screenwriters: Jo Sung-hee

Movie Review – The Age of Shadows

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EXPECTATIONS: A technically masterful and endearingly old-fashioned spy thriller.

REVIEW: Kim Jee-woon is one hell of a versatile film-maker. The first film of his that I saw was on Australian television over 15 years ago. And that was his first feature-length film, the hilarious dark comedy, The Quiet Family. And to think that I assumed that The Quiet Family was a Japanese film (it has a Japanese remake as well) since I thought the first Korean film I saw was My Sassy Girl, it was a film that just kept on giving.

With a fresh cast that will become established stars and character actors (Song Kang-ho, Choi Min-shik and others) and assured direction from Kim, it was more than enough for me to look forward to his other work. Branching from comedy (The Foul King) to horror (A Tale of Two Sisters) to crime (A Bittersweet Life) to westerns (The Good, The Bad, The Weird) to thrillers (I Saw The Devil) to sci-fi (Doomsday Book) and even romance (One Perfect Day), I have enjoyed every project that he has made.

And after his mildly entertaining effort with Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Last Stand, he has come back to Korea with a bang with this period film/spy thriller, The Age of Shadows, which has gathered critical acclaim from the Venice Film Festival and has been chosen to be the submission for the best foreign film at the Oscars. But does the film live up to the hype?

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Set in the 1920’s, Song Kang-ho stars as Lee Jung-chool, a high ranking officer whose allegiance is with Japanese overlords over the Korean people. They have charged him with rooting out members of his country’s resistance movement. With the unenviable reputation of being a sell-out of his own people, none of it compares when a former classmate turned resistance fighter dies in front of him. On the other side of the conflict, Che-san (Lee Byung-hun) notices Lee in his dilemma and sees an opportunity to defect him onto their side.

And that commences the development of reeling Lee in, with Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), a key figure in the resistance handling the case. His antique shop is a front for a scheme to smuggle explosives from Shanghai into Seoul. While Lee could bring down this operation at any moment as well as being forcibly teamed up with the high-tempered Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), he also has an equal chance to become an ally, thanks in no small part to Kim and his psychological tactics.

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If you’ve seen the trailer or any of Kim’s work, you can expect that The Age of Shadows is a technically masterful piece of work. The cinematography by Kim Ji-yong (A Bittersweet Life, Hansel and Gretel) is striking and atmospheric throughout from the thrilling opening set-piece to the 30-minute train sequence that is a masterpiece of sustained suspense and tension.

The musical score by Mowg compliments the film as well, with an understated use of percussion to wonderful music choices like Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling” and the best use of Ravel’s “Bolero” since Sion Sono’s Love Exposure. The editing by Yang Jin-mo is tight, ensuring maximum tension, fast pace and minimum fat during the 140 minute run-time.

Kim Jee-woon’s direction is in absolute control throughout the film. Getting us into the film immediately with its opening sequence, establishing the plot and character backstories with extreme efficiency, messing with the audience and their allegiance with playful humour and an assured hand, Kim Jee-woon is at this best.

None of this is affirmed more clearly than in the 30 minute train sequence. Going back and forth between characters, shifting allegiances alongside the expected violence that Kim packs into his films, it is thrilling to behold. Like with I Saw the Devil, there are moments in the film that are stomach-churning, like its interrogative torture sequences but don’t expect them to be with the same intensity of the former.

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And let’s not forget the stellar acting from the cast. I don’t usually like to compare foreign actors to Hollywood counterparts, but if it gets Westerners to recognize talent overseas, I’ll have to do it. Song Kang-ho is basically like the Tom Hanks of Korea. Having adept comedy chops, tons of charisma and the capability to pull off compelling understated performances, Song is one of Korea’s finest actors, and in The Age of Shadows, he gives further proof of his reputation. He plays his character’s dilemmas very well, whether it is the questioning of his allegiance to his Japanese superiors and his country or his buried stress of his need to survive.

Gong Yoo is becoming a capable leading man as of late since the shocking true-story drama Silenced and the action flick The Suspect and if the year of 2016 signals anything, this film alongside the blockbuster Train to Busan is a great year for Gong. In The Age of Shadows, Gong mixes star-charisma with a strong sense of determination that makes his character easy to root for.

As for the supporting cast, Han Ji-min makes the most out of her screen-time, making a convincing sorta love-interest. And the same goes for Lee Byung-hun, in an extended cameo as the leader of the resistance. A standout of a villain is Um Tae-goo as Hashimoto. Gloriously over-the-top yet still conveying a sense of menace, Um provides a clear antagonist that we love to hate. His standout moment is when he berates his men and it is the most amusingly violent slapping scene since Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop.

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As for nitpicks, the only one that is noticeable is the slightly overlong ending, the mildly convoluted plot and the fact that there is no deep meaning to it all. Korean cinema still keeps up its winning streak with The Age of Shadows; Kim Jee-woon’s long-awaited comeback to Korea. With stellar performances, thrilling setpieces, masterful storytelling and top-notch production values, The Age of Shadows is a must-see for anyone who loves film, particularly period films, spy thrillers and cloak-and-dagger flicks. Highly recommended.

Quickie Review

PROS

Stellar acting performances

Top-notch production values

Beautiful cinematography

Tight editing

Kim Jee-woon’s masterful storytelling chops

CONS

Slightly overlong ending

Slightly convoluted plot

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min, Um Tae-goo, Shin Sung-rok, Shingo Tsurumi, Park Hee-soon, Seo Young-joo, Han Soo-yeon, Yoo Jae-sang, Lee Soo-kwang, Kim Dong-young, Lee Byung-hun
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Screenwriters: Lee Ji-min, Park Jong-dae, Kim Jee-woon

Movie Review – Time Renegades

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EXPECTATIONS: A return to form for Kwak Jae-yong.

REVIEW: Director Kwak Jae-yong, quite frankly, is a bit of a sap. Not offending him in any way, but as the evidence states that in all of his films contain a melodramatic love story of some sort, he really is. From his debut years of the Watercolor Painting in a Rainy Day films to the worldwide critical acclaim he received with the 2001 mega-blockbuster My Sassy Girl and his expansion into other genres and other countries like 2003’s classical drama The Classic or the two 2008 films like the wuxia/rom-com My Mighty Princess or the Japanese sci-fi/time-travel film, Cyborg Girl. But since then, he hasn’t made much progress lately due to screenwriting-only duties like Tsui Hark’s 2008 bonkers comedy All About Women, failed film projects like Yang Gui Fei, to his unfortunate nadir with 2014’s China rom-com, Meet Miss Anxiety. But now, director Kwak is back (I didn’t mean to rhyme, honest!) in Korea with another love story within a backdrop of a crime thriller for Time Renegades. Will this be a true return to form that made us love his work in the first place or will it start off a path that will end in eventual mediocrity?

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During New Year’s Eve celebrations at Bosingak Belfry in Seoul, 2014 rookie detective Geon-woo (Lee Jun-uk) and 1982 high school music teacher Ji-hwan (Jo Jung-suk) suffer life-threatening injuries after both of them were trying to stop a thief. When all hope seems lost, a momentary power blackout brings both men back from the brink. Back in 1983, Ji-hwan has just recently proposed to his long-time girlfriend Yoo-jung (Lim Soo-jung), a sweet and intelligent science teacher working at the same school. While in 2015, Geon-woo has a laughable encounter with So-eun (also Lim Soo-jung), a headstrong and sassy woman who is a doppelganger for Yoo-jung and also a school teacher. What links both the men from the two time periods is that they both dream of each others points of view and the tragic. untimely death of Yoo-jung.

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This is Kwak’s first venture into crime thriller territory and I am happy to say that he has done a fantastic job. The pacing, the action scenes (one involving an escape) and the foreshadowing (like a simple blackout) are all great. But the thing that really struck me when I watched the opening was how incredibly razor sharp the editing was. Considering the two time periods and an action scene that crosses the two, it is fantastic to see concise and clear editing supporting the story. What’s even more amazing is that the editing is so good that it nullifies one of the major flaws in director Kwak Jae-yong’s film-making. Usually, his works have bloated running times and the narratives have needless subplots and run longer than they should, so in the case of Time Renegades, it’s a miracle that Kwak learned his lesson and he immediately grips the audience from the very first scene.

After the bravura opening scene, Kwak wisely develops an emotional through-line with the three leads (or four, technically) gleefully letting loose with the thrills and it makes the film that much better as Kwak ensures us that the characters are worth caring about. He and screenwriters Ko Jeong-un and Lee Sang-hyun also create intriguing side characters that may or may not be involved with the murder of Yoo-jung. In 1983, Ji-hwan investigates people like Seung-beoum (Lee Min-ho), a rambunctious student and Hyung-chul (Jung Woong-in), a construction worker to a unnamed biology teacher (Jeon Shin-hwan) who might or might not have the eyes on Yoo-jung. We also have other distinct characters like Geon-woo’s sidekick (Lee Ki-woo) and newly-appointed veteran commander Lt. Kang (Jung Jin-young) who is haunted by the murder of his wife years ago. All the supporting characters are well-realized and well acted and add a lot of spice to the film, especially when Kwak teases the audience by making all of them look suspicious that one of them might be the killer.

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But let’s not discount the main actors here, who provide great work. Cho Jung-seok is easy to root for as Ji-hwan, as he shares fantastic chemistry with Soo-jung and has a every-man vibe that easily engenders sympathy (despite the pretty-boy looks). Lee Jin-wook is convincingly determined as Geon-woo, the rookie detective who becomes immersed in the murder case of Yoo-jung. But the MVP here in this film is Lim Soo-jung. Capturing my heart attention since her fantastic performance in the horror drama A Tale of Two Sisters and giving more performances of the like in films like the romantic drama …ing and the subversive rom-com All About My Wife, Lim destroys the male performances into oblivion with her dual roles. Playing Yoo-jung with brimming intelligence and sweet nature, she clinches the love story into place, ensuring that it works to immerse the audience. While her character of So-eun is so endearingly brash that it actually reminded me of Jeon Ji-hyun’s performance in My Sassy Girl. She even exclaims in a comedic manner to Geon-woo’s character whether he wanted to die, which had to be a reference to My Sassy Girl. It is just Jung’s performance alone that ensures that Time Renegades has a beating heart underneath its surrealistic narrative.

With all stories of this nature, there are flaws involving logic and plot and Time Renegades is no exception. Events in the past do change the line of time in the future, but there are some moments that would befuddle the audience. Fortunately, the film establishes its own logic that it rarely takes the audience out of the film. There isn’t even an explanation or long scenes of exposition of how the dream-sharing works, but it never truly matters to director Kwak, and neither should it matter to the audience, since the characters are the heart of the film. The cinematography by Lee Sung-jae is beautiful and clearly thought out, making the time periods easy to discern, while the score by Kim Jin-sung is effective, if emotionally overbearing at times. And for those who are expecting a film involving time-travel, which is implied by the title, will be disappointed, since it has no time travel whatsoever.

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Time Renegades is a triumphant return-to-form as well as a great departure to new territory, melding his passion for love stories to the crime thriller genre with a killer premise. And with great performances, distinct characters, plenty of thrills and air-tight pacing, Time Renegades continues the roll of fantastic Korean cinema.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Kwak Jae-yong’s direction and storytelling

The concise editing and beautiful cinematography

The distinct characters

The great performances (especially from Lim Soo-jung)

The trippy premise

CONS

Minor plot holes and lapses in logic

Musical score can be a bit overbearing at times

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Jo Jung-suk, Lim Soo-jung, Lee Jun-uk, Jung Jin-young, Lee Min-ho, Jeon Shin-hwan, On Ju-wan, Lee Ki-woo
Director: Kwak Jae-yong
Screenwriters: Ko Jeong-un, Lee Sang-hyun, Kwak Jae-yong

Movie Review – The Legend of Tarzan

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EXPECTATIONS: A potentially great film squandered by studio heads.

REVIEW: Tarzan is a character that I have enjoyed over the years. I’m not a big fanatic of him, but I did like the concept of a man living in the jungle and residing with its inhabitants to become one of them and its fish-out-of-water plot. I grew up watching Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes with the Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert as the ape-man and I enjoyed the Disney adaptation of the story as well. So when I heard about another adaptation of Tarzan, I was cautiously optimistic. Cautious because of the many reboots, re-tellings, remakes and many other words with the prefix “re-” diluting the film industry these days; but optimistic because of the major talent involved. We have an underrated actor Alexander Skarsgard (whom I’ve enjoyed in The East and especially War on Everyone), rising star Margot Robbie, acting veterans Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz and director David Yates, who was responsible for the last four magically entertaining Harry Potter films. You even have the script co-written by writer/director Craig Brewer, who was responsible for the great Hustle and Flow and the both underrated Black Snake Moan and the Footloose remake.  How could I not get a little bit of my hopes up? Little did I know…

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Set a decade after the events of the original story, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard), called John Clayton III after his family name, is now residing in Victorian England with his loving wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). The plot starts off when Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), an envoy for the ruthless King Leopold, comes up with a plan to take out Tarzan. Rom plans to capture Tarzan for Chief Mbonga (a wasted Djimon Hounsou), an enemy of his in exchange for rare diamonds to fund the armies of King Leopold and continue his reign over the country with his rule of slavery. Unfortunately, Jane becomes entangled into the plot, it is up to Tarzan and his companion, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to return to the jungle and not only save Jane but to stop Rom from delivering the diamonds.

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I hate to say this to a film with this much talent involved, but this was a huge let-down. I don’t even know where to start. For a reported $180 million dollar film, you expect the CGI and green-screen to be immersive. But there are many scenes where the two are noticeable to the point of one having to point to the screen in frustration. Like a scene involving Tarzan, George and his fellow men swinging onto a speeding train. The storytelling (or the script, who knows) was rushed and slipshod, with the flashback scenes in particular being integrated into the film so poorly without any transitions whatsoever that it comes off like the director was just ticking it off a checklist, like a tragic scene involving a death of a loved one. It never comes off as emotional and will elicit more of a sigh than a tear. It also does not help that the film is nowhere near as entertaining as the premise of the film strives to be. A film about a heroic ape-man who can communicate with animals, swing on vines and fight for his own kind should elicit some joy, but the tone of the film is so self-serious, that it sucks a lot of the potential fun. Even the action scenes in the film are badly done, with lots of quick-cut editing, tight camera angles and really bad slow-motion.

The actors do their best, but their roles are so thinly-developed that they never make much of an impression and worse, the actors basically play themselves rather than inhabit their own characters. Alexander Skarsgard is fully committed to his role, with his fine presence and unique look, but without much personality, he becomes more of a cardboard cutout of a hero rather than a full-bodied (which he physically is) person. Margot Robbie valiantly tries her best to amp up her role with sass and quick wit (much like herself), but unlike her calls denying to be called a “damsel”, she most definitely is one, and it is a shame that she’s stuck with a role like this. Christoph Waltz basically reprises his villainous role from Inglourious Basterds, but with a bigger paycheck and much less personality to sink his teeth into. The only stand-out in this film that manages to single-handedly add mirth, fun and joy into the film is Samuel L. Jackson. Like Robbie, he basically plays himself, but he seems to be the only actor that is having fun in the movie. In interviews, he has stated that his character (which is based on a real person) should headline his own movie. I wholeheartedly agree.

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Apart from some okay acting and some interesting story ideas (like transfixing the story of Tarzan into real-life events), The Legend of Tarzan was a disappointment for all involved. But thank Samuel L. Jackson for his entertaining performance, as he makes the film more entertaining that it has any right to be.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Samuel L. Jackson

Some interesting story ideas

CONS

Bad CGI/green-screen

Slipshod and rushed storytelling

Thinly written characters

Horribly edited action/flashback sequences

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: Alexander Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Rory J. Saper, Christian Stevens
Director: David Yates
Screenwriter: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer based on the “Tarzan” stories created by Edgar Rice Burroughs