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

Movie Review – HK: Hentai Kamen – Abnormal Crisis [NYAFF 2016]

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EXPECTATIONS: An inferior sequel with a lack of ingenuity and purpose, except for being a cash-grab.

REVIEW: Superhero stories are the big thing in film and TV right now and considering the box office gross of Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman, it’s not going to die soon. But in my opinion, I’m just getting really tired of the craze. Most of these films end up with a end-of-the-world scenario, city-wide destruction, superhero posing within the danger of human lives and the villain’s unnecessary convoluted plan to bring about their own pain. Now that is just primo material in need of a spoofing. Enter Hentai Kamen, a superhero that wears panties on his head that gives him sexual powers. HK’s first film was a sleeper hit in Japan and is considered a cult classic all over the world due to its hilariously bizarre premise and its thrashing of superhero cliches. And now we have the long-awaited sequel. Will it be as good as the original or will be worn out as a used pair of panties?

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Starting off with a hilarious nod (one of many) to Spider-Man 2, Kyosuke Shikijo (Ryohei Suzuki) has graduated to university, but he’s struggling to abandon his second job as a perverted crime-fighter. When his girlfriend, Aiko (Fumika Shimizu, cute as a button), forces him to return the holy grail that is her panties (which Kyosuke needs to transform), Kyosuke decides to put his superhero duties on hiatus. However, with a mysterious villain vacuuming up women’s panties nationwide, anyone with a brain stem can figure out that it isn’t long for Kyosuke to ride up his crotch and give the villains some of his face time.

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The first film was a fun diversion out of a one-joke premise, but the running time of the film made it drag. And the film was 105 minutes. So imagine how it must feel when the sequel is two hours. But honestly, it doesn’t feel slower than the original did; and that is due to its bigger scope and the more focused and relaxed performances from the reprising cast. Ryohei Suzuki is still a hoot as he shows sheer commitment to the role and the silly proceedings; so much so that I actually prefer him as Kyosuke than Hentai Kamen. His flamboyant cries of panic and his hesitance of hand-to-hand combat (SOLAR PLEXUS!) always makes me laugh. Fumika Shimizu still does the precocious attitude absolutely straight that it also comes off as amusing; particularly when the ridiculously dramatic stakes take over in the climax. Tsuyoshi Muro reprises his villainous role with a minor twist that had me smiling due to the hilarious execution of it and Nana Katase shows up once again as a firecracker of a mother. I really meant to say “mother”, I swear.

Yuichi Fukada’s direction also pays off in various ways. The nods to previous superhero films are great, especially the ones nodding to Spider-man 2. A supposedly tragic scene that is executed with a sting of self-awareness and a hint of raunchiness pays off in a hilarious way. His timing for comedy has also improved, even if it is the same joke happening one too many. Then again, you can never have too much tight crotches on film. The bigger budget also adds to the scope, with more hilariously bad CGI battles, more silly situations and even new sets; something the first film did not have. Cameos from known actors also amuse like Hirofumi Arai and Kyosuke Yabe add to the fun.

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But the problems of the first film still exist, plus some other problems, which makes the film an inferior sequel. Two hours for a film such as this will really get tiring, and the feeling really hits when Kyosuke sets out for more training with a master (played by the returning Ken Yasuda). The new characters in the film do not make much of an impression. Yuya Yagira (who is so far away from his film, Nobody Knows) is dull as dishwater as the Little Shop of Horrors/Doctor Octopus villain while Ayame Misaki makes a surprisingly small impression as the sexy university professor.

But the main problem is that it does not do anything daring or really new with its hilarious premise. Sex comedies are a dime a dozen and with its high bar of controversy and tastelessness to strive for, the humour in Hentai Kamen is very tame. Well, tame for a film where a man shoves his crotch on another man’s face can be. It’s not a travesty of a sequel like Zoolander 2 but it is not a success like 22 Jump Street.

But what the film still achieves makes for an entertaining time at the movies. If there is a third entry to this rare occurrence of a franchise, I just hope it takes more chances, since the first film was such a crotch shot in the dark. Idea for a sequel title: THE SKID MARK RISES or THE TIGHT CROTCH RETURNS. Okay, I’ll stop now.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The returning cast give more confident performances

Fukuda’s direction still pays off in amusing ways

Bigger budget and better production values add to the fun

CONS

Overlong running time

Draggy pacing

Boring new characters

Nothing new or surprising in terms of its humour

SCORE: 6/10

Cast: Ryohei Suzuki, Fumika Shimizu, Yuya Yagira, Tsuyoshi Muro, Ayame Misaki, Sarutoki Minagawa, Hirofumi Arai, Kyosuke Yabe, Katsuya, Osamu Adachi, Haruna Uechi, Hitomi Sato, Nana Katase, Narushi Ikeda, Ken Yasuda
Director: Yuichi Fukuda
Screenwriters: Yuichi Fukuda, based on the manga by Keishu Ando

 

Movie Review – The Bodyguard (Yue Song) [NYAFF 2016]

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EXPECTATIONS: A China-pandering, cheap mess.

REVIEW: Director Yue Song must have had a time machine when he made this film. Best known for his martial arts skills and for being a one-man film-making crew for his first film, The King of the Streets, he comes back for his sophomore effort, The Bodyguard (aka Super Bodyguard). Not to be confused with the 2016 Sammo Hung effort of the same name (which is also known as My Beloved Bodyguard). The first time I heard about this film was from the ridiculously bold trailer that had boastful quotations like “The Best Kung Fu Film of the Last 20 Years!” and “The New Bruce Lee (Is) Coming!”. The trailer had me laughing so hard and so derisively that I knew I had to see it, expecting to trash-talk and criticize the hell out of it. So does the film live up to its frankly ridiculous remarks or will it fail miserably and disappear into mediocrity?

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Director, writer, editor and star Yue Song stars as Wu Lin, a martial artist, village bumpkin and all-round badass. After the death of his master, Wu Lin leaves his home to look for his friend and fellow student, Jiang Li (Xing Yu), also a martial artist and all-round badass who could not be any more obvious as the villain unless he had it tattooed on his forehead. After a weird and absolutely scary encounter with a snotty little brat of a kid (I’m not kidding, you need to see it to believe it), he sees a man being attacked by a bunch of thugs and he saves him. The man turns out to be Jia-Shan Li, one of wealthiest men of the city. Out of sheer coincidence, Wu Lin bumps into Jiang Li and the two catch up on old times, like all bro-mances go, unfortunately without all the homoerotic undertones. Wu-Lin is then hired by Jia-Shan Li to be the bodyguard (hence, the title) Fei Fei, a rich, petulant woman who wants nothing to do with her father and especially not Wu-Lin. As the two bitch and moan (and not in a good way, it is a China film after all) to the point of actual bonding, Jiang Li goes on with his diabolical and villainous schemes to the point that it puts Wu Lin and the people around him at risk. With no options to retreat or surrender, he chooses to put the foot down. And I don’t just mean on the ground.

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You may wonder why I am writing my synopsis with a snarky tone. Well it is because the story is cliched and predictable as hell, that the only people who would be surprised at a story such as this would be people who have never seen a movie before. But predictability does not ruin a film; the execution does. So how does the film hold up? The acting is overstated, the scene transitions are jarring, the storytelling is slipshod to the point that feels like Cliff Notes to a larger story, the dubbing is horrendous, the subtitles are full of grammatical errors and the tonal shifts are so abrupt, you can hear the necks of the audience break. While all of those factors would be low points in a critical standpoint, but in the case of The Bodyguard, they can actually be seen as positives, even highlights of such a film. Let me clarify my viewpoint a little.

What do all 90’s modern-set Hong Kong martial arts films have in common? They all have abrupt tone shifts, they all have crummy storytelling, they all have inconsistent acting, the subtitles are grammatically incorrect, the synthesizer music and they all have ill-fitting dubbing. But they also all have a palpable passion and enthusiasm in the film-making that makes them undoubtedly entertaining. And it is in that comparison that I ask: Did director Yue Song use a time machine to make this film? Because that has to be the only explanation to explain why The Bodyguard is one of the most nostalgically and unintentionally fun experiences I’ve seen so far this year.

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All the actors play their archetypal roles in such an overstated way, that it becomes quite endearing. Yue Song plays the role of stoic hero to a T, but he is quite charismatic, in between all the posing, that is reminiscent of 90’s Jet Li, without the rock-like emotion. For Xing Yu, he plays the villain with ease and keeps up with Yue Song really well. He could actually be seen as either a 90’s Collin Chou (who is also in this film as a small cameo) or Chin Siu-ho, the villain in the 1993 Jet Li film, The Tai-Chi Master. As for the supporting cast, they’re just there as plot devices, but Li Yufei stands out just due to her commitment into portraying such an spoiled, annoying socialite that it is alternately annoying and entertaining, similar to Christy Chung’s role in The Bodyguard from Beijing. Am I noticing a pattern here? The cameos from noted martial artists Michael Chan Wai-man and Collin Chou aren’t much if one is expecting a fight scene or two from them, but it is the dubbing to them that makes them stand out since it is so bad, that it becomes laughable.

As for the fight scenes, they are wildly energetic and are refreshingly free of CGI. The stunt-work looks fantastic and the full contact of it all makes it entertainingly cringe-worthy. But the use of style of the fight scenes can polarize at times. First off, there are times that undercranking (speed up) is utilized and it comes off as unintentionally hilarious, but it only happens in the first fight scene and I think it was intentional. It is reminiscent of 90’s Donnie Yen films like Legend of the Wolf and even his TV series of Fist of Fury. While the climactic fights tend to overcrank (slow down) that it takes out the urgency of the fight at times. But overall, they are fantastic to watch and it helps that all the opponents that Yue Song fights are actual martial artists or people that have the right physicality for their roles. Actors like Jiang Baocheng (The Wrath of Vajra), Xu Dongmei (Little Big Soldier) and others lend a lot of credibility to their fight scenes.

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But the problems in the film come from the flaws I stated above and while they add to the nostalgic throwback 90’s vibe of the film, it can irk current viewers. One example is when Wu Lin is stretching his big, long legs (good for ballet, by the way) for the splits, a woman is doing a lap dance on him until she stops because his package is too big for her. By the way, this happens right after the villain makes it so obvious that he is the villain, that he might as well have two mustaches. Another example, a child’s penis is shown urinating on the camera as a gag reflex gag. No, I am not joking. It certainly shocked and made me laugh, but it was such a random insertion that you have to wonder what the hell was going on in Yue Song’s mind when he wrote this? But then again, a eerily similar gag is shown in Wong Jing’s 1995 Die Hard rip-off, High Risk, which adds to my theory that Yue Song has a time machine. It is jarring humour and tone shifts like that and many other scenes that will have people laughing awkwardly or wholeheartedly. Or they will exclaim in horror over and over; who the hell knows?

Plus, the story is a mess, structurally. Alongside the sledgehammer-like predictability, the revelations and plot reveals that come with the film are so forced and so random, it’s almost as if the script was torn to shreds and put back together again. Nothing is foreshadowed properly so when the revelations occur, it will just provoke laughter or puzzlement; clearly not the intended reaction from the film-makers.

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Laughter is good for you, no matter what the context is, and unintentional entertainment is still entertainment. Don’t fight it. With the right frame of mind (or you are an aficionado or cineaste of Hong Kong cinema), you can have a lot of fun with The Bodyguard. As for the statements in the trailer, the film doesn’t even come close to those, but like the trailer itself, you can’t help but admire its chutzpah.

Quickie Review

PROS

Yue Song and Xing Yu are capable actors and even better fighters

The fight scenes and stunt work are impressive and ferocious

The throwback and nostalgic vibe of 90’s Hong Kong action films adds a lot of fun (whether intentional or unintentional)

CONS

Jarring sense of humour (a scene in the first three minutes scared the shit out of me)

Revelations come out of nowhere

Fight scenes can be quite overedited

Collin Chou does not have a significant role and doesn’t fight much at all

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Yue Song, Xing Yu, Li Yufei, Michael Chan Wai-man, Collin Chou, Jiang Baocheng, Xu Dongmei
Director: Yue Song
Screenwriters: Yue Song

Movie Review – The Final Master

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EXPECTATIONS: A martial arts movie that is just as dry and satirical as Xu Haofeng’s previous films.

REVIEW: Director Xu Haofeng is one uniquely enigmatic person, if his film-making works are any indication. Being a multi-talent of an established author, martial artist, film editor and director, he has certainly made his name a mark in the film industry and he has directed two martial arts films (The Sword Identity and Judge Archer) that were seen as polarizing for general audiences as well as critics. Known for their dry and static approach in opposition to wuxia tropes, it does have its admirers and now Xu has directed his third film called The Master (also known as The Final Master in the US). Having a more established leading man as the lead as well as the biggest budget compared to his prior films, has Xu Haofeng finally toned down his film-making tendencies for audience appeal? As well as my own?

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The film follows the journey of the Wing Chun practitioner Master Chen (Liao Fan). His pledge to his dying master is to fulfill his wish of opening a martial arts school in Tianjin, the center of focus for Chinese martial arts at that time. In order to achieve this, he has to send an apprentice Geng Liangchen (Song Yang) to challenge and defeat eight other martial arts schools. Yet, he becomes a pawn to the local power figures led by Master Zou (Jiang Wenli), placing his wife Zhao Guohui (Song Jia) and apprentice in danger. In the end, he must choose between what is right and fulfilling his master’s wish.

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The synopsis sounds really simple but boy, it sure as hell doesn’t play that way. Like Xu’s previous films, he insistently refuses to pay attention to character development, the dialogue, even the storytelling, and it is all to for the point of turning genre tropes (in this case, the wuxia genre) upside down. The storytelling is needlessly convoluted due to its copious amounts of double-crossing, undeveloped characters who come and go without rhyme or reason and the lack of style in its plot progression. The characters are almost complete ciphers with no character development or even interesting backstories. There’s a scene in the movie where Master Chen fights a bunch of thugs with a bamboo stick while he shares his life story to Guohui. This could have been a compelling scene that combines thrilling fight choreography and character development with a sense of amusing genre deconstruction, but the end result is clumsy, dull and sometimes laughable. The cinematography is more vibrant than Xu’s previous films (probably due to budget than film-making intention), but the tone of the film is sterile and clinical, without a sense of passion or even interest. But what kills the mood or any sense of thrill is the musical score by An Wei. It is irritatingly post-modern and it even comes off as repetitive. Director Xu was a co-writer for Wong Kar-wai’s martial arts opus, The Grandmaster, and if The Final Master had any sense of passion that The Grandmaster had, I bet it would be a much better film.

About the main course of the film which is the fight scenes, the choreography is smooth and fluid and the use of weaponry is quite impressive, but the problem is when the audience witnesses a very confusing plot and undeveloped characters; there is no emotional attachment to the film, making the fight scenes dull and repetitious. Even worse, the climax leads to a sequel-bait ending that feels unearned. As for the actors, they all try to bring life to their characters and some of them actually do. Liao Fan, who played the inept detective in Black Coal, Thin Ice, does quite well with the martial arts choreography and almost cuts a compelling figure in Master Chen but the script does him no favours. Ditto for Song Jia, who has no chemistry with Liao and ends up being nothing. Song Yang, who is a regular for director Xu, is amusing as the eager apprentice while Jiang Wenli valiantly tries to have fun and be menacing as the vilain, but again, the script does her no favours. Ditto for the rest of the cast like acting veteran Chi Shi-chieh and especially Maidina, who is just stuck in a flower vase role and nothing more.

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That’s not to say that there aren’t any positives to say about the film, because there are few, mostly in terms of its sense of humour. There are scenes that, like in Xu’s previous films, poke fun of tropes in the wuxia genre, or even action films in general. Like the scene I mentioned earlier, although I criticized the scene from a film-making standpoint, it can be seen as a satirical jab on mediocre action movies today i.e action scene, character development, action scene, character development, action scene and two leads get together, the end. The scene encapsulates the structure of those mediocrities and it comes off as funny. Even the climactic payoff of that scene involves the opponent running away in an amusing fashion; it had to have been satirical but you be the judge.

Other amusing moments involve the portrayal of foreigners. Almost every China film production that involves foreigners, xenophobia is involved. But in the case of The Final Master, they are still a powerful force, but they are apparently so powerful that the Chinese might as well join them in their ways. While the villains adopt their ways in terms of costuming, one particular character amusingly wears a sombrero. That sight gag along made me chuckle quite a bit. Even more amusing, a picture of Richard Valentino is used as a plot device. It is as funny as it sounds. There are also scenes of philosophical insight that are quite involving like the first scene showing that evading attacks can be slower than the attack itself and even then, director Xu turns scenes like them on its head with a scene involving bread that subtly parodies a scene from The Grandmaster.

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But a handful of amusing moments and ideas do not coalesce together to make a satisfying film experience. The sardonic edge that director Xu adopts in his previous films is still here, but it has been dulled due to the film’s more commercial aspirations and it is obvious that there has been a struggle in what the film wants to be so we end with the film be unable to be good at both sides of the spectrum. Xu Haofeng may have an original eye but he desperately needs a collaborator that can help convey his ideas in a much more enjoyably cinematic fashion. Hopefully his next movie, he can do this but in the meantime, The Final Master is a colossal bore.

P.S – I just realized that one of Xu Haofeng’s novels was adapted by director Chen Kaige to become Monk That Comes Down The Mountain. Having seen it beforehand, I can see why Xu would want to take creative control of his film adaptations.

Quickie Review

PROS

Some amusing satirical jabs on action film-making and wuxia tropes

Fight choreography is fluid and intricate

Actors do what they can with their one-dimensional “characters”

CONS

Storytelling is convoluted and confusing

Underdeveloped characters

The tone of the film is dry and lacks any emotional investment in the drama, even the fight scenes

The music is incredibly out-of-place and ruins the mood

Ends on a unearned sequel-bait conclusion

SCORE: 4/10

Cast: Liao Fan, Jiang Wenli, Chin Shi-chieh, Song Jia, Song Yang, Huang Jue, Maidina, Ma Jun, Chen Kuen-tai
Director: Xu Haofeng
Screenwriters: Xu Haofeng, based on his own novel

Movie Review – The Nice Guys

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EXPECTATIONS: A damn good Shane Black film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quickie Review

PROS

The three leads provide fantastic work and have a wonderful chemistry

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

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

CONS

Supporting cast are a little bit short-handed

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

SCORE: 9/10

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

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