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 – Their Finest

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that is hopefully better than the last film I saw from Lone Scherfig: One Day.

REVIEW: Lone Scherfig is a film-maker that has always frustrated me. The reason for it is that her filmography is always up-and-down; going from a film I like to a film I dislike and so on. Her Dutch films were great, but apart from An Education, her films were just flops, especially the turgid One Day.

So I wasn’t really looking forward to Their Finest, but I found out that it was a comedy as well as a drama, I had my hopes up quite a bit, since Scherfig‘s Dutch films were majorly comedies. And with a cast consisting of Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan and Jeremy Irons, I thought that maybe this film would be worthwhile after all. Does the film cast and crew live up the title?

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Set in London in the 1940’s, Gemma Arterton stars as Catrin Cole, a scriptwriter who is hired by the British Ministry to lend a “woman’s touch” to their latest propaganda film, writing the dialogue of the women present.

Although her artist husband, Ellis (Jack Huston) thinks she can do better, Catrin’s sheer talent and moxie gets her noticed by cynical, witty and possibly misogynistic lead scriptwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin). Catrin and Buckley set out to make an epic feature film based on the Dunkirk rescue starring the incredibly arrogant and pompous washed-up actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy).

As bombs (figuratively and literally) are dropping all around them, Catrin, Buckley and their variably talented cast and crew work furiously and tenaciously to make a film that will hopefully warm the hearts of the nation.

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Despite my low expectations, I am happy to report that Their Finest was a consistent delight from beginning to end. Director Lone Scherfig shows why her talent and film-making was acclaimed in the first place, as she deftly lays out comedy and drama with an assured hand that it never becomes too cutesy nor does it ever become overly melodramatic (although it does come dangerously close).

There are scenes in the third act that come dangerously melodramatic that it threatens to derail the true point of the story as well as it does feel like it just happens to occur in the film for the sake of drama. Adding to the fuel is Rachel Portman‘s score, which certainly does milk the sentiment all of its worth, but thankfully, it works it never truly hinders the film thanks to the film’s old-fashioned tone but mainly it is because of the appealing cast.

I remember Gemma Arterton in blockbuster roles that always felt like film-makers were trying to stuff her into roles that Rachel Weisz would play early in her career. But seeing her in much more substantial roles like the titular role The Disappearance of Alice Creed to  the seductive vampire in Byzantium to a talking apparition (don’t ask) in The Voices, she clearly has talent. And in Their Finest, she may have given her best performance to date. Conveying inner strength, charm, wit and grace so effortlessly in the leading role, I knew that the film was in good hands the second she appeared on-screen.

Sam Claflin is an actor that I have not been impressed with. Not that he is a bad actor or anything but in roles like The Hunger Games films, the awful Snow White films and the execrable Me Before You, he is not the actor that I would put in a very positive light. Until now. Finally, he is in a role where he has true personality and verve and Claflin plays Buckley with a great sense of dry humour and heart that I almost could not believe that it was him. Arterton and Claflin share great chemistry that grows from disdain to respect and eventually, love. And while the romance could have been perfunctory, the chemistry alone makes it worth the inclusion.

The supporting cast are all great in their roles (including Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Richard E. Grant, Stephanie Hyam and others), with Bill Nighy being the most Bill Nighy in the history of Bill Nighy. In other words, he brings another dimension to the term “self-mockery” and he brings out the most funniest parts of the film. While Jake Lacy is a hoot as the Air Force hero turned token American in the film (within the film) and even Jeremy Irons gets in on the fun in a cameo role as the Secretary of War who enforces government “guidelines” to the film.

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Although the sentimentality of the film does go a bit far for some, director Scherfig surprisingly deals with the story’s feminist message with a light touch i.e. like how men are scared of women who do not want to go back to their domestic roles after taking on some other workplace. The themes are still present enough that it adds to the character arc of Catrin and to the entertainingly meta moments of the film within the film, but they are never hammered to the point that it becomes obnoxious or annoying.

Aside from being a romance, a drama and a comedy, the film is also an entertaining look behind film-making in the old, practical days. It is quite fascinating and very amusing to see how the crew handcrafts the on-screen effects like a scene where the crew are recreating the scene of Dunkirk or how scenes on boats are made on set, rather than in the ocean.

Overall, Their Finest is a definite crowd-pleaser that is sure to please audiences with its insanely likable cast, its old-fashioned film-making (whether its own or the commentary) and its high amount of charm.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic cast

Old-fashioned tone/storytelling

Entertaining look at past film-making

Very funny and emotionally satisfying

Deals with themes of feminism with subtlety

CONS

May get too sentimental for some

SCORE: 8/10

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

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Helen McCrory, Eddie Marsan, Jake Lacy, Rachael Stirling, Henry Goodman, Paul Ritter, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons
Director: Lone Scherfig
Screenwriter: Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans

Movie Review – Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (OAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: None whatsoever. Chose to watch it based on the poster.

REVIEW: Break-ups are incredibly hard. While some of them can be done like quickly taking off a band-aid, some of them take ages to get over. In those latter break-ups, not all of the are arduous, but are actually dealt nonchalantly as if the break-up never happened.

And that’s how the current film fits in. In a conventional film, break-up films are either usually about the break-up itself or how one rises from the ashes of said break-up. Love and Goodbye and Hawaii fits in the latter category and there have been great films in that category like the Korean non-rom-com Very Ordinary Couple and the surprise Chinese blockbuster Love Is Not Blind. Will the film be as good as those mentioned or will it be an entry that is easily forgotten like a used band-aid?

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Aya Ayano stars as Rinko, an office worker who currently lives with Isamu (Kentaro Tamura), a graduate student, but the two are in a bit of an unusual dilemma: the two have actually broken up. Rinko still resides in the apartment that Isamu is currently paying for and ironically, the two get along much better than they ever did as a couple.

But Isamu has feelings for a young girl, Kasumi (Kato Aoi), whom also has feelings for him. But when Rinko is made aware of that fact, she too realizes that she still has feelings for Isamu, which causes quite a conundrum that affects the delicate equilibrium of their unorthodox relationship.

But rest assured: this film is not about a love triangle at all. It is about how one’s apathy towards a break-up until one realizes that they are going through a road of denial. And the film succeeds in conveying that dilemma very well. There’s a scene in the film that almost reminded me of a scene in the 2011 dramedy Frances Ha, where Rinko basically wants to take a vacation “from herself” despite her financial situation. But like Frances Ha, it doesn’t turn out the way it’s planned out to be and it ends up being depressingly funny, with all the long waits to connect with someone.

Speaking of funny, there is a nice touch of humour peppered throughout, and it is all based on character. Whether it is about characters being unable to articulate their feelings or how they want to avoid the “big issue” or how friends of the characters judge the situations of the couple, all of it is nicely done and never derails the storytelling.

Like the majority of Japanese cinema, films are dealt with subtlety it is because of that approach that Love and Goodbye and Hawaii succeeds. There are no scenes of dramatic contrivances, no scenes of histrionics and definitely no scenes of cloying music, which makes the dramatic components of the film surprisingly realistic and down-to-earth. And thankfully, the approach is held throughout, particularly in the ending, where it is both low-key and satisfying in its conclusions of its character arcs.

One of the film’s surprises is that we never truly know why the couple have broken up, but in this case, it makes perfect sense within the film’s scope, since the film never places judgment on any of the characters; which makes the audience active to judge for themselves.

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And thankfully, the cast are up to the task. Kentaro Tamura is good as the indecisive Isamu, as he makes a nice impression as to why Rinko liked him as well as why there was tension between the couple. Momoka Ayukawa is hilarious as the sister of one of Rinko’s friends, who in a serendipitous way, becomes the voice of reason.

But the biggest standout is Aya Ayano as Rinko. Whether coming up with an analogy for her break-up or feasting on fast food to ease herself on her living situation or simply having hiccups while she becomes nervous, Ayano shines as the lovelorn woman in the odd situation.

With any relationship, they all have flaws and this film has some. But with the relationships that are long-lasting, it is the supposed flaws that people usually remember the most. Love and Goodbye and Hawaii usually drags a bit in its pacing and it can be a bit too understated for some to truly appreciate, but like Rinko herself, you will end up remembering this film endearingly, hiccups and all.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good performances from the cast

Nice, understated storytelling

Refreshing changes in its approach to the relationship genre

CONS

May be too understated for some

Some slow spots

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Aya Ayano, Kentaro Tamura, Momoka Ayukawa, Aoi Kato, Risa Kameda
Director: Shingo Matsumura
Screenwriters: Shingo Matsumura

Movie Review – Colossal

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EXPECTATIONS: Something original, audacious and surprising.

REVIEW: Nacho Vigalondo has always been an exciting film-maker for me. Ever since I saw his first film, I’ve always wanted to see more of this work. His handling of genre film and melding it with themes of humanity or topical themes has always fascinated and thrilled me.

Timecrimes was a great time-travel film that revolved around infidelity; Extraterrestrial was an entertaining sci-fi movie that just so happened to be a rom-com; while Open Windows was a nail-biting thriller that happened to revolve around the invasion of privacy.

So when I heard that Vigalondo was making a film that featured a kaiju monster, I was in. And having the biggest star to date with Anne Hathaway (as the lead actor and producer), the film has some big expectations to fill. And knowing nothing about the genre it is executing for, will Vigalondo live up to the bonkers premise?

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Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria, a trainwreck in human form. Because of her relentless partying and drinking, she has been dumped by her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), has lost her job as an online writer and has no place to live. So she reluctantly moves back to her hometown.

Struggling to stay awake, let alone trying to get her life back on track, she finds her way into Oscar (Jason Sudekis), a childhood friend of Gloria who may or may not have feelings for her. As he helps her get back on her feet, a giant monster is attacking Seoul, Korea and through some strange coincidences (or maybe the drinking finally has long-term effects), she strangely has some sort of connection to said monster.

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As much as I want to go into extreme detail about the story, I know I can’t because not only do I want to spoil the many surprises, but the film is best if you know absolutely nothing about it, beyond the premise. Even the trailer doesn’t spoil much, which is surprising. But what I can say with utmost honesty is that Colossal is one of the best films I have seen this year so far.

The film is basically a female self-empowerment story that just happens to have a giant monster in it. And it is these mix of genres that meld together is what makes the film so original. But none of it would be effective if it weren’t for Nacho Vigalondo‘s direction.

Executing the film’s tone as straight as possible, finding the sincerity in all of its grounded themes and wringing the best out of his actors, Vigalondo just knocks it out of the park. The themes here, including coming to terms with ones’ self and overcoming addictions, are all dealt with in surprising ways. Like how the monster can be a metaphor for our destructive selves and how they can harm others. Even something as minor as a playground fight, where Gloria puts up her dukes, can have such strong meaning behind it.

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Speaking of putting up dukes, there are many monster scenes in the film, which are very well done considering the budget and the way the story combines both the human story and the monster story together in the climax is absolutely satisfying, both emotionally and cinematically.

A lot of the credit goes to actors, which include Anne Hathaway, who gives her best performance since Rachel Getting Married. Funnily enough, the character of Gloria is quite similar her character in Married due to the fact that they are both trainwrecks; they both repel everybody close to them and they both refuse to take responsibility for their own actions.

But in Colossal, Hathaway manages to find a sweet, relatable side to her character that makes it convincing that people would want to be around her as well as the audience wanting to root for her. It also helps that Hathaway still has her comedic chops (evident in The Princess Diaries that made her a star in the first place) and the film gives her ample opportunities to utilize them.

As for Dan Stevens (whom I like to call the new Cary Elwes), he isn’t in the film that much (probably due to being in Legion and Beauty and the Beast) but he does show a panicky wide-eyed side to his character that did make me laugh, like when his character confronts Sudekis‘ character.

Speaking of Sudekis, his performance is one of the most surprising things in the film. Without spoiling anything, his character is charming, if a little clingy. He is also quite generous, if a little intrusive and he is very laid-back, if a little uninitiated. But it is these “ifs” and many more that makes his character compelling and when he gradually reveals who he really is, that is when Sudekis shows he is more than just his comic persona.

As for flaws, there are scenes where you can nitpick logical errors (like how can one character forget or repress such an event) and abrupt tone shifts (which is quite befitting considering the drunk state of Gloria), but neither is enough to knock down the solid, yet unorthodox foundations that are surprisingly down-to-earth: seeing the humanity within the monster and how one’s self-empowerment can be the greatest gift one’s self can give.

Colossal is one of the best movies of the year and for those who are complaining that we do not see original films in the cinema lately; well this is one of them. I really do hope that a lot of people see it, just so we can have more films like this. The very fact that this film exists is fantastic enough, but for it to work as effectively as it does, it just seems miraculous to me.

Like a fellow film critic of mine once said: If we don’t see the movies that deserve it, we get the movies that we deserve.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic acting

Thematically sound story

Constantly surprises and keeps the audience off-guard

Incredibly satisfying ending

CONS

Tone shifts and logical errors

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: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Screenwriter: Nacho Vigalondo

Movie Review – Fist Fight

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that would make me laugh in spite of how stupid it all is.

REVIEW: If there’s one thing everybody can say about this film, it is that the film is punchy. Studio comedies nowadays are very underwhelming the past few years, especially from studios like Warner Brothers (the less said about Hot Pursuit, the better), regardless of the comedic talent involved.

So when I heard about this film that has a wonderfully simple premise with a capable cast and the promise of Ice Cube, who is gleefully self-aware of his gung-ho persona, beating the crap out of Charlie Day, who alternately amuses as well as annoys, was enticing. So does the film amuse despite its minute ambitions?

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Charlie Day plays a mild-mannered English teacher who is currently working the last day of school. You would figure that this would be quite exciting for him to rest after the term is over but it is anything but.

The school he works at is incredibly chaotic, with unruly students, off-kilter teachers (consisting of Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell and Christina Hendricks) and total anarchy; his wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) is pregnant; his teenage daughter (Alexa Nisenson) is in need of his presence of her school talent show and his job (alongside most of the faculty) is at risk.

But his life is put to the test when a colleague (Ice Cube) who thinks he is trying to get him fired challenges him to a fist fight after school. With all the fuss that is going on, will Charlie Day have his…day?

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First off, the biggest laugh I had about Fist Fight is the fact that almost every synopsis of the film states that Charlie Day‘s character is mild-mannered. So when your film’s biggest laugh is in its synopsis, your film’s got problems.

Let’s get to the positives, which there are surprisingly more than some would think. The cast, mainly the two leads, are certainly talented and way overqualified for the material they have and they try to make the most out of it. Charlie Day does his loud-mouthed and high-pitched persona as he always does, but he fits it to his character quite well, making him almost pathetically human. It also helps that his chops in physical comedy is put to good use; particularly during a scene where his character has to hide.

Ice Cube‘s self-awareness of his persona still pays off with some amusing moments which actually makes his character morally upright, in an albeit ridiculously sublime way. Sure, his character brandishes an axe and wants to fight a staff member, but considering the fantasy world the film inhabits in and the insufferable environment the characters live in, the man’s got a point.

And what’s also a minor surprise is that the film actually has some storytelling chops. Charlie Day‘s character actually has an arc which does pay off quite well, and the film actually feels assembled, unlike most comedies, which feels like a bunch of sketches stitched together to make a film. Jokes, whether they were hit-and-miss, are thankfully character-based and are not overly reliant on pop-culture, just to pander to its demographic.

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What is unfortunate is that the film’s script isn’t that funny and the supporting cast are either on auto-pilot, given unfunny material or worse, given absolutely nothing to do. Tracy Morgan is just doing what he always does: Tracy Morgan. Which is fine in television and small doses but in Fist Fight and frankly, 90% of his films, it just irritates more than amuses.

Jillian Bell, who has given funny performances in the past like in The Night Before and 22 Jump Street, is given terrible material to work with, which revolves her character being horny towards her students. It’s not only unfunny due to its tiresome repetition, but it ends up being creepy, saying that teachers having sexual relationships with students is meant to be humourous. At least with a similar joke in 21 Jump Street, the audience obviously knew that Channing Tatum’s character wasn’t a student (which is the joke), but in Fist Fight, it just looks wrong.

As for Christina Hendricks, between this and Bad Santa 2, her talents are incredibly wasted, as she is given incredibly little to do. It’s hard to blame her for making such little impression, especially with the little material to work with and the small amount of screen-time to work in. I just felt sorry for her. Kumail Nanjiani also does what he can as a lazy security guard while Dean Norris, famous for Breaking Bad, is amusing as an angry principal, but his main running joke is one that was stolen from The Heartbreak Kid.

As for the fight itself, is it worth the wait? Surprisingly, yes and no. The fight scene itself is well-assembled and choreographed and clearly has a Jackie Chan-influence with the use of improvised weapons. But the fight unfortunately ends with a whimper, due to its lack of structure and pacing, making the conclusion feel like a cop-out.

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Despite the efforts of the cast and its simple yet ripe premise and some surprisingly coherent storytelling, Fist Fight just isn’t worth the wait, due to its very patchy script.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The two leads try their best

Surprisingly solid storytelling

CONS

Annoying/underused supporting cast

Unfunny script

Anti-climactic title fight

SCORE: 5/10

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

Cast: Ice Cube, Charlie Day, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Dean Norris, Christina Hendricks, Kumail Nanjiani
Director: Richie Keen
Screenwriter: Van Robichaux, Evan Susser, Max Greenfield

Movie Review – The Edge of Seventeen

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EXPECTATIONS: A truly special teenage comedy/drama, with a standout performance by Hailee Steinfeld.

REVIEW: Teenage films have been quite a huge staple for me in the past decade. Whether they would be quality films (like Heathers, Stand By Me), plain fun (Mean Girls, Easy A, Say Anything etc.) or just plain silliness (Porky’s, American Pie), I’ve always found some enjoyment for entertainment reasons as well as nostalgic reasons.

But the past few years, the portrayal of teenagers have gotten a lot more artificial, a lot more fake to the point that it becomes obvious that these aren’t real characters, but caricatures. The situations and dialogue would comprise of many moments that could have only come out of committee meetings. Basically, teenage films are more about what people want to hear and see, instead of getting to the nitty-gritty of it.

Now we have the latest teenage dramedy The Edge of Seventeen, written/directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, starring the Oscar-nominated actress of the True Grit remake, Hailee Steinfeld and is produced by the renowned James L. Brooks. Will the film end up fixing the problems of portrayals of teenage life?

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Hailee Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a 17 year-old high school junior who is currently living the life of awkwardness as she trudges through high school. Saddled with a dramatic past, a much more successful sibling of a brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), a stressed out mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and her lack of social skills, her one solid rock in life was always her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), whom she’s been friends with since childhood.

That is until one day, Nadine’s life is about to take a turn for the worst when she finds out that Darian is dating Krista. Feeling more alone than ever, she again crawls through the excruciating minutiae of high school, with only a huge crush with the handsome boy at school, Nick (Alexander Calvert) to distract from her current situation.

That is until she develops into a relationship with myself a stuttering, yet thoughtful classmate, Erwin (Hayden Szeto) and along with having so-called help from her teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), does she gradually realize that there might be hope ahead after all.

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When I heard that this film was written and directed by the screenwriter that wrote Post Grad, I have to admit, it did temper my expectations. But I am wholeheartedly happy to report that The Edge of Seventeen is one of the best films I have seen all year. And all of this goes down to Craig‘s grounded direction, her witty and authentic script and the wonderful performances of the entire cast.

What is great about the direction of the film is how authentic the script and the storytelling approach is. Most characters interact like real people and thankfully, teenagers talk like actual teenagers, which lead to some unapologetic and politically incorrect dialogue. And most of it is hilarious, witty and appropriately, real.

The only time that the film ends up sounding like a movie is whenever Woody Harrelson as the incredibly droll teacher, Mr. Bruner, shows up. But Harrelson slums his role (really, he looks like he’s putting zero effort into the role) so well, that he steals the show with his hilarious interactions with Steinfeld.

Another factor I liked about Craig‘s direction is how she either lends a soft touch or subverts the cliches and tropes of the genre. For example, the supposed jerk of the film is cleverly subverted, since the motivations of the character is actually quite understandable, if not quite respectable. Another example is that some of the conclusions in the final act are executed in the subtlest of ways that rings true, like the arc between Nadine and her mother.

And the best of all is that Craig and Steinfeld never soften the character of Nadine to the point where the character strives to be likable. Nadine is shown warts-and-all and the reasoning for her behaviour is also dealt with subversively, due to the fact that her behaviour was always present, and not suddenly triggered by some dramatic event.

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But none of the storytelling and direction would work if it weren’t for the fantastic performances. Finally having a lead role she can sink her teeth into since True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld nails the role of the highly opinionated, angst-ridden and socially awkward Nadine. Nuanced, genuine and sympathetic, Steinfeld shines whenever she’s on screen, which is awesome because she’s on it 95% of the time.

There’s a scene where Nadine reluctantly goes to a party with Krista and Darian, and when the two leave her to socialize, Steinfeld acts out loneliness and heartbreak without a single word. It also helps that she also works her comedic chops with aplomb, even when saddled with the most abrasive or the lamest insults involving calling someone out with a huge head.

The supporting cast are no slouches in their department. As already mentioned, Woody Harrelson is a hoot at Mr. Bruner, as he has some great interactions with Steinfeld and he does it so effortlessly, you’d have to wonder if he just performed the role in his sleep. The same goes for Kyra Sedgwick, who has played this type of role a thousand times, and is still great as the increasingly stressed out mother.

Haley Lu Richardson makes her role of Krista easy to understand why Nadine care so much for her as her best friend while Blake Jenner is convincing as Darian, particularly during the scenes he shares with Steinfeld. The sibling relationship between the two is nicely developed and it pays off in a emotionally cathartic fashion that honestly made me shed a tear of two.

And last but definitely not least, there’s Hayden Szeto as Erwin. He completely sells the anxiety, awkwardness, the nervous tics and subtle longing, that I thought I was watching myself on screen. It was actually slightly scary, to be honest.

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As for flaws, there aren’t really that much, except for the story being slightly predictable once you see the pieces of the puzzle being set out. But the tropes are all dealt with nuance and subversiveness that the storytelling feels refreshing and new again.

Insightful, thoroughly well-written, amazingly well-acted, deservedly touching and downright hilarious, The Edge of Seventeen needs to be seen if we want to get more movies of this quality. Highly recommended!

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Quickie Review

PROS

Refreshingly honest approach to portraying teenage life

Fantastic performances from the cast, especially Hailee Steinfeld

Earns all of its emotional beats effortlessly

Easily subverts cliches of the teenage comedy genre

Hilariously acerbic and politically correct humour hit their targets

CONS

The story is quite predictable

SCORE: 9.5/10

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

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Haley Lu Richardson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Screenwriter: Kelly Fremon Craig

Movie Review – Your Name

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that lives up to its buzz.

REVIEW: Makoto Shinkai is an animation film-maker that has been earmarked to become the next Hayao Miyazaki with his spectacular animation. But in my opinion, he’s not really there yet. Although he gets the visuals right, his storytelling is quite flawed due to the slow pace and he never gets to end his films in a satisfying manner.

The endings are either abrupt, lack impact or at one point, incredibly overwrought. But the biggest problem with his films is the use of musical montages. Whenever a film of his reaches an emotional peak, he tends to play a song over it with the intention of eliciting poignancy. But unfortunately it ends up being lazy, cheap and ruins the cinematic panache of the film, making it look like a television episode at times.

So when I heard that Shinkai’s latest film was breaking Japanese box office records AND was chosen to be in the running for Best Animated Film at the Oscars, I knew I had to watch it to see if the film lived up to its hype. So does the film live up to its sterling reputation or will it end up being underwhelming?

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Edited and expanded synopsis from Madman: Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) are two total strangers living completely different lives. But when Mitsuha makes an impulsive wish to leave her mountain town for the bustling city of Tokyo, they become connected in a bizarre way. She dreams she is a boy living in Tokyo while Taki dreams he is a girl from a rural town he’s never been to.

The two realize the situation that they are in and decide to make the most of it until they develop an intimate relationship. But they suddenly lose contact with each other and Taki decides to personally meet up with Mitsuha over at her hometown. Little does he know, he ventures into something that will send both into an emotional journey that few could dream of. Will their relationship survive through the tumultuous turn of events?

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Let us get the obvious out of the way. From the looks of the screenshots alone, Your Name looks visually spectacular. Everything just has a pinkish/orange hue that gives the film such a warm, optimistic feel that made me smile. The music by RADWIMPS (a change from Shinkai’s usual composer, TENMON) gets the emotional pull of the film quite well, despite some major flaws.

As for the storytelling, Shinkai thankfully has improved in some ways. First of all, the editing (by Shinkai himself) has tightened up considerably, leading to a pace that is manageable for the story as well as keeping the emotional momentum going. Secondly, he actually sticks the landing and provides a satisfying, albeit predictable ending. Without spoilers, the ending does not feel abrupt, nor does it feel overwrought and it actually feels earned and rightfully so.

Thirdly, the fun sci-fi premise never interferes with the storytelling. There is very little spoon-feeding and exposition that slows the film down and it benefits greatly from it. And finally, Shinkai finally develops a nice sense of humour that provides the perfect offset from the potentially darker turns of the story.

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As for the voice acting, all the actors give great performances. Ryunosuke Kamiki, who is a veteran in voice acting as far as his projects for Studio Ghibli go, is great as Taki, as he provides the perfect balance between brimming anger and kindness. While Mone Kamishiraishi (who was fantastic in the leading role of Lady Maiko) is no beginner in voice acting due to her performance in Wolf Chidren, is great as Mitsuha, as she makes her character likable and compelling, with a great portrayal of both naivety and hubris. The supporting cast all add life to their roles from Masami Nagasawa providing a certain sultry appeal as Miki, Taki’s senior and romantic crush; to Kana Hanazawa as Ms. Yukino, Mitsuha’s teacher and is a reprisal of a character in one of Shinkai’s previous films.

But as much as improvements go, there is always room for it and Shinkai still has ample space of it. The lightest flaw is typical of films with this premise, which leads to some plot holes and lapses in the film’s logic, but I can’t really say further, since it would spoil part of the film. The other flaw, and this is a major one, is one I stated in the beginning of this review: the musical montages. Yes, they are still present and there are more present than usual, which really harms the emotional pull of the film, as well as unintentionally making the film cheap, looking like part of a TV episode.

But overall, Your Name is Shinkai’s most satisfying and complete film to date. With its amazingly beautiful animation, a fun yet familiar sci-fi premise, a great melding of genres (sci-fi, romance and disaster movie?) and great vocal talent, Your Name is a film that is worth seeing and remembering.

Quickie Review

PROS

Spectacular animation

Fantastic voice work from the cast

Little spoon-feeding and exposition about the fantasy premise

Great storytelling and editing, ensuring a good pace

A satisfying ending

CONS

The use of musical montages

Problematic subtitles

Some plot holes and lapses in logic

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi, Masami Nagasawa, Ryo Narita, Aoi Yuki, Obunaga Shimazaki, Kaito Ishikawa, Kanon Tani, Masaki Terasoma  
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Screenwriters: Makoto Shinkai

Movie Review – I Am Not Madame Bovary

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EXPECTATIONS: A comedy/drama that suffers from China censorship with a great performance from Fan Bingbing.

REVIEW: Feng Xiaogang is one of the most popular directors in all of China, but unlike other directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, his work is not as well-known overseas. Also unlike the directors mentioned, he was not trained at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, making him a self-taught auteur.

His films are well-known for their comedic timing, skilled storytelling as well as its satirical touch, which has resulted in great films like Cell Phone, a film that made fun of male statuses, technology obsession as well as having astute observations of the middle-class in China; as well as being commercial successes that worked well with audiences like the rom-com films If You Are The One and its sequel, the war film, Assembly and the disaster film/melodrama Aftershock.

In his latest film, he reunites with his collaborators from Cell Phone, superstar actress Fan Bingbing and author/screenwriter Liu Zhenyun for the comedy/drama, I Am Not Madame Bovary, based on a novel by the latter. Will the film be just as good and fruitful as their previous collaboration?

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Fan Bingbing stars as Li Xuelian, a village woman, who is scorned by her ex-husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan) after being swindled into a divorce. She attempts to sue him but after a ruling is made against her in the divorce proceedings (resulting in a hilarious courtroom scene), she decides to seek justice from people who are higher up in the Chinese legal system.

But when she is ignored, rebuffed and pushed away by the infinite government officials that she seeks help from, she begins an annual trip of demanding reparations to Beijing not only in order to prove that her divorce was a complete sham but also in order to redeem her reputation, and most importantly to sue the Chinese officials who failed her.

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For those who have just seen the screenshots and the trailer, you’re probably wondering, does the entire film look like we are peering through a telescope? For the majority of it, it is true. In a recent interview, Feng Xiaogang said that in his current age, he wanted to branch out from his commercial works and into more art-house fare. And seeing his newest film, it’s not hard to see the results.

The circular image can be a bit off-putting at first, but for those accustomed to Chinese art works and literature, it makes sense, visually. It also helps that the compositions and cinematography by Luo Pan looks fantastic, like peering at paintings.

The aspect ratio also changes from the circular image to the 1:1 ratio (simulating an open scroll) during the Beijing scenes until the end of the film, which is the 2.35:1 widescreen image. The reasons for the change in ratios is not just for visual purposes, but it lends a point for symbolism i.e. the circular image being a Chinese symbol for feminism while the ending ratio symbolizes the revelation that Xuelian confesses.

The beautiful cinematography is also an amusing contrast to the frankly ridiculous story, which had me belly-laughing. The same goes for the musical score by Wei Du, which adopts a thrilling and intensive vibe that brought a huge smile on my face.

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Feng still has his trademark comedy chops in check like in Cell Phone and his last film, the incredibly esoteric Personal Tailor, and it pays off with dark humour, hard-hitting satire and even some physical comedy. Feng makes sure that every actor plays their role straight-faced without a sense of irony nor self-awareness, and it pays off brilliantly.

But unlike the actors, Feng knows how ridiculous the story is and plays it more like a fable, rather than something factual. And like his previous film Personal Tailor, the Chinese government isn’t seen and portrayed in an admirable light, leading to some very funny blaming games. Between this, Shin Godzilla and the recent election, bureaucracy has turned into a running joke.

Also contributing to the film is Fan Bingbing. In my opinion, she is one of the most underrated actresses out there. Mainly seen as nothing more than a pretty face, she clearly has done great work in her career, like her dramatic turns in her collaborations with director Li Yu or her comedic turns in films by director Eva Jin. Reuniting with director Feng Xiaogang, she gives one of her best performances in her career.

Taking away her glamourous beauty away and the lack of close-up shots in the film, she really inhabits the look of a villager. Ferocious, headstrong and not willing to back away from a fight, Fan pulls off her dramatic scenes with aplomb while also nailing the deadpan tone of the film; displaying her comedic chops. The rest of the all-male supporting cast do fine with their roles, especially Guo Tao as Xuelian’s childhood friend, but Fan is a true force of nature in the role.

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Although I enjoyed the film overall aesthetically and humourously, there are some caveats that some will take issue with. The humour of the film is not of the politically correct kind which could irk some; one scene in particular involves rape and another one involves the act of suicide. And the second act does end up in a bit of a lull, and that is mainly because Fan is not on-screen for a certain amount of time, but the pacing overall is fine, though the running time is a bit stretched out.

As for the ending, it can be polarizing to some. While it does earn its dramatic peak and provides much-needed backstory and motivation for the main character, it does make you question what you just saw and it might evoke a sense of guilt; something that one might not want once they leave the theater.

But overall, I Am Not Madame Bovary was a funny, charming, satirical, feminist tale that shows both director Feng Xiaogang and actress Fan Bingbing at their best. How this film was NOT considered as a submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar is baffling beyond belief.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Dry, satirical and hilarious humour, dealing with themes like infidelity, murder, rape, government bureaucracy

Beautifully surreal cinematography

Fantastic technical values enhance the humour of the ridiculous story

Fan’s fantastic performance as Pan Jinlian Li Xuelian

CONS

The ending and humour might polarize some

A slight lull in the second act

Slightly overlong running time

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Fan Bingbing, Guo Tao, Da Peng, Yin Yuanzhang, Feng Enhe, Liu Xin, Zhao Yi, Zhao Lixin, Jiang Yongbo, Liu Hua, Li Zonghan, Huang Jianxin, Gao Ming, Yu Hewei, Zhang Jiayi, Tian Xiaojie, Zhang Yi  
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Screenwriters: Liu Zhenyun, based on her novel “I Did Not Kill My Husband”

Movie Review – Wet Woman in the Wind (San Diego Asian Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something rather sexy and comedic at the same time.

REVIEW: The film is another entry of the Roman Porno Reboot (out of five) and if the film is as any good as the previous entry that I saw (Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno), then I will be a happy man. Director Akihiko Shiota is famous for his low-key dramas like Moonlight Whispers and Harmful Insect to his effects-driven blockbuster Dororo, but now he makes his mark in the pinku genre with Wet Woman in the Wind. Having already won awards at various film festivals, does the Wet Woman in the Wind live up to her reputation?

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Tasuku Nagaoka stars as Kosuke, a playwright who lives in the forest alone by choice, due to him being sick and tired by the company of women. One day, as he pulls his two-wheeled cart, a young woman, Shiori (gravure idol Yuki Mamiya) makes a hell of an entrance as she rides her bicycle into a river, trying to make an impression on Kosuke. She locks onto him like a snake binding onto its prey, but Kosuke is having none of it and tries to fend her off, with little success. And when you factor in Kosuke’s ex-wife, her acting troupe and the cafe owner lusting for Shiori (she works with him as a waitress), the increasingly conflicted Kosuke struggles to get out of his situation set between a rock and a hard one place.

Compared to Sono’s entry in the Roman Porno Reboot, Anti-Porno, Shiota’s entry is a lot more traditional to the pinku genre. But thanks to a game cast and Shiota’s fine-tuned script and direction, Wet Woman in the Wind is a stellar entry. The film is basically a screwball comedy where the sex is the physical comedy and the performers deliver it in spades.

Yuki Mamiya is endearingly spirited as Shiori, as she attempts to call the shots in the depraved game she sets up on Kosuke. Her energy and comedic chops are fantastic to watch; like in a scene where Kosuke directs Shiori to display a range of emotions, which eventually leads the two to involve a wooden staff that gave the scene palpable sexual tension. Tasuku Nagaoka is funny as the increasingly befuddled playwright, Kosuke. His reactions to the antics around him are spot-on and he has a nice chemistry with Mamiya. The rest of the cast are all incredibly game for the story and it certainly adds to the fun.

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Director Shiota has not only made a great pinku film, but he also makes fun of tropes with the romance genre. The trope of a soul-searching, sensitive artist is turned into a parody as it is revealed that the character of Kosuke only became that way was because he wanted to be away from women. And in a further reveal, the contrast of who he is compared to who he was is only made even more amusing. The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is even ripped to shreds as Shiori is far from being a pixie, nor being anyone’s dream girl, but she is definitely manic.

Even sexual politics, including male fantasies, are turned on its head with pleasingly pointed effect, although it might understandably turn off some viewers. In a scene where a character confesses her first sexual experience, she says that her P.E teacher forced himself on her but what makes it stand out is Kosuke’s obliviousness to the story (he clearly does the same actions earlier in the film) and how it reflects the hypocrisy of where gender stands.

Even if you don’t agree with the commentary, there are many comedic moments in the film throughout. Even with all the smut and prurience, there’s plenty of wit and intelligence involved. There’s a hilarious scene involving Kosuke seeing Shiori sleep with another man, but rather than getting angry, he not only moves past it with stride, but he offers the two a drink, resulting with an awkwardly funny conversation between the three.

Even the storytelling gets in on the comedy, as the film goes demure for the majority of the run-time as new characters settle in and are hastily given character arcs and are settled in the funniest ways a pinku film knows how: with vigorous sex. The third act of the film is almost wall-to-wall sex and Shiota’s direction makes it easy to be swept up by its energy, its arousal as well as its ridiculousness. Certain jokes early in the film are reversed (and foreshadowed) towards the final act, resulting with great payoffs and even throwaway jokes and lines are delivered well. The quirky, jazzy score by Shunsuke Kida certainly accentuates the humour and the tone of the film.

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As for the flaws of the film, there aren’t really any, to be honest. Unless if you aren’t familiar with the pinku genre, it is possible that one may think that the film is quite silly and there isn’t really that much of a plot as well as the fact that the commentary of the sexual politics will irk some people.

But overall, Wet Woman in the Wind is a hugely enjoyable entry in the Roman Porno Reboot with committed performances, a witty script and assured direction from Shiota. Alongside Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno, I really hope the other three films by Hideo Nakata, Isao Yukisada and Kazuya Shiraishi are up to par.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Incredibly game performances (especially from Yuki Mamiya)

A very funny and witty script

Shiota’s storytelling chops and direction

A wall-to-wall sex romp of a final act

CONS

Some of its sexual politics may turn people off

The story is quite ridiculous

Not much of a plot

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yuki Mamiya, Tasuku Nagaoka, Ryushin Tei, Michiko Suzuki, Hitomi Nakatani, Takahiro Kato
Director: Akihiko Shiota
Screenwriters: Akihiko Shiota

Movie Review – Hime-anole (Japanese Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Another pleasantly entertaining film from Keisuke Yoshida.

REVIEW: To be perfectly honest, I actually didn’t want to review Hime-anole. Not because it’s bad, as it is far from it. I didn’t want to review Hime-anole because I didn’t want to spoil any of its major events. Because revealing said plot points can rob such films of their power. Having said that, this film is such a surprise that it could end up being on of my 2016 top 10 list.

Keisuke Yoshida has been a director that has, for the most part, made films that can be seen as pleasant as well as quite powerful. Films like the slice-of-life drama Cafe Isobe (2008), his tragic-comedy My Little Sweet Pea (2013), and even the manga adaptation Silver Spoon (2010) are entertaining pieces, although some are quite forgettable. His first feature, however, was a pinku film called Raw Summer (2005) with former AV star Sora Aoi. Despite its exploitation trappings, the film ended up transcending its origins with substantial character explorations within its voyeuristic plot. Having recalled the latter, it did make me wonder if Yoshida would ever go back to those types of films that delved into darker subject matter. Now, we have Hime-anole, a live-action adaptation of a manga by Minoru Furuya, whose Himizu (2001-2002) was filmed by Sion Sono in 2011.

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The film starts off uneventfully with the barely present Okada (Gaku Hamada) an assistant cleaner making a mistake during his work task and being criticized by his superior. This is when the straightforward Ando (Tsuyoshi Muro), his work colleague backs him up and the two become better acquainted. Ando then tells Okada about his strong love for Yuka (Aimi Satsukawa), a waitress at a coffee shop, despite the fact that he has never said a word to her. Because of Ando supporting him earlier, Okada feels obligated to help Ando get the girl of his dreams. But things get a little slippery when they find that a stranger is apparently stalking Yuka, so the two help Yuka out to avoid the stalker whilst Ando having ulterior motives to woo and pursue Yuka. But as feelings develop into something more intimate and motivations become a little clearer, the characters soon end up into something a little more than they bargained for…

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The directing by Keisuke Yoshida is incredibly assured, considering his past films, which never felt that they had a tight rein on its film-making. Scenes in the first act all have a sense of warmth that makes its humour and characters stand out, even with Go Morita in the background. When the story gradually enters the second act, the film ends up being more substantial as the characters are gradually explored, like in a scene where a friend of Yuka’s rudely and insistently judges Okada and Ando as a pair of losers. But as the second act starts, the genre Hime-anole adheres to gets turn on its head and gets beaten to a bloody pulp. Characters start to get more depraved with their emotions; motivations become more crystal clear and this is when Go Morita steals the film.

The acting from the cast is top-notch. Gaku Hamada can play his hang-dog sympathy act in his sleep and it’d still entertain me. In this film, he does play a character with a little bit more inner conflict and he portrays that well, particularly when the film enters its second act. Tsuyoshi Muro is surprisingly sympathetic, despite the character’s actions towards achieving his version of true love. His stern honesty and chemistry with Hamada make him endearingly likable. Aimi Satsukawa does the cute and quiet act with ease that it makes it easy for the audience to understand why Ando would fall for her. As for Go Morita as the stalker, this is his film, that’s all I will say about him. The supporting cast are all fine and give their roles the much-needed sympathy to stand out.

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The production values of the film are great, like the musical score and the editing. There’s a scene that starts the second act that is fantastically edited that it makes the audience more anticipated of what’s to come. The cinematography is also interesting to see, as the shots of the film starts off as static until they gradually become more hand-held when the depravity sets in. The film is also refreshingly free of CGI, which is becoming a major hindrance in cinematic storytelling. How can you get into the story if you notice something extremely fake? Hime-anole has very little of that, and it is immersive in its intent from the get-go.

To say any more about the film will be a discredit to it so I’ll just say that Hime-anole was one of the biggest surprises for me in 2016 and I highly recommend this film to those who are adventurous in the unexpected. With fantastic performances, the subtly unhinged direction from Keisuke Yoshida and a refreshing lack of adherence towards mainstream storytelling, Hime-anole is a cult classic in the making.

P.S – Did I note that the film was rated R-15 in Japan? I probably should’ve mentioned it earlier.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances (especially from Go Morita)

Assured direction and unhinged storytelling chops from Keisuke Yoshida

Surprising twists in the story

CONS

Some moments which could take the audience out of the film

Those expect anything mainstream will be concerned and even shocked

SCORE: 9/10

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Cast: Go Morita, Gaku Hamada, Tsuyoshi Muro, Aimi Satsukawa
Director: Keisuke Yoshida
Screenwriters: Keisuke Yoshida, based on the manga “Hime-anole” by Minoru Furuya