Movie Review – Columbus (San Diego Asian Film Festival 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: A beautiful and fully-realized character piece.

REVIEW: In my many reviews about romance films and dramas, it may be fair to assume that I’m not really a fan of either genres, but the truth is I am a fan of those, especially with projects like the Before films by Richard Linklater, the many filial dramas of Hirokazu Koreeda, the down-to-earth films by Isao Takahata and so on.

The main ingredient that is needed for such films is the human connection. We need to have something at least plausible to cling on to, which can help us relate to the characters. Even in stories that revolve around something that very little have foreknowledge on, (like in the case of the film up for review: architecture), that connection is essential in succeeding as a compelling drama. Does Columbus succeed in that regard?

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The film starts off with a renowned architecture scholar going on with his day, examining and ruminating the buildings in tow. But suddenly, he falls ill and Eleanor (Parker Posey), his assistant, contacts the scholar’s son, Jin (John Cho) to come visit him in Columbus, Indiana, which is famous for its modernist buildings.

While being stuck between a building and a hard man, he comes across Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a library worker and architecture enthusiast who dreams of leaving Columbus to pursue her dreams, but feels she is held back due to her troubled, but loving mother (Michelle Forbes). Together, they explore the many buildings in the town as well as themselves, becoming more intimate as they go along.

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If there’s one thing to say about this film, it’s that it is very soft-spoken. Visually recalling the work of Yasujiro Ozu, who has made films like Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon, which are contemplative and deal with relationships, director Kogonada uses architecture as a backdrop, which lends to some beautiful scenery, captured crisply by cinematographer Elisha Christian.

The architecture in the film is basically shown as a group of characters themselves. Small actions from the characters like smoking a cigarette or taking a phone call are amplified due to the architecture design, like an iron fence, but throughout the film, the architecture might not also separate them, but could also bring them together.

Kogonada, who also wrote and edited the film, clearly has an ear for conveying human interactions on-screen, recalling films like Lost in Translation and Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy. None of the dialogue sounds fake and the editing is minimal, which lends an easy leeway for the audience to empathize with the characters as well as feeling like voyeurs, listening to their interactions.

Even in emotional crescendos, Kogonada dials back by showing the characters at a distance or in one scene, dialing the music down to the point where we can only hear the character’s turmoil through sound, not dialogue. In other words, his characters converse and are portrayed like real people. But are they portrayed well enough by the actors?

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John Cho is basically an acting veteran, who is famous for being in the recent Star Trek films, the Harold and Kumar films and recently, a recurring role in The Exorcist TV series. Here, he has never been given a solid chance to play a leading man and he does a great job as Jin, conveying the character’s conflicting moods of expectations, regret and anger convincingly, with warmth and understanding. In one scene in particular, he basically role-plays his father. A cinematic trope that has been in many films, even in wuxia films where one would dress up like the one they love, sometimes love involves imitation and Cho nails it.

Parker Posey, who usually plays perky and slightly unhinged characters (in a comical fashion) is surprisingly and likably down-to-earth as Eleanor, while Rory Culkin lends good support as the friend of Casey.

But the real stand-out is Haley Lu Richardson. Showing promise in supporting roles of films like The Edge of Seventeen and Split, the newcomer proves herself to be a wonderful actress playing the role of Casey. With her character basically growing roots in her hometown, convincing herself that she’s fine the way she is, Richardson has to convey the many emotions brimming in Casey and she does it soulfully and gracefully.

Cho and Richardson share palpable chemistry together that it almost feels immediate as soon as they first meet. But the real wonder of the film is the gradual foundation of their relationship. Just as how they view the architecture, they view each other basically from face value but they never really say how the feel. But throughout the film, their feelings become more prominent and it explodes off the screen better than any pyrotechnic could.

Overall, Columbus is a fantastic directorial debut for Kogonada and a great showcase for its two leads, John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson. It is said that that with any building or relationship, a good solid foundation is needed and in the case of Columbus, it is a beautiful foundation indeed.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances from its two leads

Palpable chemistry

Beautiful cinematography by Elisha Christian

Assured direction from Kogonada, retaining the human connection sorely lacking in films

CONS

May be too slow and covert with its intentions

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parkey Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes
Director: Kogonada
Screenwriters: Kogonada

 

 

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Movie Review – Blade of the Immortal

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EXPECTATIONS: Slice-and-dice, blood-and-gore, limbs-flying fun.

REVIEW: Takashi Miike, back in the V-cinema (straight-to-video) era, was a complete madman. Not in a human state (or maybe he is, who the hell knows?), but in his creative state, the images and ideas he comes up with can only come from a man who is completely bonkers.

This is the man who directed a film which had to have barf bags in some of the cinema screenings (Audition). This is the man who filmed a TV episode for a horror anthology that had been banned for being too disturbing (Imprint in Masters of Horror). This is the man who filmed two giant animal robots having sex…in a children’s movie! (Yatterman) This is the man who filmed the most amazing cockfight ever seen on screen (The City of Lost Souls).

Okay, the last one is debatable but the point is, this is a man whose filmography cannot be seen without one thinking with befuddlement and interest. With a man who has made so many gonzo works (including Fudoh: The Next Generation, Audition, Gozu, Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q etc.), where does his 100th film to date, Blade of the Immortal rank in the gonzo meter?

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The film starts off with a ultraviolent prologue, shown in black-and-white, where we first witness Manji (Takuya Kimura), a skilled samurai who is caught between a rock and a hard place when his sister Machi (Hana Sugisaki) is captured by bandits.

Due to tragic circumstances, Manji goes into a fit of rage and slaughters all of the bandits, which leads him to be involuntarily treated by a mysterious nun, Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto), who uses blood worms to magically realign his veins and tissues, cursing him with immortality.

In the present day, we follow the story Rin (also played by Hana Sugisaki), the daughter of Kendo master, Asano. One night, the swordsmen of Ikki-ryu school, led by Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi) storm into her father’s dojo and slaughter all of the students as well as Asano, leaving Rin helpless.

Swearing vengeance, she is led by Yaobikuni to hire Manji as a yojimbo (bodyguard or protector). Although his first impression of leaves Manji more than just annoyed, her striking resemblance to his sister motivates him otherwise on an adventure that will surely leave blood, gore and limbs in its path.

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Does this film rank up with Miike’s best? Not really, but it is still wildly entertaining nonetheless due to Miike’s ability to still surprise and entertain with his vivid direction, an enthusiastic cast and ample source material that provides tons of fun opportunities to exploit on screen.

Based on a manga that spans across 20 years worth of volumes, screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi thankfully distills it to a plot that that involves many mano-a-mano duels, wrapped in a classic tale of revenge that is quite reminiscent of films like True Grit, Logan and unsurprisingly the cult-classic anime film, Ninja Scroll, due to its wide variety of bizarre adversaries the leads face.

With characters like the monk Eiku Shizuma (Ebizo Ichikawa), the prostitute Makie (Erika Toda), Anotsu’s nemesis, Shira (Hayato Ichihara) and many more, the actors have plenty of material and characterization to sink their teeth into and they make the most of it.

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Takuya Kimura does well as Manji, as he conveys the world-weariness of his character convincingly and is capable of handling his action scenes well. The extensive facial makeup certainly helps with his performance, obscuring his baby-faced appearance.

Hana Sugisaki, who is incredibly talented for such a young age, thanks to films like Pieta in the Toilet and Her Love Boils Bathwater, doesn’t have a role that is as solid as in those films, but she displays much-needed verve and spirit into the part of Rin, that she makes her strong-willed character more substantial more than the script allows, especially when her character is written that she is threatened with assault many times throughout the film.

The supporting cast, which include many of Miike alums like Min Tanaka, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Ken Kaneko are all great in their various scene-chewing parts, but the standouts are Sota Fukushi, Erika Toda and Hayato Ichihara.

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Erika Toda, who has gone a long way from her cutesy performances in her early days, is both surprisingly sympathetic and enjoyably campy as Makie, a bipolar killing machine of a prostitute, who often sheds tears of remorse of her actions and even the sight of blood.

Hayato Ichihara, whose acting method can be as hammy as Netflix’s Okja, is put to great use as the unhinged and unruly Shira while Ebizo Ichikawa is compelling as the eerily understated monk Eiku Shizuma, who actually has a surprising character reveal that adds to the story and has a sadistically funny fight scene with Kimura.

And of course there’s Sota Fukushi as Kagehisa Anotsu, the main antagonist. Unlike the entertainingly over-the-top caricatures, Fukushi plays his character with a moral conscience that is very effective and makes Anotsu more than just a one-dimensional villain, that we can actually empathize with him.

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With that much adversaries, that’s a hell of a lot of fights to witness. Fortunately, the fight scenes differ just enough from each other in various ways to avoid tedium, thanks to Keiji Tsuji and Masayoshi Deguchi‘s stuntwork.

While it may not be as garish as the fight choreography in the Rurouni Kenshin films or as cartoonish like Miike’s prior work (although it has plenty of gallows humour), it compensates for its more graphic and overstated approach to violence with copious amounts of stabbing, slicing, dicing, impaling and other ways that no human should ever go through.

And all of this is captured to its full-bore glory thanks to regular cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita, who pulls back so we can witness the many mutilated corpses. It certainly helps that the source material hints supernatural elements that allow Miike to break chanbara (Japanese term for “sword fighting”) conventions. Special credit must go to Akira Sakamoto, who is credited as the special weapons master and the props he comes up with on-screen are delightfully insane.

As for its flaws, like all of Miike’s recent work, the 150 minute runtime could use some trimming, but with the amount of characters on display and the simple yet dense plot that has many interesting threads (like a political conspiracy and double-crossings between kendo schools), it’s hard to be bored by it all.

Overall, Blade of the Immortal is a wildly entertaining entry from Takashi Miike that proves that he can put his stamp on terms such as “excess” and “overkill” and with a fantastic cast, crazy fight scenes, an engaging if overlong plot and gonzo characters, you’ll get red on you but you won’t give a damn, if it’s this much fun.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great cast

Bizarre characters

Assured and unhinged direction from Miike

Great fight scenes

CONS

Overlong running time

Some script problems

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: Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sota Fukushi, Ebizo Ichikawa, Hayato Ichihara, Erika Toda, Min Tanaka, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Ken Kaneko, Yoko Yamamoto
Director: Takashi Miike
Screenwriters: Tetsuya Oishi, based on the manga by Hiroaki Samura

Movie Review – Claire’s Camera (San Diego Asian Film Festival 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Not sure, to be honest.

REVIEW: The work of Korean director Hong Sang-soo is, unfortunately, a blind spot of mine that I desperately need to rectify. The only film of his I have seen is In Another Country, which starred Isabelle Huppert and was a charming, frothy comedy about the amusing failings of human behaviour.

So when I heard that director Hong was reuniting with Huppert on their second film on another frothy, fluffy light comedy with Korean actress Kim Min-hee (fresh off her critically acclaimed performance from Hong’s last film, On the Beach at Night Alone), despite my lack of knowledge of Hong’s work, I had to say yes. Does the film live up to the director’s sterling reputation and entice me to discover more of his prior work?

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Kim Min-hee stars as Man-hee, a film sales assistant who, in a very amusingly dry scene, is suddenly fired by her boss Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee) for reasons unknown, except for the fact that she is dishonest. And all of this happens in the smack-dab middle of the Cannes Film Festival.

Left adrift in a beach (where else?), she meets Claire (Isabelle Huppert), a Parisian teacher who is in town to support her friend’s film. Unbeknownst to Man-hee, Claire happens to know Yang-hye as well as director So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young) by taking pictures of them with her Instamatic in a serendipitous fashion.

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To reiterate again, I’m a neophyte of the work of Hong Sang-soo and in the case of his film, Claire’s Camera, not much of a plot or even an actual event happens at all here. So, why did I have the biggest smile on my face from beginning to end? Basically down to two reasons.

Firstly, it’s the charisma of the actors involved. Seeing actresses Kim Min-hee and Isabelle Huppert free and unburdened from their emotionally draining performances from On the Beach at Night Alone and Elle, the two look like they’ve having the time of their lives, just appearing in a film and being naturalistic as possible.

Isabelle Huppert, who’s probably never given a bad performance, does very well as Claire, who she convincingly conveys a mysterious allure that makes the other characters very receptive towards her. Her artistry with her Instamatic and her backstory drives her to never take the sights and sounds of life for granted.

Kim Min-hee can convey joy and vulnerability in a matter of seconds and she does very well as Man-hee, especially in the scene where she finds out that she’s fired, delivering lines like “Let’s take a photo of us to commemorate my firing” in an amusingly dry way.

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Secondly, the interactions between the characters. Knowing Man-hee’s backstory (including the reason of her firing as well as a sexist backlash) her interactions with her Korean co-stars (like the dryly amusing Chang Mi-hee and the loutish Jung Jin-young), as well as between the co-stars themselves are always blunt but still somehow passive in their emotions.

Whereas her interactions with her and Claire, although they are not speaking in their native tongues, it becomes clear that they always say what they mean and adds a sense of intimacy and closeness. It also helps that their interactions (in English) are amusing and likable to the point that you can believe that they can actually become soulmates, thanks to their tangible chemistry.

And even for devotees for Hong Sang-soo, there are plenty of references to his previous work (the most blatant being a movie poster of his) or even his private life involving Kim Min-hee on (Jung Jin-young, being an obvious doppelganger of Hong himself).

Overall, Claire’s Camera is the cinematic equivalent of milk ice tea. It doesn’t really add up to much substantially. But it’s sweet, looks nice, goes down smooth and if the drink it’s made really well, it might end up being quite the memorable thing.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic leads

Amusingly dry and improvised sense of humour

Has a substantial sense of intimacy between the characters

CONS

Not much of a plot or story or deeper meaning

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Kim Min-hee, Chang Mi-hee, Jung Jin-young, Shahira Fahmy
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Screenwriters: Hong Sang-soo

 

Movie Review – Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

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EXPECTATIONS: Something wonderful.

REVIEW: Biopics these days are a hard genre to execute due to the fact that whenever actors star in them, it just gives off a vibe that he, she or they are acting for awards. Like the formula for Oscar Bait is to talk in a funny accent or shout. To truly nail a true character, there’s more to it than just imitation.

Bad examples of biopics include films like Patch Adams, Diana and yes, even A Beautiful Mind fail to succeed from a filmmaking standpoint (due to sappy music, biopic cliches, lacking in exploration of the spirit of the subject etc.) and have performances that come off as a collection of tics, rather than a true embodiment of the subject that they are playing.

With great biopics like Walk the Line, Nixon and I’m Not There, these are films that capture the spirit of the real-life subjects with the combination of fantastic performances that inhabit the subject and stellar filmmaking that does more than just recount a series of events.

So when I went into seeing Professor Marston and the Wonder Women and all I knew about the film was that it involved the creation of the popular female superhero, Wonder Woman. What I didn’t know about the film until I saw it was something that led me to think this is one of the best movies of the year.

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Luke Evans plays Professor William Marston, a famed college teacher and psychologist who is in the middle of creating an invention that would go on to be the lie detector. Collaborating with his wife, Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), who is also a teacher, they become stuck in the way of progress and decide to hire a college student to help get them out of their creative slump. Their search for the perfect aide leads them to Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote).

Little do they know is their solid relationship that they will forge together will not only lead to the creation of the first female superhero but also a relationship that shows love knows no bounds.

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Once again, I had no clue of what the film was truly about, even when I saw the final trailer, which thankfully doesn’t spoil any of the moments. But this is a story that is about sexuality, dominance, submission, femininity, poly-amorous relationships and how they were treated and of course, the creation of Wonder Woman and the rapturous reactions it got from people.

With Angela Robinson‘s assured direction and screenwriting, she gamely handles all of the themes above with integrity and sincerity, easily resonating with the audience. Even the sexuality is handled tastefully, but never to the point of either being exploitative or lacking in passion.

Even in scenes of sexual discovery, character epiphanies and empowerment eg. when Olive wears what would end up being a prototype of the Wonder Woman costume, Robinson subverts expectations of that scene and it ends up being surprisingly tense, emotionally stirring and inspiring, rather than going along the lines of prurience.

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But even with the direction and scripting of Robinson, none of the film’s emotional power would be as effective as it stands without the trio of stellar performances from the three talented leads, as well as their palpable chemistry.

Having seen Luke Evans last in the mediocre live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, being miscast in the role of Gaston, I remember saying that he looked too smart to play a buffoon like that. In the case of Professor Marston, Evans pulls off the charisma, intelligence and passion of the character with gusto. Finally having a role on-screen that is worthy of his talents, Evans is an actor that will be following steadfastly from now on.

In the case of fellow Australian actress Bella Heathcote, she has given some good performances in films like The Neon Demon (where she is more like cyborg than human) and The Rewrite (where she charms and delights with maturity). In the case of Olive Byrne, Heathcote makes the progression of her character from timidness to empowerment play out in a convincing fashion that it makes the scene where she dons the prototype outfit of Wonder Woman that much more powerful.

But the best out of the three leads is Rebecca Hall. To think that she already peaked with her underseen performance in Christine, Hall gives a fantastic performance as Elizabeth Marston, conveying her tenacity, her quick wit and especially her vulnerability so brilliantly, it’s no wonder that Professor Marston would fall for such a fascinating woman.

And the chemistry the three share is compelling, making it incredibly easy for the audience to root for them. Even when Robinson edges over the line of overusing the musical score by Tom Howe, it never annoys when these characters are so wonderfully human and engaging. So much so that it makes the story about the creation of Wonder Woman look inferior by comparison, which by the way, did make me look at the female superhero in a different light after I left the cinema.

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As for its flaws, aside from the slight overuse of the musical score, the film does suffer a bit from creative licensing due to some questionable events that may seem a bit too phony to be true, but in retrospect, it’s not that much of a flaw due to the fact that the film works because of the creative licensing.

For example, the Oliver Stone film JFK took major liberties with the events of history, but that never stopped it from being a great film. So why would such creative licensing stop Professor Marston and the Wonder Women from being a great film?

In either case, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women succeeds as a poly-amorous love story, a fascinating biopic, a compelling view on the creation of Wonder Woman and as a showcase for Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote.

Over the times, I usually say I love a film when I enjoyed it immensely, but Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is the first film in 2017 that I fell in love with. Don’t let it fall into obscurity and go see it as soon as you can.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances/chemistry between the three leads

Angela Robinson’s assured direction and scripting rises above biopic cliches

CONS

Slight overuse of the musical score

Creative liberties may irk some

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: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Monica Giordano, JJ Feild, Chris Conroy, Alexia Havins, Oliver Platt
Director: Angela Robinson
Screenwriters: Angela Robinson

Movie Review – Brigsby Bear

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EXPECTATIONS: A funny SNL debut entry into film.

REVIEW: When you hear a film that is green-lit and it is basically a vehicle for an SNL star, chances are that one would expect the film to be bad. Films like A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar and The Ladies Man are all garbage. Although some of them do gain a cult following over time like Hot Rod and MacGruber, there are also some that are genuinely funny like the Wayne’s World films, Mean Girls and others.

So when I heard that a SNL alumni was making his lead debut in a film about a magical bear in a television show, I have to admit, I wasn’t really looking forward to it. It certainly didn’t help that the lead actor, Kyle Mooney, appeared in Zoolander 2, a film that I loathed and he played the most annoying character. So annoying that I wished his character would die and **SPOILER ALERT for Zoolander 2** when he did, I literally stood up and cheered.

Speaking about my crippled state of mind, besides my initial reservations, it helps to have an open mind about film before going in because there are projects out there that have the potential to surprise you and I hoped Brigsby Bear would do the trick. Will the magic work on me or will the film struggle to reach the bare necessities?

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Kyle Mooney stars as James, an imaginative young man, who only knows in this world are his mother and father (an amusing pair with Jane Adams and Mark Hamill), the walls of the underground bunker they live in and the many VHS teachings of Brigsby Bear, a folksy talking bear whose catchphrases include “curiosity is an unnatural emotion” and “trust only the familial unit”.

But when reality unexpectedly throws him out of whack, James has to face the real world; a world he cannot understand and a new family he doesn’t know. To make things worse, he finds out that Brigsby Bear doesn’t exist on the outside, so he takes it upon himself to finish the adventures of Brigsby Bear for good with a video camera in tow.

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With themes like child kidnapping, fitting in the real world, loneliness, you would expect this film to be a full-bore drama, but in the case of Brigsby Bear, it is only part of it. The rest is quirky, whimsical and humourous. Now this may sound like the makings of a recipe of sick, but director Dave McCary and lead actor/screenwriter Kyle Mooney make Brigsby Bear an absurdly charming and heartwarming, if flawed piece of work.

The main reason the film truly works is Kyle Mooney. Having doubts over him, my reservations were washed away by his stellar work. He brings the perfect mix of childlike wonder, deadpan delivery and sincerity to the role that even when he says unwitting things like wishing his sister was abducted with him so they would’ve had fun together, it becomes pretty easy to laugh at him as well as alongside him.

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The fish-out-of-water scenarios that James goes through do provide ample laughs, particularly during a scene where he goes to a teenage party, where he mingles with the youth. The supporting cast all do good work with their roles like Ryan Simpkins as James’ sister, Mark Hamill as James’ father and Kate Lyn Sheil in a small role as an actress in the Brigsby Bear show.

In fact, one of the best scenes in the film involves Mooney and Sheil meeting up for the first time and the interactions between the two are both dramatically compelling and amusing. The mix of remorse and morose humour is executed perfectly, showing the film at its best.

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But when the story progresses to the point when James starts filming the rest of Brigsby Bear, the film unfortunately becomes predictable to the point that it feels like its going through a laundry list of indie cliches such as the bonding scenes between the characters and even Greg Kinnear‘s character as the cop who secretly wants to be an actor; it just feels like tropes we’ve seen many times in indie films.

And the storytelling does suffer from some problems like how the two tones of seriousness and humour betray each other or worse, how the film never has as much conflicts and obstacles for James to go through. It makes the journey a little bit too easy in comparison to what James has on him as baggage, which is what makes the scene between Mooney and Sheil a relief from the predictability.

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Overall, the film is a good effort for actor/screenwriter Kyle Mooney and director Dave McCary and I hope they do better work in the future, as Brigsby Bear is a heartfelt, warm and peculiar piece of work that could have been great. But hey, a little magic is better than having no magic at all, right?

Quickie Review

PROS

Kyle Mooney gives a great performance

The supporting cast give life to their roles

Appropriate amounts of whimsy are well-executed, particularly in the first act

CONS

Crawls back to predictable indie cliches

Tonal shifts hinder the experience

Not much conflict for the lead character

SCORE: 7/10

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

Cast: Kyle Mooney, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Claire Danes, Ryan Simpkins, Greg Kinnear, Mark Hamill, Alexa Demie, Beck Bennett, Chance Crimin, Jane Adams, Kate Lyn Sheil, Andy Samberg
Director: Dave McCary
Screenwriters: Kevin Costello, Kyle Mooney

Movie Review – The Mountain Between Us

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EXPECTATIONS: Simple yet romantic survival story.

REVIEW:

WARNING: This review may contain heavy traces of cheese.

Before I start off this review, let me just make this one thing clear. I do like romantic films. This year alone, we have great films like Their Finest, The Big Sick, Our God’s Country and Call Me By Your Name. As much as I cannot stand overstated, implausible films of its ilk, I do understand why people do like them. It’s a fantasy and if there’s an audience for overstated, implausible action films, why can’t we have an audience for the former?

In the case of my expectations of The Mountain Between Us, they were kept in moderation. Having a romance set in a survival story is nothing new; especially when Kate Winslet is in one of the most popular films ever made about that, but it does lend a different twist to the genre and with director Hana Abal-Assad, Kate Winslet and Idris Elba on-board, it could be a worthwhile trip.

But the last romantic film I’ve seen with Winslet was the excremental Labor Day, a film so borderline moronic and illogical that it made me squeamish every time I looked at pies. But The Mountain Between Us can’t be as bad as that. Can it?

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The film starts off with Alex (Kate Winslet), a headstrong and reckless photojournalist who is rushing at the airport, struggling to get back to her fiance (human wardrobe Dermot Mulroney) on time for her wedding day. There she meets Ben (Idris Elba), a cautious, methodical surgeon who needs to get back home in time to initiate an emergency operation for a 10-year old boy.

Noticing the similar predicaments, Alex devises a solution and invites Ben to board a charter plane, with Walter (Beau Bridges) as the pilot and his pet dog as the co-pilot. As they are on the way home, the plane crashes in remote, snowy terrain. Having very little supplies and even less chance of help arriving, the two go on a perilous journey for survival, along with something more.

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Like preparing for a perilous journey, let’s start with the positives. The cinematography by fellow Australian Mandy Walker (who’s worked on a similar survival story Tracks, among others) is terrific. The million miles of pure-ass nature (a line in the film, believe it or not) are captured beautifully and makes it easy to believe that it would be a torture for anyone to trek through. Speaking of torture, the plane crash itself is very well-executed, as the editing is seamless as well as the special effects employed.

And like embracing death during the perilous journey, we get to the negatives, and there’s a mountain-load of them. The biggest one is the incredibly problematic and frankly cheesy script by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe. The willing suspension of disbelief was shaken as soon as I heard Beau Bridges‘ voice as Walter. No one in their right mind would believe that he would be in good health to fly a plane. And the fact that he didn’t devise a flight-plan beforehand was just a honking siren for danger. But wait, there’s more!

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How does the dog keep surviving the long journey through the snow without as much as an iota of frostbite? How does Alex’s leg lose swelling through the ice-cold journey? And what about Ben’s leg cut that bears no ill will to him whatsoever? And the list of unbelievable moments goes on and on and on. It’s almost as if the writers sprinkled Parmesan cheese all over it.

Speaking of unbelievable (and cheese), the dialogue is so laughable and out of this world that it would make the staff at Hallmark fall on the floor, laughing hysterically. With zingers like “I feel alive!”, “I need to occupy my amygdala” and “What about the heart?”, the film makes it head-bangingly obvious that the characters are different from each other. There’s even a moment where a recorder is used to communicate to the audience that Ben likes being in control.

And then there’s the cast. Despite the arctic setting, the only thing in the film that’s frozen is the chemistry between the two leads. They have absolutely no heat or believable passion that not even the cheese in the film can melt the ice. And what’s worse is that the transition from survival story to romantic tale is so mechanical that you can actually pinpoint the starting position where the romance starts (Minor spoiler: it’s when Alex pushes Ben to the ground).

Speaking of mechanical, the moments of tension and thrills in the film feel like they were just bolted in just in case the film lost the attention of the audience. It doesn’t help that the characters never really feel like they’re in real mortal danger. A cliff fall here, a water dive there,  a mountain lion from behind; the only reason that the audience would feel any sympathy for the characters is because they’re played by Kate Winslet and Idris Elba.

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Winslet is really trying her best in a difficult role, but she only ends up being difficult and really trying. Elba lends presence and credibility to the character of Ben but he could only take it so far, as the incredibly sloppy script is concerned. Funnily enough, the press notes actually say that Ben is smart as he is handsome. That basically sums up the effort that went to the script.

But even after all of that, that’s just the cheese of the stuffed crust. The last 20 minutes of the film is where the story basically turns into a tidal wave of cheese that would have swarm upon swarm of rats running in the cinema to jump on the screen. In other words, the supposed romantic tension, the awful dialogue and quite possibly the funniest final shot of the year cap the film not as a romantic drama, but a romantic comedy.

And just hypothetically speaking of the former, if you were to choose between an actor that acts like a tree (Dermot Mulroney) or an actor that is basically built like a tree (Idris Elba), who would you choose? That basically sums up the level of romantic tension in the film.

And as much as the critically acclaimed director Assad and leads Winslet and Elba can do with their efforts, the only thing between them and the audience is a mountain of cheese. With the script on top.

Quickie Review

PROS

The film looks nice

Actors do what they can

CONS

Clumsy script

Cheesiness that permeates throughout the film

Last 20 minutes are almost laugh-out-loud funny

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: Kate Winslet, Idris Elba, Beau Bridges, Dermot Mulroney
Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Screenwriters: J. Mills Goodloe, Chris Weitz, based on the novel by Charles Martin

Movie Review – Pop Aye

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EXPECTATIONS: A sweet, gentle buddy comedy/road trip film.

REVIEW: Although I am a fan of all film genres and tropes, the specific genre trope that I have an affinity for is the human-fantasy friendship trope. Whether it’s between a human and a horse (War Horse), a human and a robot (The Iron Giant), a human and a mutant super-pig (Okja) or a human and a Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro), a strong bond is a strong bond, no matter how bizarre the circumstances are.

In the case of Kirsten Tan‘s directorial debut, Pop Aye, it’s between a human and a elephant. Unlike Tony Jaa‘s action epic The Protector where the man kills billions of people to get his elephant back from mustache-twirling bad guys, the main lead in Pop Aye reunites with his eponymous childhood pet and tries to take him back to his village. Will the film be as touching as the prior examples or will the film need to be put down?

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Thaneth Warakulnukroh makes his acting debut as Thana, a middle-aged architect, who is bored at work as well as at home with his wife Bo (Penpak Sirikul). One day, as he wanders the Bangkok city, he spots an elephant which turns out to be his childhood pet, Pop Aye.

Faster than you can say “Don Quixote”, he buys Pop Aye and then decides to take the elephant back to the village where they grew up together and into his uncle Peak’s (Narong Pongpab) care. Thus, they embark on a road trip through the rural Thailand to their hometown of Loei Province, Isan.

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Okay, maybe the last statement in the introductory paragraph was a bit mean-spirited but there are many examples out there that are downright terrible like Marley and Me (which is as incorrect as the grammatical error of a title) and the recent film A Dog’s Purpose (why kill off one dog when you can kill off five?). Those films are inferior examples because of the filmmakers insistence in getting every single tear out of the audience that it borders on grievous bodily harm.

Thankfully, Kirsten Tan‘s Pop Aye is on another level in comparison, as Tan provides an amiable, bittersweet and surprisingly surreal piece of work. The subtle and contemplative tone and the script by Tan makes the film more than the sum of its parts.

One of the things the film gets right is the titular character itself, Pop Aye. Named after the cartoon but renamed for copyright purposes and played by Bong and two other elephants, Pop Aye is as contemplative as he is charming. His reactions towards the many bizarre characters in the road trip are funny. But he really stand out when you see his final shot of the film, as he stares into the horizon.

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In fact, the humour in the film is quite sharp. Whether its showing a sex toy to prove a point, seeing the interactions between Thana and Bo or the great spaghetti western-like score by Matthew James Kelly, the film is not without its levity. But overall, the film is basically a low-key character study for Thana.

Thaneth Warakulnukroh gives a great performance as the lead, as he lends the right amount of gravitas, melancholy and restrained jubilation. Penpak Sirikul (last seen in The Hangover Part II) lends a surprising amount of humanity to the role of Bo, who could have easily be seen as a materialistic person.

Other surprises come from the supporting cast, such as Yukontorn Sukkijja as Jenny, a transgender woman whom Thana meets in a nightclub. Her enigmatic presence, her brief exchanges of dialogue and her sharp wit understandably makes her a stand-out to Thana as well as the audience.

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But the biggest surprise is Chaiwat Khumdee as Dee, a vagrant who is content with where he has ended up life. His optimism and modesty and Khumdee’s performance make Dee the best character in the film. His character also offers an opposing view in comparison to Thana, as both have cherished memories that may not be as idealized as they think.

Speaking of what is expected, there are a few surprising curveballs in the narrative that lend a lot of depth to the film, as the journey is more than just revisiting the past, but is more along the lines of sheer remorse.

The film does drag a little bit in terms of its pacing and the destination the film gets to is a bit slight compared to the journey preceding it but overall, Pop Aye is a film that stands out from the pack of human-fantasy genre trope and is worth looking out for.

Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances

Subtle storytelling and filmmaking

Narrative curveballs surprise and lend a lot of weight to the story

Beautifully shot and scored

CONS

The ending is quite slight

Slow pacing

SCORE: 7/10

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

Cast: Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Bong the elephant, Penpak Sirikul, Chaiwat Khumdee, Yukontorn Sukkijja, Narong Pongpab
Director: Kirsten Tan
Screenwriters: Kirsten Tan

Movie Review – A Ghost Story

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EXPECTATIONS: Absolutely no clue. Except knowing that it’s not a horror film.

REVIEW: David Lowery is a film-maker whose work I have enjoyed due to his restrained approach to his direction, his way of humanizing his characters and his sincere, honest approach to his storytelling. Whether it a small-scale story like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints or a commercial film like the reboot Pete’s Dragon, his directorial and screenwriting touch is always apparent.

Now we have his third film, A Ghost Story. Despite what the title implies, the film is not part of the horror genre and it is more about existentialism, the afterlife and the concepts of time. And with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara coming back for their second collaboration after Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the film looks to be another top-notch film for Lowery. Or will it?

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Casey Affleck plays a struggling musician (oddly named C) living with his wife, played by Rooney Mara (oddly named M) in a small suburban house. One night, they hear a heavy bang on their piano, but are unable to find the cause for the noise. Some time later, C is killed in a car accident outside his home. At the morgue, he awakens as a ghost covered in a white bedsheet with two black holes for eyes.

It is from there on that a connection is forged between the two that stretches beyond the boundaries of time and space and it is then that C ventures on a metaphysical journey.

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Now, let’s get to the positives. Like every film that Lowery has made, the film is well-made, in terms of the mood and atmosphere (the understated execution of the scene where C is in a car crash is very well-handled) and the slow pace really adds to it.

Plus, the film is really well-shot. Through the cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo, everything looks absolutely ethereal and yet, the aspect ratio (which is 1.33:1) gives it a claustrophobic feel that conveys the feelings of the leading character very well.

And also as expected, the performances from both Mara and Affleck are both quite good. Affleck does world-weary very well, as he conveys the character’s struggles in an effective manner. As for Mara, she does quite well in showing the character’s grief and sorrow and none of it is more apt than in the scene where her character eats a pie in a 5-minute long, unbroken take.

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But unlike the pie, the film is much less filling. The minimalist approach is quite a double-edge sword for the film, and it unfortunately affects the characters. Mara and Affleck are understated actors to begin with, so when they are placed under this approach, it creates a pretty large void for the audience, in which they have nothing to empathize, particularly during the moments when the two leads are conversing with one another. The relationship isn’t really given enough time for the audience to latch on to, leaving them detached.

And since Affleck is under a white bedsheet for the majority of the running time (and believe me, anyone could’ve played the ghost role), it relies more on Mara for the lifting, but even then, she disappears for long stretches of time. On the contrary, since the film does touch on loneliness, the execution does make sense. But it ends up all for naught when watching the film for 90 minutes becomes a very drawn-out chore.

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If the film was made in a short film format, then the potential of the story would have been satisfied, and would even do away with a second-act monologue that is so patronizing and pandering that it almost seems to exist just so people who fell asleep during the film would have a scene just for them to catch up with the proceedings. JUST IN THE CASE THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK AREN’T GETTING IT!

Despite the overlong, droning running time, the film concludes effectively, as it finally reaches fruition with all of the themes coalescing together for a satisfying and touching finale. But for many, it is too little, too late.

Overall, A Ghost Story is like one of the bedsheets in the film. It looks nice, it flows well, but like the bedsheet, there are some holes and major stains on it.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Well-made and well-shot

Good acting

Satisfying ending

CONS

Incredibly slow paced and understated for its own good

A monologue that is annoying, patronizing and pandering that almost sinks the film

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: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, McColm Sephas Jr., Kenneisha Thompson, Grover Coulson, Liz Cardenas Franke, Barlow Jacobs
Director: David Lowery
Screenwriter: David Lowery

Movie Review – To The Bone

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EXPECTATIONS: An intense and even harrowing portrayal of its subject matter.

REVIEW: Films of such subject matter as To the Bone has (eg. terminal disease, AIDS etc.) particularly the ones that aim for teenagers, tend to be sappy (like My Sister’s Keeper), melodramatic and even deeply misguided, if done wrong. So whenever I hear about a film such as these, I tend to cringe. But in the case of To the Bone, I was quite intrigued.

First of all was the involvement of Marti Noxon. A talented screenwriter of both TV (due to contributions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and her recent contributions to films such as the upcoming dramatic film The Glass Castle and the video-game adaptation Tomb Raider. Not to mention that the subject matter is deeply personal to Noxon, as she went through the same experiences as the lead character.

And second of all was the involvement of Lily Collins. Ever since I saw her in Mirror Mirror (which I think is an underrated treat), I found her to be a lovely presence on screen and films like Rules Don’t Apply and Love, Rosie prove that. But she has never been truly tested with her acting potential and To the Bone seems like the perfect opportunity to do so. And once again, it helps that Collins also has a personal relation to said subject matter, having gone through similar experiences in her earlier life.

And finally, I myself have gone through a similar, although not as intense, experience. At a young age, I was severely underweight and would usually bribe my parents for playtime, rather than eat anything. It was so severe to the point where I would just throw school lunches my mother made just to go out and play. It was even suggested that I would have been forced to consume food intravenously.

Will To the Bone escape the genre trappings and become a worthy entry in the genre, or will it sink into the afterschool-special abyss, where it will repeat at 2:00 in the afternoon for eternity?

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Lily Collins stars as Ellen, an unruly 20-year-old anorexic girl who spent the supposedly better part of her teenage years going through various recovery programs, only to find herself getting worse every time.

Determined to find a solution, her self-serving family (consisting of Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Liana Liberato and Brooke Smith) agrees to send her to a group home for youths, which is led by a non-traditional doctor (Keanu Reeves, playing a doctor for the third time).

With the help of her similarly afflicted bunkmates (consisting of Alex Sharp, Ciara Bravo, Maya Ashet, Kathryn Prescott, Leslie Bibb and others), will she go on the path to recovery and achieve self-acceptance?

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Firstly, does the film deal with its issues effectively and does it execute it in a manner that is both illuminating, cinematic and thought-provoking? For the most part, yes. First of all, it is admirable that the film is not majorly about dealing with an eating disorder, but it is about finding the love and acceptance about one’s self and director Marti Noxon conveys that quite well.

There are no scenes where Ellen would magically eat or whether Ellen undergoes a complete change. It is all about the struggle before the triumph and Noxon executes it in a palatable fashion i.e. with no overuse of music, acting histrionics and most importantly, very little audience pandering.

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What Noxon does is that she leavens the film and its subject manner with a good use of surprising humour. Whether the humour is good-natured (“Lucas rhymes with mucus”, Alex Sharp jokes), dry (Keanu Reeves certainly contributes on that front) or even dark (“If you die, I will fucking kill you.”, Liana Liberato states), it lends a certain warmth to the film, as well as a sense of honesty that speaks on a personal level.

The same honesty even applies to the drama, particularly in the third act, where Ellen hits, according to Reeves’ character Dr. Beckham, “bottom”. Without spoilers, the moments in the third act, and how they culminate, are beautiful, scary, confusing, absurd; and it had me by surprise that Noxon stuck with her guns to portray those moments sincerely. Some of the images (whether physical or metaphorical) may provoke controversy, but again, it all feels personal and it has enough cinematic panache to come off as truly compelling.

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It helps immensely that the cast assembled for To the Bone give very good performances. Lily Collins finally gets a leading role where she can exercise her acting chops and she does really well, whether it is acting out the character’s cynical side, her gradual love of herself as well as others and of course, her vulnerable side.

As for the supporting cast, Keanu Reeves does dry in the way only he can do it (for clear evidence, see Thumbsucker) and he does well, providing some amusingly dry humour. Carrie Preston is convincingly paternal and verbose as Ellen’s stepmother and Lili Taylor is fantastic as the guilt-wracked mother of Ellen, and the scenes she shares with Collins, particularly in the third act, are very effective and affecting.

The young cast are all good in their roles, with Alex Sharp turning up the charm without the creepiness that male love interests on film usually have; Liana Liberato lending heart to the film with her sisterly reactions with Collins and Leslie Bibb, who is cast-against-type as a similarly afflicted pregnant woman, as highlights.

On the negative side, there are some moments where the humour and dramatic moments may irk some due to the fact that it is present in a film with such grim subject matters and the character archetypes do imply a certain vibe that this story could only happen on film, but there is enough truth and honesty in the film that it will have an emotional impact and it is a credit to Noxon and the cast that To the Bone works as well as it does, considering my reservations of the genre as well as my personal inclinations.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performance from Collins

Honest, truthful direction by Noxon

Committed supporting cast

A strange yet effective sense of humour enlivens the proceedings

CONS

Cinematic tropes and some of its humour detract from the realistic issues

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: Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Alex Sharp, Liana Liberato, Leslie Bibb
Director: Marti Noxon
Screenwriter: Marti Noxon

Movie Review – Dawn of the Felines (NYAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something more melancholic and realistic than the average fare.

REVIEW: Three down, two to go. The fourth entry (for my viewing pleasure) in the Roman Porno Reboot is Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines. No, it is not a cat zombie film, but a melancholic and de-mystified drama that provides a look into the lives of three stranded women, whom we see go through their daily lives as Tokyo sex workers.

Whilst the other entries went for either comedic, arthouse and the serene approach, Dawn of the Felines goes for the realistic approach, and with Kazuya Shiraishi at the helm (whom last did the crime film The Devil’s Path and crime/comedy Twisted Justice), we can be certain this film will hit hard with its subject matter. But will the film succeed in entertaining the audience by living up to the Roman Porno name as well as conveying the director’s distinct touch?

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The film follows the lives of three women in present Tokyo and how they feel stranded due to the circumstances of life, with all three of them being led by the weaselly Nonaka (Takuma Otoo). Juri Ihata plays the homeless Masako, who develops an awkward romance with a reclusive client (Tomihiro Kaku) who hasn’t left his own building in 10 years.

We also have Rie (Michie), who is unhappily married and finds solace in the company of an old man drowning in guilt over his wife’s recent death; and we have single mother Yui (Satsuki Maue), who casually leaves behind her abused son just so she can date an obnoxious comedian (Hideaki Murata).

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First off, the positives. The performances from the cast are all uniformly good, thankfully due to the three leads. Juri Ihata, who is known primarily for being a voice actress, performs well in her first leading role as Masako, as she conveys the weariness, the laid-back attitude and especially the anger of her character very well. There is a scene where she confronts Tomohiro Kaku’s character on top of a building and she expresses her feelings, and it is clearly representative of her talents.

Michie is good as the sorrowful Rie; so much so that she makes her unbelievable subplot quite watchable. The interactions between her character and the old man character are compelling and even shocking at times. The lesser of the three is Satsuki Maue as Yui. Although she plays the selfishness and impulsiveness of her character well, she tends to overact at times, which can take audiences out of the film.

The supporting cast are all fine, with Tomohiro Kaku (best known as the boyfriend in Hana and Alice) proving he can be both enigmatic and inhumane; Hideaki Murata is a pure scumbag as the supposedly funny comedian that Yui cavorts with and Ken Yoshizawa lends presence as the suffering senior who interacts with Rie.

But the biggest standout is Takuma Otoo as Nonaka. Providing some much-needed humour to offset the downbeat story, he perfects the way of the weasel by making him likable as well as repulsive. The facial expressions he comes up with, especially during a scene where he is confronted with the police, are priceless.

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As for the direction, it is well-done, particularly how Shiraishi focuses more on the characters, rather than the story. The sex scenes are executed in a matter-of-fact fashion, rather than aiming for prurience. And for the most part, they signal the stage where the characters are in their development or reveal more of who they are. Like in a scene where Yui sleeps with Murata’s character and she finally becomes intimate with him, leading to a confrontation.

And although the film is well-edited and well-told, the film could use a bit more effort in the lighting, as the badly lit look makes it look unappealing at times. Although, the focus on character pays off in the climax, as the leads do reach their foregone conclusions in a satisfying manner (particularly the subplot of Masako), the film could have used more of a social commentary bent since the story is ripe with potential for it i.e. providing more concrete views on how the leads ended up in the situation in the first place. For example, Masako mentions that she is a university graduate but could not obtain a decent job, leading her to prostitution.

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Overall, Dawn of the Felines is a mostly compelling piece of work that has a much more humane story than one would expect. Saddled with good performances, assured direction and ample explorations into loneliness, the film may be the worst entry in the Roman Porno Reboot I’ve seen thus far, but it is still a worthwhile endeavour.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good acting from the cast

Focus on character pays off in a satisfying fashion

CONS

Lacks a certain something to make it truly stand out

Inconsistent lighting

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Juri Ihata, Satsuki Maue, Michie, Takuma Otoo, Tomohiro Kaku, Hideaki Murata, Ken Yoshizawa, Kazuko Shirakawa, Kaito Yoshimura, Ryotaro Yonemura, Takaki Uda, Takamitsu Nonaka
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Screenwriters: Kazuya Shiraishi