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

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EXPECTATIONS: Something unintentionally funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quickie Review

PROS

Orlando Bloom tries his best

The song “Roulette”

CONS

Inconsistent acting

Dull characters

Suspense-free action

No creative inspiration in the filmmaking

Lack of cast chemistry

Mediocre storytelling

SCORE: 3/10

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

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Movie Review – Den of Thieves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quickie Review

PROS

Good action scenes

Fun performance from Butler and a good performance from Jackson

Good musical score from Cliff Martinez

CONS

Rehashes too much of Heat

Too many unnecessary scenes that pad out the run time

A terrible twist ending

SCORE: 5/10

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

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

Movie Review – Phantom Thread

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EXPECTATIONS: Something classical and elegant, which lives up to the reputation of both the director and lead actor.

REVIEW: I must be a really bad film critic since I have realized another error of my film-watching ways. After other mistakes like never seeing a Agnes Varda film before until Faces Places, there is another mistake that I have to confess about and rectify: I have never seen any of the works of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Considered to be the best actor of this generation, his work in films like Lincoln, There Will Be Blood, In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot have gathered massive acclaim all due to his intense commitment in method acting. When it was announced that his latest film would be his last, filmgoers had their hopes up in what would be a swan song and not a swan dive.

And once again, I have another mistake I have to confess: I have only seen one of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s films, which is his romantic comedy/drama Punch Drunk Love. From that film alone, it’s perfectly obvious that Anderson’s direction is idiosyncratic, unorthodox and delightfully playful even during serious moments.

To rectify my barbaric ways of my lack of film knowledge, I ventured to watch Day-Lewis’ and Anderson’s latest collaboration, Phantom Thread. Considering the massive buzz and my lack of knowledge of both the film and the filmmakers, my mind was fresh to expect anything. Does the film live up to the buzz?

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Set in 1950’s London, renowned dressmaker and “tragic” artist Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are the milestone of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutantes and dames with the distinct and famous style of The House of Woodcock.

Women are used and dispensed with in Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes an asset in his life as his muse and his lover. Once feeling meticulous and in control, he finds his carefully tailored life (pun definitely intended) derailed by love.

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Reading into the synopsis, it sounds like Phantom Thread is a film about the whining of a supposedly reclusive artist who complains about his way of life being disrupted until a woman comes into his life and supports him through this supposed dilemma. But this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film, so don’t expect it to follow any genre conventions, as it is really a romantic comedy disguised as a period drama.

Anderson (acting as the cinematographer and writer in-between directorial duties) basically conveys a magical and wondrous mood mixed with acerbic wit to themes that usually wouldn’t warrant such things like sadomasochism, toxic masculinity, gastronomy and of course, tailoring and dressmaking.

But even with doing all of these things, and accomplishing them very well, he never forgets the humanity of the distinct characters. And the storytelling never goes through certain cinematic conventions and tropes, always keeping the audience on edge, particularly during the climax, despite being oddly similar to other 2017 films, due to using the exact same plot device.

Jonny Greenwood‘s score is absolutely magnificent. Emotionally stirring, incredibly catchy and in perfect synchronization with Anderson’s twisted storytelling, the score is basically a main character of the film itself. While Greenwood has made many great musical scores like with Norwegian Wood and We Need to Talk About Kevin, he really takes the cake here.

In fact, the sound design by Christopher Scarabosio is done so well, it complements the story, it adds punch to comedic scenes, it aids the unraveling characters and even adds a sense of palpable tension. And to think that all of this can come from the simple act of buttering toast.

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The acting is also a major plus. Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic as Reynolds Woodcock (no, really), as he isn’t afraid to delve into the flaws of the character as well as imbuing a bit of a tongue-in-cheek quality that makes Woodcock fun to watch, if not repellent in retrospect. Whether he is swearing at his colleagues or beating Alma at mind games (or in one scene, backgammon), Day-Lewis makes Woodcock strangely magnetic.

As good as he is, the actresses are the stand-outs of the film. Vicky Krieps (who is best known to Westerners in films like Hanna and A Most Wanted Man) is absolutely brilliant as the multi-faceted Alma. The more Woodcock (or in another case, Anderson) pulls on the thread about Alma, the more she unravels as an alluring, strong, off-kilter and charming person, and Krieps opens up convincingly, sweeping the audience off their feet in the process.

The interactions and chemistry between Krieps and Day-Lewis sway between wonderful, acidic, funny and a little bit psycho (intellectually and humourously speaking; especially during a dinner scene where they argue about such minuscule issues like how asparagus should be cooked. What’s best about their chemistry is that it never feels rehearsed or prepared; it feels intimate and immediate. In every relationship, there’s always that person that has the upper hand, but in the case of Woodcock and Alma, it’s hard to know who has it, and it becomes quite fun to figure it out.

And of course, there is Lesley Manville. Mostly known for her collaborations with acclaimed director Mike Leigh, she brings much humanity to the role of Cyril Woodcock, that she easily avoids conveying her character as a one-dimensional thorn on one’s backside.

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While the film is definitely unconventional, Phantom Thread can be seen as an experience that can be quite irksome due to the fact that Anderson always avoids cinematic conventions to the point that it can feel artificial and self-satisfying. But if one were to look at it in a different way, that kind of creative influence could apply to the character of Reynolds Woodcock himself.

As beautiful as it is twisted, Phantom Thread is a film worth unraveling, with its wonderful performances, Anderson’s unpredictable storytelling and Greenwood’s emotionally stirring score that is sure to appeal to adventurous cinemagoers.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic acting from the three leads, especially Vicky Krieps

Glorious musical score by Johnny Greenwood

Interesting chemistry between characters and their interactions

Great curveballs in the story

CONS

May be a bit too offbeat for it own good

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: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Camilla Rutherford, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson, Harriet Sansom Harris, Lujza Richter, Julia Davis
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenwriters: Paul Thomas Anderson

Movie Review – Faces Places

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EXPECTATIONS: No clue.

REVIEW: Before I start the review, there is one thing that I need to confess: I have never seen an Agnes Varda film before. So the following words are from a Varda neophyte, with no prior bias or expectations on what to perceive about her latest film, Faces Places.

Face Places is essentially a documentary about a road trip between two fellow artists, with Agnes Varda, a French film director who is famous for her many films such as Cleo from 5 to 7 and The Gleaners and I; and JR, a famous artist known for his many art installations of street art.

Agnes decides to collaborate with JR by participating in his Inside Out project, in which he takes portraits of regular people and pastes the pictures, in gigantic-poster format, onto walls and buildings. Over the course of time, the two create a fruitful relationship that is both endearing and amusing.

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Despite not knowing anything about the subject matter nor the people, it rarely ever becomes an issue since Faces Places is such a genuine crowd-pleaser that shows the wonder of art, the beauty of friendship and the compelling contrasts between the generations of the past and the present.

From the moment it started with the quaintly animated opening credits, to the whimsical voiceover in which Varda and JR imagine all the places they might have met — including one point where Varda is seen dancing in a nightclub — I knew I was going to love this film. The chemistry the two have is so heartwarming and endearing that you wish that the film lasted longer than the 90 minute runtime.

Varda is such a charming presence and her outlook on life is such a marvel, that her dwindling vision never gets to her in the way of ideas. As for JR, despite his look of pretentiousness and swagger, he has a youthful fire in him that makes him endearing and enjoyably passionate.

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The journey itself the two leads go through, which consists of stopping into various villages of little to no knowledge, invite the locals to pose in the van that JR has transformed into a mobile photo booth, paste massive print-outs of the resulting portraits onto the environments their subjects call home, is a very pleasant time and the villagers they meet are an entertaining bunch.

One scene in particular involves Pony, the toothless poet who lives under the stars and makes art out of bottle caps. Other memorable subjects involve three dock workers we meet towards the end of the film. Actually, it’s not them, but their wives. It’s very evident that Varda is a major voice for women and both she and JR make their voices (or in this case, images) heard in a memorable trio image.

In a very special scene that is purely emotional and again proves the major voice, Varda and JR visit a former mining town that has been largely deserted; the housing that was built for local miners is now occupied by their elderly children. Varda not only wants to preserve these residents’ memories of their home, but she also hopes to make it a shrine or commemoration for the villagers. A row of brick houses, which is planned for demolition, is still kept standing by a woman named Jeanine, who describes herself as the “sole survivor.”

Inspired by Jeanine’s strength, JR and Varda paste building-sized pictures of both miners and Jeanine on the brick houses, turning it into a monument. When Jeanine sees it, she’s left in shock and awe. It’s a moment of pure emotion, one of many that make Faces Places both a testament to Varda herself as well as showing the “ordinary” in “extraordinary”.

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But not all of memories can stand the test of time, like in a particular scene where Varda and JR venture to a deserted beach and decide to blow-up a picture of her deceased friend, Guy Bourdain, onto it; but the very next day, the photo is washed away by the tide. Or the final sequence which involves Varda trying to get back in touch with a friend/famous director, which just goes to show that the beauty of filmmaking or nostalgia doesn’t always translate into reality.

But what does translate are the themes about the persistence in doing what you love regardless of time, the moments that we choose to cherish and the friendships we make, and the friendship of Varda and JR is one for the ages. Please go see Faces Places regardless of whether you know the subjects. As of the writing this review, the film was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar this year. Fingers crossed!

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic chemistry between the two leads

Explores so much themes with ease and efficiency

Many moments of true beauty and emotion

CONS

Too short

SCORE: 9.5/10

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

Cast: Agnes Barda, JR
Director: Agnes Varda, JR
Screenwriters: Agnes Varda

Movie Review – Chasing the Dragon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quickie Review

PROS

Good supporting cast of veterans

Andy Lau delivers a subtly menacing performance

Vibrant cinematography

Good action scenes

CONS

Tedious and exhausting storytelling

Rampant xenophobia

Hypocritical and duplicitous portrayals of characters

Female characters are mere plot devices

Donnie Yen’s hilariously bad performance

SCORE: 4/10

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

Movie Review – The Commuter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quickie Review

PROS

Liam Neeson still delivers the goods

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

Action scenes are well done

CONS

Sloppy and derivative story

Underused supporting cast

Many unintentionally funny moments

SCORE: 6/10

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

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

 

Movie Review – Mary and the Witch’s Flower

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EXPECTATIONS: Something as magical as the Studio Ghibli entries.

REVIEW: It’s that fantastic time of the year again! We have another Studio Ghi–Wait a minute! This isn’t a Studio Ghibli film! It is in fact, a Studio Ponoc film. In case you don’t know, Studio Ponoc is an animation studio that was founded in 2015 by people who used to work in Studio Ghibli. One of these people is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the director of such Ghibli hits like The Secret Life of Arietty and When Marnie Was There.

Since the temporary halt in production in Studio Ghibli due to acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki‘s retirement back in 2014 (and later, his return), Studio Ponoc was born and Mary and the Witch’s Flower was declared as their first film project. Having been in production for two and a half years, the film was finally released, receiving acclaim from filmmakers like Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki.

And now we have the film up for release in English-speaking territories with an English dub, featuring voicework from Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent and others. Does Mary and the Witch’s Flower live up to the high Ghibli standards or will it succumb to being a Ghibli wannabe?

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Mary Smith (Ruby Barnhill) is living with her great-aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) while her parents are on a business trip. It’s the last week of summer before school starts and Mary is bored because virtually all the local kids in the small British town of Redmanor are away on holiday. Desperate to do something to escape the boredom, she requests to do house chores but she fails at doing the simplest tasks and thinks low of her own self-worth.

One day, while eating lunch, she sees a black cat turn to a gray one, she readily follows it into the woods, where she finds a strange glowing blue flower. This, it turns out, is Fly-by-night, or the Witch’s Flower, an incredibly rare flower that blooms every seven years. When Mary takes a hold of the flower, it releases magical powers and leads her on a magical adventure that exceeds her wildest dreams.

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The synopsis is quite vague but it is best to watch this film with very little prior knowledge of it. Does Mary and the Witch’s Flower live up to the standards of Studio Ghibli? It comes very close to it, but as a first entry for Studio Ponoc, it’s a huge success.

For a change of pace, let’s dwell with the negatives first, if you can call it that. The story is very familiar to casual audiences, since it is very reminiscent of the Harry Potter book, despite the fact the story is based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, a film that predates Harry Potter by about a quarter of a century. Where as the sci-fi angle of the film is quite reminiscent of Laputa: Castle in the Sky, with its terms of greed and lust for power and steampunk inspirations. Even the themes are reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki tropes, like environmental messages such as animal testing, the wide-eyed heroine, the same sense of wonder and others things.

Not only that, what can bother Ghibli fans is that the visuals and animation are very reminiscent of prior Ghibli films to the point that it sometimes looks recycled. One of the villains has roughly the same face as Kamaji, the boiler operator in Spirited Away, while a slimy creature in the film is reminiscent of No-Face in Spirited Away. And there’s also Mary’s climb up a scary cliff-side staircase and her visit to a house surrounded by water both closely evoke Spirited Away.

There are all sorts of familiar Ghibli images in Mary and the Witch’s Flower, from a character that resembles fire that recalls Calcifer in Howl’s Moving Castle to Mary’s broom-riding adventures and a black cat familiar, reminiscent of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Hell, there’s even a monster/vehicle that is eerily similar to the one in Laputa: Castle in the Sky. So if you’re expecting something new and out of the box from Studio Ponoc, chances are you’re going to be a bit disappointed.

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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be the motto for Mary and the Witch’s Flower but thankfully all of the parts add up to a magical and fun time. The animation, character designs and the playful musical score by Muramatsu Takatsugu (however familiar they are) are stunning to behold, perfectly bouncing from serenity, fantasy and whimsy with ease. The opening prologue, which involves a daring escape via broomstick from shape-shifting minions, is absolutely thrilling and electrifying and hints of the many great things to come.

The character of Mary is very well-developed as she discovers the self-confidence and independence she will need to rely on in adulthood, throughout the film. She starts off as doubtful, as she faces moments about starting at a new school and her frizzy red hair and in the middle of the film, she turns brash and cocky with her newfound powers but at the end, her change in character feels earned and satisfying, without an ounce of sentimentality or forced emotion. While I’ve never read the source material, I’m sure it the female empowerment element was instilled there and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and co-writer Riko Sakaguchi (who last co-wrote the Studio Ghibli film The Tale of Princess Kaguya) honoured it for the film.

The other characters like Great-Aunt Charlotte and Peter all compliment the film but the standout villains like Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee are both entertainingly menacing and yet, are realistically recognizable by their actions and ambitions driven by greed and lust for power. In fact, their actions are so recognizable, the film acknowledges both science and magic together, much like the collaborations of the characters, in a way that is quite refreshing.

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And let’s not forget the cast assembled for the English-language dub, which is very well done. Ruby Barnhill (who was great in Steven Spielberg‘s The BFG) is fantastic as Mary, as she expresses the growing confidence and inner turmoil of her character with ease, and even gets in on the Japanese mannerisms with aplomb. Kate Winslet does icy and posh really well as the villainess, Madam Mumblechook while Jim Broadbent is an over-the-top hoot as Doctor Dee, as he displays enthusiasm and liveliness that otherwise would’ve made a villain quite annoying.

Overall, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is basically a greatest hits album of Studio Ghibli tropes and elements, but it’s a very well-assembled one that proves if the formula ain’t broke, why bother fixing it? With astoundingly beautiful animation, a playful and lively musical score, an empowering heroine, fun and menacing villains and a fun story, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a great first entry for Studio Ponoc. Conjure up the next spell!

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic animation

The cast do great with their performances

Well-developed characters, particularly in the case of Mary

Retains the magic and spirit of Studio Ghibli entries

CONS

Similar to prior Ghibli entries the point of being derivative

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: Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Lynda Baron, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Ewen Bremner
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Screenwriters: Riko Sakaguchi, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, based on the book “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart

Movie Review – Bleeding Steel

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EXPECTATIONS: More Jackie Chan China-market garbage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quickie Review

PROS

The first action scene is quite good

Many unintentionally funny moments

CONS

Too damn many to mention

SCORE: 2/10

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

Movie Review – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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EXPECTATIONS: Something mediocre that I hope the cast will transcend from.

REVIEW: It’s quite amusing that films based on videogames like Assassin’s Creed, Max Payne, Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter are complete rubbish and yet films that revolve around videogames or reflect the videogame aesthetic are a different story.

With films like David Cronenberg‘s sci-fi body horror film eXistenZ (which is a spiritual followup to Videodrome), Edgar Wright‘s graphic novel film adaptation Scott Pilgrim VS The World, Nick Castle‘s sci-fi adventure The Last Starfighter and others, it is possible to make great films out of such thematic material due to the unlimited possibilities one can create.

As for the original Jumanji film, the film is not a classic as there are plenty of problems with it (the special effects were bad even at that time, the overwhelming sentimentality, the inconsistent production values and others). But at least it had a sense of fun and the performers played it sincere so that we care about their fates.

So now we have Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, or as I like to call it, Zoo-manji, and it will be referred to that way throughout the review. With nary a link to the original film, a comedically capable cast and a story that basically transplants the original source material within a videogame aesthetic, there’s a chance that the film might actually be good, despite the bad buzz it carried from the reception of the trailers. So does the film succeed in a fun time or is it time to throw away the dice?

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The film starts off with four high school kids (Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain and Madison Iseman) being brought to detention due to their character traits (in other words, stereotypes). While they are cleaning the storeroom, they discover an old video game console, with the video cartridge named Jumanji.

As the four reluctantly play the game just to avoid boredom, they are drawn into the game’s jungle setting, literally becoming the adult avatars they chose (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black). In order to survive, they must follow the rules of the game and complete the quest assigned to them before the world of Jumanji is destroyed, along with their lives. Or something.

Does the film exceed my expectations by providing a fun time and keep up the trend that films revolving around the videogame aesthetic are good? Unfortunately, no, as Zoo-manji is another example of the rubbish blockbuster filled with desperate performances, a story that is parts from better films stitched up terribly and stereotypes that are both annoyingly self-aware and self-sufficient.

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Let’s begin with the problems. The first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film are insufferable to get through. We encounter the high school stereotypes that we’ve seen a thousand times before like the nerd, the jock, the princess and the loner and they are all annoyingly portrayed (No fault to the actors, just the crummy script) and it takes forever to get to the actual plot.

With films like Raw, Thelma and even Spider-Man: Homecoming, those films break stereotypes and show actual human beings or even likable characters, but in Zoo-manji, you just want to react like Milhouse from The Simpsons and cry out “When are they gonna get to the video game?!”

And then after the torturous set-up, we finally end up in the jungle, where we meet the avatars. First off, I like the four lead actors. I’ve enjoyed many of their works (Johnson in the Fast and Furious films; Hart in About Last Night and Captain Underpants; Gillan in Oculus and the Guardians of the Galaxy films and Black in The School of Rock and Bernie) and despite interviews saying that they’re playing against type, apart from Gillan, they are all doing their usual shtick to an insane level but unfortunately the script makes them sink.

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Dwayne Johnson has always played against type with his action persona. So much so, that he ends up circling back around again and it ends up being his type. Despite being affable and self-deprecating (especially when smoldering), he’s saddled with an annoying character that makes the most stupid decisions involving a sacrifice to accomplish a task where he could’ve easily done it himself. Not only that, it’s treated as a joke. But hey, The Rock don’t break, it’s the script.

Kevin Hart does his usual loud-mouth shtick that wears off in about five minutes, but here in Zoo-manji, he seems especially desperate to rekindle the chemistry he had with Johnson from Central Intelligence, which makes him so unbearably brash and abrasive (PTSD flashbacks of The Secret Life of Pets) that one would hope someone would push him off a cliff. But hey, I’m not the one that pushed him, it’s the script.

Jack Black does the best he can with the body-swapping character of a woman in a man’s body, but the material he’s given, again, makes him unfunny and annoying. The amount of dick jokes in the film is indicative of the quality of the script. When a film (A family-oriented film, no really.) does jokes that brings back memories to not Freaky Friday, but the Rob Schneider film, The Hot Chick, your film’s got problems. Or accurately, the script.

And last we have Karen Gillan. She displayed a convincingly tough side in the horror film Oculus and has displayed action chops in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, so I’m not surprised that she can handle the action scenes well. But her interactions with Black also happen to be the best parts of the film, as the two have a nice chemistry together and her physical comedy chops are quite amusing. But that damn script (I hate repeating myself) and the filmmaking let her down.

The scriptwriters go for the meta-approach in the way her avatar is portrayed, which is meant to be a Lara Croft-type. Instead of calling out the portrayal, the filmmakers leer on her so much (which includes a seductive dance known as dance fighting), that it becomes blatantly duplicitous. You think after Wonder Woman, we would get over this but after Zoo-manji and Justice League, apparently not. You can’t have the cake and eat it too!

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Speaking of cake, let’s get to the script itself. Apart from the terrible attempts of humour (which involves explosions due to cake consumption because God knows why), the film tries to be clever with the videogame aesthetics applied to a typical adventure plot, but these elements were far better explored in David Cronenberg‘s eXistenz, i.e non-player characters, extra lives and so on; and don’t add much of anything beyond lame attempts of humour. If anything, with that and the excessive CGI, it makes the film worse since it takes the tension and stakes away.

Say what you want about the original Jumanji film, but at least in there, it had actual stakes and the effects were practical (like the deadly plants and water sets), which makes it much easier to immerse the audience. But in the case of Zoo-manji, it all ends up being a bunch of flashes, bells and whistles that it gradually becomes tedious. It also does not help that some of the green-screen effects look really obvious, especially in the night scenes.

The script also becomes incredibly contrived, like how Johnson’s character has the ability of speed, but only uses it once as a joke. Or how moments in the film are brought up as lazy foreshadowing like the characters’ weaknesses. Or the fact that only one of the lead characters has ever played a video game before. Or the basic rules of time travel that tries to hark back to the original film for a cheap moment of sentimentality. Speaking of sentimentality and drama, there’s a tragic(?) moment in the film that was so badly handled (and foreshadowed in a way that’s stated above) that it got the biggest laugh out of me.

And on that note, let’s sum up, because I can’t be bothered to talk about the supporting cast like the amusing Rhys Darby, the non-entity Nick Jonas (thanks to the script) and the “I can’t wait to get on the next Scorsese project” Bobby Cannavale. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a lazy, unfunny and undernourished blockbuster that wastes its likable leads with a terrible script and sub-par filmmaking. The film tries to be Indiana Jones meets eXistenZ, but it ends up being Sahara meets Pixels. Game over.

Quickie Review

PROS

Likable leads

CONS

The humour is unfunny

Duplicitous portrayal of Gillan’s character

No stakes, tension or wit

Stereotypes still stick out like a sore thumb

Derivative and never even living up to those themes

SCORE: 4/10

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

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner
Director: Jake Kasdan
Screenwriters: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg

Movie Review – Call Me By Your Name

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EXPECTATIONS: Hopefully something that is brimming with passion and not passivity.

REVIEW: As of writing this review, the Australian Parliament has passed the law, allowing same-sex marriage. What great timing, right?

Anyway, Call Me By Your Name. This film has been gathering up critical buzz ever since it made its premiere splash at Sundance back in January. Then it showed at many other film festivals like Toronto International Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and our very own Sydney Film Festival (to which yours truly regretfully missed out on).

And now finally, near the end of the year, it’s finally here out on local release. Does the film live up to its rapturous hype with claims of passionate romance, astounding performances and emotionally stirring drama? Or will it succumb to be something underwhelming and be thrown away like the pit of a peach?

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The film is set somewhere in 1983’s Northern Italy (it’s stated that way in the film and not due to my lack of research) and we follow Elio (Timothee Chalamet), a 17-year old boy who’s enjoying the Italian summer with his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar).

His father is a professor of archaeology and in every summer, he invites a student over for the summer to help out with his academic paperwork. This summer, he invites an American student, Oliver (Armie Hammer).

Elio, who’s a bit of an introvert due to his fascination with literature, doesn’t really click with Oliver due to his outgoing personality, but over a short amount of time, the two begin to have a growing desire for one another that will change their lives forever.

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Does the film live up to its immense hype? Well, firstly, let me get down to the problems of the film just to get things moving. The film can be a bit overlong and…well…that’s basically it really, because overall, Call Me By Your Name is one of the best films of the year.

One of the main reasons why it succeeds with flying colours is because of Luca Guadagnino‘s unpretentious direction of the small story. Sure, the story may be about a romance that involves homosexuality, but it is exactly that. There are no prejudices, no conflicts arising from said element; it is simply a love story and the filmmakers treat it just so.

The story is incredibly universal with its themes of first love, hidden sexual desires and coming-of-age elements and yet what Guagadnino has come up with has so much passion, so much feeling and so much heart, it makes the film much more eventful and fruitful than it really is.

What always makes first love so memorable are the sights and sounds that accompany it and in Call Me By Your Name, these are very notable indeed. The cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (famous for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and the upcoming Suspiria remake, also directed by Guagadnino) and shot compositions convey the small moments that stick; shots that linger on fruits, people and beautiful summer landscapes that make you almost feel like you’re being a voyeur, spying on these characters.

The blocking in many scenes (i.e. a scene where Elio and Oliver walk around a fountain) convey the development of the relationship perfectly, showing the distance and eventually closeness between the two characters.

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Then there’s the sound design, which consists of buzzing insects, the breeze of the winds and even the sound of a peach being squeezed, it makes the small story feel like it’s brimming with fire and immerses you in with ease. And there’s of course, the soundtrack. All love stories have musical choices that one would remember with fondness and Call Me By Your Name has a couple of doozies. Although I do not want to spoil what songs they are, any film that has a song that featured in the dance film Flashdance gets a thumbs up from me.

The camera also lingers on the two leads as if they are the Greco-Roman statues that are being studied in the film, but unlike the statues, these are full-bodied characters and the film never lets you forget it. And while the interactions between the two never become prurient or salacious, it’s the chemistry between the two actors that make the film and bring it to life.

Armie Hammer has never been more charismatic and alluring here; playing Oliver as an charismatic and confident character who gradually reveals layers under the bravado. Whether he is owning the floor with his unruly dancing or impressing the adults with his American banter, it’s pretty easy to see why the attraction is there.

But really, the film truly belongs to Timothee Chalamet. He plays Elio as pure of heart, even when he is saddled with his naive perceptions on lust and adulthood, his actions ring genuine and true and Chalamet brings a nuanced and convincing portrayal of that. He never hides his feelings about Oliver, but when he tries to hide under a facade of denial, Chalamet hits the mark with his physical acting chops. There is a scene with just him involving a peach that conveys so much of the insecurities and contradictions of the character, that it is both beautiful, enthralling and slightly terrifying.

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And while the supporting cast do well with their parts (including Esther Garrell as Marzia, who brings a timid innocence to her breezy character), the big standout is Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s intelligent and supportive father. In a five-minute scene in the third act, he basically steals the entire film with a monologue that shows love, compassion, understanding and regret all at once, and Stuhlbarg completely nails it.

Overall, Call Me By Your Name is a masterfully told story about first love, hidden sexual desire and coming-of-age experiences with great performances, immersive production values and nuanced direction that will surely dazzle the eyes, enchant your ears and warm your heart.

Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the leads (especially Timothee Chalamet)

Guagadnino’s great direction elicits passion and sensitivity

Supporting cast make the most out of their parts

Production values back up Guagadnino’s vision

CONS

A bit too long

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: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Elena Bucci, Marco Sgrosso
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriters: James Ivory, Luca Guadagnino, Walter Fasano