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

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Movie Review – IT (2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that will live up to the vast potential of the novel.

REVIEW: In the early ages of youth in a person’s life, there is always that one scary story, whether it’s told in a form of a book, a tale or a film, that will inherently scar a person for life when one witnesses it. And in my case (as well as many), that is the story of Stephen King‘s IT.

There’s just something eerily demonic about the presence of a clown in the eyes of a child. Whether its the surrealism of the world the clown is originated from or the twisted view of how a clown needs the presence of children to technically survive, King twisted that point of view and made it into a wonderfully demented horror story as well as an exploration of fears of the youth.

After the novel, we had the 1990’s mini-series, which was questionably successful (as are most Stephen King film adaptations) as a film, but one thing is for certain. And that was Tim Curry as Pennywise, the dancing clown. His performance and his combination of menace and sadistic humour still haunts people to this day.

So when I heard that Hollywood was planning to adapt the Stephen King novel, I was excited. Especially when Cary Fukanaga (director of Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre, Beasts of No Nation and the first season of True Detective) was named as the director of the film(s) and Will Poulter (Son of Rambow and the upcoming Detroit) as Pennywise. But my expectations turned quite sour when the two left the project due to creative differences/scheduling conflicts.

And now we have Andy Muschietti, the director of Mama, a good horror film that was more touching than terrifying. And with a cast of new young talent as the kids of The Losers Club and Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, the film kicked into gear. Will the film live up to the source material and scare the wits out of everyone? Or will it fall flat like a low-budget practical effect of a giant spider?

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The film starts off with a kid, who is playing with a paper boat out in rainy weather and then it suddenly falls in a sewer drain. As the kid tries to retrieve the boat, the sinister and demonic clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) appears and allures him with sadistically amusing chit-chat until he lays his jaws on him.

This sets off the events for The Losers Club, a group of young social misfits, who decide to fight the demonic clown to prevent children from being abducted. The club consists of Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), the leader of the group who has a stutter and has never gotten over the fact that his younger brother had disappeared; Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a knowledgeable boy with an inkling for New Kids on the Block and is being bullied for being overweight; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the lone female member of the club who is struggling through poverty as well as harbouring a dark secret involving her father; Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), the joker, bigmouth and attention seeker of the club; Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), the religious kid of the club, who has problems with being left alone; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), the hypochondriac of the club who could have been kept hermetically sealed in his home if his mother had gotten her way and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), the last member to join the club, who is home-schooled and has problems with finding his place in the world.

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The opening scene of the film is basically a litmus test of whether you’ll like the film or not. If violence towards young children on-screen puts you off in a big way, then stay away from this film because the predicaments that they go through are quite harrowing stuff, especially ones that do NOT involve Pennywise. Scenes of bullying, domestic abuse, potential rape are there and the film does not hold back on those elements.

Ironically enough, the scares involving the fantasy and Pennywise are sometimes incredibly overstated that they would scare one into laughter. Whether that is seen as a bad thing is entirely up to one’s perspective, but since Pennywise is a clown, it ends up being incredibly fitting.

If you can stomach the violence, then you will be able to experience the fun, nostalgic, bonkers experience that is IT, which most importantly captures the spirit of the novel. Director Andy Muschietti captures the 90’s setting really well, without resorting to excessive use of period music or fashion, but more on filmmaking techniques thanks to acclaimed Korean cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and composer Benjamin Wallfisch, who both capture the nostalgia, the wholesomeness and the horrific feel of the story. Even the font of the opening credits feels like they would be used in films of the 90’s.

The film is quite faithful to the novel but it does tone down the rough edges as well as the controversial moments i.e. the sex scene involving minors in the climax. Characters are also changed slightly to positive effect i.e. Richie Tozier no longer makes jokes that involve racial epithets and caricatures.

But let’s get down to the real question that needs to be answered. Is the film scary? For the most part, yes. Muschietti executes the scares quite well, as he uses practical effects (including extensive make-up effects by Amalgamated Dynamics) to create some horrific imagery like the leper, the creature from the painting and of course, Pennywise himself. But the scares are sometimes hindered by wobbly CGI, but it can be easily overlooked, since the rest of the production values are ironclad.

The film does resort to jump scares but Muschietti never overuses that technique and the noises are always accompanied by something that would make such noises, unlike inferior horror films which would have scenes where loud noises were obviously put in place during post-production.

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And like most great horror films, the scares only truly work if the audience cares about the characters and the young ensemble cast are all fantastic in their roles. So much so, that this may be the best ensemble cast of 2017. Everyone is just on point that the upcoming chapter would have a lot to live up to in order to cast the adult roles of these characters.

Bill Skarsgard lives up to the family name and provides a great performance as Pennywise, although he is sometimes overshadowed by the effects utilized to create the terrifying effect of the character. But when he makes his physical presence felt, he makes a positive impression. It certainly helps that he stands at 6’4!

Jaeden Lieberher (who resembles a young Ben Foster) is committed as Bill, as he portrays the guilt and determination of the character really well. Sophia Lillis (who resembles a young Amy Adams, *hint hint*) is fantastic as Beverly, as she portrays the allure, the suffering and the determination of the character convincingly. The scenes involving her character and her father are truly intense and she handles it like a pro.

Finn Wolfhard (famous for the Netflix show Stranger Things) is a hoot as Richie, as he handles the profanity, innuendos and quips with class and thankfully, great timing. The rest of the cast are all up to their level like Jack Dylan Grazer as the amusingly panicky Eddie and Jeremy Ray Taylor as the shy yet lovable Ben, who has fantastic interactions with Lillis. Special mention must go to Australian actor Nicholas Hamilton, who plays the bully Henry Bowers, as Hamilton portrays the role with such conviction that it becomes easy to see him as psychotic and not histrionic.

As much as good IT is, there are some problems and it is mainly due to the condensing of the source material. Some of the events of the novel are cut down and lose their effect in the process like the character development of Mike, which is quite rushed, as well as the character development of Bowers, who becomes increasingly terrifying a little bit too quick.

Also, the tone of the film does shift haphazardly, whether going for fantasy to reality or going for something lighthearted to sadistic. In one particular scene, there is a scene of bullying at first, then it changes to something more fun due to a certain choice of music and it ends up being quite jarring and off-putting. And at 135 minutes, the film does run a bit too long and it easily could’ve trimmed some scenes to make it an even 120 minute run-time.

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But overall, IT succeeds as an incredibly fun film that provides ample scares, exemplary cinematography and music by Chung Chung-hoon and Benjamin Wallfisch, a genuine love for Stephen King‘s source material and of course, a fantastic cast of young talented performances that surely will go far in their careers. Don’t float! Run to see IT!

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic acting from the ensemble cast

Stellar cinematography and music that captures the wholesome feel of the 90’s

Ample amount of scares that elicit both fun and terror

Very faithful to the novel

CONS

Overlong running time

Abrupt tone shifts

Condensing of the source material result in story hiccups

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: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukanaga and Gary Dauberman

Movie Review – Girls Trip

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EXPECTATIONS: Some girls, some tripping (in more ways than one) and some fun.

REVIEW: Director Malcolm D. Lee is a filmmaker whose work has been quite the mixed bag. While he has good pieces of work like the action/comedy cult hit Undercover Brother, The Best Man films and the incredibly underseen coming-of-age film Roll Bounce, he also has terrible pieces of work (which is one way to put it) like Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (one of many examples that made me almost hate Martin Lawrence) and Scary Movie 5 of all things (a perfect example of kicking a corpse and setting it on fire).

And now we have his latest work, Girls Trip, which has a very talented supporting cast who have done wonderful work, although I have no familiarity of seeing any of Tiffany Haddish‘s work before this, and an incredibly simple premise with tons of comedic possibilities. Is this film worth the trip or is it better to stay home and be tripping?

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The film follows the story of four lifelong friends (known as the Flossy Posse) as they go to a getaway to New Orleans for the Essence Music Festival. First, we have Regina Hall, who stars as Regina Pierce, a famous self-help author with the perfect marriage, the perfect career and the perfect life. In the public eye, anyway. She decides to fix the dying friendship and invites the other three on a girls trip.

Then we have Queen Latifah, who stars as Sasha Franklin, a journalist who currently manages her own blog, which focuses on dishing out dirt on celebrities. And we have Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays Lisa Cooper, a nurse/single mother whose life with her two children while living with her mother is probably more sterile than the workplace she works in.

And last but definitely not least, we have Tiffany Haddish, an office worker who recently got fired (in one of the film’s best scenes) but she happens to be a very committed purveyor in the horizontal and vertical refreshment industry. As well as a healthy connoisseur in the art of fine alcohol. Or in this case, 200 year-old absinthe.

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So basically the story is a bunch of people go on a trip to party and hijinks ensue. There is a plot involved in there but to be honest, it is quite inconsequential and perfunctory. Like most comedies, the laughs (if any) just plummet when the plot is involved so there really is no point. What matters is whether the film is funny or not? So is it?

Girls Trip is an R-rated raunchy comedy done right and it is thanks to the clever script by Erica Rivinoja, Kenya Barris (creator of TV series Black-ish) and Tracy Oliver and of course the outstanding leads. There are plenty of R-rated comedies such as this out there but most of these are done wrong due to three essential arms: characters we can relate to, cast chemistry and a strong script.

Two examples that get it wrong are The Hangover, the film that apparently started this whole ensemble partying thing and is grossly overrated; and this year’s similarly themed Rough Night. In the case of The Hangover, I found it very unfunny because I didn’t have any engagement with the characters and it just came off as annoying.

In the case of Rough Night, that film failed to be engaging not because the characters were not relatable but the chemistry between the four leads were not only non-existent but it is almost as if they have never met before.

The script for Girls Trip is jam-packed with great moments. To name some, it includes the scariest “shower” scene since Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho; the laugh-out-loud treatment (or straight-up abuse) of fruits and certain meats that would make men repeatedly cross their legs and of course a nightclub scene where the film’s title takes on more than one definition. It also features the best “human kebab” since Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. It is at that moment where I thought I’m glad that this movie wasn’t in 3D.

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But to bring all that wondrously dirty humour to life, we have to, once again, relate to the characters. The four leads are all fantastic in their roles and if it weren’t for them, the film would’ve sunk dearly. They all share great chemistry and the script gives them characterizations and enough moments for them to shine.

Regina Hall, who has proven to be a capable comedian thanks to the Scary Movie entries (satirizing the ghetto role with ease, except in the last one), gives her best performance as Ryan, since her character has a conflict of whether to stand up for herself at the risk of her career and the reputation she has worked so hard for. While her character is seen to be the “straight and responsible” role of the film, thankfully the role never restricts her from having fun and reminds everyone why she was such a hoot in the first place.

Queen Latifah is reliably sticking to her character type as Sasha, as she plays her character as headstrong, with an almost no-nonsense attitude towards the falsities of life (Sorry, this is a family site). It is the pairing of Latifah and Hall that grounds the film and lends it heart so that the plot kicks in, while the laughter dies down a bit, at least it is in support of the characters, which is what the audience should stay and root for.

Jada Pinkett Smith is thankfully against type (well, at least compared to her entertainingly vamp and icy role in the TV series, Gotham) as the socially repressed Lisa, whose fiery reputation in the past seemed to be behind her. But fortunately, she ends up putting her behind on her past as her reputation ends up being reignited as she goes on the trip to look for a fling. The scenes where she tries to get back in the game, so to speak, are hilarious since her character is more on a mothering level, rather than a smothering level (in more ways than one) as her friends what her to be.

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And now we have the wild card (in more ways than one), Tiffany Haddish. She is given the lion’s share (or lioness, in this case) of the vulgar humour and she is completely fearless and handles it like a pro. Many of her antics will remain in one’s head for a very long time and when it comes out on home video, her antics will live on in history as animated gifs in social media forever. This is the role for Haddish that is surely to break her out into the spotlight. Thankfully not in more ways than one.

The supporting cast are all fine in their roles. Kate Walsh is very amusing as the token white woman (Yes, I went there); TV show Luke Cage‘s Mike Coulter comes off looking solid (in more ways than one) as the nth-timing husband of Ryan; Larenz Tate is blandly likable as the old college friend whom Ryan has an inkling for and Kofi Siriboe is a good sport as Malik, the man with the third “arm” that Lisa has an inkling for. Malik, I mean, not the arm. I think.

We also get cameos from music artists like Diddy, Common, Mariah Carey as well as filmmaker Ava DuVernay, singer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and actor Morris Chestnut. There’s even an amusing cameo from Mike Epps as a street hawker.

The film isn’t without bumps on the way, as it does run a bit too long (more than two hours) and the script could afford to be more creative or subversive with its comedic tropes, like the antagonist character Simone (Deborah Ayorinde), who is played out in a boring and predictably safe fashion.

The film also switches from well-executed raunchiness to moments of drama involving friendship conflicts and a climax that involves female empowerment and knowing your own self-worth, but the transitions aren’t always well-executed.

But those flaws can be easily brushed off (or in this case, danced off) as Girls Trip is a film that is a hilarious time at the movies thanks to the energetically raunchy script, the wonderful cast and the dynamite chemistry; the latter being the longest arm, I mean, the strongest arm of all. In more ways than– Okay, I’ll stop now.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The four leads have a winning chemistry and all give hilarious performances

The four leads are personable, relatable enough for us to root for

Many moments of inspired raunchiness

CONS

Overlong running time

Plot overrides humour

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: Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Larenz Tate, Mike Colter, Kate Walsh, Kofi Siriboe, Deborah Ayorinde
Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Screenwriters: Erica Rivinoja, Kenya Barris, Tracy Oliver

Movie Review – Death Note (2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something not resembling a trainwreck.

REVIEW: Whitewashing! Americanized! Lack of ethnicity! Yeah, I’m gonna talk about that in much detail, just to make that clear. Anyway, a lot of negative buzz has been going around this project due the things mentioned above and it definitely is a valid argument since the source material is distinctly Japanese. So to retroactively set the story in another location would potentially leave a lot of things lost in translation, so to speak.

To give some hints about my prior expectations about this new film, I have never seen the anime nor read the manga, but I have seen the Japanese live-action films and I thought they were tedious and dull, due to massive amounts of exposition and shoddy filmmaking that makes it look like a television show, rather than an actual film. So, there really isn’t a high bar to reach here.

Another hint, I like Adam Wingard‘s work. From the well-made slasher flick You’re Next to the stylish neo-noir thriller The Guest and the proficient sequel Blair Witch, he does good work. When I heard his name was attached to this film, I had a glimmer of hope that this film would actually be quite good. Does the film stand out or does it deserve to be written in and taken out of circulation?

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Death Note follows Max Landis a high school student, Light Turner (Nat Wolff) who comes across a supernatural notebook, realizing it holds within it a great power; if the owner writes someone’s name into it while picturing their face, he or she will die.

Feeling a sense of purpose with his life and driven by his anger due to an unjustly death in the family, thanks to his new godlike abilities, Light begins to kill those he deems to be unworthy of living. As the long number of kills gets ever higher, it draws the attention of “L” (Lakeith Stanfield), a enigmatic detective, hot on his trail.

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My opinion on Death Note? Surprisingly enjoyable in parts, but for all the wrong reasons. With all the mythology that the source material has, the film just blitzes through it, rendering the film emotionally inert and amusingly ironic, since the Japanese counterparts suffer from too much exposition. You just don’t really care for any of these characters and when you are meant to, the film just turns into an unintentional comedy.

Wingard, who has used great soundtracks with his previous films has lost it here, executing scenes (in more ways than one) that are meant to be emotionally involving just got shrieks of laughter out of me. The film still looks great like Wingard’s prior films, thanks to cinematographer David Tattersall, but the style is all for naught. One change from the source material involves the executions of the death scenes. In the 2017 film, the keeper can write how people can die and it leads some surprisingly gory denouements.

But the problem is, the deaths are so overstated and serious, that it again becomes hilarious. The deaths are very similar to the Final Destination films but the tone of them all are similar to the deaths in The Happening. And no, that is not worthy of praise.

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Also not worthy of much praise is the performances. Nat Wolff, who was fine in The Fault in Our Stars, is just awful here as Light Turner. Most of the time, he can’t live up to his character’s name and becomes dim but when the dramatic stakes are up, he goes for hysterical shrieking that made me laugh uproariously. Seriously, his shrieking makes Shia LaBeouf‘s shrieking in the Transformers films look thespian.

As for L, Lakeith Stanfield is fine in the role, although when the going gets tough, he is meant to play the character with fiery anger, but he comes across as annoyingly petulant, ruining the mystery and enigmatic feel of the character. Margaret Qualley does the best she can with the character of Maya Sutton, but her backstory is literally stated as being a cheerleader, not giving her anything to work with than just being a love interest, and when her gradual character change is revealed, it becomes hard to buy since we never really know her motivations.

The supporting cast are all okay, but nothing worthy of praise like Shea Whigham as Light’s father and Paul Nakauchi as Watari, L’s assistant. But the real (and only) standout is Willem Dafoe as Ryuk. He lends a lot of creepiness to the part as well as some much-needed sadistic sense of humour. But I wished they didn’t do the motion-capture route and just did some light touches of make-up on him. He looks like Ryuk already!

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So that’s the American incarnation of Death Note folks. It’s good for a couple of unintended laughs, all sealed up in a candy wrapper. There’s nothing here worth getting angry about, nor is there anything worthy of praise; the resulting film is more of a footnote than a Death Note.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Some unintentional laughs from the acting and stylistic cues

Willem Dafoe as Ryuk

CONS

Tonally misguided

Awful acting, especially from Nat Wolff

Incredibly rushed storytelling

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: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles, Willem Dafoe
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriters: Charley Parlapanides & Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater, based on the manga by Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata in Shonen Jump

Movie Review – Wolf Warrior 2

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EXPECTATIONS: A jingoistic and entertaining piece of garbage.

REVIEW: Chinese action star Wu Jing is an actor that I have been following for quite a surprisingly long time. Ever since he was appeared in Tai Chi Boxer, a low-budget martial arts film, he has shown his martial arts skills, but never really standing out from the crowd. It was only until SPL, where he played a formidable and sadistic henchman and fought against Donnie Yen, that was when he was recognized worldwide.

Since then, he has appeared in more movies, playing more villains like in Invisible Target and Fatal Move, and also playing more heroes with ample charisma like in Twins Mission and City Under Siege. It was after all the action roles, he gained an interest in directing, which he achieved in his directorial debut, Legendary Assassin, which was a passable action film that drowned in its self-importance and excessive wirework.

He then tried again with Wolf Warrior, a solo-directorial debut about the Chinese Army fighting against foreign mercenaries. The film was ripe with B-movie goodness, but it never harnessed it due to its low budget, shoddy film-making and excessive (if amusing) flag-waving, leaving the film to be a disappointment.

Now, we have Wu Jing returning to the director’s chair with Wolf Warrior 2, a country-trekking sequel with a bigger budget and input from the makers of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, including the same stunt people and even Frank Grillo. Will the film be a marked improvement over the sloppy original or will it end up being a disaster for all involved?

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After the events of Wolf Warrior, Leng Feng (Wu Jing) returns to his hometown, but he doesn’t get the welcome committee he expected and due to a conflict (among many in the film) he gets sent to prison and expelled from the Chinese Special Forces.

And faster than you can say “Chinese Rambo“, he goes into exile in Africa, drowning in gallons of alcohol and pining over the death of his superior officer/love interest Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan, in a cameo).

But the peace is interrupted when an uprising occurs and he must retreat to a Chinese destroyer, which strictly evacuates Chinese civilians. But when he overhears guards talking about needing someone to rescue workers at a factory and an important doctor who knows the vaccination for Lamanla (Yes, that’s actually what it’s called), Leng Feng volunteers.

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To be perfectly blunt, no one watches these types of films for the plot; people want to see these films for the action and the momentum that can carry the audience to see more action. And thankfully, Wolf Warrior 2 is a huge improvement over the original in that regard.

Utilizing long takes, a bigger budget and vast locations, Wu really went all out with the fight scenes, which are brutal and hard-hitting; the car chases, which involve driving through a village and a tank battle; and the gun battles which crash, bang and wallop as they should. Action scenes involving drones and an uprising are the standouts in the film, as well as the final fight scene between Wu and Grillo, which is an improvement over the underwhelming climactic fight in the original film involving Wu and Adkins. The opening action scene involves a fight underwater and it is both ridiculous, thrilling and very reminiscent of the climactic fight scene in the Jackie Chan film, First Strike.

There are also many unintentionally hilarious moments which suits its throwback B-movie tone. Scenes with absolutely no care about logic, storytelling or even basic human decency. Like the use of a piece of glass used to kill many people, how Leng stops a rocket in a way that has to be seen to be believed, incredibly offensive portrayal of Africans to the point that it ends up being moronically laughable eg. when an African mother throws an elbow drop on a soldier that would make Dwayne Johnson cringe; and the flag-waving (which isn’t as much as the original) that is taken to its logical conclusion where Wu literally fashions himself as a flagpole to wave the China flag, there is plenty of things to laugh at, and definitely not to laugh with. It is the sheer ineptitude that makes all these moments funny.

But here’s the thing: we’re not living in the 80’s and early 90’s anymore and nowadays, the many things in Wolf Warrior 2 that would have been expected back in the past, would be strongly frowned upon today and rightfully so. The killings of the African people in particular are incredibly excessive to the point of being mean-spirited; some of the portrayals are quite racist and embarrassing (like the elbow drop) and like many of the China-market films (eg. Operation Mekong and The White Storm), China steps into foreign territory to solve something without any assistance from home authorities. Basically, it’s them saying “Get the hell out of our way, we’ll take it from here!”. Some of these criticisms can be overlooked, but there will be people out there who will be offended, if not outraged.

Speaking of outrage, for those who are gung-ho on plot and filmmaking as well as the action, will be laughing at how the story is told. There are numerous plot holes (How does Leng know where the hostages are when he crashes through a building with an SUV?) and contrivances (A character gets cured of a virus overnight), incredibly bad dialogue (A henchman actually cries angrily about manners peoples’ mothers should be teaching) and lapses in basic logic (Injuries heal as soon as they’re inflicted).

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And the performances is just as haphazard as the storytelling. Wu Jing as Leng Feng is a solid leading man, who clearly knows his action and has great presence on screen. It’s a vanity project of his as his character is seen as the saviour of everyone on the bloody planet, but does more than enough in the role.

Regarding the supporting cast, that’s where the acting drops down a notch. Celina Jade, who is famous for the TV series Arrow, works with Wu Jing for the second time after Legendary Assassin is likable and charming in her role as Dr. Rachel Smith, even if she isn’t much of an actress. Frank Grillo, in his limited screentime, exudes some much-needed menace while Wu Gang is quite good as the veteran soldier who aids Leng Feng.

As for Hans Zhang, when I was sitting in a packed theater, when he first appeared on-screen, the audience went hysterical, laughing derisively at his presence. Thankfully, his character is meant to look and act foolish, since he is a fuerdai (meaning rich second generation) and a fanboy of the PLA. But through Zhang’s performance, he comes off as annoying and really should have been killed off. Other performances go from wooden (most of the African actors and henchmen) to downright laughable like Oleg Prudius, who is a hoot as the moody Bear and Ding Haifeng, who shouts an order that made me laugh out loud!

Overall, Wolf Warrior 2 is a marked improvement over its predecessor that provides the requisite thrills and action that one would definitely look for. But its sheer moral ineptitude combined with its throwback B-movie tone makes it one of the most unintentionally hilarious films of the year. Or it could outrage and offend many because of it. You be the judge.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great action scenes

Plenty of unintentionally hilarious moments

Wu Jing is a great action star

CONS

Moral ineptitude involving racism and propaganda

Shoddy storytelling

Laughable acting

SCORE: 7.5/10

Cast: Wu Jing, Frank Grillo, Celina Jade, Wu Gang, Hans Zhang, Ding Haifeng, Chunyu Shanshan
Director: Wu Jing
Screenwriters: Wu Jing, Dong Qun, Liu Yi

Movie Review – Meow

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that will surprise me, like Stephen Chow’s CJ7.

REVIEW: Benny Chan is known as one of Hong Kong’s most commercially successful directors. With huge classic hits like A Moment of Romance and Big Bullet to his recent blockbusters like The White Storm and Shaolin, he is quite dependable to rely on for action spectacle.

But when Chan branches out to different genres, that is when his films go from decent to disastrous. One of the examples is the sequel to Gen-X Cops, Gen-Y Cops, a film so bad that it made the original look like The Wild Bunch. Filled with abysmal acting, ridiculous events strewn together to resemble a plot and a script that makes Paul Rudd (yes, that Paul Rudd) say the most awful lines (some even in Cantonese!).

Another example is the sci-fi/fantasy flick City Under Siege, which was considered to be Hong Kong’s answer to X-Men, but it turned out to be a disaster, with the expected terrible script, awful acting and unintentionally hilarious make-up effects that would make the Toxic Avenger look like an art installation.

But the two films have one essential factor in common that made them entertaining, despite the terrible quality of each of them: they were both unintentionally funny. They were never comedies, but the films were such disastrous examples of filmmaking, that they might as well have been classified as one.

So when I heard that Chan was making a family comedy about alien cats invading planet Earth, I was both equally appalled and intrigued. Appalled at the fact that Benny Chan would direct such a thing that Wong Jing would shill out any day of the week and intrigued at the fact it could be an enjoyable disaster like the other two entries.

But one thing is for sure: it helps to have an open mind. Does Meow live up to my expectations or even exceed them to become an enjoyable surprise like Stephen Chow’s CJ7? Or will it crash-land and burn up before it even starts the opening credits?

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In the distant corners of the universe, a planet of cats known as Meow exists where its creatures are more civilized than Earthlings. Thousands of years ago, the king of Meow has been sending messengers to planet Earth, hoping to prepare for an invasion. However, over the years, every messenger sent to Earth never returned, which forced the king to put aside his plans.

In the present day, the king decides to re-ignite his plan and selects the bravest and mightiest warrior of Meow, Pudding, as a vanguard to Earth. However, during the journey, Pudding loses a divine Meow device that can resist the particles of Earth and loses his divine powers.

As a result, the lean-built Pudding becomes a giant fat cat Xilili (due to a contrived reason). It is then adopted by a family, which consists of Go-Lee Wu (Louis Koo), his wife (Ma Li), their elder son (Andy Wong) and younger daughter (Jessica Liu). Xilili has no choice but to hide in the Wu household before finding his device to invade Earth.

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Most people have written articles, which say films that consist of pervasive violence and adult content can turn people into psychopaths. To them I say, nay, because it is films like Meow that can turn people into psychopaths. Apart from Kung Fu Yoga (which I thought would never be surpassed as the worst film I have seen so far this year), watching Meow was one of the most insufferable and emotionally harrowing experiences I have ever been through.

To think that most of Benny Chan’s films have unintentionally funny moments in his serious films, it would be feasible to think he would be good at comedy. But in the case of Meow, it shows that he does not have a comedic bone in his body whatsoever. The script is so incredibly stupid and mindbogglingly misguided, that even infants would be insulted.

Who in poo-perfect hell thought that a scene where an alien cat plans to murder a family with a kitchen knife, would be suitable for family entertainment? The only time the film was inching close to laughter is during the dramatic scenes. Like during a scene where one of the main characters trips over, I laughed wholeheartedly. But even with those moments, it was not enough to compensate for the rest.

During the film, I thought to myself, what was going through the minds of Louis Koo and Benny Chan that they would be involved in this film, But alas, it was said in a behind-the-scenes feature that it was Louis Koo’s idea to make a film about cats, due to the fact that he does advertisements for a health and beauty franchise (Mannings) that has a cat as a mascot. And it was Chan’s idea to make it into a feature film about cats in space. If that’s the case, then Louis Koo should get double the blame for his contribution of the cinematic equivalent of ultraviolent dysentery.

In order to find comedies funny, you have to have some sort of engagement with the characters. Clearly, no one involved in the film knew that since the actors in the film all probably thought that to get laughs out of the script is to deliver the lines as loud as humanly possible. And boy, it is like a bunch of needles piercing through your ears and into your brain.

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Louis Koo overacts miserably as Go-Lee Wu (He plays a goalie! Get it?), as he suffers through fart jokes (some literally in his face), pratfalls and lots and lots of screaming. Ma Li (or Mary Ma, as she is credited) loses all of her comedic chops from her prior films like Goodbye Mr. Loser, as she is stuck playing an unlikable harpy while the supporting cast all overact like loonies, that I actually sided with the cat wanting to kill the family. They are all that insufferable to watch.

The only actor in the film that is somewhat tolerable is Michelle Wai. Wai is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated actress in HK, as she has always displayed stellar work, even in the smallest of roles eg. her drug addict role in Insanity. In the case of Meow, she does fine in an unfairly written role as a school teacher and she almost goes out of the film unscathed. She almost acts like a normal human being to the point that I yelled at the screen, pleading her to take me away from the loonies! And yet when the film reaches the end credits, she overacts like all the other loonies. So close.

There are a lot more things to say about Meow, like the xenophobic moments (one character that is meant to be a portrayal of a Thai person is shockingly racist AND homophobic), the ham-fisted approach in conveying a lesson to the audience that filial love trumps all, plot holes (like how does the family afford all the cat food and supplies if they are struggling financially due to Go-Lee Wu being in massive debt?) and even lapses in basic logic (Cats don’t even land on their feet in this film!), but it’s just not worth it.

When parents teach children how to behave themselves, there are some lessons that are taught, which are already known, without prior education. Like how one should not run with scissors or one should not talk to strangers. And now the lesson of not watching Meow should be one of those lessons. Meow is an atrocious piece of garbage and everyone involved in this film should be thoroughly ashamed.

Quickie Review

PROS

You’re kidding me, right?

CONS

**doing a Gary Oldman impression** EVERYTHING!!!

SCORE: 0/10

Cast: Louis Koo, Ma Li, Jessica Liu, Andy Wong, Michelle Wai, Louis Yuen, Grasshopper, Lo Hoi-pang, Lam Chi-chung
Director: Benny Chan
Screenwriters: Chan Hing-ka, Ho Miu-kei, Poon Chun-lam

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

Movie Review – Aroused by Gymnopedies (NYAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something more poignant and sombre than the usual Roman Porno.

REVIEW: Now we are off to the third entry of the Roman Porno Reboot. Previous entries seen by myself were Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno, which was a surreal, daring and transcendent surprise; and Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind, which was a hilarious and traditional entry.

And now we have Aroused by Gymnopedies, directed by Isao Yukisada. Yukisada is well-known for his soulful dramatic works like the blockbuster romance Crying Out Love in the Center of the World and queer drama Pink and Gray; and coming-of-age films like Parade and Go!

So when you apply his filmmaking chops to a project such as this, it does sound like it could result in a typical Roman Porno entry. But this is not back in the 70’s and 80’s anymore. We are in the 10’s now and political correctness (whether people like it or not) is in front and center. Considering the above, will Aroused by Gymnopedies be both a good film as well as a representative entry of the Roman Porno Reboot?

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The film follows Shinji (Itsuji Itao), a once-celebrated filmmaker whose reputation was once sterling until his star came crashing down to the point where he ends up making quickie porno films. But when Anri (Izumi Okamura), his lead actress quits, the production stalls indefinitely and Shinji wanders from one supposedly misjudged sexual encounter to the next, pleading for money along the way to get his life back on track.

His actions border on repulsive, sleeping with students, nurses, even his leading actress, for any sign of relief or denial of his current existence. And just when he cannot sink any lower, he relies on his ex-wife to prostitute herself for money to lend to him. But is the money really for the stalled film project, or is it for something else?

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First off, the synopsis does make the film seem as sleazy as one would expect. But Yukisada and his screenwriter, Anne Horizumi, aim for more of a sensitive and sombre tone and for a long while, the tone does seem to be quite jarring in comparison to the prurient feel of the film. Particularly when the piano piece(s) by Erik Satie (referenced in the title) plays over the sex scenes.

But when the film gradually reaches into the final act, Yukisada’s sensitive direction makes perfect sense to what preceded it and the music hits hard thematically and emotionally in the film’s conclusion by becoming an ode to love and loneliness.

The jarring feel also applies to the lead character. Played brilliantly by Itsuji Itao (who’s known for comedic roles), the majority of the audience will be repulsed by him. But Yukisada and Horizumi gradually hint the audience with much-needed backstory, making the audience question what they just witnessed. Without attempting to excuse or change the lead character, Yukisada and Horizumi manage to make Shinji empathetic (if not sympathetic), despite his heartless actions.

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If the film does seem to be a bit of a depressing slog, Yukisada and Horizumi thankfully sprinkle much-needed humour to the proceedings, which includes a setpiece involving a film retrospective gone wrong, that involves the majority of the characters in conflict with each other. The musical score, which comprises of jazz, is a complete and pleasing throwback to the classic examples of the genre, and it adds comic zing.

The female characters, all well-acted by the actresses (particularly Sumire Ashina as rich student, Yuka), are all surprisingly independent and self-sufficient, when compared to the counterparts of the 70’s and 80’s Roman Porno entries. Whether it is to reflect the times or it is the involvement of co-writer Anne Horizumi, it is a step in the right direction.

Case in point, during a climactic sex scene where it seems to involve Shinji, Yuka decides he is no longer needed. A scene like this would never happen back in the 70’s and 80’s, but the fact that it happened in this day of age, it is quite notable.

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As for its flaws, Shinji’s actions may be too repulsive one can take. And the deliberate pacing may be too slow for impatient viewers and those who are expecting exploitation and titillation will definitely come out disappointed.

Overall, Aroused by Gymnopedies is a strange, yet compelling mix of softcore sex and sensitive emotion, which pays off in a rewarding fashion for those who are patient enough for its unorthodox ambitions. Let’s hope the Roman Porno Reboot keeps it up with the remaining two entries, Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines and Hideo Nakata’s White Lily.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Itsuji Itao gives a great performance as the pitiable, repulsive lead

Yukisada’s direction and Horizuma’s screenwriting lend a certain poignancy that correlates with the prurience quite well

The musical score is entertaining in a throwback sort of way

The final act rewards greatly

CONS

The pacing may be too slow for impatient viewers

The lead character may be too unsympathetic for some

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Itsuji Itao, Sumire Ashina, Izumi Okamura, Yuki Tayama, Mayumi Tajima, Noriko Kijima, Sho Nishino
Director: Isao Yukisada
Screenwriters: Isao Yukisada, Anne Horizumi