Movie Review – Girl’s Blood

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EXPECTATIONS: A trashy, sexy and fun experience.

REVIEW: For those who want to get down to the nitty-gritty, here’s the basis of the story in the film, Girl’s Blood. It involves women kicking ass in cages, with ridiculously tragic backstories of most of the characters and a lesbian love story. Now for the kicker: this is all set and wrapped up in a backdrop of female empowerment.

Now I know what you’re thinking. A film with a story such as this could only possibly be seen as a trashy and prurient experience that would feel right at home back in the 1980’s. But this film came out in 2014 and it is actually based on a novel, written by Kazuki Sakuraba, the author who also wrote My Man, which was made into a critically acclaimed film of the same name, starring Fumi Nikaido and Tadanobu Asano.

So you would now expect the film to be more conservative. BUT, the screenwriter of Girl’s Blood is Takehiko Minato, who’s responsible for many pinku films such as Be My Slave, What’s Going On With My Sister, Flower and Snake: Zero and of course, Legend of Siren XXX. But he has also written the screenplay of Bitter Honey, which is basically an adult version of Ponyo.

Moreover, the film is directed by Koichi Sakamoto, who’s famous for directing tokusatsu series like Kamen Rider, Power Rangers and specializes in fight stunt-work. So potentially, we have a film that is directed by a former stuntman, which has a story that could have a tone of both equal prurience and puritanism (sort of), based on source material from a critically-acclaimed female author, written for the screen by a screenwriter who specializes in pinku films. Will this film be a trainwreck or will it somehow transcend its origins to be more than the sum of its parts?

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The story starts by introducing four of our main characters. The first one is Satsuki (Yuria Haga), a woman who has a sexual identity crisis. The other character is Miko (Ayame Misaki), who is a S&M queen who has a haunted backstory involving being estranged from her family. The third character is Mayu (Rina Koike), a young woman who has psychological problems due to her youthful image and lastly, Chinatsu (Asami Tada), a fighter who, through numerous attempts, tries to run away from her abusive husband (Hideo Sakaki).

All four women are competing in a cage fight tournament after a martial arts faction threatens to take over the territory of Girl’s Blood. But their differences make them more like foils rather than comrades.  To make matters worse is the fact that the faction is run none other by Chinatsu’s husband. Bonds will be made, minds will be tested, demons will be unleashed; will the women overcome all obstacles and win?

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First off, it is really quite a miracle to say that this type of story actually has a sizable budget and it shows. The production values, the cinematography, the music are all well-done. Special credit goes to the sound design, which is quite striking and adds to the brutality of the fight scenes.

And now the cast. All of the main actresses acquit themselves to their roles with such sincerity and straight-faced conviction, that they give the story a lot more credibility that it ever requires. Yuria Haga is convincingly tough and conflicted as Satsuki and it must be said that she deserves credit for her brave decision to go nude for her love scenes.

Ditto to Asami Tada, who plays Chinatsu as a interesting, enigmatic presence and is quite a good sport in the fight scenes. The chemistry between the two is subtly present as they make glances and eventually become intimate with each other. Ayame Misaki is very charismatic as Miko, as she certainly has a fun presence about her; while Rina Koike is cute, but almost to a fault. Few stand out of the supporting cast, including Misaki Momose (who stood out in Gothic Lolita Psycho) who again combines cuteness and sadism in an entertaining fashion.

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As for the men, they all go over-the-top to the point that bounces between cartoony and pantomime. Hideo Sakaki is beyond sickening (in a good way) as Chinatsu’s husband while Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi is a hoot as the manager of Girl’s Blood, whenever he shows up.

It’s a credit to the above that it is as stellar as it is, since the story is incredibly ridiculous, bizarre and blatantly empowering/exploitative to the female gender. The backstories of the characters are so outlandish (one of them is haunted by her past involving cosplay while another is haunted due to confinement and, ahem, spillage) that it is a minor miracle that the film manages to become mildly poignant and affecting in the final act.

And it is because that every aspect of the film plays it out as sincere as they can. The story is told completely straight, without a sense of irony or any amount of winking from the actors. It also helps that the characters have clear motives as to why they choose to fight in the ring and they all pay off in a satisfyingly cathartic fashion.

Or the film can be seen as the ridiculous story that it is and can be unintentionally laughable when it passes its plot points and backstories as a source of drama. Fittingly, that type of shoddiness is expected from the pinku genre, but it stands out more due to its sizable budget. Either way, entertainment is still entertainment.

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And best of all, the fight scenes. Director Koichi Sakamoto knows his way around filming action and the fights are well-choreographed and well-shot, considering the numerous stunt doubles on display. The approach to the fight scenes focuses more on brutality and grappling, rather than grace and fluidity, as the editing and sound design clearly dictate, and they are thrilling to watch.

And now with the flaws. With a running time that is close to two hours, the film is overlong and could use some trimming during the character moments. Also, as much as the film is sincere in its storytelling, the tone shifts can be quite abrupt at times i.e. a scene of brutal violence can lead up to a comedic scene involving BDSM.

Also, it is quite leery and exploitative, although it is expected from the genre it inhabits. We see the women participating in mud wrestling, cosplay, shower sessions, lesbian sex scenes, training montages, BDSM sessions, sex dreams and of course the congratulatory moments that involve the use of the garden hose. If the film had a pillow fight, it wouldn’t be out of place at all, to be honest. But despite all of that, the film never goes into vulgar territory, despite a scene of sexual violence that fortunately the filmmakers convey as just that: a sickening display.

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Overall, Girl’s Blood is a bizarre mix of prurient pinku tropes and conventions told in an ultra-sincere manner that somehow makes it better than it should have been. With committed performances, brutal fight scenes, fun exploitation and outlandish characters, the film certainly earns its reputation as a guilty pleasure.

Quickie Review

PROS

Committed performances from its female leads

Well-executed fight scenes

Ultra-sincere approach to its story is surprisingly cathartic

CONS

Quite exploitative

May engender unintentional laughs

Overlong running time

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yuria Haga, Asami Tada, Ayame Misaki, Rina Koike, Misaki Momose, Hideo Sasaki, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi
Director: Koichi Sakamoto
Screenwriters: Takehito Minato, based on the novel “Red x Pink” by Kazuki Sakuraba

Movie Review – Extraordinary Mission

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EXPECTATIONS: A jingoistic and eventually tiresome action film.

REVIEW: Director Alan Mak is perhaps well known as the co-director of the classic HK crime films, the Infernal Affairs series, but he can be a good director in his own right, with A War Named Desire as a shining example. But for the most part, he co-directs with other collaborators like Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs, Initial D), Felix Chong (Moonlight in Tokyo and the Overheard films).

But ever since the immensely crushing disappointment from Confession of Pain, his output has been up and down with the middling The Lost Bladesman, the Overheard sequels and The Silent War. But now, he has teamed up with cinematographer Anthony Pun, who makes his directorial debut, with Extraordinary Mission. From its previews, it looks like a throwback to 80’s action films starring Chuck Norris, but having Alan Mak could show that it’s aiming for a thriller vibe. Will the film live up to its boastful title or will it end up being a jingoistic and distasteful mess like Operation Mekong?

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Huang Xuan stars as Lin Kai, a cop who is enlisted by his superior, Li Jianguo (Xing Jiadong) to infiltrate a drug cartel, known as the Twin Eagles. In order to do his job, he befriends Eagle (Duan Yi Hong), a duplicitous and conniving man whose motivations seem to hint a lot more than just monetary gain.

Eagle also has a daughter, Qingshui (Lang Yueting) who also serves as his right-hand man, and she has reservations about Kai’s introduction into the cartel. But as time goes on, Kai’s operation starts to gradually spiral out of control when he becomes addicted to heroin, which unearths hidden demons from his past. And speaking of hidden demons, Jianguo also has some that could drive the operation amok and risk the life of Kai. Will Kai succeed on his mission?

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From glimpses of the trailer and posters, Extraordinary Mission looks very similar to Operation Mekong, an action film which also dealt with drug cartels and undercover missions AND was also based on a true story. But Operation Mekong was also unbearably jingoistic, incredibly distasteful and thin story-wise.

Thankfully, Extraordinary Mission is almost nothing like Mekong, as it has the hard-hitting action that audiences want, but it also has storytelling chops and superior acting that make it a much more substantial experience than one would expect.

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Firstly, the positives. The story may not stand out in terms of ingenuity, but it is well-told and Mak’s reliance on thrills, rather than action, makes a nice alternative approach with such a story. It also helps that Mak cares about his characters and his story, that he develops them efficiently and succinctly, without resorting to much jingoism (like Operation Mekong).

The cat-and-mouse games between Kai and Eagle makes for enjoyable viewing and adds a palpable tension that pays off in its insane climax, which contains some of the most insane stunts I’ve seen in recent years. All crisply captured with Pun as co-director/cinematographer, it must be said that cars should never be used in that type of way around humans. That’s all I’ll say on that matter.

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Another positive is the actors. While the cast are not known for their star-power, they all do very well with their archetypal roles. Huang Xuan is likable, charismatic and convincing in his action scenes as well as his dramatic scenes. In particular, the scene where his character goes through massive bouts from his heroin addiction, he never resorts to histrionics and that makes the scenes all the more powerful.

Duan Yi Hong is quite great as the villain, Eagle. Duan plays the role as surprisingly understated, considering the character’s reprehensible actions, but thankfully the script (by Felix Chong, co-writer of Infernal Affairs films; and film director) gives Eagle a backstory that makes the role more than just a moustache-twirling villain, imbuing him with surprising empathy.

Lang Yueting, whom I’ve enjoyed her performances in Office and Mountain Cry, makes the most out of her small role as Eagle’s daughter/henchman. She has very few lines of dialogue, but her subtle expressions make her stand out, making the most out of her underwritten role. The supporting cast all do well with their roles, but it is the three above that ensure credibility to the film.

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As for flaws, the story does follow a predictable path (with some twists), the drama may be a bit melodramatic (the musical score and contrived dramatic beats) and the overblown climax may take some out of the film, Extraordinary Mission is a solid thriller that lives up to its marketing, if not its title.

Quickie Review

PROS

The acting is quite impressive

The stunts are unbelievably audacious

Focus on character and plot lends power to the drama (particularly the climax)

CONS

Nothing new in terms of storytelling

Can be a bit overly dramatic at times

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Huang Xuan, Duan Yihong, Lang Yueting, Zu Feng, Xing Jiadong, David Wang
Director: Alan Mak, Anthony Pun
Screenwriters: Felix Chong

Movie Review – John Wick: Chapter 2

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EXPECTATIONS: More bang for your buck.

REVIEW: Keanu Reeves is by far the most versatile actors ever, when you consider his acting range. From comedic roles like his iconic slacker character, Ted “Theodore” Logan to the action heroes like Jack Traven from Speed and Neo from The Matrix films; dramatic roles like in River’s Edge and Hardball; and even villainous roles like in The Gift and Man of Tai Chi. Clearly from his filmography, you can’t criticize the man for lack of trying.

Although his choices have not always resulted in successes i.e. his performances in Dracula and Much Ado About Nothing, when he picks the right project, you can bet you are going to hear about it. Case in point: John Wick.

An independent action film with no Hollywood backing, directed by talented stuntmen making their directorial debut and starring many talented character actors. When it gathered incredibly positive buzz at screenings, it became a cult hit, mainly thanks to video sales.

And now we have the long-awaited sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2. Promising more hard-hitting action, more memorable characters, more ample story, more world explorations and no deaths of canines, will it live up to the immense hype and equal the quality of its predecessor?

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The film starts off basically minutes after the events of the first film, where John Wick ties up one loose end that involves a fun action scene in a warehouse; complete with a fun cameo by Peter Stormare.

Then Wick tries to go back to his self-imposed retirement, but an old acquaintance of his (played by Riccardo Scamarcio) comes back into his life and demands a favour that can only result in Wick getting back into the killing floor once again.

Bounded by a sacred blood oath (as encapsulated by a marker), he is hired to assassinate a high-ranking mob boss but little does he know is that this will spur a tumultuous turn of events that will make the retirement of John Wick cut short once again.

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First things first, is the film as good as the original? Unfortunately, no, but it is definitely not from lack of trying. Let’s start with the problems. In the first film, Wick had an emotional motivation that linked to the death of those dear to him, whereas in the second film, he feels obligated due to a oath made years prior. It is not as compelling as it should be, and it does harm the film somewhat.

Secondly, since audiences were raving about the world that the first film built and teased, director Chad Stahelski decided to explore the world in a more expansive way. While there are some moments and features that are quite fascinating (seeing veteran actors like Laurence Fishburne and Franco Nero will never be a flaw), it does very little in the long run due to the fact that it hinders the pacing as well as making some of the action scenes strangely anti-climactic. Clearly, Stahelski is aiming to make another sequel, but his directing chops are not good enough to make the disparate moments anything more than they really are.

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But if you can get over those flaws, John Wick: Chapter 2 is still a blazing time at the movies. As with most sequels, the action is bigger and John Wick: Chapter 2 is no exception to that rule.

The use of long takes are more plentiful, the environments are more expansive and the choreography is much more ambitious. One scene in a train station is striking due to the fact that it combines both character and action together to make a thrilling and oddly amusing experience.

The actors are clearly committed to the physical toils they go through with their action scenes and it pays off in the long run. Common, in particular, proves a worthy foil to Reeves as they fight twice (in the scene mentioned above) and it is quite a thrill to watch.

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Speaking of moments that are odd, John Wick: Chapter 2 has a more comedic touch that yields surprising results. At times, it is quite reminiscent of the old Pink Panther films, where an antagonist would attack our hero at any moment.

There are moments where Stahelski is expanding his directing chops by establishing mood and it becomes very effective in conveying the stakes of the plot. A scene where Wick meets his mark (played by Claudia Gerini) is quite haunting and unexpected.

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And the performances all hit their mark with ease, even down to the smallest of parts with Reeves leading the pack with his sheer presence and commitment; and to the smallest part from Gerini, who makes a big impression in her one scene.

Overall, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a very serviceable sequel that could have been an improvement over its predecessor if it weren’t for its ambitions far exceeding the film’s grasp. A gunshot can only travel so far, but at least Wick still has a few surprising tricks up his sleeve.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Action scenes are much more creative

Acting is spot-on

Stahelski expands on his directing chops

CONS

Muddled storytelling

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: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, Claudia Gerini, Ian McShane, Bridget Moynahan
Director: Chad Stahelski
Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad

Movie Review – The Innocents

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EXPECTATIONS: Something special along the lines of the 2013 Polish film, Ida.

REVIEW: Films based on true events are usually met with mixed reactions. So much to the point that the audience will question the validity of the liberties the filmmakers take. Whether it renders the films as potentially predictable or even unbelievable; some can potentially be inspiring and heart-wrenching. In the case of The Innocents, the film belongs to the latter camp.

Films of a similar nature however can tend to be blatant and insistent that it can alienate may people, like Schindler’s List and The Flowers of War, but some can be quietly powerful, thanks to a subtle approach to storytelling and assured direction. Thankfully, The Innocents fits in with the latter.

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Set in Poland at December 1945 (after World War II), the film starts off in a church and Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) sneaks out to find someone who can tend to the needs of the convent; someone other than a Russian. She finds a French Red Cross doctor, Mathilde (Lou de Laage) and she tends to the nuns, who are discreetly pregnant.

Through her time there, she uncovers some very dark secrets that can possibly destroy the very foundation that the church is built on. And now, with the support of the nuns, Mathilde brings it upon herself to help the nuns, the newborns while balancing her work with the French Red Cross and also evade the Soviet soldiers.

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Not to provide spoilers but the story is incredibly tough going. One of the things that is refreshing about The Innocents is that unlike the films of its type where the backdrop would usually be set during the war; in The Innocents, the story is set in the aftermath of the war, and its consequences.

Another refreshing thing about The Innocents is that we see a story like this from a female’s point-of-view. Rarely do we see stories of war and how it impacts females dealt with such conviction and depth. Director Anne Fontaine applies nuance and sensitivity to the story, making the film very eerie, poignant and shocking, without resulting into scare tactics, nationalism and hopelessly tugging the heartstrings. And in doing so, the story becomes a lot more humane, which makes it a lot easier for the audience to immerse themselves.

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Characterizations and development are also stellar. Told in the point-of-view of Mathilde, her character is a non-believer of faith and religion, but eventually she opens up to the beliefs the nuns hold dear and when she embraces the times that a shining light beams through, it becomes extremely rewarding. Every positive that Mathilde earns or feels is guaranteed to affect the audience in a way that feels rightfully earned.

It also applies to the nuns themselves. They all seem like ciphers at first in both look and personality. But throughout the course of the film, as the revelations are revealed, we notice how distinct they really are. One of them reacts with extreme guilt; another is in complete denial while another chooses to deal with it extensively, but one thing is for certain: their faith is no longer ironclad.

There’s even a scene in the film where one of the nuns questions their faith by asking whether God let their troubles happen to them. Although the theme of religious belief may irk some, Fontaine again, examines it with nuance that it never comes across as judgmental and somehow becomes a mark of change in character.

The production values certainly hold up by their end of the bargain. The cinematography by Caroline Champetier is hauntingly sterile (a simple shot of a nun running up a hill and through a forest will linger) while the musical score by Gregoire Hetzel is very effective in conveying mood and tension, even when sparingly used.

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And of course, the actors are all wonderful. Lou de Laage, who has been fantastic in films like Respire and The Wait, delivers top work as Mathilde, as she conveys her character progression convincingly. Agata Buzek (who plays another nun after the Jason Statham drama, Hummingbird) delivers with conviction as Sister Maria and she shares a nice, understated chemistry with de Laage, as the two bond over their differences in life.

Agata Kulesza (who was in Ida, another film involving nuns) is great as Mother Superior, as she balances both her faith and care for her sisters and the conflicts that she experiences. And Vincent Macaigne is very good as Samuel, a fellow doctor with Mathilde who happens to be Jewish. He provides some much-needed levity to the film, which provides some relief from the grim nature of the story.

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As for flaws, the ending is a little too neat given the events that happened prior and the pacing can be quite glacial at times, but the film is so well-executed in every other regard, it becomes quite easy to ignore them.

At last, a war film The Innocents may be quite a harrowing experience due to its subject matter, but the subtle, sensitive storytelling, the assured direction by Anne Fontaine, the complimentary production values and the fantastic performances ensure that The Innocents is a film is worth the effort.

The fact that this is a war film made by women and it is about women is remarkable and that alone makes it a must-see.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Nuanced, sensitive storytelling

Anne Fontaine’s direction

Fantastic performances

No nationalism

CONS

Ending is a bit too neat

Glacial pacing

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: Lou De Laage, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig, Eliza Rycembel, Anna Prochniak, Katarzyna Dabrowska, Helena Sujecka, Dorota Kuduk, Klara Bielawka, Mira Maludzinska
Director: Anne Fontaine
Screenwriter: Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial, Anne Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer, Philippe Maynial

Movie Review – Free Fire

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EXPECTATIONS: A fun time with guns-a-blazing!

REVIEW: The films by British director Ben Wheatley have all been incredibly distinct from another and are all very well-done. Whether going through the genre of crime, psychological horror, dark comedy, dystopian drama and historical surrealism, you can never accuse Wheatley of doing the same trick twice. But the crucial through-line that Wheatley applies into all of those films is a streak of black humour.

In his most commercial film to date, Wheatley has assembled a who’s who of talented character actors in a simple premise that is so ingenious, that I’m surprised that no one has done it earlier. But the premise can be both easy to achieve and to fail so will Wheatley and his cast/crew succeed with a perfect headshot?

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Set in 1970’s Boston, Justine (Brie Larson) plans a handover with two groups of arms dealers (led by Vernon and Ord, played by Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer) to meet up in a dilapidated warehouse for a huge arms deal.

With character actors like Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor, Enzo Cilenti, Babou Ceesay and others) as the dealers, it only takes one of them to be the party pooper and once the shit hits the fan, it’s every man (and woman) for themselves.

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Basically, what we have here is an elongated and grimy shootout with two sides going at it. Or is it three? Or more? Who the hell knows? The characters sure don’t! Funnily enough, the obliviousness, the unruly feel and the realistic approach to the film-making is what makes the film a hilarious time at the cinema.

One of the reasons Free Fire is a fun time is due to how Wheatley gets rids of the Hollywood sheen of filming action scenes and goes for a painfully realistic vibe, that elicits lots of laughs. No one poses, no one does any amazing feats (like diving with two guns blazing) and no one ever comes out looking cool. This ain’t no John Woo film, folks. People get hurt. Really…really…bad.

Wheatley also utilizes the environment effectively, as he ups the difficulties the characters face to survive with humourous aplomb. People crawl on the gravelly dirt with sharp rocks, broken glass and jagged metal poles everywhere and wince in pain and it makes the experience both cringe-worthy and groan-worthy in the best of ways.

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The script is also very-well written by Wheatley and prime collaborator Amy Jump, with many quotable lines that are guaranteed to leave you in stitches at some points (Protection from infection!) and numerous character touches add much colour to the film. Like the fact that most of the dealers wear fancy suits or the amusing resilience of some of the characters (Drugs can have that effect on people).

But the almost-miraculous feat of the film is that the film sustains the interest of the audience with its short running time, location shifting and tight editing. The economy and efficiency of Wheatley‘s storytelling certainly helps, as he introduces his characters swiftly, shapes the dynamics distinctively, sets the wheels in the motion and he never throttles back on the momentum of the plot.

But the film wouldn’t be entertaining as it is without the talented ensemble cast. Brie Larson charms whilst convincingly standing her ground; Armie Hammer effortlessly exudes cool with a bit of a sinister edge; Cillian Murphy makes for a surprisingly shy lead; Jack Reynor is amusingly aggressive; Enzo Cilenti and Noah Taylor bicker nicely; Sam Riley is hilariously resilient and unhinged; Michael Smiley is sharp while being world-weary and Babou Ceesay is likable as the smooth, straight man of the group.

But the man that steals the show is Sharlto Copley. Clearly a very talented actor, but somehow, people don’t utilize his talents very well. Whether he’s overacting for all the wrong reasons like in the remake of Oldboy or appearing in films with terrible scripts like Chappie and Elysium, he can barely catch a break.

Ironically enough, neither can his character and Copley damn near steals the show as Vernon. Whether he’s making terrible flirtatious exchanges with Justine, making deals for survival with Ord or improvising so-called safety measures, Copley is a total blast in the role.

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Despite all the things the film gets right, there are flaws that prevent it from being truly amazing. The ending ventures towards the familiar, which is surprising and disappointing, considering Wheatley‘s prior films. And it is because of the ending that the film doesn’t leave a big impression when one leaves the cinema, leaving the film to be nothing more than a very entertaining genre exercise, instead of the grand film it could’ve been.

Free Fire is Wheatley‘s most accessible film that entertains with its wonderful cast, the witty, quotable script and Wheatley‘s confident direction. It may not hit a bullseye with perfect accuracy, but unlike the characters, it’s certainly ain’t a bad shot.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic cast

Wheatley’s assured direction

Realistic approach provides shocking laughs

CONS

Ending doesn’t quite hit the mark

Doesn’t leave a huge impression overall

SCORE: 7.5/10

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

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Noah Taylor, Patrick Bergin
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenwriters: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley

Movie Review – Their Finest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic cast

Old-fashioned tone/storytelling

Entertaining look at past film-making

Very funny and emotionally satisfying

Deals with themes of feminism with subtlety

CONS

May get too sentimental for some

SCORE: 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quickie Review

PROS

Good performances from the cast

Nice, understated storytelling

Refreshing changes in its approach to the relationship genre

CONS

May be too understated for some

Some slow spots

SCORE: 8/10

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

Movie Review – Colossal

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EXPECTATIONS: Something original, audacious and surprising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic acting

Thematically sound story

Constantly surprises and keeps the audience off-guard

Incredibly satisfying ending

CONS

Tone shifts and logical errors

SCORE: 9/10

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

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

Movie Review – Mrs K (OAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: An action-packed end to an illustrious action career of Kara Wai.

REVIEW: Kara Wai has had a very long and illustrious career. Ever since she was discovered by acclaimed director Lau Kar-leung, she has been in countless martial arts films, building up her reputation as a martial arts queen. Hitting her peak with the Shaw Brothers martial arts comedy, My Young Auntie, winning many actress awards, she has gone through a variety of genres via supporting roles, from comedies to crime thrillers and romances.

But in 2009, she had a career resurgence and that is thanks to her collaboration with Malaysian director Ho Yuhang. The result is At the End of Daybreak, which was a nihilistic, downbeat drama that won Wai many actress awards and brought her back to the spotlight.

Now, we have their second collaboration with Mrs K, which is being marketed as a swan song to the action career of Kara Wai. Will the final product live up to the marketing as well as in comparison to the accolades of At the End of Daybreak?

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The film starts off with the grisly deaths of three men: a loan shark (Dain Iskandar Said) who is sliced to death in his office; a priest (Kirk Wong) who is hacked to death in the confessional booth and a retiree (Fruit Chan) who dies in his own swimming pool.

We then go ahead to an unnamed rich housewife (Kara Wai), who is married to a gynecologist (Wu Bai) and is the mother of a lively young girl (Siow Li Xuan). The housewife is then tracked by a sleazy private eye (Tony Lau), who is convinced that the housewife (along with other associates) is responsible for a past crime in Macau.

Also on her trail is a psychotic man (Simon Yam) looking for revenge on the housewife, alongside his henchman (Faisal Hussein). The two kidnap the housewife’s daughter, which forces her hand to confront her violent past whilst trying to save and protect her family in the process.

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For those who have seen the trailer for this film, thinking that you’re going to get an action-packed thrill ride will probably come out of this film a bit disappointed. But the final result is more of a crime drama that has several effective action scenes, a very odd sense of humour and a definite Tarantino influence that surprisingly works more than it annoys, as it makes the film a fun, stylish experience that packs more of an emotional punch than necessary..

The musical score adds to the fun as it is quite reminiscent of Spaghetti westerns as well as the scores of John Carpenter films. The cinematography is smooth and fluid, yet it can get appropriately gritty and dirty when the action starts, which adds a sense of menace to the film.

It is also clear that director Ho Yuhang is a fan of genre cinema, but in particular, Hong Kong cinema, very similar in feel to Teddy Chan’s kung fu/crime flick Kung Fu Jungle. Casting many Hong Kong veterans in fun roles, employing a retro feel in terms of the action as well as showing the many facades of Kara Wai’s filmography in her starring role.

In the scene where you see Kara Wai for the first time, she already shows a paternal side, a funny side and a tough, commanding side, all in the same shot. That alone shows that Wai is given a role that can be fitfully described as a satisfying role that encapsulates her career perfectly. And funnily enough, that basically is Mrs K in a nutshell.

As for the other actors, they are all good in their roles and it certainly helps that most of the actors are cast amusingly against type and/or convention. Besides Simon Yam (who does psychotic like only Simon Yam can), Siow Li Xuan makes a good impression as the surprisingly resourceful daughter (who’s a training martial artist!) who won’t take being a damsel as an option, while Tony Lau plays an amusing version of the sleazy, vile characters he has played of late i.e. in Revenge: A Love Story. And oddly enough, Wu Bai is surprisingly convincing (as a gynaecologist of all things!) and he has one of the best moments in the climax that addresses the meta casting of the film. But the biggest impressions goes to the cameos from the three directors (Chan, Wong and Said) in a scene in the final act that can only be described as something out of a fever dream.

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But for those wondering about the action scenes in the film, there are less than people might think, but they are convincing in some surprising ways. First of all, the fight scenes are more brutal than balletic and the editing and camerawork certainly reflects that. Kara Wai puts herself through the wringer with her scenes, as she fights people half her age and twice her size to great effect.

Second of all, the film addresses the age of Wai and it does so in a refreshingly subtle fashion. None of it is said or addressed out loud, but is seen through the actions of the character. Whenever she jumps and lands from a tall height or blocks an attack, she winces in pain and we feel for her every single time, which adds much needed tension and suspense.

As much as I enjoyed the film, I did expect it to have a little bit more action and a little less reliance on plot and pathos. In the 90 minute run-time, the focus towards plot and its machinations are little more than mere digressions and it drags the pacing down quite a bit and the ending of the film is more of a emotional crescendo rather than a physical one, which can be a bit ill-fitting. But really, that all comes down to expectations.

Overall, Mrs K is a fitting end to the action career of Kara Wai, a fun crime drama in its own right, with good action scenes, some very amusing moments of odd humour and a sheer love of genre film that director Ho Yuhang conveys throughout, particularly during the end credits. Just temper your expectations a bit.

Quickie Review

PROS

Kara Wai of course

Surprising action scenes

Committed supporting cast

Odd, yet fitting sense of humour

Subversive moments of storytelling

CONS

Those expecting a pure action film will be a bit disappointed

Too much focus on plot and character than necessary

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Kara Wai, Simon Yam, Wu Bai, Siow Li Xuan, Faizal Hussein, Tony Lau, Fruit Chan, Kirk Wong, Dain Iskandar Said
Director: Ho Yuhang
Screenwriters: Ho Yuhang

Movie Review – Eternity (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something at least worthwhile on a visual and aural level.

REVIEW: For those who don’t know my nationality, I am Vietnamese. And because I was raised in Australia for all of my life, I never really experienced much of Vietnamese culture, but there were some films that I had watched that had always stuck with me. And those were the works of Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung.

Showing the true beauty in the slices of life in Vietnam, his works were always amazing on a visual level as well as an aural level. Immigrated to France at a young age, he clearly took to the customs of the country as well as its film-making style.

In other words, his films were always graceful and soothing, even during moments of realism and nihilism. Famous examples are The Scent of the Green Papaya, Cyclo and Norwegian Wood. You can’t dislike a man that introduced to you critically acclaimed Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai, can you?

So when I heard that he was making his first French-language film with three of the best actresses in all of France, I was excited beyond belief. Counting the fact that this was the first film of Tran‘s that I have see on the big screen, did the film meet my expectations?

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Spanning through a century, showing two generations of a family, the film starts off following Valentine (Audrey Tautou) and her life, involving her husband Jules (Arieh Worthalter) and her children, including Henri (later played by Jeremie Renier).

After finding Jules and giving birth to more than half a dozen children, Valentine then watches as nearly all of them die untimely deaths of unspecified illnesses or leaving the family home, at which point the focus shifts to Valentine’s daughter-in-law Mathilde (Melanie Laurent), who is married to Henri, being the first generation to continue the bloodline.

The story also spans on to Mathilde’s childhood friend, Gabrielle (Berenice Bejo) and her husband Charles (Pierre Deladonchamps), whom both couples live comfortably as they raise their children together.

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As you may have assumed from the synopsis, the film does not have a plot. But for those who are accustomed to Tran‘s films, those were never in service of a plot. They were all in service of mood and atmosphere and thanks to Tran‘s sheer skill, Mark Lee Ping-bing‘s stellar cinematography and great musical choices, supervised by Elise Luguern, Eternity is truly a tone poem brought to life.

The actresses rely more on their physical acting rather than their dialogue delivery, and they all do very well. Audrey Tautou makes the most out of her patriarch role as she convincingly carries the emotional turmoil of her character with nary a word of dialogue.

Melanie Laurent is the most likable and vibrant out of the three, as she gracefully lights up the screen with hope and optimism as soon as she appears on-screen. Berenice Bejo is the tempered and taciturn of the three and she makes a good impression, as her interactions with Laurent are quite good.

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And of course, what would a Tran Anh Hung film be without the director’s muse (and wife) Tran Nu Yan Khe, who not only serves as the narrator of the film (who thankfully adds a sense of pragmatism to the proceedings), but is also the art director of the film.

The film deals with death and birth in a way that is quite poignant as well as illuminating. Scenes of the children, either through birth and death, for the most part, emotionally hit their mark. But due to the numerous times that we go through, the message that Tran wants to show the audience is clear: Birth is a miracle no matter how many times we see it and death is, deep down, meaningless no matter many times it happens and hits us. It really is a simple message, but a profound one nonetheless.

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And while the film certainly accomplishes what it aims for, for viewers who are looking for something else like a plot or conventional narrative will be bored. The film would probably be defined as “installation art”, along the lines of films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. Not to mention the languid pacing, the few sets and locations and the repetitious events.

But for those who are initiated to Tran‘s body of work and those who are willing to step outside the norm of conventional film-making may find Eternity to be a sensual delight that would most likely cast a spell of wonder and poignancy that one would definitely appreciate.

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Quickie Review

PROS

CONS

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: Audrey Tautou, Berenice Bejo, Melanie Laurent, Jeremie Renier, Pierre Deladonchamps, Arieh Worthalter, Tran Nu Yen Khe
Director: Tran Anh Hung
Screenwriter: Alice Ferney (based on the novel, L’Elegance des veuves), Tran Anh Hung