Movie Review – Incredibles 2

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that doesn’t equal the original, but is a fun time nonetheless.

REVIEW: It has been a very, very long 14 years, but the long-awaited sequel that many were asking for is finally here. Toy Story 4 Incredibles 2 has finally arrived! The first film was branded as the Fantastic Four film that people deserved and it catapulted the career of director Brad Bird to new heights, including live-action ventures like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland.

And with the vast amounts of superhero films we have today and many more on the horizon, it is clearly a no-brainer for Bird to make the sequel. Will Incredibles 2 succeed as a sequel that stands on its own as well as a great superhero film in its own right?

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Incredibles 2 starts off where the first film ended, where the Parr family encounter the villain, The Underminer. Although, as a family, they have foiled his plan to rob the major banks, he escapes, leaving the Incredibles with a worse reputation than they already have from government officials.

It only gets worse when Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks, replacing Bud Luckey who sadly passed away) reports that the superhero relocation program is shut down, leading the family to dire straits. But hope comes into the picture when Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) informs Helen (Holly Hunter) and Bob (Craig T. Nelson) about Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), the CEO of a telecommunications company who’s also a superhero fanatic. Alongside her sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener) who is a technological marvel, the two want to bring supers back into the spotlight by changing the public’s perception of them.

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Since Helen is chosen for her light approach to saving the day (in comparison to Bob’s sloppy approach), she is out, doing all the work, advocating superhero rights while Bob is at home, as the stay-at-home dad, taking care of the moody Violet (Sarah Vowell), the hyperactive Dash (Huck Milner, replacing Spencer Fox) and the increasingly troublesome Jack-Jack, who’s experiencing his own super phase.

As the two adjust to their new change in lifestyles and as superheroes come back into the spotlight, a new supervillain comes into the midst, called the Screenslaver, who has the ability to use any screen to hypnotize and control people who look at them.

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Was Incredibles 2 worth the 14-year wait? Thankfully, it is, as it provides younger children a very entertaining respite from the high-stakes storytelling of other superhero films like Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther. And no, Deadpool 2 is not for young children!

One of the best factors of the first Incredibles film is the integration of the family dynamic into the superhero genre and thankfully, it is kept intact in the sequel; the much-needed grounded feel that audiences can relate to. But this time, focusing on how Bob takes care of the family.

And it is because of that, it ends up being surprisingly funnier than the original. Bob’s reactions to mundane tasks like helping Dash with his homework or trying to put Jack-Jack to sleep are hilarious. Jack-Jack in particular, is the funniest thing in the film. His interactions with the family and a certain creature pay off with the biggest laughs.

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The action sequences, while not emotionally thrilling like the airplane set-piece in the first film, are still a lot of fun to watch, especially when one of them is similar to a set-piece in an infamously maligned sequel. It helps a lot when Bird comes up with new superpowers for the Incredibles to fight against eg. teleportation or hypnosis; or when he gives something new for the Incredibles to do eg. when Helen (aka Elastigirl) rides her motorcycle to scale and jump on tall buildings by splitting apart, similar to parkour.

Like all of Pixar films, they always choose actors who are right for the parts, and not just choose people with massive star power. All the cast members assembled are on point with their characters, including Bird himself as the hoot-and-a-half Edna Mode. The newcomers including Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush and Isabella Rossellini (just her appearance alone makes me laugh) all commit with ease and sound like they are having fun while they’re doing it. Bob Odenkirk needs to do more voicework, that’s all this I’ll say. And the biggest laugh for me is when Samuel L. Jackson (as Frozone) almost does a trademark of his. Almost.

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As for its flaws, it basically comes down to expectations. Since the film came out 14 years after the original, there would be a build-up of audience anticipation that may affect how people would feel about the film. It could easily had come out 2 years later, it’s possible the film would have a better reception.

Back to actual flaws, the film isn’t as emotionally stirring as the original, as the film focuses more on fun and less on stakes. And the motivation for the villainous scheme for what he or she (or they?) isn’t as involving as it could’ve been, particularly in comparison to the motivation of Syndrome, the villain in the first Incredibles film.

Overall, Incredibles 2 is a hell of a fun time for the entire family, providing lots of superhero antics that rival films in the MCU and DCEU, loads more laughs than the original film and the cast and crew all back in the height of their game. Don’t ever get get old, Jack-Jack.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic action scenes

Many, many hilarious moments

Keeps the compelling family dynamic intact

Many memorable side characters, including the villain, the Screenslaver

CONS

Not quite emotionally stirring as the original

Could’ve easily came out much earlier and not have the pressures of the long waiting time

The motive of the villain isn’t as good in comparison to Syndrome from the first film

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: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush, Isabella Rossellini, John Ratzenberger, LaTanya Richardson Jackson
Director: Brad Bird
Screenwriters: Brad Bird

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Movie Review – A Wrinkle in Time

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EXPECTATIONS: An ambitious and honourable failure that will appeal to children more than adults.

REVIEW: Fantasy films aimed towards children can be a very tricky proposition. Usually, films of this type aim to entertain the entire family but for ones that specifically aim for children, how does one critique a film like this? Judge the film for what it is? Or judge the film through the eyes of a child?

This is the conundrum of reviewing the latest fantasy film from Disney, A Wrinkle in Time. Director Ava DuVernay says in the introductory video that she specifically made for children between ages 8-12, which is quite perplexing, considering that a part of the audience would be adults that have read the book in their youth.

Nevertheless, it is the latest film from the acclaimed director, who is fresh off of Oscar-nominated documentary, 13th. An attempt to adapt Madeleine L’Engle‘s novel of the same name was made back in 2003, which L’Engle herself hated. But now, fans of the book will have their hopes up, considering the talent involved in the new film.

It is DuVernay’s first film with a $100 million dollar budget (the first for an African-American woman to have such a budget) and it is her first film venturing into genre territory. With a spectacular cast, big studio support and a beloved source material, this could be a great film.

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Like all fantasy films, they all start off with a discovery. And A Wrinkle in Time starts off with Dr. Alexander Murray (Chris Pine) and Dr. Kate Murray (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) discovering a new planet called Camozotz. Deep into the research to the point that it becomes an obsession, he discovers away to travel between planets via the tesseract, a type of space-travel. But he mysteriously disappears for years, with many people presuming abandonment or death.

Next, we follow Meg Murry (Storm Reid) and her little brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), have been without their scientist father for five years now. And because of that, the two come into struggles of adjusting to their daily routine, particularly Meg when she’s at school.

But when three magical beings, Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) inform the two about their father’s whereabouts, they all set out to venture to Camozotz to rescue their father from the impending evil, known as the IT department (voiced by David Oyelowo).

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In most cases, it is preferred that making a problematic film with huge ambitions is better than making a generic film that plays it safe. And in this case, A Wrinkle in Time is a noble failure in its aspirations.

Treating this film as a cup that is half-full, let’s begin with the positives. In the lead role, Storm Reid acquits herself quite well, as she believably conveys the dilemmas of Meg like her self-doubt, her stress and her anger. And she makes it easy for the audience to believe that behind her awkward demeanor lies a smart and resourceful girl who will one day be able to fully assert herself, despite the pandering screenplay that constantly reminds the audience that she’ll do so.

There are some scenes that transcend the conventions of studio film-making and aim for a surrealistic and extravagant grandeur that succeed quite well, like a scene set in a colourful neighbourhood involving dodgeballs or a splendourous scene involving a vast valley with sentient flowers.

The film becomes particularly effective when the dark nature of the plot kicks in, as the performances become entertainingly unhinged (although one particular performance is unintentionally funny) and the settings become more haunting. In one scene, the lead characters are dragged through a dark hallway by a malevolent force that reminded me of the old horror films and fantasies of the 80’s and early 90’s. In this reviewer’s case, Chuck Russell‘s A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors.

And some of the supporting cast give good performances like Chris Pine, who has become more soulful over the last few films; Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a good performance as always as the grieving mother of the Murray family, while Michael Pena fits the fairy tale vibe of the story quite well, careering through whimsy and villainy in a fun way.

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And now, treating this film as a half-empty cup, we get to the negatives. Despite the vast ambitions of the story, the potential for emotionally stirring drama from its thematic material and its fantasy genre leanings, under the directorial handling of DuVernay, the film is surprisingly inert and mundane.

Every event, obstacle or revelation that happens in this film feels utterly contrived and blatantly calculated. Some of the reason is due to the jarring editing, which cuts more frequently than it should, which negates the wonder of the settings. The pacing is quite slow in the first 40-50 minutes, as the characters barely progress in their journey, leaving one hoping the film would pick up the pace. It is because of these flaws that the audience feels more like an observer, rather than a participant in the adventure.

And for a $100 million dollar film by Disney, the special effects are wildly inconsistent. Particularly in a scene involving the characters meeting the Happy Medium, played by an off-putting Zach Galifianakis, where the green-screen is so noticeable, that the actors look incredibly silly, acting as if they are losing balance. Unfortunately, the only thing that is losing balance on screen is the film.

Another reason is the problematic script by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, which dispenses one groaning platitude after another like “You are a warrior!” or “You can do this!” or this reviewer’s absolute favourite, “You just have to have faith in who you are!”. The pandering also goes to the musical score and the choices of music, which telegraph what the audience is meant to feel, rather than trusting the audience to do so. Children between the ages 8-12 don’t need to be pandered to, in order to get the message of the film.

Speaking of the script, there are many plot holes, inconsistencies and questionable character decisions that frequently take one out of the film. Here are just some that pervade through the story. Why aren’t the characters scared when they see such beings like a giant Oprah Winfrey? Why don’t any of the neighbours notice these beings appearing in the Murray’s backyard?

In a dramatic scene, Meg insists that she would never dream of abandoning her brother on the planet. But funnily enough, in an action scene that occurred just a few minutes earlier, she loses track of Charles Wallace while trying to outrun the IT. And the boy magically reappears at the end of the scene without bothering to explain how he survived. Excuse me?

In a particular scene, the characters are hungry and are invited to eat food by a suspicious character, and they avoid it, sensing danger. And yet, in the very next scene, they eat food that belongs to a stranger, who also happens to be very suspicious. Huh? There could have been some studio tampering or many rewrites that happened behind the scenes, but deep down, the only thing that matters is what’s on screen.

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The problematic script also affects many of the supporting cast suffer because of it, leading to some crummy performances. Oprah Winfrey, as Mrs. Which, is only given lines of proclamation to deliver and it gets to the point that it becomes laughable, like the character of Sphinx in the 1999 underrated superhero comedy, Mystery Men.

Reese Witherspoon, as Mrs. Whatsit, is given the most dialogue to play with but her attempt to portray whimsy just makes her quite annoying. Mindy Kaling, on the other hand as Mrs. Who, is given very little to do and the majority of her dialogue is quoting famous figures, including one that is an absolutely poor attempt of a joke. The quoting may have worked on the written page, but as spoken on screen, it comes off as, once again, annoying.

And then there’s the young actors. Levi Miller hasn’t really impressed with his roles in American films, despite giving good performances back at home with films like Better Watch Out and Jasper Jones. In the case of his performance in A Wrinkle in Time, he continues his unimpressive line with another bland performance as Calvin. But one shouldn’t really lay the fault on Miller, since the script never really provides a reason for Calvin to be in the film. He’s completely superfluous that if the film-makers were to cut him out of the script, the film would not be affected whatsoever.

And there’s the performance of Deric McCabe. In many Hollywood films, film-makers tend to lend problematic performances out of child actors. On the one end of the acting spectrum, they can surprise with their acting range, showing maturity beyond their years in a natural fashion. But on the other end, they can come across as phony, unbelievable and annoyingly precocious.

And it is unfortunate that McCabe’s performance ends up on the latter end. He plays to the camera as if he’s desperate for attention and his line delivery feels incredibly rehearsed to the point that it comes across as creepy. It also doesn’t help that the character is clearly a screenwriter construct. No child, no matter how smart he or she is, would ever speak the way Charles Wallace does in this film. And to make matters worse, his character becomes a figure of greater importance in the third act and is supplied with a major character change. And it is abundantly clear that McCabe is not up to the task, despite being unintentionally hilarious in doing so.

And in the end, it’s clear that DuVernay was not up to the task in bring A Wrinkle in Time to the big screen. It does have scenes of striking beauty, some good performances and moments of entertaining whimsy and oddness. Unfortunately, the script is all over the place, the direction lacks the drive to make the film emotionally stirring, some of the performances are not good and the visual splendour is surprisingly sloppy in places. And like Kaling’s character, Mrs. Who, let’s end with a quote.

“Is the glass half empty or half full?”

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Quickie Review

PROS

Storm Reid gives a good lead performance

Some good performances from supporting cast

Some visually stunning moments

Becomes more enjoyable when the story becomes more harrowing

CONS

Many plot holes, character inconsistencies and contrivances

Annoying performances from supporting cast

Sloppy CGI, particularly for a high budget film

Lack of passion in DuVernay’s direction

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: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, André Holland, Rowan Blanchard
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriters: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell, based on the novel of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle

Movie Review – Ready Player One

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EXPECTATIONS: Flash! Bang! Reference!

REVIEW: Of all the literature out there that caters to geek culture like the sci-fi extravaganza The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the bonkers detective noir The Eyre Affair, very few of them are as controversial as Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Although it is a best-seller and has some many popular reviews for it, many have said it is a major detriment to geek culture due to its pandering i.e. references, terrible prose and many claims of misogyny, racism and homophobia.

But like how life finds a way, the most terrible books can be adapted to become films. Critically acclaimed books adapted to be live-action films can result in critically acclaimed films. Sounds simple enough that you can assume that terrible books that are adapted to be terrible films. But can a problematic book be adapted to become a great film? This is where the director, Senor Spielbergo Steven Spielberg comes in.

All of Spielberg’s films can be fit into two categories, and it has been more apparent in recent years. In his filmography, he has The Post, Bridge of Spies, Munich and Lincoln; all films that have aspirations for gravitas and respectability. In other words, they are made “For Your Consideration”. And then we have films like The BFG, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, The Adventures of Tintin; all films that are made purely for entertainment value as well as being tentpole releases. In other words, they are made “For Your Money”.

Now we have Spielberg’s latest film, Ready Player One, an obvious entry for the latter category where he clearly thought he needed a bigger boat budget since his last highest-budgeted film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. With all his talent and filmmaking skill to back him up, will be able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? Or will it be like taking dinosaurs off the island like in The Lost World: Jurassic Park; that being the worst idea in the long, sad history of bad ideas?

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The film is set in 2045 (in the future), with the world on the brink of chaos and collapse (like the present). But the people have found salvation in denial the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant and eccentric Willy Wonka Steve Jobs James Halliday (Mark Rylance).

When Halliday dies (or does he?), he leaves his immense fortune to the first person to find a digital Easter egg (not the chocolate kind) he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, starting a contest that entices everyone. And I don’t just mean a group of people, I mean what Gary Oldman yells in Leon: The Professional, which is EVERYONE!

Anyway, when a very likely young hero named Marty McFly Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to join the contest, after witnessing his Aunt May Aunt Alice being assaulted by Uncle Ben her boyfriend (who is part of a long line of them), he is thrown into a reference-packed pop culture world filled with colour, fun and thankfully eventually, danger.

And of course, there is the evil megalomaniacal company IOI, headed by greedy CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) wants to get this egg to satiate his greed, all of which is linked to earning higher profits because money! Everybody likes money! That’s why they call it money! The race is on, like Donkey Kong!

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Does Ready Player One fix all of its problems of its source material to become a legitimately great film that belongs to the pantheon of Spielberg’s filmography? The answer is 42 no. Although there are some fun sequences and genuine wonder to be had, the film itself is a pandering, noisy, visual mess with a thin plot and even thinner characters.

Let’s begin with the positives. The veteran actors, Ben Mendelsohn and Mark Rylance have fun with their roles as the sinister villain and the creator, respectively. But they are basically performances that they have done before. Mendelsohn basically does the generic, villainous Mendo performance, where he attempts an American accent and grimaces frequently, while having Scooby-Doo aspirations. If you’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises and Rogue One, you’ve seen Mendelsohn’s performance already. Same goes for Rylance, whose performance is similar to his one in The BFG, also directed by Spielberg.

Another positive is when Spielberg focuses on the wonder of film, particularly filmmakers that he admires, and this is when the film soars. In an extended sequence, the characters venture into a world of a particular horror film (which won’t be spoiled) and the reason the scene works not only because it is quite funny, it is one of the few scenes where it actually introduces the stakes for characters in a way that the pop culture references actually serve the story i.e. characters that know the film can survive the traps of the world while characters that don’t know the film will suffer.

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And now we get to the negatives, and like the horror movie the film references, this is where the blood flows. The characters (if you could call them that) are incredibly thin and boring, with no dimension or arc whatsoever, especially when the film is a hero’s journey. Tye Sheridan (who’s fantastic in indie films like Mud and Joe) comes off as bland while Olivia Cooke (who’s great in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Limehouse Golem) takes her role and lends it credence that clearly wasn’t in the script.

And the interactions between the two are pretty embarrassing and mildly creepy. Apparently, quoting pop culture references to each other quantifies as developing a rapport or a sense of chemistry. It’s quite reminiscent of Spielberg’s The Terminal, where Diego Luna’s character and Zoe Saldana’s character never meet, but they exchange messages to each other, much like Ready Player One, and in the end, they’re newlyweds, kind of like Ready Player One. It just comes off as forced and awkward.

And let’s not skim over the problem with the female characters, being that they can’t be seen as anything other than plot devices to serve the main character. Samantha (or Art3mis) has her own motivations involving her family but it only ends up being a means to an end, which is Wade. And of course in the OASIS, she’s an avatar with an attractive body, anime-like eyes and happens to be the person that actually likes Wade’s references. And she has a birthmark (Sure, Jan.) across her face that makes her vulnerable and she only gets over it when Wade does.

And there’s Aunt Alice, who’s a woman who’s been abused by countless lovers because that’s what all single moms do, like in Kingsman: The Secret Service. One of the challenges the characters must achieve in order to get the next artifact involves wooing a woman. Hell, the character of Aech can’t be taken seriously in the film because she’s in fact [SPOILER ALERT] a woman!

The rest of the roles from the heroes are interchangeable (apart from Lena Waithe, who’s amusing) and they come off as lame attempts at rekindling child roles from Spielberg’s prior projects like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies. Yes, I see you, Short Round 2.0! And even Simon Pegg (who’s a geek thanks to projects like Spaced) is wasted here. Not Shaun of the Dead-Winchester wasted, but his talent sure is.

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And let’s get down to the nitty, gritty and pithy part of Ready Player One: the references. Now, like I said in my prior reviews (yes, I’m referencing myself), in order to find comedies funny, you have to engage with the humanity of the film and the same goes with the references. Do they serve the story? Do they serve the characters? Do they add a sense of fun?

Other than the extended sequence that ventures into a horror film, they don’t add much to the film, apart from being visually splendorous and that it can make people go Ooh, there’s The Iron Giant! Ooh, there’s Freddy Krueger! Ooh, there’s Chucky! Ooh, there’s the DeLorean! Ooh, there’s King Kong! Ooh, there’s Kratos! If you thought that was annoying, try experiencing my Ready Player One review 140 minutes of it.

But even with Spielberg’s handling of the visuals, the camerawork and visual information is so dizzying and assaultive that it becomes blurry, exhausting and nauseating. There’s just so much references flying around, that the filmmakers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

And of course there’s the implications of the knowledge of the references in the film. Apparently, you’re seen as a bad person if you do not know what the references are, which is evident in a confrontation between Wade and Nolan. And it has the nerve to share lines of dialogue like how a fanboy can spot a hater. If this is the standard of how hero-villain exchanges go, then we’re kinda screwed.

Ready Player One isn’t a terrible movie but considering the talent (both in front of and behind the camera) and the potential from the novel (if not the execution) that could have been adapted, it doesn’t feel like anything like the OASIS in the novel. Instead, it should be thrown in the Boo Box in Spielberg’s Hook.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic visuals

Has moments of genuine fun and wonder

The cast do their best with what they got

CONS

Thin plot

Thinner characters

Overuse of pop culture references that come across as pandering

Problematic female character portrayals

SCORE: 5/10

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

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, Philip Zhao, Susan Lynch, Hannah John-Kamen, Ralph Ineson, McKenna Grace, Letitia Wright
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline, based on his book of the same name

Movie Review – Mary and the Witch’s Flower

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EXPECTATIONS: Something as magical as the Studio Ghibli entries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic animation

The cast do great with their performances

Well-developed characters, particularly in the case of Mary

Retains the magic and spirit of Studio Ghibli entries

CONS

Similar to prior Ghibli entries the point of being derivative

SCORE: 8/10

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

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

Movie Review – Bleeding Steel

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EXPECTATIONS: More Jackie Chan China-market garbage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quickie Review

PROS

The first action scene is quite good

Many unintentionally funny moments

CONS

Too damn many to mention

SCORE: 2/10

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

Movie Review – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quickie Review

PROS

Likable leads

CONS

The humour is unfunny

Duplicitous portrayal of Gillan’s character

No stakes, tension or wit

Stereotypes still stick out like a sore thumb

Derivative and never even living up to those themes

SCORE: 4/10

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

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

Movie Review – Snow Woman (Japan Film Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something appealingly surreal, beautiful and thematically powerful.

REVIEW: Kwaidan films (literally translated as “ghost stories”) are films I was always fascinated with ever since I saw films like Ringu. Now I know that this isn’t a prime example, but it got me exploring the classic genre entries like Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko, Nobuo Nakagawa’s The Ghost of Yotsuya, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan and others.

The incredibly mannered feel, the beautiful artifice of the production design, the meditative pacing and the lifeless yet brimming acting; those are just some of the many things of a Kwaidan film that draws me in.

So when I heard that director/actress Kiki Sugino, whom I’ve only seen in an acting capacity in films like Kim Ki-duk’s Time and Koji Fukada’s Au Revoir L’Ete, was making a modernization of Japanese Kwaidan folklore, I was intrigued. It also helped that the trailer for the film had me sold on the tone of the film. So does Snow Woman succeed as a throwback to the Japanese ghost stories of yore?

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The film starts off in black-and-white, in a medieval setting (or maybe it doesn’t?) and we see Minokichi (Munetaka Aoki) and his aging mentor Mosaku get caught in a snowstorm. When Mosaku is too exhausted to carry on, they seek shelter in a dilapidated hut in the woods.

While they sleep, a ghostly Snow Woman (known as a yuki-onna) sneaks into the hut and gently breathes her frostbite-inducing breath on Mosaku’s face, gradually killing him. Minokichi wakes and witnesses this, but the Snow Woman (Kiki Sugino) spares him, on condition he never tells anyone what he has seen.

After an unspecified amount of time, he meets the beautiful Yuki (also Kiki Sugino) in the woods and falls in love with her. She kind of resembles the Snow Woman, but she has no background, no family, no previous life. If Minokichi knows who she is (and there might be an inkling to this), he isn’t going to talk about it to anyone. Especially her.

The two marry and have a daughter, Ume (Mayu Yamaguchi), who blossoms into a lovely teenager. But over time, unexplained deaths begin occurring in the woods in the presence of Yuki and/or Ume. And much to Minokichi’s horror, the victims are found scarred with the unmistakable look of frostbite.

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Does the film stack up as a modernization of the famous ghost tale as well as being a good film in of itself? Thankfully, yes. While the script (co-written by Kiki Sugino) is faithful to the source material, Sugino adds enough flourishes and amps up the character dynamics to get her directorial stamp into the mix.

The first ten minutes of the film are absolutely stunning. The black-and-white cinematography and the swell musical score all feel like they were swiped from classic Kwaidan films and Sugino is dead-on as the titular character. All of these elements are combined to make a promising intro that foreshadows many promising elements as well as feeling like a great short film in of itself.

After the title card shows up, director Sugino starts to modernize the source material by playfully subverting audience expectations of the genre. For example, the time period the film is set. With the forest setting and houses, we are led to believe that the film is set in the Medieval era, but later in the film, we see other settings like factories and we’re now led to believe that the film is set in a war era.

Another example is how the characters interact with one another. In cases of Kwaidan films, when a person encounters a ghost, it’s usually that they are scarred for life and if they ever witness anything that would bring back memories of that encounter, they would cower in fear. But in the case of Snow Woman, when Minokichi encounters Yuki (who is a dead ringer of the Snow Woman), he recognizes the resemblance, but he doesn’t hesitate and continues to keep her accompanied to the point that the two get married and start a family.

The input of modern relationship social-isms as well as deep, seething curiosities add a certain refreshing outlook to what could have been seen as old-fashioned or esoteric to today’s audiences. Even the sex scene between the two characters (set in a onsen) is surprisingly racy in comparison to the typical Kwaidan film.

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The cinematography by Shogo Ueno becomes more crisp after the title card ends, as well as the musical score by Sow Jow becomes more electronic, rather than the usual woodwind sounds that accompany the usual Kwaidan film, lending a sense of realism rather than the artifice the genre is known for.

The meditative pacing is still in place and while it does lend a chilling feel at times (especially in scenes set in the nighttime), most of the time, the pacing is utilized to gain a more intimate feel for the characters, as Sugino relies on long-takes during character moments, which allow the actors to shine.

Speaking about the actors, the leads are great in their parts that they imbue life to the characters as well as look like they belong in the period setting, unlike those who have a contemporary look. Kiki Sugino nails the look and the haunting feel as the titular character, while imbuing a sense of sympathy in her ghostly actions (another genre subversion), while making Yuki, her second role, feel more than just the trope of the supportive wife.

Aoki Munetaka is great as Minokichi, as he conveys the inner torment of fear, the contradictions of his role as the patriarch as well as being convincing as a loving father. The scenes they share together have a palpable sense of intimacy that always foreshadow a conflict that is absolutely inevitable and it pays off beautifully in the climax. The supporting cast all do fine in their roles, but Sugino and Munetaka are the most notable.

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As for its flaws, for those expecting a ghost story with actual shocks and scares will be disappointed, since it never really aims for those targets. Aside from that, the most nagging flaw is the film does suffer from its storytelling ellipsis, since it does away with character backstories and motivations. But the editing and the script does make the film feel like we’re witnessing a fever dream at times, relying on what the audience should feel rather than what the audience should know.

Simple scenes of conversation are edited as if they are cut off in mid-question while scenes supposedly set in dreams are rarely ever signaled as dreams unless the score picks up. It may be a bit disorienting, alienating or even quite maddening, but it eventually becomes rewarding emotionally, thematically, and even takes flight.

Overall, Snow Woman is a great modernization of a classical Japanese ghost story, with fine performances, fantastic cinematography and a fitting musical score, but what makes the film stand out is its refreshing details and the attempts of subverting the Kwaidan genre. While the film doesn’t aim for more of a mainstream execution in terms of scares, the film has enough palpable atmosphere and filmmaking chops to make Snow Woman a film not to be examined, but to be experienced.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the leads

Beautiful cinematography and stirring music add to the film

Great touches in refreshing and modernizing the kwaidan genre

CONS

The story is too elliptical for its own good

Those expecting scares will be disappointed

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Kiki Sugino, Munetaka Aoki, Mayu Yamaguchi, Shiro Sano, Kumi Mizuno
Director: Kiki Sugino
Screenwriters: Mitsuo Shigeta, Kiki Sugino, Seigan Tominomori based on a story by Lafcadio Hearn

Movie Review – Flatliners (2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: A bland, uninspired remake.

REVIEW: When a film isn’t press-screened or has its review embargo lifted on the same day of release, you know that something isn’t up to snuff. And this is what is happening with the latest remake (although, in recent reports, it is claimed to be a sequel) of Flatliners.

But the film has assembled quite a line-up of talent. An good director, a talented cast, an experienced crew and a bonkers premise that could be well-utilized in this day of age. So will the film surprise and actually shows signs of life or will the film be dead on arrival?

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Five medical students, led by Courtney Holmes (Ellen Page) embark on a daring and dangerous experiment to discover if there is anything to be experienced beyond death. It is there where the group decides to trigger near-death experiences by stopping their hearts for short periods of time.

As each of them go through their experience, becoming more risky and impulsive, each must confront the sins from their past while facing the paranormal consequences of journeying to the other side.

I’m just gonna lay it down flat on the (operating?) table and say this remake is nothing as bad as the film release may imply, but there really isn’t much of anything to say that is praiseworthy or even worthy of anything.

The original 1990 film, directed by Joel Schumacher, had a goofy tone that varies between sincere and surreal that it becomes quite fun and thankfully for the most part, the remake actually keeps that tone in check, even within the confines of being released in 2017.

There are some scenes that are so out-of-place that you can’t help but laugh, even if in retrospect if the laugh was more out of embarrassment rather than actually being earned. An example is a scene in the film where one character has just been “flatlined” and he (or she) escapes the confines of his (or her) parentage to the point where he (or she) becomes fully committed in a night of prurience.

Although it retains the goofiness of the original, what it lacks is its inspired visuals. Say what you want about director Joel Schumacher but the man never slacks off in making his films look stylish with either characters with big hair, back-lit sets, nipples on suits, overstated colour schemes and energetic camera movement. But in the case of the remake, director Niels Arden Oplev does absolutely nothing to stand out from the crowd as he adopts a sleek, yet bland look that we’ve seen a hundred times over from many other films.

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The cast, like the original, give fine performances and make the most out of the material. Ellen Page lends gravitas to her role and grounds the film; ditto for Diego Luna as Ray, the rational one of the group; Nina Dobrev is quite good as Marlo, who has feelings of inadequacy; Kiersey Clemons (who’s fantastic in Dope) is enjoyably moody as Sophia, who feels suffocated in the confines and expectations of her life and lastly James Norton, who makes his brash character quite likable.

Speaking of likable, there are a few changes in the film that was nice to see. One of them does make the film a bit more unoriginal but it lends a much-needed sense of threat, which lead to a minor shock (keyword: minor) that got me quite a bit. But the filmmaking at hand does its best (or worst?) to alleviate all of that with telegraphed scares and sloppy editing.

There’s one scene in the film where a character is being threatened and is stabbed with a knife in the hand. But in the very next scene, the character is fine and dandy (with a minor bandage on the hand) as if nothing had happened. Where’s the tension and payoff from that?

There really isn’t much more to say about the Flatliners remake except that it is a completely unnecessary, if not terrible piece of work. Nothing to mourn about, but no evidence to witness that would be seen as true signs of life.

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FLATLINERS-2017

Quickie Review

I can’t be bothered, to be honest.

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: Ellen Page, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, Kiersey Clemons, James Norton, Beau Mirchoff, Kiefer Sutherland
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Screenwriters: Peter Filardi (original story), Ben Ripley

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.

Death Note

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.

netflix-death-note

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 – 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