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

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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 mediative 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 get mourn about, but no evidence to witness that would be seen as true signs of life.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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Quickie Review

PROS

Some unintentional laughs from the acting and stylistic cues

Willem Dafoe as Ryuk

CONS

Tonally misguided

Awful acting, especially from Nat Wolff

Incredibly rushed storytelling

SCORE: 4/10

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

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

Movie Review – Meow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quickie Review

PROS

You’re kidding me, right?

CONS

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

SCORE: 0/10

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

Movie Review – A Ghost Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quickie Review

PROS

Well-made and well-shot

Good acting

Satisfying ending

CONS

Incredibly slow paced and understated for its own good

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

SCORE: 5/10

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

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

Movie Review – Okja (Sydney Film Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Another fantastic entry into Bong Joon Ho’s filmography.

REVIEW: Okja is a film involving a giant mutated pig. What more do you want? But seriously, in order to understand the hype of the film, you have to know the filmmaker Bong Joon Ho.

Bong Joon Ho is an acclaimed Korean filmmaker who has made some incredible films. And the reason he is so acclaimed is his assured directorial hand in mixing genres that usually do not associate with each other and executes them brilliantly. And he also adds a sense of humour, regardless of how inappropriate the tone of the film is.

His impressive resume so far includes films like the strikingly dark comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite, the comic-confronting crime thriller Memories of Murder, the blockbuster monster film The Host (not the film starring Saoirse Ronan, thank goodness), the old-fashioned mystery-noir Mother and the dystopian epic Snowpiercer.

Considering the critical acclaim that Bong has received, having expectations reaching levels other than high is an understandable reaction. Seeing how this was the closing film of Sydney Film Fest 2017, it was likely that Okja would end it with a bang. Does it?

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An Seo Hyun stars as Mija, a young girl who lives in the mountains with her grandfather (Byun Heebong) and is a caretaker and loving companion to Okja, a giant super pig. Life seems simple enough but that eventually changes when a family-owned multinational conglomerate takes Okja for themselves and transports her to New York, where image obsessed and self-promoting CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has big plans for Mija’s dearest friend.

With no plan and only her sheer focus, Mija vows to get her back but the journey will be hard going, going through many obstacles like capitalists, fat cats, greedy consumers, demonstrators (led by Paul Dano). Will Mija succeed in bringing her best friend home?

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Just like his earlier films, director Bong deals with a lot of issues and ideas like consumerism, animal rights, the environment and capitalism; all while forming an action-adventure film and a political satire at the same time. Even with all that baggage, it’s a miracle that Okja works as well as it does.

Even though the issues are serious, Bong never backs out from adding a touch of humour into the mix, as he places the targets both the characters and themes and satirizes them with verve. For example, the characters Bostick and Henshall play, who foolishly contribute to their cause by starving themselves to leave a minimal environmental footprint.

But this does not mean Bong doesn’t get straight to the point, as he steers the film into very dark territory, particularly in the final act. This may be the first film that I praise due to the fact that it almost made me throw up.

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All the themes pack a thematic punch as well as an emotional punch, as it adds to the heart of the film, which is the bond between Mija and Okja. The peaceful scenes between the two are executed very well (complete with references to the anime film, My Neighbour Totoro), without being overstated or sappy. There’s even a scene where the family are gathering together to eat and it is reminiscent to one of the scenes in The Host.

There’s a scene where the two take a shortcut back home and it ends up being more than they bargained for. The scene is thrilling, action-packed and skillfully foreshadows what is to come between their relationship.

Speaking of action scenes, they are all gleefully manic, yet intricately composed. There is a scene where Mija arrives in Seoul and single-handedly shakes the corporation, resulting in a fantastic car chase, leading to a shopping center that reaches its beautifully realized climax with the use of “Annie’s Song” by John Denver.

But none of it would be as good as it looks without the cinematography by Darius Khondji, who is clearly embracing the resources of what digital filmmaking can do. The CGI modelling of the creature itself is quite impressive, considering the budget, which is only $50 million.

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The acting from the ensemble cast are all either fun, unhinged or thankfully, genuine. An Seo Hyun, who impressed in the 2010 remake The Housemaid, is the solid rock of the film that keeps the film grounded, as she convincingly conveys both the tough, determined side and the paternal side of her character. The former is shown perfectly during a funny scene where Mija tries to enter the government floor entrance.

On the other side of the spectrum, Jake Gyllenhaal gleefully hams it up figuratively as well as literally. Tilda Swinton vamps it up as well as camps it up as the primary antagonist, Lucy Mirando, and she nails it, as usual while Paul Dano, in an example of off-kilter casting as with Gyllenhaal, is surprisingly cool as the leader of the animal rights group.

The smaller roles from the conflicted Steven Yeun, the fiery Lily Collins, the comically dedicated duo of Devon Bostick and Daniel Henshall, the fatherly Byun Heebong, the weaselly Choi Woo Shik, the subtly menacing, scheming Giancarlo Esposito and the overworked and nasally Shirley Henderson all immensely contribute to the fun.

Like Okja itself, the film tends to lumber a lot, veering in many directions and tones, sometimes going on-the-snout with its themes, and like Gyllenhaal’s character, its rebellious and off-kilter filmmaking may turn people off. But like a roller-coaster, it is exhilarating stuff, and it rarely ever abides to filmmaking conventions and tropes. Okja was a film that had everything I hoped for and I wish more films like this would get made, regardless of where it comes from.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastically rebellious direction from Bong Joon Ho

Mixing of genres and ideas is done really well

The ensemble cast is great

Action scenes are very thrilling

CONS

The filmmaking and Gyllenhaal’s performance will polarize

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: Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Giancarlo Esposito, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo Shik
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Screenwriter: Bong Joon Ho, Jon Ronson

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.

Colossal

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.

Colossal

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