Movie Review – Believer

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EXPECTATIONS: A vastly different, yet satisfying remake of Johnnie To’s Drug War.

REVIEW: Everyone knows how I feel about remakes, being mostly unnecessary and the ones that stand out strive to be different and so on, yada-yada-yada. Therefore, I won’t be singing the same tune again.

In the case of Lee Hae-young’s Believer, it is a remake of Johnnie To’s stellar crime-thriller Drug War, a film that stood out due to To’s fantastic direction that not only makes thrills with its boilerplate procedural narrative but also sidestepping Chinese film censorship, which is no easy feat.

Believer doesn’t have those obstacles but just the elephant in the room; being that it is a remake of a critically acclaimed film. It can be a simple cut-and-paste of the original, or it will make a deviation from it and stand out from the crowd. That’s where director Lee Hae-young comes in.

Standing out with his directorial debut, the delightfully strange comedy-drama Like a Virgin, which involves a trans-woman who competes in Korean wrestling in order to win money to pay for her sex change operation. That alone already sounds like the type of director who takes the road less traveled. With a talented cast (including the late Kim Joo-hyuk) and crew in tow, will Believer be a remake that finally stands out?

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Basically following the framework of Drug War, the film follows detective Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) who, to bring down the boss of Asia’s biggest drug cartel, conspires with a drug pusher named Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol) who is a lowly member of the gang seeking revenge against the boss, Mr. Lee, who has never been truly seen as many people out there claim to be him.

From the second the film started, it is very clear that Believer isn’t a straight cut-and-paste remake of Drug War. Taking a different approach in comparison to the almost laser-focused procedural pacing of Johnnie To’s film, Lee Hae-young’s film takes on a more stylish and cinematic approach, adding dimensions to the lead characters, utilizing more unorthodox shot placements (one used on the revolving platter), adding more gore and prurience and making the villains even more larger-than-life (courtesy of actors Kim Joo-hyuk and Cha Seung-won, as a new character not in the original).

In simpler terms, director Lee and scriptwriter Chung Seo-kyung (a collaborator for the acclaimed director Park Chan-wook) takes the framework of Drug War and puts a lot more “movie” into it. Cinematographer Kim Tae-kyung lenses the film stylishly with great results and the propulsive electronic score by Dalpapan adds a lot of energy to the proceedings.

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And on that note, Believer succeeds overall. Starting from the smaller details, the humour is more from the macabre variety, rather than the dark humour in Drug War, and it lends some ample laughs. Whether it’s a character that uses his tongue for more than just profane swearing or a particular use of gore that is reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the depravity is sure to startle and induce awkward laughter.

The characters are more overstated than in the original and the actors are more than up to the task in portraying them up to eleven. Last seen in roles like the perverted stepfather in The Handmaiden and the fiendish villain in A Hard Day, Cho Jin-woong fits into the role of Won-ho like a glove and while the script initially gives him an emotional throughline to play with via a character death, it’s largely forgotten until the ending.

Ryu Jun-yeol, fresh from the biggest Korean film of 2017, A Taxi Driver, is compellingly enigmatic as the taciturn Rak. Since the drama is pumped up, the relationship between Won-ho and Rak is put into the spotlight but unfortunately, it’s not developed very much beyond petty squabbles about mistrust and dependence on one another. It also doesn’t help that it’s overshadowed by the vast amount of quirky characters i.e. the villains. And it’s because of that, the contemplative ending, which is incredibly out of place with everything that proceeded it, falls flat.

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But the actors who play the villains do their very best to compensate and they are definitely the most entertaining parts of the film. The late Kim Joo-hyuk gives a spectacular performance as the deranged Ha-Rim, who can be set off by something innocuous as the noise of a LED light bulb. Park Hae-joon is entertainingly boisterous as Sun-chang, a lieutenant of Mr. Lee who can’t keep his mouth shut.

Others include Jin Seo-yeon, who is hot-headed as Bo-ryeong, Ha-rim’s eccentric and fanatical (of Lee Min-ho, of course) girlfriend, while Cha Seoung-won effectively plays Brian, a drug-peddling minister/estranged son of a dead industrialist with a bit of a screw loose. Best of all are Kim Dong-young and Lee Joo-young as deaf/mute brother-and-sister (unlike the two mute brothers in Drug War) drug cooks who are amusingly menacing in dirty clothing, firing off machine guns as well as bicker in hilariously exaggerated sign language.

But the majority of the female characters (apart from Lee Joo-young and Kang Seung-hyun as a member of Won-ho’s team) are portrayed problematically, including the character of Bo-ryeong. Whether they are meant to be leered at as eye candy or only serve as a plot device/character motivator, it’s a problem that not only brings down Believer, but other South Korean films, especially V.I.P.

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The action, which most of it is in the third act, is well-done and ferocious as many South Korean action films can be. Although none of the action scenes are immaculate as in Drug War, it relies on more of an extravagant approach (including scenes of hand-to-hand combat) that works. And there are scenes that are intensely gripping, the stand-out being an elaborate undercover scheme involving scripting and acting skills that shows ,like in Stephen Chow’s King Of Comedy, that undercover cops are the best actors.

And speaking of the best, Believer is the best we could’ve hoped for a remake nowadays. Retaining the framework of the original whilst going on its own path, the cast and crew all deserve kudos for their genuine effort, even if the destination is not as satisfying as the journey. And it serves as a substantial swan song for Kim Joo-hyuk, who steals the show with his towering performance.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The cast give good performances, especially Kim Joo-hyuk

Macabre sense of humour lends plenty of laughs

Quirky supporting characters add loads of fun

Well-executed action, gripping scenes of tension and good pacing

CONS

Problematic portrayal of female characters

Ill-fitting ending

Ineffective human drama between two leads

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Cho Jin-woong, Ryu Jun-yeol, Kim Joo-hyuk, Kim Sung-ryung, Park Hae-joon, Cha Seung-won, Jin Seo-yeon, Kang Seung-hyun, Seo Hyun-woo, Kim Dong-young, Lee Joo-young, Jung Ga-ram
Director: Lee Hae-young
Screenwriters: Chung Seo-kyung, Lee Hae-young, based on Johnnie To’s Drug War

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Movie Review – A or B

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EXPECTATIONS: An entertainingly bonkers thriller.

REVIEW: The cat-and-mouse thriller genre has been a great well for filmmakers to mine since Alfred Hitchcock came into the picture. With classic films like Strangers on a Train to current films like The Commuter, films where the lead character is an ordinary person swept up in extraordinary circumstances have been a constant in cinema.

With China’s latest effort in the cat-and-mouse genre, we have A or B, with Xu Zheng playing the hapless lead in the extraordinary situation which could involve the potential loss of his wealth, his belongings and even his wife, thanks to an unknown assailant. Will the film provide the requisite thrills?

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Xu Zheng stars as billionaire thief, Zhong Xiaonian prowls auction houses appearing calm on the surface while plotting a multi-million-dollar heist. But just as his criminal career is about to strike gold, he’s kidnapped and forced to take part in a twisted multiple-choice game (hence the title) controlled by a mysterious, unknown captor.

By not going along with the captor’s game, he’s on the verge of losing his reputation, all of his possessions and his long-suffering wife (Wang Likun) so must beat his anonymous captive at their own game before it gets deadly.

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One of the essential elements of a successful cat-and-mouse thriller is that the audience should be able to empathize and relate to the predicament of the lead character(s). In the case of A or B, we see Xiaonian, a character who is despicable in the way he treats his co-workers, his friends and especially his wife. It would take a certain kind of actor to play the role very well and unfortunately, Xu Zheng is not that actor.

Zheng tries valiantly, lending a sense of desperation to the character but his performance doesn’t help the fact that the character is unlikable not worth caring for. Wang Likun also tries her best as Simeng, Xiaonian’s wife, but her thinly-written character is left nothing to do but suffer. Suffer for her husband, suffer for her life, it just goes on and on and it doesn’t make a compelling character and only serves as a motivation for the lead, which is a real shame.

The supporting cast are all okay with their parts like Duan Bowen as a reporter who helps Xiaonian out and Wang Yanhui, overacting gloriously as the scumbag competitor to Zhu Zhu as the vamp femme fatale; but Simon Yam plays a role that is only present for less than a minute and honestly, anyone could’ve have played that role.

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Another essential element is the plausibility of the predicament. As for the storytelling itself, director Ren Pengyuan lends a pedestrian execution to the proceedings. While there are some moments that add life to the story i.e. the more desperate moments in the climax, it goes beyond ridiculous that it’s hard to empathize with what’s happening.

There are moments where Xiaonian all of a sudden becomes MacGruber MacGyver and improvises objects that would help his escape. Those moments are unbelievable but they are undeniably entertaining, even if one of the moments basically rips off the 2005 American thriller, Cellular. But the film wades into melodrama in the second act, which revolves around Xiaonian and Simeng and it wallows there, having the life sucked out of it.

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It also does not help that the culprit in charge of kidnapping Xiaonian is very easy to figure out and the motivation for said villain is quite rote and is revealed too little, too late. And just when the ending of the film suits what had proceeded it, thanks to the magic of Chinese film censorship, all of what happened was all for naught, thanks to the end credit sequences, that are pandering, insulting and a total cop-out.

And there are filmmaking gaffes that are quite blatant like continuity errors (eg. inconsistent car damage in the car chase), plot holes like how no authority bothered to track down who sent the suspicious messages, how did the characters gather all the lights and so on.

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There are even terrible lines of dialogue like “A number that cannot be turned to cash is just a number” and this reviewer’s personal favourite, “People would indeed die for money”. The audience just went through 90 minutes where the message conveyed exactly that. There was no need to verbalize it and it just comes off as patronizing.

And there’s the bizarre elements like how the antagonists in the film cater to Japanese customs like eating sushi, which goes back to the xenophobia of Chinese film censorship and the use of a bomb that actually says the word “EXPLOSIVE” on it, in English. Whether one were to see it as patronizing or it’s meant to hint that it’s a foreign product because the Chinese would never make explosives, who knows?

It just goes to show how unengaging the film is when these details go noticed. Overall, A or B is a middling cat-and-mouse experience with few thrills, a couple of okay performances, saddled with a cool premise. Unfortunately, due to the slack pacing, the sloppy storytelling, the unlikable lead character and the cop-out ending(s), the film doesn’t make the grade of either an A or a B. More like a D-minus, really.

Quickie Review

PROS

An interesting premise

Some okay performances

Some ridiculously entertaining moments

CONS

Sloppy storytelling

Melodramatic second act

Terrible end-credit scenes that ruin what had preceded it

SCORE: 4/10

Cast: Xu Zheng, Wang Likun, Duan Bowen, Wang Yanhui, Zhu Zhu, Simon Yam
Director: Ren Pengyuan
Screenwriters: Ren Pengyuan

Movie Review – Unsane

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EXPECTATIONS: A lean, mean, 70’s style exploitation horror film with a fantastic performance from Claire Foy.

REVIEW: Steven Soderbergh is known to be one of the greatest filmmakers to come from independent cinema with films like Sex, Lies and Videotape and King of the Hill. But he became a bigger name when he ventured into commercial filmmaking with crime films like Out of Sight, The Limey and the Ocean’s film series.

Since then, he’s produced various projects, helped boosting careers like the career of director Christopher Nolan, he balanced out his commercial projects with his experimental projects. The latter resulted with mixed results like the drama film Bubble; the sci-fi remake of Solaris and the comedy Full Frontal. When Soderbergh announced his retirement from feature filmmaking back in 2012 (although it was later claimed to be a sabbatical), it didn’t feel like much of a blow since his creative outlets would be fascinating regardless of the format, whether it is from television, theatre or the internet.

For his latest project, after his return to feature filmmaking with heist comedy Logan Lucky, he has mixed his commercial aspirations with his experimental sensibilities with Unsane, a horror exploitation film starring the talented Claire Foy. But what makes this film experimental is that the film was made entirely with the iPhone 7. Does the film succeed at being entertaining as well as showing what the iPhone 7 is capable of in terms of cinematic panache?

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The film follows Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a woman who has been relocating from Boston to Pennsylvania to escape her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard) for the last two years. Despite having a normal office job and living healthy (due to her salad lunches) she is unable to live a normal life due to her seeing striking visions of her stalker.

Consoling with a therapist of her past events and her current condition, she unwittingly signs in for a voluntary 24-hour commitment to the Highland Creek Behavioral Center. Her stay at the facility soon gets extended when doctors and nurses begin to question her sanity. And just when things get worse, Sawyer believes that one of the orderlies is David. Without much support from her friends and family as well as in the facility itself, Sawyer will do whatever it takes to survive and fight her way out.

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Unsane is a very striking entry in Soderbergh’s filmography due to the fact that it is an entry where he ventures into pulp B-movie territory. With the script written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer (who have previously written comedies like Just My Luck and The Spy Next Door, no really), the story hearkens back to the old-school exploitation films like Shock Corridor and classic madhouse films like The Snake Pit, One Who Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Repulsion; so we are in familiar territory here. The film does venture into horror tropes in the third act, which could lose some of the audience, but Soderbergh lends it enough style to make it fresh, even when the script does show itself to be mildly problematic in retrospect.

But there are many elements that make Unsane stand out from its familiar trappings and flaws. One element is the film’s surprising thematic punch. Whether the film was uncannily released in a time that involves the era of Time’s Up and Me Too movements, the film is essentially a timely metaphor for how women are not believed and how they are subjected into harassment, how they are driven to doubt their experiences to the point of possible delusion, how men treat them in such a way that it affects every viewpoint of their actions, however trivial.

The opening scene of Unsane sets the tone rather quickly and succinctly; as it involves Sawyer talking to her boss and he offers her a work-related invitation or a moment in the film where even as something as seemingly small as not reading the fine print of a contract can be seen as scary. But the way it is executed gives off an underlying sense of tension that rings undeniably true.

It also makes some striking social commentary on disabled care and the medical profession that not only compels within the scope of the story but it also adds to the delusion of the characters and whether they are sane or not, resulting in more added tension. And what makes it all work is Soderbergh’s restraint in conveying these themes without rubbing it in one’s face.

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Another element that makes Unsane stand out is the direction by Soderbergh (under the name of Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard). Utilizing the iPhone 7, the colours, the compositions and the shots lend the film a sense of grit and tact, which is reminiscent of 70’s exploitation films. And it also lends the film a creepy, voyeuristic vibe that implies that anyone out there would be using their cellphones to spy on them. And the specific idea is amusingly delivered by a high-profile cameo from a Soderbergh regular who states that “Think of your cellphone as your worst enemy”. The musical score by Thomas Newman compliments the vibe of the film really well, whilst sounding unconventional in that it doesn’t build up the tension, but it makes the tension pervade throughout.

The staging of the conflicts in the film are also quite unexpected. In one scene where Sawyer becomes incredibly destructive, the scene is shown in both the POV of Sawyer and from behind within the same shot. Now usually a scene such as this would be an opportunity for the actor to “carve a slice of ham” so to speak, but Soderbergh relies more on the filmmaking, rather than the performances.

But slyly enough, there is a scene where it is set in the room of quiet solitary confinement and it becomes like a stageplay of sorts, where the characters become quite confronting and vent their feelings towards each other and it gets quite thrilling like an action scene. And with the honest thematic punch, the scene becomes one of the most thrilling scenes in 2018. It is that good.

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The supporting cast of Unsane are all good sports from the charismatic Jay Pharoah whose character can be seen as sane even if his theories sound delusional; to the chameleon-like Juno Temple who gives another unhinged performance and Amy Irving (famous from 1976’s Carrie, another film involving the abuse of a woman) providing strong support as Sawyer’s mother. And of course there’s Joshua Leonard as George Shaw (or is it David Strine?). As much as is suitable to go into the details of praising his performance, it would venture into spoiler territory, but he is compelling here just as he was natural in 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.

But the biggest element that t makes Unsane worth seeing is the Queen herself, Claire Foy. Standing out to this reviewer ever since titular performance in the underwhelming Season of the Witch, I have enjoyed her work in The Crown and Breathe. And hearing that she is playing Lisbeth Salander in the upcoming film, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Unsane is essentially the audition tape for it.

Foy gives an incredibly raw performance that conveys the gamut of emotions that Sawyer goes through perfectly.  What is notable about Foy’s performance is that it never feels like Foy is trying to endear herself to the audience. There is a righteous anger within her that makes her lash out physically or even as minor as saying something that passes off as passive-aggressive, even if it becomes irrational. All of this adds to the credence that her character may or may not be insane, and Foy conveys that convincingly. Whether she is angry at the position she is in or whether she is panicking at the supposed presence of her stalker, Foy’s performance is the solid foundation that makes Unsane work.

Overall, despite the familiar story and the minor script problems in the third act, Unsane is a lean, mean and powerful psychological horror-thriller that packs a timely thematic punch and features what could be Foy’s best performance.

Sidenote: Unsane not only amusingly ends on a freeze-frame (which is basically unheard of in the present day of cinema) and it features one of the shortest end credits reels in a very long time.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performance from Claire Foy

Game supporting cast

Soderbergh’s direction

Gritty iPhone cinematography and idiosyncratic musical score

CONS

Problematic third act

Script flaws

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: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Amy Irvine, Polly McKie, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Gibson Frazier, Aimee Mullins
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriters: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer

Movie Review – Den of Thieves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quickie Review

PROS

Good action scenes

Fun performance from Butler and a good performance from Jackson

Good musical score from Cliff Martinez

CONS

Rehashes too much of Heat

Too many unnecessary scenes that pad out the run time

A terrible twist ending

SCORE: 5/10

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

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

Movie Review – Chasing the Dragon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quickie Review

PROS

Good supporting cast of veterans

Andy Lau delivers a subtly menacing performance

Vibrant cinematography

Good action scenes

CONS

Tedious and exhausting storytelling

Rampant xenophobia

Hypocritical and duplicitous portrayals of characters

Female characters are mere plot devices

Donnie Yen’s hilariously bad performance

SCORE: 4/10

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

Movie Review – The Commuter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quickie Review

PROS

Liam Neeson still delivers the goods

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

Action scenes are well done

CONS

Sloppy and derivative story

Underused supporting cast

Many unintentionally funny moments

SCORE: 6/10

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

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

 

Movie Review – The Snowman

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that is warmer than its frosty reputation.

REVIEW: Another week, another film set in the snowy terrain. This week, we have The Snowman, a serial killer thriller starring Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson and a embarrassment of talent. But unlike the prior film, The Mountain (of Cheese) Between Us, this film has achieved quite a negative reception and brutal reviews from almost every major publication. So what must one do if one were to go into a film like this?

It helps to have an open mind. Films in the past like The Shining (1980), Scarface (1983) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (not released in 2001) gained negative reviews in the past, but over time, the films have garnered a much more positive reception; so there is a chance that The Snowman may be an unappreciated gem.

It could also help that you watch the film with an ironic bent in mind. Laughter really is the best medicine, regardless of the intention and it can get one through films painlessly and even have give films a new reputation as a unintentional comedy classic eg. The Wicker Man (2006) and The Room.

And of course, there’s the much more unorthodox solution of going in a film while being inebriated from either mild amounts of alcohol and cough syrup, but that is not recommended. With all that in mind and all that negative baggage, is it possible to actually enjoy The Snowman for what it is? Let’s cool off and delve into this thing, Mr Freeze-style.

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What an ice-hole.

Michael Frost-bender stars as Harry Hole (no, really), an investigator who’s down on his luck due to his addictions and his zero-temperature status of a marriage with his ex-wife (Charlotte Gains-breeze).

He is then brought back into the fray where an elusive serial killer known as The Snowman starts killing again, continuing a streak of murdered women. With the help of a young, experienced recruit (Rebecca Frigid-son), Hole has to connect the streak of murders to the current murders to stop The Snowman from striking again.

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This is a man who can’t believe what he got himself into.

So with the alcohol/cough syrup discount, an open mind and an ironic bent in check, did I enjoy The Snowman? Absolutely not. But let’s not start this on the negative side. The cinematography by Ski-on Beebe (too many great films to mention) is terrific, as it conveys the chilling territory of the locations in Norway quite well. And the musical score by M-arctic-o Beltrami does deliver a sense of urgency (along the side of unintentionally hilarious timing) to the proceedings.

And like a sense of warmth in the winter, it’s gone in an instant and we delve into the negatives. With this much talent in the cast (Val Chill-mer, Snow-by Jones, J.K. Ski-mmons, Snowy Sevigny and others), you expect them to give passionate and heated performances that would at least elevate the script. Unfortunately, that never happens.

Almost all of the performances are so stilted and petrified that it’s almost as if they were all kept in a meat freezer for weeks and just as the cameras started to roll, they were finally let out to deliver their lines on cue. It’s awe-inspiring to think that this much talent is given next to nothing to work with and are left out there in the cold.

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That’s the face of a woman who knows that she deserves better.

There’s a scene where Charlotte Gains-breeze and Michael Frost-bender are engaging in a prurient fashion that is so ill-executed that it brings new meaning to the word “frigid”. The only bright (or at least, easily seen) light out of the cast is Rebecca Frigid-son, who actually shows signs of life, until her character is unceremoniously expended.

Speaking of being unceremoniously expended, almost of the female characters are either damsels-in-distress, sex objects or murder victims. Hell, some of them are all three. To think at this day of age, the story could be updated to be timely and thematic but the film has the nerve to have a character that is eerily reminiscent of Harvey Windbag Weinstein (with an out-of-this-world accent).

Even with that in check, the story itself is just so dull and goes by at a glacial pace, the film makes polar ice caps look like cars in the Fast and Furious films. The killer himself (or is it herself?) is so predictable that the film should have featured a siren that goes “HONK! HONK!” when the person arrived. And the backstory and motive for the killer is even worse, which adds to the sexism directed to the female characters. It is the solid black foreshadowing, the many scenes of overdone exposition and the horrific editing (credited to Claire Ski-mpson and later credited to Thelma Snow-Cone-maker) that kills every source of heated tension.

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That’s the face of a man who just woke up and realized what film he is in.

But let’s give special mention to Val Chill-mer. Featuring in the film via flashbacks, he brings much-needed and unintentional vitality (or insanity) to the film that audiences will be shocked and awed at his appearance and especially the dubbing. While it is very understandable why Chill-mer was dubbed due to sounding like Sylvester Stallone on Quaaludes (NOTE: Here’s the proof!), the dubbing is so terrible that American distributors of Shaw Brothers films would be rolling on the floor laughing if they witnessed it.

Even if Chill-mer was dubbed properly, the script doesn’t help anyone involved whatsoever, since it is in desperate need of defrosting. According to an interview with director Snow-mas Alfredson, he said that only 85% of the script was completed. If that’s true, then the film is more nourished than I thought since the trailer actually has many scenes foreshadowed that are not in the finished product.

Dialogue exchanges border on farce like in a scene where Hole asks a colleague for some files that you’ll be begging for icicles to pierce your ears with; film techniques such as cutaways and dramatic zooms are utilized to laughable effect (every time a snowman appears) and the violence is so overstated, that it comes across as funny (like scenes from M Fright. Shyamalan‘s The Happening). Hell, even the narrations (which in one particular scene is via walkie-talkie) is embarrassing to witness.

How could this much talent involved could make such a disastrous film? To be honest, it doesn’t matter what the answer is. Even with Val Chill-mer‘s appearance and Snow-mas Alfredson‘s explanation, it doesn’t matter what happened behind the scenes; what matters is what’s on-screen. And after witnessing this disaster, someone out there is just begging to get their ice kicked.

But hey, snow film is better than no film, right? WRONG!

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That’s the face of a man who’s career is steadily going down the toilet.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good cinematography and effective score

Rebecca Frigid-son

CONS

Everything else

SCORE: 1/10

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

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jonas Karlsson, J.K. Simmons, Val Kilmer, David Dencik, Toby Jones, Chloe Sevigny, James D’Arcy
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Screenwriters: Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan, Søren Sveistrup

Movie Review – The Villainess

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EXPECTATIONS: A career-defining role for Kim Ok-bin. And also, kick-ass action scenes!

REVIEW: Kim Ok-bin is a South Korean actress that I have been following for a long time (not literally!) and I have always found her to be very talented in a variety of roles, like her dramatic film debut in the horror Voice, to her charming and adorable role in the sex comedy/musical Dasepo Naughty Girls and her comedic role in The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan.

But it was when she worked with Park Chan-wook for the dark comedy/vampire film Thirst that she started having an acting emergence. Nailing both dramatic parts, comedic parts and especially the femme fatale parts like a pro, she won many awards for her performance. Ever since then, her roles have gotten a bit smaller than expected, with small roles like The Front Line and Actresses; and she ended up in box office flops like 11 A.M.

Now, after eight years since her role in Thirst, she finally has a leading role in The Villainess, an action extravaganza from Jung Byung-gil, the director from the action/crime flick Confession of Murder. Gathering great buzz from Cannes, including garnering a 4-minute standing ovation, people have been highly anticipating this. Is the film worth the buzz?

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The film starts off with a spectacular 10-minute action scene, entirely shot in POV, as the main character takes down like 40 people through hallways, staircases and even a personal gym, leading to the title card. So it is advised that audiences should not come late to the screenings, as this takes place straight away after the opening credits.

The film is about the story of a ruthless female assassin named Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), who from an early age (residing in China, with her father) has been taught to kill. She becomes a sleeper agent for South Korea’s intelligence agency after being caught, which they promise her freedom after 10 years of service. But it’s not all that easy when two men (Shin Ha-Kyun and Bang Sung-jun) from her past and present make an unexpected appearance in her life, bringing out her deep, dark secrets.

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Let’s get to the good and bad already. The good? Kim Ok-bin herself. As seen in The Villainess, she has finally acquired a leading role that is worthy of her talents. Having capable martial arts training before tackling the role, she displays grace and capable physical prowess in her action scenes. Whether she is riding a motorcycle, scaling buildings, firing guns and throwing axes, she easily convinces as Sook-hee, the assassin.

As Sook-hee, the woman within, Kim nails the role with gusto. Lending depth and even a bit of insanity (like her character in Thirst) to her soulful, yet vengeful archetype of a character, she again shows why she made such a fuss back in 2009. If she doesn’t get better roles after this, then something seriously is wrong out there.

As for the supporting cast, they are all fine in the archetypal roles. Shin Ha-kyun (who plays an adversary to Kim Ok-bin for the third time since Thirst and The Front Line) is great as Joong-sang, as he conveys menace in a scary, yet understated manner. Bang Sung-jun is likable and brash as Hyun-soo, a love interest to Sook-hee who is more than he seems. But besting both of the men is Kim Seo-hyung. Playing a mentor character to Kim Ok-bin once again since Voice, she just nails the part of the ice cold personae, as Kwon-sook.

Now, let’s get to the action scenes. Overall, they are fantastic. Apart from the opening scene, there are scenes on motorbikes, buses, edges of buildings, restaurants and other settings, and they are all shot with so much energy and verve that it becomes almost surreal. There’s a scene where Sook-hee tries to escape from a training facility and the way the world uncovers (with smooth editing and long takes) is just so dream-like, it becomes almost enchanting. Some may find it disorienting due to the style utilized i.e. handheld camera shots, so those who suffer with motion sickness be warned.

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Now let’s get to the bad. Or a better word, mixed. The story itself is nothing new; basically an amalgam of prior assassin films like La Femme Nikita and others, but the storytelling is refreshingly free from spoon-feeding and pandering towards the audience, unlike Hollywood blockbusters, which would have characters stand to point at something and explain the plot. But the plot is told with lots of flashbacks that it does tend to get convoluted at times. Thankfully, the story is told with three distinct acts that makes it clear enough for the audience to latch on to.

Also, the drama in the film tends to be quite cheesy at times. Although some of the cheesiness makes sense due to the events of the plot but when it becomes more sincere, some of the drama becomes so melodramatic, that it can be quite laughable. And another flaw (which may be laughable itself) is the level of violence. With the amount of weapons involved including guns, knives, hammers, axes, ropes, cars, hairpins etc; it is bloody, gory and uncompromising, which will both thrill and befuddle, so be warned.

Overall, The Villainess is a much-needed shot in the arm in terms of action films, female-led films, Kim Ok-bin and South Korean cinema. I hope that after this film, both Kim Ok-bin and director Jung Byung-gil will be appreciated for their efforts and move on to do more ambitious work.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Kim Ok-bin gives a fantastic performance

Good supporting cast

Spectacular action sequences

Storytelling is refreshing due to lack of spoonfeeding

The editing and camerawork create a surreal feel

CONS

Cheesiness in the storytelling

The story can be quite convoluted

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun. Bang Sung-jun, Kim Seo-hyun, Jung Hae-kyun
Director: Jung Byung-gil
Screenwriters: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byung-sik

Movie Review – Memoirs of a Murderer (JAPAN CUTS 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: An inferior remake to the energetic and unruly original.

REVIEW: Remakes are always a risky proposition nowadays. While some can be an improvement over the original source, some can be inferior and while some can be distinct that it can stand on its own, some can be unnecessary and can be seen as a cash-grab.

In the case of Memoirs of a Murderer (not to be confused with the 2003 South Korean film, Memories of Murder), it is a remake of the 2012 South Korean film, Confession of Murder, which was an unruly, sloppy yet energetic piece of work. Will the film replicate the pacing and tone shifts of the original or will it go its own way and stand out as a superior entry in the reputations of remakes?

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Back in 1995,  rookie detective Makimura (Hideaki Ito) was involved in a string of strangulations, which unfortunately led to nowhere, and now in present-day Tokyo, the statute of limitations on the crimes is expiring. It just so happens that the killer knows exactly where he stands in regards to the law, and the next day he plans an elaborate press conference exposing himself and announcing publication of his memoir.

It becomes an instant best-seller (if not only due to the controversial content) and the only murderer Masato Sonezaki (Tatsuya Fujiwara) revels in the spotlight. You can guess that the people related to the victims would not be so happy when they hear of the news and they take matters to their own hands. But there is more to the tale when a certain twist comes into the proceedings that eventually turn the tables.

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Does the film stand out in its own way? Yes, but not in a good way. While the original had frenetic pacing and reveled in the ridiculousness of the plot, the remake takes it seriously and plays it straight. While that not may sound bad, but the direction by Yu Irie makes it very bland and to be frank, television-esque.

The cinematography, the production values, the editing etc; all blend together in to make a porridge-like package that does nothing to stand out, making the film tedious and inconsequential. Even though it is set in Japan, very little of the film is reflective of its setting. It is very unfortunate because the source material and the cast end up sinking along with it.

The cast are all fine in their roles and do what they can under Irie’s direction. Hideaki Ito does grizzled cop quite well and is a good compliment to the annoyingly slick Tatsuya Fujiwara. The latter surprises by not relying on his acting histrionics and provides a suitably menacing performance.

The supporting cast are all good in their roles, although the script does not help them much. Kaho, Ryo Iwamatsu, Koichi Iwaki, Misuru Hirata and Anna Ishibashi lend presence and that is basically it.

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There is one major difference in the story when compared to the original and that relates to the twist which occurs in the middle and while the change could have been admirable, it is ruined entirely due to the casting. For those who know who the actor (or actress) is, the casting alone ruins the twist and makes it horn-honkingly obvious.

Overall, Memoirs of a Murderer is an inferior remake as well as a bland film that does nothing to stand out from the crowd and really should belong in television, rather than be a theatrical release. It is quite a shame since lead performances are quite good and the source material seen through Japanese lens could have led to a more compelling project.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good performances from the leads

CONS

Bland productions values and direction

Ruined twists

SCORE: 4/10

Cast: Hideaki Ito, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Toru Nakamura, Ryo Iwamatsu, Koichi Iwaki, Misuru Hirata, Anna Ishibashi, Kaho
Director: Yu Irie
Screenwriters: Kenya Hirata, Yu Irie, based on the 2012 film, Confession of Murder

Movie Review – The Beguiled [2017] (Sydney Film Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: A remake that capably stands on its own.

REVIEW: Sofia Coppola is a film-maker that I admit, haven’t seen much of her work, apart from Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette. Known for her filmmaking approach to humanizing her subjects with unorthodox methods like gentle pathos, looking through different character points-of-views outside the norm and the use of anachronisms, Coppola has achieved a reputation of being a director that is both rebellious and restrained.

And now, we have her attempting her first remake, based on the 1971 film of the same name, starring Clint Eastwood. With her distinct direction, her talented cast of veterans and rising talent and top-notch crew, composed of collaborators and first-timers, will the film leave the audience beguiled or bewildered?

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Set during the American Civil War in 1863, the film starts off with Amy (Oona Lawrence), a student who is out on a stroll, picking mushrooms. She then stumbles upon an injured Union soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell) and offers him help at an all-female Southern boarding school, led by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman).

Reluctant to help, yet bound by morals of human decency (and amusingly, it’s the Christian thing to do), they all decide to help McBurney by locking him into the music room while they tend to him. Soon, mild attractions grow from the older students, from Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) to Alicia (Elle Fanning) and it then simmers to something more prurient, leading to disastrous consequences.

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As for any remake, it is difficult to review one without comparing it to the original. In the case of the latter, the story is told through McBurney’s point of view, which implies the use of the male gaze towards the women. But in the case of the former, the story is told through the point of view of the women.

This assures that the remake has a fresh angle on the story and Coppola makes the most out of it. In one of many surprising moves, the film actually has an alarming sense of humour. Character interactions revolving around the object of affection (in this case, McBurney) are witty, amusing and sometimes hilarious, leading this to be one of Coppola’s most verbose films. Coppola also makes fun of cinematic tropes of the female gaze i.e. McBurney in the role as a handsome gardener and all of the innuendos that come with that trope like pruning and tending.

In the original, the tone was much more lurid and melodramatic, to the point of being Gothic. But in the remake, Coppola aims for more of a low-key vibe, which gives the film a claustrophobic feel as well as shrouds character motivations, giving the film some tension. Major props goes to cinematographer Philippe le Sourd (who shot Wong Kar-wai‘s The Grandmaster), as he captures the claustrophobia with a hazy, shrouded look that gives it a beautiful, yet haunting atmosphere.

When McBurney arrives at the school, the women are basically reminded of what is or could be outside of their world; the possible beauty or horror of it all. And as the slow-burn pacing gradually becomes more tumultuous, the characters reveal how they truly feel and the tension pays off. And thankfully, the film is at a brisk running time of 93 minutes, which gives the story some much-needed brevity.

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The actors certainly hold up on their end, giving calculated performances that lend credibility to Coppola’s vision. Colin Farrell is great as McBurney, the masculine foil, and he conveys the dimensions of his character convincingly, but even better, he switches between them with such ease, it is quite hard to know whether he is sincere or he is devious.

Nicole Kidman gives a typically masterful performance as Farnsworth, who keeps her emotions in check for the safety of her school. What is quite amusing and interesting is that she seems to enjoy her grasp of power over her students, and yet, when McBurney enters the picture, there seems to be a bit of a battle for power between each other. So the audience is left with the conundrum of whether Farnsworth actually has feelings for McBurney or she considers him as an power struggle; something that disrupts her sense of pride. It is twists like this that makes the remake satisfyingly timely and makes it stand on its own.

The supporting cast are all up to the task as well, with Kirsten Dunst as the sorrowful and world-weary teacher, Edwina; Elle Fanning as the rebellious and angsty Alicia, Oona Lawrence as the stalwart Amy; Angourie Rice as the cynical and headstrong Jane (clearly emblematic of Farnsworth) and the pairing of Addison Reicke and Emma Booth as the innocent and impressionable Marie and Emily.

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As for the film’s flaws, the source material is pure pulp, and for Coppola’s understated approach to the material, it does, for the lack of a better word, emasculate it. And considering the setting of the story, it feels a bit strange to see the film set in the Civil War being a bit, well civil.

But, all of this basically comes down to audience expectations more than anything else, as it is the same story from a female’s perspective and as for the claustrophobic feel Coppola is going for, any clutter from the outside (apart from McBurney) would probably distract more than compliment the story.

Overall, The Beguiled is a worthy remake that shows Coppola’s gradual ascension as a filmmaker and with a fantastic cast and crew in tow, the film, like the female characters, is not to be messed around with.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Refreshing angle on the source material

Coppola’s maturing direction

Fantastic performances from the ensemble cast

Moody and atmospheric cinematography by Le Sourd

CONS

Too understated for its own good

Left out historical details may annoy some

SCORE: 7/10

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Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard
Director: Sofia Coppola
Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola, based on the novel by Thomas P. Cullinan and the screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp