Movie Review – A Simple Favour

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EXPECTATIONS: A vastly different change of pace from comedy director Paul Feig.

REVIEW: If there’s one director that needs a true change of pace out there, it’s comedy director Paul Feig. He started off great making a successful string of comedies, starting from the romantic-comedy hit Bridesmaids to the buddy cop-comedy The Heat and the espionage-action comedy Spy.

Then he hit a big of a snag with his reboot of Ghostbusters, which did well with critics and audiences, but it flopped in the box office due to the incredibly negative buzz from naysayers ranging from the fandom menace of the franchise to misogynists thinking that it was diabolically wrong to have an all-female cast to take over the franchise.

So when news came of Feig’s latest project, which was adapted from a mystery novel by Darcey Bell, it looked to be the perfect change for Feig. The trailers certainly hinted that way of a sexy, lurid thriller and even credited the film as coming “from the dark side of director Paul Feig“. With a talented cast of stars and newcomers like Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively and Henry Golding headlining, will A Simple Favour get Feig out of the rut of his last film?

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Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie, a video blogger/single mother of Miles; and she is known for his intimidating dedication to her motherhood duties, to the laughter of the neighbourhood. Over time, she comes across Emily (Blake Lively), a freewheeling and enigmatic marketing director, who is the wife of failed author, Sean (Henry Golding).

Stephanie and Emily slowly bond due to Stephanie helping out the latter with Emily’s son, Nicky, and Emily encouraging Stephanie to satiate her wild side. But one day, Emily asks Stephanie for a simple favour, which is to pick her son up from school. But Emily never comes back from work, which leads to Stephanie seeking to uncover the truth behind her best friend Emily’s sudden disappearance from their small town.

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A Simple Favour may be a lurid neo-noir thriller but it is first and foremost, a Paul Feig comedy; a factor that does not factor much into the marketing of the film. While that may put off people expecting a straight-faced film in the vein of The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, A Simple Favour is an infectiously silly, yet very entertaining trifle.

Never having read the source material by Darcey Bell, it is unknown to this reviewer whether the story was meant to be taken seriously or not. But in the case of the film (and the film’s opening and closing credits, which looks inspired by Saul Bass), director Paul Feig and writer Jessica Sharzer have decided to exploit the luridness and ridiculousness of the plot for comedy. Utilizing improvisations, broad characterizations, plentiful twists, sight gags (involving female nudity, which is quite refreshing) and physical comedy to tell a story such as this, it’s a very narrow tightrope for the cast and crew and thankfully, they pull it off.

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The cinematography by John Schwartzman looks suitably sterile, conveying the sleek exteriors and facades of the sets and characters, implying the darkness within; the editing by Brent White unsurprisingly brings out the maximum impact of all the improvisations (due to his work in prior Paul Feig and Judd Apatow films) and the musical score by Theodore Shapiro amps up the fun factor and serious stakes of the story efficiently. Special props to the choices in the cool soundtrack, including Laisse tomber les filles by France Gall and Bonnie and Clyde by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot.

And the cast are entirely up to the task of following Feig’s vision. Anna Kendrick looks absolutely revitalized after the string of problematic films and underutilized supporting parts like in the action-thriller The Accountant, the dark comedy Table 19 and the critically-reviled sequel, Pitch Perfect 3. She digs into the role with gusto and verve and anti-social adorableness, but she never loses her way to portray the humanity of the character, making Stephanie a likable lead.

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Blake Lively is a gradually improving performer, whose acting chops have improved over the years thanks to roles in the crime-thriller The Town, the drama The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, the fantasy romance Age of Adaline and the shark film, The Shallows. In the case of A Simple Favour, she inhabits the character of Emily with a magnetic, rebellious streak that is fun to watch, thanks to the brash line deliveries, her eye-opening presence and her effortless drinking. Okay, scratch that last one.

And there’s Henry Golding again, so soon after his charismatic acting debut in the rom-com Crazy Rich Asians. In A Simple Favour, he’s still charming as ever and he gradually expands his acting range quite well. And special props to the supporting cast including Jean Smart (as an alcoholic mother), Linda Cardellini (as a lesbian painter), Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, Aparna Nancherla (all three as gossiping, judgemental parents), Rupert Friend (amusing as the famous fashion designer), Bashir Salahuddin (acerbic as the police detective) and others.

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As for its flaws, the tone changes can be quite jarring for some moments (eg. implications of possible incest) and the plentiful twists and plot contrivances may not hold up to complete scrutiny (eg. extracting bodies, avoiding authorities etc.) but the biggest problem is not actually the film’s fault, but the marketing. While it does make sense and is actually quite necessary in retrospect to cover up the comedic tone, it does become a bit of a shock for those expecting something truly different from Feig.

But it matters very little considering that the film is just so much fun. With great lead performances, strong assured direction and scriptwriting from Feig and Sharzer, vibrant cinematography and an infectiously cool musical score/soundtrack, A Simple Favour may not be the drastic change of pace people would expect due to the marketing involved, but it is still an extravagantly entertaining trifle.

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

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend
Director: Paul Feig
Screenwriters: Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel of the same name by Darcey Bell

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Movie Review – Searching

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EXPECTATIONS: A crafty thriller that improves on its similar stylistic predecessors like Unfriended, The Den and Open Windows.

REVIEW: It is quite amusing to think that we have many films released over the years, regardless of genre, that span across many imaginative worlds, planets, fantasy settings and so on. With the vast amount of superhero films and blockbusters, it’s hard not to see why.

But the world that has not been mined more than enough, despite the great films we have made from it, is the world wide web. Such ingenuity can be extracted from such a setting that we can have great films like The Social Network, Catfish, Unfriended, The Den and so on, it is mindboggling to think that this isn’t done more often.

But what’s even more mindboggling is that is that the new upcoming thriller, Searching, is that this is the first Hollywood mainstream thriller to feature an Asian-American in the lead. It’s puzzling enough that we rarely have focus on Asian-American families on-screen but the fact above…wow.

And speaking of a potential wow, we have a new technological cyber-thriller from feature debut director Aneesh Chaganty, which has been gathering some critical buzz since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. With established actors (John Cho, Debra Messing) and rising talent (Michelle La), will Searching hit that wow factor?

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After David Kim (John Cho)’s 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La) goes missing, a local investigation is opened and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to the case. But 37 hours later and without a single lead, David decides to search the one place no one has looked yet, where all secrets are kept today: his daughter’s laptop.

Where her social life on the world wide web becomes an illuminating rabbit hole that goes deeper and deeper. And with a limited amount of time, David must trace his daughter’s digital footprints before she disappears forever.

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One of the major positives that makes Searching work is how writer/director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian really attacked the material with a lot of verisimilitude, using the exact sounds and layouts of the programs like Skype, YouTube and Mac programs, and it really adds to the gripping storytelling. Even the video freezes and sound lags are used to great effect, adding to the atmosphere and immersion.

Also adding to the storytelling is the acts of the characters on how they use technology. One example is how a character would start typing a message and then erase it and change it completely. That is a clever bit of storytelling that adds much-needed character development and is realistic within people’s use of technology. There is even some very ingenious foreshadowing for eagle-eyed viewers, if they notice fast enough on side-windows and browsers, which adds to the replay value.

Another example is how these characters think they are invincible behind anonymity, thinking they can get away with their bad deeds, but when their secrets are revealed, we know more about the characters. The progression between their anonymity and clarity is scary since again, it stems from reality. The film even drives the point of internet addiction into the tale (i.e, not resisting opening e-mails, many tabs on the internet browser) and it sells the premise quite well as it alleviates supposed plot holes.

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Next comes the great performances. John Cho, who has always been an understated actor in indie dramas like Columbus, Gemini and even the Harold and Kumar films. But in the case of Searching, he has his first leading role in a Hollywood thriller (To reinstate, any Asian-American actor for that matter) and he does a fantastic job.

Cho makes the character progression from grieving single father to obsessive investigator to a man driven with simmering rage look smooth and effortless. In one particular scene, his character goes from being aggressive to conflicted and eventually collapsing to the fetal position and it is a compelling gut-punch to witness and Cho really nails it.

The other two leads, Debra Messing and newcomer Michelle La also give great performances that are nuanced and convincing in portraying the hidden depths of their characters. La in particular, has the harder task mainly due to her limited screen-time and Chaganty’s attempt to skew one’s perception of her character, but the moments when she’s on-screen (particularly during the live-broadcast moments) is where she positively stands out.

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As for the film’s glitches flaws, Chaganty does veer towards sentimentality at times. It particularly becomes prevalent when he relies on the musical score by Torin Borrowdale, which is quite jarring considering that the film takes place on technological screens, despite having some leeway in showing Cho’s character listening to peaceful music from YouTube.

Some restraint would have also been beneficial as to how much Chaganty and cinematographer Juan Sebastian Baron tend to zoom in/out of the screens to telegraph the drama or hint towards revelations, although it is understandable that it is done to cater to those in the audience that are not computer-literate. And there are the plot contrivances that pile up during the third act when the revelations and character reveals come into place (eg. how is it that this specific character was able to accomplish all that in that short amount of time.) that detract the plausibility of the situation.

Overall, with clever and immersive storytelling thanks to its creative use of the technological angle of the internet, great performances, rich characterizations, surprising twists and ample amounts of food for thought, director Aneesh Chaganty has made a great feature debut with Searching, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next.

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

Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La, Sara Sohn
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Screenwriters: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian

Movie Review – Mile 22

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EXPECTATIONS: A competent action film with Iko Uwais as a true stand-out.

REVIEW: Oh, look! We have another Berg-er joint coming in cinemas! Mile 22 is the fourth collaboration between actor Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg after the three dramatic films that were based on true stories i.e. the biographical war drama Lone Survivor, the disaster film Deepwater Horizon and the crime drama Patriots Day.

All of them were solidly made, competently acted and received positive reviews during their time of release. Or they all could be seen as hero masturbation fodder for lead actor Mark Wahlberg, who has said that he could have stopped the events of 9/11, if he was on-board on one of the planes. No joke.

Moving on, for their latest collaboration, it marks a departure since Mile 22 is not based on a true story, as it is a basic story about transporting an asset from point A to point B, written by first-time screenwriter Lea Carpenter.

But with Wahlberg as the lead and a supporting cast who clearly have action pedigrees on their belts, including ex-UFC fighter, now current wrestler Ronda Rousey and martial arts extraordinaire Iko Uwais, it could lead to being something special. Does Mile 22 go the distance or will go off track and crash and burn?

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There’s really no point in doing a synopsis for this film, as it is a story that we’ve seen many, many times. But it is a well-worn plot that has resulted with effective films like Martin Brest‘s Midnight Run, George Miller‘s Mad Max: Fury Road, Teddy Chan‘s Bodyguards and Assassins and Richard Donner‘s 12 Blocks.

Unfortunately, Peter Berg’s Mile 22 doesn’t rank anywhere near the quality of those films, as it is a chaotically edited, overblown and self-serious mess. Let’s begin with the positives. In an interview, director Peter Berg said the main reason he went on to direct this film was martial arts star Iko Uwais, and knowing his prior work, it’s not hard to see why.

Every time Uwais appears in a film, his on-screen presence and acting chops gradually improve and in Mile 22, he gives his best performance. Exuding charisma, an enigmatic presence and some welcome nuance (compared to the rest of the cast), if he keeps this progress up, he could eventually become an exceptional actor.

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Unfortunately, that ends the positives and we go down the rocky road of the negatives. Unlike Peter Berg‘s prior films (barring the sci-fi blockbuster Battleship), the editing is an absolute travesty, on a storytelling level as well as a visual level. The action (particularly the fight scenes, co-choreographed by Uwais) is so riddled with fast cuts and shaky-cam, that it stings your eyes like a bad implementation of 3D. Think of the editing in action films directed by Luc Besson acolyte Olivier Megaton and you’re on the right ballpark.

Along with the eyes, what also gets hurt are your ears, because the acting from all the major players (barring Uwais) is so overwrought and blatant that it becomes farcical, if not downright annoying for some. The character that Wahlberg plays is apparently super-intelligent and autistic ala Ben Affleck in Gavin O’Connor‘s The Accountant, and yet he does the same venomous arrogant scumbag performance like he did in Martin Scorcese‘s The Departed; and yet he’s the lead. On that note, it’s already difficult to engage and sympathize with such a character. Unless you count the audience’s derisive laughter directed at him, then that could count as engagement.

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To add salt to the wounds, Lea Carpenter‘s script gives him many monologues to deliver. Whether they are meant to show how intelligent he is or it is Peter Berg‘s way to add social commentary to the film via how the government is bad and military is good or it’s meant to be seen as character development, it never convinces because the delivery is executed in such a blunt-force fashion, it comes off as unintentionally funny, complete with bobblehead decorum of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. In fact, Wahlberg’s character monologues so much, Malkovich‘s character actually tells him to stop monologuing. According to an interview on Collider, Wahlberg’s monologues were cut in half. Wow, the audience luckily dodges that bullet.

Speaking of dodging bullets, Lauren Cohan does a good job with the action scenes (under all that fast editing), but her character (as well as Rousey’s) do not come off as people you would associate in real life. Cohan’s character has a character trait that she is divorced and she is having communication problems with her daughter (no thanks to the scumbag ex-husband, played by director Peter Berg). But the way it is executed (through a family app called Our Family Wizard, which is features quite a lot) and Cohan’s high-strung performance, it just comes off as funny.

Ronda Rousey‘s talents are wasted here and her character (if you could call it that) is just a cardboard cutout that spouts quips and has very little screentime, which is a shame, as Rousey looks more comfortable on-camera than she has in prior films. And then there’s John Malkovich (who previously worked with Berg on Deepwater Horizon) cashing a paycheck while donning a Johnny Unitas haircut (toupee?), staring at monitors and barking orders (although he has the best line in the film) and we have Korean singer CL making her Hollywood debut, doing absolutely nothing to contribute to the film.

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Speaking of doing absolutely nothing, there is a twist in this film that appears in the final act. A twisty-twirly-swirly-curly knot of a twist that is so eye-gougingly obvious in its foreshadowing and appearance that it makes honking noises as soon as it arrives. In addition to that, it also honks out “sequel, sequel” and it also delivers a meta “joke” (delivered by Uwais) in reference to an SNL sketch about Wahlberg, which is amusing in retrospect because it’s the one thing in the film that is not funny.

And that’s all that Mile 22 has to offer: unintentional laughter and the presence of Iko Uwais. Don’t go into this film looking for quality action of Uwai’s earlier films or even Berg’s earlier films, since the action doesn’t go the distance. But out of the two STX studio films out in August, Mile 22 is far funnier than The Happytime Murders, so it definitely has that going for it.

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

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan, Iko Uwais, Ronda Rousey, John Malkovich, CL, Peter Berg
Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriters: Lea Carpenter, Graham Roland

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

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.

Maurice Compte and Gerard Butler star in Den Of Thieves

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

lhs

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