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Shi gu (2015)
Some genuinely affecting moments and nice chemistry between Andy Lau and Jing Boran make up for a scatter-shot narrative that doesn't define its characters well enough
A series of interconnected stories attempt to shed different perspectives on China's child trafficking phenomenon in novelist- turned-filmmaker Peng Sanyuan's 'Lost and Love', the second film in six months (after Peter Chan's 'Dearest') based on the pressing social matter. On one hand, there is Andy Lau's Lei Zekuan, an Anhui farmer who has been on the road on his motorcycle for the past 14 years in search of his lost son. On another, there is Jing Boran's mechanic Zeng Shuai, who was abducted as a child and has been searching for his birth family since.
In addition to Lau and Boran, there is also Ni Jingyang's grief- stricken mother, whose 18-month-old infant was recently abducted at a busy traffic intersection. Besides handing out flyers to pedestrians, she spends her time hanging around the same intersection hoping to get a glimpse of her daughter. Interestingly, Jingyang's character isn't given a name, but there is no doubt she is intended to represent the shock and anguish of countless parents in the days and weeks immediately after their children's disappearance. And to a much smaller extent, Sandra Ng plays her daughter's kidnapper, driven by money to partake in such a heinous trade.
As well-intentioned as the multi-character narrative may be, it is quite blatantly clear just where Peng, who wrote and directed the movie, has her eye on. Indeed, despite opening with a ripped-from- the-headlines story of the abduction of Zhou Tianyu, that arc involving her mother and her kidnapper never quite goes anywhere, so much so that it winds up being an unnecessary distraction that comes literally to its own watery end. Unsurprisingly, Peng spends most of the screen time developing the fraternal bond between Zekuan and Shuai, whose dynamic becomes the movie's emotional anchor.
They meet after Zekuan gets into an accident en route to the Wuyi Mountains and Shuai offers to fix his bike for free, thus beginning a poignant relationship of two kindred souls united by circumstance. To Peng and her actors' credit, neither overplay the sentimentality, allowing their bond to develop slowly but surely into one of gentle but unwavering support. In one of their first scenes together, Shuai blames Zekuan for failing to look after his son, but in one of the later scenes, it is also Shuai who pulls Zekuan away from his washed-up motorcycle on a beach after being thrown into the sea. Theirs is a relationship of complements, culminating in Zekuan's pivotal role in Shuai's eventual reunion with his birth parents.
Between Zekuan and Shuai, it is perhaps surprising to note that Shuai is the more compelling one. Indeed, though much has been said about Andy Lau's gritty performance as the grieving peasant parent, Peng dedicates more detail to her other character, whose desire to be reunited is tempered by ambivalence at what life awaits for him after that reunion, especially because of his emotional attachment to his adopted parents as well as his older step-sister. An excellent sequence typifying this has Shuai relating his adopted father's wish for him to marry his step-sister, just so he can remain in the family legitimately. Such moments illustrate the psychological dilemma facing such individuals, particularly if they have since settled into better lives in their adopted families.
In contrast, Zekuan remains a frustratingly opaque character. Other than his own admission to Shuai that he is afraid to go back to his family empty-handed, there is no other insight to the man who has dedicated more than a decade to such a singular mission. In some of the earlier scenes, Zekuan mounts a banner of Tianyou on his bike to aid in the latter's search, but that act of kindness is never quite expounded into anything substantial. In fact, the second act pretty much sidelines Zekuan as the focus shifts to Shuai's unlikely reunion, leaving only an epilogue involving a group of Buddhist monks in meditation to bring our attention back to this obscure figure.
That is also a consequence of Lau's own unexceptional performance much as it is a departure from the usual 'superstar' roles he is known to play, his acting is convincing without ever being moving. Lau and Boran do have a good rapport next to each other though, which makes their scenes together much more engaging than that of Lau alone. Since we are on casting, we might as well add that the decision to cast comedian Sandra Ng in the role of Tianyou's kidnapper comes up to no more than a gimmick ditto for Tony Leung Kar-Fai's cameo as a kind-hearted policeman whom Lau meets on his way to Quandou.
As a reflection of the reality of child trafficking, Peng also fashions her film like a road movie, with Hou Hsiao-hsien's regular DP Mark Lee Ping-bin providing some stunning images of the rugged beauty of the Chinese hinterland. In many ways, her pacing also follows that of such a journey, which for the most part is leisurely, picking up only in the more interspersed dramatic sequences, such as one where Zekuan's goes on board a floating fishery on a tip that the family's adopted son has a similar scar to that of his own child. That isn't a bad thing in itself, but it does mean that those looking for a more propulsive narrative like that of 'Dearest' will probably be quite disappointed.
No matter that it is coming out so closely to Peter Chan's film of the same theme, Peng's 'Lost and Love' has a lyrical quality that its predecessor never aimed or attained for. Alas her decision to have a multi-strand narrative ultimately makes the film seem scatter-shot and somewhat lacking in momentum, and the fact that most of her characters seem under-developed only reinforces that sentiment. Though it isn't as emotionally powerful as it could have been, there are genuinely affecting moments within, and gives voice to a phenomenon that pleads for wider social redress.
Chor gei (2014)
Charlene Choi sheds all vanity in a daring and untamed performance that anchors an uneven but compelling film that is a surprisingly better character study than social drama
If you've taken notice of 'Sara', it's likely because of the fact that it has been billed as Charlene Choi's most daring performance yet and to give the former Twin credit, it is her most fascinating one yet. Playing the titular character that spans her teenage years to her early 30s as an investigative journalist, Choi abandons all vanity in an honest and sincere portrayal that embraces wholeheartedly Sara's emotional and psychological vulnerabilities. And yes, she does have a couple of intimate scenes with her co-star Simon Yam but we might as well advise those hoping to see her topless or fully nude to check those expectations at the door, because while candid, they were never meant to be exploitative.
At its core, 'Sara' is a coming-of-age story more than an examination of the Thai sex industry, despite some marketing hype about it being an expose on the latter. Indeed, there are two parallel narratives in Erica Li's screenplay, but no matter what her intentions may have been at the start, Sara's sojourn to the seedy underbelly of the Land of Smiles is but superficial unless seen in the context of her own teenage years. Appropriately then, the film opens with her sexual abuse as a 14-year-old at the hands of her stepfather (Tony Ho Wah- chiu), which her equally despicable mother (Pauline Suen) keeps quiet about because she feels a misplaced sense of indebtedness for having taken her in.
Fast-forward to present day, and Sara is now a plucky journalist who goes undercover as a hostess at a nightclub to expose on the collusion between government officials and real estate magnates. Her article provides too incendiary, and her editor yanks it. Feeling betrayed that her boyfriend (Ryan Lau) kept her in the dark about the editorial decision not to publish her piece, Sara leaves abruptly for a sojourn to Chiang Mai. It is in one of the pubs that Sara meets Angela (Sunadcha Tadrabiab), whom she pays a night for in order to bail her out from spending it with lecherous 'white men' (known as 'falangs') looking for quick one night stands. Sara takes a personal interest to Dok-my's story, which is meant to illuminate the plight of young girls taken from their villages and forced to sell themselves for money.
Frankly, that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone many human rights organisations and international news media have consistently tried to draw attention to Thailand's sex trade, and 'Sara' adds nothing particularly insightful or poignant. What it does however is to illustrate the parallels with its protagonist's own struggles as a teenager who ran away from home and turned to petty crime on the streets in order to make ends meet. In the same way that Dok-my trades her body in exchange for a better life, so does Sara in the form of an ultimately destructive relationship with the mild-mannered Kam Ho-yin (Simon Yam).
In exchange for getting her into a Band I school (which is Hong Kong- speak for a renowned private school), Sara offers to have sex with the middle-aged education Government official, who is later revealed to not just be keen to keep up the image of a faithful husband at home but also a devoted Christian. The contradictions would be apparent to anyone, but Ho-yin's motivations are intentionally kept obscure as he goes out of his way to look after Sara, including paying her rent for an apartment and giving her an allowance. But as you'd probably imagine, their relationship is hardly straightforward and so, while Ho-yin gets jealous when he spies her journalism school classmate acting fondly towards Sara, he has no qualms trying to keep her hidden from the rest of his life as far as possible. Without any spoilers, it suffices to say that it doesn't end well, as one iteration of the poster which sees Charlene Choi lying in a pool of red should be clear a hint as any.
And yet, the fact that we appreciate the emotions between Sara and Ho- yin is to director Herman Yau's credit. While other directors may be tempted to judge or sensationalise their unconventional affair, Yau treads an impressively objective line in depicting their relationship, such that we do not condemn Ho-yin for clearly crossing a moral line nor be devoid of sympathy when Sara realises that she has fallen in love with him. Li's screenplay doesn't shy away from the ethical conundrums of their relationship; instead, she and Yau keep the character dynamic between Sara and Ho-yin real and believable, trusting their audiences' intelligence to draw their own conclusions if they are so minded to.
Apart from being one of its most prolific filmmakers, Yau is also one of Hong Kong cinema's most socially conscious creative talents, and that same sensibility has enabled him to coax a perfectly naturalistic performance from Choi. With Yau's firm direction, she doesn't overplay the melodramatic moments in the movie, nor short-change her audience when she needs to summon the emotional intensity for her character. Of course, Choi has an excellent foil in Yam, whose subtle low-key acting is just what the script and his character's connection with Sara needs. As an actor, Yam is also ever gracious, letting Choi take the spotlight by underplaying Ho-yin's presence in their scenes together.
Thankfully, Choi does not disappoint, and those who have been fans of hers since her Twins days can attest to how far she has come as an actress. 'Sara' is by no means a perfect film, but it is one of the bolder and thematically challenging films to come out of Hong Kong in recent years, and Choi's commitment to her titular role makes it even more compelling. Just as surprising is the fact that funnyman Chapman To is its producer, but from the looks of this serious-minded and well-intentioned drama, his sensibilities are in the right place.
Run All Night (2015)
A immensely satisfying blend of gripping mob drama and thrilling action setpieces that is easily Liam Neeson's most credible work in recent years
Before you dismiss the latest Liam Neeson action movie 'Run All Night' as yet another iteration of 'Taken', let us reassure you that there is much more to this mob thriller than meets the eye. True, Neeson plays a former man of violence with a 'particular set of skills' who is forced to employ them in order to save his family, but that's about where the similarities end. Indeed, while that franchise never quite had any ambition than as a glorified B-movie, this latest team-up between Neeson and his 'Unknown' and 'Non-Stop' collaborator Jaume Collet- Serra proves itself as an impressive amalgamation of the Oscar- nominated dramatic skills on which his earlier career was built on and his more recent kickassery.
Brad Inglesby's script starts by giving us a glimpse of Neeson after the fateful events of the titular evening that is, lying in a forest and bleeding from a shotgun wound before rewinding sixteen hours before to fill us in. As we soon learn, Neeson's Jimmy Conlon wasn't in a much better state before his most recent run-in with mob boss and childhood friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) that had led to his current predicament. An alcoholic mocked by the denizens at the local pub for farting in his sleep, the former Brooklyn hit-man was once Shawn's trusty right-hand man, but has now been reduced to playing Santa at the latter's son's birthday party for quick cash, which he spends drowning his guilt over the people he has killed and the family he has alienated through the years.
As bad luck would have it, Jimmy's estranged son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), who only wants to take care of his pregnant wife and two young kids and to have nothing to do with his father, stumbles upon Danny executing two Albanian drug dealers. When Danny turns up at Mike's house, Jimmy intervenes to save his son and ends up killing Danny, setting in motion the subsequent series of events which will see father and son move through New York City while being pursued by Danny's men including a professional assassin named Price (Common) who has his own grudge with Jimmy as well as crooked cops looking to stay on Shawn's payroll.
Rather than just skip to the chase, Collet-Serra and his screenwriter Inglesby invest in a more character-driven narrative than may be expected. A pivotal scene has Jimmy confessing to Danny's murder shortly after Shawn returns from the morgue to identify his son's body, which poignantly expresses not just one father's grief (and consequent thirst for revenge) from the death of his son but also another father's paternal instinct to protect his family by whatever means possible. Whereas 'Taken' (pardon the pun) the latter for granted, Collet-Serra wisely lets the polarising dynamic between Jimmy and Shawn define the conflict that ensues, giving both characters and their longstanding friendship turned brutal rivalry both shading and nuance.
Lest it be forgotten, Neeson and Harris are both accomplished actors in their own right, and both manage to find their characters' empathetic core. Collet-Serra understands Neeson's 'particular set of skills' in playing the fallible hero, and gives his lead actor space and breadth to explore his character's vulnerabilities and motivations even bringing in an unbilled Nick Nolte to add patriarchal weight to the proceedings. Kinnaman doesn't get enough quiet scenes with Neeson for their father-son relationship to develop into something truly compelling, but the actors share a good rapport that give the action scenes added emotional texture.
And in that department, Collet-Serra doesn't disappoint. Reining in the hand-held shots that made the last 'Taken 3' an absolute nightmare to watch even on the big screen, Collet-Serra fashions a couple of impressive sequences that make full use of its New York locale. A thrilling cop-car chase through the streets of Brooklyn easily puts 'Taken 3's' highway chase to shame, while a high-rise apartment complex on fire provides a tense backdrop against which Jimmy and Mike attempt to protect a kid witness. There is also the iconic Madison Square Garden, which provides the scene for a daring escape right after a Rangers-Devils game, and heightens the Big Apple atmosphere while keeping the gritty noir-ish feel of the earlier scenes.
It is certainly tempting to see this as yet another attempt to cash in on Neeson's newfound action hero status, but 'Run All Night' distinguishes itself with some well-filmed setpieces to satisfy the adrenaline-hungry crowd while staying grounded with enough characterisation and good acting for its audience to be rooted with the characters on screen. It is also his best collaboration yet with Collet-Serra, who seems genuinely interested at making a movie tailored to the actor's strengths than simply cashing in on a fad. Even and especially if you were disillusioned with 'Taken 3', 'Run All Night' is a good, solid slab of macho entertainment that should wash away the bitter taste of that over-the-hill franchise.
Frenetic, overblown, and yet under-developed, this mash-up of 'Robocop' and 'Short Circuit' is a jumbled mess made from recycled parts of much better sci-fi equivalents
It's a good thing Neill Blomkamp secured his next directing gig before his latest went into wide release; indeed, 'Chappie' marks yet another costly misstep that threatens to send his career the way of the Wachowskis. Its premise of an artificial intelligence becoming human is by now a familiar one, but rather than build on what its predecessors had to offer, this childish and noisy spectacle fails to develop any of its themes, be it the oft-repeated idea of consciousness or its social allegory of class divisions.
Set once again in Johannesburg in the near future, 'Chappie' opens in the same way as 'District 9' with mock news footage establishing how the police have commissioned an elite team of human-sized droids called 'Scouts' from a robotics firm known as Tetravaal to restore law and city and reduce the body count for the force as well. The 'Scouts' are the brainchild of an idealistic inventor called Deon (Dev Patel), whose creation is hailed by his company's CEO (Sigourney Weaver) to the consternation of a jealous colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman). Unlike the 'Scouts', Vincent own invention dubbed the 'Moose' requires direct human control, and has understandably been sidelined as his company banks its future on greater deployment of the 'Scouts'. Their rivalry is supposed to set in motion a series of events that leads to our titular character taking on a much more heavily-armed 'Moose' in the overblown finale, but any sort of meaningful build-up between Deon and Vincent is cast aside in favour of a gangsta subplot that is frankly misplaced.
Celebrating his love for his homeland's rap-rave group Die Antwoord, Blomkamp has cast both members as low-life gangsters Ninja and Yo- Landi (played by the group's Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser), who in the opening sequence following the scene-setting newsreel are seen to have bungled a heist and now owe their boss Hippo $20 million. To procure the compensation owed, Yo-Landi comes up with the laughable notion of obtaining a remote control so that they can switch off the Scouts. The search for that 'remote' leads them to kidnap Deon, just as the latter has prepped one of the decommissioned Scouts or 'Scout 22' as he calls it for his experiment in synthetic consciousness. By simply uploading a data file he created, Deon turns that scout into a thinking and feeling robot who is also taken together with his inventor and earns the affection of Yo-Landi. It is Yo-Landi who gives him the name 'Chappie', and in turn, Chappie calls her 'Mommy' and Ninja 'Daddy'.
Almost the whole second act is dedicated to Chappie's learning as a sentient being, which is disturbing to say the least. On one hand, Mommy teaches him English, reads him bedtime stories and encourages him to go pursue his dreams. On the other, Daddy and his accomplice Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) try to manipulate his fundamental mental constructs in order that he may assist them in their heist of an armoured vehicle. The fact that many of these scenes are played as comedy without any acknowledgment of its anarchic undertones only reinforces just how tone-deaf Blomkamp's movie is, so much so that Chappie's questioning of our human failings expressed in his confusion why humans break promises and do bad things rings hollow and even hypocritical.
There is no apartheid allegory here, but it is clear right from the onset that Blomkamp's sympathies still lie with the disfranchised in society. Though that posture may have worked in 'District 9', it feels shockingly misplaced here, in particular since their 'tutelage' leads only to violence, crime and death. It doesn't help that Chappie isn't an endearing character in his own right, coming across as a hyper-active chatterbox without nuance or restraint and Chappie remains an unrelatable character from start to finish.
Despite his efforts at trying to get his audience to identify with his character's struggle to develop a mind and soul of his own not just what his 'maker' programmes himself to be or what he has been taught to follow Blomkamp fails to make good on an intriguing theme that several other filmmakers have explored to much, much better effect before or draw any poignancy out of it. Between Chappie's incessant chatter and Blomkamp's attempt to pack as much diffuse plot into the runtime, there is hardly any space given to explore the intellectual notions that the movie flirts with (but never indulges in any serious manner).
The same idiocy unfortunately extends to its stock character archetypes. Patel's inventor is never given any motivation why he developed a consciousness for his androids in the first place. His rival played by Jackman is no more than a cartoonish villain, and even embarrassing for the A-list actor. Weaver continues a streak of playing the thankless supporting character, but the most ill-advised bit of scripting and casting has got to be the triumvirate of Ninja, Yo- Landi and Amerika/ Padillo, who are not only caricatures through and through but some of the more off-putting ones in recent memory. Sharlto Copley does a capable motion-capture for Chappie, but that work is sadly overshadowed by a character that could absolutely do with an overhaul.
Ditto for the whole picture in fact, which recycles themes from much better genre equivalents and gives them a South African underbelly spin that frankly doesn't work. Blomkamp's flair for staging a propulsive picture (with some help from an equally intrusive score from Hans Zimmer) is still intact, and so is his verve, but 'Chappie' is hyper-frenetic, over-plotted and yet under-developed at the same time. It is not even 'Elysium', which Blomkamp has in recent weeks admitted that he 'f**ked up'. We only wonder what he is going to say about 'Chappie' when he starts doing his rounds for the next 'Alien' movie.
Tian jiang xiong shi (2015)
Utterly awful in every respect, this spectacular misfire from Jackie Chan and writer-director Daniel Lee is a complete mess from tone to character to action
So desperately does writer-director Daniel Lee's historical epic strain for authenticity that it opens with a prologue set in the present day, when two archaeologists (Vanness Wu and Karena Lam) set out to find an ancient city known as Regum hidden high above the mountains in the Silk Road region. As the opening title is presented, we are taken back to 480 BC, when peace was as precious a commodity as gold in the restive region, which saw a total of 36 nations fighting to claim their rights over the land. On the brink of a war between two of them the Huns and the White Indians Jackie Chan's General Huo An is introduced as the Commander of the Silk Road Protection Squad, a small but fiercely loyal band of men given the seemingly impossible task of keeping the peace.
Lee might as well have named him Saint Huo An, because really that's what he's been made out to be. Even at the risk of danger to his life, Huo An resolutely refuses to pull a weapon against the Huns' icy warrior Cold Moon (Lin Peng). Framed for treason, Huo An turns the other cheek and readily accepts his and his men's punishment to be sent away to a ravaged city known as Wild Geese Gate. And when conflict breaks out amongst the various factions of inmates within the city, Huo An steps in to urge peace, even though everyone else seems to be itching to get at the other's throats.
Frankly, we still might have given Lee's 'Dragon Blade' the benefit of the doubt about the noble General Huo An that is, until John Cusack's General Lucius rode into the picture with his cavalry and our dear Chinese general opened his mouth to converse in English. Even if we could accept that Huo An is a man of different tongues, Chan's deliberate attempt to portray his character's strength or to be more precise, lack thereof in the English language is utterly cringe-worthy. It is so appalling that it is truly embarrassing, and what's worse, the humour is unintentional. One line we simply cannot get out of our heads is that which Chan asks Cusack "Why you want to 'bao chou'" in exactly those words, after teaching the latter how to say 'revenge' in Chinese. F**king awful, in our opinion.
Anyhow, the Roman part of the story is completely fabricated for this movie, so we might as well fill you in quickly. As the story goes, Lucius was fleeing the eldest son of one of the two serving Consuls, who had murdered his father and intends to murder his younger brother Publius (Jozef Waite) to claim the throne. Needless to say, Lucius' alliance with Huo An brings the Roman conflict to their doorstep, culminating in a mano-a-mano of Huo An against the villainous Tiberius (Adrien Brody). Oh, along the way, Huo An gets betrayed by his deputy Yin Po (K-pop star Choi Si-Won), who meets an ignominious death at Tiberius' blade too early and too quickly in the movie to ever appease his fans whom his casting obviously courts.
There is no other way to say this 'Dragon Blade' is simply terrible. Huo An is honourable to a fault and boring no matter how many times Chan tries (unintentionally) to goof him up. Lucius hardly looks like a Roman general, and that's not just because Cusack looks perpetually tired in the role. Brody poses a lot for his slo-mo shots, but it is a performance so full of cheese you'd think his trophy for 'The Pianist' was made of it. The friendship between Chan's Huo An and Cusack's Lucius is unconvincing, and so too the message of peace, not war, that Lee drums in at every single opportune or inopportune moment. There are also inexplicable moments of gratuitousness, such as when Huo An rushes to save Lucius only to find that his eyes have been gouged out.
Though he has made several period epics of varying quality (his last, 'White Vengeance', was his best), Lee is completely lost here. Veering from self-seriousness to campiness to utter ludicrousness, Lee seems tone-deaf to the way his movie looks and sounds, which keeps hitting all the wrong and false notes. We might also warn Choi Si-Won fans as well we're not quite sure how much filming he did, but he appears in a total of two scenes here for no longer than ten minutes in a two- hour plus movie.
Not even Chan as action director manages to redeem this fiasco. The battle scenes employ a lot of extras and enough widescreen lensing to awe, but the staging itself is pretty dull and uninvolving. The climax is a utter rip-off of 'The Hobbit', from the moment several different legions unite against the common Roman enemy to the very use of eagles by the Huns to create a strategic turning point in the battle. There is even a 'WTF' moment when Chan is first crowned First Centurion of the Roman Legion to take over Lucius' troops and loses half his men to his enemy's arrows and spears before realising with a shout of 'stones!' that they could use the boulders behind them to throw at their enemies.
Perhaps to emphasise just how absurd the entire enterprise is, Lee circles back to Vanness and Karena in present day to decide that they want the city to stay hidden, to claim it as their own, and therefore not to tell the rest of the team. It is a moment that, while incomprehensible in itself, makes perfect sense in the context of the whole movie. Indeed, 'Dragon Blade' is a hot mess and a spectacular misfire, not just by its star but also by its director, and if anything, further confirms that the once-promising careers of Hollywood stars John Cusack and Adrien Brody are going the way of Nicholas Cage.
From Vegas to Macau II (2015)
Chow Yun-Fat's unparalleled charisma and his buddy chemistry with Nick Cheung make Wong Jing's fast, funny and often witty action caper a sheer delight from start to finish
More than two decades after his iconic 'God of Gamblers', Wong Jing struck action-comedy gold at the box office last year with his unofficial reboot reuniting with its charismatic (and inimitable) star Chow Yun-Fat. That frenetic but frequently funny 'From Vegas to Macau' was also Chow's first bona fide Hong Kong movie in years, re- establishing him as one of the territory's most versatile performers after a series of Hollywood missteps and another equally uninspiring string of stodgy Mainland period epics. And if expectations are even higher this time round, well we're glad to say that the sequel is not only bigger than its predecessor in most respects, it is for the most part also better in story, character, action, and most of all, humour.
Continuing where the previous film left off, Ken (Chow Yun-Fat) is once again approached by the authorities this time the Interpol to assist in apprehending the true mastermind of the international criminal organisation DOA. Turns out that Mr Ko (Gao Hu) which he helped take down wasn't the head of the organisation; that (infamous) honour belongs to a Japanese lady known as Aoi, who has evaded the authorities by building her headquarters on board her personal A380. Though initially reluctant, Ken eventually agrees in part to protect his former disciple and current Interpol agent Vincent (Shawn Yue) notwithstanding that the unexpected appearance of an old flame Molly (Carina Lau) whom he still loves deeply might have changed his mind as well.
The much-touted chemistry between Chow Yun-Fat and Carina Lau may be cause to be excited, but what truly gives this sequel its ace is Chow's other (and male) co-star Nick Cheung.
Playing an accountant named Mark for the DOA, Cheung turns the second half of the movie into an excellent buddy comedy with Chow. In fact, Wong Jing knows exactly how to play his cards, and so after setting up the necessary to introduce us to Mark and then to do likewise for Ken, he pretty much lets the two male actors carry the weight of the entire film. It may be Chow and Cheung's first collaboration together, but both actors play off each other like old pros. At an illegal casino operated by the local mafia and managed by his 'White Storm' transsexual co-star Poyd, Cheung does a hilarious impersonation of Chow's alter-ego Ko Chun from 'God of Gamblers' complete with black trenchcoat, jade ring and a bar of chocolate such that their little switcheroo is utterly laugh-out- loud.
Next to Cheung, Lau plays Chow's former lover a little too stoically indeed, it says a lot when Chow seems to be having a better time with his mechanical butler named Robot, a curious human-sized contraception that can pretty much do anything a personal servant can, from laundry to making tea to even a massage. A late upgrade even (literally) transforms Robot into an 'Autobot', fending off bullets from Aoi's goons when they pay a visit to his 'house of traps' you'll recall from the earlier movie that Ken already had such a proclivity for booby-trapping his place. Other than watch Chow embarrass himself at Muay Thai and taking a brief island sojourn immediately after, Lau doesn't get much time to rekindle (or kindle) her love for Chow in the movie; thankfully, a twist at the end somewhat redeems (and explains) her icy demeanour.
Compared to their scenes together, the rest of the film unfolds with the usual Wong Jing bombast. Clearly given a much huger budget, Wong Jing ups the stakes in every conceivable way. Opening with a shootout on the high seas where Ken is greeted by bikini girls with guns in jet-powered flippers, Wong Jing proceeds to blow up an entire low- rise apartment building in Bangkok and shortly after almost completely annihilate an Interpol team at their safe house with drones, machine guns and even RPGs. Certainly, that is the attitude with which Wong Jing has approached the jaw-dropping climax, which sees Chow and Cheung transported via helicopter in an elevator cab to Aoi's fortress in the skies.
Yet, even though there are plenty of visual distractions, Wong Jing wisely keeps the movie focused squarely on Chow. He is its very lifeblood, its very heart and soul, and even though not all of Wong's jokes hit the mark, Chow's comic timing every single time is absolutely impeccable. He knows just the right tongue-in-cheek tone to take with each line, such that no dialogue or scene ends up being caricature. Besides Cheung and Lau, Wong also surprises fans of old- school Hong Kong cinema with a brief scene of Chow at the mah-jong table with Eric Tsang, Natalis Chan, and himself. Still, nothing can quite prepare you for the final tease, which not only sees Chow reprise his 'God of Gamblers' get-up but also introduce Andy Lau as Ko Chun's disciple for a 'blast from the past' that is worth the price of admission alone and sets up the possibility of a sequel we already are standing in line for.
There is no doubt from the trailer that 'From Vegas to Macau 2' is bigger in scale than its predecessor was, but the introduction of new characters and concomitantly new cast members Nick Cheung and Carina Lau have certainly added vim and vigour that Chow's previous co- stars Nicholas Tse and Chapman To lacked. Wong Jing is also at the top of his game both as a scriptwriter and as a director, clearly benefitting from his producer Lau's own instincts as a filmmaker. And yet this film cannot be without Chow, whose unparalleled charisma and charm is its undisputed winning formula - on sheer entertainment value alone, Wong Jing's fast, funny and witty action crime comedy caper is the best Lunar New Year film we've seen this year.
Ah Boys to Men 3: Frogmen (2015)
Jack Neo's third instalment hits a franchise high-water mark with tighter storytelling, more precise - and more poignant - character beats and the same cast of misfits
What if, instead of Basic Military School (BMT) in Pulau Tekong, our favourite recruits were selected right from the onset to join the elite Naval Diving Unit (NDU) and underwent a forty-week training course to be frogmen? That, in a nutshell, is how Jack Neo has set up this third instalment of the highest-grossing franchise in local movie history. Cynics who've never loved Jack Neo and his movies will certainly see this as a money-spinner, but 'Ah Boys to Men 3: Frogmen' is a surprisingly entertaining alternate story that stands on its own merits.
Chiefly, the decision not to split this movie into two which explains its two-and-a-half hour runtime is a wise one. Skimming over the Boys' requisite BMT training, Neo focuses instead on the land, sand and sea training in the weeks after that is unique to the NDU, including tyre flips, overhead boat push-ups, boat tosses (where a crew of eight men throw the boat into the air and catch it on the way down), flutter kicks (on land and at the beach), drown proofing, capsize drills, fins swimming, sea circuit training and culminating of course in the infamous Hell Week.
Like the first two movies, Neo juxtaposes their transformation within the camp and that outside the camp. For the large part, the characters are pretty much the same as the ones they played in the first two movies. Wang Weiliang's 'L O Bang King' is still the street-smart kid who knows how to make the best of his circumstances and that means running a small 'minimart' business in camp selling snacks to his platoon mates. As a testament to Weiliang's rising stardom, Neo gives his character much more depth and scope than before indeed, Weiliang's struggle to support and protect his sister from his drug-addicted mother comes to an unexpectedly emotional conclusion that ties in beautifully with a poignant display of humanity by his superiors, Alex (Tosh Zhang) and No 2 (Justin Dominic Misson).
Joshua Tan's Ken Chow is still struggling with girlfriend issues and looking for ways to 'keng', but (thankfully) there is no sob story here with his father (Richard Low) or for that matter his fastidious mother (Irene Ang). Maxi Lim's Aloysius Jin (or Zeng Xia Lang in Chinese) is still the annoying eager-to-please smart-aleck, but he wisely chooses to underplay than overplay his character's more ingratiating qualities this time round. Tosh's Sergeant Alex Ong remains tough but fair, and a much more nuanced character here in how he responds to Ken's 'chao keng' behaviour vis-à-vis 'Lobang King's' unusual request to book out to attend an urgent family matter late at night. Instead of re- playing the initial hostilities between 'Lobang King' and 'Wayang King', Neo introduces a new character in Hei Long (Wesley Wong), a new citizen from Hong Kong whose triad roots there have propagated into similar ties with the street gangs in Tiong Bahru. Through a series of unfortunate run- ins, Neo builds the conflict between the two that leads to an undeniably mawkish but nonetheless effective confrontation that earns our sympathies for both characters.
As they have demonstrated in the last two movies, the cast are Neo's strongest hand. Weiliang has perfected his 'ah beng' routine of mixing brashness and vulnerability, and proves himself again to be a truly versatile and natural performer. Tosh may be the same age as the recruits he presides over, but he yet again displays a commanding air of authority and an admirable sense of justice. Thrust into a much bigger role here is Misson as the notorious 'trainer from hell' so convincing is his tough-as-nails getup that we found it hard to distinguish the actor from his character, and that he isn't in fact an SAF regular simply playing the same part in the movie.
Neo's keen eye for casting has occasionally been undermined by his self-indulgent tendencies, but thankfully that's kept to a minimum here. His fascination with modern-day CGI manifests itself only once and briefly when 'Lobang King' recounts how he envisioned the NDU's iconic 'frog with wings' statue make a leap into the sky and into the sea when trying to sneak out of camp. He also emphasises the drama rather than the melodrama, in particular the drama between and within the recruits through the weeks of training. His play on common words, phrases and acronyms is at its sharpest in years and amusing asides like how NDU is abbreviated to be 'Night Delivery Unit' or how 'hum ka chan' actually means humble and garang largely hit the right notes. The structure of the NDU training itself also imposes discipline on his storytelling, and this is probably one of his most coherent and tightly knit films in recent years.
Much as we thought the 'Ah Boys to Men' franchise was done and dusted with a drama series and a musical following the two-part movies, Neo has proved that there is plenty of mileage left in the story of a ragtag group of misfits going through an indelible journey in every Singaporean male's transformation from teenager to young adult. Not just because of its theme, but also because of its treatment, its humour and its drama, we dare say you won't find a more relevant Singaporean film this year.
Jupiter Ascending (2015)
It could have been amazing. It could have become a blockbuster franchise. It could have boosted the Wachowskis' careers. But that's all Jupiter Ascending is.
I'll be upfront and warn those contemplating watching Jupiter Ascending that you need to go in with low expectations to enjoy the film. Unless your idea of what makes a film good is huge explosions, pretty characters prancing around in elaborate costumes and beautiful visuals. After all, who cares about plot, lines and pacing right?
Jupiter Ascending is really very much a visual feast but nothing more than that. The action sequences are generally well paced and I applaud the fact that CGI for the actions were kept minimal. The costumes are stunning (as are the actors).
Which is a great pity because, on paper, Jupiter Ascending really had potential.
For a start, like all sci-fi films, Jupiter Ascending is ambitious in its storytelling. An entirely different reality of an alternative universe with its own ecosystem, species and history is created. There are soldiers spliced with animal DNAs such as Caine (Channing Tatum) who has some wolf in him and Stinger (Sean Bean) who has some bee in him (guess where they got their names from?). There was potential to explore and mine all that richness for more stories but this is undermined by the weak delivery of the first film in what the studios were probably hoping would be a new franchise.
While the plot of Jupiter Ascending was hackneyed, it had pretty interesting characters whose backstories would have been fun for the audience to explore. I could have seen the many fanfiction pieces that fans would have spun off from the story of Caine, Jupiter and the Abrasax family. Let's be honest, the basic plot line of The Matrix, the film franchise that the Wachowskis are renowned for, was pretty cliché too the story of a Chosen One who comes out of nowhere and whose destiny is to save the world. It was the treatment of this plot premise (as well as really cool action sequences and visuals) that made The Matrix such a groundbreaking series. Jupiter Ascending's basic plot premise was this too but the treatment was a complete letdown.
The cast is also one that is renowned for not just their good looks but also their ability to act. Somehow though, the directors succeeded in not tapping on that ability. I can't help but wonder what kind of directions Andy and Lana Wachowskis gave Eddie Radmayne for me to give such an exaggerated and overly affected performance as Balem. It reminds me somewhat chillingly of how Natalie Portman almost killed her career with her expressionless and emotionless turn as Amidala in the Stars Wars prequel trilogy. At least Radmayne has The Theory of Everything that is out in the same season and that can probably help cushion the fallout from Jupiter Ascending.
To the Wachowskis' credit, Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum have some chemistry. While their performances are not going to garner them any Oscars, they put in decent performances to, I think, ward off any Razzie nominations. It also helps that they are pretty easy on the eye. Apart from these three actors, it is hard to discern the performances put in by the rest of the cast as their characters do not appear to add to the story. It makes it difficult for one to give a fair critique of their performances hence I'll refrain from that here.
Jupiter Ascending could also have been one of the few female-led action films that could have been a successful film franchise, showing that when female-led action films succeed, it's not necessarily a quirk. This would have been helpful in Hollywood's evolution (if you haven't figured out from my name, yes, I'm female).
It also could have been the film that would have move the Wachowskis' career out of its current state where the siblings are now more renowned for the visual flash and bang in their films rather than the creative storytelling and treatment that was showcased in The Matrix.
King of Mahjong (2015)
Chapman To does the best acting he has in recent years, and this family drama-first, gambling comedy-second CNY offering is amusing, exciting and surprisingly heartwarming
Wong Jing was and perhaps still remains the undisputed king of the gambling-themed comedy, but that hasn't deterred Malaysian director Adrian The from taking him head-on. Yes, going straight up against Wong Jing's 'From Vegas to Macau' sequel this Lunar New Year is The's 'King of Mahjong', which recruits as its lead star Hong Kong actor Chapman To, whom one may remember as the supporting comic relief next to the straight and dull Nicholas Tse in last year's 'Vegas'. Thankfully, The doesn't try to 'copy' Wong Jing's 'mo lei tau' frenetic style of humour; rather, at a surprisingly long 112 minutes, his 'King of Mahjong' aims for the same poignancy and warmth that made his earlier 'The Wedding Diary' such an unexpected success.
As the synopsis goes, To and our very own Mark Lee are pitted as bitter rivals from the same Master (played by Eric Tsang); and while To has lived a life of seclusion for the past 20 years selling 'yong tau foo' in an Ipoh coffeeshop, Lee's Wong Tin Ba has travelled the world challenging rivals from Japan (Henry Thia in a not-quite-so- funny cameo) and China (Hayley and Jayley Woo in a slightly less hammy segment) until he is left with but one opponent, To's Ah Fatt. It isn't a terribly original story we'd give you that, and perhaps that is why its trio of writers Lai Chiang Ming, Ang Siew Hoong and Ho You Wang opt for a surprisingly character-driven narrative.
Indeed, short for a brief five minutes where he appears to challenge To at his coffeeshop, Lee is pretty much absent for the first hour of the film. The focus here is really on Ah Fatt, a single father who has been raising a precocious teenage daughter Sassy Bai (Venus Wong) on his own after his wife Ramona (Michelle Ye) left them when Sassy was only two years old. Fatt is worried that the headstrong Sassy will never find a suitor, and tries to get her to realise that she is in fact in love with a nerdy-looking neighbour Wayne (Adrian Tan) who is also equally (but much more obviously) smitten with her. A lively supporting cast played by Richard Low, Patricia Mok and Dennis Chew round up the mahjong-happy 街坊 ('gai fong') to lend the scenes a nice 'kampung spirit' feel.
Tin Ba's surprise appearance one day not only forces Ah Fatt to tell his daughter about the life he left behind 20 years ago, but also gives him and Sassy a chance to reconcile with Ramona when she returns shortly after with apparently no recollection of the past. Enthusiasts of the game will probably sit up every 15 minutes or so when The unspools an extended mahjong-playing sequence, but the rest of us will have to settle for some nice heartwarming family drama, which to be honest, isn't an entirely bad thing at all. If anything, it gives To the chance to show off his acting chops without his typical goofy façade, and he rewards that opportunity with a nuanced performance that nicely balances the comedic and dramatic elements of the plot without turning it into farce or melodrama.
In contrast, Lee gets the (much) shorter end of the stick, playing a villainous self-absorbed character who is so hammy he makes you cringe whenever he comes on screen. Tin Ba's pursuit of his own vainglory has led him to ignore the people who should matter in his life, including his disciple whom he treats as his secretary (Lenna Lim) and a daughter (Cheronna Ng @Super Girls) whom another character rightly points out has probably gotten too much of sun for her own good. Ah Fatt and Tin Ba are clearly meant to be cast as polar opposites, but The goes overboard Tin Ba's narcissism, so much so that he ends up a caricature next to Ah Fatt. There are also too few scenes of To and Lee together besides that one occasion Tin Ba popped up to issue the challenge, the only other time the two actors appear together before the finale is in a flashback during their younger selves with their Master so anyone hoping for a sparring between the two motor-mouthed comedians will probably come off disappointed.
That said, the finale is a guaranteed crowdpleaser. To gets to do his best 'God of Gamblers' and we must say that he looks pretty cool. The qualifying rounds are surprisingly exciting, emphasising the battle of wits between the players. The eventual reconciliation between husband and wife/ mother and daughter is to be expected, but To handles the schmaltz with restraint and grace, such that it turns out unexpectedly moving. And that much-anticipated showdown between Ah Fatt and Tin Ba ends in a nice twist that underscores the feel- good message that The remains committed to right from the very beginning of the movie, which also serves as a timely reminder especially during this time of year when the sound of mahjong tiles can be heard in every other home.
We didn't expect that Lee would be the movie's weakest link, but that aside, 'King of Mahjong' is a surprisingly entertaining CNY comedy with gentle humour, some nail-biting gambling sequences and a nice heartwarming feel. To's earnest heartfelt performance is one of his best and the film's biggest strength, while a star-studded ensemble of Lo Hoi Pang, Susan Shaw, Kingdom Yuen and Mimi Chu lend a nice dash provide some delightful fun enacting the birth of the game during Confucian times and its modern-day relevance among older folk. It isn't Wong Jing laugh-out-loud, but that is exactly why The's 'King of Mahjong' is even better not only are the laughs more natural, it also rings home a message about family, which is ultimately what CNY should be about.
The Boy Next Door (2015)
Playing like a reverse 'Fatal Attraction', this sexual thriller starring a still-hot Jennifer Lopez is generic and predictable but never less than watchable
Like its subject matter, 'The Boy Next Door' is getting such a hush- hush treatment it almost seems as if someone didn't want you to see it. If that is any indication that someone was embarrassed by how this reverse 'Fatal Attraction' thriller turned out, well we're glad to say that it isn't as bad as we had feared. To be sure, that should not be mistaken for any endorsement of its merit, but given how little pre-release publicity its distributors bestowed upon it, we were sure expecting something much, much worse.
In her first big-screen role in two years, Jennifer Lopez plays a middle-aged high-school literature teacher who is still struggling to recover emotionally from her husband's (John Corbett) betrayal one year on and raising her teenage son, Kevin (Ian Nelson, on her own. Enter new neighbour Noah (Step Up's Ryan Guzman), who has moved in next door with his ailing uncle and proves himself to be quite the fix-it hero around her place, especially since Garrett's (Corbett) absence means that there is a space for a man to be around the house. Even better, Noah loves poetry and his intimate knowledge of Homer's 'The Iliad' becomes one of the first few things over which he and Claire (Lopez) develop a connection over.
There is however no mistaking their (mutual) sexual attraction, not when director Rob Cohen introduces Noah bicep-first when he glides into frame to prepare Claire's wonky garage door. When Kevin takes off with Garrett for a weekend camping trip and Claire's had one drink too many after a failed dinner date, Noah seizes the opportunity to get it on with Claire. The morning after, Claire wakes to proclaim their coupling a mistake no matter that Guzman looks older than he is meant to be in the movie, he is a new transfer senior attending Claire's class at her school. Her rebuff doesn't sit well with Noah, whom we slowly learn is in fact a psychotic stalker who grows even more enraged when he catches her responding to Garrett's advances to give their marriage a second chance.
First-time screenwriter Barbara Curry slowly ratchets up the stakes against Claire first, Noah 'poisons' Kevin's relationship with his father; then, he threatens to make public photos and even a video of their one-night dalliance; then, he sabotages the brakes on Garrett's Dodger; and finally, he kidnaps Garrett and Kevin which Cohen builds up as an increasingly thrilling chain of events leading up to their final confrontation. Not only does Noah prove himself to be a master manipulator, he also shows himself to be prone to bouts of violence, in particular against Claire's good friend and the school's vice principal (Kristin Chenoweth).
That said, it isn't anything we haven't yet before, or done to more titillating extremes; yet, despite its familiarity, Cohen guides the proceedings along with the sure hand of a veteran, and it is to his credit that the end result is much more engaging than it ought to be. We're not sure what Lopez saw in the material for her to not only star but produce this rehash of 90s exploitation thrillers, but she at least makes her character sympathetic. The same however cannot be said of Guzman, whose portrayal of menace and malevolence doesn't go much deeper than the acting you'll see in a high school play. And for those who are expecting to see Lopez and Guzman get hot and heavy, well let's just say that you're likely to find yourself left cold.
It is probably too easy to lambast a movie like 'The Boy Next Door', but the truth is there are many worse films out there which deserve to be buried more so than this does. The premise does feel dated, but there hasn't been a sexual thriller like 'Basic Instinct' or for that matter 'Fatal Attraction' in a while, so if you're in the mood for some trashy B-grade thrills, you'll probably find some of those urges satisfied somewhat by this teaser that never does really get past first base.