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Sha po lang: taam long (2017)
Every bit as fast, furious and fierce as its predecessors, this third 'SPL' installment is a great action thriller itself and a worthy addition to the series
The 'SPL: Sha Po Lang' brand in Hong Kong action cinema has come to stand for brutal, bone-crunching action in such memorable duels as Donnie Yen and Wu Jing's alleyway brawl in the 2005 original, Yen and Sammo Hung's mano-a-mano on a nightclub stage in the same, and more recently Wu Jing, Tony Jaa and Zhang Jin's fight-to-the-death in the 2015 sequel.
'Paradox', the third in the 'SPL' canon, continues that grand tradition with director Wilson Yip returning at the helm and Hung as action director. Both franchise veterans ensure that the fights are just as fast, furious and fierce as their first film, but only judiciously bloody, so that the bloodletting never comes off as excessive. Among the highlights here are a daytime scuffle in an open bar that is followed by a breathless chase down Bangkok's busy streets, a close-quarter skirmish in a flat that continues into the dilapilated apartment building's corridor and onto its crowded rooftop, and last but not least a no-holds-barred showdown in a meat depot that is also a front for a mortuary of an illegal organ trafficking business. Each one of these action set-pieces are meticulously choreographed and beautifully executed, which is also credit to its stars Louis Koo, Wu Yue, Chris Collins and Jaa.
Besides Jaa, the rest are not quite as well-known for their martial arts skills, but the training, practice and hard work that each one has put in is clearly evident. In particular, Koo's months of intensive training have paid off tremendously especially in the extended climax, which sees his character turn absolutely badass on tens of baddies successively in a vengeful rampage. Yue also proves quite the revelation; better known for his roles in Mainland TV drama serials than in movies (remember him in Police Story 2013?), the actor who holds a National Martial Arts Championship grade in wushu is less showy than his predecessors Yen and Wu but is no less precise or ferocious than them. Notwithstanding, you should know that Koo and Yue's top billing here isn't misleading; whereas Jaa took centrestage alongside his Chinese stars in the last movie, his presence here is no more than a glorified cameo and it should also be said that his absence is sorely felt, given that his one-on-one rooftop fight with Collins is arguably the most breathtaking sequence in the entire movie.
To Yip's credit, as much as the fighting is the movie's top draw, it never becomes its raison d'être but in service of the overall narrative. In that regard, all three movies have been thematically related, based upon the Chinese title's astrological reference of three individuals whose position relative to one another signified death and destruction. Here, these three are Hong Kong detective Lee Chung-chi (Koo), who has arrived in Bangkok to search for his missing teenage daughter (Hanna Chan); local Thai-Chinese cop Chui Kit (Yue), who has a six-month pregnant wife and whose father-in-law is the police commissioner Chai (Vithaya Pansringarm); and political aide Cheng Hon-Sau (Gordon Lam), who will resort to any means necessary to get an urgent heart transplant for the ailing Bangkok mayor in order to sustain the latter's re-election bid. Caught up in the ensuing melee is Chui Kit's fellow police colleagues Kit (Jaa) and Ban (Ken Low) as well as the leader of an illegal organ trafficking syndicate Sacha (Collins).
It isn't hard to guess just how the characters are connected to one another, but returning series writer Jill Leung builds the story nicely to have us empathise with Chi's desperation, grief and vengeance as a single father at the loss of his beloved daughter. Just as visceral is the sense of powerlessness he feels against the corruption of those more powerful than him, so much so that despite responding in shockingly vicious ways, our sympathies remain firmly with him and his fists. More so than the earlier two movies, the storytelling here is a lot more fluid, confident and propulsive, good enough at least for us to overlook some of the obvious coincidences (like how Chui Kit and Tak's vehicles seem to agree not to start one after another so both can end up at the same place at the same time).
So really, 'Paradox' is as solid an hard-boiled action thriller as it gets. The plotting is not just functional, endeavouring and largely succeeding to tell a story about karma, retribution and reconciliation. The acting is solid, each one of the performances a strong emotional anchor for the flawed characters whose relationships next to one another are defined by their respective choices and consequences. And perhaps most importantly to its fans, the action is as awesome as its predecessors, the fisticuffs often white-knuckle intense. This is as raw and real as it gets, set entirely against appropriately grimy backdrops in Thailand. As far as the 'SPL' canon is concerned, 'Paradox' is as fitting and satisfying an entry as it deserves, demonstrating not only that there is life yet to the series but that it is very much alive, kicking and definitive to Hong Kong action cinema itself.
The Adventurers (2017)
The locations are exotic, the cast is pleasing, and the heists slick and exciting; 'The Adventurers' is good for some breezy but forgettable escapist fun
As far as caper/ heist films are concerned, 'The Adventurers' is a breezy, enjoyable but ultimately unremarkable entry to the genre. All the trademark elements are here the exotic European locations that span Cannes, Prague and Kiev; the impressive high-tech gizmos to override the most sophisticated security systems as well as to get into places no human could ever fit into; and last but not least the code of honour among thieves, which not only drives the narrative but also defines the relationship between our central trio played by Andy Lau, Tony Yang and Shu Qi yet director and co-writer Stephen Fung's Chinese makeover of a classic Hollywood staple comes off too familiar and predictable by the time it is done with its double-crosses and shootouts.
The story begins with Lau's career thief Dan Zhang after a five-year stint in prison for stealing the prized 'Eye of the Forest' artefact from the Louvre Museum, which we are informed in a snazzy prologue is one of three pieces that form a precious necklace called 'GAIA'. Dan is greeted upon his release by the French detective Pierre (Jean Reno), who warns him that he will be closely watched. Shortly after slipping away from one of Pierre's associates, Dan assembles his wingman Po (Yang) and hotshot recruit Red (Shu Qi) to steal another part of 'GAIA' and it isn't any spoiler that they eventually make off with the 'Wings of Destiny'. The third and final piece 'Rope of Life' happens to be in the possession of a nouveau riche Chinese oligarch Charlie (Sha Yi) living up in a castle in Prague, and before Dan makes off with it and presumably disappears into the sunset, Pierre brings in Dan's former fiancée Amber (Zhang Jingchu) to help apprehend him the latter apparently still being resentful at Dan for not telling her at the start of his criminal profession.
It isn't hard to guess that Fung has built his movie around a series of action sequences the posh Cannes hotel where a livid demonstration against animal fur is taking place outside at the same time as an auction for the 'Wings of Destiny' is ongoing inside; the sprawling castle that Dan and Po will infiltrate in order to steal the 'Rope of Life' while Red exercises her seductive charms to get Charlie's fingerprints; a quad chase through the woods surrounding the castle immediately following the break-in; and finally, the climactic showdown in an abandoned factory in Kiev where Dan will confront the person who betrayed him to the authorities five years ago and one of the other key players will come to choose his or her loyalty. Each one of these set-pieces is nicely choreographed and expertly executed, although the last one is a little less exciting than it needs to be to end the movie on a thrilling high, paling even in comparison to the earlier ones that precede it.
Whereas the sleekly performed stunts and the impressive gadgetry appeal on a visceral level, it is the characters involved and their stakes which make these sequences emotionally stimulating. Sadly, that is sorely lacking here, which is a result of the sketchy character work. The tension between Dan and Amber is hardly developed before it is resolved; ditto the budding attraction between Po and Red. We are primed for an intriguing cop-versus-robber dynamic between Dan and Pierre, but that sense of respect for the two individuals on diametrically opposite sides of the law is never quite established compellingly. Same goes for the relationship between Dan and his former mentor Kong (Eric Tsang), given how Kong sees Dan as having betrayed him for wanting out to settle down with Amber five years ago. That no less than four writers, including Fung himself, had worked on the script makes it even more disappointing that the characters are so one-dimensional in and of themselves as well as next to one another, relying instead on the sheer chemistry of the actors to give them pizazz.
Not that the cast isn't up to it Lau is as charismatic and suave as he's ever been, perhaps even more so than Tom Cruise was in any one of the 'Mission Impossible' movies; Qi is at her playful and sexy charming best; and character actors Reno and Tsang lend solid supporting turns to anchor the picture. As far as fun is concerned, there is definitely much to embrace in their lively performances. There is also much escapist pleasure to be had watching them elude and delude their way around their targets, often set to a jazzy, upbeat score by Tuomas Kantelinen. As beautiful as the European locales themselves are, it is also to Shane Hurlbut's credit that the movie looks as visually gorgeous as it does. Like we said at the start, 'The Adventurers' knows the tropes of the genre and performs them flawlessly; but without an engaging plot and/or characters we can root for, it remains a solid but unremarkable entry into the well-trod caper genre.
More delightful than we expected this to be, 'Meow' is family-friendly entertainment with some wacky laughs, consistent cheer and a heartwarming affirmation of family love
If you've ever wondered whether your family cat is really an alien from another planet, then 'Meow' is the movie for you. No seriously, 'Meow' imagines an alien planet of the same name whose feline inhabitants have been dispatched by their King to Earth for thousands of years to colonise mankind, although none have so far proved successful in their respective missions as a result of being pampered by their human hosts. Their latest attempt comes in the form of a Meowian warrior called Pudding, who is sent to Earth with a Secret Weapon in order to rally the rest of his kind. Some bad weather upon his descent however causes him to lose the Weapon and adopt the form of an orange tabby cat in order to survive in Earth's environment, albeit in much chubbier and oversized form. And last but not least, a mix-up sees him being renamed Xixili and adopted by former-soccer- star-turned-hopeless-businessman Go-lee Wu (Louis Koo), who has agreed to babysit the cat as a favour for a potential client.
Sure enough, its absurd premise has led to much online brickbats, some of which have been lobbed at its lead actor Louis Koo as well as its director Benny Chan. But face it, is the idea of a giant, adorable alien cat any more ridiculous than say three talking, singing and dancing chipmunks? Or say a couple of talking dogs a la 'Marmamuke'? Or better still, a fat, free-spirited orange cat whose name happens to rhyme with 'Garfield'? Sure enough, 'Meow' belongs in that category of family-friendly live-action comedy films and in our opinion, one of the more entertaining, hilarious and heart- warming ones we've seen. Oh yes, the man-sized feline Xixili is funny and likable all right, but the movie's charm also belongs to its human characters besides Go- lee Wu, his highly-strung wife/ aspiring actress/ power mum Pearl Zhou (Ma Li) and their two children comprising an older son Yoho Wu (Andy Huang) with filmmaking ambitions and younger daughter Yoyo Wu (Jessica Liu) who suffers from a congenital skeletal anomaly in her right leg.
As conceived by writers Ho Miu-kei and Poon Jun Lam along with script consultant Chan Hing-kai, 'Meow' is as much about Xixili learning about the beauty of family as it is about this family of four uniting around one another. So it will go that Xixili will become intertwined with Go-lee and Pearl's familial and marital challenges, the latter precipitated by the former given how gullible and even naïve Go-lee is not just in his failed business ventures, but also in how he ends up chalking a two-million debt by agreeing to be guarantor to a shady individual (Lo Hoi-pang in a cameo) and then falling prey to an elaborate scam led by three career criminals (played by the 'Grasshopper' trio). A fangirl crush that Yoyo's PE teacher (Michelle Wai) has on Go-lee and a chance meeting with a former schoolmate Boss Liu (Louis Yuen) that used to have a crush on Pearl further complicates their already financially strained husband-wife relationship.
The busy script juggles two other subplots first, the bond between Xixili and the family through a couple of amusing sequences including one where Go-lee tries to teach Xixili to play fetch and another where Yoyo brings a heavily disguised Xixili into a parent-teacher meeting; and second, Xixili's call of duty in his capacity as Pudding, which he (unsurprisingly) abdicates after being moved by the display of family love. Amidst the character dynamics are a couple of genuinely amusing sequences a few where Koo gladly hams it up trying to pacify Xixili; a series of endorsement shoots driven by Xixili's accidental fame, especially a 'Journey to the West' spoof that has Xixili as the Monkey King, Pearl as Xuanzang and Go-lee as a demon; and last but not least Xixili's fruitless meetings with the elder Meowian warriors turned tamed kitties who had come to Earth before him. As you may expect, it all culminates in a melodramatic but undeniably effective finale where Go-lee and Pearl rallies behind Yoyo and her fierce determination to break free of her physical impediment.
Yup, originality isn't exactly the film's strong suit, what with obvious elements from 'Men in Black' and 'Forrest Gump'. Still, the veteran Chan, in a marked departure from the action genre he's made his name in (think 'New Police Story' or 'The White Storm'), keeps the tone light and the pace brisk so that the movie on the whole remains enjoyable and engaging. Chan also brings along here his regular collaborator Koo, who throws himself dignity be damned into the role, and assembles an equally game cast in Mainland comedy actress Ma as well as lovely child actors Liu and Huang. There is real chemistry among them as one dysfunctional family, and you'll no doubt be rooting for them by the time the saccharine-dripped climax comes along.
It must also be said that 'Meow' represents a technical achievement of sorts for Chinese cinema in the CGI work behind Xixili. Comparisons to Hollywood are unjustified, given the size of the budgets no less, but Xixili is unexpectedly well-animated particularly in the close-up shots emphasising his luxurious orange fur. And if it isn't obvious by now, let's just say that we were pleasantly surprised by 'Meow', which could have easily turned out messy, infantile and embarrassing as many have unfairly criticised it to be. Like any of them Hollywood live-action family films, this is surely intended to be family-friendly entertainment and on that account, is just as, if not more, delightful than 'Alvin and the Chipmunks', 'Marmaduke' or 'Garfield'. That's still not enough for it to qualify as a family classic, but for a weekend family outing to the movies, 'Meow' will have the kids grinning from ear to ear.
Gam man da song si (2017)
It is unlikely that you will enjoy yourself while watching this zombie flick, but there are some truly bizarre sequences that will make you sit up and stare
The title of this zombie horror flick makes people guffaw. Why "Enjoy Yourself Tonight" when there are undead corpses running after you? Or does the enjoyment belong to the zombies? Something about the title tells us that the movie has the potential to be a cult classic with out of this world characters and crazy sequences that will be long remembered in the history of Hong Kongcinema.
Indeed there are out of this world characters: watch out for a giant stuffed chicken that gasp - may just be a figment of imagination leading to the fact that the whole story is nothing but an episode happening inside the protagonist's head. How trippy is that! Does this mean that this 107 minute movie is an existentialist piece of work that is deeper than what it appears to be?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Alan Lo makes his directorial feature length debut with a screenplay based on a popular novel and his own 2012 short film Zombie Guillotines (search for it online).
After taking home the Best Supporting Actor and Best New Performer prizes at the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards and the Best Supporting Actor accolade at the 52nd Golden Horse Awards for his memorable performance in Port of Call (2015), Michael Ning plays a young man who believes that he is a world saving superhero. He is joined by an equally eccentric friend played by Louis Cheng (Line Walker), and together, the duo battles zombies after an unexpected outbreak happens in the city.
In the mix is a Cantonese opera singer (Carrie Ng), a father who suddenly shows up after spending 15 years in prison (Alex Man) and a paranormal nerd who happens to be really cute (Cherry Ngan).
World War Z (2013) and Train to Busan (2016) this is not. Just when you thought it will be a straightforward chase and run zombie flick that you can enjoy without much thinking, the last bit of the movie throws things off balance.
First, there are those ridiculous exploding eggs that reduce human heads into skulls while leaving the bodies intact. Yup, you read correctly exploding eggs. The somewhat hilarious weapons of choice were novel for a while, before you realise the good guys are just dodging from these eggs shooting out of nowhere. Then comes the giant stuffed chicken. You will giggle at the absurdity of the setup, before realising that the filmmakers are using it to explore teen angst. We are not sure how all these exactly add up.
The best parts of the movie are helmed by Ng and Man, two veteran actors older viewers would find familiar. Ng plays a cripple, and Man (who has put on quite a bit of weight since we saw him on local TV series Golden Pillow and Brave New World) plays the man responsible for that unfortunate accident. The two effortlessly play out the chemistry between the two characters, proving that the older generation of actors still have what it takes to command the screen.
Soccer Killer (2017)
Hardly as witty or laugh-out-loud crazy as it should be, this part-martial arts, part-superhero spoof is nevertheless a harmless time-killer of uninspired inanity
Two decades after it was first released, 'A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella' was re-released in Mainland cinemas earlier this year with about ten minutes of additional footage. By the time it ended its month-long run, the Stephen Chow cult classic had become the top- grossing re-release ever. Despite critics' decrying it as a blatant cash grab that adds little to the original cut's interpretation, audiences were seemingly unfazed, demonstrating just how much love there is for Chow as well as the 'mo-lei-tau' brand of wacky anachronistic period comedy which he and writer-director Jeffrey Lau patented in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And yet ironically, the greater your sense of nostalgia, the more you will be disappointed by Lau's attempts in the past few years to recapture the same comedic spirit. From 2010's 'Just Another Pandora's Box' to 2011's 'East Meets West 2011' to 2014's 'Just Another Margin' and right up to last year's in-name only sequel 'A Chinese Odyssey Part Three', not one has come close to matching the genius of Lau's earlier films.
His latest, titled 'Soccer Killer', unfortunately belongs more to the former than the latter. Written and directed by Lau, it tells of how Princess Changping (Gillian Chung) of the Song Dynasty recruits the masters of the eight once-glorious martial arts sects to play in a soccer match against a formidable team named the Eagle Claws under the charge of the Mongolian barbarian Leopard Khan. At stake is the very sovereignty of the kingdom itself, no thanks to the corrupt Prime Minister Qin (played by Lau himself). As we learn from the prologue, no less than the likes of Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Storm, Cyclops, Spider-Man, Logan and Captain Fantastic make up the Eagle Claws; though we're quite sure Marvel will be none too happy to learn what their band of superheroes have been doing in between blockbusters; by the time we get to the pivotal match, no less than the Monkey King, the Eight Immortals and Buddha will have come to the Song's rescue and that is fair warning of just how illogical you'll have to prepare it will get in this spoof where anything goes.
Frankly, that isn't a deterrent in and of itself; indeed, such silly, even nonsensical, humour has always been a defining feature of Lau's comedies. What distinguishes the classics of the past from the ignominies of the more recent is the hilarity of the gags within, which this latest again comes up short. Among the three chapters the movie divides itself into, the most entertaining is in fact the first titled 'The Phoenix becomes the Pheasant', in reference to how Princess Changping sheds her image of royalty to adopt a male disguise in order to recruit the eight Sect masters. As it turns out, these masters including Sword Master Guo Huaqiang (Corey Yuen), Palm Master Zhang Sanfeng (Li Jing), abbess Miejue (Stephy Tang) and abbot Master Yideng (Lam Tze Chung) are but a pale shadow of their former glorious selves, and between them and the two disciples Lang (He Jiong) and Ling (Charlene Choi) of a ninth now-defunct Mount Mao Sect, there is plenty of good humour to be had spoofing the genre elements of the typical 'wuxia' film.
In comparison, the ensuing two chapters prove duller and a lot less inspired. The middle chapter titled 'Finding True Love in Adversity' develops a budding romance between Lang and Princess Changping as both are held captive at a remote mountain village after being kidnapped by a band of assassins who call themselves the Jiangdong 108; but their unlikely relationship has few laughs and little chemistry. A running gag sees Lang introduce the villagers to Super Barbie inflatable dolls which become instant playmates for the children as well as companions for the grown-up males, but it is at best bemusing and never quite amusing. The obviously titled third chapter 'Kingdom of Xianglong versus the Eagle Claws' sees Prime Minister Qin exploit the romantic rivalry between Ling and Princess Changping for Lang's affections, before culminating in an over-the- top duel between the aforementioned teams that stands out as a showcase of terrible CGI. Not even the references to Pandora's Box can save the last act from being creatively bereft, nor for that matter the invocation of mythological Chinese characters for an eventual Eastern-meets-Western superheroes showdown.
Certainly, not the combined star power of the TWINS or the 'Happy Camp' hosts are a match for the powerhouse combo of Chow, Athena Chu, Karen Mok, Ng Man-tat and Law Kar-ying, but that isn't the main reason why 'Soccer Killer' is barely even a poor cousin of 'A Chinese Odyssey' simply, it just isn't as witty or as laugh-out-loud crazy as it should be. Lau himself seems to acknowledge the same at the obligatory happily-ever-after ending, with one of the palace servants reflecting on everything that has happened and telling his partner that it is no better than a stupid movie which should be quickly forgotten though frankly, that's hardly a tall order given how unmemorable the events within are. If for whatever reason you feel you have nothing better else to do and find yourself in the mood for some inanity however uninspired that may be, then 'Soccer Killer' is an 84-minute harmless time-killer you probably won't mind.
A couple of well-choreographed, exciting chase sequences and some unexpected narrative twists and turns make this heist thriller enough escapist fun
To its credit, 'Overdrive' never does try to be a 'Fast and Furious' movie; instead, it draws its inspiration from heist thrillers like 'The Italian Job', 'Gone in 60 Seconds' and even the 'Ocean's Eleven' series to deliver decent escapist fun within a brisk 96 minutes.
The prize here is a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, owned by local mob boss Max Klemp (Fabian Wolfrom), which half-brothers Andrew (Scott Eastwood) and Garrett Foster (Freddie Thorp) offer to steal for another mob boss Jacomo Morier (Simon Abkarian) as trade for their lives. Andrew and Scott had earlier on stolen Morier's 1937 Bugatti right after the man had paid $41 million euros for it at a Sotheby's auction, and Morier had agreed to the exchange only because Klemp is his longtime business arch-rival. Besides Andrew and Garrett, the crew consists of Andrew's gorgeous soon-to-be fiancé Stephanie (Ana de Armas), Stephanie's serial pickpocket friend Devin (Gaia Weiss), demolitions expert Leon (Joshua Fitoussi) and a bevy of other nameless professional drivers. The plan is textbook masquerade roll up to Max's sprawling residence pretending to be GIGN on a raid, then drive the car away after Leon has fled from the compound.
As you can probably expect, there are more than a few complications along the way. Mourier sends a distant cousin Laurent (Abraham Belaga) to join in the mission, in order to make sure that the Foster brothers carry through their end of the bargain. Two Interpol officers pop up midway through their planning preparations, threatening to keep a close watch on Andrew and Garrett. Stephanie is kidnapped the day before they are scheduled to execute the heist, intended as Mourier's further leverage against Andrew. Screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas also throw in a web of shifting alliances to keep us guessing. Is Andrew and Garrett working for Mourier or Klemp? Whose side is Laurent on? What about Stephanie and Devin? There are surprisingly more twists and turns to the plotting than we'd expected, and for the most part, these are satisfactorily resolved by the time the engines cool and the credits roll.
Not surprisingly, with so much going on amidst the car chase sequences we will get to below, there isn't much attention paid to character dynamics. One of the earlier scenes has Andrew telling Garrett that he wants their life of crime no more, content instead to settle down with Stephanie after this job is done, to which Garrett responds with indignation. Yet their potential falling out never quite develops into anything substantial; instead, the relationship between Andrew and Garrett continues to be defined no deeper than the playful jibes they take at each other. Ditto that between Andrew and Stephanie, which stays stuck at the former being overprotective of the latter. Perhaps the only relationship that sees some progress over the course of the movie is that between Garrett and Devin, who find themselves unable to resist the other and end up falling in love and in bed with each other.
But frankly, our low expectations heading into the movie were still pleasantly exceeded with an unexpectedly knotty plot as well as the exciting setpieces: the first which sees Andrew and Garrett steal the Bagutti from a moving truck; the second which has them pursued by Mourier's men along the streets of Marseille; and the last which puts them in vintage cars engaged in a high-speed chase along the French Riviera. Though he is credited only as producer, Pierre Morel's handprints are unmistakable, emphasising practical stunts over CGI and medium to wide shots in order to keep the action real, palpable and discernible (yes, Morel is the director of the very first 'Taken', before his fellow French compadre ruined it all with 'Bourne'-style jerky-cam). Such is the stuff that the 'Fast and Furious' movies were borne out of, and the pedal-to-metal action is choreographed and executed here with flair, imagination and sheer white-knuckle suspense.
To be sure, 'Overdrive' never rises above its B-movie trappings, but director Antonio Negret harbours no such ambition from start to finish. Rather, he knows his audience is here to see cars chasing each other and on that count alone, he succeeds admirably, inserting enough narrative amidst the action to keep you engaged throughout. You'll need to set your expectations right in order to enjoy this one, but if you, like us, expected no more than a string of thrilling French-set action sequences, then you'll find that there is more than enough juice here in the can to make your adrenaline go into overdrive.
The absolute worst of the 'Transformers' franchise, this fifth - and hopefully last - entry by Michael Bay lacks even the thrill of his signature action bombast
Michael Bay had said that 'The Last Knight' would be his last 'Transformers' movie. We'd thought at first that he would go out on a hurrah; after all, despite their barrage of criticism, the last two entries 'Age of Extinction' and 'Dark of the Moon' had each managed to clear US$1billion at the global box office. We'd thought too that the writers room, comprising such notable Hollywood screenwriters as 'Iron Man' scribes Art Marcum and Matt Halloway, 'Black Hawk Down' scribe Ken Nolan and even 'A Beautiful Mind' scribe Akiva Goldsman, would have ensured a more compelling story, a hope that was further boosted by the intriguing twist of Autobots leader Optimus Prime going rogue. Alas, this fifth instalment is even worse than all its predecessors: the plot is even more incoherent, the dialogue is even more grating, and the action is almost thrill-less.
It starts off as a King Arthur/ Lancelot ripoff, going back to the Dark Ages when the fate of Britain was hanging in the balance. A hopelessly sloshed Merlin (Stanley Tucci) approaches an alien spacecraft to beg for help to save his country, and receives in return a magical staff as well as a fire-breathing metal dragon. There is no secret King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table end up winning the war, but even better, they are joined around the Table by twelve guardians who swear to protect the staff. Fast-forward to 1,600 years later and things have apparently only gotten worse on Earth despite the Autobots' victory at the end of 'Extinction': humans have gotten even more jaded of the robots, establishing a new paramilitary force dubbed the TRF to keep them in check; Prime remains MIA in deep space, leaving his fellow Autobots Bumblebee, Hound (John Goodman) and Drift (Ken Watanabe) in limbo; Mark Wahlberg's scruffy reluctant hero Cade Yeager is on the run from the authorities for harbouring the Autobots, forced to spend his days at a junk yard apart from his daughter; and there is no seeming end in sight to the robots who keep raining down from the sky to threaten Earth's peace.
It will end as an Independence Day ripoff, fuelled by maniacal villainess Quintessa (voiced by Gemma Chan) who brainwashes Prime into helping her retrieve Merlin's staff to revive their once- majestic planet Cybertron. Cade, along with a skeptical British historian Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) and a loose alliance comprising of TRF and US Army forces led by returning character Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel), will eventually have to fly up 21,000 feet into the sky, evade Decepticons disguised as fighter jets, and destroy the chamber where Quintessa is using the power of the staff to drain Earth's core. Everything else in between is just filler including a somewhat supercilious English lord Sir Edmond Burton (Anthony Hopkins) who dutifully helps Cade and Vivian unpack the Arthurian/ Transformers legend, a precocious 14-year-old orphan Izabella (Isabella Moner) who insists on tagging along with Cade, and the new Transformers additions of a smart-talking C3PO-ripoff butler Cogman (Jim Carter), a French-accented bot Hot Rod (Omar Sy) capable of freezing time as well as a cute but ugly BB8- ripoff Sqweeks that Izabella puts into service.
Whatever promise that Prime turning against his Autobots might have suggested turns out to be little more than a gimmick not only is Prime missing for about three-quarters of the movie, his confrontation with Cade, Lennox and eventually Bumblebee lasts for ten minutes at most. That leaves the rest of the story a largely crude recycled assembly: some parts adapted from 'The Da Vinci Code', some parts from 'Terminator' and even one part from straight out of a World War II movie. The banter, frenetic as ever, is shockingly devoid of humour. Besides a scene where Edmond chides Cogman for adding unnecessary dramatic emphasis to his narration of the revisionist Merlin legend, the back-and-forth between the characters is leaden and even exasperating, with often no other purpose than to fill out whatever silence is left between the clanging of metal and the overbearing Steve Jablonsky score. If there is any consolation, it is that Wahlberg proves a more engaging leading man than Shia LaBeouf ever was and that Hopkins adds dignity that none of the other chapters ever had.
But perhaps the most disappointing element of 'The Last Knight' is its action, which is terrible by Bay's standards. You could argue that the sequences in 'Age of Extinction' were somewhat protracted, but they had at least proper rhythm and pacing. Here, except for the finale, Bay never seems to finish what he starts. The prologue with Arthur's army besieged by enemy forces never gets a rousing end; the confrontation between Cade and the TRF at a no-go zone in Chicago ends prematurely when Lennox shows up; a surprise attack by the Decepticons on Cade's hideout stops abruptly with the former's retreat; the TRF's pursuit of Cade, Vivian and Sir Edmond unfolds in stops and starts and never builds into anything engaging; and last but not least, a showdown between an Autobot submarine and one of the US navy's ships concludes with two warning shots. Even the climax lacks scale, scope and impact that should be expected of no less than global annihilation, reduced to aerial shootouts and a lot of weightless spinning.
If the last four critically derided 'Transformers' stood for anything, it was for Bay-hem in other words, Bay's signature bombastic, overblown action complete with slo-mo shots and plenty of explosions and the fact that 'The Last Knight' cannot pass muster on that account makes it an unmitigated failure. Like we said at the start, we'd thought Bay would go out on a bang. This isn't just a whimper unfortunately; it's an unmitigated disaster that leaves us hoping that it will indeed be the final, the end, the last ever 'Transformers' movie we'd have to endure.
Yat nim mou ming (2016)
Anchored by career-best performances from Shawn Yue and Eric Tsang, 'Mad World' is a deeply meaningful and genuinely moving portrait of mental illness
'Mad World' is not an easy film to watch, but it is well worth the discomfiting experience. Not quite enough attention has been paid to the plight of mental health patients who try to re-integrate into the community, and certainly too little attention has been placed on the frustration and even exasperation of their caregivers. While the former often find their best attempts thwarted by the fears, biases and outright discrimination of general society, the latter has to contend not only with the same but also the outbursts of their loved ones struggling to overcome their condition, so much so that many often end up in burnout.
Both perspectives are vividly portrayed in director Paul Chun's feature debut, which follows Tung's (Shawn Yue) acclimatisation to the outside world after spending a year in a mental hospital for bipolar disorder. Seeing little more that institutionalisation can do for Tung, the hospital contacts his estranged father Wong (Eric Tsang) to look after him, but the latter is frankly completely ill- prepared. A cross- border truck driver who was often absent from home, Wong had pretty much abandoned his mentally disturbed wife (Elaine Jin) and Tung years ago, which Tung inevitably still begrudges him for; after all, that had led to Tung needing to quit his job to take care of her when she became bedridden, and that stress of being the only caregiver, aggravated by her verbally abusive ways, had ultimately led to her accidental death one day and his subsequent admission into psychiatric care.
There is plenty in the past that Tung needs to come to terms with on his own, and equally just as much in the present. His friends had deserted him ever since the much-publicised incident a year earlier, and his surprise appearance at a former colleague's wedding soon after his discharge shows how ignorant and bigoted they can be. He wants to make things right with his former fiancée Jenny (Charmaine Fong), who had to repay not just the flat they had bought together but also the moneylenders Tung owed because of a huge loan he took out to finance some risky investments that eventually went south. It doesn't help that social media has fuelled a gallery of judgmental jury, who seize on his unfortunately public meltdown after hearing Jenny's emotive confession of her ordeal to question his mental state and weigh if he should be sent back to hospital after all.
Oh yes, the title could refer to Tung's own mind as much as it could of the external environment he has to navigate and Wong takes swipes at everything from our prejudice against the mentally ill, to the terrible living conditions of Hong Kong's lower-class, and even to the spate of 'banker' suicides in the financial district back in 2014/15. It is to his credit as well as that of screenwriter Florence Chan that their movie never feels the need to scream at or, for the lack of a better word, get mad at these social ills; rather, both display remarkable restraint at simply keeping it authentic, letting their audience make their own discernments rather than lay out the critique for us.
In fact, 'Mad World' is much better off by simply remaining at its heart a frank and intimate portrait of Tung's struggle to get back on his feet, anchored by the initially tense but ultimately tender father-son relationship between Tung and Wong. Like we said at the beginning, the struggle is as much Tung's as it is Wong's. Through the course of the movie, Wong has to seriously evaluate if he has the means and wherewithal to care for Tung, especially given how little support he has from his family (his eldest son, or Tung's older brother, has resettled in the United States, staying conspicuously absent and callously disengaged throughout), friends and fellow tenants and let's just say it says a lot when another caregiver at a carer support programme Wong enrols himself in advises him to consider re-admitting Tung back into hospital under the false pretence that the latter is suicidal.
Though more commonly known for his comedic roles, Eric Tsang is in top form here as Wong. In perfectly low-key fashion, Tsang lays bare his character's uncertainties and anxieties at the beginning when asked to look after Tung, subsequent guilt and pain when forced to confront the sins of his past, and eventually resolve to not 'outsource' his responsibilities as a father. Tsang doesn't overplay or overstate Wong's dilemmas, allowing his audience to make sense of his character on their own terms. For that matter, so does Yue, who eschews histrionics in his portrayal of Tung's manic/ depressive state. Proving his mettle as one of the most underrated actors of his generation, Yue gives a layered, nuanced performance that earns empathy without ever playing the 'pity' card.
Aside from the fact that Tung's journey to reintegrate back into the community is not an easy one, 'Mad World' is also not an easy fact simply because there are no easy solutions to the issues faced by people like Tung. At the individual level, it isn't easy for the caregiver, as Wong's own experience here shows. At the community level, it isn't easy for neighbours, friends and even relatives to put aside their fears or biases. And at the societal level, it isn't easy to change mindsets borne out of ignorance or worse convenience. But like the quote which bookends the movie, it starts with having a heart for these individuals we often shun, so that however idealistic it may sound, the world may be a little less crazy for them and for us.
Despicable Me 3 (2017)
Nowhere near as clever, funny or sweet as its predecessors, this threequel is a disjointed jumble of some amusing, some tedious and mostly under-developed parts
As the 'Minions' movie demonstrated, too much of the adorable, pill- shaped, banana-obsessed creatures isn't necessarily a good thing; indeed, they were probably best in smaller and supporting doses, playing bumbling sidekicks alongside Gru as he went about his villainous, then anti-villainous, ways in 'Despicable Me' and 'Despicable Me 2' respectively. Unfortunately, they aren't given much, if anything, to do in this threequel, who as it turns out, are fed up of working for a good guy and decide to part ways with Gru early in the movie. That means they are here no better than occasional irreverent comic distractions, much like how Scrat was in the 'Ice Age' movies, notwithstanding a laugh-out-loud jailbreak sequence set to Pharrell Williams's hit 'Freedom'.
And unfortunately, that sums up how 'Despicable Me 3' feels as well always distracted, sometimes amusing, but never really engaging. It wants to be about the rivalry between Gru (Steve Carell) and all-new supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), the latter a disgruntled former 80s child TV star who had fallen out of favour with the general public after hitting puberty and has since turned to a life of crime. It wants to be about Gru's new fellow super-agent wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig), who is trying to be a mother to his three adopted daughters Margo, Edith and Agnes. It wants to be about Gru reconciling with his long-lost twin brother Dru, an empty-headed but successful pig farmer who yearns to follow in their father's footsteps of being a super-villain. Amidst all this, it also wants to be about Agnes and her longing to find a unicorn.
No wonder then that the sweetness between Gru and his daughters from the earlier two movies is somewhat lost here. No wonder too that the Looney Tunes-esque gags seem to unfold at an almost breakneck pace, sacrificing wit and inventiveness for sheer visual spectacle. No wonder that it all feels drawn-out and overstuffed, cramming too many plot lines without ever developing any satisfactorily except perhaps for the complicated sibling relationship between Gru and Dru, seeing as how the former tricks the latter into helping him break into Bratt's Rubik's Cube-like fortress perched at the tip of a pyramid. It is understandable how returning writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul had felt the need to up the ante with each subsequent instalment of the franchise, but like the 'Minions' spin off, less is sometimes a lot, a lot more.
There are good bits though: Bratt, complete with shoulder pads, pump sneakers and 80s pop tunes of Michael Jackson, Van Halen, a-Ha and Madonna among others, is a hoot; so too the barrage of other 80s references, including Bratt's army of weaponised figurines christened 'Bratt Pack'. Carell and Wiig lose none of their verve reprising Gru/ Dru and Lucy, and Parker is a lively, dynamic addition to the ensemble voice cast in particular as a substitute to Russell Brand, whose Dr. Nefario spends the movie frozen in carbonite. Co-directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda try their best-est to keep up the energy and enthusiasm from start to finish, and largely succeed in spite of a somewhat tedious detour on Dru's fictional European island in the middle act.
Yet even on the same level of fun as its predecessors, 'Despicable Me 3' falls way short. We wish it were simply that what was once fresh has now become familiar; but oh no, the gags are nowhere near as funny nor as clever, and even the minions are starting to lose their subversive edge. Whether that is the cause or consequence of having too many things going on at the same time is anybody's guess, but the sum of some hilarious bits, some tedious ones and a lot of underdeveloped elements in between is a sporadically amusing affair that hardly lives up to the charm of the previous two chapters. When even kids below the age of five find their patience tested, it's as sure a sign as any that this franchise is fast turning yellow.
Yuen Loeng Taa 77 Chi (2017)
Despite failing to bring its emotional saga to a satisfying finish, there is poignancy and meaning in this true-to-life portrayal of the emotional upheavals of relationships
How many times will you forgive the one you love? According to author and screenwriter Erica Li, who adapts her own novel of the same time for this modern-day romance, forgiving someone seven times isn't enough; 70 x 7 times is too much, so 77 times sounds just about right. And so upon purchasing the titular journal from a pop-up bookstore run by a brother and sister couple named Heartbeat and Shutter respectively (played by Gillian Chung and Francis Ng in cameos), Eva (Charlene Choi) starts to take note of the occasions when she had forgiven her boyfriend Adam (Pakho Chau) for being selfish or irresponsible or insensitive or dishonest. In fact, when we first meet Adam and Eva, she had already reached occasion number 77, which prompts her to decide that enough is enough and move out of the apartment she had shared with him since graduating from law school. Distraught, Adam gets himself drunk at his student Mandy's (Michelle Wai) birthday party, and the pair end up spending the night together at his place, where Mandy will find Eva's journal and read her account of their relationship together.
'77 Heartbreaks' therefore unfolds in two parallel timelines: first, in the present, where Adam and Eva adjust to life apart from each other; and second, as flashbacks, to the numerous occasions that Eva had pencilled in her journal. The former sees Adam succumbing to his worse tendencies without Eva looking out for him, such as deliberately spiting his father whom he begrudges for divorcing his mother and making him study law when he had no intention or interest to do so, and contending with the advances of Mandy, who seems almost desperate to hook up and even get married with Adam. On the other hand, Eva immerses herself in legal work as a divorce lawyer no less not only pointing out to clients the unreasonableness of their demands but also fending off the advances of one particularly philandering rich man and spends the rest of her time with her girlfriends (played by Candy Lo, Yumiko Cheng and J.Arie). She also moves in with one of them briefly before moving back to stay with her widowed mother (Kara Wai), following the death of her father (Lawrence Cheng) in an accident.
Li's screenplay jumps back and forth between past and present often without warning, so you may be a little caught off-guard at the start of each scene where to situate it. Notwithstanding, she and director Herman Yau at least maintain the consistency of keeping Adam and Eva apart from the point they separate till their reunion at the end, so it's safe to assume that anytime you're seeing them together is in fact sometime from the past. Of these, only the first and the seventy-seventh are noted, with enough of those in between for us to understand the nature of their disagreements, how Adam's stubborn, self-righteous and self-centred nature has led to one heartbreak after another, and most importantly how much Eva must love Adam to have stayed with him despite his shortcomings. Whether out of coincidence or otherwise, the dynamic between Adam and Eva is not unlike that between Jimmy and Cherie of Pang Ho-cheung's contemporary romantic trilogy, i.e. that of a more mature woman and a less mature, even childish, boyfriend.
Trying though they may be to see Adam repeatedly behaving so self- absorbed, it is precisely through these episodes that the movie finds poignancy. Not simply because they are well-acted by Choi and Chau, these episodes will resonate with any couple because their disagreements are based on fundamentals that each and every relationship couple will have to work through be it discussing each other's decisions in life when it comes to work and/or family, or determining who it is will plan a vacation to its details, or simply when to give-and-take to accommodate each other's parents. More than what Adam said or did, or what Adam did not say or do, are the basic values that undergird every healthy and happy relationship, i.e. values of mutual respect, consideration, trust, self-sacrifice, and above all honesty. Not to spoil the surprise, it is the absence of the last that causes Eva to ultimately end their relationship, and indeed on the basis of an honest confession by Adam of his faults and shortcomings in the past that moves Eva to re-consider her decision after all in the tearful but moving finale.
This is the ever-prolific Yau's third studio release this year, and competent though the veteran director may be, there is also an unmistakable workmanlike quality here that undercuts the emotional impact of the last third. As significant as the seventy-seventh heartbreak is, it is over and dealt with too quickly, not only turning it somewhat into a narrative cliché but also diminishing the psychological scar that it would leave on any female. It should also be said that those looking for a happy ending will not get it, for Eva's discovery of his one-night stand with Mandy dooms their happily-ever-after reunion and indeed leaves the door wide open for a sequel. And so, though it begins on an intriguing note and follows through compellingly to reveal the in-and-outs of a loving but troubled relationship, '77 Heartbreaks' fails to bring its saga to a satisfying close. Notwithstanding, it does bear meaningful lessons for relationships in general and, despite their upheavals, has a perfectly adorable couple in Adam and Eva that we do root for to be together. As antithetical as it may sound, this is still a sweet and touching film that is a timely reminder of just how important forgiveness and empathy is to any successful relationship.