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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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Never had we thought that we would describe a Michael Mann film as
dull, but 'Blackhat' has just earned that credit. Even though its
premise seems ripe to tap into the paranoid zeitgeist of today's
Digital Age, Mann's cyberthriller is an interminable bore for a
ponderous 135 minutes, so much so that we wonder whether this is the
same director who gave us such gripping dramas as 'Heat', 'The Insider'
and 'Collateral'. And yet, 'Blackhat' possesses many distinctive
Mann-isms from the fluorescent-tinged visuals of the Hong Kong night
sky to the familiar synthesiser score by Atticus Ross and Leo Ross to
the cheesy display of machismo that it is difficult to imagine anyone
else at the helm.
A good place as any to start with just why 'Blackhat' is that dull is first-time screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl's script. Admittedly, Foehl does have an interesting hook in exploring the notion of the modern- day criminal, who assisted by technology, can unleash lethal damage to unsuspecting targets from anywhere and anyplace in the world. These criminal acts can be as unrelated as a nuclear core meltdown in Hong Kong to an artificial run in soy futures on the U.S. commodities market. The former forms the prologue establishing the "blackhat", meaning a hacker with malicious intent, which Mann gooses for maximum visual impact in a single unbroken take, he dramatises the attack from a macro to micro perspective, culminating in a CG-ed representation of the plant's computer systems, where little blue dots become a flurry of white ones as the malware takes over.
Assembled to investigate the attack is Chinese agent Chen Dawei (Wang LeeHom), who realises early on that part of the code used to break into the Chai Wan nuclear plant was that written by him and a former MIT classmate, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), back in their campus days. Besides forming an alliance with the FBI, led by agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), Dawei makes a request to the U.S. Department of Justice to have Nicholas, now serving time at a federal penitentiary for breaking into some of the country's financial institutions, to be released from prison. It takes one to beat one, but besides Hathaway, Dawei also enlists the assistance of his sister, Chen Lien (Tang Wei), who also happens to be a computer expert.
Following a template of a procedural, their investigation will lead them from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Malaysia and finally to Indonesia, though most of the time is spent in the former two locations. With Stuart Dryburgh's digital cinematography, Mann tries his best to jazz up every single frame on the screen, and to his credit, makes the film look and sound more engaging than it really is. Besides the technobabble the characters are occasionally made to indulge in, this is as straightforward a narrative as any, where the good guys remain good and the bad guys, well, waiting to be hunted and, in some cases, hunted down.
Most crucially, Foehl makes some unfathomable narrative choices which severely undermine what sense of verisimilitude Mann tries to achieve in his shooting. In between reading copious lines of code, Nicholas takes down three baddies in a Korean restaurant in L.A.'s Korea- town, picks up a gun and joins a gunfight as if he were an FBI agent, and romances Dawei's sister in one of the most chemistry-free romances we've seen in recent time. That's not all the final act has him, now a wanted fugitive by the National Security Agency, and Lien, make their way from Hong Kong to Malaysia and then to Indonesia and tracking down the elusive mastermind right in his very backyard using just a sharpened screwdriver and a knife, with not a single officer of the law in either country in pursuit.
In between clunky lines of exposition, Mann fumbles with some of the most unimpressive staging we've seen in any of his movies. A shootout right outside the Quarry Bay MTR station sees Carol and fellow agent Mark Jessup (Holt McCallany) have almost perfect aim while the baddies (led by the nondescript Eastern European-looking Ritchie Coaster) can't seem to get much of a hit even with automatic sprays of gunfire. And as if Foehl's revelation of the mastermind and his motivations weren't anti- climactic enough, Mann underscores the monotony with a ludicrous showdown in the middle of a street festival in Jakarta where all its performers seem unfrazzled by a couple of White people walking amidst them in the opposite direction until shots are fired.
Mann's choice to shoot in the same over-exposed, sometimes low- resolution, mode as 'Collateral' and 'Miami Vice' is alternately mesmerising and frustrating. The latter is particularly so in the Korea-town fistfight, which looks like it was shot and edited on a cameraphone made five years ago; nonetheless, the same technique looks great in capturing the melange of neon-lit signboards that dot Hong Kong's Kowloon streets. Largely though, Mann sustains a moody intrigue throughout the film, complimented by a timely pulsating score by the same people who made David Fincher's 'The Social Network' sound sleek.
But these are minor consolations in a film that gets increasingly laughable in its self-seriousness, both in terms of character and narrative. It is also, like we mentioned at the start, mind- numbingly dull, content to unfold at the same languorous pace for more than two hours. Besides being a complete waste of time, it is also a wasted opportunity, failing to seize the perfect timing afforded to it by real-world events for a tense but thoughtful action thriller about the vulnerabilities of our systems to 'blackhats'. Coming from Mann, it is a huge let-down, and we might say, no better than the B-movie yarn that the similarly-themed thrillers 'The Net' and 'Hackers' were in the 90s.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
To set the record straight, no one gets taken in 'Taken 3', a condition
that its principal star Liam Neeson laid down before he agreed to
return for this third and presumably final instalment. That is
perfectly fine with us; after all, how many times can ex- Special
Forces operative Bryan Mills find himself having to deploy his very
particular set of skills after a member of his family is taken away
from him? Indeed, that is not the issue we had with this utterly
disappointing third outing, which totally squanders what audience
goodwill the first movie had accumulated and its immediate predecessor
had not yet depleted.
Produced by French-based EuropaCorp, the Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen-scripted 'Taken' was one of the most notable action films in recent memory when it was released back in 2008. Key to its success was Neeson, whose viciously efficient qualities as the former CIA badass were excellent complement to the actor's natural gravitas and air of gentleman nobility. The inevitable sequel that followed four years later was a letdown to say the least; not only did it slavishly repeat the original's formula, it toned down the former's no-holds-barred brutality to make it more accessible to a younger audience, and in the process losing the former's gritty, visceral, and even transgressive edge.
Unfortunately, fans of the original hoping that the series would go out on a bang will be sorely disappointed to know that 'Taken 3' is cast in the same mould as the sequel. There are plenty of gunshots but no sight of blood. There is hand-to-hand combat that plays out more like a playground brawl between teenagers. Even a torture scene that sees Neeson waterboard fellow co-star Dougray Scott is extremely tame in comparison with a similar and brutally memorable one in the first movie, that if one recalls involved the use of electric clamps that Neeson stabbed into his nemesis' thighs. Not that we relish the portrayal of extreme violence, but 'Taken 3' seem to know not the difference between being restrained and being dull.
But the deadened violence isn't quite the movie's most critical flaw; that belongs unquestionably to its director Olivier Megaton. A Besson regular since 'Transporter 3', Megaton took over the reins from Pierre Morel on 'Taken 2' but has apparently learnt nothing from his previous directorial duties. If there was already a worrying ineptness to his ability to craft a proper action sequence in 'Taken 2', then this follow-up shows Megaton at his most incompetent.
Clearly influenced by Paul Greengrass' frenetic shooting of the 'Bourne' movies, Megaton insists on flailing hand-held camera-work, frantic over-editing and claustrophobic close-ups to ruin every single action sequence in the entire f**king movie (and yes, it is indeed that frustrating to watch). A freeway car chase is reduced to a flurry of close-ups and rapid edits that bear no continuity or coherence. A confrontation in a liquor store between Neeson and some of the Russian mobsters who took his ex-wife's life is shot in such close-ups it is impossible to make out who is doing what. And worst of all, there is no climax to speak of not when a shootout between Neeson and another group of Russian mobsters protecting their boss Oleg Malankov (Sam Spruell) is so poorly staged it makes not a single iota of sense, or when a race between a Porsche driven by Neeson and a private plane ends in an collision that takes out the plane's front wheel but leaves no one hurt.
It is even more infuriating to think that Megaton manages to f**k up every single sequence when there aren't that many to begin with. Eschewing the simple set-up of the previous two films, Besson and Kamen have instead opted here for a more plot-driven narrative, setting Neeson up against Forest Whitaker's LAPD Detective Franck Dotzler even while the former hunts down his wife's killers. That certainly recalls the dynamic between Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in 'The Fugitive', but 'Taken 3' is nowhere as smart and Whitaker nowhere near as keen as Jones' ever was. Though Besson and Kamen's script opts for double-crosses, hidden agendas and whodunits to keep their audience's attention, it is quite clear right at the very start just who has been pulling the strings, a mystery that once solved makes the rest of the proceedings unnecessarily protracted.
Not that it actually matters while Neeson went about methodically tracking down his kidnapped family in the first and second movies, he rarely exhibits the same kind of discipline clearing his name here. Too much time is spent on emotionally hollow character relationships in the first act, i.e. between Bryan and his young adult daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), or between Bryan and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), or between Bryan and Lenore's current husband Stuart (Scott), while the second act is equally wasted on Bryan's strenuous efforts to contact Kim who is placed under the close watch of the LAPD. By the time Bryan actually gets down to investigating, almost everyone involved looks more keen on getting it over and done none more so than Neeson, who looks tired and completely uninterested from scene to scene.
Perhaps Neeson is all too aware that the 'Taken' franchise has completely sputtered out; indeed, 'Taken 3' plays almost like a parody of the original movie, which was to action fans a sheer unbridled delight for its realistic stuntwork and hand-to-hand combat. Both these elements are sorely and sadly missing from a movie that can't even get its priorities right, no thanks to the utter shocking ineptitude of its director. Like we said, no one in the movie gets taken, but little did we know that the title was meant to be a joke on its audience, who are literally taken for a ride here. Spare yourself the agony, frustration and disappointment, and just NOT get on in the first place.
With a title like Trash, it is hard not to expect things like garbage
piles and generic black plastic bags to appear on screen. One might
even think, why would anyone watch a film named Trash? After all,
Hollywood films can be trashy and a title like Trash does seem like a
boding sign. Yet do not be fooled, all you title-judging mother****ers,
Trash is absolutely nothing like its namesake.
Directed by Stephen Daldry, Trash is a story about Raphael (Rickson Tev) and his chance discovery of a wallet belonging to José Angelo (Wagner Moura). Together with friends Gador (Eduardo Luis) and Rato (Gabriel Weinstein), Raphael embarks on a perilous journey to uncover the truth behind the wallet, unwittingly becoming victims to corrupted politician Santos and policeman Frederico (Selton Mello). Adapted from Andy Mulligan's young adult fiction novel, Trash has a story that seems almost like a fairytale - it is only in the lala-land of literature that fourteen-year-old trash-pickers can succeed in exposing the corrupted ways of political figures without getting themselves killed. That being said, the film succeeds in translating this highly unlikely situation from book to screen without making it seem too contrived.
There are many things to look out for in Trash, like the superb editing and the wonderful cinematography by Adriano Goldman. From the mountains of trash piles to the grimy stilt houses, Goldman did a great job of capturing the decrepit beauty of these common wastelands. Chase scenes in particular, were edited well with great rhythm. Daldry's use of the boys' to-camera inserts would also be greatly appreciated by viewers who have read the novel. Seen through the to- camera inserts, the boys' frank statements better developed their characters, reflected the novel's multi-perspectives and doubled as a plot device later on in the film.
Although Tev, Luis and Weinstein can be rough around the edges with emotional scenes, their energy was infectious on screen. On the other hand, Rooney Mara and Martin Sheen paled in comparison, appearing more like decorative non-playable characters beside the boys. While Moura performed within expectation, the same cannot be said of Mello, who played the role of Frederico like an emotionless corpse. In fact, if you stare hard at the screen, you will soon come to the conclusion that even a dead grouper has eyes livelier than Mello's.
Acting aside, the only problem this reviewer has with Trash is Raphael's dogged pursuit for justice. When questioned about his actions, Raphael answered that he was doing so because "it is the right thing". In spite of that, it was the money left behind by José, and not the book accounting for Santos' corrupted dealings, that seemed to interest the boys. In this sense, the pursuit for justice seems more like an adventure for Raphael and his friends, rather than an act motivated by the decision to right a wrong. Then again, perhaps that was what made Trash so charming. In a world filled with dark, cynical views, the boys are a representation of what hope, perseverance and friendship can bring about.
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