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A stunning comeback for Donnie Yen, this well-plotted, character-driven embodiment of a contemporary martial arts movie is thrilling, gripping and poignant, 19 October 2014

As much as we love the 'Ip Man' star, we'll be frank to admit that Donnie Yen needs a hit – bad. Which is why his latest, which reteams him with 'Bodyguards and Assassins' helmer Teddy Chen, is such a huge sigh of relief for us – it packs Yen's signature brand of hard- hitting action with a compelling narrative to be both thrilling and moving at the same time, and is indeed as good a comeback as we could have asked for.

The setup isn't complicated, and fuses the themes in a kung fu picture into a police procedural. A brief prologue which shows Yen turning himself in at the police station after killing his exponent in a fight frames the former, while the latter unfolds three years later with the emergence of a serial killer who is targeting experts in different martial arts disciplines, i.e. boxing, kicking, grappling, weaponry etc. Immediately after hearing a news report of one such victim, Yen's martial arts instructor Mo Hahou starts a prison brawl just to get the attention of its lead investigator (Charlie Yeung), proceeding to name the others whom he claims would be next.

As it turns out, Yen's portents come true one by one, and he gets a temporary release from prison to aid in the manhunt. To be sure, there is no doubt on who that is – an unhinged psychopath called Fung Yu- sae (Wang Baoqiang) who has just lost his wife to cancer and now possesses only a murderous motivation to prove himself the best of the best. Unsurprisingly, the film builds to an ultimate challenge between Yen and Wang, the former's motivations and the latter's intentions more personal and intertwined than what you are likely to have thought at the start.

Chan isn't a storyteller without purpose, and none of that seems lost in Lau Ho Leung and Mak Tin Shu's tight scripting from Chan's own story. Chan's character-driven tale depicts Yen and Wang's on- screen personas as two sides of the same coin, both of them highly trained pugilists tempted to use their skills to kill rather than to protect and whose personal quests for supremacy has blinded them to the consequences of getting there. It is a familiar conceit all right, but Chan's incredibly assured direction fleshes it out convincingly.

His ingenuity doesn't quite end there; by placing such themes within the context of a modern day setting, Chan has truly accomplished a rare feat of making a contemporary martial arts movie; in fact, we'd even go as far as to say that 'Kung Fu Jungle' is the very embodiment of such a movie. The use of martial arts here makes complete and perfect sense, woven beautifully into the plotting and given a gritty down-to-earth polish that makes it all the more authentic. Chan's aim here is also homage, and eagle-eyed fans of the genre will have a field day spotting – among others – Mang Hoi, Tony Leung Siu-Hung, Tsui Siu-Ming, Yuen Cheung Yan and Sharon Yeung in cameos.

Yes, many of these stars have paved the ground on which Yen's stature as a martial arts actor stands on, and their appearances – no matter how brief – has clearly energised Yen. His work as action director here is among his best in years, but it is probably no coincidence that he is joined by other luminaries like Yuen Bun and Tung Wai. Each kill provides an expedient setting for a quick burst of adrenaline, with trained kung fu actors like Shi Yanneng and Louis Fan in brief but memorable supporting roles that Wang challenges to a one-on-one fight to the death.

Quick, clean but brutal – they pretty much establish the tone for the more elaborate setpieces to come, and it is in the latter that one is reminded why Yen is arguably the best active kung fu actor out there today. From a signature 'one against many' brawl in prison to a cat-and-mouse chase in and out of the stilt houses that form Lantau Island's fishing community to an exhilarating finish along the Container Port Road leading out of the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals, Yen impresses with his speed, agility and execution. In particular, the latter ranks as one of his best in intensity and inventiveness, especially with a wowing mid-section that sees Yen and Wang duelling with wooden poles.

If Wang ever seemed an odd choice for Yen's opponent given his filmography, the Shaolin-trained Mainland actor finally redeems himself here. This isn't their first match-up – that ignominy goes to the atrocious 'Iceman 3D' – but seeing Wang fight the way he does here is truly an eye-opener, firmly putting to rest any doubts of his ability in a physically demanding role like this. Wang is also chillingly good as the snarling murderer whose hood hides a deliberately scarred face, but is equally persuasive when portraying the part of a loving husband to his dying wife. Yen's acting is in equally fine form as an honourable man wracked by his past demons and trying to stop a monster for more personal reasons than he is willing to admit to anyone.

Truth be told, we weren't quite sold when we heard that Yen and Wang were re-teaming after 'Iceman 3D', and if you're having similar reservations, we're here to tell you that they are unfounded. 'Kung Fu Jungle' is a thrilling showcase of martial arts action and gripping storytelling, a shining example of a contemporary kung fu movie and an earnest and befitting tribute to a bedrock of Hong Kong cinema.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
For non-readers of the original manga, the fight scenes would probably impress; for fans, prepare for a new version of the story, 10 October 2014

I'll say this first – die-hard fans of the manga series would probably not like the movie very much.

Well, book fans rarely go gaga over movie adaptations, deeming it inferior to the original due to the lack of detail most of the time. That said, it is lacking detail, and there is changing the storyline until it feels like a different story but with the same characters and a vague resemblance to the original plot.

I might be exaggerating, but for a self-confessed Rurouni Kenshin fan, it sure felt that way for a good part of two hours.

Picking up where Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno left off, Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends launches itself straight into the plot. With Shishio Makoto (Tatsuya Fujiwara) advancing to Tokyo and threatening to take over the country, the weakened Himura Kenshin (Satou Takeru) must dig deep and find out how to defeat him, and fast. And in a stroke of good luck, who else to find him washed up from the sea but his teacher, Hiko Seijurou (Masaharu Fukuyama).

Despite the deviation from the original manga, the plot does retain some part that require the audience to have read the manga to fully enjoy. For example, the self-sacrifice required behind the ultimate technique of the "Flying Heaven Honorable Sword Style", and the backstory behind Sagara Sanosuke and "Ten Swords" member, Anji. This lack of information does not take away anything from the plot, but it does seem lacking in some sort without these intricacies.

Like the first and second Rurouni Kenshin movie, what the Legend Ends uses to sell itself to non-readers of the manga is probably the sword fighting sequences in the movie. To get to that, however, the audience must sit through 1.5 hours of dialogue with almost next to nil actual fighting scenes. This could be to make up for the lack of character development in Kyoto Inferno, where it was sacrificed for the action sequences. From the dialogue and non-fighting parts, we learn about Kenshin's past, before he was picked up by his teacher, the callousness of the Meiji government, and in general, a lot more evil laughing from Shishio. That is fine for people who want to learn more about the characters and their motivations. But for action fans, I suppose it would be boring. On the other hand, what was not explained was the backstory behind Sojiro's childhood, and how he became with cold, smiling right hand man of Shishio. That would have taken up more time, but it was the most memorable backstory in the manga, in my opinion.

And finally, after the huge buildup to the main fight – Shishio vs. Kenshin – the fight disappoints. Perhaps it is due to the need to rush through things, due to the time taken up by story and character development. Perhaps we were desensitized by the other fighting scenes. Or perhaps it is the four versus one (blasphemy!) to wear Shishio down. But Kenshin's supposed victory over Shishio did not seem conclusive.

As a whole, the film accessible to all audiences, fans or non-fans of the manga alike. No prior reading is required, although watching Kyoto Inferno before this movie would be recommended. Also, with the Shishio arc in the manga spanning across multiple volumes, the Rurouni Kenshin movies do a decent job in condensing the story to make it suitable for theatres, so kudos for that.

Got two hours to spare for an entertaining popcorn action flick? This Taiwanese action franchise does the job with its explosions, car chases and shoot'em ups, 9 October 2014

Call this writer a traditionalist, but he has never been too impressed whenever he hears a young artiste bagging an acting award. Showbiz is a cruel place, and he somewhat believes that accolades, as shammy as they are, belong to veterans who have been slogging it out. That is probably why, whenever the media goes all excited about a young actor winning an industry award, this columnist would read the coverage with many pinches of salt.

So here we have 30 year old Mark Chao (Monga, The First Time) who established his reputation by starring as one of the two protagonists in 2009 Taiwanese TV series Black & White. The 24 episode drama tells the story of two cops who have vastly different personalities. Wu Ying Xiong (Chao) believes that law and justice are the pillars of the society and are constantly on the lookout for baddies, while Chen Zai Tian (Vic Chou) lives a luxurious lifestyle while waiting for dubious sources to crack his cases. Chao went on to win Best Actor at the 44th Golden Bell Awards, the prestigious annual TV production award presented by Taiwan's Government Information Office. The series was a big winner, taking home Best Drama, Best Director, Best Art Direction and Best Marketing.

While this writer has never watched a single episode of the TV drama, it makes perfect sense that there was a 2012 movie spin off chronicling Wu Ying Xiong's days before the series. Rumours have it that Chou and Chao's friendship soured after the latter's Golden Bell win, and hence Chou's absence in the movie. Titled Black & White: The Dawn of Assault, the movie was a success – hence this sequel (which also takes place before the TV series).

For someone who is watching anything related to "Black & White" (the predecessor to this movie was only released on home video here), this 126 minute action blockbuster is entertaining popcorn fare. The latest installment of the police action series is evidently grander in scale (go catch some of the TV episodes on YouTube), with special visual effects and 3D production companies from Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Thailand, France, Australia and Hollywood coming into the picture. Yup, the filmmakers had a very, very big budget to work on.

Director Tsai Yuen Hsun makes his point clear by opening the movie with a dramatic car chase and countless loud explosions that sabotage all of the roadways leading in and out of the city. This is where we have to count on Wu Ying Xiong and a new character (a very likable Lin Geng Xin) to save the day. Chao and Lin have worked on Tsui Hark's Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013), and the chemistry between the two work well in their latest collaboration.

Our senses are kept frantic by collapsed buildings, airplanes and trains crashing onto city streets, a rocket attack and an impending biological weapon explosion. The special effects are above average (you know that nothing can beat Hollywood), and the performances from the ensemble cast are commendable. Look out for the award winning Huang Bo who returns from the last movie as a criminal with a heart, as well as other familiar faces like Chang Chun Ning, Zha Na, Terri Kwan and our own Christopher Lee.

Will Chao wow critics with his acting here? Unlikely, because from this point on, it's really about bringing in the bucks. And this very entertaining popcorn movie works delivers with its impressive production values.

5 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
A suitably engaging origin story that lacks blood but has enough bite to satisfy as a diverting fantasy-horror, 3 October 2014

s far as reboots go, 'Dracula Untold' isn't half-bad; in fact, we'd go so far as to say that it is pretty good. As imagined by screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, the titular bloodsucker begins as a 15th century Transylvanian prince named Vlad who trades his soul for the dark side in order to protect his family and his kingdom from the armies of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II. To be sure, their inspiration is rooted in history – the real historical figure of Vlad the Impaler was indeed taken by the Turks as a young boy and trained to kill without question or reason.

After a brief prologue establishing this crucial backstory, Welsh actor Luke Evans inhabits the role of the glowering anti-hero, weary of war and desiring only of peace. And yet that dream is shattered when his uneasy truce with the far-numerous Turks is disrupted one day by the Sultan's demand for one thousand youths to join his army, including, we may add, Vlad's own son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). Desperate for a way out, Vlad turns to the evil that he knows resides within Broken Tooth Mountain (so named after the Universal Studios theme park attraction) – a Nosferatu-like demon (Charles Dance) who offers him a drink of his blood for superhuman strength.

The price? If he can resist drinking human blood in three days, Vlad will get to return to human form. What happens after is a lot of CGI, some (especially the overhead shots of the scale of the Turkish invasion) impressive and others (like the mano-a-thousands shots of Count Dracula's vanquishing an entire army) less so. Yes, since the outcome is pretty much known, much of the film fills itself with ostensibly CGI-enhanced Lord-of-the-Rings-style battle sequences that see Vlad alternate between human and bat form to sweep like a tornado through his opponents or command a whole colony of them just by waving his hands.

For obvious reasons, most of these sequences take place at night, but the nocturnal setting also means that the action often descends into murky chaos, such that what happens on screen often comes off as a blur – and that is even on an IMAX supersized screen. Cynics will also no doubt find fault with the bloodlessness of these sequences, which despite boasting the stylish gloom of HBO's 'Game of Thrones', is PG13 demure in order to ensure accessibility to a younger audience. But once you accept that this is no more than a glorified B-movie, you'll learn to appreciate its pleasures a lot more.

Evans, for instance, makes for a surprisingly engaging lead in the titular role. Having proved his charisma in supporting roles such as 'Fast and Furious 6' and 'The Hobbit', he finally gets the chance to anchor a film from start to end, and acquits himself handsomely with a compelling portrayal of a man who must learn just how much of his own mortality he is willing to sacrifice in order to save the ones he saves. Amidst the noisy battles, Evans shares a couple of nice intimate scenes with Sarah Gadon, who plays his wife Mirena, and the chemistry between them builds to a heartbreaking finale that offers as good a reason as any for his subsequent – and inevitable transformation.

On his part, veteran commercials director turned first-time feature helmer Gary Shore fairs pretty well by keeping the proceedings lean and tight, with much of the storytelling in action rather than words. Besides tapping on cinematographer John Schwartzmann for some lush widescreen shots of Ireland, Shore also employs different stylistic flourishes to enliven the on screen action, which in itself still gets your heart thumping – despite some clearly slapdash CGI especially in the depiction of them carnivorous creatures. It isn't particularly inspired, but in the context of a diverting fantasy- horror, Shore's raw instincts as a filmmaker do suffice.

And so if approached from the mentality that 'it could be much worse', 'Dracula Untold' actually stands on its own as an enjoyable piece of hokum. Pretending that it is anything more takes away the cruder pleasures it offers, and of course sets it up as something that it probably never intended to be in the first place. That said, it does end on a pretty exciting note – a coda set in present day sees Vlad encountering his seemingly reincarnated wife Mirena, with Dance's malevolent character in close pursuit and intoning the last four words for a sequel we must say we are quite excited to see: "let the games begin".

Left Behind (2014/I)
16 out of 57 people found the following review useful:
Leave this to the believers. It's not going to convert the rest of us., 2 October 2014

Instead of letting his wife convulse in skimpy outfits onstage to convince people into embracing Christianity, the pastor in question could have used the funds to make a movie on hindsight like what Stoney Lake Entertainment has done here.

For the uninitiated, Stoney Lake Entertainment is set up to produce faith-inspired films for the masses and their intention is to create a franchise for Left Behind which in turn is based on a series of popular books by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. This is not the first time Left Behind is being made into a movie however, in actual fact it was originally done in the year 2000 and followed by two other sequels.

Lake's CEO Paul Lalonde co-wrote this remake that involved the biblical Rapture where faithful believers are taken up to heaven before the apocalyptic end of days. The narrative begins with the Steele family at the JFK airport. Father Ray Steele (Nicolas Cage) is an airline pilot who is struggling to keep both his marriage and children together while beginning an affair with a sultry air stewardess. His daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson) is upset by his father's absence and she also has problems understanding issues of God especially with her religiously inclined mother.

Within seconds of the opening credits, we are treated to a shot of a book called "Acts of God" and seconds later, a woman begins rambling about the end of the world to a supposedly famous TV reporter, Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray). There isn't much subtlety to talk about and the frequent hackneyed writing and wooden performances worsen the viewing experience further.

The touted Rapture happens about an hour later. On the flight where Ray is piloting to London, dozens of passengers and all the children onboard just vanished, leaving behind fear and lots of head scratching. On the ground, the same strange occurrence happened. Chloe's younger brother mysteriously vanishes at the mall leaving behind his belongings. Petty crimes, looting and robberies starts happening everywhere. It is the end of the world people, so everyone just has the urge to commit crimes. That makes a lot of sense.

Because this is a character driven drama with good religious intentions, we are treated to more subplots and stock characters on the plane. For example, the obligatory Muslim passenger (who might be a terrorist), an annoying little man, a black woman who pulls out a gun out of nowhere, and a rich business man who suddenly develops concern for his estranged daughter; meanwhile, Chloe is playing Supergirl helping Daddy land his huge malfunctioning plane on a deserted highway. No worries though, Daddy has a helping hand as co- pilot- the handsome and attractive Chuck.

Technically, this US$16 million production is often hampered by poor visual effects, sloppy editing and laughingly, a weird 1980s look to the entire flick. The usually entertaining Nicolas Cage with his batshit crazy acting turns up pretty somber and underwhelming. Left Behind is a heavy-handed, preachy movie disguised as an apocalyptic action thriller. Even veteran stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong who helmed this project couldn't make this any better. This movie is best left for believers while the rest might prefer to sign up for bible study for a start.

Annabelle (2014)
2 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
A far inferior prequel to 'The Conjuring', this is a cash-grab exercise in mediocrity that trades in cheap scares than any genuine fear or tension, 2 October 2014

Whereas 'The Conjuring' rode on a wave of overwhelmingly positive test screenings to secure a prime release date in summer last year, 'Annabelle' seems to have taken the opposite route. Screened late or in some territories never for critics and audiences alike, it almost seems as if the producers want to keep the movie locked up – like the real-life 'Raggedy Ann' doll of the same name from which this was inspired – in a glass cabinet. And yet, the reason for their reluctance to unveil 'Annabelle' in the same way that they did for 'The Conjuring' is plainly simple once you've seen the former.

First things first, 'The Conjuring's' James Wan doesn't return to direct 'Annabelle'; the Malaysian-born director serves only as a producer here and instead has relinquished the reins to his director of photography on the former, John R. Leonetti. Neither is 'Annabelle' scripted by the writers of 'The Conjuring', who – if it's any relief to fans of the original – are returning for the direct sequel 'The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist' due next year; instead, that credit falls here to Gary Dauberman, whose filmography before this consists of dubious direct-to-video titles like 'In the Spider's Web' and 'Swamp Monkey'. The point we're trying to make? Don't expect the same pedigree as 'The Conjuring', because there just isn't.

It's unfortunate that 'Annabelle' gets immediately compared with the far-superior 'The Conjuring'; on its own, 'Annabelle' is a pretty average genre exercise that should satisfy those looking for a horror fix; but when you lay it next to 'The Conjuring', then this in-name prequel just is utterly inferior, and probably no more than an attempt to cash in on its predecessor's success to get more people into the cinema. Heck, they couldn't even get Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga to cameo in the scene where their characters, Ed and Lorraine Warren, frm 'The Conjuring' are clearly referenced.

Since 'The Conjuring' is set in the mid-1970s, 'Annabelle' sets itself about a decade before, when medical school student John (Ward Horton) and his wife Mia (Annabelle Wallis) are a young couple living in a quiet suburban neighbourhood and expecting a baby. Mia is a doll collector, and Annabelle is John's surprise present to her to complete her antique doll collection – though why one naturally wonders just why anyone would want a creepy looking thing like Annabelle in their home. Anyhow, on the night they learn of the Manson family murders (Google that if you're keen for more information), their home is invaded by the daughter of their next- door neighbour.

A Satanic hippie best described as a crazed demon worshipper, she and her boyfriend have just murdered her parents before proceeding to try to do the same with John and Mia. But the police arrive, and in the melee that follows, her boyfriend is shot dead while she slits her throat such that her blood gets into the titular creepy doll. None of this is a spoiler, since you already can see most of it from the trailer. After some weird and dangerous things happen in that house (from the usual moving of furniture to slamming of doors and leading up to the kitchen catching fire), John and Mia move into a new apartment in a new town, where John is to complete his residency.

Needless to say, Annabelle follows them to the new place, and while John is away, proceeds to terrorise Mia as well as their newborn baby daughter. Who do the couple turn to? Well, as clichés go, John looks to a local elderly priest (Tony Amendola), while Mia confides in the eccentric black woman (Alfre Woodard) who runs a bookstore down the street with a convenient occult section. The entity responsible for the paranormal activities? It's a demon; and before you can say 'exorcism', Father Perez (conveniently) turns into the eager exorcist who tries to rid the demon from the doll – and if you need any clue as to how that turns out, well just re-watch the opening sequence from 'The Conjuring'.

None of what happens is particularly scary in and of itself, because instead of the nice slow-burn type of atmospheric dread that 'The Conjuring' traded in, Leonetti insists on hitting his audience over their heads with repeated 'boo!' scares which are akin to the genre's junk food. Yes, if you're well versed in the genre, this is more about things jumping out at you at various moments – accompanied by appropriately sudden sound effects – than any genuine tension or fear. It is cheap to say the least, and lazy if you compare it against the well-crafted sequences which made 'The Conjuring' such a success in the first place.

It doesn't help that Dauberman's script plagiarises elements from all the horror classics we've known – from the helpless mother to her logical companion to the local priest who doesn't need a permit from the Vatican to decide he wants to take on the demon to the peculiar black lady who actually knows a thing or two about the demonic stuff she keeps ranting about. There is nothing here that transcends genre mediocrity, and Leonetti's reliance on the frights of the lowest denominator doesn't help one bit.

Like we said, though the producers of 'Annabelle' would gladly like for their film to be related with 'The Conjuring', that association is a double-edged sword. It will get fans in no doubt, but whether it leaves them satiated in the same 'scared stiff' way 'The Conjuring' did is clear – it won't. What that means in terms of goodwill for 'The Conjuring' franchise in general is still suspect; but here's something we do know – 'Annabelle' is no 'Conjuring', and at its best, is a thoroughly mediocre genre exercise that is good for Halloween but little else.

2 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
If someone has a problem and have nowhere else to turn, they can call The Equalizer to make things right, 27 September 2014

Yup, although Irish actor Liam Neeson has taken on baddies in countless movies (in case you didn't know, the Oscar-winning actor will be threatening to hunt you down over the phone in Taken 3 next year), we still don't think he cuts it as an "uncle" action hero. Now, one guy we'd root for is 59 year old Denzel Washington. The two time Academy Award winner (Best Supporting Actor for 1989's Glory and Best Actor for 2001's Training Day) is known for his portrayals of real life personalities like human right activist Malcom X and middleweight boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, but he is also a bona fide action hero. Look no further than his illustrious filmography: Man on Fire (2004), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), The Book of Eli (2010) and Unstoppable (2010) are just some of the New Yorkborn actor's finest works.

Here, he teams up with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua to play, well, a violent man (the movie is rated M18 for Violence and Coarse Language) out to eliminate baddies. And it is one exhilarating ride indeed.

Washington plays McCall, a middle aged retired intelligence officer who believes he has put his Special Forces past behind him and dedicated himself to beginning a new, quiet life. But when the calm and collected man meets a young girl under the control of violent Russian gangsters, he decides to help her. Armed with some really impressive skills that allow him to serve vengeance against anyone who would bully the helpless, McCall comes out of his self imposed retirement and finds his desire for justice reawakened.

Based on the 1985-1989 TV series starring Edward Woodward, the film adaptation retains the basic theme of a kind stranger helping those who can't help themselves, but triples up on the violence — something we feel will go down well with fans of action movies.

We love this 132 minute movie because we like Washington, and we watch in delight seeing him kick some booty. Without Washington,this would be an average movie, but trust the award winning actor makes the character come to life. He is intimidating and dangerous. He is also cool, with a steely resolve in the face of danger. Who doesn't want a hero always promising to bring the bad guys to the house of pain without needing to yell hysterically about it? Washington has the perfect intensity to make the action feel explosive. This movie is a sure hit with guys.

The antagonist played by New Zealand actor Marton Csokas (he was Lord Celeborn in the first and third films of The Lord of the Rings series) is scarily effective. Watch the demonically tattooed villain lurk around in his slick skyscraper while getting vexed and sadistic, before getting his troops to destroy McCall. Elsewhere, Chloe Grace Mortez (If I Stay, Kick Ass 2) expands her choice of film roles by playing a young prostitute who ends up being a punch bag.

Fuqua, who staged some really beautiful shots in his previous works (2003's Tears of the Sun, 2013's Olympus Has Fallen) doesn't have as many opportunities for breathtaking visuals, but he frequently finds unique camera perspectives and lighting techniques to make the film look like a higher-class action blockbuster. The film starts to get a bit longer than necessary at the final act (revenge thrillers rarely cross the two hour mark), but the action makes up for the length. We want to shout out to The Equalizer: go kick some ass!

3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Fast-paced character-driven tale that avoids being boring or predictable, 12 September 2014

There has been a recent wave of movies adapted from Young Adult (YA) literature, containing similar settings and characters. Dystopian society – check (The Hunger Games and The Giver). Teenagers abandoned in a fight or die arena – check (The Hunger Games). Main character finds himself/herself thrown into a new world – check (The Mortal Instruments). With such tough competition, the Maze Runner is given a difficult task to move away from the rest of the YA movies and shine.

On paper, The Maze Runner sounds similar to the hugely popular The Hunger Games series, where teenagers are sacrificed by the adult controllers, and thrown into an arena or maze without any assurance of survival. That said, the similarities end there. Instead of hunting each other down, the emphasis on cooperation and living in a cohesive society can be seen in The Maze Runner, which puts the movie in good stead of differentiating itself.

Like the film's main lead, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), the audience is plunged into darkness as the film starts. Coupled with the shaky camera, flashing lights and clanking of machinery, the film attempts to make the audience feel Thomas' disorientation and fear, before the cage Thomas is trapped in comes to a grinding halt. Thomas is 'retrieved' from the cage by a group of hostile, rowdy boys, and is welcomed to the Glade by being thrown to another cage.

Fans of the book might be disappointed as the film apparently departs a fair bit from the original. This writer has not read the original, and has no idea what the movie was about except for the information provided by the trailer. Being thrust into this new world like Thomas, it was admittedly hard to keep up with the terms used (e.g. "Grievers", "Gladers", etc.). However, the fast pace of the movie meant that what was lost through the quick dialogue and name-dropping was quickly learnt during the film (spoiler: Grievers are oversized mechanical spider-like creatures), as the series of events quickly familiarises the viewer with the world within the Glade.

The society within the Glade was emphasised right at the start, with the typical characters to be expected for a film containing such a large number of men-boys. Alby (Aml Ameen) is the magnetic, de-facto leader, and first person to ever inhibit the Glade. Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is second in command, who was thrown out of power when Gally (Will Poulter) usurps the power in the Glade. Lastly, there is also the protagonist's sidekick – Chuck (Blake Cooper). The actors were convincing in their roles but not outstanding, perhaps except for Newt. Brodie-Sangster's portrayal of Newt's weakness and lack of confidence as a new leader was commendable, especially when the character was first thrust into power and caught between Gally and Thomas. There is also character development, noticeably in Minho, shown to forsake his friends right at the start, and ends up saving Thomas eventually.

O'Brien's protagonist is then, unexpectedly, the most predictable of the lot – the game-changing, hot-headed newcomer to the Glade. Thomas is central to the story right from the start, questioning conventions, being the only person Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) knows, and finally, leading the Gladers to conquer the maze. Without such a figure tearing apart social norms, the story would admittedly not progress and the movie would not reach its conclusion. However, this is no excuse for O'Brien's lack of emotions in the character. The only girl of the male-dominated Glade, Teresa, lacks screen time, but holds her ground whenever she is given the opportunity to, which is appreciated in a film overcrowded by male teenagers.

Not to discount YA literature (this writer is a fan of YA fiction), but parts of the film does seem clichéd at times, with jokes targeted at a younger audience. Thankfully, the film's fast-moving plot and storyline does more than make up for this, leaving the audience at the edges of their seats, not knowing what will turn up at the next corner (literally and figuratively).

Towards the end of the film, the film asks questions of which is a wiser choice – staying in familiar territory or exploring unchartered waters. While there are no prizes for guessing which option is the preferred one here, the more pertinent question is what lies beyond the maze, bringing into mind a quote from the Hunger Games, "there are worse games to play". The characters do not get to find out, and the end of the film also unabashedly advertises for its sequel, The Scorch Trials, which is currently in pre- production.

9 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
Grotesque and yet charming at the same time, this visually singular piece of stop-motion animation is quite the spellbinder, 11 September 2014

If you haven't yet seen 'Coraline' or 'ParaNorman', it may take you a while to get used to the world of 'The Boxtrolls'. The third feature from Oregon-based studio Laika Animation, it is told using the same stop-motion technique (with some CG and hand-drawn work) as their earlier films, but the similarity doesn't quite stop there. Yes, once again, the animators have eschewed the cuteness of Disney or Dreamworks for something much darker than your normal kiddie fare at the Cineplex, and therein, we would argue, is the reason why it proves so uniquely charming.

Adapted from British children's author Alan Snow's fantasy adventure 'Here Be Monsters!', it retains the Steampunk setting of the novel but takes quite a few creative liberties. Instead of an over- industrialised Ratbridge, the city in question is Cheesebridge, so termed because the dairy product is what separates the rich in "White Hats" from the poor in red ones. What unites the humans across their class distinctions is the subterranean Boxtrolls, little blue- skinned fluorescent-eyed creatures who emerge from the sewers at night to swipe anything and everything they can get their hands on.

So named on account of the cupboard boxes they wear their bodies, the Boxtrolls are feared by the humans as much they fear the humans. The fear of the former is stoked by none other than Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley), a truly detestable rascal who is responsible for spreading nasty rumours about the Boxtrolls in order to justify his eradication for a coveted place with the "White Hats" and a seat with them at the cheese tasting table. As you can probably guess, their leader is no saint either, but rather a self- absorbed aristocrat by the name of Lord Portley-Rind who cares more about his Gouda and Brie than the welfare of his citizenry.

It's a lot of setup, but co-directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable deftly lay out the intricacies of their make-believe world while setting the narrative in motion. For reasons only revealed in a crucial flashback sequence later, a boy is taken as a toddler under the care of the Boxtrolls and is named Eggs after the carton he wears over himself. While on the prowl one night, Eggs runs into Lord Portley's precocious daughter Winnifred (Elle Fanning) who is shocked that a human would be associating himself with the dreaded Boxtrolls; but before she can make his acquaintance, Eggs is forced to flee from Archibald and his henchmen.

As such stories go, Eggs sets off on a quest with Winnifred in tow to convince the humans that the Boxtrolls aren't sinister beings who kidnap children. To top it off, Archibald turns out to have a nefarious scheme after all, building a contraption to assert his authority over Lord Portley and demanding that he be given the latter's white hat. But parents need not worry - writers Irena Brignull and Adam Pava don't deny the kids of a happy ending, though not before subjecting them to some grotesque images that may just make them swear off cheese for some time.

Consider this as fair warning - visually, this isn't cast in the same mould as the usual CG animation, and one might even go as far as to say that 'The Boxtrolls' operates in a realm of ugliness. But once you look past the cruder-than-usual designs, you're likely to find the cardboard-wearing critters surprisingly endearing by their guile and naivety. We urge you too to pay attention to the dazzling production design that makes up the world of Cheesebridge and the underground lair in which the boxtrolls call home; there is a whole cornucopia of details that will leave you wowed if you pay attention to them.

Still, compared to their earlier features, this latest lacks the heart and poignancy that made its predecessors memorable. Eggs never comes across as someone whose plight we would sympathise with, nor for that matter is Winnifred a likable enough character. The way the boxtrolls communicate in an Ewok-like language is amusing all right, but they are lacking individually in any defining personality. Because we never quite understand the reason why the humans so fear the boxtrolls, their eventual reconciliation doesn't quite resonate as it should.

It isn't that 'The Boxtrolls' is underwhelming though; against a surfeit of clean-cut CG animation, its stop-motion aesthetics make it a refreshing change of look. Rather, because its earlier two adventures were such singular accomplishments, Laika's latest seems more like a walk in the park. Yet its refusal to be boxed in (pun intended) by conventional animation features is still evident in its design as well as its choice of themes, and if there ever were need to prove that it is possible to be both grotesque and charming at the same time, then 'The Boxtrolls' would be it.

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Despite coming after the wildly popular You Are The Apple Of My Eye, Café. Waiting. Love. does not disappoint, and, in my opinion, is more enjoyable than the former, 31 August 2014

Café. Waiting. Love. is the second part of novelist Giddens Ko's trilogy of love stories – the first part being the popular You Are The Apple Of My Eye (2011) and the last, Achoo, is slated for release next year. The three movies, though, does not seem to be a continuation of the same storyline, as for this film, the focus shifts to Li Siying (Vivian Sung), a college freshman, and A-Tuo (Bruce), a college student who has delayed graduation for seven years.

Despite not directing this film, Giddens Ko's pervasive influence extends throughout Café. Waiting. Love – he is not only the author of the original novel, but also credited as the Producer and Screenwriter of this movie. It is then somewhat inevitable that Café. Waiting. Love. bears similarities to You Are The Apple Of My Eye, in terms of the ridiculous events in the storyline (skating around in a bikini, and producing food from one's head). That said, Café. Waiting. Love. holds its own against its predecessor, in part thanks to director Chiang Chin- lin.

The film is Chiang's first full-length feature film, after working as the executive director on You Are The Apple Of My Eye. With Chiang at the helm, the film avoids being self-indulgent and overly sentimental, traps that You Are The Apple Of My Eye might have fallen into. This is not to say that Café. Waiting. Love. pays less attention to detail or is harder to relate to. Chiang does a good job in adapting the novel to film, making it interesting enough to sustain the viewer's attention for the two hours, with unexpected twists and turns and introductions to new characters. The storytelling also makes the film enjoyable to one unfamiliar with the novel, when other adapted films might have assumed that the viewer had prior knowledge of the storyline.

Like the director, the film is the two main leads' – Sung and Bruce – movie debut. The two newcomers play their characters reasonably well, holding their own against the older, more experienced actors like Pauline Lan and Li Luo, who play Golden Knife Auntie and Brother Bao respectively. Back to the main couple – Sung's character, Siying, is the primary narrator of the story, who somehow gets employed in the café central to the story, while A-Tuo (Bruce) is her college senior and a college legend. After a series of coincidences, Siying and A-Tuo become good friends, and, as in all romantic comedies, A-Tuo inevitably falls for Siying. Siying, however, pines for the classic Prince Charming – Zeyu – who might not be who she thinks he is. Unlike typical rom-coms, A-Tuo urges Siying to chase after Zeyu while chasing her at the same time.

In comparison, Bruce stands out more than Sung by virtue of his character in the movie. The viewer is first introduced to A-Tuo as a bikini-wearing, roller-skating college senior, while beneath his happy- go-lucky exterior is someone hugely sentimental… just barely. Bruce does a good job in acting as the underdog for Siying's affections, and is convincingly innocent, making the viewer root for A-Tuo as he woos Siying.

Another standout character is Abusi (or Albus, played by Megan Lai), the barista of the café, which Siying is employed in. Lai, who cut her hair for the film, is handsome and mysterious as Abusi, and manages to leave a strong impression in the viewer despite her short screen time and even shorter script. Coupled with the ethereal Vivian Zhou as the owner of the café, the café exudes an air of otherworldly-ness, which might be more apt than expected.

The film has also been said to be an exploration of the act of waiting for love, and it can be said that everyone in the film was waiting for someone else. With this theme, one would expect the film to be draggy and filled with passive, uninspiring characters. This was not the case, as although there was a lot of waiting, this was not the central defining characteristic of the characters. In fact, while waiting is necessary, the film shows that doing something about it would probably vastly improve your chances.

The film's twists and turns, and occasional sweat drop moments, do bear the stamp of a Giddens Ko novel and his ability to think out of the box. Viewers should not catch the movie expecting it to be a copy of You Are The Apple Of My Eye, but instead appreciate it as it is – a funny, heart-warming and endearingly-ridiculous film.

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