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4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Playing like a reverse 'Fatal Attraction', this sexual thriller starring a still-hot Jennifer Lopez is generic and predictable but never less than watchable, 23 January 2015
5/10

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.

Blackhat (2015)
1 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
An exercise in Michael Mann's visual excess and nothing more – this dull cyber-crime thriller squanders a prime opportunity to tap into the paranoid zeitgeist, 14 January 2015
4/10

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.

Taken 3 (2014)
105 out of 161 people found the following review useful:
A shockingly disappointing finale, 'Taken 3' is a disgrace to its star Liam Neeson and an appalling display of ineptness by its director Olivier Megaton, 7 January 2015
3/10

*** 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.

Trash (2014/I)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
With beautiful visuals, awesome editing and a great story, Trash is a film that should not be judged by its title, 3 January 2015
8/10

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.

Young Ones (2014)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
An intriguing conceptual blend of science fiction, western and Greek tragedy family drama that is undermined by weak characterisation and amateurish execution, 3 January 2015
5/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A mix of post-apocalyptic science-fiction, stripped down Western and Greek tragedy makes writer/ director Jake Paltrow's (he's the younger brother of Gwyneth) sophomore feature an interesting genre experiment but nothing more. Set in some unspecified time in the future when water is scarce and the land has been decimated by droughts, it follows a group of characters whose fates become intertwined with each other in increasingly melodramatic fashion – Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon), his daughter Mary (Elle Fanning), his teenage son Jerome (Kodi-Smit McPhee) and Mary's boyfriend Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult).

Narratively, Paltrow divides his film into three distinct acts named after each one of the primary male characters. The first kicks off with Ernest, a former alcoholic whose reckless driving left his wife a hospitalized paraplegic, and who now spends his days selling bottles of liquor to the men who work the supply lines that deliver water. Besides establishing Ernest as a hardworking man who tries his best to make ends meet for his family, it also sets in place their family dynamics – while Jerome is in thrall of his father and follows him around all the time, Mary resents her father for the accident that made her mother a cripple. In between the deliberately paced scenes, Ernest acquires a robotic mule called the Simulit Shadow, a curiously designed device that becomes crucial to the storytelling later on.

We'll let on a mild spoiler for discussing the rest of the plot – Ernest dies at the end of the first chapter. With his passing, Flem moves into the Holm family home (verbal pun not intended), and proves himself to be quite the manipulator, blackmailing who is necessary in order to get the supply lines to irrigate the barren fields and restore agriculture to the land. The third and final act shifts the focus to Jerome, who towards the end of the second act begins to wonder why Flem lied about the whereabouts of their Simulit Shadow and suspects that he might somehow be involved in the disappearance of a fellow family friend Robbie (Christy Pankhurst) and his infant son and worse in the death of his father.

While one may be tempted to read deeper about Paltrow's intentions for casting this family drama (not unlike this summer's 'The Place Beyond the Pines') against a dystopian setting, the fact remains, however unique the blend may be, that the characters and consequent narrative are largely under-developed. Amidst the three male characters, Ernest is the most fully-formed of them, labouring to be the father figure to two teenage children in largely honourable fashion – no matter that he has barely enough, he asks Jerome to give what they have to Robbie and wife Sooz when he spots them begging under the shade of a huge billboard along the dusty highway. In contrast, there is hardly depth nor motivation to Flem's character; and the same goes for Jerome, whose final transformation into his family's keeper hardly bears any resonance.

Yes, Paltrow's intention to explore themes of family, vengeance and fate is noble, but his method strains to catch up with his ambition. Certain scenes betray his amateurish tendencies, bleeding into each other and fading out slowly for no apparent reason. Some good ideas, like a back brace which Ernest's wife wears that is attached to overhead lines like that of a tram or gas stations that pump water, are never developed fully and remain the occasional bright spark in an otherwise dully filmed and drearily paced film. The cast make the best out of their respective roles, but are ultimately undermined by the one-dimensional nature of their characters.

And so, while the blend of genres and stylistic touches may be interesting to watch, the film on a whole ends up as a hodgepodge of good ideas with bad execution. Key to Paltrow's dystopian-set family drama is a character-driven narrative, but sadly that is precisely what is missing here no matter what the character-based three-act setup may imply. At least the picture looks pretty though, benefitting from Giles Nuttgens' widescreen lensing to evoke a George Miller 'Mad-Max' feel to the barren wasteland that the characters inhabit.

Seventh Son (2014/I)
28 out of 39 people found the following review useful:
Not even A-listers like Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore can save this under-developed and under-directed fantasy epic wannabe from its own tedium and mediocrity, 30 December 2014

Hollywood has of late had a lousy track record of fantasy action epics, and 'Seventh Son', which arrives just in time to close off the year, is yet another blemish to add to that list. Delayed nearly a year while its production company Legendary switched studios, this Universal release assembles A-listers Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore with 'The Chronicles of Narnia' star Ben Barnes for an expensive big- screen adaptation of the first book of Joseph Delaney's 'The Wardstone Chronicles' against tawdry sets and second-rate visual effects.

We aren't usually that critical of a film's production design, but there is just something awfully dreary about the widescreen world of Russian director Sergei Bodrov's debut English-language feature. Indeed, the only human city where any of the action takes place looks like it was rented right after the cast and crew of 'Game of Thrones' abandoned it, while the mountain fortress which principal villain Mother Malkin makes her not-so-humble abode seems like it was designed for some 1960s B-grade science-fiction movie. The ugliness of these green-screened sets is even more obvious against the occasional picturesque Canadian backdrops, which cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel ably captures to evoke a majestic 'Lord of the Rings' feel.

Alas the unattractive visuals are just one of the litany of complaints that you are likely to have. What production designer Dante Ferretti fails to accomplish in sets, visual effects designer John Dykstra also fails to make up for in post-production. Whether the oversized orcs or shape-shifting witches (Moore and her fellow consort Djimon Hounsou transform into dragons, while others transform into creatures with reptilian-like tongues or Hindu deity-like arms), the CG effects for what was once intended to be a franchise tentpole are both unimaginatively conceived and poorly executed, even more appalling when viewed in post-conversion 3D or worse on an IMAX screen.

And yet to fault its technical shortcomings seems at least a tad unfair, in particular because the movie's problems are much more fundamental. For one, despite boasting an impressive team of screenwriters including Matt Greenberg, Charles Leavitt and Steven Knight, there is hardly a story here. Without any context, we start with a younger Jeff Bridges imprisoning the Queen Witch, Mother Malkin (Moore), up in the mountains. The impending dawn of the once-a-century blood moon lends her strength to break out of her metal confines, and in an early sequence, confront her jailer Master Gregory (Bridges) and his not-so-lucky apprentice Billy (Game of Thrones' Kit Harington). When that reunion ends with Billy dead, Gregory sets out recruiting a new "seventh son of a seventh son", Thomas (Barnes), who so happens to be suffering from elliptic visions of Gregory and Malkin.

In narrative jargon, Thomas is The Chosen One, the anointed protégé who under the tutelage of Master Gregory will become his very equal and take his place among the elite group of knights who call themselves the Falcon. There is no doubt during the movie, even when his life seems to be in mortal danger, that Thomas will live to see the death of Mother Malkin and perhaps even the light of another sequel. There is also no doubt, despite Gregory's initial reservations, that Thomas will be ready within the span of just seven days to defeat the evil that Malkin possesses within her goth-like getup. And for that matter, there is no doubt that Thomas will find true love in Alice (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander), a witch whom he rescues from the town mob and who turns out to be the daughter of Malkin's younger sister.

The plotting is as straight-forward as it gets, and functions no more than to connect the numerous noisy action sequences together. There is also hardly any character to speak of, each one of them leading or supporting mere stock types that you would be familiar with from countless other such fantasy flicks. The latter is also why we feel sorry for Bridges, a fine actor who's played the grizzled veteran one too many times of late in 'R.I.P.D.' and 'The Giver' and is here trying not to sound condescending while delivering lame one-liners with a distinct twang. Moore too is an equally fine actress in her own right utterly wasted in a thankless role, and together, what chemistry the pair had in 'The Big Lebowski' is sorely missing in their first reunion since.

If the decision to cast two acclaimed actors to lend legitimacy to the project does nothing to help the film, the casting of its younger actors also fails to do it any favours. Barnes tries his best to project fresh-eyed enthusiasm, but the late decision to cast the 31- year-old actor in the role of a 17-year-old – instead of 'The Hunger Games'' Sam Claflin is ultimately a misguided one. He also shares too little chemistry with Vikander, who looks appropriately beguiling but is little much else. Barnes and Vikander are also stuck in an awkward romance which is bound to inspire some unintended giggles especially for a sequence where the two supposedly exchange loving glances while lying together in bed.

There is hardly anything fascinating about 'Seventh Son', whose title belongs better in a tongue twister than in an expensive and extravagant swords-and-dragons epic. Yes, there is good reason indeed why former studio Warner Bros had dragged its feet in releasing this, and what a relief it must have felt that it need not try to justify why it decided to do so when it already has an entire trilogy in 'The Hobbit'. No matter that the director is a two-time Academy Award nominee for his Russian films 'Prisoner of the Mountains' and 'Mongol', his Hollywood foray is an embarrassing misstep that he would no doubt want to be forgotten as soon as possible. He needn't worry; to spare yourself the agony of sitting through yet another disappointing fantasy wanna-be epic, go find any one of the other sons and just avoid the Seventh.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A glorious throwback to the genre in the 80s and 90s, Panna Rittikrai's final movie offers action fanatics as visceral an adrenaline rush as one can ask for, 29 December 2014
7/10

Tony Jaa may be the face of 'Ong Bak' and 'Tom Yum Goong', but bona fide aficionados of Thai action cinema will tell you that the real star behind these international hits is Panna Rittikrai. Indeed, Rittikrai was Jaa's mentor and fight choreographer on both the aforementioned movies before graduating to taking Prachya Pinkaew's place as director of both the 'Ong Bak' sequels through Jaa's existential crisis.

If we've started our review on a somewhat sombre note, it is because 'Vengeance of an Assassin' has turned out to be Rittikrai's final work. At age 53, Rittikrai passed away earlier this year, and this film is dedicated to his loving memory. And yet even though it was never made with that intention, this gritty hard-hitting action spectacle is undeniably a befitting tribute to Rittikrai and his legacy. Co-written and directed by Rittikrai, it is an unabashed throwback to the action movies of the 80s and 90s when action was the operative word of the genre and elements such as plot and character were secondary, so much so that the good guys were unreservedly good and the bad guys were, well, bound to meet their deserved end.

Pittikrai's priorities are clear right from the thrilling opening sequence, where a bunch of mostly shirtless guys with great abs are playing a game of indoor soccer as if their lives literally depended on it. No matter that we don't yet know who is who, every kick and punch is so bone-crunchingly real that we cannot help but marvel at Rittikrai's choreography and execution. Even when that standalone sequence is finally revealed to be nothing more than a dream for our lead character Than (Nathawut Boonrubsub), the adrenaline ride is more than worth the narrative gimmick. Like we said, the plotting here isn't the film's focal point, and serves no more than as a form of connective tissue for the series of equally jaw-dropping action scenes to come.

It follows too that storytelling isn't Pittikrai's strong suite, so do be minded to forgive him for the messy way in which events unfold. For the record, the idea here is that Than and his older brother Thee (Dan Chupong) lost their parents at a young age and now looked after by their uncle (Ping Lumpraploeng). Curious at how his parents died, Thee sets out to uncover their true identities, and through an old family friend, stumbles into the underworld as an assassin for hire. His latest assignment is to kill Ploy (newcomer Nisachon Tuamsungnoen), the daughter of an influential politician; unbeknownst to him, his employer has only engaged him in order to take the fall for Ploy's assassination.

Thee goes on the run with Ploy, which puts him at odds with his employer(s); unsurprisingly, they turn out to be connected to his parents' death, thereby giving him, Than and his uncle the chance to avenge their loss (hence the title of the movie). Rittikrai and his co-writer Wisit Wachatanon try to weave a gangland thriller with power plays and double-crosses, but the needlessly convoluted setup is merely excuse to let Chupong take out a whole bunch of baddies on his own before meeting his match in the foxy "Nui" Kessarin Ektawatkul, another one of Pittikrai's protégé from his 2004 film 'Born to Fight'. It is also eventually an opportunity for Boonrubsub to showcase his moves against chief villain Chai's henchmen, in the same one-against- many style before similarly culminating in a more evenly matched mano- a-mano showdown.

Rittikrai's language of movie-making has been through the hands, legs and everyday objects that his characters use as weapons against each other, and true enough, his film only truly finds its groove after the half-hour mark when its characters finally get to speak to each other in the language Rittikrai knows best. Trust us when we say that it is well worth the wait, as Rittikrai minimises the kind of wirework that has marred Asian action cinema of late and sticks to the sort of raw unflinching violence that will undoubtedly in turn make you flinch. Against equally crude backgrounds such as garages and abandoned factories, Rittkrai lets his characters go at each other in a no holds barred manner that will see faces smashed, jaws torn open and other assorted body parts being crushed.

Oh yes, it certainly is over-the-top, in particular a typical 80s Hollywood-style sequence where Tee and Than try to rescue Ploy from on board a runaway locomotive while their uncle and Ploy's family doctor named Master Si Fu attempt to take down a helicopter from their Land Rover using machine guns and RPGs. We're not sure if the poorly done CG backgrounds while Than fights off a seemingly never-ending stream of bad guys on top of the train were intentional, but it certainly adds up to the gleefully retro feel of the sequence which could very well have come straight out of a Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone movie back in the days. You can't quite fault it for being exaggerated if you're going to enjoy the sheer nuttiness of it, just as how you'll have to accept that Than could have learnt his moves simply by watching and practising that displayed by his parents on some old videos his uncle doesn't want him to see.

This being a Rittikrai movie, you can be sure every single one of the actors can actually fight; and yet it isn't Chupong and Boonrubsub who manages to surprise us but the elderly Malaysian actor named Ooi Teik Huat who plays Master Si Fu. It is a delightful supporting role that captures both the exuberance and the energy that this B-action movie has in spades. If it's action you want, it's action you'll get in Rittikrai's latest and last, and while cynics can easily tear the movie apart for its flaws, we'd rather just indulge in its guilty pleasures and enjoy the sheer adrenaline rush it affords its audience.

7 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
A flawed, but nonetheless thrilling, historical epic that rests on some good old gripping storytelling and a strong lead performance by Zhang Hanyu, 24 December 2014
7/10

Like John Woo's 'The Crossing', Tsui Hark's 'The Taking of Tiger Mountain' is set during the Civil War in the late 1940s; but instead of depicting the struggle between the People's Liberation Army and the Nationalists, Tsui and his four other screenwriters pit a certain Unit 203 of the PLA against a band of ruthless bandits whose stronghold is located high up in the snowy Tiger Mountain. Key to the PLA's strategy was a certain Yang Zirong, who infiltrated the bandits' stronghold and provided vital information which enabled his unit to triumph guerrilla-style against their more numerous and more well-equipped enemies.

No matter that he has been made to look like Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, Zhang Hanyu commands every single moment he is on screen as Zirong with a compelling performance of nuance and gravitas. While Lin Gengxin plays the righteous leader of Unit 203 Shao Jianbo with conviction and Tony Leung Kar-Fai is suitably hammy as the bandits' leader Lord Hawk, it is Zhang who truly owns the entire film, and it is no coincidence that his character is the most fully formed one of a movie which sometimes struggles to find the right balance of tone between fiction and history.

That is perhaps inevitable given the slightly uneasy fit between material and filmmaker. Much as Tsui Hark is no stranger to epics, he isn't exactly the sort of filmmaker who tells a straightforward historical tale – even his arguably most popular 'Once Upon A Time in China' trilogy about the legendary folk hero Wong Fei Hung was embellished with his penchant for the theatrical. And so it is with his latest, which depicts the heroism of the 203 Unit with the sort of self-serious posture which historical accounts typically adopt but the loutishness of the bandits with the sort of eccentricity that made his fantasy epics such as 'The Legend of Zu' and the more recent 'Detective Dee' enjoyable flights of fancy.

Amidst the tonal shifts, Zhang more than holds his own as Tsui's protagonist, an enigmatic stranger who joins the 203 with the medical officer Bai Ru (Tong Liya) and is at first met with doubt and scepticism by Jianbo. It is Zirong who comes up with the plan for him to go undercover by bringing to Lord Hawk a much coveted map with the locations of treasure left by the fleeing Japanese at the end of the Sino-Japanese war, and also to his quick-witted credit that he manages to win the trust of Lord Hawk to be sworn in as one of the league of brothers.

It is a shaky one though – not only is he tested from within by his Second Brother (Yu Xing) who stages a mock invasion by the PLA and Lord Hawk's woman Qinglian (Yu Nan) who is under orders to try to seduce him, Zirong's identity is also threatened when a spy planted by the bandits within the villagers escapes after a failed attack by the former on the PLA soldiers protecting the latter. Such moments of genuine tension are perfectly positioned to keep the narrative taut, which largely unfolds as a buildup to the storming of the bandits' fortress on the eve of New Year's Eve on the occasion of Lord Hawk's birthday.

Quite unlike the typical Tsui Hark movie therefore, this one has clearly fewer setpieces; indeed, we count just three – the first encounter between the PLA 203 Unit and the bandits at an abandoned warehouse; the failed attack led by Fifth and Sixth Brother on the village protected by the same unit; and finally the incursion of Lord Hawk's bastion to annihilate his reign of tyranny once and for all. Nonetheless, apart from some gimmicky slo-mo shots meant to justify the price of 3D for those who paid to see it with the additional dimension, these setpieces unfold with the scale and spectacle that one would expect from Tsui, the latter two in particular pop with thrill and imagination using a combination of old-school stunt staging and some nifty modern day CG effects.

Not quite so successful is Tsui's attempt to capture the poignancy of the historical event – besides Zirong, the rest of the PLA heroes are portrayed with as much dimension as a propaganda film commissioned by the Chinese government itself, especially when their enemies are cast as their complete opposites. A sub-plot based upon the reunion of mother and son – the latter a young boy named Knotti the 203 Unit rescues and the former who turns out to be Qinglian – is too manipulative to be persuasive, even more so when it is used to bookend the narrative with a prologue and a coda set in 2015.

Notwithstanding Tsui's autobiographical intent, the nexus that Tsui draws with present day is stretched most tenuously with an utterly unnecessary alternate ending that sees the Wolverine-lookalike Zirong turn into the very superhero by trying to rescue Qinglian from a twin-propeller plane that Lord Hawk is trying to take off in from a private airstrip in the mountain. As far as analogies go, this is a perfect example of the Chinese saying 'draw snake add feet' – so much so that its inclusion almost takes way what legitimacy Tsui had tried to build into the story in the first place.

As probably his first historical epic, 'The Taking of Tiger Mountain' sees Tsui Hark struggle to find the right balance between reality and myth. Tsui's best films have been those which have allowed him to express his own inner eccentricities, but which prove out of place in a straightforward recount like this. The narrative flaws are all too obvious at the start and at the end, but thankfully, as far as the titular tale is concerned, Tsui has fashioned a gripping story of espionage that does history justice.

33 out of 35 people found the following review useful:
An enjoyable and heart-warming story that deeply resonates with the heart, 11 December 2014
9/10

Time traveling probably still remains as one of man's greatest dreams. Though impossible to achieve in reality, we always remember that there's Doraemon and his gadgets that can help realize those possibilities. Doraemon, the robot cat from the future, has traveled back in time along with Sewashi, Nobita's (aka Da Xiong) descendant. They went back to the past to help 10 year old Nobita fix the mess so his descendants need not suffer the consequences. Sewashi leaves Doraemon behind, installing a program in him that disallows him from going back to the future till Nobita attains happiness.

As you might already know, Nobita is known for his cowardice and wimpy behavior. Once he realized how powerful Doraemon's gadgets can be, he simply relies on them and attempts at making the game change. However, as you might expect, the gadgets have limitations. Ultimately, it depends on one's will and resolve that can truly break through the circumstances. Nobita fails and try again, growing out of his wimpy self and eventually overcomes the challenges.

Stand by Me has a very simple, engaging and easy-to-follow story. There's nothing too drastic or dramatic to expect, which could disappoint some who are looking for something stimulating. The entire story also has a hint of nostalgia. It's easy to identify with the young Nobita, since virtually everyone goes through that 'rite of passage' – of growing up. The character development of Nobita though not multifaceted, has enough depth and gives a good support to the narrative.

Visually wise, the 3D animated Doraemon might require some getting used to since it is not that 2D one which we are familiar to watching on TV. (Don't we all have some fond childhood memories of catching Doraemon on our local channel on weekend mornings?) Yet, this has got to be the cutest and most adorable Doraemon to date. With his vivid expressions, it's impossible not to like!

The entire 3D environment was also a masterwork. Not only were they very realistic, even the sound effects and background chatter were worked down to great details. Further, you really have to give it to the Japanese for having such great voice actors. They probably have the world's best, and thanks to them, the entire movie was truly 'animated'.

Overall, Stand by Me is one entertaining film that's surprisingly touching as well. This has to be the blockbuster of the Doraemon movies released thus far. Subtly but surely, Stand by Me gives you and me a stark reminder that 'your life is the sum of your choices'.

2 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
Epic in sheer spectacle, Scott's Biblical retelling of the story of the Exodus lacks a compelling focus on its lead character Moses, 11 December 2014
7/10

How do you get people to listen to you tell a story that they already know the ending to, or worse, have heard countless times before? Ridley Scott's answer to that, in the case of his swords- and-scandals epic based upon the well-known Biblical tale, is spectacle.

Indeed, in 'Exodus: Gods and Kings', Scott has spared no expense to make sure that Egypt comes vividly to life, or that the ten plagues are given as much luscious detail as necessary, or that the parting of the Red Sea is a truly humbling sight to behold – so much so that even the most imaginative mind will probably be awed over by the sheer spectacle that he has conjured. Yes, if there's one thing that Scott has succeeded in doing with his Old Testament blockbuster, it is in reminding both believers and non-believers alike just how remarkable and awe-inspiring the mighty hand and power God wields over the elements of nature and the fates of men.

Against such gargantuan forces, the question remains: is there room for the individual to matter? God's plan certainly did – as believers will tell you, his plans of salvation through the ages have always rested on the faiths of individual men and women who were willing to put aside their doubts and trust wholeheartedly in the providence of their almighty Creator. So it is with this tale, that God's plan of salvation for the Israelites would rest on one man, Moses – a logical thinker and in Scott's interpretation here, an agnostic – who would be challenged through visions to recognise his Hebrew identity, and in doing so, embrace his role in that grand plan as the leader of God's people.

Unfortunately, not even a quartet of writers (Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Oscar winner Steven Zaillian) have been able to ensure that the man isn't drowned out in Scott's show of spectacle. Not enough attention is paid to developing the brotherly bond between Moses and his half-brother Ramses, or their simmering rivalry arising from the aging Pharaoh's (John Turturro) favour of the former. Ditto for Moses' subsequent awakening to his lineage and to God's call through the 'burning bush' – neither of these turning points feel that they matter as much as they should. Most sorely however is how the screenplay fails to portray Moses' ambivalence towards God's methods, reduced simply to a couple of lines delivered with perfunctory angst by Christian Bale – "You don't always agree with me," is as far as a response that the writers have managed to come up with.

Lamentably so therefore, this fails to be – as it should – a story of one man as much as it is a story about God. Moses never quite comes to life despite being front and centre no thanks to an underdeveloped script that doesn't make the character as compelling as he should be, and worse, feeds him cringe-worthy lines from time to time that border on caricature. Bale is best when he is given a complex character to play, but since he isn't afforded that here, hardly cracks the surface of what could have been an intriguing and multi-faceted personality. The same in fact can be said of every other actor in Scott's ensemble – from Joel Edgerton as the eyeliner-drawn Ramses, to Ben Kingsley as a wise Jewish elder, and even to a barely-present Sigourney Weaver as the scheming pharaoh's wife Tuya, each one of the notable cast members struggles to rise above his or her thinly drawn role.

Though the script lets him down, Scott's strengths as a director remain undiminished. An early attack by the Egyptians on the rival Hittites tribe camped outside the gates of Egypt showcases Scott's grasp of scale, thrillingly lensed by his regular d.p. Dariusz Wolski with a combination of soaring overhead shots and up close combat footage. Scott takes artistic license to interpret the ten plagues as a series of interconnected events, rather than as discrete happenings, which in turn allows him to not only build a smooth elegant narrative but also maintain a palpable feeling of tension throughout God's 'punishment' of the Israelites.

His boldest choice as helmer however has to be his depiction of God, whom Moses first meets at the 'bush' and thereafter in the wilderness just before every major calamity. Scott cannot be ignorant of the implications of portraying God as a small young boy, but whether this is meant to represent the kind of disposition which God expects of his followers or to signify the capricious nature of God is left up to the viewer's interpretation. What is clear is that Scott keeps to an Old Testament God of wrath, so don't go expecting this God to be nice, calm or benign for that matter – and you'll probably do well to keep in mind that this is the God that has watched his people suffer in pain, blood and death the indignities that the Egyptians have lashed on them for the past 400 years.

Unlike 'Noah' however, you can rest assured that Scott largely takes a much more conventional reading to the Biblical story; instead, Scott's intention is really to fashion a swords-and-scandals saga in the mould of 'Gladiator' by way of a well-known story with ostensible religious overtones. And in that regard, 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' is an unvarnished triumph that will leave you awe-struck. Those who know the story will also recognise it as Moses' faith formation, and whether Scott's telling has that same transformative effect on his audience is necessarily suspect. But up till the very last frame where an elderly Moses finally arrives near the land of Canaan, you can be sure that there is never a dull moment to be found in this lavish, extravagant and yet oddly alienating epic that could do with a much more humanly centre.


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