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Bing feng: Yong heng zhi men (2018)
Illogical, incoherent and irredeemable, this long-delayed sequel is so abysmally bad it should have been kept in deep freeze forever
Four years after the laughably absurd 'Iceman', the concluding chapter of what was intended as a two-part movie saga is finally seeing the light of day, although judging by what we've seen, it would probably have been better for everyone involved for the sequel to have stayed on ice. Oh yes, despite keeping our expectations firmly in check, we were still left utterly astounded by how abysmally bad 'Iceman: The Time Traveller" is. There is the barest semblance of a story, hardly any continuity or logic to the chain of events, and just about the worst acting we've seen of an ensemble in recent time. No one - not even Donnie Yen, who has publicly distanced himself from the release of this movie - can and should be excused from this utter embarrassment, which has been deservedly dealt an ignominious box-office reception back home in China.
Right from the very lengthy narration by Yen's noble Ming dynasty general He Ying, you'd already get the sense that something is off. Some philosophical mumbo-jumbo about time, space and fate precedes what is essentially an extended recap of the first movie, in which He Ying had awoken in present-day Hong Kong and found himself pursued by three of his fellow blood brothers Cheung/ Yuanlong (Simon Yam), Niehu (Yu Kang) and Sao (Wang Baoqiang), culminating in what was an epic fight on the Tsing Ma bridge. To no one's surprise, He Ying survives the fall off the bridge, and is freed from the morgue by Cheung, who also breaks Niehu out of police custody. The trio then journey to Beijing, where they make an unnecessary pitstop at the Forbidden City before landing up in a cave where the time-traveling orb they seek has been buried.
By that point, it should be manifestly clear that there are plenty of gaps in continuity, probably arising from a combination of the producers deciding to cut their losses (and not invest further money in shooting/ re-shooting additional scenes) and the stars deciding to do likewise too. Notwithstanding, that doesn't excuse the haphazard plotting by veteran Hong Kong screenwriter Manfred Wong, consisting random detours (such as He Ying and May helping two Chinese revolutionaries on board a moving train in 1920s China foil the Tanaka Plan), gratuitous additions (such as a love triangle among He Ying and his past and present day lovers) and downright illogical actions (like Yuanlong allowing He Ying to simply walk away after having set up an ambush for him involving a whole contingent of armed guards). Even from what was filmed, it's clear the story needed a whole lot more work.
It doesn't help that director Raymond Yip - to whom this sequel is credited to, even though former director Law Wing Cheong had apparently filmed both parts back to back - rushes from scene to scene as if fearful to dwell too long on any particular event. So amidst a flurry of scenes, you'll just barely be able to follow how Ho Ying returns to his family in Taoyuan village to change the course of history and avert an impending massacre, Yuanlong's nefarious plans to join forces with the Japanese General Hojo (Yasuaki Kurata) and overthrow the young Ming emperor, and last but not least how Sao is killed by Niehu while trying to stop General Hojo. There's really no point trying to keep track of what's going on given how muddled it all is, and especially not when it all culminates in an ambiguous ending that like the opening tries its best to get all philosophical yet again.
But to be sure, the fault lies as much with Yen and his co-stars. Yen's performance is as dull, wooden and aloof as you've ever seen him, and it looks like he gave up on the movie even during filming itself. You can tell too from the lacklustre fight scenes, which though poorly choreographed by Yu Kang, are just as sloppily executed by Yen. Yam fares no better, and seems content to wear the same smug from scene to scene. Huang and her fellow female co-star Maggie (who plays He Ying's previous lover) seem at a lost what to do with their respective characters, while Yu and Wang appear to be sleepwalking through familiar personas they can play with their eyes closed. Like we said, none of the actors look like they invested any effort, commitment or inspiration in the film, therefore dooming the movie long before audiences gave up on it.
As much as you might be keen to check out how bad this movie is because you've either seen the first movie or read the ongoing spat between Yen and the producers, we'd advise you to simply divert your curiosity someplace else. This is not a case of so-bad-it's-good, but one of so-so-so-bad, for so many reasons that obviously go beyond the box-office outcome of its 2014 predecessor. It might have sounded like a good idea to have Yen take over one of Yuen Biao's more memorable roles, but seeing as how the two 'Iceman' movies have turned out, we say it was probably one of Yen's worst career choices ever. Here's our final word of advice: save yourselves the agony of sitting through 87 minutes of pure tedium, and at least you won't have your impression of all those involved tainted with the stain of this humiliation.
Big on fun, laughs and meaning, 'Smallfoot' cleverly inverts the typical human-yeti story for a delightful yet thoughtful fable on discovery, truth and understanding
Cleverly inverting the point-of-view from which a tale of human and Yetis would probably be told, 'Smallfoot' tells of a clan of bigfoots living high up in the Himalayan mountains whose peaceful and orderly lives are disrupted when one of their own stumbles upon a smallfoot. It isn't just that these smallfoots have thus far been the stuff of myth; in fact, their very existence goes against the community's long-held beliefs, which are literally set in stone and worn around the neck of the high and mighty Stonekeeper (Common). So as you can probably expect, that very individual is told to either rescind his account or face banishment from the community, but by bravely choosing the latter, opens up a whole new path of knowledge, understanding and enlightenment for his fellow 18-foot hairy denizens.
Adapting from the book 'Yeti Tracks' by animator Sergio Pablos is Dreamworks Animation veteran Karey Kirkpatrick and his co-director Jason Reisig, and the duo fashion a lively, fast-paced and colourful action adventure that sees our hero Migo (Channing Tatum) venture below the clouds concealing their mountaintop habitat to find the smallfoot and prove that he isn't lying or delusional. But had the movie simply been about Migo confronting the ostensibly deceitful Stonekeeper, it would probably be no more than the stuff of Saturday-morning cartoons; instead, Kirkpatrick and co-writer Clare Sera find unexpected depth digging deeper into why the bigfoots had sequestered themselves in the first place, weaving in a poignant lesson on the dangers of fear and close-mindedness as well as the transformative power of communication.
Lest you think that the movie ends up being heavy-handed, we can reassure you that it never does, or for that matter turn preachy. On the contrary, there are plenty of amusing details along the way - like how the exuberant Migo is at first perfectly content to follow in his father's (Danny DeVito) footsteps to have himself catapulted headfirst towards a giant gong every morning in order to wake the sun up; or the band of rebel Yetis called the clandestine Smallfoot Evidentiary Society (or S.E.S. in short), led by the Stonekeeper's own daughter Meechee (Zendaya), who assist Migo on his quest; or how Migo first runs into Percy (James Corden), an animal TV show host whom he will become unlikely buddies with, when the latter in his desperation for clicks tries to convince a fellow reporter to dress up in a Yeti costume so he can pretend to have captured one on camera.
Just as worthy of mention are the couple of Looney Tunes-esque sequences that are clearly meant to hark back to its parent studio's golden era of animation. Migo's initial descent becomes an extended set-piece that includes a tangle with a rope-bridge and its two precipitous cliffs, as well as with the broken body of the propeller plane which Migo had seen the original smallfoot crash-land out of. Later on, a refuge from a blizzard inside a deep cave becomes the scene of a series of comic misunderstandings, including a warming up on top of a pile of burning firewood, an encounter with an irate mother bear who had just put her baby cubs to sleep, and a classic display of language barriers. There is inventiveness in each of these gags, and calibration in both pace and rhythm, so even though they are zippy and zany, they never get too hectic for their own good.
Kids will also love the couple of musical numbers, penned by Karey and his fellow Kirkpatrick brother Wayne, including the narration-and-song opening 'Perfection' by Channing Tatum, the inspirational 'Wonderful Life' by Zendaya, and the edgy rap 'Let It Lie' by Common. To be sure, none of these reach the heights of Disney's 'Frozen' or even 'Moana', but they are definitely catchy enough to sustain their own energetically animated diversions. They also give the off-the-beaten voice cast ample opportunity to demonstrate their lesser-seen (or heard?) talents, and we dare say that Tatum, Zendaya and Common pull off the singing parts beautifully. Those familiar with Corden's 'Carpool Karaoke' series will be glad to know he has a quirky number here too, that is based on Queen's 'Under Pressure'.
So even though 'Smallfoot' never hits the Pixar gold standard of feature animations, or perhaps even the subversive ingenuity of Warner Animation Group's own 'The Lego Movie', there is plenty of fun and laughs to be had in this fable on lies and 'myth-understandings', as well as on mis-communication and the lack thereof. Like we said, you'll be pleasantly surprised that its makers haven't opted for just another superficially glossy piece of kids' entertainment, and have instead decided to evolve the narrative in more complex and satisfying ways. It isn't small or unambitious by any measure, and is in fact big on both entertainment and emotion, so you'll find that there's something for every member of the family - big or small - in this delightfully joyous celebration of wonder, discovery and truth.
The Predator (2018)
Just when you thought you had seen the worst of the 'Predator' movies, along comes this relentlessly loud, hopelessly dumb and needlessly convoluted mess
You've got to hand it to Shane Black - just when you thought that the 'Predator' series couldn't sink any lower than 2004's 'AVP: Alien vs. Predator', along comes his entry so aggressively determined to run the franchise to the ground. That is indeed ironic, considering just how much promise 'The Predator' once held. For one, it sure sounded like a good idea on paper to inject Black's signature brand of black humour into the original's blend of gory violence and souped-up machismo; for another, the cast comprising Sterling K. Brown, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Olivia Munn, Boyd Holbrook and Keegan-Michael Key was an impressive ensemble to say the least. Yet by the end of a headache-inducing 107 minutes, you'd be struggling to understand how a Hollywood veteran like Black could screw up so horribly.
Whether out of design or coincidence, Black buys himself some goodwill at the start with an opening sequence set in the jungle that is clearly meant as tribute to John McTiernan's original (yes, the one that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger). Following a very brief scene of two Predators inside their ships duking it out in space, one of them zips through a wormhole and crash-lands somewhere in the Mexican jungle in time to upset a hostage rescue situation led by ex-U.S. Army sniper turned mercenary-for-hire Quinn McKenna (Holbrook). Quinn emerges as the sole survivor of that encounter, and decides to mail two pieces of Predator tech from the nearest cantina to his own P.O. box back home as evidence. No thanks to his unpaid bills, his parcel is redirected to his home, where his young autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) proceeds to display some extraordinary ability in deciphering alien technology.
Meanwhile, a top-secret research programme led by the mysterious Government agent Will Trager (Brown) enlists the help of evolutionary biologist Dr. Casey Brackett (Munn) to study the Predator itself, which has since been captured, transported and held sedated in a hidden laboratory. Trager is also responsible for placing Quinn under arrest and throwing him together with a bunch of ex-military 'loonies' played by Rhodes, Key, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera and Thomas Jane. Not surprisingly, the Predator regains consciousness and proceeds to wreck havoc in the lab, and in the ensuing melee, Casey will form an uneasy alliance with the raucous crew of PTSD-scarred banter machines. Just bringing these subplots and character arcs together almost seems like a Herculean task for Black and his co-writer Fred Dekker, who do so in such slapdash and frenzied fashion.
Worse still, it only gets more needlessly convoluted from that point on. As is to be expected, the second Predator also finds its way to our planet in due course, and the two aliens proceed to continue their mutual slugfest. But what is it exactly that they want from each other? What is it that the first Predator and then the second wants from Rory? What special qualities does Rory really possess? What is it that Trager and his team of government agents want so badly from Quinn that seems even more important than fighting them aliens? What is in it for Casey, who appears to be sticking around for much more than just research material? There is hardly any narrative logic to the proceedings, or for that matter little logic in the way the characters behave and act, which only grows increasingly frustrating as the movie trudges along. Mind you, we're not talking real-world logic here, but just basic cinematic logic for us to even buy into what is going on onscreen.
Black's singular preoccupation seems to be coming up with a string of killer one-liners that his bunch of misfits can roll off the tongue in the form of smart-aleck remarks laced with sexism and non-PC jibes. Admittedly, some like Will describing the Predators as 'large, fast, and f**king you up is their idea of tourism' is amusing, but others that make fun of conditions like Tourette syndrome (such as a scene where Jane's character shouts 'eat your pussy' at Casey) or at the expense of Casey (like how she escapes the Predator by stripping naked in a quarantine zone) are tasteless or worse offensive. Even at the level of potty-mouthed humour, the ceaseless onslaught of jokes only prove sporadically funny - and it doesn't help that Black choses to focus his movie on Holbrook's character than say Brown's viciously sarcastic one instead.
So taken is he by his own perceived wittiness that Black cannot even be bothered to direct a proper action sequence. Not only are these scenes haphazardly edited, they are also barely coherent, especially in conveying who dies and/or whether they should even matter. Even more depressing is Black's apparent tone-deafness in mixing action and comedy, so much so that the latter often ends up diminishing the very impact of the former; after all, you cannot quite take a lethal Predator seriously enough when the characters seem more concerned with spewing rat-a-tat quips at one another than taking out the alien(s) right in front of them. In fact, we'd go so far as to say that this has probably the worst action out of all the 'Predator' films, and there's only so much the casual display of R-rated gore and violence can compensate or disguise that.
If it isn't yet obvious, do yourself a favour and spare yourself the agony of sitting through close to two hours of relentlessly loud, hopelessly dumb and needlessly convoluted science-fiction bullshit. 'The Predator' is not even B-movie fun, and the blame for that falls on Black, whose sloppy writing and indifferent direction has ultimately killed what could have been an interesting reinvention of the series. It may be slightly more than three decades old, but watching and re-watching Schwarzenegger's 1987 original is probably a lot more entertaining than this mess. Hard to imagine that 'The Predator' was conceived as the start of a trilogy, since we suspect those like us who have seen it will probably want this grotesque movie sliced open, gutted and left out to dry.
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
As hilarious, romantic and heartfelt as the best rom-coms, 'Crazy Rich Asians' is also a surprisingly textured and poignant examination of ethnic, class and person
We are proud, immensely proud, to say that for a little red dot which some had up until recently mistook as a province in China, Singapore has been getting plenty of limelight within the last few months. On the political stage, the recently concluded Trump-Kim Summit that was dubbed the 'Singapore Summit' showcased our professionalism at organising a milestone diplomatic event. And just barely two months after, the very first Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian ensemble in more than 20 years (the last being Ang Lee's 'Joy Luck Club' back in 1993) is easily the most impressive our island city has ever looked on the big screen. Oh yes, the iconic touristy locations including Chijmes, Marina Bay, Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands are all there, but there are also surprising nods here to our hawker culture (which you may have heard our PM announcing at this year's Rally is being put up for a Unesco listing) and Chinese heritage that you'll cheer for, and damn if seeing the sights and sounds we call home doesn't make our hearts swell with national pride.
Indeed, 'Crazy Rich Asians' is as much a win for Asian-Americans as it is for Singapore, and you'd be plain silly to let some misplaced criticism about how the movie doesn't reflect the real Singapore (because it was meant to be a satirical fantasy?) or lacks the representation of other races (because no film set in New York, or London, or Los Angeles reflects the full cultural breadth of the place?) rain on our parade. Gamely assembling an outstanding ensemble cast from Hollywood, Malaysia and Singapore, this adaptation of Singapore-born author Kevin Kwan's bestselling novel is as breezily entertaining and hilarious as the best of the rom-coms, but its examination on class, culture and the Asian identity is what truly gives it emotional heft and thematic resonance. In fact, it would be utterly simplistic to say that it is a critique on the nouveau riche in Singapore society; there is also the intra-community prejudices within the Asian diasporas, the Chinese tradition of filial loyalty and its implications on parent-child relationships, and last but not least the tensions between different forms of identity including personal, cultural and class.
If it isn't yet obvious, this movie is so, so much more than just an indulgence in the escapist pleasures of the ultra-rich that its synopsis may suggest. Certainly, as the young economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) at New York University accompanies her boyfriend Nicholas Young (Henry Golding) back to Singapore for his best friend's wedding, she plays the role of the audience surrogate channelling our sense of disbelief, amazement and disgust at his family and their never-never land of aspirational wealth, obscene consumerism and invidious judge-iness. Yet beyond these and the obvious caricatures of Nick's movie-director cousin Alistair (Remy Hii), his status-conscious Hong Kong cousin Eddie (Ronny Chieng) as well as spoiled-rotten bachelor Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang), there is plenty of sobering material about Nick's formidable mother Eleanor's (Michelle Yeoh) disdain towards Rachel and protectiveness towards her son. Ditto the crumbling marriage between Nick's fashion-maven cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her husband Michael (Pierre Png), owing to the latter's inferiority complex and subsequent infidelity.
As directed by Jon M. Chu, the movie is perfectly balanced between big broad sequences and quiet intimate moments. The former comprises the gaudy scenes of opulent dinner gatherings, lavish bachelor/ bachelorette parties and $40 million weddings that the trailer was full of, and Chu's eye for colour and movement ensures that these scenes are lively, vibrant and eye-popping. But it is the latter where his film truly scores - witness for instance how Chu and his cinematographer Vanja Cernjul capture the way Eleanor sizes Rachel up and subsequently regards her with withering putdowns as well as icy glares, and how Rachel and Eleanor face off in a penultimate segment over a thrilling game of mah-jong. Just as captivating but for entirely different reasons are the occasions where Nick and Rachel distance themselves from the crowd and allow themselves to re-discover just why they had fallen in love with each other in the first place. As packed as the movie is with its huge group of characters, Chu never loses focus on his core characters and their relationships vis-à-vis one another, and it is his keen eye for these interactions that ensures his film also possesses emotional gravitas.
Most significantly, 'Crazy Rich Asians' offers a touching lesson on embracing who you are, no matter if you're rich or poor or disparaged. That is as true for Nick as it is for Rachel, just as true if not more so for Eleanor, and surprisingly poignant for both Astrid and Michael. Wu is a standout as the classic good-girl, never overselling the role but instead playing it with just the right mix of poise, vulnerability and self-assertiveness at the right time. Her chemistry with Golding is also infectiously appealing, and for all the hackles about casting a British Malaysian actor to play a Chinese Singaporean justifies the casting choice with his own polished screen charisma. Even more electrifying though is the push-pull dynamic between Wu and Yeoh as their characters lock horns with each other, and though the movie belongs to the younger actors, the veteran Malaysian actress is absolutely regal in her supporting role that is crisp, authoritative but also unexpectedly deserving of empathy. Chan and Png try to flesh out the complications arising from a reversal of the classic Asian husband-wife breadwinning role, but they as well as the other more minor supporting actors relegated to over-the-top bit comic parts are constrained by their little time onscreen.
That said, Kwan's novel wasn't ever going to fit neatly into a two-hour feature film, which also means that some of the subplots were going to necessarily receive short shrift; still, for the most part Chu's screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim have retained the core themes within the novel and ensured that these remain just as affecting as Kwan had intended. Like we said at the beginning, Singapore has never looked as gorgeous as it does in this movie, and credit to that colourful razzle-dazzle goes of course to Chu's visual eye. Yet beneath that shiny veneer is also a layered reflection of the Singaporean Chinese identity, which is both ethnically similar and different to the American-Chinese (or better known as Asian-American) identity, demonstrating how race is shaped as much by history, geography and kinship. Ultimately, its message about identity is as much relevant for an Asian-American audience as it is for us, especially how our multi-racialism often neglects intra-racial differences as well as class differences. You need not be Asian, or crazy rich, or even Chinese, to enjoy this hilarious, romantic and heartfelt rom-com that doesn't lose its cultural richness while retaining its universal appeal.
Singwa hamkke: Ingwa yeon (2018)
Great performances still by a cast with good chemistry, but an overstuffed script makes the story empty of substance. This chapter has lost its soul
By now, you would have probably heard of this unexpected hit of a South-Korean title. Yes, it already had all the makings of a blockbuster, but it surpassed even projections by pundits. Surpassing 10 million viewers in only 15 days, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds tripled returns of the US$36 million investment on the 2-parter, and became the second highest-grossing film of all time in Korea.
Most importantly, it will be remembered as "that emotional rollercoaster of a film that kept my waterworks going".
Given my history with the franchise, I prepared an extra packet of tissues for the viewing of the sequel. But sadly, I hardly used a piece. Although both titles were shot together, Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days feels like a distant product. It pushed up the sliders on scale and size, but lost the epic in their storytelling and pacing.
What happened, Director Kim Yong-hwa?
The film returns us to hell, and along with the three guardians Gang-lim (Ha Jung-woo), Haewonmak (Ju Ji-hoon) and Lee Deok-choon (Kim Hyang-gi), we now accompany new paragon Kim Soo-hong (Kim Dong-wook) - brother of first episode's paragon, Kim Ja-hong - through his trials.
While the first chapter had Ja-hong as the plot anchor, The Last 49 Days turns our attention to the 3 guardians and their mysterious past. This, to me, is where the sequel flounders.
It's not long before we splinter into various story arcs. There's the main story of the trio's pasts, retold through increasingly frustrating flashbacks that sometimes last no more than a minute. Then there's the added task from King Yeomra, which dispatches Haewonmak and Deok-choon to claim a long-overdue soul, Hur Choon-sam (Nam Il-woo).
Turns out the old fellow (who appears briefly in the first film) is protected by his ultra-powerful resident Household God Seongju (Ma Deok-seok). As the two guardians struggle to wrestle the deity into submission, they find out not only his reason for protecting his client, but also that he was an ex-guardian who was there at their own passing - thus a key to retrieving their memories.
Add to that, Gang-lim's supposed agenda is throwing in all his chips to get Soo-hong reincarnated, Soo-hong's own unwillingness to do so because he doesn't want to believe that his friends murdered him, Seongju's bout with failed investments and helping his actual charge (Choon-sam's grandson) to find a real guardian, and you have essentially a very diluted film. Even King Yeomra is not spared with his own little twist!
By sowing 49 Days with so much storyline, a deft director might still be able to measure out portions of steer his priorities in the right direction to maintain a strong plot with a moral compass like the first. But Kim dropped the hat on this one. The second episode flickers back and forth stories incoherently, and makes for a frustrating viewing.
Most annoying of all is Soo-hong's temperamental behaviour. It seems to serve only as a catalyst to drive Gang-lim's actions, and loses potency because of it. Gang-lim's own guilt-laden agenda is also slightly unbearable, given how it was obvious halfway what it was really all about.
While the film does still feature gorgeous graphics and settings, it has lost a slight shine from the first film's reveal. We get to see a new scene for Indolence Hell, but other new segments really raise eyebrows in the wrong way. One word - dinosaurs.
Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days stays on track in terms of a continuation, but the calibre is far more hollow than the first. You'll get to enjoy some light sobbing at the end, but this second chapter leaves no lasting impression.
Let's hope the next episode fares better. And yes, there will be one.
The Island (2018)
A shrewd repurposing of the "Lord of the Flies' premise for a thoughtful and incisive commentary on social hierarchy, 'The Island' is an impressive debut for actor-turned-dire
So goes a quote: "Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious". How true that is of Huang Bo's directorial debut 'The Island', a survivalist dramedy which adapts the familiar premise of 'Lord of the Flies' for a thoughtful study on social hierarchy. Huang himself co-writes the story of a company of white-collar workers who are shipwrecked on a deserted island while on a teambuilding adventure, after encountering a giant tsunami ostensibly unleashed by a meteorite passing dangerously close to Earth. It is no coincidence that these twenty or so members are colleagues; after all, there is invariably a chain of command established among them, which is all but upended when the company boss Zhang (Yu Hewei) proves utterly clueless about what they need to do in order to survive in the wilderness.
Oh yes, it is deliberate irony that the least among the group should emerge as their leader, but hey at least their bus guide Dicky Wang (Wang Baoqiang) knows how to gather fruits, fresh water and fish, so it isn't surprising that the rest choose to submit to the Army veteran and former circus monkey trainer than to Zhang under those circumstances. Though at first reluctant, Dicky begins to relish being in charge, and pretty soon resorts to force and intimidation to get others to work for him. No one likes to be oppressed, especially not someone used to being the authority, and so in time Zhang will establish a breakaway faction in an overturned freighter beached on another corner of the island. Instead of Dicky's communist-style dictatorship, Zhang runs his little fiefdom by capitalist means, with playing cards as the currency to exchange for goods and food.
Amidst the establishment of these two diametrically opposite centres of governance is Huang's middle-aged sad-sack worker Ma Jin, who is on his own desperate quest to get off the island within 90 days in order to claim the 60 million RMB lottery prize he had just discovered that he won before the fateful tsunami. Ma also pines hopelessly for the affections of his fellow co-worker Shan Shan (Shu Qi), but takes for granted the loyalty of his childhood buddy Xing (Zhang Yixin). Ma and Xing have a brief falling out when the latter inadvertently learns of Ma's real motivation for risking their lives to leave; notwithstanding, the tightly-knit pair stick with each other as they go from Dicky's faction to Zhang's faction to forging their own survival within a broken helicopter next to a shallow riverbed.
In time, Ma will be forced to abandon his dreams of ever cashing in his winnings, but it is also at that time a freak occurrence will turn his despair into hope. Without revealing too much, it suffices to say that Ma and Xing will hatch a plan to reunite the two rival factions so as to establish lasting peace among the community at large, and in the process Ma will win Shan's respect and regard. But with a running time of close to two and a half hours, you'll be mistaken to assume that the film is done; in fact, the third and final act explores just how far both Ma and Xing are willing to go in order to safeguard the kind of life they had built up on the island, especially if that entails withholding the truth from the rest of the group. Both have no illusions just how insignificant they will otherwise be in the real world, and it is this fear that ends up perverting their actions.
Oh yes, it's not hard to see that Huang intends a cautionary lesson on how easily power corrupts even the most unassuming of us - whether is it the lowly service staff Dicky who has leadership suddenly thrust upon him, or the meek and modest Xing who had seemed just days ago perfectly content to simply follow in Ma's footsteps, or the self-effacing Ma who assumed the mantle of leader with no more than the noble intention of healing the rift between his warring colleagues. Besides a critical examination of authority, the film also portrays keenly how communities develop and thrive by simple supply and demand of valuable commodities like food, water and other resources. As artificial as the set-up may be, there is little artifice in how the characters respond to the changing circumstances, and this demonstration of social behaviour is captivating to watch.
As an actor-turned-director, Huang ensures that the performances of his ensemble cast are not lost amidst the allegory. Huang himself brings nuance to his role as a debt-ridden loser looking for a break in life, while giving space for the sort of broad laughs that he is known for in his pairings with Wang. Though in just a supporting role, Shu Qi offers a welcome human touch from time to time in her scenes with Huang, especially when the rest of the proceedings threaten to get a little shrill. Huang also proves to be a visually imaginative director, and some of the more outstanding images on display include a life-or-death shave with a massive cargo freighter during the tsunami, the upside-down shipwreck where Zhang sets up his camp and a tree with hundreds of fish hung from its branches to dry.
It's an impressive debut for Huang no doubt, and even though it does go on for too long, 'The Island' establishes his distinctive voice as a social commentator with comedy as his vehicle. Like our opening quote, there may be outrageous moments of humour within, but that absurdity really underlines the very farcical nature of human behaviour in society. Those familiar with Chinese society will certainly read deeper into its portraits of class differentiation, yet its theme will resonate with anyone who's ever wondered about his or her place on the social ladder. 'The Island' also comes at a particular time in Chinese cinema driven by social allegories, and it is a perfect example of a new consciousness seeping into the mainstream as well as popular culture.
The Meg (2018)
Jason Statham versus a 75-foot prehistoric shark - it's as simple, as cheesy, but as enjoyable as that
The Meg' is basically short for 'Jason Statham versus a 75-foot prehistoric shark', and if that doesn't sound like your idea of an exciting late-summer movie, then this slab of B-movie cheese is clearly not for you. Oh yes, the science-fiction horror novel by Steve Alten on which this movie is based was precisely meant to be that sort of pulpy entertainment, and director Jon Turteltaub ensures that his adaptation is balanced squarely between self-awareness and self-seriousness, even though it does start off being more of the latter before tipping into more of the former.
So it goes that our introduction to Statham's deep-sea rescue diver Jonas Taylor is no laughing business: in the throes of his latest mission to save the crew of a nuclear submarine trapped at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, Jonas is forced to sacrifice two of his own men inside the submarine after it is purportedly attacked by a giant creature which crushes its hull. Jonas' account of the tragic event is disputed by another key member of his very own crew Dr Heller (Robert Taylor), and after being accused of suffering a psychological meltdown, he retreats to seclusion on a rustic island in Thailand.
Five years later, Jonas is given the opportunity to get even with the creature when he is approached by an old friend Mac (Cliff Curtis) to lead an urgent operation to save his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee) and her two other crew mates stranded underwater in a deep sea submersible names Origin off the Chinese coast. Mac and Lori are part of a larger team on a modern research facility called Mana One exploring if there is life beneath the depths of the ocean as we know it, and the first successful so-called 'insertion' (cue the geek joke delivered by Masi Oka and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) into the hydrothermal sphere at the bottom of the seabed brings the Origin face to face with the titular super shark previously thought to be extinct.
At first, Jonas' history means he is greeted with scepticism by the team on board Mana One, including chief oceanographer Dr Zhang Minway (Winston Chao), his equally accomplished daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing) and no less than Jonas' former colleague Dr Heller himself. It goes without saying that Jonas will quickly prove that he wasn't crazy after all, but after having also rescued Suyin who had valiantly but foolhardily gone to try to rescue Lori on her own, the two divorcees will begin to sketch the contours of a romance through some rare character moments, many of which also wisely draw on the precocious charms of Suyin's eight-year-old daughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai).
It should come as no surprise that 'The Meg' is built on a number of elaborate action-driven set-pieces mostly executed by Mr Statham, but it is also worthwhile acknowledging that Turteltaub and his screenwriters (comprising of genre specialists Dean Georgaris and Jon and Erich Hoeber) do give the characters just enough texture to craft some memorable scenes within these set-pieces. Among the notable archetypes on display here are the self-absorbed financer Morris (Rainn Wilson), the tough-as-nails independent female type Jaxx (Ruby Rose), as well as the timid plus-sized African-American comic relief DJ (Page Kennedy); and without saying who lives, who dies or how either way, these characters in their respective ways inject verve into some of the gloriously over-the-top sequences.
These sequences of course dictate the course of the narrative, which sees the megalodon emerge from its hidden depths by some Deus Ex Machina to travel hundreds of miles over open ocean to terrorise hundreds of summer-loving beachgoers at Sanya Bay. Each one of the three distinct settings forms the backdrop of a significant encounter with the megalodon, with the latter two especially allowing Statham to flex his physicality without being in any claustrophobic confine. More than simple logic, that explains why Statham has to swim within 100 metres of the shark in order to fire a GPS tracker at its dorsal fin, or dive below the surface to rescue Suyin trapped within a shark cage, or in the film's pièce de résistance escape from a damaged submersible just in time to spear the shark in its eye.
Indeed, there's not a lot of common sense involved, though nothing so exaggerated as to qualify irrevocably as parody. The operative word here is fun, and on that account, 'The Meg' definitely scores. Statham carries each one of these outlandish scenes with a knowing wink, and his ability to deliver the intentionally corny one-liners is matchless. On his part, Turteltaub gleefully seizes every opportunity to emphasise the relative size of the competition between Statham and the Meg, and patiently waits till the climax to unleash all restraint and let the campiness overflow - there in Sanya Bay, you have young males ogling at the opposite sex on separate floating platforms before being forcibly rammed together by the marauding shark, a man in an inflatable bubble float trying to roll over his fellow swimmers before his bubble is literally burst by the shark, and a plump and pampered young boy holding a paddle pop getting his just desserts after defying his mother's caution not to go into the ocean.
It probably won't escape you that the movie is one of the high-profile US-China co-productions this year, and while that is reflected in the locations and choice of co-stars, the pleasures here still seem more culturally attuned to Hollywood sensitivities. To its credit, 'The Meg' never comes off being sillier than it intentionally puts itself out to be, and boasts more than its fair share of entertaining man-versus-enormous-shark sequences. But hey, we thoroughly enjoyed it for what it was worth, and considering that the movie has been stuck in development for over a decade, we'd add that we couldn't have seen it any other way than 'Jason Statham versus a 75-foot prehistoric shark'.
It's a big, loud and dumb action movie all right, but with Dwayne Johnson's unique brand of star charisma and some logic-defying but undeniably exhilarating stunts
Dwayne Johnson is easily the most hardworking actor in Hollywood right now, but let's face it, he's pulled his weight - literally and figuratively, mind you - to make what would just otherwise be dumb B-movies a whole lot more enjoyable. In 'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle', his chemistry with Kevin Hart and Jack Black lent the CGI-ed adventure humour and heart; in 'Rampage', his buddy pairing with the nine-foot tall albino gorilla named George saved the day and the movie from its own CGI-ed tedium; and in 'Skyscraper', his third movie in just seven months, Johnson makes the plainly ludicrous almost believable. Oh yes, there is hardly a semblance of logic or credibility to the stunts in this unabashed cross between 'Die Hard' and 'The Towering Inferno', but hey as a mindless action movie, you can hardly argue that it does deliver some heart-stopping vertiginous thrills.
As written and directed by his 'Central Intelligence' helmer Rawson Marshall Thurber, 'Skyscraper' places Johnson's former FBI hostage team rescue leader-turned-security consultant Will Sawyer in a race-against-time to rescue his wife and two kids from a raging inferno within the world's tallest building. Thurber can hardly be bothered about why the building is on fire, hence the throwaway premise of some Euro-accented thugs wanting to retrieve a thumb drive from the building's billionaire owner Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han); instead, he's a lot more enamoured with the titular structure which Will will have to scale. A fictional 3,500-foot 200-storey edifice, the high-rise named The Pearl boasts a king-size indoor garden complete with a waterfall as well as a giant sphere atop its frame.
Any self-deserving action movie junkie will know right from the start that these two distinct features will be the basis of the film's major set-pieces - the garden boasts one of its most nail-biting moments where Will fashions a makeshift bridge out of a piece of wood for his wife and son to cross above an entire field of vegetation engulfed in flames; and the sphere is the scene for a virtual reality hall-of-mirrors climax that to Thurber's credit is actually quite imaginatively designed and executed. Nevertheless, the piece de resistance is arguably Will's attempt to jump from the arm of wobbly tower crane into an open broken window of the building's burning 96th floor. Never mind the physics of that, or the sheer logic-defying precursor of Will scaling a 100 storeys or so on the construction crane within 10 minutes - watching Johnson pull it off is still as stomach-churning, edge-of-your-seat exhilarating and viscerally satisfying as it gets.
Even more incredible is how Will manages to do all that with part of his left leg missing, the consequence of a harrowing operation gone wrong which is also conveniently used to explain how he met his spouse Sarah (Neve Campbell). As manipulative as that bit of prosthetic may be in garnering more sympathy for Will's circumstances, there is also no doubt that Thurber puts the detail to good use - one sequence has him fighting on a one leg in a mano-a-mano that recalls Johnson's old wrestling days; another has him detaching the metal in order to hoist himself up from the side of the building; and yet another sees him use it to jam a pair of titanium doors before they close. It's by far the most nifty uses of a prosthesis that we've seen; that, and duct tape actually, which according to the movie's logic, is sticky enough to help you scale the building's exterior and handy enough to use as bandage.
Like we said at the start, as incredulous as it all is, Johnson ultimately sells what would have been laughable in the hands of any other star. Of course, Johnson would probably have been better-served with the kind of witty self-deprecating repartee he usually evinces - "if you can't fix it with duct tape, then you ain't using enough duct tape' is as far as Thurber ever gets - but still Johnson's sheer charisma makes you root for him even through the most absurd moments. Campbell makes a surprisingly solid supporting act, who more than holds her own against the baddies, among them Hannah Quinlivan's (aka Mrs Jay Chou) dominatrix-styled assassin. Ditto for our very own Chin Han, who brings out some unexpected layers to his underwritten character next to Johnson especially in the final act.
There is yet another accomplishment which should be duly acknowledged - though set in Hong Kong, 'Skyscraper' was primarily lensed in Vancouver, which makes the generous exterior shots of The Pearl against the Hong Kong skyline even more impressive. But at the end of the day, this stunt- and CGI-laden vehicle was constructed on Johnson's very back as an intense thrill-ride with audacious stunts, and on those counts, it succeeds exceedingly well. It's just the kind of popcorn diversion you'd be looking for in a summer blockbuster - and just as forgettable soon after it's over - so as long as you're not looking for smarts or for that matter realism, you'll probably thoroughly enjoy this slice of Rock-solid action movie escapism.
Lacking the freshness, eccentricity and poignancy of the first two movies, this third entry is divertingly amusing but ultimately forgettable
Continuing the misadventures of Count Dracula and his monster entourage, Genndy Tartakovsky returns to the franchise for the third time that he started back in 2012 with Adam Sandler and a whole ensemble of comedians including Andy Samberg, Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Keegan-Michael Kay, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher and Mel Brooks. Whereas the earlier two movies saw Sandler's Count Drac fretting over his family, namely his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) and his grandson Dennis (Asher Blinkoff), it is Mavis' turn to fret over her father this time round, fearing that he has been too caught up for too long looking after the titular hotel and its eccentric denizens without having time to look after himself. And so, Mavis books his father and the hotel crew a holiday that consists of a life-endangering flight on board Gremlin Air followed by a cruise to the lost city of Atlantis.
But wait, as the prologue primes us, it isn't going to be smooth-sailing for Count Drac, who may very well have to confront an old nemesis by the name of Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan). The nasty professor had been on a witch-hunt for Count Drac in the late 1800s, but had never succeeded in eliminating him, before finally plunging to his apparent death off a vast cliff. Fast-forward to present-day, his grand-daughter Ericka Van Helsing (Kathryn Hahn) is now the captain of the cruise, and it isn't long before we find out that Ericka has dastardly intention to continue her grandfather's legacy, or that Abraham Van Helsing had bested death over the past century by substituting his human organs for a hodgepodge of machine parts. While her grandfather insists that they wait till Atlantis to unleash an ancient monster upon Count Drac, Ericka has no such patience, deciding to set her own honeypot trap to kill the lord of the vampires once and for all.
It isn't difficult to figure out that Tartakovsky and his co-writer Michael McCullers (who also wrote 'The Boss Baby') will have Count Drac and Ericka falling in love with each other, or that Mavis will initially harbour suspicions about her potential stepmother that Count Drac will promptly dismiss. Indeed, there aren't that many surprises in the story, which squeezes in two stopovers at an underwater volcano and a deserted island before the final destination of Atlantis and the unleashing of the legendary beast known as the Kraken. In fact, more so than its predecessors, the narrative this time round is quite evidently meant only as a device to unleash a barrage of slapstick gags aimed at tickling the kids, although Tartakovsky does insert a couple of references (such as one about Egypt and being in denial, get it?) that only the adults with the right cultural background will probably grasp.
As for the gags, there are thankfully more hits than misses. Among the hits, some play like a 'greatest hits' compilation from the earlier films - such as the ever-versatile green blob monster known as Blobby and the overwhelming brood of werewolf children born to Wayne (Buscemi) and Wanda (Shannon) - and others like Dennis' giant puppy Tinkles and a porcupine-like bride and groom Mr and Mrs Prickles are new. There are also a couple of amusing sequences, including one where Count Drac, Mavis and Dennis evade Ericka's harpoons while scuba diving by aping the motions of a seahorse and sting ray, another where Ericka discovers that garlic ain't quite so deadly to Count Drac as folklore suggests, and yet another where Count Drac follows and ends up saving Ericka from a myriad of booby traps in a secret chamber which contains the ancient scroll to awaken the Kraken.
But at the same time, there are also enough misses for you to realise that the humour this third time round isn't quite as inspired. That talk about 'zinging' with a special someone is mildly amusing at first but gets increasingly stale. A game of volleyball in the ship's swimming pool is awkwardly unfunny. And last but not least, the showdown between Count Drac and the Kraken culminates in a deejay competition that feels dull and tired, especially given that the ultimate tune which manages to put the Kraken in good vibrations is a pop hit from more than two decades ago. It doesn't help that the list of supporting characters has grown even larger from the last outing, leaving little time or space for Count Drac's usual quirky companions like Frankenstein (James), Griffin (Spade) or Murray (Key) to have any more than fleeting moments. Considering the sheer voice talent Tartakovsky has assembled, it's a shame that many aren't given much memorable to do, if at all, in the film.
Compared to the first two movies, 'Hotel Transylvania 3' plays exactly like a summer vacation that you'll enjoy for what it's worth while it lasts but will likely forget once it's over. It is arguably the weakest in the series, lacking the eccentricity that made the first so refreshing and even the poignancy that made the second welcome. We're happy that Count Drac got to go on, in his words, a 'hotel on water' and found someone to spend the rest of his life with for however long Ericka manages to last (she's a human, after all); still, we'd be lying if we didn't say that we expected more from this sojourn. It'll keep the kids entertained all right, and so long as that's enough to please you, you'll do fine checking into this perfectly disposable vacation.
Nong, Pee, Teerak (2018)
At first amusing, then sobering, and finally affecting, this ode to the eternal bond between brother and sister is one of the most endearing films you'll see this year
We must admit that we weren't too taken with the trailer of 'Brother of the Year' - the latest comedy from Thai powerhouse studio GDH after last year's regional megahit 'Bad Genius' - which had suggested an unusual sibling rivalry taken to hysterical proportions. Oh yes, according to the trailer, in order to get back at his overbearing younger sister Jane (Urassaya Sperbund), her older brother Chut (Sunny Suwanmethanont) decides to sabotage her budding romance with Moji (Nichkhun Horvejkul) by revealing just how much of an alpha female she is. But we're glad that what was sold is really a gross over-representation of the actual love-hate relationship between Chut and Jane, which in fact is a lot more nuanced, a lot more poignant and a lot less over-the-top than we were led to believe.
In fact, what you see in the trailer is but the first act of the movie, which establishes both the conflict between Chut and Jane and the attraction between Jane and Moji. Beginning with Chut's dismay when Jane returns one evening to Bangkok after completing four years of university studies in Japan, the swiftly-paced narrative alternates between Chut and Jane to express just how they feel about each other - whereas Chut is annoyed and exasperated at having to live under the shadow of his younger sister who grows up to nag at his slovenly habits, Jane is utterly disappointed that her older brother is nothing like the role model and guardian she had expected him to be. To co-writer and director Vithaya Thongyuyong's credit, he doesn't intend or come out taking either Chut or Jane's side, so you'd actually empathise with both their mutual frustrations at each other.
At the same time, Jane's audition for a job at a Japanese company turns into a meet-cute on the baseball field with her boss Moji. Apparently it is tradition to initiate a newcomer with a game of baseball, but unbeknownst to Moji and the rest of his colleagues, Jane is quite the striker on the field, having been introduced to the sport by none other than Chut himself. Indeed, one of the most hilarious sequences in the film explains how Chut got the nickname 'Coochie' when he and Jane were in junior high school, and the latter had innocently used a pad to cover the former's bloody chin after knocking him out cold with a baseball bat in front of their schoolmates. Alas, things become even more complicated for the both of them when the same company she now works for happens to be one of the key accounts that Chut's high-flying advertising executive himself services.
A couple of careless words uttered at the urinals following an awkward pitch meeting precipitates a series of complications that entangle the personal and professional lives of Chut, Jane and Moji - and without giving too much away, suffice to say that Chut becomes depressed after being taken off the account at Jane's instruction, and Jane and Moji are forced to decide just how much they want to be together after Moji is abruptly re-deployed back to Japan. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Jane eventually chooses to take the leap of faith with Moji, and the wedding preparations as well as her impending move to Kitakyushu with him further strains the bond between brother and sister. Again, as is the case with such frictions, both Chut and Jane are to blame for their deteriorating state of affairs, with the onus being on both of them simultaneously to make up or make things even worse.
If it isn't yet clear, the film switches gears in the second half to become less of a comedy than an honest and heartfelt exploration of the ties that bind Chut and Jane. While Jane will come to acknowledge just how much of an enduring influence Chut has been on her and try to make amends for the wrongs she has done, Chut himself is also forced to put aside his pride and come to see with humility his own shortcomings as well as how much Jane actually cares for him. As cliched as that may sound, the process and journey with which Thongyuyong brings his viewers on is nothing but, and let's just say that we were really surprised by how moved we were by the time Chut and Jane finally put their differences aside and reconcile with each other.
Certainly, a large part of the movie's charm derives from the chemistry between Suwanmethanont and Sperbund. Both are utter naturals at playing the laid-back slacker and high-strung overachiever respectively, but even more significantly, effortlessly portray the complexities of their relationship with a careful balancing act between tenderness and animosity. Sperbund and Horvejkul's courtship is a lot more vanilla in comparison, so even though they do have a couple of bumps along the way, there isn't much the script or the actors do to make their romance quite so memorable. Ultimately, it is the bond between Chut and Jane that is the very emotional core of the film, and it is a joy watching Suwanmethanont and Sperbund spar with each other.
Unlike 'Bad Genius', 'Brother of the Year' doesn't have a high-concept premise, but it is also precisely that which makes the back-and-forth between Chut and Jane real and relatable. Even in the first act where it establishes the comedic proportions of their sibling rivalry, the film never resorts to slapstick gags for the sake of it, and is all the better off for demonstrating restraint and avoiding histrionics. Their emotional and psychological tug-of-war also gains meaning, significance and poignancy over the course of the film, and comes off affecting, heart-warming and uplifting by the time it is over. It is no wonder then that the movie has struck a chord among its home audience, and is already the bestselling local movie in Thailand; there is no language or cultural barrier to its themes, story and sentiment, so get ready to laugh, cry and be moved by one of the most endearing films you'll see this year.
An adventure full of childlike wonder and thrill, humour and witticisms, and unexpected poignance, this latest instalment in the Doraemon feature films is treasure indeed!
No other animated character can claim to have had one big-screen feature each year for the past 12 years, but that alone is testament to the popularity of the time-travelling blue robot cat (not raccoon dog, mind you, which happens to be one of the running jokes in this movie). This 38th feature instalment in the Doraemon anime franchise sees the titular character and his boy companion Nobita embark on a seafaring journey to explore a mysterious island that has suddenly appeared off the southern coast of Japan, although when they eventually reach the volcanic land mass, they discover that there is more, much more, to the island than meets the eye.
As penned by novelist Genki Kawamura (who produced some of the most successful Japanese feature animations in recent memory, like 'Your Name', 'Fireworks' and 'The Boy and the Beast'), the story deliberately draws from some of the more memorable references of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic 'Treasure Island' novel, so those who remember the book will certainly recall the pirate named John Silver, his talking parrot and the boy whom Silver is fond of. In any case, the opening minutes of the movie give a quick rundown of these references, just before Nobita wakes up from his daydream and muses how he'd like to go on a real-life modern-day pirate adventure.
Nobita's wish - and perhaps to an equal extent, his pestering - become Doraemon's command, who pulls out a magical Treasure Hunter map to look for a yet-unexplored treasure island, as well as a miniature sailboat DIY kit and a magnifying glass to construct the square-rigged ship that they will use to reach the island. Nobita uses the Anywhere Door to ask his best friend and love interest Shizuka along, while the quick-tempered bully Gian and fox-faced rich kid Suneo invite themselves along the way. The quintet are also joined by the Mini-Doras, who prove resourceful as ever when the rest get into tight spots, so if you're keeping score, only Doraemon's younger sister Dorami sits out this one.
Without giving too much away, let's just say that Shizuka is kidnapped during their initial encounter with Flint and his band of pirates, owing to a striking resemblance she has with Flint's younger daughter Sarah. At the same time, Nobita will pick up Flint's elder son Flock, who reveals not only that he has run away from his father but also that Flint has some nefarious plan up his sleeve that will threaten the very fate and future of Planet Earth. It's not a literal adaptation of the book of course, but you'll appreciate the generous creative liberties that Kawamura and director Kazauki Imai have taken with the source material, even turning Flint's parrot into a chaperone robot named Quiz who likes to greet anyone and everyone he meets with riddles.
Make no mistake, this isn't just a feature-length version of the Saturday morning cartoons you'd probably acquaint the Doraemon character with; rather, Imai's film is really a rollicking adventure fit for the whole family (except of course for the fact that you'll have to be old enough to be able to read the subtitles to understand the dialogue). There is a genuine childlike sense of wonder and thrill every step of the way, thanks to Kawamura's inventive plotting as well as Imai's rich and vivid visual imagination. There are loads of humour and witticisms, courtesy of Doraemon's boundless gadgets and Quiz's verbal puzzles. And last but not least, there is even surprising poignance at the end of it, as Silver's ostensible selfish motivations are revealed to be no more than misguided obsessions about completing his beloved late wife's legacy.
It is no coincidence that 'Nobita's Treasure Island' has since gone and become the highest grossing instalment in Doraemon history, seeing as how there is plenty here to entertain those among us who are growing up and those among us who had grown up with the lovable robot cat. In particular, the latter will probably find the conclusion unexpectedly moving just as we did, and in fact come to sympathise with how Silver just wanted to do right for the sake of his children and their future. Like we said at the start, no other animated franchise has been as prolific or enduring, and this latest film is itself reason why Doraemon is so beloved and will likely continue to be for generations to come. There is treasure indeed in this fascinating time-travelling tale of discovery, friendship and reconciliation, so embrace your inner child and hop on for the adventure!
The Leakers (2018)
As entertaining and flawed as the typical Hong Kong action thriller, Herman Yau's cops-versus-robbers tale with a vigilante twist is perfectly disposable entertainme
Continuing their director-screenwriter partnership that started some seven films ago, Herman Yau and Erica Lee concoct a cops-versus-robbers thriller with a vigilante twist. As the title suggests, somewhere between the good guys and the bad guys lies an organisation who claims to be on a mission of social justice. They want the public to know the truth behind the corrupt practices of a pharmaceutical company named Amanah and its founder Teo Jit Sun (Kent Cheng), who are at the centre of a viral epidemic sweeping through Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Thailand. And to prove their point, they have kidnapped Jit Sun's younger son Jun Yan (Wilfred Lau), demanding that his father not only make public the formula behind the antidote to the virus, but also release RM$1million worth of the antidote to the health authorities around the world.
It's an ambitious and intriguing concept all right - ambitious because few Hong Kong filmmakers have tried to portray a real-life pandemic in their territory, let alone Southeast Asia; and intriguing because there is within potential for a compelling moral drama about the circumstances under which we need to choose whether to break the law in order to uphold it. On both counts though, 'The Leakers' comes out somewhat short. Despite a promising setup that portends a conspiracy stretching across Malaysia, Hong Kong and Australia, Lee's script opts for a predictable and easy finish which makes you wonder why it was even necessary to go through so much trouble just to get the truth out. That also means the dilemma at the heart of the organisation's criminal practices is barely sufficiently fleshed out, though we'd be frank to admit that its target audience may not be bothered.
Indeed, Yau's film has been billed as a true-blue Hong Kong action thriller, and on that account, it does satisfy. As he demonstrated with last year's big-budget blockbuster 'Shock Wave', Yau is a perfectly competent director of taut and tense thrillers, and this one is no different. The pacing is tight and gripping from start to finish, and even when the script starts showing more and more of its loopholes in the second hour, Yau keeps the wheels turning on the picture so quickly that you won't have time on your mind to dwell on them. The action too, while not particularly memorable, is cleanly and nicely staged, especially an extended car chase that takes place along the streets and highways around Penang. It's been a while since we've had the pleasure of enjoying such Hong Kong-styled police action, and that nostalgia certainly makes what 'The Leakers' has to offer a lot more attractive.
Ditto for the ensemble that Yau has assembled for this film. As thinly drawn as the characters in Lee's script are, it is the sheer charisma of these actors that make their roles so watchable. Chief among them is Francis Ng, who brings his usual brand of rumpled coolness to the role of the about-to-be-divorced Hong Kong detective David Wong. On the other hand, Julian Cheung is his typical dapper and serious self as the Malaysian police officer Lee Weng Kan, and Ng and Cheung complement each other beautifully as 'buddy cops'. Charmaine Sheh's lauded news reporter Carly Yuan plays second fiddle to both men, but she, Cheng, Chrissie Chau, Louis Cheung and Sam Lee add some authentically Hong Kong star power to the film.
Lest we forget, the Hong Kong film industry was built not just on standouts like 'Infernal Affairs' but also on hundreds of effortlessly entertaining films like this one. We won't deny that there could be a much better film within had Lee and her co-writer Li Sheng bothered to develop a less straightforward story and given more flesh to the characters, but with Yau's steady direction, 'The Leakers' is a completely agreeable way to spend one-and-a-half hours of your time. It's a production full of genuine 'Hong Kong' feel for better and for worse, from its relentless pacing, to its action, and of course to its actors. As long as you have your expectations right, 'The Leakers' will keep you hooked like a good disposable Hong Kong movie should.
A masterclass in tension, suspense and dread, this continuation of the 'Jurassic World' series takes the thrill ride out of the theme park and sets up a brave, new, exciting W
How many times can you resurrect a theme park filled with dinosaurs, especially given the number of human casualties each iteration has incurred? So wisely, this latest instalment of the 'Jurassic Park' franchise doesn't try to revive yet another park; instead, it decisively and definitely bids goodbye to its predecessor's prehistoric attraction by obliterating it with a jaw-droppingly intense and realistic volcanic eruption. Not to worry though, to paraphrase two of the film's taglines, "life finds a way" even though "the park is gone".
Returning to pen the sequel's script with his former writing partner Derek Connolly, 'Jurassic World' director Colin Trevorrow boldly choreographs a sequence of events that will see the dinosaurs transported off their isolated little island paradise of Isla Nublar to the mainland, which also sets the stage for an all-out man versus dinosaur showdown in the next chapter to follow. That journey will see park manager-turned-animal activist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) reunite with raptor expert Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), as the couple join an expedition to save the surviving dinosaurs that happens to be the former business partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell).of the original 'Jurassic Park's' misguided entrepreneur John Hammond.
Not surprisingly, that expedition is but a façade for a more sinister business venture involving Lockwood's right-hand man Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) and geneticist Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), precipitating a series of things-gone-awry that will result in the animals being unleashed on civilisation at large. Although most of the action is pretty much contained in one of two locations, namely Isla Nublar and Lockwood's sprawling gothic mansion, there is plenty of creative space between them for director J.A. Bayona to pull off some genuinely white-knuckle edge-of-your-seat set pieces. Oh yes, more than the plotting per se, the 'Jurassic Park' movies were always about the scenes of tightly-wound tension, and we dare say Bayona not only equals Spielberg's flair for such roller-coaster thrills, he even manages to top the first two movies from the latter.
The pre-opening is in itself demonstration of that - two pilots in an underwater pod in the cordoned-off seas around Isla Nublar run into the park's Mosasaurus, while his counterparts on land are greeted by a T-rex. That is only but warm-up for the film's piece de resistance, which sees a thunderous stampede down the slopes of the volcano as it blows up, threatening to crush Owen, Claire and her scaredy-cat tech nerd colleague Franklin (Justice Smith). Having depicted the horrifying 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in his 'The Impossible', Bayona exercises the same disaster-movie sensibilities here, crafting a breath-taking sequence of genuine visual awe. It would have been difficult to top that, and wisely enough Bayona never tries; rather, he moves to a more confined playground, opting for intimate scenes of well-tuned dread and suspense.
Within the tight corridors and stony basement of Lockwood's residence, Bayona plays to his strengths in his previous horror films 'The Orphanage' and 'A Monster Calls', unleashing the new genetically engineered Indoraptor on his lead couple and Lockwood's bright young granddaughter Maisie (newcomer Isabella Sermon). There are plenty of nail-biting moments here, some of which like the tap-tap-tapping claw are in deliberate homage to Spielberg, while others like the romp through Lockwood's private national history gallery of bones are bound to be classic. To be sure, this second half is on a much smaller scale than most audiences would expect the action in a 'Jurassic Park' movie to be, but equally it is precisely this change in tone, character and atmosphere that makes this entry more refreshing, engaging and stimulating than the other sequels.
Just as uncharacteristic is its intellectual musings about conservation and evolution. Now that mankind has brought the dinosaurs back to life from the dead, should we make an effort to conserve them given the impending extinction extent on Isla Nublar, as we would any other endangered species? Or should we accept our actions as an aberration of nature, and therefore let nature take its own course henceforth? That conundrum forms a running theme throughout the film, underlining the difficult choices that our heroes are faced with and bookending the brief but effective appearance of a bearded and greying Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum doing his signature staccato brainaic thing for the series).
Nevertheless, the 'Jurassic Park' movies have always been about taut human-versus-dino showdowns, and 'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom' has plenty of that to spare. Like we said, this is a masterclass in tension, suspense and dread, punctuated by moments of campy humour by Owen and Franklin and enlivened by the hearty chemistry between Owen and Claire. Just as significantly, this chapter finally takes the thrill out of the theme park, switching up the usual scenery and setting up a brave new world for the trilogy's final chapter. Sure, it doesn't have the same nostalgia as its predecessor did coming some twenty years after the last movie, but this one is actually even better, even more thrilling, thought-provoking and tense. It's right on top with the first as the best of the series.
Di ya cao (2018)
A muddled third act undermines what is otherwise an intriguing neo-noir about the existential nature of crime in an unequal society, punctutated by some thrilling blasts of ex
Having cut his teeth with some of the best and worst in the Hong Kong film industry over the past three decades, two-time Golden Horse Award-winning best actor Nick Cheung has in recent years demonstrated a confidence to reinvent some of the genres which the industry has been closely associated with. So after taking on the horror/ supernatural genre with 2014's 'Hungry Ghost Ritual' and 2015's 'Keeper of Darkness', Cheung has here set his sights on the classic crime thriller with a hyper-stylised entry that seems equal parts inspired by 'Sin City' as it is Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight' trilogy.
Like them, 'The Trough' unfolds in a fictional city where crime is rampant and in need of a (reluctant) anti-hero willing to subvert the law in order to upkeep it. That hero here is the frequent undercover cop Yu Chau (Cheung), whom the first act sets up as a somewhat disillusioned individual from spending too much time with those on the other side of the law. An overlong introduction to his last stint with mob boss Yun (Michael Miu) culminates in a fierce gunfight in a laundromat that leaves all but Yu Chau dead, and the latter goes off into the African desert to cleanse himself - which, as the opening credits demonstrate, apparently involves showing a hyena just who is more menacing.
The real story here begins only about half an hour into the movie, when Yu Chau is summoned back by his handler Zhan (He Jiong) to uncover the identity of the criminal mastermind nicknamed 'Boss'. To do so, he will have to go undercover once more with the abrasive ringleader Chun Hua (Yuen Wah) to kidnap a young girl, but as Yu Chau soon discovers, the case involves not only some very powerful individuals at the highest echelons of society, but also reeks of corruption at the highest levels of the police. Not that you'll have to wonder just who they are - there is no attempt to hide the fact that Zhan's superior Diane (Maggie Cheung) is one of them, or for that matter, any buildup to Xu Jinglei's Japanese-born socialite as the 'Boss' herself.
Co-written by Cheung, the film isn't so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit, which Cheung turns into a meditation on the nature of crime and justice and whether either is simply two sides of the same coin. Unfortunately, those expecting a compelling treatment of the subject matter will probably come off disappointed and in fact frustrated by the sheer narrative illogicalities. Why would 'Boss' risk her own life by getting into an elevator with Yu Chau? Why would she send a whole army of henchmen to delay him while she makes her escape, and then shortly after willingly let herself be apprehended by him? Why would she end up killing those who did her bidding, while hoping that Yu Chau will somehow carry on her legacy? Not much in the final act of the movie makes simple common sense, and that is a pity, because the first hour is arguably pretty intriguing.
Before its conceit falls apart, 'The Trough' hooks you with its relentless bleak tone and its blasts of explosive gunplay. In probably one of the most memorable nihilistic sequences of the film, Yu Chau is seen walking down a street at night in seeming utter detachment to the law-breaking around him: prostitution, carjacking, and most egregiously, a group of teenage hooligans gunning down a man. Like the weather phenomenon that it is named after, the skies over the city dubbed Solo Field are perpetually overcast, so much so that the entire movie unfolds in different shades of grey.
Amidst that overwhelming sense of despair and desolation are episodes of intense action - notably, a thrilling vehicular chase along the city's downtown streets that see the complete demolition of a couple of police cars, and an equally exhilarating one-versus-many shootout in a building that climaxes with a mano-a-mano between Cheung and Philip Ng's unnamed kung fu kicking assailant. Cheung was in two of Dante Lam's most acclaimed cops-versus-robbers films in the early years of the last decade (read: 2008's 'Beast Stalker' and 2010's 'The Stool Pigeon'), and channels similar ballsy sensibilities in choreographing and staging his film's own fiery shootouts. Cheung's own experience with triad movies also lends itself well to some of the tense underworld exchanges, including that between Miu and Lam Suet's middleman to settle the former's debt and another in an abattoir where Cheung susses out if Li Haitao's disgruntled underling is in fact the 'Boss'.
Alas these accomplishments are not quite enough to make up for a muddled script that doesn't quite know how it wants to set up the central relationship between Yu Chau and the 'Boss', and therefore how to portray its key message on the rightful place that crime should or should not have in a inherently unequal society. That said, the fact that Cheung has attempted a neo-noir spin on the traditional Hong Kong crime thriller should in itself be lauded, and despite its shortcomings, 'The Trough' is never visually or stylistically boring. One does however hope too that the city had more character and definition to it, ditto Yu Chau himself, so that we can better appreciate the context behind the latter's struggle to uphold justice. It's no classic, but Cheung's third time in the actor-cum-director's seat confirms yet again a bona fide Hong Kong cinema veteran reinvigorating the industry in small but significant ways.
A Quiet Place (2018)
As viscerally thrilling as it is emotionally gripping, 'A Quiet Place' is high-concept alien invasion science-fiction executed with absolute brilliance
"If they hear you, they hunt you." That about neatly sums up the high-concept survival horror from John Krasinski, a lean, mean and terrifyingly effective thriller that is viscerally and emotionally gripping.
Working off a nearly dialogue-free script that he co-wrote with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, Krasinski imagines a post-apocalyptic Earth overrun by lethally fast extraterrestrial creatures that navigate and hunt by sound. In one of the most efficient prologues we've seen, Kraskinski introduces us to these large, skittering, carnivorous beasties while establishing the tragedy which would haunt the Abbott family whose fate we will follow throughout the course of the film. We won't spoil it for you, but suffice to say that this event - which a title card informs us happens on Day 89, of what we presume refers to the number of days since the invasion - provides justifiable context why Lee (Krasinski) and Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) have decided to bring another child into the world when we next catch up with them a year later.
Besides their impending newborn, Lee and Evelyn have two other children: a deaf teenage daughter named Regan (as is the actress who plays her, Millicent Simmonds, of the recent 'Wonderstruck') and a younger son Marcus (Noah Jupe). Not surprisingly, their everyday life consists of familiar yet different routines, including collecting fish from cages set along a nearby river, preparing dinner in a steamer under the floor, an after-dinner game of Monopoly using felt cutouts and fuzzy balls (instead of metal and plastic tokens) and communicating with neighbours using firelight after dark. Through immersing us in their minutiae, Krasinski succeeds not just in creating a rich, imaginative and simultaneously credible alternate reality but also in getting us to care for these characters in an intimate, personal and even profound way.
There are more than a couple of memorable scenes here: an impromptu dance between Lee and Evelyn with a shared pair of ear buds playing Neil Young's 'Harvest Moon'; a tense exchange between Lee and Regan as the former tries to get the latter to try on his latest makeshift hearing aid; and a learning expedition that Lee brings Marcus on which sees the boy's initial fear and reluctance of learning the tricks of survival slowly melt away. Using both sign language and meaningful glances, the dynamics among the Abbotts are laid out clearly, succinctly and intently, complemented by some ingenious sound design that emphasizes the atmosphere of lived-in domesticity and omnipresent terror.
Less patient viewers may find the first half a little plodding, but that patience is well rewarded in a nail-biting latter half that features some unforgettable action sequences. The centerpiece finds Evelyn having to deliver her baby while dealing with two bugglies poking around the house by herself, after inadvertently drawing their attention following an incident with a nail on a stair tread. That is followed without pause by an encounter between Regan and one of the monsters in a cornfield, another with Regan and Marcus in a grain silo, and yet another with Evelyn and her baby in a flooding basement. Oh yes, when the aliens do catch up with the Abbotts, the tension, dread and sheer adrenaline rush is relentless, culminating in a payoff that literally and figuratively ends with a bang.
Neither of Krasinski's previous directorial features have hinted that he would be a master of suspense, but the way he builds anticipation in cramped quarters is nothing short of masterful. But perhaps more importantly, this is one of those horror films where what happens to the characters matters to us, so as manipulative as they are, the character arcs which have been orchestrated for maximum catharsis hardly diminishes how poignantly we feel for what happens to them. In particular, Blunt's keen portrayal of her character's quiet resilience as well as Simonds' exceptionally sensitive performance of her character's grief, guilt and rebellion ground the emotional stakes compellingly, binding us powerfully to them as they go through the wringer.
Certainly, there'll be cynics who cannot wait to point out the loopholes in logic and rationality, but 'A Quiet Place' should be enjoyed at face value for what it is - that is, a unique high-concept alien invasion horror that offers both visceral and emotional thrills. Never mind the classic conventions of jump-scares, out-of-focus background shots and hideous looking creatures, Krasinski employs the familiar in riveting ways, and none more so than that of building terror through silence. But it is by twinning it tightly with credible human drama that he truly elevates his movie beyond the gimmicky, and we dare say this will likely go down as one of the best horror films you'll see this year.
Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)
As long as all you're looking for is fun and thrilling robots-versus-monsters spectacle, this straightforward blockbuster of a sequel should do fine
With all due respect to newly minted Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro, his 2013 love letter to Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda's monster films was an all-too self-serious affair that took the fun out of watching giant robots fight against giant monsters. So as admirable as del Toro's intent of injecting dramatic heft with the concept of 'drifting' (i.e. where pairs of pilots gain intimate knowledge of each other's memories and feelings in order to operate the neural load of one of them giant mechas known as 'Jaegers') may be, the movie just wasn't as fun as it should have been, which was probably one of the reasons why it underwhelmed at the US box office.
How much you love Steven S. DeKnight's continuation of that universe depends on how much you were in love with del Toro's empathy metaphor as well as his tone of sobriety. Indeed, much as one of the lead characters - namely, the teenage orphan Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) - has to overcome her own traumatic loss of her family in order to properly pilot a Jaeger, there is much less emphasis here on the so-called psychic link that the pair of pilots have to forge in order to 'drift'. At the same time, DeKnight and his three co-screenwriters have opted for a much lighter tone throughout, which is evident not only in the wry banter that the characters engage in but also in almost all of its robots-versus-monsters brawls now take place in the brightness of day (than the darkness of night).
Truth be told, 'Pacific Rim Uprising' is a lot more straightforwardly entertaining than its predecessor. Compared to the wounded survivors of the previous movie, our hero is here a roguish slacker Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) - who, for what it's worth, is the son of Idris Elba's martyr hero Stacker - happily passing his days partying and selling parts from decommissioned Jaegers on the black market. On one of his scavenger hunts, he runs into fellow scrounger Amara, who is collecting parts for her own DIY Bumblebee-like Jaeger creation named Scrapper. Given a choice between jail and service when arrested, Jake opts to join his former partner Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) to train a new generation of Jaeger pilots at the Pan Pacific Defense Force's new Chinese headquarters, while Amara chooses to enlist as one of his cadets.
Like we alluded to earlier, character isn't so much a priority here as it was in del Toro's 2013 original, so it doesn't go much further with the new additions than Jake as a reluctant hero with outsider cool, Nate as a square-jawed duty-bound soldier and Amara as a Jaeger fanatic whom Jake will come to personally mentor. Fans of the original will welcome the return of some of the surviving characters - including Jake's half sister Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) and the two vaudevillian scientists Dr Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Dr Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) - and be heartened to know that they are important pieces in the narrative puzzle.
Without giving away too much, let's just say that there is a good conspiracy woven in that has to do with a rival drone project led by tech tycoon Shao Liwen (Jing Tian) of the shadowy Shao Foundation as well as the leftovers of the 'kaiju' from the earlier apocalyptic-cancelling battle fought a decade ago. Uncovering the puppet master behind a rogue Jaeger is what brings Jake and Nate on a globe-trotting mission from Sydney to Siberia and finally to Tokyo, the last of which is also where the climactic battle with a trio of Category 4 and 5 'kaijus'. Besides being utterly befitting of the cultural origins of the 'kaijus', the cross-country trek also adds freshness to the stream of nicely choreographed CG destruction.
Oh yes, the very raison d'etre for most audiences of the 'Pacific Rim' universe is really to witness mountain-sized robots and monsters punching each other, and DeKnight satisfies that desire for spectacle by pulling off some impressive, even jaw-dropping, shots of mayhem. There are two mano-a-manos between the Gypsy Danger 2.0 that Jake and Nate pilots and the aforementioned rogue Jaeger of pure gleaming steel, the first in downtown Sydney and the next on the ice in Siberia; and the piece de resistance is no doubt the showdown in central Tokyo that sees three 'kaijus' transform into a mega-'kaiju' (much like how the Power Rangers 'zods' combine into a Megazod). To his credit, DeKnight eschews the nausea-inducing cinematography of the 'Transformers' franchise, so you can see the battles in their full glory; notwithstanding, there is no shaking off the feeling that the fights don't feel as epic as they ought to be, even coming off cartoony at times.
And so, while del Toro's franchise opener was probably too sombre for its own good, this sequel pivots quite drastically to the other extreme, thereby diminishing the stakes involved as well as the gee-whiz grandeur. We do wish there were more personality to the Jaegers though, apart from being the one with the electric whip or the 'gravity slings' or the plasma swords. That said, it is engaging in a fun way which the original never was, in huge part due to Boyega's infectious charisma as well as his spontaneous chemistry with his co-stars Spaeny and Eastwood. The action too is frequently thrilling, and the visual effects work top-notch. If only it had more edge and threat, as well as more personality, this 'Uprising' would indeed be worthy of its title.
Tomb Raider (2018)
There is life yet in this Tomb Raider, but not quite enough in Lara Croft to transform this former geekboy's wet dream into an icon of feminist independence
Unlike say Wonder Woman, Lara Croft was less an icon of feminist empowerment than a geekboy's wet dream, and as sexist as it sounds, the female English archaeologist has her place in pop culture as much because of her physical assets as her intelligence and athleticism. Yet to emphasise the former in this day and age would have been utterly anachronistic, which also explains why his big-screen reboot has opted for the critically lauded actress from 'The Danish Girl' and 'Ex Machina' than say a more well-endowed actress a la Angelina Jolie. With utmost respect to Jolie, Alicia Vikander proves herself to be a much more engaging Lara Croft than Jolie was in the earlier two 'Tomb Raider' feature films, even though the movie itself isn't quite as impressive as it needs to be to justify its existence.
Like most such reboots are oft to do, this one takes the route of an origin story - here, the screenwriting duo of Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons (working off a story credited to Evan Daugherty and Robertson-Dworet) reimagine Lara as a 21-year-old bike courier on the streets of East London who is struggling to make ends meet. When we first meet her, she's engaged in an intense boxing match that she eventually loses, but not without demonstrating her tenacity by refusing to tap out until she almost loses consciousness. That same fierce independence is the reason why she hasn't signed the papers to claim her father's inheritance since his disappearance seven years ago, although when her aunt Ana (Kristin Scott Thomas) tells her the estate would be sold if she doesn't, Lara acquiesces by turning up at the offices of her father's company Croft Holdings.
Besides the papers, the lawyer hands her a wooden puzzle that opens up to reveal a key and a message which points her to her late mother's niche within the family memorial. There, she finds her father's secret office, learns of the legend of Himiko which he was pursuing, and follows a string of clues to try to track down his whereabouts. That journey will lead her first to Hong Kong's iconic floating village Aberdeen, where she meets the boatman Lu Ren (a criminally underused Daniel Wu) who leads her to the Japanese island of Yamatai where her father had vanished. You can pretty much guess how it unfolds from that point - Lara will fall into bad company (led by Walton Goggins's stony-faced Mathias Vogel), find out just what happened to her father, and then race against time to stop Vogel from opening the tomb and unleashing an ancient curse that would doom humanity forever.
To the film's credit, our scepticism at the existence of such a primordial power is reflected in Lara herself, who up until confronted with the truth, cannot quite decide whether to dismiss the legend as pure myth. To its credit too, the revelation remains rooted in reality, which is in line with the filmmakers' intention to create an authentic heroine not unlike what Christopher Nolan had done for Batman. In fact, we dare say this version of Lara Croft owes a fair amount of dues to Nolan's 'Batman Begins', particularly with its father-daughter arc that underlines Lara's anguish following the sudden disappearance of her father as well as her subsequent reconciliation. Truth be told, giving a touch of pathos to Lara isn't exactly a bad thing: after all, Vikander certainly has the acting chops to make it work, and she does make Lara a lot more relatable, empathetic and worth rooting for.
In the same vein, Lara is a lot less superhuman than she used to be. Save for one at the end, you won't see her making her signature incredible leaps. Indeed, one of the very first sequences that we see her spring into action - which features the iconic escape from the plane hulk from the 2013 edition of the game - finds her wounded, bleeding and in pain by the end of it. That same sensibility runs throughout the action in the film, which insists on a level of realism that the 'Tomb Raider' franchise is hitherto not known for - and among the highlights are a thrilling foot chase around the Aberdeen harbour atop its fishing boats and floating establishments, another exhilarating one through the dense tropical jungle that culminates in a literal cliff-hanger involving the aforementioned aircraft, and last but not least the perilous trek into Himiko's tomb full of hidden traps and life-and-death puzzles.
At the helm is Norwegian director Roar Uthaug, who's honed his craft in action thrillers on his home turf like 'The Wave' and 'Escape' and applies that sense of pace to sustain an energetic momentum from start to finish. Though the focus is no doubt on the Indiana Jones-style stunt pieces, one certainly hopes that Uthaug could have spent more time on developing its characters - not only are supporting ones like Lu Ren and Vogel hardly given much attention or thought, the fundamental turning point of Lara's transformation from plucky daughter to determined heroine comes off too abrupt - one moment she is pleading with her father to forget about his research, the next she is running through the forest back to Vogel's camp without breaking a sweat.
As valiant as the attempt may be to give Lara Croft a new breath of life, we suspect that 'Tomb Raider' is simply not distinguishing enough in a time when popular culture is saturated with real-life heroes and comic book superheroes. This Lara is certainly a lot more grounded than Jolie's two earlier incarnations were, but besides taking a narrative leaf from Nolan's 'Batman Begins', this origin story should definitely have learnt the depth of character work required to establish a compelling lead character. If you're just here for the action, you probably won't be disappointed, but it'll take a lot more for you to be enthused for a sequel, which the epilogue of the shadowy organisation Trinity and a pair of HK USP Match handguns all but suggests.
Zhuo yao ji 2 (2018)
Unless you fancy the irresistibly cute Wuba as worth the price of admission alone, this dull retread of the original is not worth the hunt
Despite picking up right after where the first film left off, 'Monster Hunt 2' still feels like a dull retread of its predecessor.
Once again, the irresistibly cute baby monster Wuba finds himself pursued by nefarious humans and demons alike, setting the stage for a showdown where his two human parents, Song Tianyin (Jing Boran) and Huo Xiaolan (Bai Baihe), will wage battle with those who seek to exploit him for their own selfish means.
One group pursuing Wuba is led by the veteran monster hunter Yun Qing (Yo Yang), through whom Tianyin and Xiaolan will learn of a Bureau of Monster Hunters where rogue demons that cause mischief and/or havoc upon humankind are kept in lockup. At first, the very addition of the Bureau seems like an attempt by returning director Raman Hui and his trio of writers - Alan Yuen, Chan Wing-sun and Su Liang - to expand the mythical world of medieval China that they had created in the first instalment. Alas, without giving anything away, let's just say that the lavish art direction by Hui's cross-cultural team (comprising of Li Jianwei, Guillaume Aretos and Yohei Taneda) is unfortunately wasted by the time Yun Qing and his Bureau henchmen's true identity is revealed, a twist that seems lazily transplanted from the earlier film.
Another group is led by the notorious gambler Tu Sigu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who wants Wuba as repayment for his debts to the female Boss Chu (Li Yuchun). By chance, Tu makes Wuba's acquaintance early on, but seeing no inherent value in the radish-like monster, kicks him off into the forest. Upon learning that Boss Chu is willing to release him from his debts, Tu sets off to search for Wuba, assisted by his loyal tubby monster assistant Ben-Ben. It is no surprise that he and Wuba will forge a connection during the course of the movie, so much so that he will have second thoughts about giving Wuba away to his creditor. Indeed, Wuba represents an amusing reckoning for the do-no-gooder whose relationships have been based on deceit and/or exploitation, and by the time the noisy CGI-heavy climax rolls along, Tu will have joined Tianyin and Xiaolan in protecting the son of the former monster king.
Compared to the original, the plotting here seems needlessly convoluted yet underdeveloped. We've already mentioned about how the Bureau is but a farce; ditto the scenes between Xiaolan and a smitten weapons craftsmith (Huang Lei) that the former meets at the Bureau, which serve little purpose than to get Tianyin jealous. Tu's redemption is a nice change, but too many scenes of his seem extended to pad out the duration of the movie - there are two throwaway scenes of him working in cahoots with monsters to cheat in a casino; there is another throwaway scene of Boss Chu forcing him to honour his agreement that he will marry her; and there is yet another two chase sequences through the narrow streets of Clear Water Town where most of the action takes place which sees him try to evade those he had just swindled at the casino. Tu's own character arc ends up taking more screen time than the hunt for Wuba itself, and although Tony Leung brings a delightfully wily charm to the movie, it simply makes the whole narrative even more distracted.
It doesn't help that Hui seems content to let his sequel be dominated by frenetic sequences, most of which are hardly as inspired as that in the first movie. Too much time is simply spent running around haphazardly, without proper regard of how to make these scenes episodes of inspired comic mayhem. One involving a magic show where Tu ends up on the chopping block and later on in a box where he is to be sawn in half is yet again symptomatic of how busy yet uninvolving the onscreen chaos tends to unfold. Even the climax offers no consolation, coming off tired, hectic and yet oddly tedious. The only bright spot is a screwball sequence somewhere in the middle that sees Ben-Ben troll Tu while he is meeting with Boss Chu by frightening Wuba, taking advantage of how anyone whom Wuba has spitted on gets to see in his moment of fright just what he is seeing, which also in return messes with Tianyin's attempt to get intimate with Tianyin.
To be frank, we were looking forward to 'Monster Hunt 2' only because of Wuba, and we're quite sure we aren't alone with that sentiment. Although the story still is ostensibly driven by Wuba, there are simply too many 'human' distractions that detract from what was the series' most endearing element. Oh yes, Wuba is still as adorable as ever, but it is also somewhat disappointing that there isn't any elaboration whatsoever on how he is intended to fulfil that prophecy of bridging the human and monster worlds. Instead, the filmmakers are content to simply let him spit more stuff out of his mouth like cannonballs or flail his arms about, while rehashing the same old shtick from the first movie. Even then, it is a lot less funny, a lot less engaging and a lot less entertaining this time round, and you'll probably do better to revisit the first movie than hunt down this sequel.
Xi you ji zhi nü er guo (2018)
Less an action fantasy than a fantasy romance, this third chapter of Soi Cheang's 'Monkey King' franchise sidelines its titular character as well as the mismatched travelling
Though Stephen Chow's 'Journey to the West' series has been the more buzzed-about one in the last few years, director Soi Cheang has been studiously building up his own 'Monkey King' franchise. The first chapter, which boasted a spirited turn by Donnie Yen as the titular Wukong who defied Chow Yun Fat's Jade Emperor, was nonetheless a huge disappointment because of its stilted storytelling and laughable CGI; but the sequel, which saw Aaron Kwok take over the golden staff (pun intended) with a more low-key but also more nuanced performance, was a marked improvement that benefited generously from Gong Li's devilish turn as the White Bone Demon. Not surprisingly, Kwok has agreed to reprise his role in this third chapter, although this time round he's been reduced to no more than a supporting act.
Whereas most, if not all, 'Monkey King' films have played on the dynamic between Wukong and his master Xuanzang, Cheang and his writer Wen Ning have placed the focus this time on Xuanzang (Feng Shaofeng) alone. Stumbling upon a kingdom populated only by women after an encounter with an unfriendly River God (revealed later on to be a vengeful god played by Lin Chi-ling), Xuanzang falls in love with its Queen (Zhao Liying), thereby presenting him with an apparent conundrum whether to forsake his religious calling to love all mankind. But perhaps more crucially, Xuanzang and his companions - Wukong, the pig demon Bajie (Xiao Shenyang), and the blue-skinned sand demon Wujing (Him Lo) - have to first escape execution directed by the kingdom's Empress Dowager-like Madam Perceptor (Gigi Leung), who is adamant that men are the worst poison to their kind.
Alas their attempt to escape is thwarted by an invisible, magical net around Womanland, though it's not difficult to guess that the key to penetrating the spell is none other than true love itself. It's also not difficult to guess that Xuanzang and the Queen will eventually discover that secret by their love for each other - a love that will quite literally see them 'through the sun and rain', as the couple are banished from the kingdom and forced to endure both elements in a wooden boat out at sea. Besides testing the mettle of their relationship, the voyage will also clarify Xuanzang's choice between the love of one (wo)man or the love of all sentient beings; although his decision should be obvious to most viewers, since it will take a lot of gumption for this movie to attempt a completely revisionist take on Wu Cheng'en's classic, and you can probably guess that it isn't nearly that bold.
To his credit, Cheang does undertake some brave moves for a Mainland-centric film. For one, its notion of a female-only land seen against China's male chauvinistic society is progressive to say the least, especially given its people's extremely dim and fatalistic view of the male gender. For another, it handles the subject of abortion with a certain cavalier, and some would say careless attitude - after his companions accidentally drink from a fertility spring known as the Motherhood River, Wukong approaches a cross-dressing hermit in the Miscarriage Cave to obtain its tears to terminate the unwanted pregnancies. And for yet another, it depicts an unrequited lesbian romance between a mortal and an androgynous spirit that at its most audacious has a scene with Gigi Leung and Lin Chi-ling locking lips.
But perhaps its most audacious choice is to attempt a genre switch in this third chapter that turns what used to be an action fantasy into a fantasy romance. Oh yes, if it isn't obvious by now, there are hardly any epic battle scenes to speak of; in fact, there are just two - one in the middle with two big scorpions, and the other right at the end with the bitter River God threatening to drown the entire Womanland. Whereas its predecessors took pride in crediting Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung as action directors, there is no one explicitly mentioned in that role here, which is just as well given how underwhelming these two sequences play out. Diminishing the amount of action in the film also further reduces Wukong's significance - after all, he is Xuanzang's bodyguard - and gives Kwok even less to do, and the same can be said of Bajie and Wujing too.
That is ultimately a pity, because these unlikely travel buddies have established quite some chemistry. Indeed, two of the most amusing scenes in the movie are thanks to their witty banter - the very opening scene that sees them making their way down a gentle river (before being rudely interrupted by the aforementioned River God) sees some funny back-and-forth about who had taken away Wukong's pants while he was bathing; and their very first attempted escape from lock-up in Womanland, as well as their subsequent interrogation, is a riotous hoot what with Wukong's impudence, Bajie's flirtatiousness and Wujing's masculinity on full display. Tempering cheekiness with conscience, Kwok has also revealed himself to be quite a fine Wukong, and sidelining his character here inadvertently makes the film much duller.
While it is understandable why Cheang has decided to make this third chapter tonally different from the earlier two, 'The Monkey King 3' is a lot less entertaining as a result. Its philosophical musings about true love are not quite so insightful, but more crucially, it hardly gives its more charismatic performers enough screen time. It may have seemed a timely choice given the momentum and publicity that the female empowerment movement has gathered of late to adapt the quartet's misadventures in Womanland for this movie, but in the grander scheme of their 'Journey to the West', this is at best an interesting sidenote and at worst an unnecessary detour. The ending hints at a fourth instalment set to tell the more well-known Fiery Mountain episode - and on hindsight, the franchise should probably have simply gone straight there than bothered to stop over here.
Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018)
As explosive and rousing a finale as you'd expect from the 'Maze Runner' series, this third and final chapter goes out on a literal and figurative bang
Next to 'The Hunger Games', 'Maze Runner' is probably the most successful of the numerous dystopian YA adaptations that have come in the wake of that Katniss phenomenon. Part of its success is its willingness to eschew socio-political allegory for straightforward action, and this final chapter is no different. It could dwell on issues of class injustice between those living within the city of gleaming skyscrapers and those living in the shantytowns below; or it could try to make a political statement by linking the massive, heavily fortified walls that surround the city to the current US President's pet project; and to some extent, it does flesh out the ethical conundrum of preserving the lives of an innocent few or sacrificing them for the greater good - but first and foremost, this is a thrilling, at times even rousing, action film charged with adrenaline-pumping and heart-wrenching moments.
True to its nature, it begins with a spectacular train rescue indebted to 'Mad Max: Fury Road'. While resistance fighters Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and Brenda (Rosa Salazar) distract the train drivers and their back-up air support, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) and resistance leader Vince (Barry Pepper) board the train from the back and attempt to de-couple the last five carriages from the rest of the locomotive. As much as they intend to save the young prisoners on board held captive by the evil quasi-governmental agency known as WCKD (pronounced 'wicked'), Dylan's motivation is really his previously apprehended comrade Minho (Lee Ki Hong). Alas the latter is not among those they successfully rescue - turns out he is already at WCKD's imposing headquarters in the middle of the walled-off burg termed 'The Last City', where he is subject to psychological experiments aimed at extracting a serum that would slow down a virus which turns its victims into zombies.
Those who recall the previous two chapters will remember that Thomas and his mates had escaped a monster-filled labyrinth known as The Glade, journeyed across a harsh desert wasteland called The Scorch, and had no sooner found reprieve when they were betrayed by one of their own Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). Though she was Thomas's love interest, Teresa was ultimately convinced by WCKD's chief scientist Ava Paige's (Patricia Clarkson) pleadings that these tests on those who have demonstrated immunity to the virus were necessary for the sake of the greater good. Not only has she not changed her mind, Teresa now consciously ignores her inner conscience and participates with Ava in Minho's torture - and although the story gives her the chance to redeem herself at the end, you'll still cheer what eventually befalls her (pun intended, for those who have read the book) as just deserts.
Much of the movie revolves around the subsequent daring mission to break Minho out from within The Last City, a protracted expedition that will lead Thomas into the orbit of a gruesomely scarred leader of the infected Lawrence (Walton Goggins) as well as a former Glade frenemy Gally (a delightfully sardonic Will Poulter) earlier presumed dead. What starts off as a low-key operation descends into all-out mayhem as Lawrence himself plans a full-scale revolt which erupts into open warfare even as the WCKD's soldiers, again led by the smarmy Janson (Aidan Gillen), try to re-capture the Immunes and apprehend Thomas and his fellow Gladers. This last hour goes from one action-packed sequence to another without catching a breath, but visual-effects-supervisor-turned-director Wes Ball stages the fireballs, street battles and close-quarter fisticuffs cum shootouts with clarity, confidence and creativity, so that as relentless as it gets, it is consistently exciting than exhausting to watch.
Including this one, Ball and his screenwriter T.S. Nowlin have shepherded the entire trilogy from print to screen and their affection for the characters is undoubtable and undimmed. Our personal sentiments for Teresa aside, Ball does a neat job setting up her motivations, complexities and uncertainties, leaving you guessing right till the end which side she will choose. He also handles Newt's arc deftly, and without giving anything away, let's just say book fans will be pleased by how that emotional turn of events is depicted as well as Brodie-Sangster's heartfelt portrayal. Ball deserves credit too for extracting a suitably charismatic performance from O'Brien, which makes Thomas a much more interesting lead than the unequivocal martyr-saint-hero he is in the book. But perhaps the most memorable of the teenage characters here is Gally, thanks to Poulter's perfectly-timed wisecracks, and Ball knows just when to employ him to break up the seriousness of the proceedings with some genuine levity.
So as clichéd as it may sound, 'The Death Cure' ends the 'Maze Runner' series on a bang - not just in terms of being a wall-to-wall explosive finale from start to finish but also by giving the characters a proper sendoff. Like we said at the start, this isn't and doesn't aspire to be the sort of intellectual science-fiction that 'The Hunger Games' is, but is in fact all the better for simply being a viscerally exhilarating picture with finely staged action and poignant (male) camaraderie. Unlike the occasionally soporific two-part conclusion of its more acclaimed genre predecessor, this one - to borrow a reference with cheek - indeed does catch fire.
The Commuter (2018)
Part Hitchcockian whodunnit and part white-knuckle thrills, 'The Commuter' overcomes what it lacks in logic with well-executed suspense and action
Hard to believe that it has been 10 years since Liam Neeson became an unexpected action star with the lean, spare but brutally effective thriller 'Taken', and in the decade that's passed cemented his late renaissance with well-executed B-movie fare like 'The A-Team', 'The Grey', 'Unknown', 'Non-Stop' and 'Run All Night'. The last three were also notable for being collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra, and the now 65-year-old has extended their team-up with 'The Commuter', which sees Serra further lay claim to a modern-day Alfred Hitchcock with a couple of high-wire scenes that would certainly make the latter proud.
As with before, there is a high-concept scenario at the heart of this deliberately old-fashioned thriller: an everyday insurance salesman Michael McCauley (Neeson) finds his routine evening commute back home from work disrupted by the enigmatic stranger Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who sits opposite him on the Metro-North train and offers him a hefty financial reward if he is able to spot someone on the train who isn't a familiar face. In order for Michael to be tempted in the first place, first-time screenwriters Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi set him up to lose his job on that same day, leaving him floundering over his two mortgages as well as tuition fees for his college-bound son - although because this is Neeson we're talking about, you know Michael will eventually do the right, honorable and even heroic thing.
To up the ante, Michael is only given slightly more than half an hour before the train reaches Cold Spring to find the individual he is told later on goes by the name of Prynne; and to raise the stakes, it turns out that Joanna has also held his wife and son hostage, both of whom she threatens to kill if Michael fails to complete his mission. True to his Hitchcockian ambition, Serra spins an intriguing web of mystery over most of the middle act, and there are at least three riveting questions that are teased. Who is Prynne? Who is Joanna and/or the people she is working with or for? And finally, what does Joanna want with Prynne? These in turn translate into solid character work for the proverbial strangers on the train whom Michael probes to locate his mark - among them a feisty college student (Florence Pugh), an arrogant Wall Street banker (Shazad Latif), an emotionally distraught nurse (Clara Lago), a tattooed bruiser (Roland Moller) and a taciturn teenager (Ella-Rae Smith).
Yet Serra is all too aware that a whodunnit in and of itself is unlikely to satiate a good proportion of his audience, who are here to watch Neeson engage in the sort of close-quarter fisticuffs a la 'Taken'. So in between playing detective, Michael also gets a couple of well-choregraphed brawls - one of them takes place in the confines between carriages, while another that is impressively done in a single take plays out over an entire carriage with everything from a gun, an ax, a guitar and seat cushions used as weapons. There is visibly concerted effort to keep these fight sequences real, so even though Neeson's character is revealed earlier on to be an ex-cop, the film doesn't (thankfully) use that as an excuse to gift him with "a very particular set of skills" to take down his opponents too easily, skilfully or neatly.
Like other locomotive-set thrillers, this one doesn't escape without the train in question going out of control and then literally off the rails. That it is well-staged is undeniable - not even some subpar CGI in some shots can detract from the sheer white-knuckle tension of seeing almost the whole train flip into the air - but this spectacle-fuelled conclusion arguably strains the credibility of the high-concept movie even further, and is therefore both better and worse off for it. Notwithstanding, Neeson remains through and through the film's emotional centre, conveying the frustration, helplessness and resolve of a regular guy who is trying to get his life back in control from those that have snatched it away from him. Lest we forget, this is a role that the thespian can easily do in his sleep, but Neeson still brings his considerable gravitas to bear.
Mind you, not all the gaps in the narrative will be filled in by the end (which seems to set up the possibility of a sequel) nor will some of the explanations pass muster under closer scrutiny. Still, a film like this isn't meant to be held up under such examination or intended to offer any more than solid B-movie guilty pleasures; on the latter count though, it does succeed brilliantly and beautifully by mixing classic Hitchcockian tension with adrenaline-pumping action. We dare say that it ranks among one of Neeson's best in his action oeuvre, and if you're in the mood for some pulpy thrills and suspense, then you'll definitely want to get on this train.
Insidious: The Last Key (2018)
Just as, if not worse, than the previous entry, this fourth chapter confirms that life is fast running out of the "Insidious" franchise
Few horror franchises have found life beyond their third chapter, and "Insidious" proves no different.
Picking up right after the events of "Insidious: Chapter 3", this fourth entry further (pun intended) explores the backstory of demonologist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), who was murdered in a memorable twist at the end of the first film. Here, Elise is first introduced as a young girl living in a foreboding two-storey house on the outskirts of a New Mexico prison in 1952 where her stern father (Josh Stewart) works as a prison guard. Turns out that Elise already had a gift (or curse, depending on which way you look at it) for seeing ghosts then, but when she disobeys her father's order to deny her paranormal abilities, he locks her in the basement. It is there she first encounters this movie's demon - a tall lanky beast with old-timey keys for fingers - and unknowingly unlocks a mysterious red door for the monster to cross over into our world.
Back in the present day, Elise receives a phone call from a stranger who asks for her help with the ghosts in his house. That house turns out to be her childhood home, and despite her initial reservations at literally revisiting past demons, she eventually musters up the courage to confront what she recognises she had previously unleashed. It helps that she isn't alone; thanks to the events in the last movie, she is now accompanied by a pair of dopey sidekicks Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell). To be sure, their signature high-tech gizmos aren't of much use (certainly much less than they were in the first two movies), so their presence is really as comic relief - like Tucker loves to repeat, "She's psychic; we're sidekick."
What distinguished "Insidious" from other haunted-house movies was its creation of 'The Further', a terrifying place between life and death that exists on a different realm from ours where evil spirits trapped not just the souls of the dead but also those who were able to project themselves astrally while asleep. Elise was established to be one such individual, and it isn't reasonable that she would quickly return to 'The Further' in order to seek out the entity which had terrorised her and is terrorising the house's current inhabitant as well as the spirits she sees around the property. But Whannell, who had written every one of the "Insidious" movies, has other intentions; in fact, the middle act sees Elise come face-to-face with a different real-life horror, which while well-intentioned, is not nearly as developed as it needs to be and is hardly as interesting as the ghouls of 'The Further'. Only in the final act does Elise finally return to that purgatory, but that homecoming is over too fast, too soon and too conveniently, almost as if it were simply an afterthought to form a narrative bridge into the first movie.
Even though the earlier 'Insidious' films had similarly spare scripts, they benefited from the taut direction of James Wan, who knew how to build perfectly good scares with icy dread. Unfortunately, series newcomer Adam Robitel doesn't quite have the same knack. Not only is he able to generate the same atmosphere as Wan did, Robitel often betrays his own lack of confidence by resorting to the sort of jump-cuts which quickly tire out. This being his sophomore feature, he also lacks the experience to properly smooth over the rough edges of Whannell's writing - in particular, the parts intended to be poignant, such as Elise's estrangement from her skittish younger brother Christian (Bruce Davison), come off feeling contrived and sit awkwardly with the rest of the parts designed to frighten.
Ultimately, it is Shaye who holds the rickety film together, portraying Elise with just the right balance of vulnerability and fearlessness. While it may seem opportunistic that the "Insidious" series goes down the same road as "The Conjuring" (by using the same parapsychologist(s) across its entries), Shaye very much holds her own as the film's septuagenarian heroine. That said, it is not quite nearly enough to reinvigorate the franchise itself, which seems imprisoned in its own creative limits and cannot quite go any further (that's another pun, fully intended). Perhaps its title is ominous of its fate, and even if 'The Last Key' isn't the last we hear of "Insidious", then the next chapter better have a much more compelling raison d'être.
Don Lee's macho yet suitably wry lead performance is worth the price of admission alone
With the real-life 'Heuksapa Incident' as backdrop, writer-director Kang Yun-sung makes an impressive feature filmmaking debut in the gritty yet colourfully entertaining crime thriller 'The Outlaws'. Like the 2007 gang turf war that took place in Seoul's notorious Garibong-dong district, Kang builds his film around the entry of ruthless Chinese gangsters who are not afraid to resort to brutal methods in order to muscle into the lucrative criminal underworld of moneylending, gambling and prostitution. Here, their leader is the pony-tailed Jang Chen (former boy-band singer Yoon Kye-sang), who in one of the opening scenes is seen demanding payment of two hundred thousand dollars upon a loan of just thirty thousand and then smashing the debtor's wrist when he pleads for leniency.
Jang is pitted against the tough but kind-hearted Ma Seok-do (Don Lee, otherwise known as Ma Dong-seok) of the Geumbong Police's Serious Crimes Unit - in contrast to Jang, Ma's introduction sees him first walk right up to two men during a knife fight on a public street in broad daylight while on his mobile phone and disarming them without even breaking a sweat. Rather than weed out the various factions of Chinese-Korean gangs who have taken root in the neighbourhood, Ma's approach has been to accommodate them by preserving the balance of power among them, even if it means getting them to sit down in the same room and hug it out as an early sequence involving two rival gangs Venom and Isu demonstrate. Obviously, Jang's entry upends that fragile peace, as the vicious former Changwon gangster takes care of the competition by either stabbing them to death (and disposing them in parts all over the district) or pitting the other gangs against one another.
Though the opening titles suggest some massive clean-up operation, what ensues is really a tactical play orchestrated by Detective Ma and his superior Captain Jeon (Choi Gwl-hwa), who are forced by their bosses to make a PR demonstration that they are in control lest cede charge of the situation to the Seoul Metropolitan Police's homicide department. Ma's plan involves getting the assistance of the local shopkeepers to collect ground intel on Jang's Black Dragon gang - although it does take some persuasion before they are willing to overcome fear of possible reprisal - culminating in a well-coordinated crackdown over the course of a single night to ensnare the entire gang, especially Jang, in one fell swoop. We might add too that viewers will get the pleasure of seeing Ma and Jang go mano-a-mano at each other, and that bruising sequence is as fierce as it is gratifying.
Not surprisingly, the storytelling largely follows the template of a procedural that sees Ma investigate the brutal murder of the Venom gang boss Ahn Sung-hee, following the latter's run-in with Jang over one of his associates' debt. In between, the narrative makes good room for character beats, such as the camaraderie between Ma and his men, the coming-of-age of the team's latest addition Hong-suk (Ha Joon), and Ma's quasi father-son relationship with a teenage boy running a snack cart along one of the district's busy pedestrian street. Through these scenes, Ma's uncompromisingly bad-ass but unmistakably sweet character rises above caricature, elevated by a textured performance by Lee of unexpected emotional heft. Compared to Ma, Jang isn't all that interesting at all, not least because the broad, flowing wig he wears comes off more an unnecessary distraction than some show of true unhinged menace.
On his part, writer-director Kang is just as deserving of credit for his grasp of authenticity. From the bar rooms to the BBQ restaurants to the back alleys and right down to the makeshift container that is Ma's office, each one of the settings feel vivid and real. Kang also eschews the usual stylized fight sequences for messy real-life brawls, and the result is satisfying old-school action that is right at home in a gritty crime picture like this. In fact, there is a lot to admire about what Kang has pulled off in his debut film, which makes up for what it somewhat lacks in narrative polish with sheer visceral realism. It also helps that Kang has a wry sense of humour, knowing exactly when to play it straight and when to inject some levity into the proceedings. Of course, through it all, Lee's larger-than-life lead role shines through, and 'The Outlaws' gets a whole lot more lively, engaging and affecting thanks to him.
Qimen Dunjia (2017)
Enjoyable enough but hardly hitting all the notes, this film would serve as good entertainment if you don't need to keep track of what's actually happening
There are a few stalwarts in the Hong Kong movie industry, and two of them are in this film.
Tsui Hark's hand in creating commercial cinema during the "Golden Age" is legendary. Both entertaining and original, his classics such as A Better Tomorrow, A Chinese Ghost Story and Green Snake have all been milestones of any Gen X's cinema experience.
Yuan Wo Ping is the other heavyweight, and is renowned for his martial arts choreography in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, Ip Man and the Matrix trilogy. His innovative sequences rejuvenated the genre, keeping audiences riveted with his fresh treatments.
The Thousand Faces of Dunjia sees them as producer and director respectively, so expectations can hardly be faulted. The scale doesn't disappoint because we transcend both galactively and spiritually spheres, but the storyline feels fragmented and occasionally aimless, and I think I know why. The fantasy action flick seems firmly handled with the F word in mind - I'm talking Franchise.
Let me first lay it out there - there is a sequel planned for this movie. That said, the film does provide closure with part one.
Dao Yichang (Aarif Lee) is the village's newest constable. The motivated young man, thick-browed and sharp jawed doesn't always play by the rules, but always does the right thing in the end. While fighting a criminal-turned-demon one day, he gets tangled up with Iron Dragonfly (Ni Ni), who subdues the imp and brings it back to her clan.
Turns out that an unspeakable evil force is gathering, and already demons both trapped in the earth and comets are emerging to prepare for its arrival. While this is happening, Dragonfly's Wuyinmen clan hunts for their new leader, and clansman Zhuge Fengyun (Da Peng) sees hope in the form of Xiao Yuan (Zhou Dong Yu), a child-like waif locked up in a prison for an incurable disease. This flimsy urchin turns out (expectedly) to be their potential salvation.
While the film has lofty goals, featuring stunning sets and a plethora of characters, it's not something that impresses all that much.
First of all, the plot feels like its setting up too much for the sequel, with story nuggets dropped but never picked up. Even when it does, such as the painting or the powerful sword, questions are still left unanswered. All this might be considered a purposeful cliffhanger, but it's only a metre drop down. Without background or context, the tidbits answered with more jargon just leaves the audience uninvested in what's coming. Maybe if Hark and Yuan had spent more time in fleshing out the story than focusing on distractions like piddling jokes or abrupt titles, The Thousand Faces of Dunjia would have had a better chance at being exceptional.
There's also the matter of - the effects. CGI has come a long way, and even though Asian cinema has always struggled, in The Thousand Faces of Dunjia it's like the whole team gave up. The renderings are so awkward with the scenes they are in, you never obtain the full wonder it's meant to deliver. Blasphemously, they also ruined a lot of great action sequences. Half blocked by water serpents masquerading as blows, or fuzzy discs that spin so fast you can barely see what's the damage, the impact meant to be delivered landed like an apology from SMRT - unbelievable and detached.
I will say the production design is still as gorgeous as ever, and the colours are trademark Tsui. Lush and romantic, it will no doubt still engage the visual senses. The actors also do a decent job of filling up their personas, though Lee and Da Peng do stand out for their natural performances.
Hark's recent repertoire have received more box office success than critical acclaim, and it would seem that The Thousand Faces of Dunjia would continue that streak.
Kuang shou (2017)
With brutal visceral fights thanks to Li Chung-chi's direction and Zhang Jin's superb execution, 'The Brink' delivers the action as a straightforward gritty crime thriller
It may not carry the 'SPL' brand name, but Jonathan Li's filmmaking debut would have fitted right in – not least because its action director Li Chung-chi was also responsible for the hard-hitting brawls in the middle instalment.
Here, both Lis have teamed up for a gritty crime thriller that uses the ocean and those who ply their trade in it as a unique thematic backdrop. At the heart of the story is a gold smuggling ring run by a crew of fishermen, masterminded by a Big Boss whose lair is a floating gambling cruise liner.
Among the crew is Jiang Gui Cheng (Shawn Yue), who early on the film is established as a cold-hearted mercenary. The adopted son of former ringleader Shui (Tai Po), Gui Cheng murders Shui's entitled son Sheng (Derek Tsang) by gutting him in front of his father after the latter tries to eliminate him. Shui gets to live a little longer only because he is the sole point of contact among the crew with Boss Kui (Yasuaki Kurata), and the former needs to locate Kui in order to ensure that he can properly usurp the lucrative illegal enterprise.
Pitted against Gui Cheng is the hot-headed cop Cheng Sai Gau (Zhang Jin), who in the film's opening minutes is seen taking down suspects like punching bags before letting one of them resisting arrest plunge several storeys to his death. Despite this, Sai Gau is supposed to be the film's moral centre, one whose ruthless ways are but service to a strict moral code that abhors greed and thinks that jail time is ultimately scant punishment for his accused's abhorrent acts.
Six months after getting suspended for unwittingly killing a fellow officer in the midst of that earlier drug bust, Sai Gau receives a tip from his erstwhile partner A-de (Wu Yue) about a possible smuggling operation at Ma Wan Village next to the sea, hence placing him in the crosshairs of Gui Cheng. Both are clearly pitted against each other as equals – or to be more precise equally aggressive – and what differentiates one from the other is simply which side of the law they are fighting on.
Like most such Hong Kong thrillers, the focus is on the elaborately choreographed action showpieces; and sure enough, they do not disappoint. From a one-against-many fight along a narrow alley, to a chase through a crowded indoor fish market in Jordan, to a one-on-one with a knife-wielding assassin in an open car park, to an underwater brawl, and last but not least a climactic three-way fight on board a fishing trawler in the middle of a raging storm, Li Chung-chi's direction keeps the action visceral and thrilling, complemented of course by Zhang Jin's martial arts prowess.
Oh yes, this is Zhang Jin's showcase through and through, the supporting star from 'The Grandmaster', 'SPL II: A Time for Consequences' and 'Ip Man 3' finally getting leading man status. To be sure, Zhang doesn't disappoint at all – not only in terms of his moves but also in the acting department, by carrying the more mawkish moments with surprising conviction. On the other hand, Yue fares less encouragingly playing against type as a stony-faced villain, coming across somewhat stiff and bored. It doesn't help that he isn't and is not depicted as Zhang Jin's fighting equal in the movie, relying instead on a pocket harpoon gun to do his killing and Janice Man's underdeveloped assassin/ girlfriend to bail him out time and again.
These flaws are made more glaringly obvious in a script by Li Chun Fai (who also penned Soi Cheang's 'Dog Eat Dog' on which Jonathan Li was assistant director) that is all too content to let the fights take centre stage. There is not much by way of plot except as filler in between the action, and what is there appears too patently obvious like genre clichés – you know that something bad will befall A-de when he keeps telling Sai Gau that he simply wants to lead a different life and go off to Europe on holiday; or that Sai Gau's boss Chan (Gordon Lam) whom he pays no heed to will eventually join forces with him but end up suffering some misfortune too. There is even less to say about characterisation or character development for that matter, especially given how clearly and perhaps simplistically the lines between hero (read: Sai Gau) and antagonist (read: Gui Cheng) are drawn.
And yet, if one simply focuses on the action, then there is little doubt that 'The Brink' does deliver. It deserves mention too that first-time director Li has a strong grasp of location setting, and together with veteran cinematographer Kenny Tse, makes great use of the grimy side of Hong Kong one wouldn't normally see (such as the remnants of its fishing trade and wet markets). It's not easy working with and on water, which only proves the effort Li and his crew took to get the underwater fight scene and the turbulent finale right. So even if the story and characters aren't as compelling as they could have been, fans of old-school action will still find a lot to love about this hard-hitting thriller. After all, in this day and age, such genre films are probably the hallmark of Hong Kong cinema.