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6/10
Lacking any narrative or character depth, this fast, frenetic and fleeting sequel - that bears no relation to the earlier movie - is strictly for popcorn viewing
11 July 2019
Though billed as a sequel to the 2013 crime thriller 'The White Storm', there is in fact very little which this movie shares with its predecessor, besides the fact that both revolve thematically around the war on drugs which entwines the lives of a group of convicted individuals. Yet it is not difficult to guess why Universe Entertainment, which is behind both films, had wanted the association - not only was it widely praised for the excellent performances by Sean Lau, Louis Koo and Nick Cheung, that movie also boasted director Benny Chan's signature high-octane action choreography, which was recognised as among the best that Hong Kong cinema had to offer in recent years.

Except for Koo, none of the other contributors return for this standalone sequel; instead, taking over from Chan is prolific director Herman Yau, whose 'Shock Wave' catapulted him from the B-leagues into big-budget filmmaking. Yau's collaborators from that earlier movie are also on board this similarly-sized undertaking, which sees writers Erica Lee and Eric Lee retain the narrative structure of Chan's original by setting its events around three males - here played by Andy Lau, Koo and Michael Miu - whose paths will intersect with fateful consequences.

Their ill-fated connection is established right from the beginning, with an extended prologue set in 2004 that shows how the sworn brotherhood between Yu Shun Tin (Andy Lau) and Dizang (Koo) is torn asunder when the former is forced by his uncle Yu Nam (Kent Cheng) - and head of their gang Ching Hing - to punish the latter for selling drugs at the nightclub he manages. Besides cutting off three of Dizang's fingers from his right hand, Shun Tin also calls the police to raid Dizang's premises, which results in an unfortunate operation that claims the life of Narcotics Bureau chief Lam Ching-fung's (Miu) wife and colleague.

Fast forward fifteen years later, Shun Tin has transformed into a financial whiz thanks to his wife and mentor (Karena Lam), while Dizang has grown to become one of the most powerful drug barons in Hong Kong. Alas Shun Tin's past life continues to haunt him, including a drug-addicted teenage son he never knew existed until his ex-girlfriend (Chrissie Chau) appeals for his help on her deathbed to take care of, which in turn fuels his present-day determination to take drastic measures against the four big drug lords in Hong Kong - which besides Koo's Dizang, are represented in guest appearances by MC Jin, Cherrie Ying and Jun Kung.

Though Shun Tin is very aware that his actions will eventually set him up on a collision course with Dizang, it will be some time before Dizang finds out that it is his former best friend who is behind the series of guerrilla raids on his goods and factories. If you've seen the trailer, you would know that their personal vendetta will culminate in Shun Tin offering a $100 million bounty on Dizang's life. Meanwhile, even as he is frustrated by how the known drug lords continue to evade the arm of the law, Fung continues to uphold the integrity of due process, which puts him at odds with Shun Tin's unorthodox (and perhaps unlawful) methods.

Like his most recent 'Shock Wave' and 'The Leakers', Yau keeps the pace fast, even frenetic, throughout the movie. To Yau's credit, the speediness of the storytelling doesn't come at the expense of coherence, so there is perfect logic and order in the way the proceedings are organised. At the same time, it also means, for the casual viewer, that there is hardly a dull moment to be found within the duration of the film; in fact, even though there are a couple of memorable action scenes within, you'd probably feel as if the entire movie were itself a 100-minute continuous action-packed sequence that hardly pauses for you to take a breath.

But equally, it isn't long before you realise that the sheer momentum comes at the expense of meaningful character motivation and development, so much so that you never at any point fully grasp or empathise with any one of the three main characters, much less the supporting ones. How does Shun Tin feel about losing a sworn brother? Is he at all conflicted about exploiting his wealth to take the law into his own hands? How does he reconcile his past life with his present? What does Dizang feel about Shun Tin's betrayal? What drives Fung, other than to uphold the law? Does Fung sympathise with Shun Tin or deplore his methods? As inevitable as these questions are, you'll quickly find that you'll have to cast them aside if you're going to enjoy the film for what it is worth.

And yes, once you forgo any expectation of narrative or character depth, you'll probably be able to appreciate the fleeting pleasures it offers. For one, the three male leads each bring their own charisma, chemistry and gravitas to their respective roles, with Lau further honing his characteristically stoic persona, Koo chewing up the scenery as a baddie and Miu rehashing the righteous cop role from his TVB past. For another, the action is glorious old-school Hong Kong style, with shootouts, car chases and even a climactic setpiece right inside the heart of the Central MTR station. And last but not least, there is also the thrill of seeing a who's who list of Hong Kong actors in this, including Carlos Chan, Michelle Wai, Cheung Kwok-cheng, Lam Ka-tung and Sam Lee in varying blink-and-miss cameos.

Given how unrelated they are, it is almost unfair to compare 'The White Storm 2' with the earlier movie, but between them, the original is probably the better one. Yet, like we've said, this economical thriller does offer simple and straightforward gratification, especially if you're in the mood for an undemanding action thriller. But anyone expecting the likes of 'Infernal Affairs' will most certainly be disappointed, for there is little to no attempt to develop any of the weighty themes of crime and justice within in any meaningful way. If there should be another sequel, we hope it is a lot less superficial than this storm in a teacup.
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5/10
Weak character work and a too-subdued performance by Charlene Choi, however bold by her tame standards, makes this drama about sexual liberation feel impotent
27 March 2019
Much has been said about Charlene Choi's bold performance in 'The Lady Improper', which not only sees her show more skin than you would expect from someone who used to pride herself on her squeaky-clean teenage idol image, but also has her engage in a passionate love-making scene on a kitchen table-top with her Taiwanese co-star Wu Kang-jen. Yet all that hype may end up working against Choi and the movie's favour by setting up somewhat unrealistic expectations of her performance, which while certainly audacious by the actress's own tame standards, will likely come off a lot milder than what her character as well as the movie needs it to be.

Chiefly, the movie demands that we believe in the character transformation of Siu Man (played by Choi), who starts off as a sexually repressed woman unable to consuumate her marriage to her ex-husband Kuen (Deep Ng), but whose psychological inhibitions gradually dissipate after she meets the free-spirited chef Jiahao (played by Wu). Neither state is however portrayed compellingly enough in the film, such that we never fully buy into why she was so uptight in the first place, and/or therefore how her interactions with Jiahao would set her on the path to sexual liberation, even with say some pole dancing added into the mix.

A significant part of why we can never invest completely in Siu Man is due to the imperfect script (co-written by director Tsang Tsui-shan and Link Sng), which fails to find a clear raison d'etre to Siu Man's state of mind in the first place. There are late hints to how she had a very strict upbringing by her father Ping (veteran martial arts actor Lau Wing) after losing her mother at a young age, but not quite enough texture to their father-daughter relationship for us to be convinced how that has led her to be so high-strung. Similarly, it isn't clear why she seems unable to fully give herself to Kuen despite being in love with him, especially given how she seems to want him back badly enough at the start to beg him for a second chance with a mechanical dildo.

On the other hand, Siu Man's relationship with Jiahao comes off muddled, leaving us unsure just why he will be the one to unleash her passions. Is it because she is physically attracted to him? Or because she outwardly mocks, but inwardly admires, his happy-go-lucky attitude? Or is she grateful to him for rescuing her father's 'cha chaan teng' business by whipping up the restaurant's former signature dishes of Hakka-style pork belly and traditional steamed tofu? Or perhaps she is also jealous of the attractive lady (Ashina Kwok) selling ginger at the local market whom Jiahao flirts with, and whom she observes Jiahao having sex with on the kitchen stove? Whether it is one or a combination of these reasons, their relationship needs sharper definition, in order for us to be persuaded why Jiahao is her sexual elixir.

It doesn't help that the story introduces an unnecessary supporting character next to Siu Man and Jiahao in Ah Him (Alex Lam), a regular at the 'cha chaan teng' restaurant who has a big crush on Siu Man and whom she agrees to go out. Not only is Ah Him a clumsily sketched caricature, it is more than a little cruel that she seems to hook up with him just to spite Jiahao, and breaks up with him after he proves too conservative to accept her pole dancing routine. Oh yes, the movie would have been much better served simply focusing on the attraction between Siu Man and Jiahao, so as to give some much-needed clarity just what each means to the other.

To make up for the narrative deficiencies would have needed an out-and-out candid performance by the lead actress, and it is in this regard that Choi's acting, however audacious by her own standards, is still not daring enough to save the movie. Indeed, Choi is not only too restrained in displaying Siu Man's repressions at the start, but also too muted to convince us that she is both physically and emotionally liberated by the end. At the risk of sounding lewd, Choi would need to really let go for us to be captivated by her character transformation, and her discomfort at going all out both physically and emotionally (which she herself has said in numerous media interviews) dulls what should be a gripping portrait of female emancipation.

So as much as she has been the selling point of 'The Lady Improper', Choi is also the reason why the movie with its flaws and all isn't as compelling as it should be. Like we said, such a character-driven story needs tighter and sharper scripting, in order to define the central characters better as well as their focal relationship. But equally, Choi should either have chosen to strip away her own inhibitions completely or stepped away from the role, rather than end up in a 'middle ground' that is too subdued for the film's good. As it is, both the movie and her character come off less improper than impotent, and will leave you unmoved, unconvinced and unsatisfied.
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4/10
Contrary to its title, there is nothing worth treasuring, or even remembering, about this string of lame gags that wastes the sheer amount of Hong Kong veteran talent here
15 February 2019
Arriving a little later than the bumper crop of Lunar New Year titles last week, 'A Lifetime Treasure' wraps a well-intentioned message about treasuring the elderly around some less-than-inspired scenes of nonsensical humour. Directed and co-written by Andrew Lam Man-chung, the basic premise of the comedy-drama sees the five residents of a nursing home teaming up with their superintendent (played by Lam himself) to thwart the efforts of a mobster Rainy Hung (Lam Suet) who wants to take over and redevelop the place. Whether these five residents succeed in their quest to preserve their On Hei Nursing Home is a foregone conclusion, especially how this is ultimately a Lunar New Year title meant to leave its audience feeling merry.

In what is undoubtedly five strokes of casting gold, Lam has enlisted Hong Kong cinema veterans Sammo Hung, Teddy Robin, Bruce Leung, Richard Ng and Tien Niu as the elderly quintet of the nursing home. Watching these veterans ribbing each other while hamming it up in their respective roles should be an absolute riot, what with Hung as the world's greatest detective still obsessed over a thirty-year-old case of a golden pig figurine that he never solved, Robin as a master thief who likes to be called by his English name Ben Chow, Ng as a former ace swimmer dubbed 'wind-on-the-water', Leung as a former intelligence operative known as the 'wind listener', and Niu as a former singing diva. Naturally, these five individuals are each still enamoured with their previous glories, while at the same time more than happy to mock their other four companions for doing so.

Indeed, it would be logical to expect that Lam would build his movie around these five seemingly unique individuals, but alas you'll quickly find out that it isn't to be. Oh yes, the emphasis here is instead on Hung's two lackeys Chun (Louis Cheung) and Lok (Bob Lam), who are despatched to intimidate the residents and/or force the closure of the facility. As you may expect, Chun and Lok find themselves outwitted by the surprisingly resourceful bunch; not only that, both will also have their conscience pricked, so much so that they will end up assisting the old folks to launch a counter-offensive against their former boss - oh, and the fact that Lok has a crush on the home's one and only tenacious nurse Ching (Ivana Wong) might have something to do with why he has a change of heart.

Yet Lam does none of his characters little justice by burying them amidst a string of inane gags, which are so lackadaisically conceived you'd wonder if they were made up on the set. One extended sequence has the five elders cast as zombies in a scene for a B-grade movie named 'Zombie Bathrobe', where they proceed on the set to ogle over buxom actress Xenia Chong clad in a bikini. Another extended one has them breaking into Hung's office to steal a contract that would determine the fate of their nursing home, complete with a spoof scene straight out of 'Mission: Impossible' and another dramatically exaggerated one where Ng is shot by a tennis-ball cannon. And yet another has Leung suddenly transforming into a kung-fu master, just so he can have a one-on-one with 'The Legend is Born: Ip Man's' Dennis To.

You'll be hard-pressed to find any truly inspired moments, especially given how the movie seems perfectly content to trade in silly, childish and even crass humour. As paradoxical as it may sound, it still takes wit to engineer some truly nonsensical 'mo lei tau' jokes, which is sorely absent here. And just like that, Lam pretty much squanders the talent of the ensemble cast he has assembled here - not only do Cheung and Lam find themselves with little to work with, the five veterans come up equally bereft, often clearly resorting to improvisation just to fill up their scenes. If Lam's writing falls short, his directing is just as lacking, failing to stitch up the string of gags into a coherent or engaging whole.

Not even a late poignant finish can save this limp movie, which gathers a to-die-for cast for a Lunar New Year movie and leaves them floundering. Like we said at the start, there is a noble lesson here on treating the elderly as treasure, but that is unfortunately lost amidst a clumsy collection of unfunny scenes. Among the Lunar New Year titles we've seen this year, we dare say this is the worst of the lot, which probably explains why it didn't manage much of a reception even in its home territory. There is frankly little to cherish here, even if we wanted to be generous to it, so save your 'ang pow' money for something better worth your treasure.
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Integrity (2019)
6/10
A strong and intriguing setup ultimately undermined by some ludicrous narrative twists, 'Integrity' starts with a bang and ends with a whimper
7 February 2019
Despite being billed as hailing from the writing-directing duo of 'Infernal Affairs', 'Integrity' is - like 'Project Gutenberg' - pretty much a solo effort by one-half of the duo. And like the latter, it is only half as good as their seminal trilogy, despite a star-studded cast that includes Sean Lau, Nick Cheung, Karena Lam, Anita Yuen and Alex Fong. Oh yes, even with such solid performances by these Hong Kong veterans, this crime thriller ultimately falls apart, no thanks to some ludicrous narrative twists in the last third that completely undermines whatever measure of suspense the movie had built up before.

To writer-director Alan Mak's credit, it is a genuinely promising setup for a film meant as the start of a trilogy. Sequestered in a hotel room is the whistle-blower Jack (Cheung), who is the prosecution's key witness in a high-profile case of tobacco smuggling and bribery. Despite reassurance from the ICAC's chief investigator King (Lau), Jack is still spooked that his life might be in danger, and flees to Sydney just before he is due to testify in court. So King's boss Ma (Alex Fong) sends fellow ICAC investigator Shirley (Lam) - who happens to be King's estranged wife - to Sydney to persuade Jack to return, while asking King to remain in Hong Kong to follow up on a couple of new leads in the same case.

As it turns out, the first defendant Chan has also vanished along with his wife and kids, such that King suspects the entire fiasco may be masterminded by the puppet master code-named Alpha Leader behind the entire illegal operation. To inject some urgency into the proceedings, the presiding judge agrees to postpone the trial only for a week, giving King just seven days to find Chan and Shirley the same to convince Jack to return to Hong Kong. That becomes impetus for King to trick the case's other defendant Chung (Yuen) into signing a plea agreement to be the prosecution's witness, in order to extract important information on how the whole smuggling cum money laundering enterprise is run.

At least for the first hour, Mak maintains a taut air of intrigue putting in place the various pieces of the puzzle. How far does Alpha Leader's reach extend to? Will he get to Chan before King does? Will he get to Jack before he is able to testify? Or is there more to Jack than meets the eye? Will Shirley therefore be in danger as well? It is not easy to set up such an elaborate tease, and Mak juggles all these elements deftly enough for you to be hooked into the mystery. Undeniably, the actors play their parts beautifully too, with Lau as an assertive but ethically questionable leader, Cheung as an indecipherable poker face and Lam as a tough but warm foil to both men.

Alas anyone hoping for a satisfying answer to any of the aforementioned questions will likely be disappointed. Mak, whose forte is less in writing than in directing, quite absolutely botches the ensuing twists in the story. For reasons not quite unexplained, Alpha Leader's restraint suddenly turns into ruthlessness, ordering not only Jack's kidnapping but also the elimination of almost everyone who has anything to do with the case. But most significantly, Mak engineers a personal connection between King and Jack which feels utterly contrived, and is only made worse in the final few moments when that relationship draws in two individuals whom we were led to believe were sent by Alpha Leader to follow Jack.

Without giving any more away, let's just say that Mak tries too hard to surprise his audience, and with each unfortunate revelation only succeeds in draining his film of whatever goodwill he had built up at the start - which not even the nostalgic sight of both Lau and Cheung in their younger days can quite compensate for. It says a lot when what is supposed to be the tease of the next film leaves us greeting the inevitable next chapter with more trepidation than anticipation, but that is precisely how you'd feel by the time Mak confirms that Jack is as duplicitous as we'd suspected.

Mak is also not quite as skilful a director to overcome his own screenwriting flaws, so much so that the last third comes off both overstuffed and under-developed at the same time. As a result, the pacing also suffers, taking the air out of a tightly wound atmosphere as it careens towards an improbable and unbelievable finish. Not even the two obligatory but superfluous action scenes he stuffs in at this point - including a short vehicular chase inside a carpark and a brief assassination on the slopes of a skiing resort - manages to be distracting enough, seeing as how they are poorly choreographed and hardly exciting.

Frankly, going by both 'Gutenberg' and 'Integrity', it really wouldn't hurt for Mak and his other moviemaking half Felix Chong to settle for more straightforward storytelling. Not every movie needs have a bombshell ending, not least if it requires such a substantive leap of logic that it ends up undermining the whole film. Those looking for a fairly engrossing two hours to spend this Lunar New Year will probably still find this a captivating enough diversion, especially to watch both Lau and Cheung chew up the scenery, but it is no understatement to say that it is no 'Infernal Affairs'. Like we said, it starts strong but ends with a whimper, so do keep your expectations well in check.
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5/10
Nowhere near as funny, but twice as melodramatic, as the original, Stephen Chow's remake of one of his own classics is a dull, pointless retread
6 February 2019
Twenty years after he turned his trials and tribulations as an aspiring actor into a movie, Stephen Chow remakes his own 'The King of Comedy' with a whole new Mainland cast to decidedly mixed results. Not only does he fail to convince just why a remake was necessary in the first place, this new edition is inferior in almost every respect, so much so that we dare say you're better off seeking out its predecessor on Youtube (than watching this obvious clone intended strictly for the lucrative Mainland audience).

In place of himself, Chow has here cast relative newbie Vin E in the leading role of a passionate but unlucky actress named Dreamy toiling it out in the moviemaking industry while hoping to catch her big break. Like that which Chow played in the 1998 original, Dreamy endures countless rounds of humiliation from almost everyone on the set, including the director/ assistant director(s) who wonders why she insists on asking so many details about the throwaway roles she plays, the lead actor/ actress who laments she is wasting their time with her unnecessary questions, and even the on-the-set meal person who thinks she is there just for a free lunchbox.

If that last bit sounds familiar, that's because it was a recurring joke in the original, which starred then-Chow regular Ng Man-tat as a misanthropic who was seen consistently denying Chow's character his lunchbox. Even if we're willing to give Chow the benefit of the doubt that he's included the same plot element for nostalgic reasons, we're quite sure that we cannot say the same of the rest of the movie, which finds him again milking 'mo lei tau' humour out of the scenes where our earnest but oblivious aspirant is cast as a thankless extra.

Instead of a John Woo-like action movie where Karen Mok is the lead, the production here is a family-friendly Lunar New Year comedy entitled 'Snow White: Bloodbath in Chinatown' starring Wang Baoqiang's washed-up movie star Marco. In one of the scenes, Dreamy is cast as a stand-in for the evil witch for the movie after undergoing a botched plastic surgery op that causes her to have a pointy nose and chin, and is made to endure a beating by the seven dwarves; and in another, she is tricked into playing a vengeful ghost back to haunt Marco, in order that the director may capture a genuine look of fear on the latter's face which seems painfully out of his very limited range.

As surprising as it may sound, that is as amusing as the movie gets, unless you include a sequence where Dreamy insists on keeping her prop of an ax on top of her head while attending her father's (Zhang Qi) birthday dinner. Whether intended or otherwise, the scenes on the production of the aforementioned fake movie that see the vain and irascible Marco trying but flailing to act are not funny by any measure, not least because Wang's egoistical character is so annoying you'd just want to smack him. Oh yes, we're not quite sure if Chow meant for Marco to be a hilarious caricature, but we find little humour in his character at all.

And therefore if you, like us, stepped in hoping for some good-old Stephen Chow comedy, we can guarantee you that you'd be utterly disappointed. Not only does Vin E hardly come close to capturing the same sort of charming naivety which Chow evoked in the original, there are very few scenes that are anywhere near as entertaining, even as some of them are clearly recycled from the same formula. Yet it isn't quite as simple that Chow has simply lost his comedic mojo; rather, continuing a a trend from his most recent movies such as 'Journey to the West' and 'The Mermaid', Chow seems to have simply traded laughter for emotion and/or drama.

So instead of finding humour in Dreamy's struggles, Chow chooses to play up Dreamy's determination as she overcomes one obstacle after another in order to chase her dreams of being a movie star. Besides all that humiliation we've described, she'll have to blink through her roommate Xiaomi (Jing Ruyang) getting her big break after being talent spotted on the street. She'll have to look past her father's virulent objections against her choice of career, although both parents secretly look out for her behind her back. And last but not least, she'll have to endure the heartbreak of her boyfriend Charlie's (Zhang Quandan) infidelity, with whom she had even planned to settle down with. Chow's message to 'work hard and persevere' is scrawled in his handwriting on some of the versions of the movie poster, and it is this he chooses to emphasise in the movie.

Yet as well-intentioned as it may be, we can't say that we were particularly moved, not least because the farcical tone of the abuse she has to withstand somehow diminishes the realism of the circumstances that we are supposed to empathise that she is in. To be sure, Chow's own original also tried to portray his character's unblinking dedication to craft, but it went down a lot better with his own signature brand of humour. Without the wit, and with a much heavier hand, the drama here unfortunately falls flat, and the movie ends up being a lot less entertaining than its predecessor was.

Truth be told, 'The New King of Comedy' is a wholly unnecessary remake. After his string of VFX-heavy blockbusters, many of Chow's fans - like us - were hoping that this movie would see him return to his early roots finding humour and heart in ordinary people. Yet if this pointless retread is a portend of what that return might look like, we'd much rather watch reruns on TV than sit through one-and-a-half hours of half-baked humour and cringe-worthy melodrama. Surely someone who was once feted as the king of comedy can do much, much better than this?
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6/10
It's made for the kids for the Lunar New Year season, and as long as they love it, who are we to say otherwise?
5 February 2019
It is testament to the popularity of Peppa Pig in Mainland China that it is getting its first big-screen feature tailor-made for the Lunar New Year holidays, and to those worried that the character might not survive the cultural crossover well, we'd like to reassure you that it is as authentic a treatment as you'd probably imagine.

Oh yes, the parts with Peppa, her brother George and her parents Mommy and Daddy Pig are for the most part comfortingly similar to that of the cartoons on TV, except of course that they are now in Mandarin than English. Among them, there's one with Peppa visiting the kids' carnival for a camping trip that turns into a muddy delight (if you know your Peppa, you know that means jumping up and down in muddy puddles); another with Gerald Giraffe as a new student in Peppa's class with her teacher Madame Gazelle, but feeling a little left out from the rest because of his height; yet another with Grandpa Pig showing off his toy aeroplanes when Peppa and George go over to visit; and last but not least, Peppa and her family taking a trip around the world to visit her friends Danny Dog, Suzy Sheep and Pedro Pony who are also on vacation.

Yet while there is little sign that the creators of Peppa Pig have decided to sell out their character, it would be remiss if they didn't at least acknowledge the cultural context of her big-screen debut. Most significantly therefore, Peppa's concluding segment sees her celebrating the Lunar New Year with her friends and learning the traditions associated with the festival, such as spring cleaning, dragon dance and firecrackers. There is one more segment that sees two new classmates, Peggi and Pandora, joining Peppa's class, and let's just say it is no coincidence that both are panda twins whose father happens to be Police Officer Panda.

If it isn't yet obvious, 'Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year' is less a feature-length version of Peppa's adventures than a loose collection of the usual Saturday morning shorts, strung together loosely by a live-action modern-day story of a family on the eve of the New Year. In a clear parallel to Peppa's family, this real life one comprises an older girl Tang Yuan, her younger brother Jiaozi and their parents. Jiaozi is especially fond of Peppa Pig, thus creating a convenient narrative bridge into the occasional animated segments. Instead of heading to their paternal grandparents' place, their maternal grandparents are coming over to visit this year, but comic hilarity (supposedly) ensues when both sets of grandparents decide to show up.

Amidst paper cutting and dumpling making, both grandmothers will seemingly compete for the affections and attention of their grandchildren. But you should know better than to expect some all-out rivalry between the two elderly women, given how this is meant to be a family-friendly - or more accurately, child-friendly - movie after all. For every potential misgiving, there is always a song-and-dance number to defuse the tension, so get ready for no less than five live-action musical sequences. Indeed, director and co-writer Zhang Dapeng has fun turning almost anything into a song, including the two aforementioned activities, a squeezy minibus ride, spring cleaning, and even a visit to the toy shop.

Truth be told, the whole film feels completely episodic, and the start-stop nature of the storytelling makes it feel draggy and even tedious for anyone above the age of ten. Yet if you're even thinking about watching this, it is probably because your younger kids love Peppa Pig; and if so, we dare guarantee that they will be entertained, and even excited for the Lunar New Year festivities. This is through and through intended for them, so there is really no point judging the movie on any other measure, lest of course you were one of them disaffected millennials in China who misappropriated Peppa as a symbol of slacker culture. But we digress - if you have a child that loves Peppa, take them by all means and let them enjoy this East-West fusion; otherwise, you probably wouldn't and shouldn't bother about this movie anyways.
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Glass (2019)
8/10
Fascinatingly intriguing and immensely satisfying, this psychological thriller that both deconstructs and reinvents superhero mythology is one of M. Night Shyamalan's best
17 January 2019
Far more than being a gripping psychological horror, 'Split' will best remembered for its shocking final moments, which revealed it to be a standalone sequel to its writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's 2000 superhero drama 'Unbreakable'. Those moments had therefore also set the stage for his latest film, named after the remaining member of the triumvirate yet to have a movie in his reference.

But frankly, if you didn't already know that, you'll likely find 'Glass' confusing, even frustrating - unlike the last two movies of his interconnected trilogy, this is intended as continuation of both storylines, and Shyamalan makes no apologies for not restating the context leading up to the meeting of these three unique personalities.

At the risk of stating the obvious, these are: Bruce Willis' David Dunn, the so-called 'unbreakable' human who discovered that he possessed superhuman strength and invulnerability; James McAvoy's Kevin Wendell Crumb, a serial kidnapper with dissociative identity disorder and a couple dozen 'split' personalities, including a murderous one known as 'The Beast'; and last but not least Samuel L. Jackson's Elijah Price, a devotee of comics literature whose struggle with his rare genetic disorder of osteogenesis imperfecta (i.e. his bones break easily, like 'glass') has made him convinced that his place in life is to be the very antithesis of superheroes.

Through the engineering of psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), they find themselves imprisoned at the same institute for the criminally insane. According to Dr. Staple, she has three days to cure what she terms their 'delusions of grandeur', failing which they will be trialled and probably put away for life.

Much of the movie therefore takes place within the confines of the hospital where our three leads are locked away, with a good first hour at least spent watching Dr. Staple's therapy sessions with them. Though the routine isn't as fresh as before, there's no denying that watching McAvoy shift abruptly from one persona to another continues to be fascinating, especially how they respond to Dr. Staple's therapy. In comparison, Willis' David remains largely subdued, as if both sceptical and hopeful that Dr. Staple will put things right with Kevin; on the other hand, Jackson's Elijah appears to have regressed into a catatonic state, showing little expression beyond twitching his facial muscles.

But there is good reason why the movie is titled after Jackson's character, so you really should not be surprised when Elijah snaps out of his stupor to put the finishing touches on his nefarious plan. Oh yes, like he revealed at the end of 'Unbreakable', Elijah is a master manipulator with his own designs for the world. Whereas his string of terrorist acts were intended in 'Unbreakable' at proving the existence of those who were indestructible, Elijah now wants the world to see that superheroes and arch-villains do exist, and sets out to free both David and Kevin so they can duke it out in public.

If you know Shyamalan, you'll know better than to expect that things are as simple or straightforward than they first seem, so rest assured that we haven't at all spoiled the movie for you; in fact, we'll even let you know that there are at least two or three major twists in the second half of the movie alone, leading up to a shocking conclusion that all but sets the stage for an exciting new chapter.

Lest you recoil at the very notion of Shyamalan's so-called 'twist ending', we'd say this - before he turned his own technique into a laughable gimmick, it did actually stand for something, and this one here is as good as that in 'Signs' or even 'The Sixth Sense'. At his best, Shyamalan has proven himself to be a master storyteller, and 'Glass' finds him at his world-building best.

Like 'Unbreakable', 'Glass' finds him deconstructing superhero mythology through Elijah's obsession with comic book lore; yet beyond drawing parallels between the characters and classic superhero archetypes, his most intriguing conceit here is that of pain as a form of cleansing that opens the door for those who are "broken" to acquire superhuman powers. Sure, the dialogue may tend towards the pedantic at times, but Shyamalan's singular vision and view of the superhero construct is unmistakably bold and fascinating to behold.

It is also brought to fruition by a trio of excellent actors that highlight their characters' contrasting nature with alacrity. Call it showboating if you want, but it is no small feat making a showstopper of each one of 23 different personalities - including a nurturing older woman named Patricia, a lisping eternal 9-year-old boy named Hedwig, a pair of Irish twins and even a pompous professor of Japanese cinema - and that is what McAvoy does. Whereas Kevin is violent and unstable, David is strong and sceptical, and Willis continues to underplay the role as he did in 'Unbreakable'. And then of course there is Jackson, who is deliciously sinister as the delicate but deadly Elijah, a more fully formed villain than most of those in the Marvel or DC movies so far.

Much as we were wowed by 'Glass', we'd be naïve not to recognise that there'll be those who think it pretentiously meta. Lovers or haters aside, Shyamalan has always been a divisive filmmaker, and this is no different. In part, we were half fearing a bomb like 'After Earth' or 'The Happening' after the deluge of negative critic reviews, so we were pleasantly surprised by how brilliantly clever and original it turned out to be.

We'd also caution you not to expect a typical superhero movie complete with a grand action-packed climax - not only are there enough Marvel and DC movies for that, 'Glass' was always intended to be more of a psychological thriller. Yet it is precisely this cerebral quality that sets it apart as a truly original piece from an auteur, and we're thrilled to see where Shyamalan takes his universe of world-savers and evil-doers to next.
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9/10
Overflowing with wit, verve and inventiveness, this latest Spider-Man reboot expands the Spider-Verse in visually dazzling and hilariously self-referential ways
7 December 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Before you groan that 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' is yet another origin story on the titular superhero, let us reassure you that this animated action-comedy from the irreverent minds which brought you 'The LEGO Movie' is like no other origin story you've seen.

And truly we mean that in a good, even great way: producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, together with a trio of directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman), have completely embraced the freedom that the animated genre provides in adapting the array of comic books of the Spider-Man canon. Untethered from the sort of realism that live-action movies are bound to, they have instead created a film with an ultra-stylistic, hyper-kinetic, over-caffeinated aesthetic that is visually dazzling in its own right.

Amalgamating Ben-Ray dots, hand-drawn effects and soft-focus backgrounds (reminiscent of the old non-polarised 3D movies with blurry red and blue edges), with a deliberately stilted frame-rate and signature comic-book elements of panelisation and dialogue boxes, it is probably the closest we've come to see of a comic recreated in motion. To be sure, it does get a little over-indulgent at times; in particular, the retina-searing finale that takes place inside a universe-collapsing subterranean device resembles what you may get within an overly aggressive lava lamp, playing like the most sustained stream of vibrant psychedelia we've ever recalled seeing. It's breath-taking all right, even breathless at some points, but there is no denying the imagination and originality that is on display.

The same can be said of Lord's script, co-written with Rothman, that boldly imagines a formula-busting origin story with a potent emotional core. At the centre of it is the character of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn Afro-Latino teenager having trouble adjusting to life inside a new elite boarding school. Miles, who first appeared in the comic seven years ago from writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, has had great expectations thrust upon him by his NYPD cop-father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and nurse-mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez), but prefers hanging out with his father's estranged brother Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) graffitiing the subways.

In Miles' version of New York City, Peter Parker's Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) is a well-established community hero/ vigilante, but Miles realises that Peter's powers aren't quite that exclusive when he himself is bitten by a radioactive spider. Unfortunately, before Peter can teach Miles how to properly navigate his newfound powers, the former is killed while trying to stop the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) from using his nuclear super-collider from ripping a gash in the space-time continuum and causing several alternate universes to collapse onto the present.

Thankfully for Miles, that same machine also opens up portals in other parallel universes, pulling in several alternate Spider-People into his universe. These include a paunchy, washed-up 40-year-old Peter Parker (Johnson again); the graceful, ass-kicking and too-cool-for-school Spider-Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld); the hard-boiled, black-and-white Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage); the cartoonish Peter Porker a.k.a. Spider-Ham (John Mulaney); and last but not least, the anime-inspired Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her arachno-droid SP//dr.

Even with upwards of seven Spider-beings and five bad guys (besides the Kingpin, there is also Doc Ock, Prowler, Tombstone and Scorpion in the rogues' gallery), the movie never comes off overstuffed, thanks to a surprisingly poignant relationship between Miles and Peter.

Ultimately, this is Miles' coming-of-age story that sees him struggling to step up to the mantle in order to save the world. Next to Miles, the curmudgeonly Peter is both his foil and his mentor, and their relationship is the heart and soul of the movie. In fact, they anchor some of the best sequences in the movie: their first encounter which finds both of them bound and dragged by a subway train through the streets of New York is both exciting and hilarious; and Peter's lesson to Miles how to web-swing through from tree to tree in upstate New York while being chased by Doc Ock is also both exhilarating and joyous to watch.

Yet we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' does sometimes veer into excess. As unapologetically self-referential as it is, its self-awareness sometimes proves too clever for its own good, tipping so far into fan service that it comes off rather self-indulgent. It is also guilty of resorting to the same superhero comic-book clichés that it pokes a postmodern finger at, most notably how the key to disarming the Kingpin's supercollider is a simple USB device. And there is so much going on that certain emotional notes do not ring as loudly as they should, and that is especially true of the family triangle comprising Miles, his cop dad and his cool uncle that feels less fleshed out than it should be.

Even so, this is one of the most original superhero origin stories we've seen in a very long while, and that alone says a lot for a character like Spider-Man which has seen no less than three reboots over the past few years. With this high-concept animated movie, Sony has finally moved on from Peter Parker in a manner that acknowledges his significance and expand the Spider-Verse in fresh and exciting ways. Credit to that belongs very much to Lord and Miller, whose sensibilities are all over the movie, ranging from its witty quips to its breakneck pace to its meta-textual treatment.

Fans of the Spider-Man comics will quite surely love it to bits, but there is also plenty for the casual viewer to enjoy in this fast, funny and thrilling piece of definitive pop-culture. It is brilliant all right, and we dare say one of the best Spider-Man movies ever made.
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6/10
Visually spectacular but otherwise narratively clunky, the impressive world-building cannot make it for its lack thereof in plot and character-building
7 December 2018
Peter Jackson has been at the front and centre of the promotional campaign for 'Mortal Engines', the first in a series of four YA novels by British author Philip Reeve, so much so that you might think that he is its filmmaker in the same way as 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit' trilogies. But despite being a passion project of his, Jackson is only its co-writer and co-producer, having handed directorial duties to his long-time VFX artist-collaborator Christian Rivers. That distinction pretty much explains why the movie is what it is - visually spectacular from start to finish, but in both plotting and characterisation, as clunky as some of the second-, even third-rate, steampunk metropolises that we see in the film.

Oh yes, to say that 'Mortal Engines' looks gorgeous on the big-screen is in itself an understatement. Every single element of the distant post-apocalyptic future that it is set is intriguing, be it the giant motorised cities propelled on rusty treads and steel wheels that barrel through the barren wastelands, or the flying airships of a band of rebel pilots called the Anti-Traction League and the floating city of Airhaven where they gather, or the half-machine half-zombie stalkers built of dead persons with their nervous systems implanted in cyborgs that are hence devoid of feelings and memories. There is plenty of mythic world-building potential in the material, and it's not hard to see why Jackson was attracted to it in the first place, or why he had chosen to hand the reins of the movie to Rivers.

These strengths are evident right from the get-go, which opens with an exhilarating sequence where the towering predator city of London engages in a death race with one component of a quaint mining colony through what is left of Europe. After a nail-biting pursuit, London shoots massive harpoons at the helpless hamlet to reel it in, and eventually gobbles it up to plunder its resources while consigning its inhabitants to be low-level immigrants within the city. Similarly, the finale that unfolds as a showdown between London and the walled-up nation state of Shan Guo is just as breathtaking, alternating between the awesome destruction wrought by London's quantum-powered super-weapon known as MEDUSA and the guerrilla airborne counter-attack launched by a couple of Anti-Traction rebels.

But in between these graphically stunning episodes is a much more pedestrian story that feels like it was scavenged from better fantasy epics, comprising essentially of a naïve apprentice historian cum wannabe flyboy hero Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) who teams up with the mysterious scarred assassin Hester Shaw (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar) to stop the power-hungry Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) from unleashing Armageddon upon what remains of the rest of the world. Using pieces of old-tech that have survived the calamitous Sixty-Minute War which had wiped out current civilisation, Thaddeus is putting in place the final pieces of his plan to build the aforementioned super-weapon MEDUSA, and had many years earlier killed Hester's mother Pandora to obtain a crucial piece of the weapon.

As you might expect, Tom and Hester starts off as rivals before forming an unlikely partnership that has romantic entanglements as well. Alas too little attention is paid to the evolving relationship dynamic between the teenage couple, so much so that when the bickering exiles supposedly develop feelings for each other in the third act, we're left feeling unconvinced. Thaddeus' motivation for world-domination is never explained, relegating him therefore to a straightforward villain who is just there because the story needs one. To distract us from its under-developed key characters, Jackson (who co-wrote the script with his regular screenwriting partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) throws in a number of interesting but otherwise superficial secondary roles that add little to the central revenge tale.

Among these, Thaddeus' daughter Katherine (Leila George) and a scruffy local mechanic named Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery) barely register, even though they are intended to form the resistance to Thaddeus' plan from within. Faring the best is the notorious outlaw Anna Fang (Korean singer/actress Jihae), who plays the equivalent of the swaggering kick-butt space pirate for all its worth, although you'd hoped that there was somehow more to the back-story between Anna and Pandora. And perhaps the most ill-conceived of them all is Shrike (Stephen Lang), one of them stalkers whom Thaddeus releases from captivity to track and kill Hester; without giving away too much, let's just say that Shrike and Hester share a complicated father-daughter bond that is so poorly handled that we almost burst out laughing at the former's denouement.

These narrative flaws ultimately reduce what could have been a sweeping dystopian epic into little more than a series of imaginatively realised environments, locations and cities. In particular, we wish we had more time exploring the English capital, whose landmarks such as St. Paul's Cathedral and the London Eye have been intriguingly repurposed. Indeed, there was much potential in the story itself - including its themes of 'municipal Darwinism' and contrast of East and West cultures - but much of that is lost amidst a hectic, even frenetic, need to rush from set-piece to set-piece, while neglecting both plot and character to add up to something more poignant. Such are its mortal sins, and as much as we appreciate how this is a labour of love for Jackson and his Wingnut Films, we suspect it is after all too weak and uncompelling to kickstart a whole new sci-fi franchise.
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1/10
Illogical, incoherent and irredeemable, this long-delayed sequel is so abysmally bad it should have been kept in deep freeze forever
7 November 2018
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.
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Smallfoot (2018)
7/10
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
23 September 2018
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.
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The Predator (2018)
3/10
Just when you thought you had seen the worst of the 'Predator' movies, along comes this relentlessly loud, hopelessly dumb and needlessly convoluted mess
13 September 2018
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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8/10
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
25 August 2018
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.
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6/10
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
25 August 2018
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.
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The Island (2018)
7/10
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
13 August 2018
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.
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The Meg (2018)
7/10
Jason Statham versus a 75-foot prehistoric shark - it's as simple, as cheesy, but as enjoyable as that
8 August 2018
Warning: Spoilers
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'.
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Skyscraper (2018)
6/10
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
12 July 2018
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.
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6/10
Lacking the freshness, eccentricity and poignancy of the first two movies, this third entry is divertingly amusing but ultimately forgettable
1 July 2018
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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8/10
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
27 June 2018
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.
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8/10
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!
20 June 2018
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!
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The Leakers (2018)
6/10
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
16 June 2018
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.
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8/10
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
7 June 2018
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.
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The Trough (2018)
6/10
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
1 May 2018
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.
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A Quiet Place (2018)
8/10
As viscerally thrilling as it is emotionally gripping, 'A Quiet Place' is high-concept alien invasion science-fiction executed with absolute brilliance
6 April 2018
"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.
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6/10
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
22 March 2018
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.
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