Skyscraper (2018)


A big star like the Rock has a long way to fall.

(2018) Action (UniversalDwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Noah Taylor, Roland Møller, Byron Mann, Pablo Schreiber, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell, Hannah Quinlivan, Adrian Holmes, Elfina Luk, Kevin Rankin, Gretal Montgomery, Jeff Klyne, Kayden Magnuson, Byron Lawson, Jason William Day, Ryan Handley, Sean Kohnke, Shawn Stewart, Venus Terzo. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

 

Paint-by-numbers summer action blockbuster fare that is both satisfying and not. Johnson plays a security consultant who had a leg blown off during his time as a federal agent who has in the intervening years acquired the job as security chief at the world’s tallest building, the Pearl in Hong Kong (a fictional beating created with impressive CGI).

The billionaire (Han) behind the tower is hiding a McGuffin – doesn’t really matter what it is – in his penthouse apartment. Therefore, just before the building is about to open, a group of baddies led by a nasty Afrikaner (Taylor) break into the tower and set the building on fire in order to cover their tracks and convince the billionaire that they mean business. Their mistake is that The Rock’s family is still in the building. Oh, you definitely don’t want to mess with the Rock’s family.

Actually, his wife Kate (Campbell) – an ex-Navy surgeon – who proves to be more formidable. Johnson, who has done a few too many generic action thrillers of late, looks like he’s not having much fun and in fact is beginning to show signs of aging – he was 45 when he filmed this. While the stunts and CGI are pretty spectacular as well as the building’s tech features, this feels a bit like we’ve seen it all before. And we have, in Die Hard and The Towering Inferno of which this is a cinematic love child. This really isn’t all that bad – it is pretty mindless and for the most part, fun – but it could have used a little more Neve and a little less Dwayne.

REASONS TO SEE: The tech is pretty cool. Keeps your interest at a reasonable level.
REASONS TO AVOID: Johnson beginning to show his age. The villains are way too easy to spot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence as well as some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adrian Smith, the lead architect on the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia – both at one time the tallest buildings in the world – consulted on the script.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Towering Inferno
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Papi Chulo

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (Ye wen wai zhuan: Zhang tian zhi)


Jin Zhang and Michelle Yeoh have a tete a tete.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Jin Zhang, Dave Bautista, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Jaa, Patrick Tam, Xing Yu, Naason, Chrissie Chau, Yan Liu, Henry Zhang, Brian Thomas Burrell, Kevin Chang, Adam Pak, Yuen Wah, Adel Ali Mohamed, Mathieu Jaquet. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

 

The Ip Man series of films (currently at seven and counting – another one is set for American distribution in July) have yielded big box office success in China and Hong Kong over the years. The series revolves around Ip Man, the revered and legendary martial arts master whose claim to fame in the West is that he mentored Bruce Lee. Most of the Ip Man movies revolve around the master defending the citizens of Hong Kong from the excesses of the corrupt British colonialists and deadly local criminal gangs. Although highly fictionalized accounts of the master’s life, the popularity of the series in Asia is undeniable.  It was inevitable that a spin-off would be created. Does it deliver on the action goods as the original series did?

Wing chun master and formerly the head of a prestigious school Cheung Tin-chi (J. Zhang) lost a closed-door match to Ip Man (the only connection to Ip Man and an outrageously tenuous one at that) and has been reduced to beating up people for a low-life criminal (Wah). Disillusioned by the way his life has turned out, Cheung elects to walk away from fighting. He opens up a tiny grocery store and sets about raising his rambunctious yet precocious young son Fung (H. Zhang) himself.

Nana (Chau) is hooked on drugs and is deeply in debt to local crimelord Kit (Chang). He is the hot-headed younger brother of Cheung Lok matriarch Kwan (Yeoh) who yearns to take her criminal enterprise legitimate, much to the consternation of Kit and her underlings who in the words of one, only know crime. Nana’s soon-to-be sister-in-law Julia (Liu) pays off Nana’s debt. She is the sister of Fu (Naason), one of the leaders on Hong Kong’s notorious garish Bar Street. He owns the successful Gold Bar, where Nana – his fiancée – works as a waitress and Julia sings. Kit though is not satisfied with the principle being paid off; he ants the interest too and refuses to release Nana. The feisty Julia manages to yank Nana away and the two women flee don an alleyway trailed by a pack of Kit’s goons here they run into Cheung making a delivery.

The goons are no match for Cheung, who now finds himself having acquired the enmity of Kit who firebombs Cheung’s store in retaliation. Cheung and his son, who lived above the store, have no place to go so the compassionate Julia puts them up and Cheung gets a job as a waiter at the Gold Bar. Still, Kit isn’t finished with them and when he goes too far leading to tragedy, Cheung knows he won’t get justice through the corrupt police ho are in the pockets of Kwan and Kit. Justice must be acquired the old-fashioned way.

The thing about most martial arts films is that the plot is pretty generic, the acting over-the-top and the characters barely developed at all and this is true of Master Z. However, Jin Zhang (also known as Max Zhang) is a charismatic lead who could appeal to audiences in much the same way as Ip Man’s Donnie Yen does. It doesn’t hurt to have Yeoh, easily one of the most accomplished actresses in the globe and a terrific martial artist in her own right, on the marquee. Tony Jaa, the spectacular fighter from the Thai series Ong Bak cameos as a mysterious assassin employed by various factions in the Hong Kong criminal underground, as well as former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista as a vicious racist restaurateur who is the drug supplier for Kit. Bautista’s British accent is a mite unconvincing though.

The real stars here are the production design and the fight scenes. Bar Street which in its day was a garish cross of Times Square and the Vegas strip. Recreated on a sound stage, it is a fantasy land of light and motion and a perfect place to stage spectacular fight scenes. The film is set in the early 60s judging from the costumes and the hair style of the women (lots of beehives and bouffants). While the era is inexact in some ways, the look is undeniable eye candy.

Despite having one of the greatest martial arts fight choreographers in history in the director’s chair, the fights are curiously uneven. The first in which Cheung encounters Kit’s goons in the alleyway is surprisingly tame; the next one, among the neon signs of Bar Street, is spectacular. Yeoh and Zhang have some nifty fights including one with a whiskey glass which they endeavor to pass from one to the other without spilling a drop. However, the climactic fight between Bautista and Zhang is once again not as thrilling as it might have been. When the fight scenes are at their best, though, they are stupendous.

There is certainly potential for sequels to Master Z and it did quite well at the box office when it was released in China earlier this year. In all fairness despite the star power in the cast (and behind the camera) the movie doesn’t really add much to the genre but it is entertaining in its own right and that’s enough for the martial arts enthusiast like me.

REASONS TO SEE: The production design is dazzling. Michelle Yeoh is always worth the price of admission.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the fight sequences (like the first one) don’t measure up to the show stoppers. The plot is pretty generic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts violence, some mild profanity as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the character of Ip Man (played in the series by Donnie Yen) doesn’t appear in the film, Yen remains on as a producer for it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ip Man 2
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Ramen Shop

Beast Stalker (Ching yan)


In Hong Kong action movies, even pedestrian overpasses aren’t safe.

(2008) Crime Drama (Emperor) Nicholas Tse, Nick Cheung, Jing Chu Zhang, Pu Miao, Kai Chi Liu, Ho Man Keung, Jing Hung Kwok, Sherman Chung, He Zhang, Suet Yin Wong, Sum Yin Wong, Kong Lau, Tung Joe Cheung, Simon Lee, Accord Cheung, Ka Leong Chan, Esther Kwan, Si-Man Man, Francis Luk, Sai Tang Yu, Kim Fai Che, June Tam. Directed by Dante Lam

Lives can be changed in the blink of an eye. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have devastating consequences, the effects rippling out like a rock thrown into placid waters. Rarely are those ripples pleasant although in time they can turn out to be beneficial but that isn’t often the case.

Hong Kong police detective Tong Fei (Tse) is ambitious and arrogant. He’s chasing a well-known Triad crime boss and has him in his relentless sights. Working with his team whom he sets very high standards for, he manages to get the criminal arrested – only to learn that the guy’s thugs have managed to break him out of custody. Fei personally leads the chase after him along with longtime friend and mentor Detective Sun (Liu). A violent car crash leads to a terrible tragedy in which an innocent little girl is killed. Fei is devastated.

Months afterwards, the prosecutor for the case, Ann Gau (J.C. Zhang) is getting past the grief of losing a child when her surviving child is kidnapped by Hung (N. Cheung), a half-blind assassin who is caring for a paralyzed wife and needs the dough. The guilt-wracked Fei is obsessed with finding the missing daughter despite Ann’s pleas for him to butt out – she has been warned to not involve the police. She agrees to alter the evidence that will put the crime lord behind bars for a very long time; so Fei goes out looking for the girl on his own. Hung is just as desperate to make sure that the girl isn’t found and both men play a game of cat and mouse with a little girl’s life hanging on the outcome.

Like many Hong Kong crime dramas, the plot hinges around a number of coincidences (some might say improbabilities) that require a whole lot of disbelief suspension. How likely is it that the crook would steal the car of his prosecutor who just happened to stop the car she was driving so she could yell at her ex-husband on the phone? And the coincidences don’t end there.

However if you can unwrap your head around those plot points you’ll be treated to a story with plenty of nice twists and turns, maybe one or two you won’t see coming. Nicholas Tse and Nicky Cheung are two of HK’s  best action stars and they are at their best in this movie. The action sequences, particularly the initial car chase that sets everything up, are extremely well done with the aforementioned chase being literally breathtaking.

The story does get a little bit maudlin in places but again that’s pretty much standard operating procedure for Hong Kong action films – is there a manual for these things? – and anyone who is a fan of that genre won’t mind a bit. Dante Lam is one of Hong Kong’s surest action directors and while this wasn’t his very best work, it was certainly one worth reviving. It played the recent New York Asian Film Festival. While I don’t see it listed on any of the standard streaming services, you can find the DVD and Blu-Ray in a variety of places. If you like Asian action, you won’t want to miss this one.

REASONS TO GO: The action scenes are uniformly excellent. The plot is full of lovely twists and turns.
REASONS TO STAY: The camerawork is so aggressive and kinetic it becomes distracting. The story is a little bit maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, some mild profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was nominated for five Hong Kong Film Awards in 2009, winning two.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Looming Storm

Battle of Memories (Ji yi da shi)


This battle may remain in your memory.

(2017) Psychological Thriller (China Lion) Bo Huang, Jinglei Xu, Yihong Duan, Zishan Yang, Tiffany Hsu, Hanmeng Du, Jieli Liang, Eoin O’Brien, Zhener Wang. Directed by Leste Chen

What makes us the person we are? While some would say genetics there are those who insist that it is our memories that make us who we are. If that is true, it stands to reason that if those memories are taken away that we would change as people.

It is the year 2025 and the technology exists to “surgically” remove unwanted memories from the human brain utilizing a Lasik-like device. Bestselling author Jiang Feng (Huang) is undergoing this treatment. He and his wife Zhang Daichen (Xu) are divorcing and he finds his memories of her too painful. However when the procedure is completed she insists that she won’t sign the papers until the memories are reinserted.

Fortunately, the new technology has a kind of “buyer’s remorse” feature that allows those memories to be put back in, although it will take 72 hours for the memories to fully reconstitute. Once that happens, they cannot be removed again. Therefore Zhang can sign the papers and Jiang can have the memories once again removed so long as she signs within three days.

However, something is wrong – Jiang is having flashbacks of murder, a murder he didn’t commit. It soon becomes apparent that a gigantic screw-up has taken place – he’s been given the memories of the wrong man and it turns out that the man is a serial murderer. When Jiang approaches detectives Shen (Duan) and Lei (Liang) they are at first skeptical. As Jiang’s memories become more and more clear they soon realize he’s telling the truth but they lock him up anyway – after all, he could be the actual killer trying to give himself an alibi. He is put under the psychiatric care of Chen Shanshan (Hsu).

Jiang is anxious to co-operate but he has an ulterior motive; it stands to reason that if he has the wrong memories, the real killer has his own. With his wife Daichen in mortal danger, Jiang gets more and more frantic. Worse still, the memories are  beginning to change Jiang fundamentally, turning him from a gentle, sweet man into an angry violent one. Can the murders be solved before Jiang loses his personality to the unwanted one taking over his mind?

This is essentially a cop thriller with sci-fi overtones but those who are less comfortable with speculative fiction be of good cheer – other than the memory removal machine, there is little that distinguishes 2017 from 2025, although the production design has a sleek modern look to it. The memory switch is essentially a plot device and the mechanics and ramifications of it are not explored at any great length. That’s a bit of a shame because it’s a nifty premise but the filmmakers seem content to go full-on psychological thriller.

Huang has a bit of a hangdog look early on but as the movie progresses he becomes a bit more unstable and at times frankly scary. His unwanted memories contain scenes of serious domestic abuse and it becomes a major thematic element of the film. The psychology of abuse – the victim’s tendency to make excuses for the abuser, the assurance that the violence is an aberration and not a trend, the victim-blaming – all of it is part of the story. Huang captures both the sweet Jiang and the scary Jiang with nimble ease.

Chen uses the hoary old device of filming the flashbacks in black and white but it ends up making sense, particularly since cinematographer Charlie Lam is not only comfortable with the medium but also adept. Some of the most beautiful scenes in the film are the ones with the ugliest subject matter, and that is all Lam’s doing.

I would have liked to see a bit more of the sci-fi element emphasized; it makes the memory removal surgery seem exclusively a plot point rather than something that is a part of life as it is in other movies that use the conceit. That aside, this is an extremely well-made and well-written thriller with plenty of twists and turns including a final swerve which is at least a pretty nifty idea although the execution could have used some work. This is the kind of film I could see being remade as a Hollywood production. It has all the right elements for a box office winner. Those who appreciate good psychological thrillers should keep a sharp eye out for this one.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is absolutely terrific. The ending twist is one of the best I’ve seen recently. Some of the memory removal mythology is well-considered. Domestic abuse is utilized as a theme about as well as it could be.
REASONS TO STAY: The thriller element is somewhat by-the-numbers. The film runs quite a bit too long..
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and related disturbing images
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second psychological thriller Chen has made starring a member of China’s hugely popular Lost In slapstick comedy series.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Road to Mandalay

Vampire Cleanup Department (Gao geung jing dou fu)


There’s nothing like a nice refreshing dip in an acid pool.

(2017) Horror Comedy (Media Asia) Babyjohn Choi, Min Chen Lin, Siu-Ho Chin, Richard Ng, Hok-chi Chiu, Meng Lo, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw, Cheng-Yan Yuen, Jim Chim, Eric Tsang. Directed by Sin-Hang Chiu and Pak-Wing Yan

Budding filmmakers, here is something to consider: everybody loves a secret agency that protects its citizens from supernatural threats – or at least a high enough percentage of everybody that you’re likely to get a whole lot of buzz.

Tim Cheung (Choi) is something of a clumsy nebbish. An orphan, he was brought up by his grandma who often confuses him with his deceased father. One night, he sees someone being attacked in an alleyway and tries to help; instead, he is bitten on the behind by a strange creature.

That creature turns out to have been a vampire. When Tim wakes up, he’s in the underground headquarters of the Vampire Cleanup Department, a secret government agency that takes on the nosferatu of Hong Kong. Among those who work for the VCD are his Uncle Chung (Ng), the head of the department as well as his Uncle Chau (Chin) who is the martial arts master of the group. There’s also Ginger (Yuen), a priest who is the master of the amulets that freeze the undead among other things; there’s also Tai Gau (Lo), the weapons master.

On Tim’s first mission, he gets dragged into a lake that had once been farmland and is kissed by a rotting vampire. The vampire’s rotting flesh sloughs off, revealing a beautiful young girl. Summer (Lin) was a 20-year-old girl whose Landlord had her buried alive with him when he died; the Landlord was a vampire and the living girl had become one due to her unjust death. Like most vampires, she can only hop around rather than walk or run. The others order Tim to immolate Summer in their furnace but Tim, seeing the tears flowing from the undead girl’s eyes hides her instead. The two soon fall in love. He grows to believe that she is not evil; that she is in fact a rare human vampire who might be able to learn how to become human again.

It’s a bad time to fall in love with the undead; there is an ambitious police officer who wants to take away the undead gig from the VCD and has his American scientist find a way to destroy the vampires scientifically. It is also very nearly time for the blood moon during which time the Landlord vampire can resurrect himself. What’s a nerdy vampire hunter to do?

For fans of classic Hong Kong cinema, particularly the hopping vampire genre, your ship has come in. This is an amazingly entertaining but lightweight homage to those films of yore such as Mr. Vampire – many of the cast have made appearances in one hopping vampire film or another. This is more of a romantic comedy than outright horror; while there are some gory images, they are relatively few in number and the bulk of the story is concentrated on the romance between Tim and Summer.

This is very much a guilty pleasure, with cheesy special effects and comedy that falls on the silly side but it has charm by the bucketful. One can’t help but root for Tim despite his hangdog demeanor and his somewhat klutzy cluelessness. It is well above the Abbott and Costello horror spoofs and way above the more modern Scary Movie-type abominations. After viewing it, I was thinking this is what a Hong Kong hopping vampire film might look like if produced by Kevin Feige and directed by Guy Ritchie – although you might have to twist yourself sideways to see the Ritchie reference (I was thinking of the Sherlock Holmes films).

The mythology behind the Vampire Cleanup Department itself is solid and has the kind of detail normally reserved for comic book adaptations. Think of these guys as the Avengers of hopping vampire hunters with a Shaolin twist. Who can’t love vampire hunters who are disguised not in dark suits but in rubbish collector vests? Some of the humor is downright subversive if you can get past the pratfalls. I love that the voice of Summer is essentially Siri after she swallows Tim’s smart phone.

There are a few missteps. Some of the intentional cheesiness is perhaps a mite too cheesy for Western audiences. Some of the externally filmed scenes at night are way too murky and were hard to make out and while the Siri-voiced Summer conceit is cute, the Malaysian pop star Lin actually has a very naturalistic delivery and I thought the film might have benefited from more dialogue from her.

This may end up being my favorite movie from this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which is saying something because this was a particularly bumper crop of fascinating films for the festival which has become more and more influential in the past few years. It isn’t going to change anyone’s point of view or educate them all that much on conditions in Asia but it is going to entertain the ever-loving heck out of you and that’s a lot more than many of this year’s summer blockbusters can claim.

REASONS TO GO: Although this is a bit on the cheesy side it’s nevertheless supremely entertaining. The background mythology is solid. Choi is ideal for the handsome nerd role. It reminded me of a Guy Ritchie film in a kind of twisted way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor is a bit overly silly for Western tastes. The special effects are definitely cheesy and some of the outdoor night scenes are a bit hard to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some horror violence (some of it comedic) as well as bits and pieces of gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cheng-Yan Yuen, who plays the priest Ginger, is the brother of legendary stunt choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fearless Vampire Killers
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Birthright: A War Story

Doctor Strange


He's a magic man, he's got the magic hands.

He’s a magic man, he’s got the magic hands.

(2016) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Durden, Topo Wresniwiro, Umit Ulgen, Linda Louise Duan, Mark Anthony Brighton, Meera Syal, Amy Landecker. Directed by Scott Derrickson

 

It was Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey who once said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Of course, that’s assuming that there is no magic but then again if there was such a thing it would likely end up being explainable by scientific theory once we understood it. Then again, there’s always the possibility that magic is real.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is one of the top neurosurgeons in the world. He has saved literally thousands of lives and lives in a Greenwich Village apartment that is more palace than apartment although it is somewhat sterile in many ways. Dr. Strange is a bit of an egotist, something that has made his relationship with Dr. Christine Palmer (McAdams) fall apart, although they are still fond of each other – it’s just that Strange is just a little bit fonder of himself.

A terrible car accident puts paid to all of that however. His hands – those marvelous, life-giving hands – hae been badly injured. He can barely hold a scalpel anymore and has zero control over his nerves. His hands shake like an epileptic at a disco revival. He has tried every surgical option and drug known to man but nevertheless his situation remains unchanged.

Desperate, he discovers the case of a man named Jonathan Pangborn (Bratt) who was told he’d never walk again by plenty of doctors, including Strange himself. Amazingly he was not only walking but playing basketball. When asked what his secret was, Pangborn sends Strange to Kathmandu to find a particular order of monks. While searching the streets of Kathmandu for it, he runs into Mordo (Ejiofor), a disciple of the person Strange is looking for. Mordo takes Strange to The Ancient One (Swinton), an ancient Celt who reigns as Sorcerer Supreme, a title of respect and the latest addition to the McDonald’s Value Meal menu.

Despite being unable to accept on faith the powers of the Ancient One being a man of science, Strange nevertheless manages to convince her to train him in the mystical arts, although she’s reluctant at first. She thinks he’s an arrogant close-minded twit and she’s essentially right but arrogant close-minded twits are people too, no?

And she’s in need of all the help she can get. One of her former disciples, Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), has essentially gone mad. He wants to create a world without death and in order to do that, he has to summon Dormammu – an ancient creature from another dimension that predates the Gods and who wants to wipe out all life in our universe. So a world without death is a world without life, right? Those tricky old god bastards!

Kaecilius is a powerful sorcerer and Strange is just learning his way around. As Kaecilius races to destroy all the wards that protect our dimension from beings like Dormammu, Strange discovers that he has been chosen by a pair of powerful artifacts – and that the way to beat a god is to think like one.

After a couple of subpar Marvel offerings, it’s nice to see that they’re back on track with a movie that sums up everything right about the Marvel films. Firstly, this is a movie about characters and not superpowers. Steven Strange is an interesting human being full of human frailty despite having the power to warp reality itself. Cumberbatch does a marvelous job of capturing the good doctor that I remember from the comic books, although I have to admit that he sounds a little bit strange with an American accent. Ouch.

The special effects here are pretty impressive, although they do borrow heavily from other sources. Certainly the reality warping takes a page right out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and some may find that to be a bit of a cop-out, but at least it’s utilized in a more physical way than Nolan did. The spells look almost scientific in nature just as you’d expect a man of science to relate to casting magic spells. All in all, some of the best effects we’ve seen yet in a Marvel film and that’s saying something.

The relationship between Strange and Palmer doesn’t generate a lot of heat; there’s more of a bromance between Mordo and Strange. Ejiofor is a reliable performer who always seems to get the most out of every role he tackles. Swinton is simply put one of the strongest actresses working today; the role of the Ancient One, who in the comics was an elderly Asian gentleman, was rewritten extensively to suit Swinton who is none of those things (elderly, Asian or a gentleman).

The action is pretty much non-stop once it gets going, although it takes a little while to. In essence, once again Marvel has done it – created an entirely different superhero movie that retains the feel of the comic book, the consistency of a shared cinematic universe but able to retain individual identities for each film. Any franchise filmmaker will tell you how extraordinarily difficult that is. In any case, it’s a fitting lead off to the holiday blockbuster season. I can’t think of a single reason why anyone who likes entertaining movies shouldn’t see it.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are mind-blowing. The story and characters are as good as any in any Marvel movie. One of the best supporting casts of any Marvel movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The film seems to exist on its own plane outside the rest of the Marvel movies.
FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find plenty of violence and carnage, some mind-bending changes of perspective and a car crash sequence that’s rather intense.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The appearance of the comic book character was based on actor Vincent Price and even had the middle name of “Vincent.” In recent years the character’s look has been modernized, with a goatee replacing the pencil mustache he’d had since his inception.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shadow
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Amanda Knox

Snowden


Edward Snowden in the military.

Edward Snowden in the military.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Open Road) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Shailene Woodley, Nicolas Cage, Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Ben Chaplin, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Nicholas Rowe, Bhasker Patel, Patrick Joseph Bymes, Christy Meyer, Robert Firth, Edward Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone

 

Edward Snowden remains one of the most controversial figures of our time. There are those who label him a hero while others loathe him as a traitor. He polarizes opinion like nobody else and there are those on both sides of the political aisle that would like to see him answer for his crimes of revealing the NSA’s program of secret surveillance of the American people.

The movie has had a bit of a checkered history; it has been delayed at least twice, once to complete some of the special effects and the other to avoid competition from the major blockbusters. Once the film was released, it got almost zero support from its distributor and came and went from the theaters with little fanfare. Did it deserve that kind of fate?

Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) is an idealistic young man whose ideals are somewhat conservative. He joins the military, wanting to serve his country but a badly broken leg puts an end to his military service. Instead, he’s recruited by the CIA to write code and serve his country in a different way. His mentor at the CIA, Corbin O’Brien (Ifans) takes a healthy interest in the young man’s career.

He also meets Lindsay Mills (Woodley), a free-spirited college student who supports herself through exotic dancing. The unlikely couple form a close bond and soon have a budding relationship, even though she’s as liberal as they come and he’s a staunch rock-ribbed conservative. He ends up writing programs that help root out terrorists and keep America safe.

Then, as he switches to the more lucrative consulting position at the NSA, he begins to discover some disturbing things. For example, the phone surveillance program he wrote is now targeting everybody and is gathering so much data the NSA has to build huge facilities to store it all. So despite having a beautiful home in Hawaii, a lucrative job and a bright future, he decides to blow the whistle on all this patently illegal material.

He sets up a meet with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) in Hong Kong. He is clearly paranoid, expecting to be grabbed by NSA agents or the local police at any moment. But once Poitras and Greenwald have a chance to examine the documents, they realize they have the story of the century on their hands. It is just a matter of convincing their editors to allow them to tell it.

How you’re going to receive this film is going to depend an awful lot on how you view Edward Snowden. If you see him as a vile traitor giving state secrets to the media, then you’ll hate this movie. If you think he’s a heroic whistleblower who tried to put the brakes on what was clearly a morally heinous policy, you’re more likely to like this movie. Know going in that Stone is clearly in the latter camp and really doesn’t offer any sort of alternative viewpoint. It seemed to me that most reviews followed the political line; conservative movie critics tended to give it lower scores, more liberal critics higher ones.

So I’m trying to be as objective as I can, but it is difficult to filter out one’s own precepts. Gordon-Levitt I think does a very credible job as Snowden, capturing the cadences of his speech nicely although in a much deeper register than the real Snowden speaks in. Snowden is in many ways not the most charismatic of men so it’s hard to fault Gordon-Levitt for being a bit dry here, but he does seem to capture Snowden’s essential personality.

The rest of the cast is pretty strong – Ifans is virtually unrecognizable – but a lot of the big names are in for what are essentially cameos. Most of the film revolves around Snowden, Lindsey and the journalists. Basically, that’s enough to keep my interest.

I can understand some questioning that the movie makes Snowden to be something of a saint. I don’t think he is and I don’t think that he himself is above questioning by the filmmaker. Poitras, whose documentary on the events here CITIZENFOUR won an Oscar, painted a much more balanced picture of Snowden and in the process, made him more relatable. The Snowden here is a little bit less so because of that and I think it does the film a disservice to go that route.

There are some pretty good moments throughout the movie – Snowden’s initial meeting with the journalists, the events of his smuggling the data out of the NSA facility (a conjectural scene since Snowden has yet to and probably never will reveal how he actually did it) and the end scene when Snowden speaks to the TED conference via satellite – and Gordon-Levitt morphs into the real Edward Snowden, who gets the last word in the film fittingly enough.

It’s a well-made film – you would imagine Stone would at least produce that – but it’s more than just that. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on the state of things, whether the price of security is too high or whether liberty trumps that price. We’ve got a lot to think about as a society, much to demand from our leaders. Snowden reminds us that sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t doing the right thing.

REASONS TO GO: Gordon-Levitt really captures the cadences of Snowden’s speech. It has the taut atmosphere of a spy thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks any counter-argument to make it seem more fair-minded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gordon-Levitt’s second straight film based on an Oscar-winning documentary; the first was The Walk which was the dramatic account of the documentary Man on Wire.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CITIZENFOUR
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Keeper of Darkness (Tuo di qu mo ren)


Ghosts at the window.

Ghosts at the window.

(2015) Supernatural Horror (EDKO) Nick Cheung, Amber Kuo, Louis Cheung, Sisley Choi, Shi Yanneng, Philip Keung, Shawn Yue, Elena Kong, Jacky Cheung, Wai-Keung Lau, Lawrence Ng, Olivia Yan, Andrew Lau, Karena Lam, Angie Cheung. Directed by Nick Cheung

NYAFF

What lies in wait for us after we die is an utter mystery. Do we go to heaven or hell, or are we reincarnated? Do we simply cease to be or is there something else out there, some other existence for us? One thing’s for certain; life after life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Wong Wing Fatt (N. Cheung) is an exorcist, but not the kind who dresses in vestments and engages in ancient Catholic rituals. He has “the third eye,” or the ability to see ghosts. He generally prefers to negotiate them out away from troubling the living, although sometimes he uses more violent means. When he’s not taking care of the dead, he’s part of a Hong Kong triad with a boss who gets little respect from the police. “I’m the biggest criminal in the district!” he complains to a disinterested beat cop who is hassling Fatt.

A video of one of the exorcisms Fatt performs gets the attention of tabloid journalist Ling (Choi) who contacts Chung (L. Cheung), the erstwhile assistant of Fatt who is, unfortunately for Ling, disinterested in an interview. Fatt is living in the same house where his mother (Lam) committed suicide and where years before a beautiful young mistress named Cherr (Kuo) did the same. Cherr, however, is more benevolent than Fatt’s mom who has stayed away from her son; Cherr, on the other hand, is in love with him and he with her. They both hope to be united in the next life.

But that is the least of Fatt’s problems. A vicious ghost named Hark (Yanneng) wants vengeance for the death of his wife and daughter and has been murdering charlatan psychics when he discovers they can’t give him what he wants. When he discovers that Fatt is the real deal, he gives him three days to kill the offending still-living man…or else Fatt and his pre-dead friends are all going to be joining the choir invisible.

Exorcism movies are far different in the East than they are here in the West. Generally in Hollywood and Europe, the Exorcism movies are wrapped up in Catholic ritual and tradition. In the East, often Buddhist principles of Exorcism are used in which exorcists physically battle demons with “spirit weapons” and spells. There is some of the latter here, but this is far different than any other exorcism movie I’ve ever seen so it gets props for that as well.

Nicky Cheung has made a reputation as being one of Hong Kong’s top action heroes of this decade, but as a director he has gone the supernatural route with both of his films and there’s literally no action scenes involving Fatt in the film, other than him getting tossed around like a rag doll by Hark. He has a great deal of screen magnetism and commands the attention of the viewer whenever he’s on, which is most of the film as he’s in nearly every scene. Amber Kuo, one of Asia’s most beautiful actresses, makes a perfect romantic foil for him.

The special effects are inconsistent at best. At times, Cheung makes a very atmospheric ghost tale; at other times, the CGI are quite frankly subpar. There is a scene in which Fatt goes over to the “other side” to confront Hark and there is a bit of an Inception feel to the look of the segment, but it looks like it came from a special effects house circa 1996. Even though it depicts someplace fantastic, it looks computer generated which takes you right out of the film.

The romantic relationship between Fatt and Cherr is at the center of the film, which may prove disappointing to horror buffs and action buffs alike. That romance, which can never truly be consummated, lends a melancholy air which actually fits nicely in the overall theme. Some critics and fans might complain, but I thought that while the romance did slow down the movie some, it was actually part of what made the movie so compelling.

There are lots of cameos from some of Hong Kong’s most recognizable stars and faces including one at the very end which brazenly sets up a sequel which quite frankly I wouldn’t mind seeing. This isn’t scary enough for most horror buffs, not enough action for most fans of that genre and the romance is less physical than those who like those sorts of movies. It was the combination of the three that intrigued me and delighted me about this movie. It’s possible it might get a U.S. release but if it does it will be a brief and limited one. Look for it on your favorite Asian movie DVD or streaming sites in the near future.

REASONS TO GO: The ghostly atmosphere is genuinely creepy. Cheung is an appealing hero. Interesting to see an Eastern take on exorcisms (i.e. non-Catholic).
REASONS TO STAY: The CGI is pretty poor. A fair amount of plot holes and occasional inappropriate humor mar the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of gruesome images, some violence and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Clooney and Roberts have appeared in a film together.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Finding Dory

Lucy


Lucy in the sky with data streams.

Lucy in the sky with data streams.

(2014) Action (Universal) Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton, Nicolas Phongpheth, Jan Oliver Schroeder, Luca Angeletti, Loic Brabant, Pierre Grammont, Pierre Poirot, Bertrand Quoniam, Pascal Loison, Claire Tran, Sifan Shou, Paul Chan, Laura D’Arista (voice). Directed by Luc Besson

What would it be like if we could be smarter? What kind of miraculous change in our lives would we be able to affect? What sort of secrets would we unlock?

The myth is that we only use 10% of our brains – according to Scientific American that’s simply not true. We actually use all of it, which debunks the science in this movie thoroughly. So, let’s play a game of “let’s pretend” that Besson’s assertion here is true, that we go through our lives only using 10% of our potential.

Hard-partying grad student Lucy (Johansson) might not even use that much. She hooks up with Richard (Asbaek), the sort of guy who would set off all sorts of alarm bells in any rational person but apparently that particular function of her brain is inactive. He is supposed to deliver a brief case to Mr. Jang (Choi) in a posh Hong Kong hotel but wants Lucy to do it instead. She is reluctant and they spend the first seven minutes of an 89 minute film arguing about it. Think of a movie starting with an old style Life cereal commercial “I’m not gonna try it you try it” “I’m not gonna try it – hey let’s get Lucy! She won’t like it! She hates everything!” “She likes it! Hey Lucy!”

 

Actually she is forced to do it when he cuffs the briefcase to her wrist and tells her that Jang is the only one who can remove it. Jang turns out to be a ruthless criminal and Richard, instead of saving his own skin, ends up being the first to exit stage left. Lucy is hustled up to a swanky suite where Jang has just finished murdering a couple of people, stepping over corpses and washing his blood soaked hands in front of an understandably panicky Lucy.

She is knocked out and when she wakes up, there is an incision in her tummy and she is told she is to be a drug mule, transporting a new drug called CPH4 which Jang’s suave English speaking flunky (Rhind-Tutt) assures her that the kids in Europe are going to love. However through a set of unforeseen circumstances, the bag of drugs begins to leak into her system. Lucy begins to learn at an amazing rate, develops powers of telekinesis and control of magnetic waves. She is able to wave her hands and have people fall asleep. The more of the drug that’s absorbed into her system, the more her powers develop. She goes from 20% to 30%, 30% to 40%.

She is easily able to escape from Jang’s thugs and makes her way to a Hong Kong hospital where she demands that the bag be removed from an astonished surgeon, doubly astonished when she shoots the patient he’s operating on dead, telling him “You couldn’t have saved him. The tumor’s already spread.” Even though there still remains about half a bag of the stuff, the damage is done. Lucy can feel her cells reproducing at an accelerated rate. She estimates she has about 24 hours before her body dies.

She flies to Paris to enlist the aid of Professor Norman (Freeman), an expert on the development of the human brain, as well as Parisian detective Del Rio (Waked) whom she brings aboard to protect her but also to nab three other drug mules sent by Jang to other European cities. She needs the drugs they are carrying to complete her work which is now essentially to download everything she knows, which is growing more considerable. As she inches towards 100% neither Professor Norman nor even Lucy herself knows exactly what’s going to happen.

Besson, who has written or directed some of the most compelling action films of the past 20 years (including The Fifth Element, District B-13 and The Professional) channels Stanley Kubrick a little bit here. He inserts mostly vintage clips of all sorts of things like animals mating, magicians creating illusions and cameras travelling through canyons and across endless oceans to denote the gradual increase in Lucy’s powers and knowledge. He is fairly liberal about it when he should have used it a bit more sparingly; it does get distracting and in a film this short feels like filler it doesn’t need, particularly when he could have used the time to build relationships.

Johansson has never been an actress who has played “smart” but this year with roles in Under the Skin as an alien with a superior intellect, and as the operating system in Her she has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is more than an agent of SHIELD. The trouble is that once the drug enters Lucy’s system Johansson’s expression essentially doesn’t change and she speaks in an emotionless monotone. I’m not sure why it is that in science fiction that evolution of the human species seems to be that we move past our emotions. I would argue that our emotions would evolve along with our intellect but that’s another fight for another day.

The special effects are nifty, with Lucy able to see trees absorbing nutrients through their roots, or streams of data travelling from cell phones to the satellites above. Near the end of the movie she takes a journey backwards through time in a sequence reminiscent of the opening sequence of The Tree of Life only with a human element involved – Lucy meets the first known human ancestor, also named Lucy (not a coincidence with the names, that) – going all the way back to the Big Bang and before.

 

But for all the scientific gobbledygook, my favorite sequence in the film is the most human – a phone conversation between Lucy and her mother (D’Arista) in which Lucy tearfully tells her that she can remember everything – even things she shouldn’t have been able to, like the taste of her mother’s milk in her mouth. It is a sense of saying goodbye, and it is a poignant moment because Lucy knows that she will be evolving past the feelings shortly and not long after, departing this Earth entirely.

The movie is largely unsatisfying. We get Hong Kong-style gun battles and the car chases Besson is known for but little development in the way of the characters. Besson likes to move things along at a frenetic pace and that’s not a bad thing but we get no sense of human connection – other than that one scene I just described – between Lucy and the world so when that connection begins to drift away, there is no sense of loss. Certainly there is some fine eye candy but eye candy alone doesn’t make for a substantive and ultimately satisfying film experience. Besson is certainly capable of delivering on those sorts of films but in this instance he fell short.

REASONS TO GO: Nice premise and some nifty special effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Directing misfires. Johansson misused. Look ma, I’m directing!

FAMILY VALUES:  Violence, some of it disturbing, some drug use and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Angelina  Jolie was originally cast in the title role but had to drop out due to directing commitments and Johansson was cast in her place.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Limitless

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Fluffy Movie

Breaking News (2004) (Dai si gin)


I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy...

I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy…

(2004) Crime Drama (Palm) Richie Jen, Kelly Chen, Nick Cheung, Cheung Siu Fai, Hui Siu Hung, Lam Suet, You Yong, Ding Hai Feng, Li Hai Tao, Simon Yam, Maggie Siu, Yuk-Keung Kwok, Chi Wai Wong, Wah Wo Wong. Directed by Johnnie To

Our reality is shaped to a large extent by the media. Our lines of thought and conclusions are largely a product of how things are portrayed online and on television.

That’s as true in Asia as it is here. An attempt by the Hong Kong police to capture Yuen (Jen), a notorious criminal ends in a devastating shootout and an indelible image of a terrified police officer surrendering to the vicious brigand. The media picks up on it and the criticism of the police department becomes intense, leading them to assign Superintendent Rebecca Fong (Chen) to spin control.

In the meantime Inspector Cheung (Cheung) has cornered Yuen in a high rise apartment building and the criminal has taken a taxi driver (Suet) and his kids hostage in his apartment. As Fong continues to feed the media stories reflecting favorably on the police, Yuen – amused as all get out – uses his captives’ web cam and cell phones to feed stories to the same media outlets that are far less complimentary of the police.

With the reputation of the police at stake, the pressure is on not just to capture the miscreants but also, as Fong puts it, put on a good show. It doesn’t matter who gets caught in the crossfire as long as the ratings are high.

To, one of the most capable action directors in Asia (if not the most capable) outdoes himself here. Known for long tracing shots, the opening shot which lasts about seven minutes is a thing of beauty. The camera swoops down into a busy city street like an errant leaf on the breeze, soaring up to a second story building and then following along with an intricate, violent shoot-out without missing a beat and seemingly all in one fluid shot. It’s a masterstroke of technical ability and should be shown to all aspiring film students as a primer as how a tracking shot should be done.

He doesn’t stop there. Some of the gun battles in the apartment building are downright graceful despite the claustrophobic setting. He also knows how to keep the tension high enough to keep audiences squirming in their seats only letting up just enough to keep them from having coronaries. He populates his story with tough talkers and bureaucrats and basically everyone else is cannon fodder.

In fact, most of the characters in the movie are pretty much standard characters you’ll find in most Hong Kong action flicks – the cocky criminal, the tough-talking cop, the clever bureaucrat, the femme fatale – they’re pretty much all here. None of them are given much depth.

Unlike most action movies, this isn’t just stunts for stunts sake. There is a real message here about the role of the media. It’s frustrating though that To is basically just wagging his finger at the problem like an irritated schoolmarm. He had the opportunity to explore the issue more thoroughly but chose to go for a car chase instead. Lamentable.

And therein lies my issue with the ending as well; as opposed to the beginning of the film, the end of the movie brings nothing new to the table. You see it coming and you keep waiting for the twist you’re sure is going to come. Then the movie ends. Makes me wonder if To ran out of time to write a decent ending because compared to the rest of the movie it’s awfully disappointing.

Still, this is a high octane Chinese action thriller that is one of the better ones to come from there in the past ten years or so. If you haven’t seen it and you’re a fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to rent it.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing opening sequence. Terrific action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Missed opportunities. Ending misses the mark. Clichéd characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a pretty fair amount of violence and some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A Russian version of the movie was released in 2009 under the title Newsmakers although it hasn’t yet been released in North America.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.0M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Man

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: We’re the Millers