Sunday, August 21, 2016

Call Of Heroes

Year: 2016
Director: Benny Chan
Cast: Sean Lau, Eddie Peng, Louis Koo, Wu Jing

Plot: After the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the warlords in China began a civil war. The bloodthirsty son of one of the warlords shows up at a village and kills three people, prompting the town sheriff to arrest him and sentence him to death. The warlord's top lieutenant then appears, threatening to burn the village down unless the sheriff releases him. The sheriff and his fellow guardians, plus a mysterious drifter, are now the only ones who can defend the village against impossible odds.

Review: Chinese wuxia films are like Hollywood westerns, and in the case of Call Of Heroes, even more so. We have a brave sheriff, a dastardly villain, a drifter and a ruthless enforcer who works for the villain. To top it off, director Benny Chan throws in some Sergio Leone inspired musical score in certain scenes.

Call Of Heroes is set in a village called Pucheng, where most of the brave men have joined the army and gone off to the front lines. The village is watched over by a handful of guardians, led by sheriff Yang. One day, a ruthless warlord's son, Cao, shows up and promptly kills three people, including a child. Reason? He just loves killing. Yang arrests him and sentences him to death, but Zhang, who works for Cao's father, arrives and threatens to destroy the village if Cao is not released unharmed. Yang now faces the pressure from the townsfolk to release the psychopath, or face the wrath of Zhang's immense army. Yang's only ally is a drifter named Ma, who happens to be an old acquaintance of Zhang.

It is good to note that Call Of Heroes is as ambitious as Chan's last two films, Shaolin and White Storm, though thankfully it is not as overdramatic, nor does it end ridiculously (seriously the ending of Shaolin was illogical). With the great Sammo Hung as action director, COH scores tremendously in the action department, with some well shot fight sequences, though it would have been better if they used less wirework and CGI. The sequence during a night time prison break was the best one as it was the most practical of the lot.

The story, also written by Chan, is one we've seen before, but still works very well. It's a story about courage, and making choices. Yang has to choose whether to release a killer, or risk the lives of the villagers. The drifter Ma has to choose between doing the right thing, or continue to be indifferent. Even Zhang faces a choice between justice and watching his own back, as Ma points out to him. Chan keeps it all together quite well and not wasting too much time with theatrics this time around.

Acting wise, Sean Lau is the best of the lot as Yang, giving the character the right amount of gravitas and courage to do the right thing. Eddie Peng is alright as Ma, though he never once manages to convince anyone, including the audience, that he is capable of being a scoundrel, though he tries. Wu Jing impresses in the action department as always, but could have been more menacing as Zhang. Perhaps Chan should have erased the idea of his relationship with Ma, it would have done wonders for the character. Louis Koo ends up being the worst of the lot, being totally miscast as Cao. He gives this really fake evil laugh whenever he appears on screen, and the more he does it, the more annoying it sounds. It's probably the poorest casting choice of the year. No offence to Koo, but this role should have gone to Nick Cheung or Nicholas Tse. Special mention goes to the always reliable Liu Kai Chi as Yang's lieutenant.

Aside from Koo's casting and the excessive use of wirework and CGI, COH also suffers a bit from obvious voice dubbing. Hopefully this can be minimised in the future. But at least the film has some great cinematography, particularly the wide shots of the village, valley and a scene of the sun rising.

Bottom line: if you're looking for some wuxia action, Call Of Heroes is a good pick. (7/10) 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Captain Fantastic

Year: 2016
Director: Matt Ross
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, George Mackay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Frank Langella

Plot: A man who raised his six kids in the wilderness is forced to bring them to the real world when his wife dies, so that they may attend her funeral.

Review: I don't have a lot of love for quirky films, particularly the ones made by the Coens or Wes Anderson. Captain Fantastic by writer/director Matt Ross is sort of quirky, but in a good way. At the very least it's honest and grounded in reality, which I can relate to.

Viggo Mortensen stars as Ben Cash, a man who raises his six kids; Bodevan, Vespyr, Kielyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai out in the wilderness in the Pacific Northwest (cool names huh?). His wife Leslie, recently ill and receiving treatment in the city, commits suicide. Leslie's father refuses to allow Ben and the kids to attend her funeral, blaming him for his daughter's death. But Ben eventually decides to go anyway, since his kids desperately want to say goodbye to their mother. Thus begins the family's journey into the real world, where the kids, despite being very smart and prepared for dangerous situations, have no idea what they're getting into. But Leslie's father isn't about to let this happen, not when Ben intends to honor her last wishes of being cremated and have her ashes flushed down a toilet.

Captain Fantastic isn't just a story about fatherhood, it's also about family. From the beginning, you can see how tightly knit the family is, even when they don't always agree. Ben educates and trains the kids excellently, even though several of his methods seem incredibly unorthodox or inappropriate at times, like allowing them to swear or drink wine. He teaches them how to hunt, fight and rock climb, while educating them using a large collection of books in their possession. As a result, the kids are strong and smart, probably more so than the average American kid, though they know next to nothing about regular things like shoe brands or pop culture.

However, this story isn't complete if that's all it's about. Ben comes to learn of how his ways aren't working too well when Bo and Rellian start to rebel, and another one of his kids get hurt. Ben's inner conflict and transition from confident parent to a guilty one is well displayed by Mortensen, who is always phenomenal in every role he gets. Credit also goes to the actors playing the children, who each get their own moment to shine, particularly George Mackay as Bodevan. I can almost guarantee you'll love these kids a lot when you meet them. There are also some nice supporting turns from Frank Langella, Kathryn Han and Steve Zahn.

The film does tend to drag every now and then, but it's a small issue. I also thought it unnecessary for Ross to have Ben and some of the kids being openly nude in certain scenes, just to generate shock laughter. The film already has plenty of humor from scenes where Ben applies total honesty with the kids and giving them real weapons for presents.

Captain Fantastic is a nice change of pace from all the summer blockbusters of late, with plenty of scenes that will make you smile (my favorite being the family's rousing rendition of Sweet Child Of Mine). It's definitely worth checking out. (7/10)   

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Shallows

Year: 2016
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Blake Lively

Plot: Surfer Nancy Adams is attacked by a great white shark near a beach in Mexico. Stuck on a rock 200 yards from shore, she has to figure out how to survive before her injury or the shark kills her.

Review: Sometimes the best films during the summer aren't the big budget blockbusters with astounding visual effects and action sequences every ten minutes. Sometimes it's something as simple as a tale of a human taking on a shark.

In The Shallows, Blake Lively plays Nancy, a medical student who travels to a secluded beach in Mexico where her late mother once went to. She's attempting to escape her personal grief from losing her mother to cancer. As she hoped, the beach and ocean is gorgeous to behold. But not long after she surfs there, a great white shark attacks her. She swims to a rock and tends to her wounds, but is unable to make it to shore safely as the shark continues to circle her area.

The Shallows brings to mind a handful of other survival flicks like 127 Hours, Frozen (the ski lift one, not Disney), The Edge, The Grey and one starring Lively's husband Ryan Reynolds, Buried. Survival flicks are always fun to watch, even though it may get depressing at times, watching our protagonists suffer as they live to tell the tale, or die eventually. In this case, the thrill comes from watching Nancy trying to outsmart a shark while suffering from a huge wound in her leg. Then there's the elements of nature, dehydration, fatigue, sunburn and even more injuries suffered as she makes several attempts to either get help or escape.

Jaume Collet-Serra, known for directing Liam Neeson in a trio of action films, attempts something smaller here and succeeds. Understandably, his film is only 86 minutes long so it doesn't overstay its welcome, which is a plus. But what's better is the beautiful cinematography by Flavio Martinez Labiano, who captures the picturesque ocean and beach well, and films the action and underwater sequences perfectly. There's not a single wasted shot here.

Credit also goes to Blake Lively for making Nancy very likable on screen. Sure, it helps a lot that Lively is very easy on the eyes, but it is because of her performance that the audience continues to root for her all the way to the end.

Another thing I liked about the film is how Collet-Serra keeps the shark out of view for most of the film until the climax. This forces the viewers to use their imagination whenever something bad happens. The best example is the scene where Nancy watches in horror as the shark kills an unlucky bloke. We only see the aftermath later, but seeing Lively's reaction as it happens is simply astounding. Again, credit to Blake for her awesome acting here.

The film does drag a little whenever Nancy isn't thinking about the shark, but the script makes up for it by showing Nancy's ingenuity in tending to her wounds using her jewellery and talking to an injured seagull.

Overall. The Shallows is solid entertainment if you love survival films, or even if you love shark films. It is a better bet than some of the stuff out there now. (8/10)

Suicide Squad

Year: 2016
Director: David Ayer
Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman, Jay Hernandez, Jai Courtney, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara

Plot: Shady government officer Amanda Waller assembles a team of supervillains and persuades them to work together to protect the public from superhuman threats.

Review: With the mixed reactions to Batman vs Superman earlier this year, which was slightly repaired by the release of the ultimate edition of the film, DC studios needed a win with Suicide Squad in order to keep up with rivals Marvel. Sadly, the much needed win will have to wait.

One wonders if DC had a knee-jerk reaction to BVS' bad fan response and started editing this film to what they think audiences want to see, or the film itself was doomed from the beginning. But judging from rumours and some confirmed reports (one from Jared Leto himself), it is quite clear it is the former. Leto had claimed many of his scenes had been cut out, and it is true considering how brief his appearance is here. But more on that later.

Suicide Squad is basically like the Dirty Dozen, where we take a bunch of convicts, all hardened prisoners and bad hats, and force them to do some good. Under the command of Colonel Rick Flag, the squad is made up of sharpshooter Deadshot, the Joker's crazy girlfriend Harley Quinn, bank robber Boomerang, pyrokinetic El Diablo, hideous cannibal Killer Croc and Japanese swordswoman Katana. Their first mission involves stopping Enchantress aka June Moone, Flag's girlfriend, who suffers from a Jekyll and Hyde affliction due to being possessed by an ancient spirit. Enchantress was under Amanda Waller's control, but she escapes and wreaks havoc on the city.

The film works very well for the first third, then spirals out of control in the middle before nearly redeeming itself at the end. The key word here is 'nearly' because the overall result is barely decent. Assembling the team was the best part as the cast is clearly having fun getting to know each other, but when their first mission starts, it just sinks. The plot starts to make little sense as the team go about trying to stop Enchantress and her minions from destroying the city, and the poorly lit and poorly choreographed fight scenes don't help either. The subplot involving Joker trying to rescue Harley from the team is also senseless and unnecessary, and if you think about it, leaving this part out would make little to no difference to the overall story.

Will Smith and Margot Robbie made the most impact here, especially Smith, who shines as Deadshot, the assassin who just wants to see his daughter again. Robbie is quite good as Harley, but isn't as endearing as she should be, flip flopping between being crazy and caring about the team like a normal person. Jai Courtney effectively brings the laughs as Boomerang while Jay Hernandez gets the audience's sympathy as Diablo, who refuses to use his powers thanks to a past tragedy. Joel Kinnaman isn't too convincing as Flag though. Cara Delevingne fares better as Enchantress, though her scenes in the film's climax are way too similar to The Last Witch Hunter. Viola Davis is probably the best supporting cast member here, giving Amanda Waller the right amount of ballsyness to stand up to the squad.

And then there's Jared Leto's Joker, that has been hyped from the beginning. Is he good? Yes, certainly. But it's a real shame that most of his scenes were left on the editing room floor. I wonder if they added it back in, would we get a Joker that is motivated by something else other than Harley Quinn? Because that motivation makes him the weakest of all the Jokers that have come before him.

In the end, Suicide Squad somewhat fails to redeem DC after the lukewarm BVS. The film definitely has potential, but like BVS, it was wasted thanks to studio interference. Still, it's not bad enough to be unwatchable, but not good enough to be memorable. (6/10) 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Jason Bourne

Year: 2016
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Riz Ahmed, Julia Stiles

Plot: Jason Bourne now lives day to day by taking part in illegal fighting. When his handler, Nicky Parsons, hacks the CIA database and retrieves black ops files including Treadstone, she becomes a target of ambitious CIA operative Heather Lee, who is interested in bringing Bourne in. Bourne now has to dodge Lee and her superior, CIA director Dewey and his chosen asset while digging up his past, particularly his late father.

Review: Personally I wasn't too excited about having a new Bourne film, particularly one featuring Matt Damon. Not that he isn't awesome in it, he always has been. It's just that The Bourne Legacy was made, and Jeremy Renner made a great action hero out of Aaron Cross. I was looking forward to a sequel to Legacy, which word has it, will arrive in 2018. For now, we have Damon and director Paul Greengrass reteaming for Jason Bourne, and to be honest, it's pretty damn awesome.

What's funny is that Greengrass hasn't changed his style that much. In his last two attempts with Bourne, he stages elaborate sequences involving large crowds, brutal fights and at least one car chase. Here he does the same thing again, but you gotta give it to the man for making it work even better. In Supremacy and Ultimatum, fans would recall the large crowd sequence in Germany and London's Waterloo Station. Here he gives us not one, but three of these sequences; a riot in Athens, an emergency evacuation in Paddington Plaza, London and a chaotic finale in Vegas. The Athens sequence was amazingly set up, I can only imagine the logistics hell of that entire sequence. Greengrass clearly knows how to plan his action scenes, as all three are well done.

Another thing worth mentioning is the car chase at the end, which is by far one of the best in the series. Damon's Bourne and Vincent Cassel's character chase each other down the Vegas strip in a car and SWAT van respectively. It feels familiar overall but vehicular carnage is just amazing to behold, so I loved every minute of it.

Damon is still great in a role that made him an action star, so no complaints there. Alicia Vikander gives Heather Lee the right amount of ambiguity overall, but I do have a slight issue with her being possibly too young for the role. Tommy Lee Jones and Vincent Cassel are okay as the film's villains, though I'm surprised how well Cassel did in his role. He's pushing 50 but is still able to go toe-to-toe with Damon.

Scriptwise, the film is reminiscent of what has come before. Tony Gilroy might not be on board this time, but the old story beats of Bourne chasing his past while the CIA tries to cover it up is in play again here, this time involving Bourne's late father, who was involved in Treadstone. Despite the familiarity, it works with what we should expect from Bourne. There's also a subplot involving a social media mogul whom the CIA wants to work with in order to monitor the public, which is easier to understand and relate to compared to previous Bourne plots.

I am wary though, of how much longer Jason Bourne's story will carry on. This film works very well, but exactly how often can Greengrass and Damon do this before audiences get tired? The 9 year layoff since Ultimatum certainly helped them here, but like I mentioned earlier, it's time to let Aaron Cross run with the baton.

But I'll give credit where it's due. Jason Bourne was better than I expected. Maybe I'll change my mind over time, but if you want summer action, this film is it. (8/10)  


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