Saturday, December 26, 2015

Ip Man 3

Year: 2015
Director: Wilson Yip
Cast: Donnie Yen, Zhang Jin, Lynn Hung, Mike Tyson

Plot: In 1959 Hong Kong, Wing Chun master Ip Man faces a handful of challenges, from a foreign crime lord to a rival Wing Chun martial artist, and an unexpected tragedy.

Review: Donnie Yen teams up with director Wilson Yip once again to bring another chapter of kungfu master Ip Man to the big screen.

In this film, Ip Man (Yen) is living peacefully in Hong Kong with his wife (Lynn Hung) and younger son while his older son studies in Foshan. The local gangsters, led by foreign crime boss Frank (Mike Tyson) want to take over the children's school for the land, and Ip Man volunteers to protect the school when the local police find their hands tied due to corruption. Ip Man also finds a potential friend/rival in the form of Cheung Tin-Chi (Zhang Jin), a rickshaw puller who also happens to be a Wing Chun master. However, none of these prove more challenging to Ip Man than the knowledge that his wife has been diagnosed with cancer.

In the first Ip Man film, the theme was patriotism. The second film was honor and pride for Chinese kungfu. This third film focuses on family. Ip Man's battle with the gangsters turns personal when they threaten his son, and you get to see what the master is willing to do to protect him. Then there is his sick wife, whom Ip Man spends more time with once he learns about her illness, forgoing other matters such as a challenge from Tin-Chi. In fact, Tin-Chi's actions is also motivated by family as he seeks a better life for himself and his son.

Thanks to Yen, Yip and action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping, audiences are treated to a handful of solid action sequences, though to be fair, the one-on-one fights were better filmed than the one-on-many brawls. While most would figure the Yen vs Tyson fight to be the best duel, I felt that it comes a close second to the duel between Yen and Thai exponent Sarut Khanwilai, that takes place within close quarters. Though the Thai fighter is hardly a match for Ip Man, the scene was filmed well. As for the Yen vs Tyson fight, the latter is to be commended for convincingly being a match for the former. As it turns out, Tyson is the only one that truly takes Yen to the limit here.

Acting wise though, Tyson doesn't fare too well, but it is forgivable since he's not an actor per se. Yen once again plays Ip Man solidly, as an honorable man who tries his best to impart good values on others and hopes they follow suit. Lynn Hung plays his wife again, who tries to be a good spouse and support her husband whenever possible. Their relationship becomes the focus of the second half of the film, and it is rather touching to see this side of the master for a change.

However, the film comes up short in certain areas, particularly a proper villain. One could say that the main villain here is Mrs. Ip's disease, and it is one the master can't overcome so easily. Tyson only appears for a short period here, and his character, while essentially a crime boss, proves to be a family man and a man of his word. That leaves Zhang Jin as Yen's main rival, but unfortunately Zhang's acting isn't good enough. Zhang's Tin-Chi is shown as a man not that much different from Ip Man, more like the other side of the same coin. Tin-Chi is also motivated by family, but he wants to win and be the best, forgoing the humble approach Ip Man usually takes. Had Zhang been a better actor, this conflict would have been properly presented, but he isn't, thereby making his final duel with Yen at the end seem anti-climactic.

To be honest, the Ip Man franchise may finally be starting to overstay its welcome, but at the same time I wouldn't mind seeing Yen have another go at it, as long as they give him a formidable opponent. For now, Ip Man 3 is a good way to end things, if it is the end. (7/10)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Year: 2015
Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Andy Serkis, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong'o, Dohmnall Gleeson, Max Von Sydow

Plot: Thirty years after the fall of the Empire, the First Order has risen from its ashes. They possess a weapon that can destroy entire star systems. Both the Order and the Resistance are looking for Luke Skywalker, who has gone missing. The Resistance's only hope rests in the hands of a scavenger, a reformed stormtrooper and a little droid.

Review: The wait is over. The most anticipated film of the last decade is finally here. So can J.J. Abrams do for Star Wars what he did for Star Trek (honestly I don't know what Trek purists are so mad about Into Darkness, it was an awesome film to me)? The answer is yes.

The plot is actually quite simple. Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi, is missing. Both the First Order and the Resistance, led by Luke's sister Leia (now a general) are looking for him. There is a map to his location, stored in a droid, BB8, which makes its way to Rey, a scavenger who is also a very skilled pilot. She then runs into Finn, a former stormtrooper of the First Order who just isn't the kind of guy that kills people. The two attempt to get BB8 to the Resistance, with a little help from everyone's favorite smuggler, Han Solo. Meanwhile, they are continuously chased by the Order, led by Kylo Ren, who sorta looks like Darth Vader.

Sound familiar? Yeah, it almost resembles the plot of Episode IV, doesn't it? But to Abrams' credit, the film ends up being very entertaining and thrilling. He keeps the story flowing smoothly while making sure every cast member gets their chance to shine. All the visual effects look pretty good too, and from what I hear, Abrams tried to be as practical as possible, and the results look damn great.

Cast wise, it's actually great to see Harrison Ford back as Han. In the last few years I can't recall a film where Ford was even remotely memorable, but slipping back into Han is a natural choice and he's still great in the role, albeit a little grumpier. Carrie Fisher looks noticeably older here (so does Ford honestly) but still possesses enough screen presence as Leia. The duo, along with Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca and Anthony Daniels as C3P0, are a welcome sight for loyal Star Wars fans.

As for the new cast, I gotta give credit to Daisy Ridley and John Boyega for really nailing their respective roles as Rey and Finn. Both of them have great enthusiasm for the material and it shows, especially during a thrilling aerial chase between the Millennium Falcon and two TIE fighters. They are great additions to the future instalments of the franchise. Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren, who is somewhat a less refined version of Vader, and definitely more vulnerable. One wonders what he will be like in the days to come. Oscar Isaac plays Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, who provides some well timed comedy, but doesn't quite get enough time to really shine.

As for the million dollar question: do we get to see Mark Hamill? Yes, we do. I'll say nothing more, but safe to say, it's a cool moment indeed. Oh, do look out for several people you might recognize if you're a film/TV geek. Like Abrams stalwart Greg Grunberg as a Resistance pilot. Or Game Of Thrones actor Thomas Brodie Sangster as a First Order officer. Or Ken Leung as a Resistance admiral.

As mentioned, the plot is much too similar to Episode IV, thus making it quite predictable overall. But it's really not a huge deal. The most important thing is the experience, and Abrams has managed to make Episode VII his own while making well executed nods to what fans love most.

Bottom line is, if you even remotely loved Star Wars, then you need to go see this. Period. (9/10)   

Monday, December 07, 2015

In The Heart Of The Sea

Year: 2015
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Charlotte Riley

Plot: Based on the true story of the crew of the whale hunting ship Essex, that were stranded at sea after being attacked by a massive sperm whale.

Review: This film marks Ron Howard's sixth true story adaptation, which is testament to the man's great talent at the genre.

In The Heart Of The Sea is set in Nantucket in 1820, where the whale oil industry is booming. The hunt for whales in order to meet the demand for the oil made from their fat is at a high. Experienced whale hunter Owen Chase sets out on the Essex, a whale hunting ship as its first mate, under the command of George Pollard, an inexperienced captain. After unsuccessfully trying to fill their quota of 2000 barrels in the South Atlantic Sea, they hear of an area in the Pacific ocean where huge whales have been sighted, and head there. But in their attempt to harvest their oil, a huge sperm whale attacks their ship, subsequently sinking it. The men are forced to survive at sea in their lifeboats, with very little direction and much less provisions.

In terms of look and feel, Howard has done a splendid job. The era of 1820s Nantucket looks good, and the whale itself looks very intimidating, though its presence is slighted by a lack of wide shots by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The plot is basically split between the men's survival at sea in the second half, and the tension between Chase and Pollard, caused by the former's origins as a "land man" versus the latter's family holding the monopoly of the oil industry in Nantucket.

Now, while the story is fascinating and Howard's direction being solid for the most part, the film isn't as engaging as it could have been. There are several moments when the film drags, and it does take a while before the big whale makes its debut. Howard also missed the opportunity to develop the relationship between Chase and Pollard. He did well in laying the groundwork, but he could have done much more to establish their rivalry. Howard did much better in this regard for Rush, where the two lead characters Hunt and Lauda shared a disdain that eventually became mutual respect. And while their harrowing survival story at sea is told well, it isn't as compelling as say, Cast Away or even Unbroken.

Chris Hemsworth does a good job as Chase, but one gets the feeling that he is slightly miscast. Hemsworth excels at playing free spirited and reckless guys, like Thor or James Hunt. Chase is a fair man who takes care of his crew, both young and old. An older actor would have suited the role better. Benjamin Walker is better as Pollard, balancing the fine act between being proud of his heritage and being responsible as the ship's captain. Tom Holland, the new Spider-Man, acquits himself well as 14-year old seaman Tom Nickerson, while Cillian Murphy is alright as second mate Matthew Joy. Brendan Gleeson and Ben Whishaw round up the cast as the older Tom Nickerson and Moby Dick author Herman Melville, in the scenes where the former tells the story of the Essex to the latter. They both do fine, but the film belongs to the men on the ship. Also noteworthy is Game Of Thrones' Michelle Fairley as Tom's wife, who makes each of her few scenes count.

In closing I'd say In The Heart Of The Sea is a decent sea adventure, but not an epic one, and definitely not Ron Howard's best work. But still, it's quite watchable, at least before Star Wars rolls in. (7/10)

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Victor Frankenstein

Year: 2015
Director: Paul McGuigan
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Freddie Fox, Charles Dance

Plot: The well known story of Victor Frankenstein and how he created his monster, told from Igor's point of view.

Review: The story of Frankenstein and his monster is known to many, but I don't think there has been one that is told from the perspective of Igor, his assistant.

In director Paul McGuigan's version, Igor is a hunchback circus clown badly abused by the ringmaster and his men, who impresses Victor Frankenstein, a man in the audience with his medical knowledge when he saves the circus' star acrobat, Lorelei. The slightly mad doctor rescues Igor from his sad predicament and hires him to assist on bringing the dead back to life. Indebted to the man, who also fixes his posture, Igor agrees. The two men proceed to test and experiment with many dead animal parts to successfully create life out of death. Their efforts attract the unwanted attention of a Scotland Yard inspector who doesn't take too kindly to ungodly activities.

McGuigan, who directed the underrated Push, does a great job in terms of authenticity. The look, feel and mood of the Victorian era is rather accurately displayed here. The script is quite good too, making room for lots of entertaining dialogue and fast paced action sequences, thus the film is rarely dull.

The film however is not without flaws. Daniel Radcliffe, while doing a solid job in portraying Igor, isn't really challenged by the script. He's basically playing a good man who is trying to save his friend from disaster. The fact that they put him in a romantic subplot with Lorelei (acted well by Jessica Brown Findlay but poorly written) shows that McGuigan and company desperately want us to see him as the hero here, added to the fact that Igor is telling the story. James McAvoy is very impressive as Frankenstein, throwing in lots of charm, eccentricity and wit to present a man who is determined, intelligent but dangerous at the same time. Andrew Scott, fresh from playing C in Spectre, is much better as the inspector here, giving an ice cold vibe to his character. The always welcome Charles Dance is superb as Frankenstein's father, despite appearing in only one scene.

The film worked pretty well for the first two thirds, and unfortunately succumbs to a weak ending after a badly choreographed climax, with an opening for a sequel. It would have been better if they just ended it right there.

Overall, Victor Frankenstein is a fun watch, but slightly forgettable. The best reason to go see this is James McAvoy. (7/10)


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