Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Great Wall

Year: 2016
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe, Lu Han

Plot: A thief from the west travelling to the east in search of gunpowder gets involved in a battle between the guardians of the Great Wall and an ancient evil.

Review: I can't believe the amount of flak this film has been getting. It's strange. When films like Assassin's Creed take themselves too seriously, people hate them. Then when The Great Wall tries to liven things up with fantastical creatures and colorful costumes, people hate that too. There's just no pleasing everyone.

Anyway, acclaimed director Zhang Yimou collaborates with Hollywood to bring to life a fantasy adventure involving the famous Great Wall of China. We are first introduced to a couple of thieves, William and Tovar, who barely survive a strange creature attack on their journey towards the east looking for gunpowder. They end up getting captured by the Nameless Order, an army that watches and secures the Great Wall. Soon after, a large horde of those creatures, named Taotie, attack the wall, and William decides to forgo his original plan and help the Order, much to Tovar's chagrin.

As far as visuals are concerned, Zhang scores plenty of marks. Sure, some of the CGI looks weak, but overall the film looks really good. Just like Hero, Zhang puts his obsession for colors to use here by giving the Order different colored armors based on their skill set. I am aware that some critics have a problem with that, but I thought it was cool.

The action sequences are well done overall, with the opening battle sequence being the most impressive. There's also a cool sequence in the middle of the film when William and Tovar battle the Taotie in thick fog using noise as their guide.

Matt Damon, probably in his first ever role requiring him to use ancient weapons, does well as William, with Game Of Thrones' Pedro Pascal getting the funny sidekick role of Tovar, which he pulls off well too. Jing Tian (Special I.D.), appearing in next year's Kong: Skull Island, impresses as Lin, one of the few members of the order who admires William, while Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau makes good with his role as Strategist Wang, though his English sounds too phonetic at times.

It's unfortunate though that Willem Dafoe is rather wasted here as Ballard, a westerner looking to steal gunpowder and run first chance he gets. Also wasted are the rest of the commanders of the Order who don't get enough screen time, including star Eddie Peng. I'm also not fond of having the Emperor being a cowardly young boy, and it would have been nice if William had interacted with more of the Chinese cast aside from Lau, Jing and Lu Han (as a guard he rescued). And why do the Order wear their armor at all times, even during meals?

But you know what? Despite everything, and the film borrowing heavily from Aliens and Starship Troopers, I had a blast with The Great Wall. It certainly beats Jackie Chan's poor attempts to merge east and west while championing China in the last few years. This certainly isn't a Zhang Yimou artistic vehicle, but it's a lot of fun from start to finish, and a perfect way to close out the year. (7.5/10)  

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Assassin's Creed

Year: 2016
Director: Justin Kurzel
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Ariane Labed, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams

Plot: Callum Lynch, a convict sentenced to death, is captured by a secret society for an experiment that involves jumping back in time into his ancestor's body in search of an ancient artifact that can cure mankind's appetite for violence.

Review: Video games are the hardest to adapt into film. It seems only Paul W.S. Anderson has been able to get it right, first with Mortal Kombat and then with Resident Evil, the latter's sixth and final film coming out next month. Assassin's Creed, much like Warcraft earlier this year, has a skilled director and a stellar cast, and they both aim high, but both stumble somewhat.

Callum Lynch, sentenced to death by lethal injection, wakes up in a mysterious facility alongside other inmates, and told that he is a descendant of an assassin during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. The facility is run by Sofia Rikkin and her father Alan; the former has a program that allows people to jump into the bodies of their ancestors and relive their experiences. Sofia wants Cal to jump into his ancestor Aguilar's body in 1492 and find out where he hid the Apple Of Eden, an artifact said to harbor the secret to eliminating violence in humans. And so Cal relives Aguilar's battles in 1492, where he and a group of assassins are at war with the Templar over the Apple. But, like most stories of its kind, there's a hidden agenda involved.

Director Justin Kurzel uses the same tactics he deployed in Macbeth, keeping the visuals dark and hazy, and half the time it proves to be a bit too much as it's hard to make out the actors' faces on screen. The fight sequences fare better though, and a dazzling rooftop chase sequence at the middle of the film looked pretty good. Kurzel also does a good job in setting up the plot; while the pace seems slow in the first third, it allows the film's backstory to be properly explored, but unfortunately one feels that a good chunk of the film was edited, particularly scenes involving the supporting characters at the facility. Basically put, in comparison Assassin's Creed succeeds in plot development but stumbles in visual execution, while Warcraft is the other way around.

Michael Fassbender plays the lead roles of Cal and Aguilar quite well, proving he can be an action hero with the right film. Marion Cotillard however is too subdued as Sofia, thus unable to display her true motivations towards the finale. Jeremy Irons is good as Alan Rikkin but isn't given enough time to shine. Brendan Gleeson only has a couple of scenes as Cal's father but makes them count.

As mentioned, the other supporting characters who are inmates at the facility should have been given more time on screen as their team up with Cal in the last third of the film feels rushed, leading to a non-climactic finish, and like Warcraft, an open-ended one (though I admit this finish beats the Warcraft one). 

Imdb states that the film ought to be 25 minutes longer. I wouldn't mind if it was another 15 minutes longer just for the film to be fleshed out better. At least the action sequences and the thumping soundtrack by Kurzel's younger brother Jed make Assassin's Creed a somewhat decent film, but that's about it. (6.5/10)

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Year: 2016
Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen

Plot: The story of how a small group of rebels stole the plans for the Death Star, which allowed the Rebellion to defeat the Empire in Episode IV.

Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is different from any Star Wars film we have seen, understandably so since it's a spin-off. One would notice the absence of the usual prologue crawl at the start, but the most notable departure is the fact that Rogue One is a mostly serious film, even more so than Episode III or V.

We begin with Jyn Erso, who as a child saw her father Galen being taken away by the Empire to help them build the Death Star, the ominous weapon capable of destroying an entire planet. As an adult, Jyn is sought by the Rebellion to help find her former mentor Saw Gerrera, who has recently captured a recently defected Imperial pilot. The pilot is carrying a message from her father containing critical information about the Death Star. In order to complete the mission and find the blueprints of the Death Star, Jyn teams up with rebel captain Cassian Andor, a reprogrammed Imperial droid, a mercenary, a blind monk and the pilot Bodhi Rook.

Gareth Edwards, who achieved mixed results with his last film Godzilla, manages to make his film different from the other Star Wars movies while still keeping in tune with the saga's space opera theme. As mentioned, the film is pretty serious and rather grim overall, with no Jedi in sight, no handsome smugglers and no cute or wisecracking droids, except for the rebel droid K-2SO, who gets a few memorable one-liners. Donnie Yen's Chirrut Imwe gets a few jokes in too while he's not fighting, but still the overall tone is dark and tragic.

Speaking of Yen, he's probably my favorite thing about Rogue One. As the blind monk capable of taking on ten stormtroopers the same way Ip Man fights ten Japanese fighters, Yen exudes presence and charisma. He makes a great partnership with Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus, who solidly gives his character a brave yet world weary look. Felicity Jones is great as Jyn and Diego Luna is alright as Cassian, a rebel who admits to having to do terrible things in his fight for the Rebellion. Alan Tudyk is always reliable as K-2SO, and Riz Ahmed rounds up the rebels as the pilot Rook. Forest Whitaker is interesting as the eccentric Saw Gerrera while Ben Mendelsohn also puts in good work as chief villain Director Kenric, whom the audience would be able to sympathize with since he's often stepped on by his superiors.

Rogue One does suffer from a few flaws, namely the lack of a proper space fight which Star Wars films are known for. There is one at the end but it is much too brief and forgettable. I also felt Jyn embraced the Rebellion's ideals much too easily after being happy on her own before then. Then there's Edwards' decision to use CGI to recreate the likenesses of characters like Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia, which really wasn't necessary (a decent lookalike would suffice in my opinion). But I did love Darth Vader's appearance at the end as he single-handedly disposes of a group of rebel soldiers. Pretty awesome sequence.

All in all, Rogue One is pretty good in its own way, hitting most of the right notes where it matters. It isn't as memorable as last year's Episode VII, but still something worth checking out. (8/10)

Monday, December 12, 2016


Year: 2016
Director: Dain Iskandar Said
Cast: Shaheizy Sam, Iedil Putra, Prisa Nasution, Nicholas Saputra

Plot: A detective and a forensic photographer team up to solve a series of strange murders, which involve antique glass film negatives and a lost tribe.

Review: Dain Said's Interchange is a welcome change from the usual type of films Malaysia is known to produce, such as silly comedies, weak horror films and the standard rom coms. This country does not produce many fantasy films in this modern era, and none have looked this macabre.

In Interchange, Detective Man is investigating a series of strange murders, where the victims are found hanging from the ceiling and drained of all their blood. Pieces of glass film negatives are found at the scenes, prompting Man to seek the help of Adam, his friend who used to take pictures of murder victims, until he got spooked and quit, and now spends his time taking pictures of his neighbors instead. Man persuades Adam to pursue the case with him, and through his mysterious female neighbor Iva, the latter discovers a lost world and lots of supernatural goings on. It all leads to a mysterious man named Belian, who obviously isn't human. So what's going on exactly?

First off, I'll give credit where it's due. For Dain to attempt something so daringly different than what our audiences are accustomed to is commendable. Interchange is dark, bizarre and quite grim, yet most fascinating. I liked how Dain presents us a city that is unnamed (though it probably is KL) and though familiar, still quite different from any place in Malaysia I know of. The camerawork is exquisite, from the tight shots indoors to the wide shots of the scenery when the characters are standing on balconies, rooftops and the like. The shots from Adam's balcony of his surrounding apartment blocks is amazing.

The story however, is almost there. I say almost, because it starts off promisingly enough, but it doesn't quite get the finish it deserves, and a handful of points are left unsolved or properly clarified. In my opinion, Belian's role in all this is the most important point, but never really explained satisfactorily, other than the fact that he is otherworldly and crucially needed for something I can't talk about lest I give too much away. A bit more time spent at the end to clarify things would really help.

The cast perform to expectations, but it is Shaheizy Sam's wise cracking detective that stands out the most. Iedil Putra is alright as Adam but his character is much too two dimensional. Prisa Nasution fares better as Iva, while Nicholas Saputra is solid as Belian, even though the exploration of his character is the weakest, and the poor makeup effects don't help either.

In the end, Interchange is worthy to watch and experience at least once, just to taste something fresh and unconventional in Malaysian film. It lacks a proper finish, but the potential is there. (7/10) 

Monday, December 05, 2016


Year: 2016
Director: Boo Junfeng
Cast: Fir Rahman, Wan Hanafi Su, Mastura Ahmad

Plot: Aiman, a young correctional officer, is transferred to a maximum security prison, where he befriends senior officer Rahim, who is in charge of executions. The two men start a friendship, but unknown to Rahim, Aiman's father had been executed by him many years ago.

Review: Apprentice is Singapore's official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Oscars. It is an interesting, if not totally perfect film.

Aiman is a young correctional officer transferred to Larangan Prison, assigned to the rehabilitation section. He takes an interest in Rahim, a senior officer in the executions section, and befriends him. The old man takes a liking to Aiman, seeing a younger version of himself in him, but what he doesn't know is that he had executed Aiman's father many years ago. So the question is, why is Aiman seeking him out now?

The answer isn't forthcoming however, or if it was answered, it was done vaguely. Writer/director Boo Junfeng isn't interested in making a vengeance story, which Apprentice clearly is not. This is actually a character study, and an insight into an executioner's duty and what it feels like to work in a prison. Boo's story focuses on two men, one who has a chip on his shoulder, and another who is good at what he does, but not as content with it as he claims to be.

We watch the two men mostly from Aiman's point of view. Aiman carries the burden of his father's crime, and lashes out his anger at his older sister, who is in a relationship with an Australian expat. Rahim on the other hand has done his duty for three decades, and though it seems easy to him, it is clear that taking a person's life does take a toll on him. While Boo fleshes out both characters well, the question as to Aiman's intentions in pursuing the executioner's job and getting close to Rahim is never fully explained. It's obvious he doesn't want revenge, and he can excel at anything other than this, so why? Aside from that, Aiman's disdain for his sister's expat boyfriend is not properly explored either, and his anger towards her for making a life changing decision at the film's half mark is baffling, since he's always so indifferent with her.

But it must be said that Apprentice excels in sound and cinematography. The film is almost scoreless, so every footstep, door slam and the pull of the trap door lever sounds really crisp and perfect. The camerawork is also splendid, as the narrow confines of a prison cell, rooms and corridors are perfectly captured. Even the early morning shots of Aiman going to work are well done.

Acting wise, Fir Rahman is alright as Aiman, but rather inconsistent. In some scenes, he's on point, but in other times he seems much too aloof. Wan Hanafi Su is faultless as Rahim, balancing the character's mentor friendly demeanor and pent up rage brilliantly. Mastura Ahmad also puts in a strong performance as Suhaila, Aiman's sister, who doesn't know what to do with her little brother most of the time.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the execution scenes. While Hollywood likes to portray death row inmates as tough and unafraid of death, it's refreshing to see Boo show them as fearful of their fated walk down the dark corridor to the noose. Boo even spares some time to point his lens at the inmates' family and how they deal with the matter.

In summation, Apprentice is a solid film about the life of an executioner and how it is like working in a prison. The film is a bit rough around the edges, but very promising indeed and worth checking out. (7/10) 

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Underworld: Blood Wars

Year: 2016
Director: Anna Foerster
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Lara Pulver, Tobias Menzies, Charles Dance, James Faulkner, Clementine Nicholson, Daisy Head, Bradley James, Peter Andersson

Plot: Selene has grown weary of the vampire-lycan war, and is now on the run from both clans, each seeking to capture her for her unique blood, which will give either side the power to win the war. Now she has to fight for her life, with only David, the vampire she saved in Awakening, as her ally.

Review: The Underworld franchise is similar to the Resident Evil franchise: violent, fun and disposable entertainment. The kind that you watch now, have a nice ride and accept for what it is, seldom ranking it as art. So if you've always had a great disdain for these films, you can stop reading now.

Kate Beckinsale has been the center piece of the Underworld series (except for the third film prequel) and continues to do what she does best: kicking ass. In this fifth instalment, Selene is on her own again. She has separated herself from her daughter Eve (introduced in Awakening), not even knowing her whereabouts to protect her from being found. Selene has grown tired of the war, but both lycan and vampire groups continue to hunt her down. Through David, her only ally left, she learns that the vampire council has requested her to train their army into formidable Death Dealers like herself, in order to face the onslaught of the lycans, now united under Marius. However, she's in for a few surprises, and again forced to seek help elsewhere.

New director Anna Foerster, working with a script by Kyle Ward and Cory Goodman, just manages to keep the new Underworld film engaging enough by introducing new places and characters. Sure, some will say the action is more or less similar and the vampires and lycans just picked up where they left off, but for fans, they get to revisit the vampire council (not seen since the first film) and check out a new vampire faction that live in the northern mountains. There is also a subplot involving David's origins which tie in to the vampire council. These elements somehow elevate Blood Wars above what would have been a mediocre Underworld outing.

In terms of acting, the cast do well enough, nothing outstanding, which is forgivable, being an action film and all. Beckinsale does seem a tad tired from doing this role again, but she clearly hasn't lost a step in the action department. Theo James continues to be rather bland as David, but he does try harder this time around as his role has expanded somewhat. Da Vinci's Demons' Lara Pulver and Game Of Thrones' Tobias Menzies are the antagonists here, the former faring better in her role as the scheming Semira, the latter being rather miscast as Marius (sorry, but Edmure Tully just doesn't have what it takes to look evil). Glad to see another Da Vinci cast member, James Faulkner show up as vampire council member Cassius, but he doesn't have enough screen time though. Clementine Nicholson makes an interesting character out of Lena, one of the vampires from the northern clan, though the spiritual mumbo jumbo was a bit too hard to swallow.

If compared to the previous films, Blood Wars does fall short in the action department (Evolution and Awakening were the best), and the ambiguous final shot doesn't help matters. But like I said, one watches these films for entertainment, and as a movie fan, I was entertained.

Bottom line is, if you never liked this franchise, Blood Wars won't change your mind. If you love it, then go see it. (7/10)


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