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Heartwarming and gut-wrenching performances lift movie
My wife 'hates' this opening paragraph because I have written it many times. But I am still going to say it: do you know how I know a movie is good? It's how long we can hold a conversation about it. All through the 45-minute drive we were locked in an ebullient discourse about the movie and this doesn't happen very often. This morning at breakfast, you guessed it, we were pouring over a review in the local papers and we watched the prize-winning short film (2011) of which the movie is based on, still trying to hold on to the remnants of a pitch-perfect film, pun intended.
Wen Guang (Kyo Chen), an autistic young man, is cared for by his younger brother, known only as Didi (Ernest Chong). Things are taking a toll on the brother and he sents Wen Guang out to look for work, but holding on to his job is a difficult task. Things come to a boiling head when the police come knocking on the door.
We saw the trailer for Guang some time ago and there is something about trailers that can make you become judge and jury in a space of less than two minutes. I knew I was going to watch a movie about an autistic savant and all the tropes associated with the genre would play themselves out in a quick burst. But then a glowing review in the local papers and great word of mouth made me take a risk. Yes, Guang embraces all the tropes but it is in the execution that it soars on wings of doves.
Blame it on Hollywood - autistic savants are gifted with superhuman abilities that are 'weaponised' for entertainment. In Rain Man (1988), Dustin Hoffman's character can count cards and in The Accountant (2016), Ben Affleck's character is great with numbers and machine guns. In Guang, Wen Guang has the ability to hear pitch in musical notes and pin-point their frequency. It is a sonic talent that puts him in more trouble than reeling in the money. That's the first thing that is refreshing about the debut film of Quek Shio Chuan - Guang's skills are useless in the real world.
Guang is also a semi-autobiographical piece of work and the director's own high-functioning autistic brother appears during the end-credits.
Movies like this can become cloying very fast, but Guang remains steadfast and never goes down the road of syrupy sentimentality for the first two acts. By the third act I already gave it a free pass to do the worst to me, and I have to say every tear was earned.
The movie rises on the authenticity of the brothers' relationship, brilliantly captured by a stunningly vivid cinematography. The streets of Kuala Lumpur's seedy Pudu district and their ramshackle apartment were lit and shot with a vibrancy, like a Malaysia I have never seen. The framing of every shot looks meticulously planned and carried out.
Kyo Chen's turn as Wen Guang is superb. Most times actors playing these roles tend to draw all the attention, but Chen never consumes the frames, letting his honest performance inform his struggles. His glassy stares and his flustered states of exigencies readily draw empathy. Likewise with Ernest Chong who plays the younger brother. Their portrayals are natural and the humour unforced. The characters conversed in a mixture of Mandarin, Cantonese and Malay, giving the movie a great sense of place and time.
The redemption arc of both brothers is deeply satisfying. Nothing is laid out in convenient expositions and in one instance we ended up discussing during the drive home how the "two becomes one" plot sequence transpired and our admiration for the storytelling went up another notch. However, something else my wife shared brought a pregnant pause. Who are we to say that an autistic person is abnormal? They can stay focused at a task until it reaches perfection, but we on the other hand have a thousand things vying for our attention at any given moment, and we sometimes can't even do that one task to the best of our ability.
There are many movies out there that thrill, make us laugh, scare us, turn us into softies, but you can count on the fingers of probably one hand the few movies in a year that make you understand the impaired person and make you want to become a better person. Guang is the first movie I have seen this year in this latter category.
Jimami Tofu (2017)
Don't see this on an empty stomach
When I see and feel love oozing out of every frame, my critic's hat completely disappears and I am able to meet the movie halfway. Jimami Tofu is that movie for me this year.
I have heard some nice things about Jimami Tofu last year, but I made the mistake of watching another locally made foodie movie called Ramen Teh, which left a bad taste in my mouth and I thought one local foodie movie a year is enough. It was by pure chance that I discovered a single screening at the cinema on a Wednesday evening and my wifey was on leave. The stars were aligned and off we went.
One of the things I love when it comes to watching movies or going to concerts is when I get a chance to show my appreciation for the artistes' efforts face to face. Christian Lee (director) and Jason Chan (lead actor) were there manning a table selling t-shirts, soundtracks, tote bags and souvenir screenplays of their movie. I had a nice chat with them and they seemed the nicest dudes ever with a passion for filmmaking.
Prior before the movie began and I must say it was quite a good crowd, the filmmakers gave a short talk with regards to the genesis of the project. They were actually in Okinawa to shoot a travelogue documentary, but fell in love with everything Okinawan. One thing led to another and they decided a movie would best showcase the unique history, culture and cuisine of the land. The two of them then took on all the major tasks of filmmaking - directing, editing, producing, writing, acting, sound, cinematography and even composing the score for the movie. How's that for passion?
There is a scene in the movie of Yuki, the food critic, about to enter a restaurant and the owner lambast her for destroying his reputation by writing an atrocious food review of his old restaurant. I think herein lies one of the responsibilities of a movie critic: how do we draw the line between honesty and curry-flavouring? Can we be brutally honest without sacrificing our integrity? Compassion is the key, and it is also the key to so many things in life.
I can probably give you a wall of words on what the movie failed to do, like how it should have ended two scenes ago, how a sub-plot can be completely excised without sacrificing the movie, how some characters' motivations are not defined clearly and so on. However, deep down in my heart, I felt the movie erred on the filmmakers' efforts to do too much, by that I mean showcasing the languid lifestyle of the people and the humble cuisine of Okinawa. Their passion was contagious as I find myself being immersed in the beautiful land of Okinawa.
There is a beautiful scene late in the movie which detailed what the old chef did for a young couple on their first date and friends who were mourning at a funeral wake in the midst of a typhoon; that for me, was one of the strongest heartbeats of the movie and depicts the power of what good food can wield. That scene managed to make my wifey tear up. A few evenings ago, we saw Taiwan's number one tearjerker More Than Blue and it couldn't even conjure a single tear out of her. It goes to show how she can spot emotionally manipulative tricks from a mile away, and here the sincerity of that scene rings true. Her tears were earned.
Great films that feature food like The Lunchbox (2013) and Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), treat food like metaphors to weave stories about the human condition, while Jimami Tofu uses food as a metaphor for familial love and bridging relationships. It may be an over-used metaphor, but the sincerity is palpable. Here, food is likened to a symphony with every element coming together at the right moment to bring forth an explosion of memories. And as in all good foodie movies, don't go in with an empty stomach.
Manbiki kazoku (2018)
Sometimes water can be thicker than blood
Hirokazu Kore-eda's The Third Murder (2017) left me cold and entertaining the notion that Kore-eda has lost his mojo. O ye of little faith, please forgive me... Shoplifters, fresh from being minted with the highest honour, the Palme d'Or, at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is Kore-eda back to being his emotionally devastating best. This ranks in the top tier of his outstanding output. If ever there is a film that can declare that sometimes, just sometimes, water can be thicker than blood, this is it.
Somewhere in Tokyo, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), his 'wife' Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and 'daughter' Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) live in poverty. While Osamu receives occasional employment and Nobuyo has a low-paying job, the family relies in large part on 'grandmother' Hatsue's pension. As he is shoplifting for groceries with his 'son', Shota (Kairi Jo), they discover Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a neglected girl. Osamu takes her home, where the family observes evidence of abuse. Despite their strained finances, they informally adopt her.
Once in a long while, a film can come along, sneaks up on you and sends your heart into a flutter of tiny explosions. Coming out of the screening with six other friends, we had to dissect what we had just experienced. As it turned out, it wasn't much of a deconstruction, but more of a discussion of the ideas of the family unit that Kore-eda paints with such delicate and painterly brushstrokes. That's when you realise the immense power of cinema and what it can do. This is a gem.
Kore-eda dives into his favourite theme of the family unit and observes what will happen to the bedrock of familial relationships if it goes through a seismic shift. It is a theme he has dealt with in outstanding films like Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), I Wish (2011), Like Father, Like Son (2013), Our Little Sister (2015) and After the Storm (2016). After so many excellent films on the same theme, you would think what else can he still distill. Shoplifters may be Kore-eda most complex, but yet his most accessible film to date.
The ideas explored in Shoplifters are multi-faceted and piercingly intelligent, intermeshed into a tapestry that will fall apart if even one scene is taken out. The script is subtle and draws empathy readily. So many times the dialogue feels innocuous, only for the poignancy to hit you in the gut some time later. It doesn't judge, never points a finger at any party, nothing here errs on the side of twee. The tone is deftly maintained from the first frame to the devastating last.
As usual, the heavy-lifting is done by the youngest actors, performances so naturalistic that they feel authentic. The ensemble is superbly cast and each of them shines in their own memorable way. They may be thieves, but there is honour and righteousness in them. They do not represent the lowest strata of the Japanese society and don't believe in handouts. With a warped sense of justice, they are willing to break the rules to survive. Above all else, their love and trust for each other is the glue that binds them.
Kore-eda never cheapens the emotional ride and doles out expositions like sermons. Details of characters are gradually accumulated in a Zen manner till it hits a gut-wrenching last act.
Like a lot of his heart-wrenching films, Shoplifters feels like a 3-hour magnum opus and I was again surprised it is only a 2-hour film because Kore-eda packs so much in the story. You will no doubt feel like you had lived a lifetime with the characters. Shoplifters is essential viewing and provides many involving examinations of what constitutes a true family. I love what the matriarch of the family said in a contemplative scene at the beach and I will paraphrase - "Sometimes it is better to be with the family you choose rather than the family you are born in". Some food for thought there.
A hypnotic menagerie of the basest of human behaviour
Terms like "masterpiece" and "breathtaking" are used far too often, yet they define Lee Chang-dong's latest, eight years after his brutally lyrical Poetry (2010). However, Burning, based on Haruki Murakami's short story Barn Burning, is not an easy film to watch. Allusive and elusive, it begins as a brilliant character study and gradually shifts its gear segueing into psychological thriller territory.
Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a part-time worker, bumps into Hae-mi (Jun Jeong-seo) while delivering, who used to live in the same neighborhood. Hae-mi asks him to look after her cat while she's on a trip to Africa. When Hae-mi comes back, she introduces Ben (Steven Yuen), a mysterious guy she met in Africa, to Jong-su. One day, Ben visits Jong-su's with Hae-mi and confesses to him during a pot session that he burns abandoned greenhouses.
In anticipation of the film, I re-read the Haruki Murakami's short story taken from the anthology The Elephant Vanishes. Like a lot of his works, the story feels cryptic, simple on the surface, surreal once it gets under your skin. There is a mystery but Murakami doesn't quite persuade you to penetrate beneath the veneer. I certainly didn't think for one second it could be adapted into a film because there doesn't seem to be much of a plot at all. My wife shared the same sentiment. We were all the more curious as to what Lee could distill from this intriguing short story.
Like Murakami's distinctive prose, Lee's Burning retains the other-worldly surreality through arthouse pacing and artful cinematography. The first act moves at a languid pace as we observe Jong-su's infectious reticence and Hae-mi's enthusiastic flamboyance. It is an unlikely match, but you will sense the possibility of a sweet romance. They long to cling near one another like satellites, but they will never share the same orbit because forming the third vertex of the triangular relationship is Ben, the coolly detached upper-class, the spanner in the works, the Great Gatsby.
As much as the first act plays like a meditative dance of a fever dream and an elegy for lost innocence, I also recognise that it will be divisive. I have a feeling most filmgoers won't have the patience to sit through it and be emotionally vested in the characters. Lee may be an extraordinary image maker, gently probing deep into the human psyche, its desires and impulses, but the story feels opaque, dense, resembling an enigma. But if one is a serious filmgoer, it is easy to slip into Lee's rhapsodic wonder of a tale, patiently waiting for the bomb to drop. It is when the head film becomes a mind film in the second act that it pays dividends tenfold.
If Murakami's short story feels deceptively simple, Lee takes it into the nether region of complexity. He unravels what it means to be consumed by a mystery and what it means to be alive. The production is meticulously artful - ponder over how Jong-su's home is a stone's throw from the border of both Koreas and how propaganda is blaring every other hour, and ravel in the beautiful light of the sunset as Ben shares his unusual hobby. Lee is able to externalise the interior states of the human mind in extraordinary ways. The subtext of social classes in the Korean society also plunges a knife into one's consciousness. He is also helped by a unique soundtrack of discordant musical cues that grow in mysterious power as the story grows in stature. Lee builds the final act to a feverish high and he almost wants to deny us the satisfaction of a resolution, but it does arrive at an ending that is shocking and inevitable. There is no celebration; there is only the quiet satisfaction of arriving at the solution of a baffling Math problem that has nagged at you for many sleepless nights.
Lee fills every frame with meaning, enhanced and accentuated in no small part by the three superb leads. He priorities rhythm and texture over narrative clarity, immersing us in a hypnotic menagerie of the basest of human behaviour. Burning is an engrossing tale of the unravelling of a rational and innocent mind by sheer desire, rich with characterisations and themes. It is a Korean film unlike any other Korean film I have seen and it immediately warrants a second or third viewing to catch all the nuances. I hope I don't have to wait another eight years for his next film.
Singwa hamkke: Ingwa yeon (2018)
An overstuffed shadow of the first film
If the first movie epitomises redemption, then the sequel dives headlong into forgiveness. Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds was a helluva ride through the underworld; the only misstep for me is how it went overboard with the ludicrous special effects. By that I mean how the vengeful spirit and Gang Rim go mano a mano with the city as their playground. The sequel, Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days, was shot together with the massively popular first film and it has become the second all-time box-office grosser in South Korea. However, it is an overstuffed shadow of the first film.
The sequel begins moments after the end of The Two Worlds, with the three guardians, Gang Rim (Ha Jung-woo), Haewonmak (Ju Ji-hoon) and Lee Dukchun (Kim Hyang-gi) guiding their 49th soul Kim Soo-hong (Kim Dong-wook), the brother of Kim Ja-hong, to the trials for his reincarnation. The stakes are higher because if it is successful, the three guardians will also be reincarnated.
King Yeomra (Lee Jung-jae), Lord of the Afterlife, agrees to a fair trail on the condition that Gang Rim proceeds with the case on his own, while Haewonmak and Dukchun go down to the world of humans to dispatch a troublesome housegod Sung-joo (Ma Dong-seok) and ascend an overdue soul.
The Last 49 Days has a lot to live up to and it just could not sustain under the weight of expectations set by its predecessor. The first half becomes a bit of a slog with the pacing largely going missing and the world-building taking a backseat. This is a case of lightning not being able to strike the same spot twice.
Firstly, the chemistry between the three guardians of the Afterlife went missing in the first two acts, partly because Gang Rim and his compatriots are separated. Like The Two Worlds, the narrative becomes two-pronged but sadly neither reaches the same dizzying levels. Soo-hong makes for an annoying and smart-alecky character, who doesn't garner the same sympathy as his brother, Ja-hong. It is a good move that the story doesn't go through the same process as Ja-hong but what takes its place doesn't make for compelling viewing, and dinosaurs don't help. Haewonmak and Dukchun fare better because of the intriguing character of Sung-joo, a superb casting choice. However, this time round the Stephen-Chow-resque slapstick comedy is a hit or miss.
Secondly, director Kim Yong-hwa couldn't quite find the right balance between the light fantastic and the hard-hitting drama, which led to pacing issues, so much so that I did the dreaded thing - I checked my watch.
However, all is not lost... when the story does hit the final act with the story of the three guardians revealed, it hits its groove. But still, one can't help but feel it came a little too late to save the movie.
This is a movie that very much informs these times
I saw the trailer for Searching a couple times at the cinema. The one adjective that exploded in my mind was "gimmicky". Watching the story events unfold on a computer screen projected on a cinema screen definitely screams gimmicky, but I have to admit it worked and it is also an absorbing nerve-shredding exercise. The narrative device serves the story well and I can't help but feel the movie wouldn't have worked as well with a more traditional approach. The novel concept also serves to make a statement of these current times where social media and the internet rule every day and every moment of our lives.
There is an air of inevitability about the inventive concept. We live in times where social media and the internet are so much a part of us - where we are, what we are doing, our likes, desires, frustrations and all our myriad of feelings are showcased like beacons and loutish statements that our lives are so vivid. We craved affirmations in the form of a "like". However, herein lies the great irony: for all that the social media purports to do - making the world smaller and connected, it can also make one feel lonelier as one ogles at everybody's life which somehow feels more colourful than yours.
Once Cho's David Kim meticulously investigates Margot's digital footprint, he learns that he doesn't know his daughter. How well do you know your children? What is written on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the likes, how much can you trust it? The movie does a good job of showing the duality of these social platforms.
Cho is well-cast as the anxious father and his emotional range is palpable. Equally effective is Debra Messing as the no nonsense policewoman. Newcomer Michelle La is also excellent as Margot.
All the more impressive is that Searching is Indian-American Aneesh Chaganty's directorial debut. The movie won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize and Next Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. His grasp of the thriller genre is impeccable and I am sure you will hear Hitchcock's name mentioned in the same breath. What I find most impressive is his use of the concept and how it never feels laboured all through a breathless 103 minutes. It all feels plausible and natural. Just observe the initial few minutes in which it gives texture and breath to Margot's life from birth and you are already vested in the characters on a computer screen.
It is very hard to pen a review for Searching because the thrill is in the visceral experience and not knowing what comes next. This is a rollercoaster of a ride and just when you think the rollercoaster car has completed the most death-defying loop and is about to pull into the station, it does one more wild cartwheel with your insides hanging out and your adrenaline shot through the roof. This is a movie that very much informs these times.
A Star Is Born (2018)
A richly layered devastating love story
Why do we enjoy watching anyone - an athlete, a musician, an actor, a dancer, a circus performer - do something difficult, but yet make it look so easy and joyful? It invigorates us, gives us a jolt and makes us feel euphoric. Perhaps, it tells us that that person has perfected his/her craft through sheer endeavour and cathartically we, and in turn human kind, have scored a victory.
The talent on display in A Star is Born, from the refreshing crafting of a familiar story to every stellar performance, was electrifying. There have been three iterations of this story, starting with the Pygmalion tale in 1937, but somehow first-time director Bradley Cooper has given the laboured story a fresh coat of paint and it is a movie for that informs these times.
The Oscar season is months away, but I will bet my bottom dollar that this gets a slew of nominations, including Best Picture. I had goosebumps rising while watching the plot unfold and this is the first time it happened this year.
One of the movie's pleasures is that it's really about something and of course romance takes centrestage. It also has something to say about the price of fame, the propensity to cultivate talent and how contagious it is. The story of a doomed romance you can see from a mile away, but Cooper and Eric Roth (Oscar winner for Forrest Gump, 1994) somehow managed to retell an old story in a fresh way.
The first thing they did right is in the casting of Lady Gaga. On paper, I didn't think she makes for a wise choice for a streetsmart Ally because of her larger-than-life much malingered persona. I can't remember the last time I actually saw her face with no enhancements and make-up on. In terms of her music, I could only get into her infectious debut The Fame, and none of her subsequent albums registered in my consciousness. Wouldn't a guarded Ally be the anti-thesis of Lady Gaga's rock star persona? But all my misgivings evaporated the moment she hits those power notes. She is the mother lode, she is the real deal. All the singing in the movie was done live, to the camera and scoring Lady Gaga is the first major coup.
The story of how one star gradually goes supernova, while another fades into oblivion is a story as old as romance. The way to make the dots and lines disappear is to make the characters relatable and believable. Bradley Cooper, going the way of Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas and Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, turns in an outstanding performance. His voice is a couple of octaves lower than his usual roles and seeing him in a constant inebriated state and yet having the acumen to see talent is quite something to behold. You can almost pinpoint the moment he begins to love Ally, and of course their onscreen chemistry is electrifying. And when I say "love", I don't mean Hollywood's version of wanting to get into each other's pants as fast as possible. His journey from admiration to love for Ally is immensely moving.
Cooper's choice of close-up shots and handheld cinematography gives the story a sense of realism. How the camera weaves around the actors on a rock concert stage gives me an adrenaline-charged view of what actually happens on stage while the audience is cheering.
Above all else, what actually did it for me is how the devastating love story never becomes manipulative. Although the music and songs direct and reflect the feelings of the characters, it never cheapens the narrative by being overly sentimental.
A sad sense of inevitability pervades and the movie does get a bit exhausting after the charm of the sensational start wears off. But heck... I think it is meant to be exhausting. How else can one see Maine's star wane and Ally's get meteoric?
A Star is Born's blend of romantic tragedy and emotional delimma is presented with compelling conviction and honesty. It ends with a sort of honey-trap but by then I was a goner and with a definitive final shot the movie earned its namesake, A Star is Born.
The Negotiation (2018)
A pulsating thriller
Not since Cold Eyes (2013) have I seen a top tier Korean thriller.
This is one of those movies so dense with information that if you take a break to check your social media, you are going to miss something. In The Negotiation, information that is seemingly unimportant is going to feature like da bomb later. Pay attention!
The two leads are superbly cast. Their character motivations are superbly painted. When all the jigsaw pieces start to fit together... OMG! What elevates it even higher is that 90% of the time both of them are in two locked rooms separated by an ocean (or is it?). The tension is armrest-gripping marvellous. The twists and turns more than a rollercoaster ride. The pace never falters and the ending is satisfying. The motto here is the X-Files maxim "trust no one", not even the police and especially the government.
Red Sparrow (2018)
A frigid and turgid dish
Jennifer Lawrence plays a Russian secret service operative who gets raped, endures an attempted rape, gets beaten, gets a black eye, slashed, stabbed, gets a gun put to her head, has to strip in front of dozen pairs of indifferent eyes and has a man died on top (and inside) of her. Sounds like a helluva thriller if I put it that way. However, it turned out to be a totally bland experience. I am filing this under the "trailer is better than the movie" category.
The movie starts rather well. Cross-cutting tensely between two characters in two separate locations in Russia, the opening has pizazz and attitude, but it quickly simmers down to a lull. Granted this is not a spy thriller in the mold of The Bourne Trilogy and more in the plaintive vein of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Francis Lawrence's fourth outing with Jennifer Lawrence doesn't even strive to be at least exciting. So much is at stake and everything seems to fall on both Lawrences' shoulders, but just like the perennial cold Russian weather, they serve up a frigid and turgid dish.
Jennifer Lawrence puts in a professional and fearless performance and in one chilling moment performs a difficult scene with aplomb. It is a scene that takes a lot of guts to bring to life and you will know it when you see it. But her character is painted with little guile and her cold exterior is impenetrable. Her character is humanised by her love for her bedridden mother and every time she appears the heavy-handed mawkishness nearly pushed me into a near-diabetic coma. Why can't her character motivation be painted differently? So I am to gather that she messes up men for noble reasons? Cliché.
For a movie that mixes spycraft with erotica, Red Sparrow doesn't do either particularly well. The narrative sidesteps into clandestine territory with vague purpose and the cards are held so close to Lawrence's ample chest that it is difficult to sense who her allegiance is to or her cunning wileness. The cloak and dagger intrigue and mental chess games are not on par with the best spy movies that have graced our consciousness like Munich or The Bourne Trilogy, so much so that when the final denouement arrives it touches down with little impact.
In terms of erotic drama, Lawrence and Edgerton have zilch chemistry. It begins well enough at the swimming pool, but I find it hard to buy into their relationship and the huge stakes involved. A movie like this rise or fall on their on-screen chemistry, but their pairing left me cold. When it should sizzle with sultry energy, it barely purrs like a malnourished pussycat.
At a runtime of 139 minutes, nothing of note happens and my mind isn't engaged by all the espionage manoeuvrings. Violence comes in bright red flashes, but isn't compelling in terms of stakes when characters are so uninterestingly drawn. It is a shame because the story offers up so much promise (I am currently reading the book and I hate to say this, but the book is better). On top of needing a tighter edit to quicken the pace, what Red Sparrow needs is a better storyteller. As it is, this is just an unmemorable and mostly functional "point A to point B" fare. Imagine if the film were to be helmed by a director who could gel all the elements into an organic beast. Now, that would be a film blooded in crimson and Jennifer Lawrence would have disrobed for a worthier film.
Sin-gwa ham-kke: Jwi-wa beol (2017)
Superb entertainment that will make you reflect upon your life
I like putting movies into Venn diagrams and I have special categories always swimming in my head like "movies with a great final shot" and "movies that showcase traits I would like in my future partner". Then there is that one category that doesn't have many movies - "movies that can make you reflect upon one's life". Along with The Gods: The Two Worlds slips in there ever so surreptitiously.
I didn't figure the Korean blockbuster to be a tearjerker, but it most certainly was. All through the screening, I could hear people around me sniffling and wiping their tears away unabashedly, me included. The movie doesn't even try to be subtle in this aspect and I must say every rivulet of my tears was earned.
Yet the story is also fashioned as a fast-paced pulsating adventure ride and it scores top marks in this aspect too. My eyes blinked in disbelief and my mind boggled in awe as the twists and turns become wilder and twistier, but never losing its grasp on the audience. This is high concept done well, every far-fetched notion perfectly digestible. There is superb verve in its storytelling. Nothing is truly what it seems.
Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds is a film that is solidly cast. I don't get the Korean names very well, but I watch a lot of Korean cinema and TV dramas and instantly recognised all the familiar faces. Cha Tae Hyun is perfectly cast as the good-natured Paragon with a well of secrets that threaten to derail his chances at reincarnation at every trial. The casting of the 3 grim reapers is also spot-on with differing dynamics that lend propulsion to the story.
There is some amazing world building here, every level of hell is well-rendered and nothing for this reviewer feels repetitive. The CGI work here is top-notch, considering 90% of the movie is probably done to a green screen. IMHO CGI is just a means to an end and the end must always be to serve the story. The story is so strong here that the CGI disappears into the background.
Exposition is always a tricky business in storytelling and Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds is practically all exposition. But the intrigue and suspense build-up through character motivations constantly draws one deeper into the proceedings. My senses hinged closely on the afterlife guardians' explanations at every turn as I got ready for the next trial. Even with the advance preparation the trial still puts me in a tailspin with some shocking revelations. Director Kim Yong Hwa even takes a 2-pronged narrative trek midway with both narrative trajectories dovetailing in the final act effectively.
The story resonates on God levels here. It is a rip-roaring adventure action film, but it also scores as an examination of the complexities of life lived in whatever station you are in. I shuddered in my seat as the end credits ran, wondering if I will see another movie that is as thrilling and heartfelt as this or can I even pass the seven trials right at that moment. Movies should do this - move you and make you want to become a better person. In a year you can count on the fingers of one hand, movies that can perform this feat successfully.
PS - a cameo during the ending threw me into a loop. I only found out later that this is the first of a 2-part epic, the concluding chapter will open in the summer of this year. Oh yeah! I am ready.
An exploding piñata of vivid colours and warm feelings
Back in 2014, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) was used as subject matter in The Book of Life, but I couldn't get pass the half hour mark. It was too kid-friendly and too contrived for my taste. I never like stories which I can map out the narrative trajectory way ahead of time. Sitting in the cinema, the first 15 minutes of Coco had me charting the story ahead of time and the dreaded feeling cascaded over me. Then, when it was least expected, the rug was pulled out from under my feet and I watched the rest of the movie with a big smile and with tears streaming down at the end, every tear was earned.
Coco had some exposition to get through in the beginning and got through it did with panache and familial familiarity. The backstory is told through paper cut-outs and we learned why music is downright detested in the extended family. Though the attention to details is stunning, my mind unconsciously went down the dream-broken-dream-fulfilled road of redemption. But ever so surreptitiously Pixar surprises with a sharp turn and delivers another sumptuous piece of storytelling with Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) holding the steering wheel.
Coco possesses a kinetic charm as Miguel, excellently voiced by Anthony Gonzalez, waltzes through the Land of the Dead in a vivid sea of colours. The world building is amazingly rendered with its own internal physics and reality. It is a riot of warm hues and buoyant mariachi music, a thoroughly realised universe with skeletal figures that have real souls.
The characters are all well-drawn and the voice work by the all-Latino cast is excellent. The passion is evident in full wonder and as vivid as a rose petal on snow. The Mexican culture and traditions fill the screen with authenticity and are lovingly rendered. So much is conveyed via a framed photograph on a family altar that it transcends to something else altogether. The reverence for the folks who have passed on is well-handled. When it hits the last act, my tears streamed down.
Coco is no Inside Out (2015), but it is still a timely and glowing piece of work, an exploding piñata of colours and all shades of warm feelings. School is out, bring your kids to watch this and after that, sit somewhere nice and share about all those family members who had passed on and who meant so much to you. I think the act itself keeps them "alive".
PS – I do feel that the trailer inadvertently let out some of twists in the story, so I would suggest not watching it if you intend to see the movie.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
This Thor is Thor-some!
Frankly, I didn't like the first two Thor movies, the game plan was so clear from the get go. Same old "save the world" routines, brooding hero with a burden, a love connection born out of necessity and bloated battle scenes. It is the same blueprint for many superhero movies, but Thor has the God element that made the stories feel even more preposterous and ridiculous. It is hard to be vested in his quests because God don't die, hurt as much and can always employ one last deus ex machina that solves the unsolvable problem. But Thor: Ragnarok throws that over-used game plan out from Bifrost into an unknown territory, making it this year's best superhero movie. I know I know
Justice League has not descended, but looking at the trailer it doesn't take a genius to see that it will be doing the above-mentioned routine.
New Zealand director Taika Waititi seems like an unusual choice to helm Thor's third standalone movie. He has the indie root in him and he makes superbly smart comedies with oddles of heart, just watch What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) to see his outstanding oeuvre. Apparently, the Marvel-Disney studios have given him full reins and he went ahead and make a comedy. But how do you inject an indie comedic vibe into a superhero franchise that has not been done before?
Essentially, Waititi throws out all the cumbersome weights that hampered Thor and tells a simpler but no less cool story about a superhero trying to get back to his home to clean house. In between he gives Thor ample opportunities to be a beer-swigging beefcake, negotiate some treacherously outlandish situations and strip him off the one thing that makes him Thor, the Mjolnir. At one point, Odin even asks a defeated Thor "What are you, the God of Hammers? " that had me laughing till my tears rolled down.
The tone is light but no less serious, populated by so many colourful characters in a vivid world trapped in impossible situations. At first I thought the introduction of Hulk in the early trailer is a misstep, but Mark Ruffalo's casting would have been close to impossible to keep under wraps. By giving Planet Hulk comic fans a look-in would have been a better move. The repartee between Thor and Hulk/Banner is so hilarious. No less funny is also the dialogue between Thor and Loki, gone is that "he ain't heavy, he is my brother" vibe and this is a Thor that will give Loki a smackdown if he is out of step.
Cate Blanchett plays Thor's estranged sister with evil relish and you don't cast Jeff Goldblum without allowing him to be Goldblum. Waititi even voices a gladiator-mentor character named Korg that practically steals all the scenes he is in. Chris Hemsworth hams it up just to a safe degree and nails all the one-liners with an A+. In fact, the whole cast seems to be having fun.
Thor: Ragnarok embraces its preposterousness and swims in a pool of ridiculousness with the deadpan and self-mocking humour hitting all the bullseyes. In the midst of it all, it still manages to tell a super duper cool story of a superhero saving his people. Yet it manages to remain fresh and zip along with a zany lightning pace. What an inspired choice for a director. The risk taken will pay huge dividends. This has superb rewatch value and I already feel like buying another ticket just to catch all the one-liners one more time. This Thor is Thor-some!
Namiya Zakkaten no kiseki (2017)
A friend WhatsApp-ed me the movie poster and shared with me in enthusiastic words that it is based on an amazing book and it is going to be a good movie. I thanked her and filed it at the back of my mind and forgot about it. Then
one night in bed, I found out that the story is written by Keigo Higashino and a resounding "whoop" escaped from my lips and my wife next to me had a shock. That was it
we had to see it. Between the both of us, every time a Keigo Higashino book is released in English, our life events will revolve around it till we have both read and dissected it. Author of The Devotion of Suspect X and Journey Under the Midnight Sun, Higashino writes intricately plotted mysteries that will give your brain a good workout and your soul much needed nourishment. The Miracles of the Namiya General Store is a rare foray into fantasy and drama for him, but it displays the same multi-layered plotting and attention to detail we have come to expect.
One night in 2012, Atsuya (Kyosuke Yamada from the pop group Hey! Say! JUMP) and his two buddies are up to mischief. To stay hidden from the police, they decided to hide in an abandoned provision shophouse. When the coast is clear, they decided to leave, but no matter where they run they will eventually land up at the derelict shop. They holed themselves up in the shop to make sense of things. Some time in the night, a slot in the metal front gate opens and letters drop in. It turns out that the letters are addressed to Mr Namiya (69 year-old veteran Toshiyuki Nishida), the owner of the store 32 years ago, asking for advice for their personal problems. Scourging the internet for clues, they learn that Mr Namiya used to dole out advice for anyone who writes to him with their problems and leave the replies written in long hand in a delivery box for bottled milk. With time on their hands, the three wayward guys take turns to pen replies and the recipient of the replies will receive them 32 years ago. In the process, the trio embark on a journey of self- discovery.
Okay I know you are thinking of The Lake House (2006), which is a remake of the Korean movie Il Mare (2000), where a ubiquitous mailbox acts as a conduit between two timelines. Director Ryuichi Hiroki and writers Hirosh Saito and Keigo Higashino, expand that idea so marvellously that the story encompasses so much more than just a romantic story.
In the hands of another filmmaker, the movie could have become conveniently episodic, but here the stories are layered so sublimely that they eventually resemble a slice of the perfect rainbow cake. This is drama done well, the situations may feel contrived and mawkish, but a magical twist in the end makes it come up smelling like a bed of roses. Stories don't end, they become seeds for the next one, proving once again that good acts create ripples in the tranquil pond of the human experience. That's just one of the many lessons I drew from it – sometimes you do not see the effect of your good acts because you do not have an omniscient view, and sometimes the far-reaching effects may just stun you.
The sense of place and time is strong here, and the 1980s is well depicted. The nostalgia is in full bloom. One of the joys of the movie for me is ravishing in the art of the written word. Technology has accelerated so rapidly that it has sounded the death knell for the art of letter writing. Very few narratives deal with this lost art of letting words simmer in your mind before putting them carefully on paper. Namiya doesn't dole out clichés and broad strokes – he pens each reply meticulously and thoughtfully. Sometimes they can be hilarious and most of the time they are poignant and hits the nail on the head. I am of the opinion that most people who writes in to Aunt Agony don't need help with their problem. They already know what they intend to do, but what they crave for is affirmation and the movie addresses this interesting aspect.
Hiroki does over-play his hand in allowing moments of over-acting and lingering on poignant scenes a tad longer than needed. But how I wish there is a movie like this playing in the cinemas every other week. This belongs to a rare breed of movies that nourishes the soul and reaffirms life, that no matter what station of life you are in, always do good and your legacy will be secured.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 is a natural progression from the original film in terms of tone, themes and narrative. It deepens and expands on the original's narrative template to dizzying levels and in my book this is a much better film. From the opening establishing shots coupled with Hans Zimmer's intimidating score, I was awash in a bubble of déjà vu and 35 years whizzed by just like that
There are many ways to tell a Blade Runner story – it could have gone by way of a regurgitation of the same old ideas or simply a re-boot, maxing out all the elements that made the original an enduring classic, but Blade Runner 2049 organically furthers narrative elements in the original to a deeper and philosophical place, making one contemplate over the theme of what makes a human being a human being.
Like the original, there is a Neo noir element tied to the proceedings, and Ryan Gosling takes over where Harrison Ford left off. Gosling's deadpan expression is inscrutable, but behind the facade lies vulnerability. Some of the best scenes involved him and his virtual girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas oh la la). Watch out for a sex scene involving a surrogate that betters the one in Her (2013). It is at once scintillating and tender, but also profoundly sad.
Harrison Ford returns in his original role and right now at his age he plays it marvellously, grumpy and tired, as it should be. His return doesn't feel like sentimental fan service and is woven neatly into the compelling narrative. Unlike, A Force Awakens, Ford does put in a shift.
Narratively, Villeneuve doesn't pander or pays homage readily, meticulously forging his own mythology. Does Villeneuve even know how to make a bad movie? Characters speak little and mistrust in relationships is the glue that binds. The story feels opaque, filled with enigmas. The world is as bleak as the one 30 years ago, but updated to show a deeper sense of social disconnect. The CGI is outstanding – for nearly 3 hours, I was transported to a world that feels "it could happen". Cityscapes and landscapes, I have never seen before in all the countless sci-fi movies I have seen. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is breathtaking – please tell me this is his finally his year.
The near 3-hour runtime does offer pacing problems, but I find it so easy to luxuriate in this emotionless dystopian world and look for fleeting instances of hope and glimpses of humanity. If there's another weakness, it is in the villainy of Niander Wallace's character, played by Jared Leto. He just isn't bad ass enough, but thankfully there's his bodyguard Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) who kicks ass.
This is easily one of the year's best films. It aims for the sky and lands up in outer space, way beyond my wildest dreams. This needs to be experienced in IMAX and I don't even use the word "seen".
Kimi no suizô o tabetai (2017)
An old school tearjerker
Okay okay I got lured and pranked by the cool title, thinking it's some zombie gorefest. I got even more keen to see it when I found out it's an old-school ten-hankie tearjerker. Cried, I did, and every tear is earned. Over the course of the film, the odd title takes on meaning and made a resounding impact.
I (Takumi Kitamura) am a high school student. I happen to find a diary by my classmate Sakura Yamauchi (Minami Hamabe) that reveals she is suffering from pancreatic cancer. She will draw me out of my shell and I will help her fulfill the wishes on her bucket-list.
12 years later, due to Sakura's words, I (Shun Oguri) am now a high school teacher at the same school where I graduated from. While I talk with my student, I remember the several months I spent with Sakura. Meanwhile, Kyoko (Keiko Kitagawa), who was Sakura's friend, is about to marry. Kyoko also recalls the days she spent with me and Sakura.
Yes, the main protagonist isn't named throughout the film.
This is a story about a burgeoning teenage romance between two high school classmates on opposite ends of the popularity spectrum. The socially awkward boy is a librarian who sees a lost book as a sad book, but Sakura sees it as lost treasure for the finder. He can never hold eye contact with anyone and protects the space around him for dear life. Whereas Sakura is a girl with a cheerful and optimistic disposition who just happens to be suffering from a terminal disease. Sakura may be dying, but she is not about to throw in the towel yet and wants to hit as many highs as possible in the few months she has left. Their friendship seems unlikely, but it is easy to buy into their blossoming love because they are so likable and their time is so finite.
Kitamura gives a restrained performance, allowing Hamabe to shine in counterpoint. When his character finally opens up in the end, we can feel the emotional impact like a swinging sledgehammer to the gut. Hamabe's Sakura is a beacon of hope, a cauldron of positivity and a dispenser of wisdom. It is easy to fall in love with her so much so that it becomes heartbreaking because we know what comes at the next turn. She is wisely not made out to be a saint in that she is curious about sex and her attempts at seduction you know what I shall let you discover that for yourself 😊.
Director Sho Tsukikawa seems like an old hand at crafting tearjerkers and he handles the emotional scenes with deftness. The emotional scenes don't feel manipulative or pretentious, carrying many nuggets of life's wisdom through the protagonists. He knows how to fill your heart with beauty and gradually inflate it till it explodes in an avalanche of cherry blossom petals.
The movie takes an interesting detour from Yoru Sumino's 2015 bestseller in that it jumps forward 12 years to show Sakura's impact on others. So essentially the story is told in flashbacks. Thankfully, they are well-handled and never becomes an over-used narrative device. When I was in one timeline, I kept wondering about the characters in the other.
The story has a sublime twist in the end, earning its namesake and proving that Sakura has achieved that most important thing in any person's life – to change the world around her. Her memory lives on in others.
This year there were no other movies that made me laugh this hard
Entertaining buddy-cop action flicks have not been lighting up the screens for some time. In comes Midnight Runners which tweaks the well-trodden formula and the result is one crackerjack of a super-fun thriller. So far this year, no other movies have made me laugh so heartily.
Gi Jun (Park Seo Jun), aka Mr Action, and Kang Hee Yeol (Kang Ha Neul), Mr Germophobe-Bookworm, are two best friends at the Korean National Police University. They accidentally witness a young woman getting abducted and decide to work together to investigate it because they have learnt that time is of the essence in cases like this – even when they get tied up in red tape and find out they could be expelled.
Buddy-cop action thrillers tend to rely heavily on counterpoints to draw the two main characters – one fit, one fat (21 Jump Street), one full of action, one wisecracker (48 Hours), one nuts, one down-to-earth (Lethal Weapon). All three became lucrative franchises so you know the studios don't like to mess with the formula much. Midnight Runners doesn't re-invent the buddy-cop wheel, but tweaks it just a little, making the movie stand out like a bed of roses. It doesn't lean on counterpoints to build camaraderie. They may be opposites in certain ways, but it is the passion for doing what is right that unites them. The screen-time is devoted equally on both of them and no one tries to out- play the other. They are the perfect duo; they are one even though they are not the same. Their chemistry is undoubtedly inflatable and infectious, and they seem like they are having a blast.
Sometimes in my classes I get kids asking me dreaded questions like "What is the point of learning Calculus?" or "Am I going to use any of these stuff in life?". Midnight Runners addresses that in one pivotal scene that had me guffawing in laughter. I enjoyed the scenes of them using what they have learnt to crack the case. Writer-director Kim Joo Hwan even skewers the upper echelons of the police force and iterates the true purpose education itself in a noteworthy scene. How Kim deftly balances the dark crime with a light tone and ponderous moments is a magical act. It helps when you have such winsome characters. I think the best praise I can give it is that I sincerely hope there is a sequel in the works. Make it happen . please.
An excellent rumination on consequences and redemption
This is a tough review to write without dropping spoilers, but I will try. In fact, I would also recommend not watching the trailer because it drops a huge spoiler that will rob you of the feverish fun you are going to have. Trust me, go in blind and like me you will come up for breath 90 minutes later with a big smile.
This is a mystery drama revolving around a doctor Kim Joon Young (Kim Myung Min) who is just returning from a successful humanitarian overseas trip. He arranges to meet his headstrong young daughter Eun Jung (Jo Eun Hyung) on the day of her birthday. On the way to the rendezvous, he witnesses a car accident and realises she was killed in it. And then the day starts all over again for him
Yes, A Day is South Korea's version of Groundhog Day (1993), a time loop genre film. The most recent successful exponents include Timecrimes (2007), Triangle (2009), Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Source Code (2011). The dynamics of the game are the same – the protagonist either uses the loop to his/her advantage (getting into the pants of Andie MacDowell as in the case of Groundhog Day), or he/she tries to solve the puzzle of the loop so that time can be linear again, or he/she feels the loop is a second chance to avert a disaster from happening as in the case of Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow. A Day doesn't differ in all these aspects, but what it does spectacularly well is that it throws not one but two spanners in the works that gives the over-tired genre a kick in the butt.
The movie switches gear effortlessly. The first act feels recycled and familiar, but Kim Myung Min anchors the horrendous scenes compellingly well. Witnessing your daughter's death and not being able to do anything about it is definitely a sickening feeling. At a lean, mean and spry 90 minutes, the movie has hardly any fats. It moves forward (or is it repetitively?) propulsively and doesn't waste time in letting the protagonist feel his way through the time loop puzzle. The character behaves like he is weaned on time loop movies and quickly gets down to the job of solving the puzzle and asking himself why he is in a loop. The premise is so compelling that it kept me front and centre, wondering how he will unlock the puzzle of the waking nightmare. Just as when you start to think you are cruising along a well-treaded narrative path, writer-director Cho Sun-Ho drops a bombshell and your eyes will grow wide as saucers. No, I won't share what it is and please don't go check out the trailer too.
Cho's previous screenplay is the derivative horror-killer flick Killer Toon (2013). A Day marks his debut as a director with a screenplay also written by him. This is a vast improvement and it put a gleeful smile on my face as I walked out of the cinema. It is not just an action thriller; it is also a concerted cogitation on consequences and redemption.
This is a great war film because of the things it didn't do.
Dunkirk was literally my third war movie at the cinema in a roll. It started with War for the Planet of the Apes, which was one of the most evocative and unsettling human war films I have seen. It was followed by a Japanese anime, In This Corner of the World, an exquisite time-capsule of a movie, which showed me a new way the harrowing story of Hiroshima could be told. Then there was Dunkirk and what a film this is. I can't remember the last time I sat in stunned silence as the end-credits rolled, my mind awashed with the feeling that I have touched greatness. This is not just an excellent film, it is a great war film and it is great because of the things it didn't do.
A word search of "dunkirk" in IMDb threw up 19 entries! (N-n-n-nineteen in the metallic voice of Paul Hardcastle's 19 😬) I had no idea the evacuation of Dunkirk became the inspiration of so many films and documentaries. First up, Christopher Nolan didn't need to serve up a history lesson again. A few simple opening sentences give context and we are thrown into the deep end. Dunkirk is about men trying to survive into the next hour with the onslaught of danger coming from every conceivable angle, plain and simple. It is how Nolan goes about showcasing it that is sheer masterclass.
When was the last time you saw a war film without someone screaming jingoistic slogans in your face or not seeing a scene of a conflicted protagonist trying to justify the reason for war? When was the last time you not see scenes of carnage and human viscera? When was the last time you not see the face of the enemy in a fire-fight? These are practically the foundation of which the war genre is built on, but Dunkirk never treads the path of familiarity. Heck! It doesn't even have a single drop of blood (the bloodied bandage on the wounded soldier is not counted 😊). But yet the tension is so nerve-wrecking, the fear so real that I gripped the armrests for dear life and I thought I forget to breathe for over an hour.
The dialogue is so spare and functional, it might as well have been a silent film with sound effects, but yet my entire being was transfixed on the big screen, ogling at the spellbinding vistas of war from the land, air and sea. The characters, what characters, are nameless, but yet their fear is so palpable they are instantly relatable. The heroics of ordinary folks is monumental but never felt emotionally manipulative. The cinematography is astonishing, recreating the combat of WWII so marvellously. I felt like I was running with the hapless soldiers or trapped in a God forsaken place praying for deliverance.
Hans Zimmer's music score is an interesting detour from the usual soundtracks of blockbusters. It has no recognisable melody or an infectious refrain that will cement itself into your consciousness. It is largely monochromatic, like a few repetitive notes linked together, but by golly it worked. This is a score that makes absolute no sense when you play on your hi-fi system, but together with what transpires on screen the music feels larger than life, building that suspense to a mind-blowing crescendo. IMHO the music and the action share a symbiotic relationship, each element helping the other to create the biggest impact. On its own it wouldn't have worked as well, but together, it is a masterpiece.
There are some superb films I have seen this year, but so far there is only one great film – Dunkirk. Throw away all you think you know about war films and immerse yourself in the biggest possible screen (that would be the IMAX and it is worth every cent) and feel the crushing blow of grim defeat. Next year's Oscars may be far away, but I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that the Academy will remember this big time.
Baby Driver (2017)
What a ride!
Freshly minted, super-duper fun, uber cool, confident, thrilling, propulsive, exhilarating, inspired, geeky glee inducing these are just some adjectives I would bandy around Baby Driver and it is definitely deserving of even more. This is pop-culture filmmaking at its best.
I once read that there are seven basic plots for telling any story in movies. Nowadays, hardly anyone tries to do anything remotely original anymore. "Better tell the same story and mixed it up with CGI" feels almost like a template. I can count on the fingers of one hand, movies that dare to push the envelope this year (Get Out, Bad Genius, Dunkirk) In that respect, Baby Driver isn't original in its story – how many times have you seen a story about a nice guy who thinks he is out, but he is pull back in for one last score and it all goes to shite? It is in its execution and style that it hits the sweet spot.
Edgar Wright shot the action to the rhythm of music, not the other way around. Everything about Baby Driver and Baby is about the rhythm and the beat. Bullets exploding from gun barrels to the beat and car drifting to the tempo. The whole thing feels like a magic carpet ride to geek innercity. I love how Baby's character is established gradually – we see his uncanny ability in weaving in and out of traffic like a bat out of hell, always a few steps ahead of the police cruisers. We see how he has different iPods with carefully curated playlists for any occasion and mood (Apple, please bring back the Classic 😬). In Baby's world, music exists in every frame, so much so that his world turns to shite when the music is gone or when he can't find the right tune.
Ansel Elgort brought the winsome character to life. From the very first scene, he is the propulsive beat of the whole movie. This is a career-defining and star-making role, and he nailed it. However, the movie doesn't rest on his shoulders alone and the supporting cast is a match made in heaven. We have the "Man with the Plan" Doc (Kevin Spacey), Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza González), Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Bats (Jamie Foxx). Just let their monikers roll off your tongue. Aren't they cool? The characters have disparate personalities and each of them brings their own distinctive spin on their roles. These are not cannon fodder or plot movers, each of them menacingly memorable in their own way.
In the heart of it all, is a romantic interest played by Lily James. The meet cute is scored to, you guess right, music. We hear the music first before we see the face. By the time the scene hits, you would be so into Baby you know he has now something to look forward to without the movie telling you in boring expositional passages. Their chemistry is palpable and sincere. You want them to get in a don't-know-what car and head west into don't- know-where.
Where Baby Driver sort of gone off track for me is in the final reel where characters take somewhat jarring detours and a coda that feels too convenient, but I am not dissing this one little bit. I saw the whole movie with a wide geeky grin on my face, and the first hour is one amazing tour de force. The gears and mechanics at work are calibrated for maximum impact and the car chases are shot with such verve. IMHO this one left any movie in the Fast and Furious franchise in its wake and it is up there together with Bullitt, The French Connection and Ronin.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
What a blast!
This is a blast! As usual, Marvel Studios makes it look so easy. The humour is spot-on, the character arcs so well-drawn, the action sequences so well-conceived and purposeful, and the expositions well-handled. This is not an origin story, it tells the story of how Peter Parker comes of age and becomes worthy of becoming a member of the Avengers.
One of the things I hate the most is watching those Defcon One city levelling destruction climaxes in superhero movies. I know I know that's so lame because these climaxes are practically mainstays in these tentpole movies. However, when the storytelling is excellent and the characters are compelling, all these skull-numbing destruction doesn't even feature and my senses are glued to the screen. It is when the art of storytelling takes a backseat that I start to mentally count the cost of reconstruction and don't get me started on homes being flattened and families destroyed. Why doesn't any superhero movie address the consequences of superheroes using our cities as battlegrounds? Finally, someone did.
Spider-Man: Homecoming begins after Spider-Man's participation in a superhero gang fight in Captain America: Civil War (2016). But it actually begins 8 years prior, in the aftermath of Loki unleashing the Chitauri which made NYC their playground in The Avengers (2012). In the midst of the big clean-up, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) who has secured the rights to the project got laid out by self-important bureaucrats. From that moment onwards, it isn't hard to see him becoming the Vulture, if only to strike back at the uncaring system that wipe their expensive plates with the common folk. Action has consequences. It is not difficult to see his motivation and to feel for him.
There is so much I love here. The pacing is spot-on and 2h 13min passed by like a breeze. The jokes hit their marks, especially those scenes with Ned (Jacob Batalon) which are a hoot. Herein lies one of the best narrative risks taken – the identity of Spider-Man was revealed to this inquisitive geek very early on, and it opens up so many interesting turns in the narrative. The dude longs to be the "Man in the Chair" and he asks hilarious questions like "do you lay eggs". I am still smiling thinking about his affable personality and antics. Then there are the expositional scenes. I thought I needed to see how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man. I thought wrong. The 'how' was explained in a throwaway line and that was it. It felt so refreshing. Neither was the movie burdened by having someone uttered that "with great power comes great responsibility" line. In fact, the movie moves like a buoyant spirit with cool narrative choices and risks taken. Even the new hi-tech Spidey suit is a character itself, but a purist would probably hate that.
All would be nought if the casting was off and Tom Holland just scores in the titular role. It really helps that he is a teenager when he landed the role and his tackling of teenage acceptance and wanting to become a member of the Avengers feels palpable. The stakes feel real and his learning curve is steep but a rewarding experience. Tom Holland's Spider- Man punches way above his weight. The action sequences have awesome stakes and by the time they rolled in, I was so in love with the characters I lapped them all up.
Every year we are indundated by giant budget superhero movies, but I suffered no superhero-movie fatigue with Spider-Man: Homecoming. This felt like home.
Mohenjo Daro (2016)
This one is DOA
I was very sad watching this near 3-hour bum-test, not because it is a poor movie, but because it is a poor movie made by Gowariker. This is the man who made Lagaan (2001) and Swades (2004), he is no amateur, he definitely knows how to make epic movies. However his latest is the ultimate pandering to populism exercise, nothing here feels original. Mohenjo Daro just sucked from the get-go with a ridiculous scene of a leaping crocodile. Never mind the iffy CGI, the moment I see a jumping crocodile the movie will need to take a lot of effort to immerse me in its story again, and it never did. Yes, the set design may look spectacular but it isn't something that is better than say any episode of Game of Thrones and for all the effort that Gowariker spent on the set design and costumes, he should have spent more time with the storytelling instead. This is as bland and tasteless as they come. My mind mapped out every emotional beat 5 minutes ahead of time and I just hate it when I am 100% correct. Everything here looks like it copied from other movies, from biblical movies to epic dramas. The costumes are a point in comedy – Chaani, the Chosen One (actually I don't even know what she is chosen for) is a Hall and Oates Maneater, a traffic stopper, she will make your mouth hang open like a dog waiting for treats, but she is in the most ridiculous garb – a push-up bra, a valley opening all the way from the throat to the navel and slits in her skirt that reach her inner thighs. If that's not the worst, she has the most ludicrous head-dress that rivals Queen Amidala. How can she act with the weight on her head? The villains are archetypal carbon-copies. Yes, a sneer here tells me he is a bad guy, a pouted face tells me he wants to kill good guys and a horned crown as wild as his shoulders should make me pee in my pants. The fight between Sarman (Hrithik Roshan) and Moonja (Arunoday Singh) is terribly and lazily choreographed – one punch the other three times and the role is reversed, the sequence repeats a few times. The same old fight I have seen thousands of times in B-grade movies. Demise of characters feels like punctuations in a laboriously long one-note script. Who writes villains like this, not Gowariker please. But you know what, I just cannot blame the actors. To be fair to them, they do look like they try really hard to push jewels out of the script, but no amount of effort can accord a miracle. The writing is just plain lazy. 3 hours is sheer punishment. The towering watery climax does feel inspired, but by then it just couldn't lift the movie from the six feet under pit that was dug by a crazy crocodile.
This one is DOA.
PS – I apologise for the lack of paragraphs. I only wanted to dissuade anyone from wasting time with this, but the words just poured out. Don't let the trailer fool you.
Yat nim mou ming (2016)
Compassionate and thought provoking cinema
There have been few note-worthy films coming out of Hong Kong for some time. It does seem that every other output from the studios is a commercial film that tries hard to appeal to the gargantuan China market. In this sense, debut director Wong Chun's Mad World is an audacious and brave film.
The subject matter is mental illness and it is remarkable that the film never stoops down low to gain your sympathy through cheap histrionics. The film earns it through superlative performances and keen observations. It not only gets inside the mind space of a mental illness patient, it also studies the plight of the care-giver and the bystanders standing in the path of the malady. Neither does the film shout slogans, point fingers or offer pet solutions. Mad World is an indictment on the social stigma and medical agencies, but how it remains deeply humanist is a deft balancing act.
Shawn Yue puts in a career-defining performance as Tung, a bipolar disorder sufferer. His range is commendable and his portrayal totally surprised me. He can start taking on more challenging roles, other than rebellious hunks and rigid police officers. There is a scene of him crying late into the night, every last bit of moisture inside him is pushing out of his eyes and yet he just can't stop. When finally he did stop crying, it is because a precocious little boy who lives next door is whispering a story from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince through the thin wall to encourage him. That scene moved me, I doubt Tung can hear the story clearly, but I think at that point he needed to hear a voice from an understanding person.
Eric Tsang as a guilt-ridden father trying to make amends is such a natural. My tears rolled down at a heart rending scene where he explains why he left his family. The reason doesn't make it right, but it is perfectly understandable why he did it. As Tung's illness takes a turn for the worst, his soul becomes a constant battlefield – do I do the right thing or do I do the loving thing?
Jin as Tung's embattled mother and Fong as the ex-fiancée struggling to forgive Tung are also pitch-perfect. All four, including screenwriter Florence Chan and the director have been showered with nominations at last year's Golden Horse Film Festival and Hong Kong Film Awards, and some of them have deservedly racked up the accolades.
Where Mad World perhaps over-played its hand will be the scenes of the church portrayed as over-enthusiastic zealots and Tung's friend Louis having a turn for the worst at one point. The film felt like it was over-reaching. But I am not taking anything away from the film. This is a compassionate look at mental illness and it looks at the issue from all the angles. I would hardly call it an entertaining film, more of an affective and effective thought provoking piece of filmmaking. Give me thought provoking anytime.
Chalard games goeng (2017)
This is one dynamite of a film
This being a Thai movie, I was pleasantly surprised to notice there are no ghosts or cheesy romantic couplings. Bad Genius is essentially a caper thriller and it is as suspenseful as they come.
Brilliant student Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying – that's quite a mouthful) makes money by helping her classmates cheat on school tests. Her friends Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan) and Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) then propose a million-Baht idea – to help students cheat on the STIC, an important standardized test used to gain placements in prestigious universities in the US. Lynn agrees to do it, but she can't do it without Bank's (Chanon Santinatornkul) help.
Bad Genius is one dynamite of a film. Who would have thought a simple idea of cheating in a test can go supernova. The narrative structure employed to tell the story is brilliant and assured. The twists and turns just keep on piling up, and not one time did I fall out of the story. The plot may be crazily far-fetched, but writer-director Nattawut Poonpiriya keeps it plausible and on the pulse. By that I mean it is instantly relatable, especially when we come up through the pressure-cooker education system.
The cast only has one recognizable veteran actor in Thaneth Warakulnukroh (Pop Aye) who plays Lynn's father. The rest of the cast are newbies, led by Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, a 21-year-old model making her acting debut. Their rawness shines through and it makes the characters compelling and believable. The writing is a mark of genius in that it comes up with ingenious methods to beat the school system; the trailer will give you a glimpse of that.
One of the things I always teach my kids in my writing class is to make sure the journey of the main character is never be too easy. Using a "two steps forward one step back" approach, there must be setbacks for the character to negotiate along the way and the narrative of Bad Genius exemplifies this to a T. When done well, you will be so caught up in the proceedings and wouldn't be able to see the gears moving behind the seams. For this to work, the ground work of laying down all the characters' myriad of motivations must be established well. Poonpiriya has done a superb job here, so much so that when the eventual comeuppance arrives it will hit you with a jolt to the jugular.
On top of that the movie has loads of heart and it puts the relentless pressure to succeed in the school system under the microscope. Bad Genius also works as a cautionary tale in that the end does not justify the means. Perhaps where the film could have done better is to examine certain issues that were brought up but weren't handled in depth, like how the school is in itself "cheating" by requesting the parents pay for school maintenance and how exams are not the only measure to determine a student's aptitude. But all this does not matter because the film clearly scores full marks in where it matters – a superb piece of entertainment.
'Chi chi' de ai (2017)
Love the movie's zany tone and wild detours into unexpected territories
I am not a fan of the now-defunct Taiwanese talk show Mr Con & Ms Csi, which I know ended abruptly last year. It was a hugely successful TV programme that was not afraid to grill its guests with difficult questions and it is not surprising that it had garnered a legion of fans. With Didi's Dreams, the fans are reminded of how much they miss the dynamic duo – Mr Con (Kelvin Tsai) is the director and Ms Csi (Dee Hsu) is everything including the kitchen sink. Get ready for pizazz and a zany ride on the wild side.
Didi (Dee Hsu) is an aspiring actress who can't catch a break, but she will stop at nothing to realise her dream of becoming an actress like her superstar sister Lingling (Lin Chi-ling). At night, she dreams of her alter-ego, a noodle seller in outer space. Then one day, at the doctor's, Didi receives distressing news
Being a fan of the beloved series, one would immediately catch all the inside jokes, especially the cameos by the show's frequent guest stars such as Evonne Sie and Chen Han-dian. Even the casting of supermodel Lin Chi-ling is probably a deliberate choice since she was often verbally jabbed by Hsu for being prettier than her. Unfortunately, I knew nothing of the series, but I do enjoyed this film for what it is – a wacky and goofy satirical look-in into the internal workings of popular talk shows and the farcical audition process of movie studios.
Tsai and Hsu are in their element as they milked the situations for what they are worth and more. Hsu, especially was gamed enough to look "ugly" for the camera, earning huge guffaws along the way. In one scene she is a wriggling germ and in another she is a zombie who refuses to die. Both scenes show her desperate for screen time. Tsai, in his directorial debut, shows off his philosophical musings via voice-over narration. At one instance, he enthuses that our best memories feel like a dream, and we should never feel sad when it is all over because at least we can still dream it.
IMHO Didi's Dreams works only in parts and the sum total didn't quite hit its mark. The dream sequences of noodle seller, also acted by Hsu, don't feel symbiotic with the rest of the film, so in that respect the ending flourish was only decent and didn't quite hit a resounding crescendo. Lastly, I literally shook my head when Didi receives that piece of sad news from the doc. This is like the number one cliché of Chinese dramas (you already know what I am talking about eh) and it feels like a poor choice in choosing to go down this typical road of melodramatic infinite sadness, but that last flourish did earn back some good graces.
There is still a lot of fun to be had and it is not a poor film by any means. It is a hoot to see Didi go through all the crazy auditions and I love how the narrative takes jumps in unexpected directions.
Wonder Woman (2017)
A female hero and a female director will show what other ways the superhero game can be played
After all the big budget misfires, the DCEU really needed to score one and Wonder Woman has delivered a glorious goal. This is a coming-of-age tale, an origin story, a romantic comedy, a 1918 period movie and a superhero genre tentpole flick all rolled into one blistering motion picture. This is a winner! Batman, Superman, Suicide Squad who?
After a brief prologue set in modern day Paris, we are brought to the timeless mystical Island of Themyscira in an extended flashback sequence. We meet Diana, daughter of Amazon Queen, Hippolyta (Connie Nielssen). She longs to join the ranks as a fearsome Amazon warrior and her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright) wants to train her. The story begins in earnest with the crash landing arrival of American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who works for British Intelligence whom Diana rescues.
IMHO the brightest spot of Batman vs Superman is Wonder Woman. Here in her very own spotlight, she shines like a beacon of hope for the franchise. The casting of Gal Gadot is an inspired choice and her femininity and her strong character form a hypnotic aura around her. This is not femininity of the weak kind; she doesn't look into Chris Pine's blue eyes, disappear into them and forgets all her fighting skills. She is a woman with conviction and yet she is always inquisitive. She is athletic, strong, knows her purpose in life (even though it will take her a while to get there) and statuesque in her convictions. She has compassion and feels for the common folk. In short, she is a breath of fresh air. Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman (henceforth WW) is directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, best known for Monster (2003) which won Charlize Theron the Best Actress Oscar. Her narrative voice is refreshingly distinctive and she blazes a new path for the overcrowded superhero genre. WW draws strength from Diana's growth in character and learning her ultimate place in humanity. As much as it is about that, it is also about a world torn by war earning their right to have her. This wise narrative trajectory gives the story gravitas and emotional heft. Most movies of this sort tend to embed an action scene every 10 minutes, but WW takes a different path and IMHO the quiet moments are also its strongest moments. Even when the action scenes rolled in, there is a "never seen that before" awesome feeling. The scene of Diana running head-on into the German front is superbly shot and has so much emotional power that I won't be forgetting that for a long time.
Chris Pine is definitely Gadot's counterpart. Their chemistry feels genuine and I especially enjoy their double entendre dialogue. Pine's Steve Trevor is a man of that begotten time period, he doesn't react immediately after laying eyes on a beauty. He bides his time and treats her with respect; he earns the right to be with her by being who he is, a patriotic soldier and a chivalrous man. Tell me you don't want to see that more in these present times.
Up to this point, I sound like I am describing a superhero genre masterpiece and if you scroll down and see my score, you will probably feel it doesn't commiserate with what was written. As much as I think it is a very satisfying movie, it derailed for me in the final act in the typical bombastic manner with which all the emotional built-up is thrown out the door and in its place comes the Defcon One city-leveller noise. Thankfully, Jenkins does anchor one particular scene with an emotional heft seldom seen. At 141 minutes, WW does require some judicious snips and the villains do deserve better. But all these don't take away the fact that it is the best movie in the DC extended universe to date. It is super fun, satisfying, dare I even say edifying, and in a genre populated by men, it takes a female hero and a female director to show in what new ways the game can be played.