Monday, 3 February 2014

The Monkey King 3D [Review]

Opinion: B-

By Jason Lin

Arguably the highest anticipated Asian films this lunar new year, The Monkey King squanders what appears to be a relatively good screenplay adapted from one of the most popular Chinese literature and folklore with an over-saturation of visual effects in almost every sequence. This results in a major 120 minutes eyesore and an unfortunate distraction from an otherwise valuable characterisation and narrative development.

After the Battle of Gods and Demons, Nu Wa (Goddess of Works) used 36,500 magic boulders to repair Heaven and one of it fell accidentally onto Earth and sat on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits on an island across the Eastern Sea. Bathed for thousands of years in the energies of Heaven and Earth as well as the light of Sun and Moon, a godly creature was nurtured inside the stone-egg and finally it cracked open to release a full-grown monkey.

Only the second Chinese production to be shot on the giant format, having The Monkey King in IMAX 3D is a gratification for fans on paper. With a range of classic characters, heavenly entities and vast potential for a contemporary adaptation, Soi Cheang gives it a heavy visual treatment possibly to empower imaginations running wild. For this, the film employs the help of Hollywood talents like David Ebner (Alice in Wonderland) and Shaun Smith (300, I Am Legend) for blockbuster technical assurance.

Despite the meticulous approach engaged by the filmmakers and studio executives, the end result culminates in technical mediocrity under this opinion. A few VFX sequences having jarring frame rates aside (it literally looks like a system with an incompetent graphics card rendering the visuals), there are also a couple of CG elements appearing to be pixelated (particularly blatant when this opinion viewed it upfront in 3D). When almost every sequence is designed with visual effects in mind, it frustratingly causes a significant distraction from other merits that the film may have.

The Monkey King begins with the birth and origins of Sun Wukong (Donnie Yen), whose commencing life journey is of interest to watch. As a third party, one gets to understand Sun's good nature that is eventually convoluted by external influences of both good and evil. Sun is born with vast potential of greatness, which is acknowledged and subsequently exploited by many. This serves as a classic case example of the impacts of exploiting talent and power for good and wicked intentions.

One is also able to comprehend the devastating effects of uncontrollable anger and rage that may be triggered by even the purest and kindest source of goodwill cultivated within us. For this instance, it is the very example of the exploitation of good to wreck havoc when Sun is tricked into unleashing hell upon heaven (literally).

The second half of The Monkey King takes time to brew and simmer Sun's innate potential amidst perplexing factors that shroud his perception before it explodes in an exciting action finale that should satisfy genre fans. While it is relatively well managed and developed for Sun's character, it cannot be said the same for the other supporting characters.

With the exception of the magnetic screen presence of Chow Yun-Fat as the Jade Emperor, most characters tread in and out of Sun's story as mere plot devices - mechanisms to progress the film. This also includes its lead antagonist Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok) with an intriguing side romance story with Princess Iron Fan (Joe Chen), both key characters in the classic novel, that didn't materialise in any manner. Even the romance plot tread between Sun and his childhood love interest Silver Nine-Tailed Fox (Xia Zitong) sizzles out in exchange to emphasise the primary plot.

The Monkey King will not have been a watchable film and protagonist if not for the lively performance of Donnie Yen as Sun, which entails the various behavioural traits of the legendary Monkey King. Make-up in this case has indeed surpassed expectations as few will have recognised the stature of Yen (since many symbolises him as an action star) under Sun's quirky physique and personality.

Uncertain if a sequel will follow particularly when the film stems off with a visual motif hint at a key character from the popular Chinese novel Journey to the West, The Monkey King will have been a greater film if not for lost opportunities in better supporting character development and the irritable visual spectacle that constitutes an expensive film budget blunder.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Nightingale [Review]

Opinion: B+

By Jason Lin

Zhigen, an old Chinese farmer, has lived alone in Beijing for over 20 years after moving to the city to allow his son Chongyi to attend university. He decides to make the long journey from Beijing to Yangshuo to honour the promise he made to his wife to bring back the bird that has been his only companion in the city. His daughter-in-law Qianing, a beautiful rich career woman, asks him to take along his granddaughter Renxing, an only child brought up in the lap of luxury. While grandfather and granddaughter set out on their journey – one travelling back in time, the other discovering her roots – Chongyi and Qianing, ponder the meaning of the life they have led in the sole pursuit of success and money.

Being the second formal French-Chinese film production, it is amazing how its French Director and Screenwriter Philippe Muyl (Le Papillon) delivers The Nightingale with such cultural aptness given that it’s a film set in China in full Mandarin dialogue among Chinese characters.

The Nightingale is loosely based and inspired by Muyl’s previous film Le Papillon, which also discusses the dynamics of the relationship between an elder man and a young girl. Labelling The Nightingale purely as an adaption however, doesn’t do it justice as it exudes qualities that are unique to the film.

Viewers are introduced to a young middle age couple living the urbanistic hustle and bustle in Beijing, which can easily be replicated within any of China’s major first-tier cities like Shanghai. This is one of the few other socialpolitical elements reflected in the film, including China’s One-Child Policy and the trend of parents overdoting on their precious offsprings in contemporary times.

A leading jetsetting architect, Chong Yi (Qin Hao), is full of negative vibes due to some unknown frustration that seems to find its roots a long way back in history as hints of a bad relationship with his father Zhi Gen (Li Baotian) is discussed between Zhi Gen and Chong Yi’s trendy businesswoman spouse played by Li Xiaoran (Peter Chan’s Wu Xia). The couple’s only child Ren Xing (Yang Xin Yi) is about to coop herself up within the confines of their modern apartment with the latest iPad in hand and oblivious to the society.

These are soon to be changed with Zhi Gen offering to take Ren Xing back to his rural home town in Yangshuo. The dynamics of the two’s relationship begin to take centrestage and develop over most of the film’s running time. The outcome is the transformation of a Ren Xing who thinks she’s above all else around her and not able to survive without her tablet to a Ren Xing who appreciates the joys induced by elements of nature and the goodness of the people around her.

Not just the young girl, her grandfather begins to confront his shortcomings more openly although his character begins already as an accommodating and understanding paternal figure to his granddaughter. This in turn sets further good things in motion, which can generally be described as a domestic feelgood recouncilation that warms the hearts of the audience.

One begins to understand the need to maintain an open channel of communication between and among people around. Conversations break barriers and pull the hearts of people closer in understanding. Muyl almost seems to imply that nature has a hand in achieving this, especially when people are freed from urban social distractions such as hectic work schedules and digital online/social media.

Perhaps Sun Ming’s luscious photography has a hand in this as well, with a rich colour treatment bringing the comfortable sense of scenic green and sunshine so much more vividly to viewers. This is also accentuated by Armand Armar’s delicate soundtrack that seems to always find itself in a chirpy mood, much in line with the film’s title and motif – The Nightingale (the one thing that created the family woes and also the one that reunited the family).

With a lively performance by its cast ensemble, particularly Li Baotian and Yang Xin Yi, The Nightingale sings a song that is soothing to one’s senses and inspires the finer details and values in life that Muyl is hoping his viewers (particularly those leading an urban life) will reconnect with.

(Preview courtesy of and part of the 3rd Rendezvous with French Cinema Singapore.)

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Rigor Mortis [Review]

Opinion: B

By Jason Lin

Reviving one of the well-loved classics may well be as dangerous as reviving a corpse. Often is the case where contemporary remakes and adaptations take a toll and destroy any goodwill established. While half-expecting the first feature filmmaker Juno Mak to be all style without substance, his attempts at the 1985 Mr Vampire series do however provide some amount of pleasant surprises (including the chilling arrangement of the series’ iconic theme “Ghost Bride” in the opening scene).

In this eerie and chilling, contemporary, action/special effects laden homage to the classic Chinese vampire movies of the 1980's, writer-director-producer Juno Mak makes his feature directorial debut. Co-produced by J-Horror icon Takashi Shimizu (JU-ON), and reuniting some of the original cast members of the classic MR VAMPIRE series, RIGOR MORTIS is set in a creepy and moody Hong Kong public housing tower whose occupants we soon discover, run the gamut from the living to the dead, to the undead, along with ghosts, vampires and zombies.

Produced by contemporary Japanese horror maestro Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On) and Mak himself, it is perhaps no surprise that the visual treatment adopts a dark and grim palette to void the production of any whimpering signs of life. This is also accompanied by Ng Man-Ching’s (Infernal Affairs 2, Initial D) fine photography in low light.

A film based on a classic series is never easy to maintain its relevance and intrigue. Mak, who co-scripts and directs, opts to remove its signature comedy and replaces with occult elements and reference. The most enjoyable moments are those on the detailing of various ritual practices and process, such as feeding a corpse with only black crow blood and collecting corpse oil essence with a flame under its chin.

As part of its genre obligations to instill production value, Rigor Mortis features quite a number of visual effects and high framerate sequences to accentuate Mak’s stylised approach. At times resembling a snapshot from a dark music video, viewers may observe the film as a melting pot of several influnces that prominently screams out the filmmakers’ creativity and impressionable art direction.

Mak takes a good amount of screen time for its lead protagonist (whose name is never revealed or discussed until the very last sequence of the film) Chin Siu-Ho, a washed-up actor of Mr Vampire (his past glory is referred to by an aged photo of him with Maggie Cheung) by the tides of time, who has retreated to an old public housing block to waste the rest of his life in depression although the actual rationale behind is relatively unknown.

Affairs turn to the dark when Chin hangs himself in his newly rented apartment on the very first day of moving in. This is also the pivotal scene where the film invests more time to adequately introduce and develop the supporting characters (Chin’s new neighbours).

With quite a handful of interesting personalities in the neighbourhood, Rigor Mortis suffers from a loosely-managed main plot as it tends to branch off into side plot threads briefly from its main story arc. These side agendas are often seen to be opportunities for the filmmakers to fit in and experiment with different horror elements, including those from Shimizu himself. The good news is that most of these sub-plots do connect with one another, such as the twin vengeful female spirits (that feels like they have been borrowed right out of a Shimizu’s film) and the strange litle white-haired boy who roams the housing block.

Despite its heavy-handed approach to graphically stylise the production, Mak and his team thankfully serves a much-welcomed emotional depth that draws the audience so much closer to the characters. This is particularly observed in Paw Hee-Ching’s character as she gets a dedicated minute or two’s worth of solo emotional monologue with her husband under an unearthly situation.

Aside from the poorly mastered Mandarin-dubbed dialogue tracks that has hindered with one’s enjoyment of the film, Rigor Mortis serves not just contemporary stylised horror elements and an emotional dimension, but also a mind-bending plot twist at the end to instill a certain message:
Life is sometimes more ridiculous than movies.

(Preview courtesy of InCinemas. Also published on InCinemas.)

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Captain Phillips [Review]

Opinion: A-

By Jason Lin

Paul Greengrass' dedication towards his craft that seeks realism is well observed in his latest feature Captain Phillips as he commandeers a nearly impeccable action thriller vessel that arrests viewers at gunpoint right from the start. Easily one of the cinematic gems for this year.

Columbia Pictures' action-thriller Captain Phillips stars two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks in the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years.

Maritime security, or piracy off the Somali coast in particular, is a niche topical region that is likely to be dear to the shipping industry. Not only is it commercial and technical, it also involves certain sociopolitical elements that deserves some level of awareness towards a broader audience.

Based on true life accounts of Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates during his command of MV Maersk Alabama and subsequently authored "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea", Paul Greengrass charters a cinematic vessel and takes his audience on a remarkable voyage that keeps them constantly at the edge of their seats.

Not that the high seas are rough, although Greengrass adopts a handheld camera visual perspective with his cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who did Green Zone) as part of his efforts to achieve realism (while the uninitiated may complain from possible dizzy spells), but it's the thrilling action via devised tensions amidst vast amount of research and details that overwhelms and inspires the main story much closer to the hearts of viewers.

Vast is an adjective that will undermine Greengrass and his team's efforts towards background technical research. From the linguistic maritime terminologies right to the tactical naval special operations, the details are also executed correctly in synergy. Presumably with the advice of industry and military practitioners.

Not forgetting how the acting in Captain Phillips also achieves a high standard of realism, as it leaves little questions to the onscreen character behaviours. What seems to be obvious product/brand placement, such as the deliberate Maersk branding, might be some of the few areas that will not agree with Greengrass' efforts to achieve realism. What might be of interest is how Captain Phillips is perceived in real life as he allegedly risked piracy to save fuel (fuel is an obscene cost for ships as marine bunker fuel accounts for over 50% of a ship's operating cost) and time. In any case, a new rising issue on privately contracted armed escorts onboard commercial vessels plying near high risk waters is now in place.

Technical excellence aside that has enabled the film to be a quality canvas for the actors to paint the strokes, the acting takes significant credits to help Greengrass reflect certain themes and values. The breath-taking first confrontation between the ship crew and the Somali pirates enjoys an exhilarating build-up and climax that really gets viewers chewing their nails as if they are the ones being held at gunpoint.

Easily one of the best performance by Tom Hanks in the recent years, his performance ranges from nuance to hysterical. One of the later scenes where he is being triaged by a paramedic/doctor remains as one of the best examination and reenactment of actual human behaviour. Barkhad Abdi as the lead Somali pirate helps the realism cause further as he is a non-actor who nevertheless renders a good performance. The uneasy chemistry between Hanks and Abdi's characters do serve as some of the memorable highlights of the film.

Greengrass does not depict a conventional impression where the Somali pirates are the clear antagonists who wreck havoc for a bunch of unsuspecting seafarers. Instead Greengrass reflects some of the sociopolitical sentiments subtly, mostly through physical acts and non-verbal communication. There is a shift in perceived roles as the lines between right and wrong is blurred by motives and complex human emotions revealed.

Piracy in Somali is indeed induced by external drivers both native and global. The increase in commercial shipping activities off the Somali Coast has resulted in a negative impact upon the livelihoods of Somali fishermen through the reduced supply of seafood. Somali feudalism drives fishermen towards organised crime (piracy) as they need to feed/support warlords and what better opportunity to capitalise upon than the significant world maritime cargo traffic that is moving along the Somali coast.

Interestingly, Greengrass didn't create a huge agenda out of the sociopolitical themes and instead focused on the characters and the genre deliverables. This allows Greengrass to focus more on the action and drama. As an action thriller, Captain Phillips soars to the top spot for this year. In terms of plausibility and credibility, it also ranks highly with the tremendous (commendable) research efforts taken.

Despite a long and trecherous voyage (134 minutes), Captain Phillips remains firm and steady to emerge as a very likely award season candidate later this year.

(Preview screening courtesy of Sony Pictures Singapore)

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Insidious: Chapter 2 [Review]

Opinion: C+

By Jason Lin

Picking up where the first film ended with a climatic cliffhanger, Insidious: Chapter 2 weakens its core values with a slackened control over the film's direction by James Wan along with relatively superficial story and character development. Leaning undesirably more towards random cheap thrills, Insidious: Chapter 2 feels more like a genre exercise as a disappointing outcome of an acclaimed prequel.

The famed horror team of director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell reunite with the original cast of Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey and Ty Simpkins in INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2, the terrifying sequel to the acclaimed horror film, which follows the haunted Lambert family as they seek to uncover the mysterious childhood secret that has left them dangerously connected to the spirit world.

Faring well in 2011's Insidious and following up with possibly this year's best horror film The Conjuring, the audience will naturally have a higher expectation of James Wan to deliver the goods with his second chapter of Insidious. Unfortunately, his third attempt isn't going to strike jackpot despite some good branding elements as indicators of a potential cash cow franchise.

Should Insidious translate into an annual routine at the theatres (Insidious 3 has just been announced), one can either expect more adventures of the Lamberts or the misfitting Specs and Tucker (Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson) to form their own. In any case, it shouldn't be a surprise as the ending of Chapter 2 has laid the foundation for an imminent third to follow.

Opening with a flashback scene of Josh (Patrick Wilson) and his mother Lorraine's (Barbara Hershey) when Josh was a young boy, the formulaic narrative structure retains itself. The opening sequence that follows upon the conclusion of the opening scene is effective in providing the desired underlying mood and an overview of what is to come through visuals of kinetic motifs (e.g. opening of a red door into darkness, a devilish paw print impressed upon white bed sheets). While it is less imaginatively constructed in contrast to its prequel, it is nevertheless positive branding elements that Wan's crew carried over from the first film. This helps Chapter 2 to score in terms of further franchise development, which is also enabled by most of the original film crew reprising for consistency.

Joseph Bishara's chilling score sounds the same with little deviation albeit fuelling some of the blatant scares devised by the filmmakers (or possibly by request of producers). Blatant boos are not an offence in the genre, but the higher reliance on random scare tactics that do not value-add towards the film is. This is especially observed in a senseless scene where Renai (Rose Byrne) is surprised by Lorraine who appears out of nowhere while opening her car door.

Each of the characters have lesser room for development as some are sidelined to pave way for scripted scares (which are arguably the film's deliverables accountable towards mainstream genre fans) as well as certain efforts in closing certain loops of the first film. It is a pity as cast members like Byrne steps well into hysteria and frustration from her disturbances. Many might have also wished to see more chemistry between Specs and Tucker, the hilarious paranormal investigating duo.

Leigh Whannell's screenplay goes in the fashion of his previous work such as Saw where it looks at addressing earlier plot gaps and questions during the second half of Chapter 2. Unfortunately, some of these loop closing and plot devices draw further questions as they seem to be contradictory in nature when references are made to the first film. In view of not revealing spoilers, it will not be detailed and discussed here.

With more scare scenes, the direction feels less taut as Chapter 2 it is more of a series of mini paranormal encounters by the respective characters. Some are also rather incessant for liking (the piano played by itself for more than three times in the film). The more the viewers are treated to cheap scares, the less the story grips upon the audience as they wear the audience down gradually throughout the 100 minutes. Insidious achieved one of the best values highly regarded by this opinion, which is "Story is King". Sadly, this is not the case here.

Adopting relevant lighting (during dark scenes in The Further) and some mildly interesting camera movements befitting the film's setting and scripted scenarios, John R. Leonetti performs relatively well to keep affairs visually haunting on the big silver screen. There are however no "glidecam" fluid camera motion as seen in The Conjuring, which Leonetti also lensed.

Perhaps Wan really meant it when he says that he is done with the horror genre as he moves on to work on the seventh edition of the Fast and Furious franchise. Insidious: Chapter 2 might be a telltale sign of Wan's distraction with a less focused direction that hinders the film from achieving like its predecessor.

(Preview screening courtesy of Sony Pictures Singapore)

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Prisoners [Review]

Opinion: A-

By Jason Lin

A well-rounded production in terms of technical values and cast performance, Denis Villeneuve helms a script that is deeply invested in thematic plots and character studies. Despite keeping its audience prisoners for slightly over 150 minutes, Prisoners is emotionally taut and haunting to watch as it digs deeper into our inner souls and exploits human nature on the silver screen. Arguably Hugh Jackman's best career performance in what feels like one of the most compelling work of cinema this year.

Keller Dover is facing every parent’s worst nightmare. His 6-year-old daughter and her young friend are missing, and as minutes turn to hours, panic sets in. The only lead is a dilapidated RV that had been parked on their street. Heading the investigation, Detective Loki arrests its driver, but a lack of evidence forces the only suspect’s release. Knowing his child’s life is at stake, the frantic Dover decides he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands. The desperate father will do whatever it takes to find the girls, but in doing so, may lose himself, begging the question: When do you cross the line between seeking justice and becoming a vigilante?

In what seems like a peaceful town far away from the hustle and influence of urban city woes, two families are seen joyously preparing for a Thanksgiving gathering. While it is a festive occasion that calls for a celebration, Villeneuve doesn't linger much in happy moments and instead quickly allows the film's main plot event to terrorise both families.

Prior to this, the film opens with a contextual opening scene where Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is teaching his son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) how to hunt. While Keller is heard whispering the Lord's Prayer offscreen, Roger Deakins moves his camera outwards very slowly from what seems like a deer's nice quiet afternoon to reveal a rifle barrel and the immediate revelation of the situation. It is an apt opening scene that allows the viewers to take in the contrast between violence and religion.

"My father had taught me to always be prepared for anything", says Keller to his son on their way home for Thanksgiving with the hunted carcass lying in the back of the pickup truck seen through the misty rear window. Keller's well-stocked basement is also reflective of his tolerance for error and mishaps. This is a good start to Villeneuve's character study of Keller, as he subjects him to the agony of losing his young daughter to a kidnapper in the midst of festivity.

Possibly one of the most demanding roles written in Prisoners, Keller undergoes a transformation to one who forgoes a number of moral values as he performs choices highly driven by the desperation of locating his daughter in sound condition. Kudos to Jackman as he burrows deep into his character's skin and loses himself there, much like how Keller loses his soul as the film progresses. It is arguably one of Jackman's best performance till date as he exchanges a great amount of emotions with consistency throughout the entire two and a half hours.

Inflicting unspeakable torment upon one in exchange for the slightest trace of hope in finding back one's missing daughter. How justifiable is it?

Again, the conclusion isn't that simple as Aaron Guzikowski takes his script further with more twists to exploit the dark side of human nature. One simply cannot underestimate the uncertainty of human nature through stereotyping. Yes, the film makes a successful attempt at preventing itself to be easily guessed and deciphered by the audience in advance. A good part of this is by manipulating one's prejudicial expectations through what is observed and subsequently deduced.

Does that make us prisoners of our own prejudice?

There are also subtle notions of people choosing the better of two evils by confessing their sins to God and in hope seeking His forgiveness for whatever mistakes they have made to be condoned. Is one losing one's soul by barter trading with one's inner devil or is it just an easy way out as it will be forgiven under the impression of understandable plight? Villeneuve allows the audience to decide albeit not an easy task.

Despite running at over 150 minutes, Villeneuve keeps the film's pacing comfortably taut and haunting at times through unnerving moments of tension. This is also achieved with the help of Deakins' influential camera work that moves and focuses in tandem with the mood of the film. Jóhann Jóhannsson, who has also won the Golden Horse Award last year for his work in Lou Ye's Mystery, scores very well by striking uneasy and rattling chords at the right frames without being too blatant.

It is however a pity that supporting cast such as Viola Davis didn't have much room for exploring potentials. Most of the film focuses on its lead characters Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Keller, who have both driven the film right up to its fullest potential and impact with accolade deserving performance. Other notable supporting cast performance include Paul Dano who plays the central figure of suspicion, Alex Jones, with his chillingly crisp breaths of whispers and Melissa Leo who plays his mother.

One of the most compelling films to watch in cinemas this year, Prisoners may well earn a couple of award season nominations for its direction, screenplay, cast performance, and perhaps cinematography.

(Preview screening courtesy of

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Wolverine [Review]

Opinion: C

By Jason Lin

Perhaps paying a little too much tribute to source material is what turns this silver screen venture into a blockbuster disappointment. In terms of action and narrative engagement, everything feels watered down for an uninspiring chapter of Logan's story. Less for good debut performance by model-turned-actresses Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima, supporting characters such as the snake villain Viper played by Svetlana Khodchenkova fall fully flat on audience.

Based on the celebrated comic book arc, this epic action-adventure takes Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the most iconic character of the X-Men universe, to modern-day Japan. Out of his depth in an unknown world, he will face a host of unexpected and deadly opponents in a life-or-death battle that will leave him forever changed. Vulnerable for the first time and pushed to his physical and emotional limits, he confronts not only lethal samurai steel but also his inner struggle against his own immortality. Story by Christopher McQuarrie.

Crafting a compelling origin story behind people's favourite superheroes is never an easy affair. But when done right, viewers have come to be acquainted with satisfying outcomes with the likes of Batman Begins and Iron Man. Each film typically focuses on drawing out certain traits to entice audience deeper into the superhero universe. Today, studios are keen to create their very own to glorify their in-house superheroes.

The Marvel Universe is well-established since The Avengers and there is also nothing stopping the X-Men franchise from having their shot. The last X-Men big screen event took place in 2011 where Matthew Vaughn went well into the origins of the two key figures Professor X and Magneto. X-Men: First Class is a marvellous superhero origin film.

It is therefore sad to observe that James Mangold's The Wolverine opts for simplicity where the plot and narrative progresses at a rather linear path. Call it the heightened expectations of the contemporary movie-goer, films either fascinate by standing out or excel in traditional fields. Much like Pacific Rim with its "go big or go extinct" tagline.

From the first shot to the closing shot, both images fail to impress. There is a lack of discerning visuals here along with some of the troubled handheld camera work during the funeral fight. Not to mention that visual effects are adequately implemented without anything outstanding worthy of note. Of all the action scenes, the only set piece that startled pulse rates is the antagonisation of Logan at the exteriors of a speeding bullet train in Tokyo.

Most of the characters introduced are thinly written, not even the pivotal ones like Master Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) where it is not convincing enough for the audience to feel his fascination with immortality. This seems to also be due to the insufficient narrative scripting where the film jogs forward without much character development opportunities.

Likewise for Viper.

If not for Hiroyuki Sanada's magnetic screen presence as the honorable son of Master Yashida, Shingen might have been one more character let down by screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank. Interesting to note are the performances by first-time actresses Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima who play Mariko (Shingen's daughter) and Yukio (Mariko's playmate) respectively.

Along with Marco Beltrami's middling soundtrack that doesn't leave much impressions, it is with sadness to say that The Wolverine has failed to strike its audience with razor-sharp adamantium claws. Hugo Jackman however remains to be well-casted with his ripped body and vigour that should keep the female audience interested.

There is also a stinger scene after the main credits, thus do stay behind when the lights come back on.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Conjuring [Review]

Opinion: B+

By Jason Lin

One of the highly anticipated horror films of the year (probably more so for genre fans), horror filmmaker James Wan continues on his streak of well-received horror films such as Insidious with The Conjuring. Tackling on the horror agenda with other mechanisms and an old school 1970's tribute, Wan shows that there is definitely more to the cinematic scene of horror that is typically easily written off as a B-grade exploitation genre filled with blood, boobs, and narrative bore. One of the highly recommended watch for even non fans.

Before there was Amityville, there was Harrisville. Based on a true story, “The Conjuring” tells the horrifying tale of how world-renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren were called upon to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in a secluded farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful demonic entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.

After nearly ten years since his first major debut in 2004 with Saw, the creepy puppet master has since edged on from the “Splat Pack” trait of “gorrific” horror films to his latest old school 70’s chiller. Based on one of the true cases from real-life paranormal investigator couple Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, James Wan picks up the story that has also led to the earlier The Amityville Horror.

Looks like contemporary horror genre isn’t getting weary and is on the contrary a gripping experience even for non-horror fans. Wan exercises in The Conjuring a set of effective techniques and well-composed audio and visual incite to allow viewers to follow the narration at the edge of their seats (with toe curls).

With big budget studio horror productions always looking for the blatant boo, a compliment towards Wan for having his audience so glued into the narrative as he shows everyone that it is all about the atmosphere and the little subtlety in time and space that gets the job done (very well).

Despite affecting notes from Joseph Bishara’s score at times to hint of an imminent terror, his composition here is interestingly restrained (as compared to his previous work in Wan’s similarly impeccable Insidious) to allow the silence to thicken the plot and the sense of dread. The build up for each scare scene is concisely well timed, as Wan has seemingly mastered the technique of pacing, which is also likewise applied for the film’s tempo.

Admittedly, the story isn’t developed in depth but through the convincing performance by its cast ensemble. Particularly so as noted in Lili Taylor, who plays the mother of the victimized family Carolyn Perron, and Farmiga who inspired much through their apt demeanour of trauma and fear respectively. Mrs Perron begins as an unsuspicious mother who plays blindfolded hide-and-clap, to fully antagonized victim whom one sympathises with. Mrs Warren allows one to play with images of horror within one’s imagination from her bizarre frowns and stares into random space and direction.

Speaking of hide-and-clap, it is commendable for the filmmakers to transform something as innocently simple as a clap into a horror element. The clap also allows sound designer Joe Dzuban to accentuate the game of hide-and-clap with an aural dimension of direction, especially when the clap comes from a supernatural source. A clap sound has never been more frightening when picked up in the middle of a quiet night.

For attaching the audience unto the perspective of a fleeting presence like a spirit (or worse), the photography by John R. Leonetti is well received and actually helps heighten Wan’s vision in The Conjuring through planned camera motion path and angles. Lighting is also effective here, which is important as it is observed that digitally induced horror effects are kept to a minimal here.

Wan might have found his second favourite item of nightmare besides puppets – haunted houses. It is however uncertain if his haunted houses are scarier than the real estate market situation here. Wondering if the property market might be cooled if Wan adapts The Conjuring in a Singapore context with the litter chute door slamming open and shut every night at the demonic hour.

Easily one of the best horror films till date this year. There is also Insidious: Chapter 2 later this Halloween from James Wan and his frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell to look forward to, before he goes off to make street racing a frightening affair for Universal.

(Preview courtesy of Incinemas. Also published on Incinemas.)

Thursday, 20 June 2013

World War Z [Review]

Opinion: B

By Jason Lin

Despite its rumoured production woes, World War Z turns out to be quite a pleasant surprise with well conceived direction and a relatively clever genre screenplay (as compared to most zombie films) that lists five writers under credits. Marc Forster balances the post-apocalyptic action horror with heightened elements of reality for a keen study of society and humanity when at war with a viral zombie outbreak. There is good engaging content amidst a comfortable dosage of thrilling action, which makes this one of the better bets this blockbuster season.

The story revolves around United Nations employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), who traverses the world in a race against time to stop a pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself.

Based on a similarly-titled novel by Max Brooks that details a collection of individualistic accounts of a zombie outbreak, adaptation might not be an easy feat it seems. From the long list of writers attached to the project, the late addition of sci-fi screenwriter Damon Lindelof who has reportedly been approached to rewrite the third act does spell out potential script credibility worries.

Perhaps it's exactly why World War Z turns out to be a pleasant surprise.

Forster begins with a montage of media footage in attempt to hint a sense of sociopolitical unrest. This sets the feel and tone of the film upfront and like other similar films such as Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, it does provide a broad sense of mystery as the plot thickens over the subsequent minutes albeit not as convoluted as Soderbergh's film.

Character introduction is kept brief as Forster opts to direct his audience into the thick of curiosity-seeking narrative over much welcomed thrilling action that comes across as comfortable and non-blatant. Forster appears to excel in crafting great action narrative scenes, as some may know from the opening scene of Quantum of Solace. Instead of devising an action scene that sees action over story, Forster embeds action within the narrative in World War Z as the understanding is to focus on the sociopolitical and geopolitical aspects.

This makes it more brilliant than other zombie films as characters behave and think with more sense than its other genre counterparts. Mostly through the account of UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), viewers get a closer feel of what might happen in the case of living zombies overrunning cities globally. While it is not documentary real, it is comparatively much closer than most genre exploitation works.

With the ability to sprint and kill, zombies are much more horrific as victims turn within a mere 12 seconds. The audience knows this through the keen observation of Gerry, whose dedication to details despite chaos is admirable. Always try to make mental notes of critical outstanding traits in the surroundings during a crisis. The other lesson received is to keep moving for a higher chance of survival, which is difficult as people tend to freeze and hide when in fear.

Fear of death and the unknown.

Death is not glorified here (there is no gore or strong violence as main deliverables) as people tend to live and perish as the screenplay deems fit. Nobody seems to be bothered unless they are family, which might be the case during an actual crisis where society breaks order and every man for himself regardless of hierarchy/class. Even the news of the death of prominent nation leaders quickly passes without effect or any sense of loss.

It is the element of unknown that remains as the film's greatest triumph card as little is revealed behind the epidemic outbreak. The unknown behind any crisis is the true source of fear and terror. Gerry travels across the globe in search of "Patient Zero" and does so blindly without any medical knowledge of virology/pathology. However, civilisation has to thank Gerry's specialised skill set of deductive survey and analysis that gives World War Z an interesting edge to watch for.

As mentioned earlier, the third act is rewritten and it is perhaps expected that the third act ventures towards a significantly different direction. It is arguably going to divide opinions, but it sits reasonably well with this one. Using venom to fight venom, where the vulnerability of vicious forces is often at its most brutal. These concepts inspire solutions or means that will never have been logically made by human instinct.

We like it when actions are taken against conventionalism, especially when it comes with a satisfying dose of thrills and chills.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

New World [Review]

Opinion: B+

By Jason Lin

Seemingly written with an obsession in the dynamics of the mobster's realm, Park Hoon-jung's second feature takes pain to craft a somewhat convoluted tale of an undercover cop who has to face and manage real risk of perils every second under the nose of corporate gangsters. Taking influences from other mafia genre classics (such as Infernal Affairs), the story intrigues and heightens senses albeit dragging its feet into plot details at times.

The head of the Goldmoon crime syndicate is dead, leaving his top two lieutenants. Seizing the opportunity, the police launch an operation called "New World," with the perfect weapon. The boss' right hand man, Ja-sung (LEE Jung-jae, THE THIEVES), has been a deep-cover operative for 8 years, closely watched by handler Police chief Kang (CHOI Min-sik, OLDBOY). With a baby on the way, and living in mortal fear of being exposed as a mole, Ja-sung is torn between his duty and honor as a cop, and the fiercely loyal gang members who will follow him to hell and back.

The premise begins with a planned act of violence sent to take out the head of a gangster syndicate. This leaves the organisation without clear leadership and it is natural for those next in line to vie for control. Of course, it takes more than just lobbying for votes of support within the stake-holding members.

With two key factions and one led by a veteran with a low profile, Park begins his tale of mafia politics that sends the competing factions playing games to get the better of the other. Like a game of chess, one's require to practice sound corporate strategy to outguess and outsmart their opponent. Looks like brute force and traditional gangsterism is not going to be good enough for Park's corporatised mafia world.

What's making things complex is the police's intention to influence the transition.

Drawing references from Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs are regular meetings between undercover cop Ja-seong (Lee Jeong-jae) and handler Kang (Choi Min-sik). What's interesting is Park's play on the dynamics of the two's relationship that also evolves over time. Viewers are able to feel Ja-seong's pressure and frustrations building. Imagine having to constantly decide between good vs. bad, moral values vs. fraternity loyalty, and when to cross the line for critical survival.

One can never satisfy and have the best of both worlds, but Ja-seong tries.

New World is a good revelation of the intrinsic developments within the Gold Moon syndicate and outside where the police are precariously observing them from outside and within (through their planted mole). The supporting characters and their performance are some of the most valuable complements in the film.

Particularly Hwang Jeong-min and Park Seong-woong who plays the respective competing factions' leaders, the menace and behavioural traits portrayed are so intense yet unpredictable, one is never certain what's going to happen. There is also a memorable scene that involves Hwang courageously entering into and tackling a lift full of knife-wielding men. This is where the audience obtains their thrills from. With such credible supporting cast performance, Lee Jeong-jae shine seems dim in contrast.

However, Park does dwell a little too long in certain parts of the screenplay and affairs often get convoluted. Some of the scenes play out a tad bit too long and are opined as self-indulgent, where the film might have been able to do without to shorten its 134 minutes running time.

What New World excels in is the delicate details and thrilling flux that ensue within the realm of gangsters and it has definitely benefitted from Park's passionate writing and particular vision that go well into depth. As one who has previously scribed Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil that contains some of the most wicked thematic concepts, this opinion is keen to study Park's potential as a filmmaker in the future.