Prometheus : deeply flawed but still a must see

Probably the film that I was most looking forward to in 2012, Prometheus has generally been dubbed a let down by fans of the Alien franchise and science fiction cinema in general. A quick look at Rotten Tomatoes shows that the film has a 74% fresh score (on 12 June 2012), which really isn’t bad, but browse online and one can find loads of negative comments of people who have seen the film. So what gives?

Prometheus wants to be a thought-provoking science fiction epic about a group of scientist exploring the origins of humans. The problem is it poses many questions, never answers them, and opts for genre picture thrills instead.

The opening prologue looks amazing and sets up some very interesting questions. A humanoid drinks a black fluid, decomposes and falls into a waterfall. Is the humanoid (space engineer) on pre-historic Earth? Does his death provide the seeds for life to flourish on Earth? It is a very intriguing and impressive opening.

After the movie titles appear, we are now in 2089 and 2 archaeologists discover some cave paintings. Apparently, these painting are very similar to those found across different ancient cultures and they all show a large figure pointing at some stars in the sky. They believe this to be an invitation to a distant planet (LV-223) where the creators of man may reside. The archaeologists jump to the conclusion that we must go to this planet – in the next scene, we are already in space en route to LV-223. We are never shown any discussion about what the cave paintings may or may not imply. Couldn’t the paintings just be some sort of rite – a king / leader figure pointing to alignment of stars that might mean the coming of rain or something like that?

Throughout the film, the scientists / specialist act without any rigorous analysis of events and act spontaneously (and sometimes quite moronically). For example, when the crew arrive on the planet and venture out into the weird cave, one of them detects that the atmosphere is “breathable”. What do the crew do? They immediately take off their containment suit helmets! Surely they should be aware that while the atmosphere may have enough oxygen, it doesn’t mean it is safe to breathe. What about bacteria and alien viruses?  That night, two of the crew left behind in the cave encounter a snake-like creature. What do they do? Do they run away given that they have seen loads of dead humanoid corpses? Do they sense any danger? No, they poke the creature with their hands. These are just some examples of what I find to be a let down in Prometheus. In a genre picture that aims simply to provide thrills, it is perhaps okay. I don’t question too much when I watch the Resident Evil films and I enjoy them. But Prometheus promised to be more.

Having said all this, I liked Prometheus. I really do. I would rather watch a film that tries to be great than a calculated Hollywood franchise like Battleship. Prometheus is truly beautiful to look at (I saw it in 2D – now I’m dying to see it in IMAX 3D) and if you don’t think hard about the plot holes or unanswered questions, it can still be an enjoyable genre picture. Michael Fassbender is excellent as the synthetic David (who models himself on Peter O’Toole‘s Lawrence of Arabia – I’m sure there’s a paper in that); the rest of the cast is serviceable but their roles aren’t quite as meaty. The science effects are top-notch too – we are no longer watching dark space ship corridors (which really seem to me to be a practicality back in the original Alien to hide the flaws of the special effects) and squinting our eyes to see the details. Everything is clearly shot and look simply stunning.

So in short, Prometheus is ambitious and stunning to look at but deeply flawed.

Some interesting reading : here is a blog post that tries admirably to argue that Prometheus’ plot isn’t that full of holes. There are loads of interesting points mentioned, but at the end, I’m not sure it works for me. Still it makes for very good reading.

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Once A Gangster : Ekin mocks gangster genre

I can picture some producer pitching Once A Gangster 飛砂風中轉 as follows

Let’s reunite Ekin Cheng 鄭伊健 and Jordan Chan 陳小春 from the Young And Dangerous series in a satire of the Hong Kong triad movie. This time, instead of plots to become the head of the gang, our heroes don’t want to become the new Godfather as it means police harassment and eventual jail time. We can sell this as Old And Not So Dangerous.

The film started its run today in Hong Kong. And I did have a good time – it was mostly funny. Most of the comedy points at the fact that most gangsters simply want to make more money which translates to more power and influence. The outdated model of gang elders electing a new leader is presented as both silly and not very democratic; like Johnny To’s 杜琪峰 Election movies, Once A Gangster also pokes fun at Hong Kong’s electoral system but in a more light-hearted fashion. Other running gags include a bumbling undercover cop named Yan (satirizing Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s character in Infernal Affairs, which was co-directed by Alan Mak 麥兆輝, the producer of this film) and Swallow’s (Ekin Cheng character) desire to study Economics at the University of Hong Kong instead of becoming gang head.

Like most comedies I see, the makers of the film fail to make the premise and gags in Once A Gangster work over a feature-length film. There are moments in the middle part of the film where Once A Gangster is pretty much a straight forward gangster movie and not much of a satire. And Candice Yu’s 余安安 grating performance as Swallow’s mother annoyed the hell out of me – and let me say this, I was a great fan of Candice Yu when she was young (i.e. back in her television days with RTV). She looked real cute back then.

As a matter of interest to film buffs, Once A Gangster was co-scripted by Chapman To 杜文澤.

In concluding, I would recommend Once A Gangster, but would hesitate calling it a great movie.

Dream Home : Hong Kong’s best cult film in a while

Much of the publicity surrounding Dream Home prior to its release was focused on the clashes between director Pang Ho Cheung 彭浩翔 and actress-producer Josie Ho 何超儀; arguments regarding the final cut was the supposed reason for the delays in bringing the film to the screen.

Last week, I finally got to see the movie as it has been wide released in Hong Kong. Classified as a Category III film in the territory, the producers have marketed Dream Home 維多利亞壹號 primarily as a cult gore film much more than as a social commentary. Josie Ho stars as a common telemarketer struggling to make ends meet; apart from her day job, she works a couple of part-time jobs at night as well. Her ultimate goal and obsession is to buy her dream home, not just any apartment, but one that oversees Victoria Harbor. When she finally has the cash to pay the deposit for her dream flat, however, the sellers decide to withdraw the flat from the market. Shocked and outraged, she decides to go all out in order to secure the apartment.

So what does this “all-out” entail? Well, Josie Ho’s character basically kills and maims the tenants living adjacent to the apartment she wants to buy. She succeeds and the massacre means that the flat is now no longer “desirable”. I don’t know how people in other countries view this, but with Chinese, the re-sell value of property would be significantly lower if anything nasty has happened in or near an apartment.

The film jumps back and forth in time: it starts with Josie on a rampage, and jumps back to show us her miserable life living in a cramped and old home with her parents. I suspect this narrative device helps spread out the murders, making it more palatable than having it all in one go in the final 30 minutes; it also means gore fans won’t have to wait an hour for anything gruesome to take place.

Much has also been said of the social commentary aspects of the film. Yes, they are there: property developers using under-handed tactics to force poor families from their homes for re-development and the impossibility of a white collar worker to even save enough for down payment for any home. It’s all there, and it works as the force that pushes Josie Ho’s character over the edge.

Anyway, what’s going to secure cult status for this film isn’t insight into social issues like ever-escalating-never-affordable property prices but how much gore there is. Let’s see, we have death by suffocation via plastic bag and vacuum cleaner, skulls bashed in by golf clubs, disembowelment, planks shoved down the mouth, screwdrivers through the back of the head, eyeballs squashed on the floor … I can’t remember all the ways people die. There is some sex and a guy does have his penis cut off. Pang employs a comic touch to all these proceedings so it doesn’t come off as overly revolting – some scenes actually solicited a few laughs.

As a final note, production quality is but no means low. I mention this because for many, if you say cult Hong Kong film, they think Riki-Oh. That’s one super low-budget film. No, Dream Home is a superior product: handsomely shot, well-written dialogue, and decent special effects.

Recommended viewing and arguably the best cult film to come out of Hong Kong in quite a while.

Iron Man 2 : Iron Man & War Machine vs battle droids!

As a long time fan of Marvel Comics, I have been delighted by the growing trend of adapting key Marvel characters into film but disappointed at the quality of quite a few of them (Punisher, Daredevil and Elektra, anyone?). A few years ago, when I heard that they were going to make an Iron Man movie, I was not optimistic that it would be good – a tin man flying around could potentially be real cheesy. But the final product was in fact, surprisingly, one of the better Marvel films. Of course, with its success, a sequel was planned and the film made its debut in Hong Kong on 30 April 2010.

Pre-release reviews by the mainstream press were pretty negative, but that obviously didn’t really affect my desire to see the film (nor, I suspect, will they stop many others). At over 2 hours in length, Iron Man 2 does provide enough adrenaline pumping action to satisfy most viewers. While there is little character development, which was one of the strengths of the original Iron Man movie, and the plot goes all over the place, I suspect most viewers who simply want a good time will find this sequel more than satisfying.

As far as the story goes, the film begins with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) facing two problems: deteriorating health and the government’s desire to force him to hand over his battle suits. Soon a third problem arises in the form of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who wants revenge on Stark of what Stark senior did to Vanko senior. Soon, Stark’s pal Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) flies away with one Iron Man Suit that gets fitted with multiple rocket launchers and Gatling guns and Vanko unleashes an army of battle droids on Stark. All hell breaks loose.

I am sure fanboys will be delighted with Scarlett Johansson’s role as the Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow. Johansson’s role was obviously an attempt to add some sex appeal to the franchise – while her role seems tacked on rather lazily, guys probably won’t mind some eye candy.

Iron Man 2 represents the return of Mickey Rourke to the blockbuster movie and this is the first post The Wrestler role I’ve seen him in. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have much to do apart from looking mean. I’ve always like Rourke as an actor and find him excellent in Sin City. But I’m afraid The Expendables (coming later this summer) and Rambo V might sink his career again. As a side note, I’m not sure what villain he is playing in Iron Man 2; he looks like Whiplash to me, but the Hollywood Reporter lists him as Crimson Dynamo! I suppose he is a composite of the two.

Other fan moments : Samuel L. Jackson appears as Nick Fury, lends Tony Stark a hand in creating an updated power source and invites him to become a member of a special ops team. After the roller credits, a scene also hints at things to come, namely, Thor’s mystic hammer Mjöllnir is found in Mexico.

Overall, not as great as the first Iron Man film but still a great popcorn movie. Recommended.

Negative review @ Hollywood Reporter

Positive review @ Marsh Attacks

Ip Man 2 : Donnie Yen fights Sammo Hung!

It is holiday weekend in Hong Kong (Chinese Labour Day on 01 May) and quite a few films are capitalizing on this – debuts include Iron Man 2, Toy Story 3 and Ip Man 2. All sequels mind you. The first one I saw was Ip Man 2 tonight at Cityplaza.

Ip Man 2 葉問 2 is probably one of the most talked about Hong Kong films of the year and rightly so as the first film was indeed quite a thrill to watch. Donnie Yen 甄子丹 reprises his role as the calm Wing Chun 詠春 master and reluctant hero; like the previous film, he is forced into action against the oppressive “rulers”, now corrupt British colonial officers instead of the invading Japanese military. But plot is really beside the point here – we are already way used to the clichéd formula whereby the protagonist first fights with the local lads / masters and then challenges the evil foreigner and teaches him a thing or two about humility. This was basically the plot in Fearless 霍元甲 (Jet Li’s 李連杰 Huo Yuanjia vs the Japanese), True Legend 蘇乞兒 (Vincent Zhao’s 趙文卓 Beggar So vs the Russians), and countless classics including Bruce Lee’s epic Fist of Fury (Lee’s Chen Zhen 陳真 vs the Japanese). This cliché has plague the kung fu movie (particularly those set in the late Qing and 20th century) and is probably offensive to non-Chinese viewers and stale even for Chinese viewers. Ip Man 2 doesn’t really bother to deviate from this.

But then most viewers of the film are probably just looking for awesome fights, which this film does deliver. Key to the films best fight is Sammo Hung 洪金寶 as Hung Jan Nam, master of Hung Kuen 洪拳. There are 3 extended and 2 short action set pieces.

The 3 extended scenes include:

  1. Ip Man vs Hung’s protégés at the fish market. This is a classic one vs many fight and Ip Man even uses his fish market choppers as well.
  2. Ip Man vs several kung fu masters including – the highlight of the film for me was the fight here against Sammo Hung’s character although Ip Man does trade with 2 others including one played by Shaw veteran Lo Meng 羅莽. All these fights take place on top of a table thus emphasizing balance, style as well as power. Hung is very impressive and the two exchange some very fast punches. Excellent scene!
  3. Ip Man vs The Twister, a western boxer. The fight is decent but can’t compete with early fights. Initially Ip Man finds it hard to parry the Twister’s hard punches but eventually prevails of course.

The 2 shorter scenes are:

  1. Leung (played by rising mainland Chinese star Huang Xiaoming 黃曉明) vs Hung’s protégés. Short scene that shows the Leung character perform some Wing Chun.
  2. Hung vs The Twister. Hung challenges the Twister and gets his ass kicked as he runs out of gas.

Most of the other actors apart from Yen and Hung really have minor roles and little to no character development. The film takes place in 1950s Hong Kong and while I have no issue with the production quality of the sets and art design, I can’t say it works for me either. The overall look seems to be just another generic Chinese mid-20th century set; take out the Englishmen and it could be early 20th century Canton for all I care.

Overall, I did find Ip Man 2 more entertaining than True Legend while not quite measuring up to the original Ip Man from 2008. I still prefer Donnie Yen’s contemporary actioners Kill Zone and Flash Point as I feel they represent progression in terms of action choreography. Still, Ip Man 2 earns a recommended viewing!

Ip Man 2 review @ Twitch

Official Ip Man 2 website

White Night 白夜行 : gripping adaptation of 東野圭吾 novel

Last week I saw White Night, the Korean film adaptation of Keigo Higashino’s 東野圭吾 critically acclaimed novel Byakuyako 白夜行, at Palace IFC. I am a big fan of the author’s novels but I entered the cinema without having read this particular novel.  Byakuyako had already been made into a Japanese TV drama a few years ago (I haven’t had the luck to see that one either) and since the success of the Galileo 神探伽俐略 series and the Suspect X 嫌疑犯 X 的獻身 movie in Japan and many parts of Asia, Keigo Higashino’s fiction has become hot property for re-development.

I found the Korean White Night very entertaining and apparently it is the director Park Shin-woo’s debut feature film. I went in with no preconceived ideas or expectations since I hadn’t read the book. Seen as a thriller / blockbuster, White Night succeeds in providing viewers with an engrossing whodunit plot. The suspects in these murders include a gigolo and a beautiful woman who is on the verge of marrying a business tycoon and launching her own fashion line. The film starts with a series of murders and gradually unfolds by jumping back and forth between the present and the past to unravel the mystery. Production values are solid, the plot is fast paced and while I don’t know too many of the actors in the film (I’m not that knowledgeable in South Korean stars), they did seem believable in their respective roles. Son Ye-jin stars in the leading role, and although she is an award-winning actress in South Korea, I have never seen any of her movies. The only star I recognized was Han Seok-kyu, whom I remembered from the blockbuster Shiri. Labeled a Category III film in Hong Kong, White Nights has a few sex scenes but I didn’t find them excessively explicit and didn’t really notice any frontal nudity; I suspect the classification has more to do with one of the character’s pedophilic tendencies.

Overall, I had a good time and rate this as one of the better thrillers I’ve seen so far this year.

Postscript : I enjoyed the movie so much I ended up reading the novel afterwards. The film basically only borrows the the opening and closing chapters from the novel, a good decision as the books are quite expansive. The novel uses a linear narrative that covers the characters’ progression from primary school children to scheming adults. The movie simply focuses on the final part of the novel with the characters on the verge of fulfilling their dreams when every thing comes crashing down; flashbacks are used to explain their motives and elaborate ploys. Judged on its own, I still think White Night the film is a success.

Review @ HanCinema : Love lurks in the shadows in White Night.

Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon : excellent familial drama

After reading Donald Richie’s fascinating study of Japanese cinema A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, I became interested in seeing the films of Ozu Yasujiro 小津安二郎, Naruse Mikio 成濑巳喜男 and Mizoguchi Kenji 溝口健二 . While DVDs of Naruse and Mizoguchi films are harder to find and often quite expensive (think Criterion editions), Ozu’s films are extremely affordable as Hong Kong Region 3 DVDs. I’ve always been worried about the quality of these discs since local editions can be had for HK$49, compared to HK$340+ for a Criterion edition of the same film. But last week, I finally bought one title, Ozu’s last film An Autumn Afternoon 秋刀魚之味.

An Autumn Afternoon focuses on the dynamics between an aging widower and his daughter. Since the death of his wife, the widower has relied on his daughter to run his house efficiently. But at the beginning of the film, the father starts to worry that if he selfishly keeps his daughter from marriage, he will ruin her future and turn her into a sad spinster. In the end, the daughter finds a husband and leaves the father’s home to begin a new life. Ozu keeps the focus solely on the father’s feelings throughout the film and the original Japanese title The Taste of the Pacific Saury (a common fish eaten in Japan which tastes bitter) suggests the final outcome leaves the father lonely and sorely missing his daughter. Ozu avoids any form of melodrama in this film yet keeps viewers thoroughly engaged.

Highly recommended.