Month: July 2014

Flushed Away

flushed away

Almost 20 years after the release of Toy Story, I still haven’t fully embraced computer animation. There is a sterile quality about these films that I just can’t warm to. Everything seems too shiny, the lines too clean. Only a few have impressed me visually (Brave is one), but Flushed Away, from the makers of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, is a happy compromise. It retains the gummy, hand shaped feel of Aardman’s previous plasticine work while using technology to enhance scenes that would have taken years to film using motion capture. The result is a picture that’s sometimes rough around the edges but whose animation is full of personality.

There are two great advantages that computer animation immediately brings to this Aardman production in particular. The first is the viscosity of the water, which appears in abundance. After all, the movie is about a rat getting flushed down a toilet and into a sewer. Roddy (Hugh Jackman), a debonair but caged and lonely above ground rat, spends most of his time in the bowels of London on a boat built and piloted by Rita (Kate Winslet). They navigate the currents as he tries to find a way back home and she tries to evade The Toad (Ian McKellan), who is after some stolen goods. Previous Aardman films showed characters splashed with water or coffee dribbling out of the percolator, but these scenes look to be missing a dozen frames per second.

The stilted movement and doughy consistency of liquids has its charms but would be an obvious barrier to this film. Some of the most memorable scenes take place on the water. Roddy and Rita dodge Toad’s henchmen who come speeding up on high powered hand mixers, only to find themselves whipped into a frothy mess when Rita lets loose a packet of pudding mix. Computer animation is also used to good effect at the climax as Toad attempt to unleash a torrent of water in order to wipe out the rats and make way for his thousands of tadpole children.

The scope of this movie is also much grander. Aardman often delights on details, in part because the camera tightens in on the action. Flushed Away instead zooms out to reveal the vastness of an underground London, fastidiously fashioned out of bits and bobs. This allows the characters greater range of movement, and indeed Roddy and Rita find themselves swinging high and low as they elude capture. I got a childish flush of awe looking on at such a meticulous, handcrafted world in miniature.

It’s the playdoughy touch that allows the animation at least to stand out. Though the characters may move more gracefully, they still look like they’ve been carefully, and lovingly, kneaded and pinched into position. I like that each noodle of Rita’s hair feels like its been rolled between some animator’s palms or that the singing slugs might have been squished into shape before being mounted on a lilypad.

Flushed Away does suffer from a lumpy plot, however. At first, Toad is after a jewel, but once that idea is exhausted, writers have him retrieve a stolen cable that he needs to execute his plan. Then his French cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno) hops in belatedly to help with the amphibious domination. Kids probably won’t mind; there’s literal toilet humor to appease them. Meanwhile, there are still plenty of laughs for adults, plus a little soul searching about materialism and what we really value in life. Despite a few hiccups, this movie is an entertaining and satisfying parade of Britishness and has even nudged me in the direction of computer animation.

Released: 2006
Prod: Cecil Kramer, David Sproxton, Peter Lord
Dir: David Bowers, Sam Fell
Writer: Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Simon Nye
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellan, Jean Reno, Andy Serkis, Bill Nighy, Shane Richie
Time: 85 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2014

Miracle in Lane 2

miracle in lane 2

Once upon a time, which we’ll call the Eighties and early Nineties, the Disney Channel made truly standout television films. It lost its touch during its transition to basic cable in the late Nineties and has never gotten back to its standard for quality programming. There have been bigger hits since (e.g. High School Musical, Zenon) but nothing with the resonance of films like Perfect Harmony or A Friendship in Vienna, which deal with racial prejudice and religious intolerance, respectively.

But at risk of becoming too sentimental about my childhood, there’s still room enough to appreciate Disney movies with broad family appeal that don’t descend into the goofy fare the channel does so well now. Miracle in Lane 2, about a boy with spina bifida who tries soapbox racing, injects life lessons by way of some understated moments, and some not so understated. The result is not particularly taxing, but it is warm enough to make you cheer for the hero all the way to the finish line.

It helps if you remember star Frankie Muniz as the cute kid from Malcolm in the Middle. He brings the same cheeky persona to his character Justin Yoder, the real life inspiration behind this story. Justin’s playful streak makes him fun to watch, especially as he daydreams away. His biggest wish is to win a trophy, any trophy, to even things out a bit with his super athletic brother Seth (Patrick Levis). In between these failed attempts, he imagines that he’s talking to God, who comes in the form of famous race car driver Bobby Wade (Tuc Watkins) or being put on trial by his family. Justin is convinced that God made a mistake by giving him “legs like linguini” and knows that he is defined by his wheelchair. Luckily he has a mother (Molly Hagan) who won’t take “no” when it comes to her younger son and she backs him up in his every pursuit, including his decision to try out for the baseball team.

The potential for sentimentality is great, and, as this is a Disney movie, you can be sure there’s a lot of it. However, the movie most often opts for humor when the chance arises, and that gives it a bouncier, decidedly Disney edge. Justin’s mother is stereotypically strong and protective, and indeed she is compared to a grizzly bear. But usually she is played as the chipper, omnipresent super mom who cheers with all her heart and lungs but who really doesn’t know a damn thing about sports (this is supposed to be funny).

Yet for all its humor, the movie pulls back with just enough moments of emotional realism. These aren’t too heavy handed, which makes them all the more effective. Interestingly and probably more true to life, Justin is never the one to question his mortality; he simply accepts it and gets on with things. It’s everyone else who seems to have a difficult time. Seth, for example, gets some lumpy characterization as guy who loves his little brother but is also increasingly annoyed by the amount of time his parents spend on Justin. When he’s reached the end of his fuse, he reveals himself to be more than just a jealous brother. Likewise, grouchy neighbor Vic’s (Roger Aaron Brown) best scenes occur when Justin accidentally stumbles upon his past, which he would rather keep buried.

The actual soapbox races turn out to be more interesting in real life than they are portrayed on television. If you didn’t know this was based on a true story, you might think Disney just wanted to create another unconventional setting for its characters (other movies have featured kid surfers, kid bowlers, kid dancer, kid inline skaters…). The races are a bonus if you like that sort of thing, but there’s still a mildly satisfying family movie night in it if you’re not.

Released: 2000
Prod: Greg Beeman, Christopher Morgan
Dir: Greg Beeman
Writer: Joel Kauffmann, Donald C. Yost
Cast: Frankie Muniz, Rick Rossovich, Molly Hagan, Patrick Levis, Roger Aaron Brown
Time: 120 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: The Disney Channel
Reviewed: 2014

I Love Hong Kong (我愛HK開心萬歲)

i love hk

I Love Hong Kong lives up to its title, showing great holiday affection for the city and the salt of the earth folks who live there. A respectable follow-up to the previous Chinese New Year’s hit 72 Tenants of Prosperity, this movie delivers a warmhearted message about community that comes wrapped in layers of laughter, nostalgia, and product placement. This TVB production is also top heavy with local television actors, but the station opts for true screen stars Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Sandra Ng to generate a hefty festive buzz.

Leung and Ng play parents to Ming (Aarif Lee), Chi (Mag Lam), and King (Chan Wing-Lam), and life is all fun and games until hard economic times brings big changes to their lives. Shun, a toy manufacturer, finds his factory shut down, so he decides to move the family back to the public housing estate where his father (Stanley Fung) still lives. But this ends up literally cramping everyone’s style.

Though Shun praises the virtues of being close to extended family and having trustworthy estate friends nearby, no one cares for this arrangement. Shun’s Wife (she doesn’t have a name but is simply known as ‘Shun’s wife’) escapes by returning to work at a beauty clinic, only to find herself demoted and taking orders from a haughty and much younger, taller, slimmer superior (Koni Lui). His son, a cog in the Food and Health Department machine, objects to living next to the stall owners he’s tasked with reprimanding, and even Shun’s father prefers having his flat to himself, where he has space enough for two TVs – a bigger one for TVB and a smaller one for that other station.

It’s Shun’s turn to feel upset though when his former friend Lung (Eric Tsang) reappears. He still holds a grudge from their youth after some funds went missing and wonders if Lung is just here to pull another scam or if he really wants to help out the struggling tenants. The power of flashback not only fleshes out their relationship and helps the audience appreciate the values of council estate living, it also gives a boatload of fresh faced TVB actors a chance to play younger versions of the characters (Bosco Wong as Shun, Wong Cho-Lam as Lung, Kate Tsui and Joyce Cheng as the bread store twins).

The gimmick aids plot development but also strengthens the message of Hong Kongers coming together to fight off the wealthy and corrupt, something we apparently did better thirty years ago. By the time the movie reaches its forced climax, you’ll be cheering on the small potatoes of this idyllic housing estate as they take on officials and developers who threaten their community and simple way of life. Hell, you might even want to live in a housing estate after you see their polished quarters. Zany side plots made funnier with a knowledge of Cantonese and Hong Kong gossip top off this stocking stuffer of a film, but the overall effort works regardless. It’s one you won’t mind revisiting next Chinese New Year’s.

“Always Friends” (始終都係朋友好) performed by the cast:

“I Love Hong Kong” performed by Aarif Lee and Mag Lam. Video not available but inspired by “Kowloon, Hong Kong” by the Reynettes:

Released: 2011
Prod: Eric Tsang 曾志偉; Jason Siu 邵劍秋
Dir: Chung Shu-Kai 鍾澍佳; Eric Tsang 曾志偉
Writer: Chung Shu-Kai 鍾澍佳; Helward Mak 麥曦茵; Wong Yeung-Tat 黃洋達
Cast: Eric Tsang 曾志偉; Tony Leung Ka-Fai 梁家輝; Sandra Ng 吳君如; Aarif Lee 李治廷; Mag Lam 林欣彤; Chan Wing-Lam 陳穎嵐; Stanley Fung 馮淬帆; Anita Yuen 袁詠儀; Fala Chen 陳法拉; Wu Ma 午馬; Wong Cho-Lam 王祖藍; Bosco Wong 黃宗澤; Jess Shum 沈卓盈; Liu Kai-Chi 廖啟智; Wayne Lai 黎耀祥; Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee 張可頤; Alfred Cheung 張堅庭; Louis Yuen 阮兆祥; Michelle Lo 盧覓雪; Kate Tsui 徐子珊 Joyce Cheng 鄭欣宜; JJ Jia 賈曉晨; Koni Lui 呂慧儀; Jeannette Leung 梁政玨; Siu Yam-Yam 邵音音; Evergreen Mak 麥長青; 6 Wing 陸永; Tenky Tin 田啟文; Lam Suet 林雪; Raymond Wong 黃浩然; Otto Wong 王志安; Eddie Pang 彭懷安; Jim Chim 詹瑞文; Samantha Ko 高海寧; Felix Wong 黃日華; Michael Miu 苗僑偉; Mak Ling-Ling 麥玲玲; Pierre Ngo 敖嘉年; Christine Kuo 苟芸慧; Terence Tsui 小肥; Hui Siu-Hung 許紹雄; and a LOT more
Time: 104 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014

Goal III: Taking on the World

goal 3

I wasn’t a fan of Goal II, the follow-up to a spirited original, but Goal, the Third makes the second outing of this football franchise look like a veritable masterpiece. There’s little to defend in this movie, which is almost a complete departure from the first two films. The only things that link it with the others are a soccer ball and the brief appearance of Santiago Muñez (Kuno Becker), which is forgivable had this actually been a good movie. Instead, it lives up (or down) to its direct-to-video reputation with mawkish performances and a script more suited to a British soap than a film.

Most of the story focuses on English players Charlie Braithwaite (Leo Gregory) and Liam Adams (JJ Feild). The audience is asked to believe that they are Santi’s best friends while Gavin, Santi’s hard partying teammate from the previous movies, doesn’t merit a mention. The hasty friendship jolts the trilogy’s dynamic, and Santi’s interactions with Charlie and Liam miss the playfulness and camaraderie earned from years of supporting each other on and off the field.

From the start, Santi seems like the outsider, just tagging along as the trio head off to a film set where Charlie has a small part in a gothy vampire B movie. Charlie immediately strikes up a relationship with his costar Sophia (Kasia Smutniak) and in a matter of weeks, the two are engaged. More good news arrives when he and Liam learn they have just been named to the 2006 World Cup national team.

Life crashes to a halt, however, when the friends get into a car accident that sends Santi out of World Cup contention for Mexico and out of much of the movie. It also has devastating consequences for Charlie, who has everything else going for him. Liam gets away mostly unscathed, but he soon learns that has a young daughter from his previous relationship with June (Anya Lahiri). He goes back to the bottle as he deliberates how he should handle his new role.

Meanwhile, the World Cup, which should be at the center of the story, threatens to drown in all the melodrama. The characters seem only marginally invested in soccer, and while they get the biggest stage, their stories don’t justify the immensity of the tournament. The reliance on stock footage added with some truly shameful green screen show where the filmmakers’ priorities lay. The only ones who demonstrate true passion for the sport seem to be the roving band of superfans, background characters from the first movie, who chase their team around Germany. At least they mimic the intensity of fans’ devotion to soccer, even if their attempts at sitcom humor fall flat.

Goal III is a sad ending to the series, which might have better focused on Santi as an established star on the European circuit. This one won’t satisfy the football fans, or anyone who appreciates a good movie, but if it sends you back to the first film where the dream began, then that will be a very good thing.

Released: 2009
Prod: Mike Jefferies, Matt Barrelle
Dir: Andrew Morahan
Writer: Mike Jefferies, Piers Ashworth
Cast: JJ Feild, Leo Gregory, Kuno Becker, Nick Moran, Tamer Hassan, Kasia Smutniak, Anya Lahiri, Christopher Fairbank, Gary Lewis
Time: 92 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2014

My Beautiful Kingdom (我的美丽王国)

my beautiful kingdom

The Mainland film industry is eager to show off the country’s wealth and worldliness through high end fashion (e.g. Esquire Runway, Sleepless Fashion), and My Beautiful Kingdom is another notch to that totem. Though it sounds like a movie about My Little Ponies romping about a magical fairy land, it is instead a behind-the-scenes look at the modeling industry.

At least it purports to be. Fans expecting FHM cover girls Chrissie Chau and Gong Xinliang to recreate photo spreads will be disappointed, and while fashion shows bookend the film, there ends up being precious little insight into life on the catwalk. Instead, My Beautiful Kingdom turns out to be a misleadingly grand title for a routine drama about friendship.

Best buddies Ruotong (Chau), Xiaoyi (Gong), and Yizhi (Gu Xuan) head to Beijing to make it big in the modeling world but face constant setbacks after they get there. Xiaoyi ends up with more jobs but her career has stalled thanks to her alcoholic manager (Cheng Jun). Since helping supermodel Li Jieling (Jade Lin) catapult to stardom, he’s lost his touch and doesn’t seem to grasp Xiaoyi’s desperation.

Luckily for Ruotong, a stint as a banana mascot leads her to Kelvin (Jiro Wang), a PR manager and Jieling’s boyfriend. Her cheerful demeanor and strong work ethic win him over, and he proposes that she model for a new campaign he is running. The clients are pleased, his coworkers are impressed, and he and Ruotong flirt with the idea of a romance. But several people aren’t content with this new professional and possibly personal coupling. Jieling, who had been distant in her relationship, now wants her boyfriend back, and Xiaoyi tries to mask her jealousy with icy smiles. Before long, Ruotong’s career risks fizzling out before it’s even really begun.

The same can be said about this movie, which is not so bad as it is dull. It is held together by a coherent plot that moves along logically if predictably and filled with characters who behave in a similar manner. It is nothing more than a pearly string a clichés, but even these are done without dazzle. For a film about modeling, there is not much to look at, except for the stars who remain modestly dressed.

The movie wastes a great opportunity show off its location shoots as well. The opening credits paint Beijing with twinkling golden lights but then does nothing to display the city’s glamour. Likewise, a Parisian adventure gets jazzed up, at best, by whatever’s the video equivalent of an Instagram filter. In one scene, two characters argue in front of the Louvre Pyramid in the dead of the night. It’s an attempt to flaunt the film’s budget and ambition but only serves to emphasize an artistic deficit, and the Pyramid is reduced to a nonsensical prop amidst an inky backdrop.

Nor do the actors do much to add emotion and excitement to the film. Chrissie Chau proves that she has a sweet smile but also confirms that her talents lie outside of acting. The blandness she brings to her character is matched by her costar, Wang, so at least they make a balanced couple. Even Chen Han-Tien, who can be instantly likable in the most average films, leaves little impression here as Kelvin’s friend Penghai. The only character given some emotional heft is Xiaoyi, and Gong has the pleading look of a woman who understands the fickle nature of her business. Like most of the cast, however, she is not strong enough an actress to give more form to a mediocre part.

Released: 2013
Prod: Zhao Guangxin 赵广忻
Dir: Mak Wing-Lun 麥詠麟
Writer: Xin Yuanzi 辛苑子
Cast: Jiro Wang 汪東城; Chrissie Chau 周秀娜; Chen Han-Tien 陳漢典; Gong Xinliang 鞏新亮; Gu Xuan 顾璇; Cheng Jun 程俊; Jade Lin 林菀; Wang Xiang’en 王翔恩; Benji 班傑
Time: 87 min
Lang: Mandarin, very poorly dubbed
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2014