Month: April 2015

Run Fatboy Run

run fatboy run

I’m not sure why anyone would run away from Thandie Newton, but that’s exactly what Dennis (Simon Pegg) does on his wedding day. Five years after leaving the pregnant Libby (Newton) at the altar, he’s still treading water as a security guard at a women’s clothing store. Meanwhile, she’s let him back into her life, mostly because of their son Jake (Matthew Fenton), but she hasn’t quite forgiven him. Still, things are looking better for her; she owns a successful boutique bakery and is spending more time with her new boyfriend, Whit (Hank Azaria).

His intrusion into their lives jerks Dennis from complacency as he realizes he is in danger of losing Libby again. An everyday schlub who’s mediocre at best when it comes to his job, and life, he knows he doesn’t measure up to Libby’s new man. Whit, by contrast, is one of those guys with a cushy office in the Gherkin and who goes to spin class during his lunch break. Or as Libby points out, he’s a good man because he runs marathons for charity. Realizing that his pride and the woman he loves are at stake, Dennis decides to enter a marathon and prove that he’s a changed man. If he can’t win back Libby, at least he can win back her respect.

There’s nothing extraordinary about this run-of-the-mill romcom script from Michael Ian Black and Pegg, and those expecting the sharp humor of Pegg’s Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End) will be left wanting. Most of the jokes can be spotted a mile or two away as the narrative jogs steadily towards its predictable finish. Dennis’s hefty landlord (Harish Patel) and his best friend (Dylan Moran), who is also Libby’s gambling, pants-less cousin, cheer from the sidelines and offer some comic relief while Whit passively aggressively emasculates Dennis at every turn.

The acting ensemble gives the tired script a strong push though and makes the film pleasant if average. Pegg, always a welcome presence, gives heart to even his wackiest roles with his uncanny ability to get serious. He does the same here, showing that behind Dennis’s sluggish, irresponsible persona, there is much love and regret. Azaria also attacks his part with smug gusto, making Whit’s comeuppance all the more satisfying. Caught in the middle, Newton has less to work with but is radiant nonetheless. It’s no wonder she’s got two guys going the distance for her.

Released: 2007
Prod: Sarah Curtis, Robert Jones
Dir: David Schwimmer
Writer: Michael Ian Black, Simon Pegg
Cast: Simon Pegg, Thandie Newton, Hank Azaria, Dylan Moran, Harish Patel, India de Beaufort, Matthew Fenton, Simon Day, Ruth Sheen, Peter Serafinowitz, Stephen Merchant, David Walliams
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2015

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All About Women (女人不壞)

all about women

All About Women is one wacky, overlong explosion of feminist, romance, fantasy weirdness that you’re either going to appreciate for its eccentricity or hate for its incoherence or, in some cases, both. The brainchild of Tsui Hark and cowriter Kwak Jae-Yong (My Sassy Girl), this two-hour film about three women and the pursuit of love is badly in need of an editor no matter how you approach it. But it also tries to hack out a new course for traditional romcoms, and such vision gets some credit given the recycled junkyard that is Hong Kong cinema these days.

In order to begin to appreciate what Tsui is doing though, you need to plow through the first hour, and this is where the film will lose most of its audience. The three main characters are introduced in a disjointed opening, beginning with scientist Fanfan (Zhou Xun), who suffers from selective sclerosis. This makes her freeze in awkward positions at awkward moments, but it’s the least of her problems. Conforming to stereotypes of socially inept scientists, Fanfan needs serious help when it comes to guys and is working on pheromone stickers that will take the clumsiness out of love. Tanglu (Kitty Zhang), meanwhile, is her opposite. Also embracing a familiar archetype, this sexy, power dressing she-devil renders men useless whenever she marches down the corridor. She closes deals but worries that her beauty is bad for business and that she is not being taken seriously. Last up is Tieling (Guey Lun-Mei), the scrappy, emo rock-chick-poet-boxer of the group. She also has a long-term imaginary relationship with model X (Godfrey Gao) because a) it makes sense later on, and b) who wouldn’t?

It’s a madhouse as these eccentric personalities scramble around their professional and love lives. Increasingly, their paths intersect. Fanfan sets her eyes on a moody rocker (Stephen Fung) whose backside resembles the last subject of her infatuation. He happens to work with Tieling, while she has caught the attention of Tanglu’s meek assistant, Qiyan (Eddie Peng). It isn’t until some of these characters literally crash into each other that the story seems to gain momentum. A mix-up involving Fanfan’s pheromone stickers results in some Midsummer’s Night-like consequences that have the three women questioning what they want out of a partner and of love.

The characters that Tsui and Kwak craft don’t exactly pass the Bechdel test, but they end up being more than the sum of their quirks. This is due in part to the strength of the writing and directing, which eventually move beyond sheer absurdities. The film’s latter half is a lot more challenging than the usual “will they or won’t they” scenario precisely because the love matches have been manipulated by Fanfan’s patches. Each character in her own way is trying to distill love into one formula, whether it be in chemical form or as a romanticized ideal. However, they find that the heart can’t be simplified.

There’s a fair amount of offbeat humor in this, and the actresses get a lot of credit for adding a sympathetic dimension to their parts that is not found in the script. Despite her character’s robotic nature, Zhou is surprisingly funny and at ease with her eccentric role. I was also impressed by Zhang’s ability to turn Tanglu into more than a shrill maneater, and Guey similarly made Tieling’s romantic fantasy seem endearing rather than obsessive.

Considering the movie is called All About Women, it might be expected that the love stories suffer. The male characters get a bit of space to pine or sulk – or in the cases of Gao and Alex Fong Chung-Sun, look flawless and unattainable, but the overall chemistry between the sexes is hit and miss. Much like the rest of the film. Demanding audiences may be more appreciative of the effort and more willing to dig to find the characters, but it retains the feel of an experimental piece, albeit a fresh and fun one, that needs more workshopping.

Released: 2008
Prod: Tsui Hark 徐克; Huang Jianxin 黃建新; Nansun Shi 施南生; Elvis Lee 李程
Dir: Tsui Hark 徐克
Writer: Tsui Hark 徐克; Kwak Jae-Yong 곽재용
Cast: Zhou Xun 周迅; Kitty Zhang 張雨綺; Guey Lun-Mei 桂綸鎂; Alex Fong Chung-Sun 方中信; Stephen Fung 馮德倫; Godfrey Gao 高以翔; Shen Chang 沈暢; Eddie Peng 彭于晏
Time: 120 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong/Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015

Mr. and Mrs. Incredible (神奇俠侶)

mr and mrs incredible

Whether you’re looking for a Chinese New Year pick-me-up or some superhero fisticuffs, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible is not the movie for you. Never funny enough to lighten the holiday mood or action-packed enough to power through the other days of the year, this Vincent Kok project is a mixed and deflated bag of tired tricks.

Most of the film follows a pair of retired superheroes who are doing their best to live a normal, married life. Ten years after foiling the Pest Four Robbery and saving village women from abusive husbands, Gazer Warrior (Louis Koo) and Aroma Woman (Sandra Ng) have sworn off their superpowers. Instead, they take up identities as Flint, head of the town’s security, and Rouge, owner of a local bun shop.

The couple succeeds in blending in and living a normal life, but as superheroes would do, they are too good at it. They start to feel bored by their mundane existence and decide a child might give their lives renewed purpose. However, a visit to the local doctor reveals that conceiving will not be so easy and suggests that a little more excitement in their lives will help the situation. As if on cue, news arrives that a martial arts competition will be held in the village. At first, Rouge worries that some of the competitors will uncover their identities, but soon she discovers a bigger problem in the form of a young woman named Phoenix (Li Qin).

Ng has made a living in some fabulously over-the-top comedic roles, but sensing a deeper story about love and commitment, she tones down her performance and delivers some emotional honesty not often found in these movies. The actress digs in more than the script calls for and shows a woman who knows her place – and that’s not standing idle next to a philandering husband. She’s a superhero, dammit. While Koo doesn’t attempt as much soul searching with his character, he gamely dresses up and plays the fool when asked. Unfortunately, the film lacks the social criticism and rapid-fire in-jokes that have become a hallmark in recent New Year hits, and the script simply doesn’t serve Koo’s campy comedic skills as well as it could.

With that in mind, writer-director Vincent Kok attempts a third act rescue that depends on a bizarre solar eclipse spell and a power hungry Grandmaster Blanc (played with vein-popping, eye-bulging craziness by Edison Wang). Despite the promise of a martial arts competition, the real showdown doesn’t happen until the last 15 minutes or so. Some of the action ends up in a flurry of close-ups but most of it is channeled a wispy blur of colorful but cheap CGI. Not very incredible at all.

Released: 2011
Prod: Peter Chan; David Chan; Peter Tsi; Chan Po-Chun
Dir: Vincent Kok
Writer: Steven Fung; Vincent Kok; Chan Po-Chun
Cast: Louis Koo; Sandra Ng; Edison Wang; Li Qin; Li Jing; He Yunwei; Wen Zhang
Time: 100 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Trail of the Panda (熊貓回家路)

trail of the panda

There’s no getting around it. Pandas are adorable. A-dor-a-ble. Few things can turn my heart into mush like the sight of a chubby little panda cub tumbling down a hill and calling out for its mum like a squeaky toy. I am powerless in the face of these cuddly black and white fuzzballs, and I might as well admit that the sudden surge in oxytocin levels is threatening the integrity of this review.

And this is probably just the reaction Disney is hoping for. The studio’s second film tailored to Mainland audiences, after The Secret of the Magic Gourd, it banks on the universal appeal of China’s greatest, and fluffiest, national treasure. Well, it works, because even if the storytelling is lacking at times, Trail of the Panda has all the right ingredients for a heartwarming, family-friendly film.

It begins in the forests of Sichuan. A twelve year old boy (Daichi Harashima) is orphaned after a fire, and Old Chen (Zhang Qi), a lonely bachelor, takes him in. One day, they play host to a visiting scientist, Feng (Feng Li), who learns that a mother panda has given birth to twin cubs. He reasons that the mother will abandon one and that it will have a better chance of survival, and make a great research subject, if it is brought to a reserve. Feng sets off to capture one of the cubs but loses the trail in a rainstorm.

The boy, Lu, discovers the panda the next day and decides to keep it hidden from Feng and Old Chen. But nursing the injured cub back to health proves to be a tricky task. The cub, which he names Pang Pang, is a finicky eater and Feng’s sniffer dogs have picked up its scent. Despite his difficulties, Lu finds that Pang Pang is the perfect companion. Mute since his parents’ death, he finally opens up to the lost animal, who returns his affections with a playful and friendly attachment he’s never experienced before.

His devotion to Pang Pang makes this film special, and not just because shots of Harashima’s cherubic, rose-tinted face buried in a velvety pile of panda fur registers off the cute scale. Lu feels just as abandoned as his new playmate and wants nothing more than to hold on to their friendship. But his loss helps him recognize that he must help Pang Pang find its way back home. Harashima deserves a lot of credit for the integrity he brings to his character. He’s proven before, most notably in 2003’s Lost in Time, that he can turn on the waterworks both as an actor and in his audience.

The film also gets a lift from the relationship Lu has with Old Chen. This is depicted in glances rather than showy action or long tracts of dialogue, which is fitting for a quiet man who hasn’t quite figured out what kind of relationship he has with the boy. Zhang doesn’t get a flashy role, but he makes a big impact as the only person in the world who cares about Lu.

The film can be forgiven for a few narrative flaws, which cause some scenes to jump unexpectedly to the next plot point. Sichuan’s stunning landscape also seems to be underutilized, with filmmakers relying too heavily on close-ups and unimpressive green screen work. These decisions are understandable, however, as the devastating 2008 earthquake struck during production and destroyed the Wolong Giant Panda Nature Reserve where many scenes were filmed. (The panda that played the mother died in the quake.) Overall, Trail of the Panda remains a solid effort and one that relies on more than fluffy animals to carry it through.

Alt Title: Touch of the Panda
Released: 2009
Prod: Elliot Tong 唐銘基
Dir: Yu Zhong 俞鍾
Writer: Jennifer Liu 劉偉儀, Jean Chalopin
Cast: Daichi Harashima 原島大地; Zhang Qi 張琪; Feng Li 馮礫
Time: 88 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015

The Water Horse

water horse

The Water Horse uses the infamous “Surgeon’s Photograph” of the Loch Ness Monster as a starting point for this fanciful tale about the mysterious creature. Framed by a present-day storyteller (Brian Cox), the movie flashes back to wartime Scotland where a lonely boy named Angus (Alex Etel) discovers a large, iridescent rock on the beach. When it hatches later that night, he is surprised to find a strange animal squirming and squawking about.

Angus enlists the help of his older sister (Priyanka Xi) to keep his secret from their mother, Anne (Emily Watson), who works as the housekeeper at a large manor. The task is made more difficult by the arrival of a new handyman, Mowbray (Ben Chaplin), and a regiment of soldiers who are to be billeted there. Mowbray, however, learns of Angus’s new pet, which the boy has named Crusoe, and thinks that it is a rare water horse. He explains that only one water horse can exist at a time and that it lays a single egg before dying. Mowbray teams with Angus to protect Crusoe, but its rapid growth makes it increasingly harder to conceal.

As an adventure film, The Water Horse can pull off a heart-pounding adrenaline rush. Crusoe memorably faces off with the army cook’s bulldog during an officers’ dinner party, and there’s a lot of scrambling to find a hiding place that’s big and wet enough for the slippery animal. When Angus and Mowbray finally lead it into a nearby lake, new problems threaten Crusoe’s safety, including the army’s artillery, which has been set up to protect against German attacks. And far from being a cuddly creature of the deep, the water horse looks like it crawled out of the Jurassic Park reject pile, snapping at anyone it doesn’t take a liking to.

The best stories do more than excite though, and the film serves its action with plenty of heart. Behind Angus’s desire to protect his odd pet is his own need to be loved and nurtured. Though he is well cared for by his hard working mum, he daydreams of his father’s return from war, undeterred by the news that his ship was lost in battle more than a year ago. Mowbray and the regiment’s self-assured leader, Captain Hamilton (David Morrissey), temporarily stand in as father figures while also trying to win Anne’s affections.

The key ingredient to this picture is its cast, and it’s young Etel who leads the pack. After charming his way into everyone’s heart in his first film, Millions, he again brings a somewhat forlorn, single-parented boy to vivid and tender life. His acting is precise but absent of the polish and pretension that often strips young characters of their vulnerability. Even when he stubbornly holds his ground, he looks ready to squeeze out a few tears or break into a wide, toothy smile, depending on how the wind blows. The Water Horse never feels like the cloying, coming of age film it could be and Angus is made not just tolerable but wholly endearing because of Etel’s performance.

The adult actors contribute enormously as well. Watson, who seems to be taking on a lot of wartime mother roles lately (War Horse, The Book Thief, Little Boy, Testament of Youth, even the Queen Mother in A Royal Night Out), is beautifully understated as Angus’s firm but devoted mother. The always unassuming Chaplin also keeps himself a step behind Etel, which gives his character an even more paternal presence. Morrissey, by contrast, strides on board and plants his foot down. He begins as the caricature of a man who needs to be in charge but softens as the film goes on.

Cox’s avuncular presence meanwhile is comforting but unnecessary. Angus’s story stands on its own merits, even if the narrative drags at times, and doesn’t need the intrusion of a narrator or perky American tourists. If it’s color and a sense of detached wonder that the filmmakers are looking for, they make up for it with some picturesque shots of Loch Ness (or Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand, where the movie was filmed).

This trailer makes the film look like a wacky kids’ action movie. It’s much better than that.

Alt Title: The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep
Released: 2007
Prod: Jay Russell, Douglas Rae, Robert Bernstein, Barrie M. Osborne
Dir: Jay Russell
Writer: Robert Nelson Jacob
Cast: Alex Etel, Ben Chaplin, Emily Watson, David Morrissey, Priyanka Xi, Brian Cox, Craig Hall, Erroll Shand, Joel Tobeck
Time: 112 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom, United States
Reviewed: 2015