The Wandering Earth 2 (2023)

The Wandering Earth 2 (2023)

Director (and co-writer): Frant Gwo

Cast: Andy Lau, Jing Wu, Zhi Wang, Yanmanzi Zhu, Xuejian Li, Ning Li, Sha Yi, Zhang Yi

Humans built huge engines on the surface of the earth to find a new home. But the road to the universe is perilous. In order to save earth, young people once again have to step forward to start a race against time for life and death. – IMDB

Following 2019’s The Wandering Earth based on novel of the same name by Cixin Li who is also involved as co-writer on the screenplay, The Wandering Earth 2 is a sequel but a prequel story as the story dials back to how the Earth started wandering and all its hoops that it had to go through giving purpose to the father character in the original film and what happened to create the separation. Dedicated to Man-Tat Ng who has unfortunately left this world (but was added in two scenes with what I expect is some computer magic) but was a huge part of The Wandering Earth, this sequel involves many layers which builds a foundation of both the history but on the many angles of science, astronomy and engineering, the world and the politics. On many levels, the concept and premise is a good angle. It definitely feels like a trend to build a story and to create a sequel that acts as a prequel. While the detail and the depth of every element of The Wandering Earth 2 is very much appreciated, the 3 hour runtime does feel like it ends up losing its footing somewhere in the middle for a little bit before going into its big finale and could have benefited from a tighter edited film.

Looking at the story as a whole, there are many elements because of its phase by phase approach in its history and recount of events that make it very memorable especially since it follows Jing Wu’s character Liu Pei Qiang from both his work and how he meets his family and how the main character of its first film comes to be. The other side is Andy Lau’s character Tu Heng Yu who is a supporter of the other project Digital Life Project because of the loss of his daughter and the desire to be able to give her a complete life but is restrained to follow with the new orders. On the other side is the political showrunner as the representative of China who is an elderly gentlemen Zhou played by Xuejian Li and his assistant Xiao Xi played by Yanmanzi Zhu who backs strongly the Moving Mountains Project despite its strong disapproval from the public including some extreme efforts to destroy what is already built in one part which is one of the best scenes as it allows Jing Wu to show off some of his martial arts. The different characters reveal a different angle of the situation and they all come together in the end in probably one of the most touching scenes when the older crew takes on the dangerous mission to defend the younger generation. The idea of the premise is definitely commendable and honestly, it does stand well and I wouldn’t even know what to edit out but perhaps some of the little moments here and there could be more condensed.

Despite the pacing suffering because of the long runtime (which in my opinion happens a lot with lengthier films), there are still a lot of well-executed elements. Much like the icy landscape in the first one which builds up its world, this future of Earth is still a rather grim place but the big operations and leaps in engineering development is another level of creativity especially with its incredibly visually stunning scenes with the space elevators. The imagination and perspective of the world building is truly astounding and its what made its first film so good since the suspension of belief and using our minds to imagine this future is really amazing even if its also conflicting. It is also supported by an engaging score and the cast is pretty decent as well.

As listed above, the cast is a group of veteran actors from Hong Kong actor Andy Lau who has done an extensive list of films of all genres. This role actually feels very good for him and fits his older and more mature self and almost in some parts becomes a rather selfish person even if he redeems himself in the end in a rather bittersweet ending. Jing Wu is best known for his role in SPL and Wandering Earth 1 and 2 has truly shed a new light of a more emotional character. However because this is a prequel, his character loses the overall surprise element as we all know he makes it out in the end or else he wouldn’t be in the first film. This is also a key issue with making prequels after their original films. While I haven’t seen Xuejian Li in anything else as Mainland China cinema is still rather new to myself, the actor is incredible as the firm political leader who has full faith in his decisions. His assistant however is an underrated actress from her previous roles in the main female lead in Unrequited Love (currently available on Netflix Canada), and the much more conflicting role in River Flows To You and here even as the assistant, she shines as her character goes through character development where as her boss gets older, her confidence also builds by the end where she can handle the political scene on her own. The character designs are all really good including Sha Yi who previously I’ve only seen in Chinese variety shows but delivers a very nice side of his story both as the mentor of Jing Wu’s character but delivers that breath of fresh air needed between the increasingly tense and dangerous situation.

Overall, The Wandering Earth 2 is pretty decent. It keeps a lot of the strengths of its first one from world building, visuals and its imagination for the future of Earth. Its a grand idea to move Earth around in the solar system and to make the elements work, its pretty thought out (at least for myself whose forte is not in engineering). The characters are pretty well-strctured and has a lot of room for development which is a benefit of the long runtime. Its only fault is the almost 3 hour runtime which makes the whole affair feels dragged out in the middle especially when things slow down to the more melodramatic moments which could have been more condensed. If you enjoyed The Wandering Earth, this one should still be a fun time.

*The Wandering Earth 2 is exclusively in theatres and IMAX since January 22nd*

*Screener provided by Well Go USA*

Double Feature: Scrooge: A Christmas Carol (2022) & Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (2022)

Scrooge: A Christmas Carol (2022)

Director (and co-writer): Stephen Donnelly

Voice cast: Luke Evans, Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Fra Fee, Giles Terera, Trevor Dion Nicholas, James Cosmo, Jonathan Pryce

A supernatural, time-travelling, musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s cult Christmas story – IMDB

A Christmas Carol has been remade so many times at this point that whether you have read this classic novel from Charles Dickens before or not, its an extremely familiar story of a horrible man who has three ghosts to visit him in one night to reflect on his future, see the present and what his future will be if he keeps his ways. Even over here we have reviewed a good few versions despite never having read the source material.

Netflix’s version Scrooge: A Christmas Carol takes this Charles Dickens’ classic and pairs it with the 1970 Leslie Bricusse’s screenplay for musical film adaptation Scrooge and packs it with a decent voice cast. Having not seen the 1970 version, this Scrooge doesn’t offer anything too different. Instead, a lot of parts actually reminded me of Mickey’s Christmas Carol (which I watch almost on an annual basis). The animation is pretty decent especially for its design for the Ghost of Christmas Past which is a good reinterpretation of the character.

Turning A Christmas Carol into a musical is a good idea. Its rhythmic and adds some pep to this rather serious story. The singing is pretty on point and it helps that the voice cast is pretty decent with Luke Evans as Scrooge. Luke Evans has a voice that matches Scrooge very well and delivers the needed tone for the cranky money-obsessed man. Much like Olivia Colman as Ghost of Christmas Past which is a real joy and has some of the best lines in the film. However, as fun as some parts are, the songs are decent but not quite catchy enough. There are probably two songs that stand out like the first one with the nephew singing called I Love Christmas which sets up the stage perfectly and then Thank You Very Much which was a lot of fun in context.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (2022)

Director: Matthew Warchus

Cast: Alisha Weir, Emma Thompson, Lashana Lynch, Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough, Sindhu Vee, Carl Spencer, Lauren Alexandra

An adaptation of the Tony and Olivier award-winning musical. Matilda tells the story of an extraordinary girl who, armed with a sharp mind and a vivid imagination, dares to take a stand to change her story with miraculous results. – IMDB

My only venture into Matilda is surprisingly only the 90s adaptation and that was actually pretty recent years. Matilda is based on the Roald Dahl novel of the same name except this one is based on the musical adaptation. There’s so much to love about this version of Matilda. Its definitely a musical done right as most of the songs and dance choreography are very good. As I did a little research, these songs are all from the stage musical. Its a fun venture into this world.

The cast of Matilda unsurprisingly consists mostly of children and these young actors are quite good overall. There’s a focus on Matilda and a few of her classmates but also some of the older kids as well. Alisha Weir as Matilda is quite fitting as she nails both the singing and attitude of her character. The cast of kids around do put together some fun moments whether in their musical number or their scene. Around them are five adults in the cast with them. The most notable is Emma Thompson who has been transformed into the harsh headmistress of Crunchem Hall Trunchbull. Emma Thompson is starting to pop up frequently in these unexpected roles and in this one, she is nearly unrecognizable. While opposite her is Matilda’s teacher Miss Honey played by Lashana Lynch who does a pretty good job at the meek role. Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough has Matilda’s parents are actually quite funny and is an exaggerated version of crooked parents especially with their facial expressions. While not a big role, the most fun is probably the traveling librarian played by Sindhu Vee who always listens to her and her stories with fascination.

Matilda has a lot of heart and most of it is because the fun in the story is its naivety. The kids talk about telekinesis (or should I say as one of the kids in the film calls it telekinepsis) and even in their times of oppression and bullying from their headmistress, they still find a way to work together to revolt in their small little way and find their small victories. Throwing lizards in her cup or mixing care products together or gluing a hat to someone’s head: its all seemingly harmless actions. The songs in the musical also reflect this quite a bit since the highlights are definitely the ones with the kids like Alisha Weir’s solo with “Naughty” which ends up being a song that hangs in the air being reprised in different parts. Of course, the dance choreography of Revolting Children has its own hook which is commended on its complexity since it is for kids (and as my husband has told me has struck a TikTok revolution of people using that scene with all sorts of background songs).

At this point, Netflix has released a few musicals. While some of been star-studded like The Prom (review) and a few Christmas ones like Jingle Jangle (review), they have all been rather lackluster (yes, I haven’t seen Tick Tick Boom yet). Matilda the Musical is fun and charming and does so much right. The singing is great, the songs and choreography are creative and catchy and the cast ensemble does a fantastic job. Musicals should make us not only love the story no matter how familiar but also has the songs stuck in our heads and Matilda’s soundtrack has been hanging in my head for quite a while. Its been a long time since I’ve had this feeling and boy, does it feel good.

Project Wolf Hunting (2022)

Project Wolf Hunting (2022)

Director (and writer): Hong-Sun Kim

Cast: Seo In-Guk, Dong-Yoon Jang, Dong-Il Sung, Gwi-Hua Choi, Park Ho-San, Moon-sung Jung, Jung So-Min

Follows dangerous criminals on a cargo ship who are transported from the Philippines to South Korea, as they unleash a sinister force after an escape attempt leads to a riot.- IMDB

Premiered at the TIFF Midnight Madness as the opening film, Project Wolf Hunting is an violent action thriller that fits the term madness to a tee. Recent years (maybe even decade or more) has seen a rise of hyper violent films hit the market and create a lot of accolades and conversation especially on the film festival circuit, a good example being The Sadness (review) which is one of the most gruesome and disturbing films I have seen to date. Project Wolf Hunting does a lot right from the setting to the hyper violence but it also lacks in its overall plot and characters.

Setting a film on any marine vessel as its one setting (for the most part) is actually a rare move (although look at director Hong-Sun Kim’s filmography, one of his earlier films were also set on a ship). There are a few movies who do it but its still a fairly underused setting. Project Wolf Hunting utilizes its space very well as it moves its characters throughout the ship which poses its own issues right from the get-go. Everything comes into play and they all have their purpose. The narrow passageways and the close pipes and even the deck and different levels all add to what is hidden and how the group can use its abilities to their advantage but also leave space for more discoveries to expose a little backstory to the threat at hand.

This brings up a central issue of this 2 hour film: the story. Sure, we can argue that films like this is all about the visual element in the satisfaction of watching hyper violent scenes, the endless ways someone can be killed ruthlessly and the excessive amount of fake blood a human can actually exude with each kill until every surface is covered in blood. However, we watch this film, there’s no doubt that it all becomes rather mind-numbing especially when the plot is fairly generic in its twist of events. The first part is actually pretty clever when the actual prisoner escape attempt riot starts and not a whole lot of violence has happened at this point so it becomes impressive to see all this being a huge plan that had started even before everyone got on the ship. Even the twist and change of enemy force is expected since it was revealed early on but the enemy design is surprising at first. The deal is that there are a lot of characters, a lot of body count and just not enough cohesive backstory to keep itself engaging. It doesn’t help that while the plot takes some predictable twists that a bigger threat is brewing on the ship with a big secret that will gradually be revealed, how all this goes down feels a little unclear.

The question Project Wolf Hunting brings up for these sort of films is a key one: How do you balance plot, blood and violence? Is it enough to just cover a generic plot with blood and violence and use the shock factor? For myself, the answer is probably no as the film loses its appeal as the violence and blood loses its shock element from simply its overabundance, pounding away the purpose one kill at a time. To be fair, the film started on the right foot in the first half. The action sequences and the kills do have some creativity that works with the setting and some extremely brutal ones as well. Looking past all the violence, the prisoners grouping together to create a riot to escape is pretty clever and even if the leading prisoner character is a tad generic in its psycho-killer ways, he still had a certain extreme brutality that made him rather convincingly creepy. Even the timing for the entrance of the new enemy along with their design was sufficiently spine-chilling but what transpires from that point to the end right up to the finale and that ending that almost feels like it could work up for a possible sequel really does feel so lackluster.

For viewers who are there for simply the hyperviolence and bloodshed, Project Wolf Watching is everything it promises. There are every way possible to kill and some pretty creative deaths as well with various items and weapons. There is an over the top use of blood that would probably put Quentin Tarantino’s to shame (but then The Sadness was even more extreme in its bloodbath extremity). The sole amount of blood a head slowly being crushed can pour out from its orifices is apparently an astoundingly ridiculous amount and that’s just one very quick example. The director never forgets that the heart of the film is this element.

*Project Wolf Hunting will hit digital, Blu-ray & DVD on February 14th and available for pre-book on January 10th. Find more info HERE*

**Screener provided by Well Go USA

Double Feature: Tokyo Godfathers (2003) & Perfect Blue (1997)

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Director (and co-writer): Satoshi Kon

Voice cast: Toru Emori, Yoshiaki Umegaki, Aya Okamoto, Shozo Izuka, Seizo Kato, Hiroya Ishimaru

On Christmas Eve, three homeless people living on the streets of Tokyo discover a newborn baby among the trash and set out to find its parents. – IMDB

*Posted on Friday Film Club*

Inspired by the 1948 American Western film 3 Godfathers, Satoshi Kon wrote and directed Tokyo Godfathers, a film that differed from his previous directorial efforts as it was grounded in realism and no fantasy. Tokyo Godfathers tells the story of three homeless people: a transgender woman Hana, a middled aged alcoholic man Gin and a runaway teenage girl Miyuki who find a baby in the garbage pile on Christmas Eve. They take the baby in and name her Kiyoko and decide to use the information provided in her belongings to seek out her mother and find out why. Its how this dysfunctional family comes together as this week long adventure ends up finding solace and resolution for the three’s own issues. 

Tokyo Godfather is a thoughtful film that portrays its homeless people not with sadness but with solitude . Each of these three have chosen homelessness because of a past event and now are all alone because they haven’t faced their problem. It’s a heartwarming story even if a bit odd at times especially since their search takes them to meet some very odd situations from a yakuza boss being trapped under his car to a Latino hitman right down to the big finale of finding the parents of Kiyoko. It’s all a series of events that connect these three together who were homeless friends but never really knew the deeper stories of each other. Each person’s story is different and representative of a different thing right up to the little baby’s as well.

Tokyo Godfathers delivers three colorful characters and takes us for a fun and sentimental journey from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve. While the time doesn’t really have a measure here and the three do a lot of walking to move around, it still feels like they do encounter a lot as they face one dead end after another and find more clues to the next location Kiyoko’s mother might be. There’s a lot to love about Tokyo Godfathers and is also a wonderful alternate holiday film to give a watch. 

Perfect Blue (1997)

Director: Satoshi Kon

Voice cast: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, Masaaki Okura, Yosuke Akimoto, Yoku Shioya, Hideyuki Hori, Emi Shinohara

A pop singer gives up her career to become an actress, but she slowly goes insane when she starts being stalked by an obsessed fan and what seems to be a ghost of her past. – IMDB

Satoshi Kon’s feature directorial debut is animated psychological thriller Perfect Blue, which is based on the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. Featuring one of Satoshi Kon’s trademarks of blurring the line between reality and fantasy, Perfect Blue tells the story of a idol singer who decides to give up her idol to become an actress and makes some immense changes to her image with the acting decisions which also make her start to lose grip of reality when the stress of the change and the uncertainty of her choice clashes with the external forces of an obsessive fan and a growing number of dead bodies connected to her.

Perfect Blue is some top notch animated film. While the film is a little behind its times in technology, the setting of idols and overobsessive fans is a conversation that is still relevant. The psychological thriller nature gives the film space to have some rather extreme moments but where the film starts boggling the mind is the constant feeling that the main character Mima is losing her mind as she sees the idol version of herself judging her for her actions which is an inner struggle that she is having. It doesn’t play only on the external fear of being stalked and her fans reaction to her decisions but actually dives deeper into Mima herself as she deals with them to change her image and reaches a breaking point. The twist in the big finale also matches with her reality and the psychological issue.

For an animated film, the film’s art style feels very grounded in reality. It doesn’t have the more cute animation but here it reflects the material. As you watch the film, Mima may be an animated character but she feels very real. The character has many dimensions much like the supporting characters that pop up around her whether its her agent or her manager. The agent drives her down this rabbit hole and slippery slope while her manager also has to face up to her decisions and has her own disagreement to it. The reveal of the stalker is also one that becomes rather shocking and does a good job in mostly giving it that set-up to make it more surprising. Perhaps what makes this animation stand out are the bigger obscene scenes whether its the filming for the rape scene to the attack and fighting scene against her stalker, it all gives this film the grittiness that the genre needs.

There’s a lot to love about Perfect Blue. Satoshi Kon’s animation style and directorial trademarks shows off perfectly on this film. While the film is based off a novel, other than the key elements of B-idol, stalker and horror being kept, the author allowed Satoshi Kon to create a story revolving those elements which he brought in another screenplay writer to achieve which brings in the play in a play and the inner psychological struggle for Mima. The collective elements of both the original source material and the screenplay are what makes this film fairly revolutionary back in the 1990s in terms of anime. Its a film with a lot of depth and honestly feels like another watch might even help catch some more details.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)

Director (and writer): Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig, Janelle Monae, Edward Norton, Kate Hudson, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, Noah Segan

Famed Southern detective Benoit Blanc travels to Greece for his latest case. – IMDB

Glass Onion is something of a sequel to Knives Out and takes place in May 2020 in the midst of the pandemic when a tech billionaire Miles Bron issues puzzle box invitations to his best friends for a little weekend of murder mystery game on a Greek Island. Surprisingly, Southern detective Benoit Blanc who is spending excessive time in the bathtub trying to understand Among Us receives one as well. Like him, the former partner Andi also shows up at the party despite the fallout. As Blanc explores the island, he soon learns that he wasn’t invited by Miles and soon learns that this murder mystery game might not be a game after all when every single guest seems to have their own motive to kill Miles and this search is solidified when a death does happen.

Knives Out is hands-down the best first watch I had in this year so its sequel is one that’s been very high on the anticipated films list (as my main source of new releases are all on Netflix and they have some slim pickings). Knives Out and Glass Onion, while both captivating that Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mystery style, they are both different foundations of cleverness. Knives Out was all about the moment where the rug is pulled from under its audience and how to get away from it but Glass Onion places its cards all on the table and its about catching those details and then creating doubt in those pieces and bringing it all in to make sense. Its purposefully silly but its intended to be that way, which is what gives it that dark comedy element. Comedy, of course, is subjective however it worked for myself incredibly well especially in the final act.

The setting for Glass Onion is also twofold as physically they are heading to an island in Greece which holds the Glass Onion structure, which is also a central piece of its setting but the structural elements of this architecture plays greatly into the mystery and this group of friends on the island. Its setting is used effectively to add more depth to it scene to scene from its smokeless gardens to its actual interior. There is just one detail that feels incohesive and inexplicable in the endgame which involves the setting. The physical element is great but the actual time setting is 2020 during the first few months of the pandemic when everyone was on lockdown which makes some of these characters and moments feel like theres a deeper message behind the whole plot and its characters especially the owner of the Glass Onion who made the murder mystery game.

The cast this time is still pretty incredible as well. Not quite the collection of acting veterans like the first film but still holds quite a few. Rian Johnson also is currently directed four final appearances through his two Knives film with Stephen Sondheim and Angela Lansbury playing as themselves in a cameo as Benoit Blanc’s good friends who are playing Among Us with each other. At one moment in the film, it actually feels like they are reenacting Among Us on the island and its actually pretty neat even though I’m not quite sure whether that was intentional or not. Packed with a rather clueless celebrity Kate Hudson has Birdie and her assistant Peg played by Jessica Henwick, Edward Norton as Miles Bron, Janelle Monae as Andi with some cameos of Hugh Grant, Ethan Hawke, Yo-yo Ma, Serena Williams, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s voice and of course mentioned before, Stephen Sondheim and Angela Lansbury. Edward Norton as the billionaire is truly such a suitable role and his small expressions to the whole feeling of this character really links closely to some billionaires in real life (almost feeling like there’s a hidden statement there). Janelle Monae is a personal favorite of mine as she might not always be in great films but she’s always great in those films and this one is no exception. As for Benoit Blanc, this more comedic version of him actually works really well for Daniel Craig and that Southern air with exclamations of “fiddlesticks” and “shitballs” truly is so much fun.

Overall, Glass Onion is a real treat. In terms of mystery complexity, Knives Out actually pulls ahead on that one with a plot twist that created more shock value. Glass Onion is a different beast but still manages to be incredibly entertaining. The final act is probably one of the best pay-offs that I’ve watched in a long time which teases its audience a little with a lot of “dumb” (as Benoit Blanc calls it). Great casting, beautiful use of the setting, approachable mystery: I’m always one to gripe about those over 2 hour films but Glass Onion just flew by. There is one scene that I feel hasn’t been explained yet and seems like a plot hole perhaps but the whole set-up and twist is so clever that this is one of those cases where a great pay-off can offset those little flaws.

Double Feature: Falling For Christmas (2022) & Last Christmas (2019)

Falling For Christmas (2022)

Director: Janeen Damian

Cast: Lindsay Lohan, Chord Overstreet, George Young, Jack Wagner, Olivia Perez, Alejandra Flores, Sean Dillingham

In the days leading up to Christmas, a young and newly engaged heiress experiences a skiing accident. After being diagnosed with amnesia, she finds herself in the care of the handsome lodge owner and his daughter. – IMDB

I’m guessing the selling point of Falling For Christmas is Lindsay Lohan and the script does have at least one little bit (maybe I missed others) that does pay homage to the Christmas segment of Mean Girls. However to say that this Hallmark film is different than others wouldm’t quite apply here. In fact, the plot itself other than the obvious amnesia bit was very reminiscent to previous Netflix Christmas films like Christmas Inheritance (review). All the plot points are about as generic as it can get for films such as this.

With films like this, the biggest thing is always the cast and the chemistry. There’s no doubt that the Christmas and winter element will be in full abundance and that does not disappoint here at any level. From family warmth to Christmas activities, this film offers it all up really well. Looking at the cast though, there are elements that work mostly in the family scene at the ski lodge with the daughter and mother and the whole fighting for the lodge’s survival.

The chemistry between the two leads played by Lindsay Lohan and Chord Overstreet doesn’t quite work that well. Chord Overstreet is actually pretty decent in his role but somehow, Lindsay Lohan feels a little wooden for the most part. The scenes at times have their silly charm but for the most part, its mostly as the amnesiac her is learning how to do all these chores and making a mess when its most comedic.

There’s honestly not a whole lot to say about Falling For Christmas. Its a very generic Hallmark-ish romantic comedy for the holidays. Sure, the holidays part fits the bill and there’s certain elements that are fun but its nothing too special or memorable. In fact, some of it does fall into cringe, predictable and boring category and I’m the person that actually doesn’t mind a lot of sappy rom-coms.

Last Christmas (2019)

Director: Paul Feig

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Madison Ingoldsby, Boris Isakovic, Lucy Miller, Maxim Baldry, Michelle Yeoh, Lydia Leonard

Kate is a young woman subscribed to bad decisions. Working as an elf in a year round Christmas store is not good for the wannabe singer. However, she meets Tom there. Her life takes a new turn. For Kate, it seems too good to be true. – IMDB

Last Christmas isn’t your normal Hallmark fluffy and sappy holiday film. In fact, it kind of takes on a bit of the literal interpretation of the lyrics of the song “Last Christmas”. It does have a feel-good but bittersweet sort of feeling to it by the end. The film is almost like a late coming of age much in the line of films like Young Adult.

Last Christmas has a rather stacked cast with Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh being in the same film following their mother-son relationship in Crazy Rich Asians (review) and Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones. Never was there a day that I’d expect to see Michelle Yeoh in a holiday film but here she is and truly embracing it playing as the owner of the year-round Christmas store and gave herself the name Santa. There’s one bit where she talks about her nicknames that is incredibly entertaining, most of them feeling very unfathomable for this elegant lady. The shining point of this film does lie in its cast which delivers up some pretty good performances from the self-centered Kate to the wise and handsome Tom to the guidance of Santa (the person in the movie, not Santa Claus). Right down to the cast at the homeless shelter that truly does bring a lot of shine to the film as a whole.

There are some predictable elements in the film and nothing here feels like it hasn’t been done before. The ending reveal while still has its surprising element still feels like its been used before, however the dynamic between Tom and Kate is what makes that reveal feel acceptable and even a little heartbreaking if anything. Christmas movies don’t have to be all happy and joyous and while this one still maintains a little bit of those elements and even adds some nice short musical elements to it, it still works well enough in terms of the chemistry between the characters and the flow of the events. Some of it does feel a little unnecessary like the whole comedic and bizarre romance for Michelle Yeoh’s character and the constant discussion of sauerkraut.

Overall, Last Christmas might not a completely unique film but as a Christmas movie, it still works relatively well. While the subject does get a little heavy and it isn’t all completely happy happy joy joy and the Christmas element does feel like its just set during the time of year more than being in the center driving force, it still is rather meaningful as it looks into homelessness, family and making amends for the rebellious choices and finding a balance. As I think more about it, there definitely is a certain charm to it.

The Sparring Partner (正義迴廊, 2022)

The Sparring Partner (2022)

Director: Cheuk Tin Ho

Cast: Alan Yeung, Pui Tung Mak, Louisa So, Michael Chow, Jan Lamb, Gloria Yip

Based on a shocking case in real life, a young man partners with his friend to murder and dismember his parents. Pleading not guilty to the crime, defense attorneys face each other as nine jurors grapple with the truth. – IMDB

Based on the 2013 Tai Kok Tsui double homicide and subsequent trial, The Sparring Partner is the directorial debut for Cheuk Tin Ho who creates a film that looks at different angles and issues of the case and trial from the issues of the judicial system to the unfairness of laws to the simple expectations versus reality as the two defendants take two opposite sides of the spectrum based on their intelligence as the scheming genius Henry Cheung and the simple-minded and naive Angus Tong. As the case proceeds, the trial sets up three “sparring”: the two defendents, the lawyers and prosecution, the jury.

The director uses the film to portray how the court’s significance may not be in fairness as it may be a battle of appearances of the defendants; how well the lawyers can use their clever words to spin the situation or a detail; how serious the jury who mostly don’t want to be there is balancing the right and wrong of the situation between emotions and rationality. Those are the grounds that build up the story and after some research on the actual case, a rather truthful recount of what its based on but pushing it so that we do question the possibility that the results aren’t representative of the truth.

For that, the script delivers in spades as all these areas are balanced in its representation. The defendants fight for their own truths which we only see their version being played out at the same time, while the lawyers try to twist the details of the situation to their advantage and using the emotional parts to affect the jury’s choices. The jury’s side plays out from its small inserts to their discussion feels a bit like 12 Angry Men but only grabbing a segment of it from the the each of the jury’s background and hesitation to their initial discussion of their reluctance to be there and no taking it seriously to finally using their own views to dissect the situation and the evidence presented. On each level of the trial, there’s a strong sense that it can all dial down to an irrational decision and how much they respect the guilty is beyond reasonable doubt. The “sparring” at hand on all levels is the strength of this film. The script carries a lot of the intrigue and the foundation of what the director wants to present to the audience to contemplate.

While that’s the case, the film does have a decent cast. Louisa So as Angus Tong’s lawyer is probably one of the bigger names on the list and she delivers on her role very well as her role cements the case in favor to Angus, as the lawyer that uses his “disabilities” in her defense of what he is or isn’t capable of doing, spinning it into an emotional exposé. Whether its the truth or not, well, that’s for the further contemplation after that. With that said, both Alan Yeung and Pui Tung Mak playing Henry and Angus respectively deliver very convincing roles as the genius versus the simple-minded. Henry is a character that is easy to hate right from the start. On the surface, he is very self-centred and flaunts his knowledge and confidence despite his constant failures while soon realizing he has a personality disorder. On the other hand, Angus is one that we soon learn has a lot more depth to the character from his past experiences to the emotional denial of being involved. Jan Lamb’s special appearance as Henry’s lawyer is surprising as he is more known for his comedian side and still manages to deliver some sarcastic humor while still finding that darker side of the defense lawyer as he faces an impossible case to beat. Much like Michael Chow’s character as the prosecutor who is more fluent in English and uses it as comedic breaks as he constantly mixes up the different words which perhaps is more effective for Cantonese-speaking audience than those reading subtitles.

Overall, The Sparring Partner starts off a tad slow but soon finds its footing once the trial and the jury portions start unraveling. The film does run at over 2 hours so there are some dragging moments, mostly from the set up at the beginning. However, its nothing that truly deters the overall film as the message the director wants to show as well as the contemplative element with the ending still proves very effective. The performances and characters are intriguing and has depth especially for its two defendants. If there was something to criticize, it probably would be more along the lines of the cinematography and visuals. While some of it feels more arthouse and some which overlays the scene of the past being recounted and the present situation in the courtroom together which is rather effective. There are certain moments that feel a bit odd, specifically those with Henry’s character as it sometimes jumps to his being Hitler and speaking German for part of his dialogue and then skips back to the moments when he is auditioning (I think its an audition) for a porn movie and it cuts between a scene that feels much more serious than what is shown on screen. Perhaps its more of a artistic significance that I’m not quite understanding. Its a small part and probably points to a bigger element of the character but at times, it feels a little odd. The Sparring Partner is definitely a pleasant surprise.

*The Sparring Partner is currently showing in select theatres. You can find more info on Well Go USA HERE.*

*Screener received from Well Go USA*

Warriors of Future (明日戰記, 2022)

Warriors of Future (2022)

Director: Yuen Fai Ng

Cast: Louis Koo, Sean Lau, Carina Lau, Nick Cheung, Kwan-ho Tse, Guopeng Wan, Philip Keung, Janice Wu

A meteorite brings an extraterrestrial life to the earth. When powerful alien creatures threaten humanity, Commander Sing Lee’s elite forces are almost wiped out, and the surviving soldier Tai Loi discovers an even bigger conspiracy. – IMDB

Originally set for the late Benny Chan to direct, Warriors of Future is the directorial debut of visual effects artist Yuen Fai Ng who has been part of some very successful Hong Kong films. Produced by Louis Koo and funded by his company, he also takes on one of the leading roles as Tai Loi and gathers up an impressive cast both from Hong Kong and China. Warriors of Future is also one of the first (if not the actual first) “hard sci-fi” film from Hong Kong which uses their own CGI technology. Its a groundbreaking film for the Hong Kong film industry.

There really isn’t anything in terms of visuals that can hinder Warriors of Future. Sure, you can see a bunch of sci-fi and post-apocalypse film inspirations as well as the action and sequences also having some superhero films inspiration. Its never an actual fault to pay homage to films that helped inspire a passion project especially as a debut project for a production company. The visuals for the most part flow really well and there are some fantastic world building and enemy design here. It is no doubt an impressive film on the visual front and it probably has its director and his background to thank for that.

Looking at the story, it does feel a tad more empty. While none of the characters get fleshed out too much, the film never seems to rely too much on needing to know more than what info they provided. The film is about its sci-fi and its task at hand: the countdown before the horrible Plan B takes effect. This film is meant to be a gripping action-packed fun time and it delivers on that. Some elements probably didn’t need to be there like meeting the little girl (Aliens inspiration perhaps?) but its meant to add to the story emotionally, albeit a tad emotionally manipulating. Where this film might have more script problems is that it is very by the books and predictable. Nothing truly happens that feels like a surprise.

What does bring the film together other than some cool alien creature design and a very nicely done for dilapidated Hong Kong plus some great action bits, its the incredible cast. Thats whats great about having the resources to get the cast to fit the right roles and this film is stacked from Louis Koo, Sean Lau and Philip Keung as good friends with the latter having a falling out which made some fun bickering, along with a guest appearance with Nick Cheung as the commander in chief and Carina Lau as the colonel who is giving all the final orders and decisions for the mission plus Kwan-ho Tse as the scientist. Everyone delivers some great performances and lifts up the story even if it has its flaws.

Overall, Warriors of Future is a groundbreaking moment for Hong Kong cinema in general. It might not have enough backstory for character depth and the script has its flaws with lack of surprise, but the cast, the world building, visuals and CGI and the action especially with the exoskeletons which almost feels like watching someone play a video game all more than makes up for it by creating a fun fast-paced entertaining film experience.

BITS 2022: The Devil Comes At Night (2022)

The Devil Comes At Night (2022 World Premiere)

Director (and co-writer): Scott Leaver

Cast: Ryan Allen, Adrienne Kress, Jason Martorino, Elias Zarou, Shawn Ahmed, Todd Campbell, Dana Fradkin

A washed up boxer searching for his inheritance must fight for his life when he is trapped in his deceased father’s farmhouse by a local cannibal cult.-IMDB

The Devil Comes At Night is a single location setting film which uses the home invasion framework except its a bunch of odd neighbors trying to lure the main character out into the dark. The festival showed a rough cut version which had a few placeholders in place however to be fair, it didn’t affect the whole premise or structure of the film.

The film has a mixed horror genre premise and while some of the cast didn’t quite feel too natural and there’s a very generic take in terms of portrayal for the threat/enemy, the concept of having weird people did give them that space to feel a little more over the top when trying to be uncomfortable through the dialogue. Due its reasonable runtime, the story is well-paced with well-timed reveals since the film slightly has a mystery element to it as the two main characters in the house try to figure out what is happening. While the story itself has some unknown spaces that makes it slightly incomplete, a lot of the main parts do piece together a good picture for what will happen next. Perhaps its my own lack of horror films but the premise did feel fresh as a reverse home invasion of sorts.

If there was a main issue to discuss would mostly be the cast itself as a lot of the acting felt like it wasn’t too natural. There was a generic bad guy feeling of the crazy over the top evil which seems to be how most people would approach this character and lacked the extra depth to make it feel creepier. While the other people involved in the evil infestation did feel over the top, they did feel more justified to just have that overall bizarre feeling. Where the acting does come together is the main character Ben, played by Ryan Allen who delivers a great performance. While not quite the same level, the woman hiding in the house with him Amy, played by Adrienne Kress also delivered a decent role.

With that said, The Devil Comes At Night actually plays out its best a little after the silly beginning where the main character doesn’t follow the instructions in the house and it feels too late and pretty much his doing that all this is happening but still manages some stalking horror, playing whats hiding in the background and what horrors it holds and when the neighbors might actually break in, creating a really effective creepy atmosphere. Outside, it slowly becomes the mystery of what is hiding in the dark that everyone wants to lure them out. Using darkness yet again as an effective way of creating a ominous atmosphere.

Overall, The Devil Comes At Night is well directed and executed. It uses its setting effectively to create a good horror atmosphere. The acting is great for certain roles but a little lacking in some. The overall story is pretty well scripted with decent reveals and twists to make it intriguing. A s a side thought, since this is a rough cut and there are a few placeholders, I do hope the title is also a placeholder since it reveals more than it needs to which loses the allure of the film by taking away at least the first layer of reveal and mystery.

BITS 2022: Dark Nature (2022)

Dark Nature (2022)

Director (and co-writer): Berkley Brady

Cast: Hannah Emily Anderson, Madison Walsh, Daniel Arnold, Helen Belay, Kyra Harper, Roseanne Supernault

It tells the story of a therapy group that is forced to confront the monsters of their past when an isolated weekend retreat tests their emotional resilience and ability to survive. – IMDB

Nature is always a great setting since it gives us beauty but can also give us danger and isolation. Set in the beautiful forests, valleys and mountains of Canadian Rockies, Dark Nature uses the mysterious unknown hidden in the nature to its advantage to give its monster a lot of hidden moments to spectate the women who are on this retreat to heal but also gives these women a lot of moments to question what is actually there and what is set up for their treatment.

The threat here doesn’t really have a name but comes into recognition when its brought in conversation. Clever conversation is so important in films and this brings up such a good bridge to this one. The film teases a little whether its a bear or cougar or something else and while it breaks that belief very soon in the film, this spirit does some pretty scary stuff. The design of it is also revealed fairly late in the film and does have a creepy design.

The film is relatively well-paced. There are only five women in this group and each of their struggles and why they are at this support group is exchanged fairly soon. The film also starts off on a strong note which sets up the situation of why the main character Joy is there and the domestic abuse she experiences. The entire first scene is done really well from atmosphere to sound to its overall cinematography. In the nature, they aren’t a lot of bodies but they drop, boy, do they drop fast. It comes to a second half that reminds heavily of that of Rogue (review).

Overall, Dark Nature is a pretty good horror film. You can definitely see some of its inspirations of other horror films in some of its scenes and yet, it still gets the job done. Its part creature feature and spiritual and nature film. The acting is acceptable and the overall script and dialogues are pretty good to highlight the distinct character traits of each of these women. There is a decent setup before the situation gets worse. Of course, there’s also some big reveal at the end and this actually has plenty of clues working up to it so its not completely unpredictable but still is well-executed overall in pacing and cinematography.