Friday, November 8, 2013

Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons (2013)

I re-watched this movie on the flight to Frankfurt, so I was able to refresh myself and fine-tune my opinions.

On my initial watch when it was released (March, I think), I felt that the love story was contrived. After all, the monk hadn't shown much interest in the bounty-hunter chick, and until the point she died I thought that he may only have the slightest bit of feelings for her, and I wasn't exactly sure whether he said he loved her because he really felt that way about her, or that she was dying and he didn't want to make her feel worse.

Well, in the airplane version, they kissed.

That's right, folks, the monk kissed the dead bounty-hunter chick. That wasn't in the Malaysian release, because here, censors censor everything, unless it's blue peen; then the practice is different. They censor it the first few times, then forget to censor it for the rest of the movie.

Digressing, now I'm sure that he loved her, but still feel that the build-up wasn't enough. It did help, though, that I got to watch the original Mandarin release this time (we only had the Cantonese dub in Malaysia).

Anyway, the love story was the only thing that didn't gel well with me; I enjoyed the rest of the movie.

For the uninitiated, Journey to the West is a Chinese novel revolving around Xuanzhang (a Buddhist monk), who is instructed by the Goddess Guanyin to travel to India to obtain sutras. Interesting times abound with evil demons and other spirits, as Xuanzhang's flesh is believed to grant immortality to its eater. Since India is quite a ways from China, as protection, he is given four disciples of demon/spirit origin (in atonement for their sins). The most famous disciple is the Monkey King, whose mischief and bestial nature is controlled by the gold circlet/headband on his head, which Xuanzhang can tighten by chanting mantras. Anyway, since this post is meant to be a movie review, you can read up the Wikipedia summary here.

This movie is a prequel of sorts. It starts by portraying our monk as a demon-rehabilitator (I know that's not a word but you get what it means) that reads from a book called the 300 Nursery Rhymes, asking them to repent and be good. Throughout the film he encounters briefly the demons that will be his disciples and companions to the West (sadly, the Dragon of a white horse did not get love in this one), and romance (the one I was talking about earlier) where the girl did all the chasing.

Since Stephen Chow (the film's director/writer/producer) was the Monkey King himself in TWO movies (A Chinese Odyssey: Parts 1 and 2 from the 90's), I was very interested to see where he would go with this, since it's been a very long while since we heard from him (CJ7 doesn't count). The man himself didn't make an appearance in the movie, but his trademark humourslapstick, ridiculously impossible situations (that words simply can't do justice) and various wordplay dialogue ("important" to "impotent")was everywhere. It sounds just as funny in Mandarin as it did in Cantonese (since I don't really understand both), but I get now why we got the Cantonese version: the movie borrows some lines from A Chinese Odyssey, which is fully in Cantonese. Even the song used for the dance in the moonlight is from A Chinese Odyssey (albeit it's in Mandarin now).

Silly humour and ineffective romance aside, I do applaud the plot development. Being a prequel, it shows Xuanzhang's journey (see what I did there?) in finding himself, and how Sandy (water demon in this one) and Pigsy (the pig demon with the inn) are captured and eventually made disciples to Xuanzhang. Also saving the best (or most footage) for last, Xuanzhang seeks Monkey's help in defeating Pigsy, and is eventually tricked by Monkey into destroying the lotus flower acting as his prison seal (it's complicated), which culminates into a showdown between Monkey and some demon hunters before being subdued by Buddha.

In the process, Xuanzhang attains enlightenment with the death of the bounty-hunter chick (played by Shu Qi, who has come far from her annoying Storm Riders days), and discovers that true love (contrary to his belief) would not pose any hindrance to his monkly duties.

Oh, and in this installment, Xuanzhang becomes bald (like how a monk would be) because an enraged Monkey pulls all his hair out when Xuanzhang refuses to stop praying to Buddha. Xuanzhang actually has a thick set of hair (so thick it's a wig) through most of the film.

8.5/10. Do watch this movie, if you get the chance. You can appreciate the wordplay better if you understand Mandarin/Cantonese, but the English subtitles were up to par (like those for Kung Fu Hustle). You don't miss much either way.

R.I.P.D. (2013)

I'd initially planned to do a 'spoiler beware' smart ass-type thing involving food, but since this review is super late (but not too dead ha!) on arrival, it would be quite redundant at this point.

Anyway, the minute I saw Kevin Bacon, I knew Ryan Reynolds would be betrayed by someone (in this case, his partner) and that betrayal would lead to his death.

What I didn't see coming, was that Kevin Bacon was already a Deadite in the first place.

[I can't recall the term used, if any.]

R.I.P.D. is a watchdog department for the undead, policing the human world to keep ghosts and ghouls in check. Upon dying, Reynolds joins Jeff Bridges as his partner, and to ensure that the living don't see dead policemen walking around, they're given avatars, the form that everyone else sees them in. For Reynolds, it's an old Chinese guy (James Hong ftw!); for Bridges, it's this totally hot leggy blonde chick.

It's not before long our intrepid officers discover that the undead are in the process of assembling this totem that would reverse the flow of spirit traffic into the afterlife (which literally would lead to hell on Earth, if reversal happened at the point all evil people are passing on).

And of course, who should be the ringleader of the gang but Bacon.

This movie is like Men In Black, except you substitute aliens with ghouls and reverse the roles: the rookie this time is the straight man and the one with all the mouth is the old-timer. Seems to me these days, Reynolds tends to play the straight man to whatever foil that's thrown at him in movies (Bridges, Lantern ring, Sandra Bullock), which I find strange because Reynolds was the witty, sarcastic, hilarious foil to Richard Ruccolo's straight man in Two Guys And A Girl and the poor, forgotten pizza place.

Looks like he matured himself into movies... geddit? Har dee har har.

The only things that saved this movie from utter blandness are Bridges laying the Southern on thick as a US Marshall from the actual old West (he's so over-doing it that it's not over-acting, it's stealing the show), Bacon being the bad guy as usual (and looking like he was having a ton of fun at it) and how the general public perceives our two leads (one brilliant scene was Bridges hefting up a chest of gold on his shoulder, other hand on hips, and it flashes over to the leggy blonde in that same pose!). Personally, I feel that there should've been more 'old Chinese guy', because seeing Hong running down the street waving a banana (a gun, in reality) is simply priceless.

Ah, James Hong. I don't think I'll ever, ever tire of watching him. [Balls of Fury!]

To be fair, though, I never thought of this movie as an MiB semi-clone until I read reviews in the papers saying such. And despite the general consensus that it sucked, I quite enjoyed it. 7/10.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

Saw this on TV the other day.

This movie opted for more gritty and serious look, which worked with the darker tone that I guess everyone was clamouring for when the first one came out. Unfortunately, instead of coming up with an original storyline, what we get is Drive Angry, which incidentally also stars Nicolas Cage. Let's review the similarities:

Ghost Rider | Inmate from Hell tries to save child | granddaughter from the Devil himself | Devil worshippers, with Blackout | William Fichtner hot on his trail. Both heroes are triumphant in the end, although in Drive Angry, Nic Cage had to go back to Hell.

Recycled material aside, Ghost Rider 2 seems to have retconned his abilities (in the last one he could activate his Penance Stare at will, whereas in this one he can't control it) and, well, erased the first movie from continuity. It's also less campy and colourful than the first outing, with the action more raw and frenetic, but with the lack of lighting (the Rider only comes out at night or when there's darkness), I wasn't exactly able to discern much of the action.

[The scene where the construction equipment turn fiery skeletal should be quite cool.]

Change in tone aside (which I'm perfectly fine with), Cage still finds a way to laugh maniacally at some point in the movie (I get it now that it's his schtick). Besides that, I have no complaints with everyone else.

It's a shame, though, that the story is very 'meh', as this movie explores Johnny's (the Ghost Rider's alter ego) struggles with being the Rider, how the Rider entity came to be, and in the end, Johnny comes to terms with himself as kind of an archangel for good and tames the Rider (in a pretty cool closing scene, his motorcycle now gives off electric blue flames instead of regular fire). 6/10.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

It's not summer yet, but Thor 2 is already out, for those of you (and me) who think that one year between Marvel movies is too long. Since this post is actually on time (watched it yesterday!), I kinda feel obliged to give a brief synopsis of the film and to capitalize SPOILER WARNING:

Set shortly post-Avengers (timeline from Thor is two years), Jane stumbles upon and accidentally absorbs the MacGuffinAether, an energy that can convert matter into dark matter. It is also something required by the Dark Elves, who want to devoid the entire universe of light (both literally and figuratively), and the process can only be completed during the Convergence of all nine Realms (which, of course, happens to be now). Thor, who has been on peace campaigns in other Realms, whisks Jane back to Asgard to find a way to rid her of the Aether.

After the Elves attack Asgard (resulting in a poignantly beautiful funeral sequence focused in sending off a character that was only in the first movie for roughly five minutes), Odin locks down Asgard, leading Thor to again whisk Jane away for a cure but this time with the help of Loki, who makes good on his, “there are secret ways into Asgard that even you, with your all-seeing eye, do not even know of, etc.,” line from the first movie.

[I can’t believe I actually remembered that line.]

Even so, the Elves still manage to retrieve the Aether (after an interesting turn of events where Loki is thought to have betrayed Thor in a brutally cool scene), and Loki is stabbed after trying to save Thor. Thor and Jane are stranded, but as the Convergence approaches, the boundaries between the Realms blur conveniently and they make their way back to Earth to prevent the Elves from succeeding in their quest. Long story short (“too late!”), they do succeed with very cool wormhole teleportation and CGI, and Thor returns to Asgard to tell his father about Loki’s sacrifice and that he cannot ascend the throne (not because of Jane, but because he can better serve as protector and peacekeeper to the Nine Realms).

The movie's end heavily hints at what we can expect to see in Thor 3, and it's something I'm very, very much looking forward to. A more spoiler-rampant post can be found here (in my other blog).

And for credits scenes linking to other Marvel movies, fret not, for Phase II-related material comes midway through (like The Avengers). If you do stay for the entire length of the end-credits, you will not be disappointed at any lack thereof, but that scene is more shwarma-like than anything.

Chris Hemsworth can do no wrong in my book (no, not even Snow White And The Huntsman), and he’s able to project the kind of maturity and wisdom that would be expected from Thor in this Phase of time. There’s less of that good-natured big baby adorableness, though, since much of the action happens on his home turf. And as expected, Tom Hiddleston (as Loki) steals every scene he’s in. Adding to my burgeoning interest in the character (you can never go wrong with the God of Mischief), the film explores another facet to Loki by including quite a bit of scenes with his adoptive mother, Frigga (played by Rene Russo). Apparently, there were supposed to be scenes of Hiddleston and Russo in Thor (Frigga’s favourite is Loki, it seems!, but they weren’t included in the final cut, so I’m really glad we got to see this in Thor 2.

Previously, what we’ve seen between Thor and Loki is rage and disgruntlement (more on Loki’s side), but in this movie Loki seems to have resigned himself to taunting/teasing Thor when they’re together, and this leads to very funny exchanges between Hemsworth and Hiddleston. It is also these scenes (humourous or otherwise) where both Hemsworth and Hiddleston shine, as there's always that parry-and-thrust relationship between them.

The other players deliver solid performances (Natalie Portman is not ditzy like she was in the first movie, thank goodness), but Anthony Hopkins seems a bit bored this time around (maybe due to lack of Branagh). Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgaard (including newbie Jonathan Howard) provide ample comic relief without overdoing it too much, though Dennings's character is walking very close to over-exposure.

Visually, the movie is gorgeous, and again, a few minutes of seeing Asgard and I think to myself that I should’ve seen this in 3D (although, post-conversion movies tend to be no different than regular-D). Thankfully, in Asgard and some of the Nine Realms (and not Earth/Midgard; at least the scenes on Earth without Thor weren’t too long) are where much of the action is, so it would be more worth the 3D ticket price than the first film. More space is good.

[Green Lantern, if you get a sequel, please take note.]

Apart from the funeral send-off, props also go to the scene where Heimdall (played by Idris Elba) takes out a cloaked Dark-Elf ship, only to have the mother ship rise up behind him and launching a few more smaller ships towards Asgard.

Plot-wise, it's run-of-the-mill, but overall, Thor: The Dark World is a fantastic next step in Phase II, and I'm quite surprised to see it released in November (not that I'm complaining). Can't wait to see what comes next for our Norse Gods-cum-aliens. 8/10.