Saturday, December 31, 2011

The 10 Best & Worst Movies of 2011

2011 was an awesome year for catching movies. There a record high of movies that I really enjoyed. The only downside was that there's equally high numbers of movies that really irked me. Of course there might be gems that I missed and some duds that I had purposely avoided (There's no way that I am going to pay for something that I know it's bad, specially if it's a sequel to a series of not so good movies). Without further delays, here's my 10 Best and Worst Movies of  2011 (click Read More to reveal the list).

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Turning Point 2 Laughing Gor Returns | Laughing Gor之潛罪犯 [ Movie Review ] ★★★

Laughing Gor is quite a "cultural" phenomenon in the Hong Kong entertainment scene. This undercover cop character was a supporting role in a Hong Kong TVB television police drama E.U (Emergency Unit - which was already a third installment to The Academy series). While undercover cops characters and angle had been done numerous times in Hong Kong films and tv series, Laughing Gor managed to gain so much popularity until the character / actor got a movie and drama series spin off.

First was the movie Turning Point that was supposedly meant to chronicle the Laughing Gor's times before the events in E.U. However it wasn't a faithful prequel as there are a few events that contradict with what happened in the television series.

TVB "corrected" those problems by making another spin off television series called Lives of Omission. This new television series became a replacement series that correct the contradiction between E.U and Turning Point. After Lives of Omission, it seems that Laughing Gor is still pretty much sought after and that why there's Turning Point 2 Laughing Gor Returns ( Laughing Gor之潛罪犯 ), a movie that directly ties in with events that occurred in Lives of Omission.

Turning Point 2 starts off with Laughing Gor (Michael Tse) being sentenced to life imprisonment for killing So (Bosco Wong). But for Hong Kong's most beloved undercover cop, it's never that simple. It turned out that Laughing Gor is in a new mission to gather more information on Tai Chit (Chapman To) a former Narcotics Bureau Station Sergeant who admitted to corruption but refused to reveal the identity of his accomplice.

Soon afterwards, a trained psychologist Professor Fok (Francis Ng) is imprisoned for drug dealings. The mysterious Professor is not a simple man. As soon as his jail term starts, he demonstrated his ability in analyzing people and manipulating people's mind. Laughing Gor soon realized that the Professor is interested in Tai Chit too. To add on to his dubious character, Laughing Gor also noticed that So's wife, Paris (Kate Tse) has been visiting Professor Fok and they are in a strange loving relationship.

What is Tai Chit withholding? Who is this mysterious Professor Fok and what is he up to? Why is Paris hooking up with the Professor when she should still be in the mourning for her dead husband. It all adds up to a big confrontation with the new head of police, the drug lord of the golden triangle and a diabolical plan to change the system.

There are a couple of things that I noticed about Turning Point 2 Laughing Gor Returns. The first and foremost would be that this movie relies heavily on the events in Lives of Omission and how it affected characters like So and Paris. Even though there's flashbacks to the last few episodes of Lives of Omission, it can get rather disconnecting. If it's impossible to access the television series, at least try to read up with Wiki page on it.
The second thing would be that Turning Point 2 played out like the third installment of Infernal Affairs. In order to move on, it adds new characters in by writing new background stories that wasn't established in The Omission of Life. In a way, it's a major retcon to what's been established, particularly to Laughing Gor killing So at the end of Lives of Omission. Some might like it and some might not. Personally, I thought it was a rather intriguing retcon and it kept me entertained throughout the show.

It's also quite strange that Michael Tse's screen time as Laughing Gor has been dramatically reduced for a lead role. It's filled with unnecessary characters like Carmen (Janice Man), Laughing Gor's handler and comedic performance of MC Jin as Officer Yeung that did very little for the story or Laughing Gor's story. It doesn't help when Michael Tse's co stars, Francis Ng, Chapman To and Kara Hui are stealing the show from the lead. It's like what Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang and Francis Ng (again) did in the first Turning Point movie, out shinning Michael Tse's performance.

In summary, I am still waiting for Michael Tse to impress me with his Laughing Gor character. I am still not getting the hype and popularity of this undercover cop. But that not to say that Turning Point 2 Laughing Gor Returns isn't without it's entertainment value. The retcon was fun to watch and the supporting cast of Francis Ng, Chapman To and Kara Hui are ever reliable in their respecting roles. Turning Point 2 comes recommended and probably highly recommended if you are a fan of Lives of Omission.

Rating: ***

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Darkest Hour [ Movie Review ]

The Darkest Hour tells the story of four young Americans who became stranded in Moscow when aliens that comes in form of energy beings suddenly invaded planet Earth. After escaping extermination, they managed to find other survivors and a way to spot the invisible aliens.

Together with other survivors, they also found a broadcast message that informed them that there's a Russian submarine that would bring them to their nation's submarine. Armed with a homemade weapon that's designed to disarm the alien's electronic force field, they make their way to the rendezvous point that's located in the heavily alien infested area.

As an alien invasion movie, The Darkest Hour was rather bland. The best stuff are already on the trailer and there's nothing in this movie that really top those that were shown. The Darkest Hour is essentially a tour to see Moscow in post-apocalyptic ruins while the American teenagers attempt to find a way back to America. Initially the alien beings in the invisible electric form look impressive but after a while, it became rather boring. The homemade weapon that helped them fight back came about so easily and very little explanation was spent on this equipment.

It's a visual fest but emotionally hollow when we follows the character in trying to survive this massacre. If the alien invasion is so effective, it really make little sense to travel back to their home country when it's a worldwide invasion. But being a formulaic movie, the characters had to do something and the whole point of this movie was to make that impossible attempt to return home. It's not the worst alien invasion movie but it isn't that good either.  Catch it only if you want to watch the extended version of the trailer on a big screen.

Rating: ** 1/2

Margin Call

Set in the high-stakes world of the financial industry, Margin Call is a thriller entangling the key players at an investment firm during one perilous 24-hour period in the early stages of the 2008 financial crisis. When entry-level analyst Peter Sullivan unlocks information that could prove to be the downfall of the firm, a roller-coaster ride ensues as decisions both financial and moral catapult the lives of all involved to the brink of disaster. Expanding the parameters of genre, Margin Call is a riveting examination of the human components of a subject too often relegated to partisan issues of black and white.

Cast: Zachary Quinto , Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore

Director: J.C. Chandor

Monday, December 5, 2011

East Meets West 2011 | 东成西就 2011 [ Movie Review] ★★

The Pitch

Back in 1993, director Jeffrey Lau and a group of well known Hong Kong celebrities of that period, gave us The Eagle Shooting Heroes 东成西就, a memorable parody of Louis Cha's The Legend of the Condor Heroes (射雕英雄传). Folks who had seen it would probably remember the Tony Leung's sausage lips gag, the centipede torture and many more. Needless to say, it was one of Jeffrey Lau's outstanding works in his long history of "Mo Lei Tau" comedies.

Flash forward to today, director Jeffrey Lau is back with another 东成西就 (East Meets West 2011). Although it's not a parody of The Legend of the Condor Heroes, it follows the same format of having an ensemble of the famous stars in the current Hong Kong / China entertainment field. While a handful of them are famous enough to match their 1993 counterparts, the rest are mainly made up of relatively new stars and folks whom I have not heard of. Other than that, it features Kenny Bee, the only actor that appeared on both movies.

Personally, I am a fan of Jeffrey Lau's movies. Even though he had some misses (eg A Chinese Tall Story), he also help created some of the classic Mo Lei Tau comedies from Hong Kong (A Chinese Odyssey, All for the Winner and etc). Although his recent features (Just Another Pandora's Box and The Fantastic Water Babes) were panned by most online reviews that I had came across, I thought they were pretty enjoyable. Here's hopping that Jeffrey Lau would be able to achieve something special with this ensemble that makes this new update East Meets West 2011 worthy of it's Chinese title 东成西就. 

The Plot

Funny Meh?
Xiaoming (Karen Mok 莫文蔚) and her father Ah B (Kenny Bee 锺镇涛) are on the run from debt collectors. It turned out that Jia Jia (Huang Yi 黄奕), Ah B's unreliable wife (who also happened to be Xiaoming's ex classmate and stepmom) had accepted a deposit to set up a concert featuring the Wynners (Kenny Bee's famous Hong Kong pop band from the late seventies to the early eighties). It's an impossible mission as all the members of Wynners (except Ah B) are too busy to perform in this concert.

While the father and daughter are on their way to rescue Jia Jia from Mainland tycoon Zhou Dong (Eason Chan 陈奕迅), they came across a eccentric taxi driver Wen (William So 苏永康) who happens to be fanatic actor wannabe. On their quest to form a musical group, they came across Jade (Sitar Tan Weiwei 谭维维) a rich man's daughter who left the life of wealth for a musical career and her money minded butler Bing (Jaycee Chan 房祖明). Before they could make their way to meet Zhou Dong to rescue Jia Jia, they had a fiery car crash accident with Da Xiong (Ekin Cheng 郑伊健), a mute dumpling chef.

Da Xiong's son witness how these group of individuals became superheroes during the accident and escaped unscratched. He told the survivors that they were seven immortals that's been betrayed and killed by the eighth immortal. The legend has it that they are destined to be reborn as humans with no knowledge of their past and eventually, they would have to fight the evil eighth immortal. Naturally, the kid was dismissed as a liar until they found out about their supernatural power.

I like how you cut my hair ...
Meanwhile, Xiaoming became smitten by Zhou Dong and came out with a wacky plan to hold the "Wynners" concert. Things were going well until a shadowy mysterious figure (Stephy Tang 邓丽欣) came and wreck havoc. In times of distress, the seven individuals transformed into super powered heroes to rescue the concert goers from the destruction.

Could this be the eight immortal that they been waiting for? Will these seven immortals survive the battle with the power hungry immortal when their previous incarnations had failed?

The Perspective

East Meets West 2011 was a major disappointment. I am not sure if there was any creative inputs from the China bosses but since it's Jeffery Lau's name on the writer and director credits, he probably should bare the major bulk of this disparage. In recent years, his movies had suffered from his self indulgence with his sense of comedy and story that interest him. Sometimes, it hits the right spot but in East Meets West 2011 case, it was a horrid waste of time and talent.

But how do you critically review a "Mo Lei Tau" (nonsensical) movie? I am going to compare it with The Eagles Shooting Heroes and Just Another Pandora's Box, two of previous Jeffery Lau's movies.

Both East Meets West 2011 and Just Another Pandora's Box suffered from patchy storyline but what helped Just Another Pandora's Box was that it didn't have to suffered from the overcrowding of "main" characters in East Meets West 2011. There was a central love story of Ronald Cheng's character and the Rose fairy (Betty Sun) with the rest of the stars as supporting characters to that love story. In East Meets West 2011, all the "stars" are laden with their own stories and around the halfway mark, it seemed that the director realized that the movie had to focus on the main love story that revolving between Xiaoming (Karen Mok) and Zhou Dong (Eason Chan). Subsequently all the other subplots were either minimize or abandon.

Nothing for me to do?
Of all the characters that were affected, Ekin Cheng's Da Xiong and Huang Yi's Jia Jia suffered the most. It seemed that there were some build up between Da Xiong, his son and his ex wife but nothing was made up of it. Jaycee Chan had a special appearance / cameo billing but it turned out that Ekin Cheng had less screen time or things to do in this movie.

Ekin Cheng might not be the most talented artist around these days but among this cast, he is one of the most well known and to see his role reduced into a forgettable cameo, it's just kinda sad.

Likewise, Huang Yi's Jia Jia character was destined to have a never ending feud with Xiaoming. After a few squabblers, her character was discarded and were only brought back for some gags. Their resolution came quickly and there was very little emotional impact between the two. It makes one wonder why bother with her character at all. Just another waste of talent.

Are We Stars?
lucky they hide half my face
Comparing East Meets West 2011 with The Eagles Shooting Heroes, the first and foremost thing that's lacking was star factor. Given that Eason Chan, Karen Mok, Kenny Bee and Ekin Cheng are all well know personalities in the Asian region, the rest of the East Meets West 2011 stars are not exactly stars qualities (as compared to their counterparts in The Eagles Shooting Heroes). Who is this Sitar Tan Weiwei? Will Jaycee Chan still have a career in the entertainment business if his father is not Jackie Chan? Is William So still singing? I also wonder if Stephy Tang is popular in the Singapore market?

Movies of such nonsensical nature requires a certain star quality to it. It would allow the audience to like the characters quicker as there's hardly any material in such genre to do such buildup. It also allows comedy to arise from a play in their well known personality. These are stuff that you can't do with a relative bunch of unknown / wannabes / up and coming stars. It's possible to do such nonsensical comedy with relatively unknowns but they must have a strong sense of comedy and comedy performance. As again, it's lacking with those that's picked for this movie.

Beside that, the handling of the characters was a mess in East Meets West 2011. There were just as many characters in The Eagles Shooting Heroes and yet they well woven to support each other stories. In East Meets West 2011, you could remove a few of the characters and it wouldn't affect the gist of this story. That how disposable the characters are in this movie.

Last but not least, what The Eagles Shooting Heroes and Just Another Pandora's Box had that East Meets West 2011 didn't was that most of the characters from the previous spoof comedies were well known. Even though some of the eight immortals names sound rather familiar, I believed that they were mainly characters that made from scratch and it's just difficult to handle so many characters at the same time.

East Meets West 2011 might have been better if the focus was on Karen Mok and Eason Chan's character from the start. Reduce the other star roles into secondary supporting ones like the ones in Just Another Pandora's Box and remove all traces of their background stories. This movie had a fairly good theme of redemption and pure love. It just a pity that it muddled the story with allocating screen time for the stars.

Rating : **