This Week's Film Reviews (Sep 4, 2015)

04 Sep 2015





DRAGON BLADE (China/HK 2015) *

Directed by Daniel Lee

DRAGON BLADE, set in Western China in 48 B.C. concerns the protection of the Silk Road trading route by General Huo An (Jackie Chan) and his men - a sort of peace-keeping corps.  At the film’s start, Huo averts a fight between the Indians (recognizable by their turbans) and the Huns both groups who later help him.  The fight between Huo and the girl warrior is so silly, that it sets up the stage for sillier things to come.

These silly things take the shape of John Cusack, another general, Lucius, a Roman one who also duels with Huo but ends up becoming friends with him.  He has one quote about friendship that is so silly, I am glad that I have forgotten it.  The chief villain of the piece is Lucius’ brother Tiberius, which is also the name of a famous river, (Oscar winner Adrien Brody) donning heavy Roman armour in the worst role of his career.  

But the climax beats it all, with a hand-to-hand combat fight between Huo and Tiberius in which Huo turns the upper hand on his foe, in a slow motioned sequence that makes no sense whatsoever.

To director Daniel Lee’s credit, the film looks more expensive than its $65 million dollar budget.  But this is not necessarily a compliment.  The battle scenes are a mix between real stunts and CGI.  The huge numbers (hundreds of thousands) of warriors on horses ready for battle look something right out LORD OF THE RINGS.

For a historical epic, the film contains a few extremely violent scenes - particularly those dealing in torture.  The one with John Cusack with his eyes all bloodied as if gouged out is unforgettably disturbing.  The film comes with the warning: bloody violence.  But audiences should be warned about other things about the film, if you know what I mean.

For a film that is touted to be inspired by true events, audiences will find what has transpired on screen very hard to believe. This is the sort of ‘to convert all foes to friends’ historical message that Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan loves to get himself involved in.  He plays the hero with all the shameless chivalry he can muster, complete with the silliest looking goatee since Samuel L. Jackson’s braided one in PULP FICTION.  Chan looks younger in this film because he is wearing make-up.

The few pluses of the film involve the construction of a city using tools and construction methods of the day.  The fight scenes involving battle tactics like the Roman shields are interesting.

One big question too, is why the film is entitled DRAGON BLADE.  There is one scene in which Cusack takes a look at a Chinese sword and that is about it for clues.  The Chinese title translates directly to ‘Celestial General, Heroic Army’.

Hong Kong epics have never failed to amaze me.  Awful as the film is, the historical action film which cost US$65 million has already at the time of writing already grossed US$120 million in China.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwMlpp8GIAI

THE JOURNEY HOME (MIDNIGHT SUN) (Canada/Italy 2015) ***
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode

Directed by Canada’s own Roger Spottiswoode (born in Ottawa) and known for kids movies as bad as STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT and TURNER AND HOOCH but also for one James Bond flick TOMORROW NEVER DIES, THE JOURNEY HOME previously known as MIDNIGHT SUN is a combination of family and an action/adventure though the action is mostly with the weather elements rather than weaponry.  Credit should also be given to Brando Quilici who co-wrote the script and directed the high Arctic scenes.

As a mother bear and a cub intrude close to the home of Luke (Dakota Goyo), the sheriff and animal wranglers remove the mother unaware of the presence of her cub.  Luke discovers the cub and after a night together, grow attached to it. With his skidoo, Luke takes upon himself the task of reuniting the cub with her mother up north.  A storm brews.  Muktuk (Goran Visnijik), a half Inuit and half Canadian is sent to help the boy.

The Arctic scenes, set in the ice fields of Northern Canada, are stunningly shot and credit should be given to Quilici.  The winter storm scene is the best and the shot of the skidoo racing across the half frozen (or melting) lake is something that will both excite and scare.

Dakota Goyo does well in the role of a good young rebel ready to fight for a worthy cause - in this case the survival of the Polar bear cub.  He is ready to cry on cue and show genuine affection for the cub and the opposite for his mother.  Needless to say, Peezu, the Polar bear cub is the most adorable thing one will see in a movie.

But the problem lies with the cliched script by no less than three writers - Bart Gavigan

Hugh Hudson and Brando Quilici.  The busy mother (Bridget Moynahan) who has no time for the son, the rebellious son looking for any excuse to prove himself; the truth about how the father died; the heroic Native; the mean and emotionless bear handlers and government are all things expected in a film of this genre and have been seen before.  One would have expected something better from Hugh Hudson who directed the Oscar winner CHARIOTS OF FIRE. 

It is, however, good to see films like this produced from other companies rather than Disney.  Too many action hero movies, cartoons and video game related films have almost taken over.  One wonders how Italy got roped in to co-produce the film.  Though not the best of family films. THE JOURNEY HOME is still not a bad choice for a family outing at the movies.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jG3c7yNKsKs

MERU (USA/India 2015) *** 1/2
Directed by Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Sundance, MERU is a crowd pleaser in the sense that it keeps the audience on their toes from start to finish.

MERU is not the highest summit in the world. That title belongs to Everest. But Meru, in the Himalayas is surely the most dangerous. The film takes three climbers up to the summit, in two parts. The first attempt was nearly successful but failed. The three try again at the last third of the film. Whether the succeed will not be revealed in this review. But the excitement is as intense as in any fictional film.

The three climbers are Conrad Anker (which the film focuses on), Jimmy Chin (the film’s co-director) and Renan Ozturk. At the start of the film, each of them have their say, with the film delving into each background. Two are married but Ozturk is not, but has a girlfriend. After their first unsuccessful climb, both Chin and Ozturn have accidents. Ozurk skis off a crevice rendering him almost dead. Chin miraculously survives an avalanche. But Conrad has a close friend, fellow climber and mentor, Mugs who does not. It is a deeply personal film with the audience brought close to each of the climbers.

The film is interspersed with interviews of the climbers and their close friends and family. There are also candid footage of the climbs. The scenery is as treacherous as it is stunning. The film gets the audience up close and personal with a fair portion of the film dealing with the loss of the climbers.

Why do climbers like these three take such life taking risks at their own expense and their loved ones? The interview with Conrad’s good friend gives the answer. “They are f***ing crazy”.
One also wonders how the footage on the last climatic climb was obtained. Was a camera crew there at the summit, did Jimmy Chin do the filming there himself or is it a carefully crafted enactment? If there is another documentary on how this documentary was made, I would be the first one to see it.
Trailer: http://www.outsideonline.com/2001246/meru-official-trailer

THE TRANSPORTER REFUELED (France/China 2015) ***

Directed by Camille Delamarre

Part of a 4 film deal with China in which one film is to be shot there (though not this one), THE TRANSPORTER REFUELED is the fourth instalment of the Luc Besson (who has writing credit) series.

The story, not that it matters for a film like this, concerns Frank Martin (Ed Skrein), a former special-ops mercenary, now living a less perilous life - or so he thinks - transporting classified packages for questionable people.  When his father (Ray Stevenson) pays him a visit in the south of France, their father-son bonding weekend takes a turn for the worse when Frank is kidnapped by a cunning femme-fatale, Anna (Loan Chabanol), and her three seductive look-alike sidekicks to orchestrate a bank heist.  But there is much more to the bank heist.  The ladies, who worked as call girls for a Russian kingpin are out for revenge, using Frank in the process. 

The film is set in the French Riviera, (the Cote D’Azur) from Cannes, Monte Carlo to Nice.  The film begins in 1995 and flashes forward 15 years later, which is 2010. (Why not 2015?)

There is a brief sex scene in which no skin is seen between Frank and Anna.  The teasing is enough.  The film is basically an action film, and it sticks to the rules.

The action sequences are exciting enough and more than perfectly executed.  The best of these, an edge of the seat suspense moment, is the escape of Frank and Anna from the cargo hold of an airplane through the roof of the limo driven by Frank just under the plane.  The fight segments, however, most in a mix of stylish fast and slow motion, have been seen in other action flicks.  The fights have a slight element of humour, reminiscent of those found in the Jackie Chan movies.  But the climatic fight scene between main hero and villain, old-school style is something that has been omitted in most action films.  This scene takes place in all its scenic beauty amidst high rocks overseeing the ocean.

British newcomer Ed Skrein takes over the pivotal role of the mercenary driver known as THE TRANSPORTER from Jason Statham.  One gets what one pays for, euro for euro.   Skrein is wooden and unable to deliver the funny one-liners as effectively as Statham, but Skrien has his charm, matched by his almost perfect good looks.  In fact, the film is filled with lots of perfect hard bodies.  The three Russian mafia villains good very well work as top models.  It seems that having a good bod is a pre-requisite for acting in this pic.  Even Ray Stevenson, who plays Frank’s father gets to sleep with two ladies in one scene.  The star is also the Audi S8, product placed so that it cannot be forgotten.

THE TRANSPORTER REFUELED is good action comic-book fare.  It is an efficient film, cheap by Hollywood standards at a production cost of only 25 to 30 millions euros, without big name stars.  If it follows the same route as his recent LUCY, Besson should be laughing to the bank.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeoKyTHn5Kg



Best Film Opening: MERU

Best Animation: INSIDE OUT

Best Documentary: MERU

Best Action comedy: AMERICAN ULTRA


Best Indie:  DOPE and TANGERINE

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