Sky on Fire (2016) Review: Or, How I Learned to Stop Loving and Worry about Ringo Lam

December 17, 2016

Upon leaving Sky on Fire, I tried to think about what would be the most memorable thing about the screening. Just as I approached my bus stop, I had to accept it and realize that it was the laughter that erupted after the film’s final scene. Poor Ringo Lam.

Sky On Fire China Poster
If you understand this poster, you still probably will not understand the plot in Sky on Fire

Let’s get caught up: Last time we left Ringo Lam he had returned after nearly a decade away from making feature films, with Wild City. That film definitely did not make anyone’s Best Of list that year, and by my count, in only three results from Google did anyone say “Welcome Back Ringo” in relation to the film. To sprinkle some salt on that wound, one of the post appears to be a duplicate review on another website.

Lam has a lot to prove if he will ever be mentioned beyond a footnote that his City on Fire film was “influential” to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Attention reviewers and writers covering Lam in the future: he has other films, folks! Perhaps his name has been tarnished since the 1990s. After a popular string of films such as Full Contact, and the other films like City on Fire and the Prison on Fire series, we can even delve into cult favourites like the edited-to-bits and highly political School on Fire. Or the box office failure but hardcore fan favourite, Burning Paradise, a film that blogger Rob Larsen compared to Blade Runner in terms of production design.

How bad has Lam fallen off? Well, his American productions had him becoming a Jean-Claude Van Damme enabler, making a series of poor films long after the Van Damme was box office gold. His only film for Johnnie To’s Milkyway Productions, Looking For Mr. Perfect, which should’ve been a wake-up for him to join To for his millennium golden period, just sort of plopped out as an odd comedy.

So, surely with the release of Sky on Fire, a film title that even calls out to his golden period of the past, he means business now, right? I am sad to report that Sky on Fire is a complete clunker. Where to start? The main issue is a script which cannot establish characters, a script that does not make us realize the importance of what our main character (played by Daniel Lu) wants (something about stem cells? Blood? Sister?). It’s a shamble and is not strengthened by a cast beyond Lu, who all fail to make any real presence felt. Maybe they do not understand the script either.

For the Lam die-hards (if such things exist), some of his car chases will recall happy memories of the past films like Full Alert, and he hides some CG cars particularly well… until we get to the end of the film, where we enter a tower of a parking garage. This tower is shown casually through the film, but judging by the elevator and scale, is the whole building one large garage? Why!?

It would be easy to blame a story writer, screenplay author or director for some of these problems, but oops, Lam is credited as all three! Thankfully, there have at least been two other Hong Kong films in the recent past that I managed to see theatrically that went over well, specifically, To’s Three and Cheang Pou-soi’s SPL II. It’s just a shame that To can still make solid films that stand on their own, while Lam appears to have peaked in the 1980s or 1990s.


Johnnie To’s Three Review

July 9, 2016

Before sliding off into a gushy review of Three, let’s take a peek at the Johnnie To’s last trip to a hospital in his film Help!!!. Remember that film? Most don’t.

The popularity of Help!!! seems to surround scene in the trailer where the cast reveals their bras. Kozo of described the film as “better than a Wong Jing film”, and accurately states that it’s not saying much.

But we’re here to talk about Three. Although early reviews described the film as an action film, it’s more of a thrilling crime melodrama set in a hospital. We are introduced to Dr. Tong Qian (Vicki Zhao), a neuro-surgeon at a hospital. Her record doesn’t seem to be great as of late, as she deals with patients who are either paralyzed or have entered a vegetative state. Qian is lead to a more difficult situation when a cocky criminal Zhang Lixin (an enjoyably hammy Wallace Chung) is brought to the hospital with a bullet logged in his head. He’s accompanied by Johnnie To regular Louis Koo as Inspector Chen, who is interrogating Lixin. Chung’s character has other plans in the hospital, as he is organizing crimes with his fellow gangsters who are robbing banks and even threatening to blow up the hospital (shades of Hard Boiled?). Sounds good, right?


How can you hate this face?

The film is a bit scattershot. The main plot had a lot of twists and turns which do not seem to affect the main characters enough and some side stories seem to remain more fresh in my mind. Lo Hoi-Pang steals the show as enthusiastic patient who runs around stealing keys. Three screenwriters, with only one To regular, may make a weird stew for a film, but I don’t think Hong Kong cinema fans will mind. Let’s compare this film to another enjoyable but very different flick from Hong Kong, SPL2: A Time for Consequences. Narratively, they are all over the place, which could leave into a confusing watch. However, both films deliver what a genre promises. For the most part, SPL2 provides the action and enough narrative in between to tie it together without being dull. Three is genuinely exciting and thrilling. It contains the strong acting, stylised cinematography, humor (Lam Suet gets stabbed in his arse (shades of…Eastern Condors?)), and troubled heroes and devious gangsters that you would expect in a Johnnie To production. Is it as structured as well as Exiled or the Election films? Not really, but it does deliver the goods despite the narrative confusion and in the hands of less talented director, cinematographer and cast this would crumble. Johnnie To is a director who has a strong enough team that he can overcome the occasionally dodgy script if he at least seems comfortable with the material. I like to assume this is why films like Three work and will find an audience, while Help!!! will only remain on a To completist’s shelf

If you are still reading this far into the review, I’ll assume you are a enthusiastic To fan, or at least curious enough to enter the fandom. There’s been criticism about the excessive CG at the end of the film, but I’d have to say that it isn’t nearly as glaring as the beer can in Exiled. What does stick out like a sore thumb is a cliffhanger scene where certain cast members are hanging for their lives in front of the dreaded green screen void. It’s entirely unconvincing and makes you miss the days where Hong Kong would have real actors in near death situations at twice the height.

Beyond that, Three is a unique new entry for To, that could easily creep into the secondary favourites lists that also include other non typical To films such as Sparrow, Needing You and Office.


Exterminators of the Year 3000 Review

February 8, 2016

I don’t think I’m blowing too many minds when I repeat information online that this Italian-Spanish co-production is a Mad Max 2 derivative. Thanks to the glut of independent companies releasing cheap films from yesteryear to home video, it’s easy to spot these cinematic wannabes and have a quick laugh. Whether these laughs last the running time of the film is all up to the viewer. Exterminators of the Year 3000‘s director Carnimeo is known more for his spaghetti westerns and sex comedies and he clearly finds himself struggling with a sci-fi action film. It has even less of a unique personality than Enzo G. Castellari’s 1980s attempts. Among the characters here, we have a complete rip-off of Wez from Mad Max 2 named Crazy Bull (played by Fernando Bilbao) and Robert Iannucci as Alien, who resembles Mad Max only in uniform. Alien lacks the character arc of Max and seemingly just drives around as a lone wolf, jumping from being a villain to hero every other scene.

I mean, it’s not hard to spot the similarities. Even in Spain, the film’s poster even says, “Hey audience! It’s like Mad Max!”

Exterminators of the Year 3000 Spanish poster
Spanish film poster is at least not trying to bullshit us about the films origin

The script, by Lucio Fulci regulars Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti, fills the film with bizarre dialogue. The writers get pretty phoney here with lines from Crazy Bull referring to the crew as a bunch of “mother-grabbers”. Far too much of the script sets up problems that are resolved way too quickly to make any impact or are solved in lame ways by cheap sci-fi toys. Got a locked door? Why kick it down when you can just use my device that plays an annoying high-pitched sound effect that inexplicably unlocks things. The screenwriters are also aware that it’s an Italian production, so it’s not above showing children getting maimed. One of the more bizarre scenes in the film features a young boy (with the surprisingly un-Mad Maxish name of “Tommy”) has his arm ripped straight off by bikers. But don’t worry folks – it’s revealed to be a robotic arm (!) and is partially repaired by Alien, who puts it back together with duct tape(!?)
The only slightly original villain comes from singer and model Beryl Cunningham, in her final film role. Her weapon of choice is a glove with surprise spiked knuckles that shoot out whenever a camera zooms in on it. She wears this glorified switchblade glove along with a spiked leather bodysuit. . Seeing Cunningham in the suit makes one wonder if the role was intended for someone else, as the suit doesn’t appear to fit! Even a pinch saggy, Cunningham appears to be in great shape here and you think an exploitative film would want to make the most of this.


One of the few unique action scenes. I dig the Skull rollin’

The action scenes are just as delightfully stolen from Mad Max 2. Did you ever not want to sit through the entirety of that film to get the final chase? No worries, Exterminators of the Year 3000 gives it to you during the second big action scene. Outside a few Castellari styled slow motions shots, we get some very obvious issues such as the cars moving far too slowly to represent any real chase (imagine a slight traffic delay around your local highway during rush hour) or any shot from the inside of a vehicle where it’s way too easy the spot that vehicles are not in motion. Later scenes involve vehicles surrounding their captives in a circle which resembles a demolition derby. This type of capture would make sense on horseback, but I gather that Carnimeo perhaps only had a budget to destroy a select few cars.

As is the trend since the release of Drive, is that every single film is getting it’s score re-released. Even Exterminators of the Year 3000! There are several samples here that include the sillier dialouge from the film. Reminds me of the Diabolik bootleg soundtrack in that sense.

I’m afraid this isn’t too great of a soundtrack, probably just due to the limitations in both time and budget to record it. At least it doesn’t go the Sammo Hung route and just steal the score from Halloween and Rambo.

So we have a generic film without much to recommend outside a few goofy scenes and to see the extent to which filmmakers go in ripping off Mad Max 2. After my viewing of Exterminators, I began questioning the criticism of being “original” in film. What makes a rip-off an instant write-off while sequels are “highly anticipated”? Let’s imagine it’s an alternative universe where the producers of this film somehow get the rights to Mad Max franchise and would officially make this the third film in the series. Would it still be a rip-off? No one from the original film is involved, but would they be less criticized if we didn’t know the production history? Let’s look at Aliens by James Cameron. What if Cameron didn’t get the rights from Walter Hill and the other producers of Alien to continue the next picture, but he made his own Alien-killers-from-space film. Would people bash it by saying “Hmm. Clearly taken bits and pieces from Alien” or would would they give it a free pass as they do now because it’s an officially sanctioned follow-up?

In the case of Exterminators of the Year 3000, it’s problem is not that it took from the Mad Max series, but that it’s mostly poor action, bizarre acting and delivers less quality than we have been set-up with in the Future Barbarian genre. So I encourage viewers to not pass off on films if they appear to be derivative. I hope to one day find the Mad Max film that trumps some


Spy (2015) Review

June 27, 2015

One could say calling your film Spy suits the unimaginative titles that a Hollywood executive would like such as Let’s Be Cops or Shoot ‘Em Up. Films with titles like Quantum of Solace make people blush now a days, and we’re long past the days of films like Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. Then again, masters like Fritz Lang called his earliest spy film Spies so maybe I’ve got to surgically remove my nostalgia-goggles. Spy has been received some surprisingly positive reviews and I’m not really sure if it’s well deserved.

Spy is a comedy by Paul Feig starring Melissa McCarthy. The two have worked together in films such as Bridesmaids (which Wikipedia humorously describes as a “neo-noir romantic comedy” currently) and The Heat, neither of which I’ve taken the time to view. In this film, McCarthy plays Susan Cooper who works for the CIA as a highly talented desk agent who guides Bradley Fine (Jude Law) on missions. After Fine is kidnapped on a mission, the CIA requires an unknown to go and finish his case and find out about his whereabouts. Cooper springs at the opportunity which has her running around Europe.

Spy seems to have traits of other American comedy films I’ve seen today involving a script which just has the basic necessities to make characters go from point a to point b and then letting the actors improvise when you really need to juice up a scene. I’ve seen clips of this in McCarthy’s other film Tammy as well, where the camera cuts away from a scripted scene and then have a close-up of the comedian is available in the scene and have them adlib a line where we do not see a character’s reaction until a cut away. This sort of ruins the cinematic nature of a film comedy to me, but it doesn’t make Spy a complete throw away that Tammy was. McCarthy and her Miranda Hart who plays her sidekick, are funny enough in these scenes and has enough zingers that will at least squeeze out a smile out of the audience if not a strong laugh. This also goes for Hart who also is squeezed into similar gags.

This isn’t the case for all the characters. Jason Statham surprisingly provides a comic performance of tough guy spy upset with McCarthy’s recent promotion to being a secret agent and often tries to one-up her or brag about his own past work. Also good is Peter Serafinowicz who plays an Italian sleaze ball spy who wants nothing more than to sex up Miss McCarthy. These guys seem to be sticking to the script and if they aren’t, I can assume that their characters have such short screen time that it allows them to feel more natural. Although the film is not as wildly out there as the films in the Austin Powers series, those films characters at least stick out in our mind as unique enough James Bond pastiches. McCarthy’s character of Cooper is given several identities which are amusing sight gags, but are immediately tossed off instead of developed into characters like Statham or Serafinowicz’s characters are. It made me wonder if the script wasn’t originally penned as a spy film. Scenes are sometimes connected strictly by McCarthy’s character saying “we have to do this now!” or “oops! I’ve left my gun in the other scene!”. At one point, McCarthy’s character drops her role as a spy to become a bodyguard to Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) or when spy elements are handled poorly to make a character like model and bollywood actress Nargis Fakhri’s role as a rival spy seems a bit shoe-horned in.

Balancing action and comedy is a real complex cocktail. Spy makes some strange choices. First, some gags are straight slapstick which is fine, but the best masters of physical comedy didn’t let it be part of the entire set-up, whether it’s Keaton’s ability to move back and forth on a steam train seem different each time in the The General or Jackie Chan’s ability to have a simple gag like being stuck in a barrel in Drunken Master 2 changes the stakes of a scene opposed to a one-time gag that has no consequences. Spy is a bit all over the map, it ranges from the bad of just having her fall as she gets into a vehicle, to the better involving a successful bike jump over a ramp, that lands her into a pile of cement. The best humorous action scenes involves an airplane flight scene, which leads to bullet holes in a plane humorously plugged with whatever objects are laying near by.

Don’t even get me started on the special effects though as we get the expected CG created helicopter and airplane scenes, the worst offender is a vomit gag with CG puke. This makes me the most paranoid about the future as this director is in charge of the Ghostbusters remake which is a film that needs really strong comedy and special effects to work. The effects work and editing in Spy is a really crap sign of things to come.

Spy works best with expectations set low for theaters, but otherwise a satisfying enough film for a rainy afternoon. Story is just “there”, it has no real visual or kinetic flair but it’s just “funny enough” to maintain your interest and see what other funny things might happen. For a film simply titled Spy, that’s all I could ask for.


Mad Max: Fury Road Review

May 14, 2015

When Mad Max 2 was released in the early 80s, it followed an already good film by making it bigger and better, expanding the universe and everything that made the original a blast by tenfold. That’s what I desire from a sequel that has to make existing characters do something more than go through the same motions again – they need a grander task and adventure than the first film. This has been seen with other science fiction franchises, going as far back as Frankenstein (1931) to Bride of Frankenstein and Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back and for me, Alien and Aliens. I’m happy to say we have it again in Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s not quite the quantum leap from the first film to the second, but it’s satisfied the thirst that Beyond Thunderdome did not quench many moons ago.

In short, Fury Road is all you could realistically want from a Mad Max movie in the age of digital film. If you demand the rough physicality of cars speeding along from the original film, you are on the wrong track, as the cars are at least 7 times more bulky now. If you demand a modernized version of Mad Max 2, you are getting much warmer. We get nice nods to the series and other films of its ilk from the past, But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get into plot.

Fury Road takes place well beyond thunderdome, where we find Max quickly imprisoned by a new gang called the War Boys who number in the hundreds. These black metal-esque looking scrawny drones look like a hybrid between the slaves in the Smashing Pumpkins video for “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and their lead singer Billy Corgan in the “Ava Adore” video. That’s not the only connection to rock music, as Max resembles Rob Zombie early in the picture, and later, freaks in the film appear to be long lost members of Slipknot. I’m not even going to go into detail about the vehicle that includes a thrash metal guitar player to rally the troops. Anyhow! The pale-faced goons are lead by Immortan Joe played by Hugh Keays-Byrne. Keays-Byrne is the only prominent cast member returning from the previous films, playing Toecutter in ”Mad Max”. This reappearance confuses me a bit, so I’m going to casually go back and forth, referring to him as both Immortan Joe and Ghost of Toecutter.

Ghost of Toecutter!

Immortan Joe rules his fortress from the cliffs, where he commands the War Boys who number in the hundreds. Immortan Joe enlists the next best new character in film, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), to gather more supplies from neighboring towns. Unbeknownst to him, Furiosa has taken some hostages and has her own plan to escape from his rule. After a wild chase that sees a return of the cars from The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), Max manages to meet up with Furiosa and the two make an uneasy truce to get them away from Ghost of Toecutter Immortan Joe who is in hot pursuit. Even worse for Max and crew is that Immortan Joe has teamed with other gang leaders, with appropriate Mad-Max names like The Bullet Farmer and The People Eater. We’ve seen these characters in earlier art design for the film, and I’m happy to state that they not only look the part, but the acting is sharp and without a bad performance throughout. Each character gives just the right amount of camp and comic-book intensity to their respective roles that it would be more silly if these people were not driving spike-covered monster trucks.

The Cars that Ate Paris live again!

Speaking of looks, if there is one thing that remains in memory from Mad Max 2 or Fury Road, it’s the art direction. Fury Road introduces a new vehicle or two per chase sequence. Each one looks like it was constructed from things we might see in a scrap yard in real life, but with an over-the-top makeover that would make the average monster truck driver drool. Even greater is that these vehicles are all real, not computer-generated blobs that perform impossible physics. I wish I could comment more on the look of the scenery and vehicles, but I viewed the film at a pre-screening event which was shown in 3D. Fury Road was post-converted into 3D and makes some visuals feel unusually out of place, such as muzzle flare effects and the occasional burst of flames. This ain’t Avatar, Gravity, or even Jackass 3D. Don’t see it in 3D!

Is the film flawless? Not really. Longtime purists of the series might call foul on Tom Hardy’s lack of screen time to show off the Mad Max character. Mel Gibson’s role of Max in the earlier films was always the stand-out performance, probably because he’s the only character who isn’t given any goofy faces to make.

goofy-reactions-Mad-MaxGoofy reaction shots are sadly(?) missing in Fury Road

I’ve really enjoyed Tom Hardy in some previous films like Bronson and Lawless , but he is not given as much time for us to delve into the Mad Max character, and almost feels like the side-kick in his own film. Thankfully, the new character is just as tough and wild as Furiosa, and gets her own Mad Max-esque storyline of loss. I can understand a fan’s disappointment with not seeing as much Max in a film called Mad Max, his name is in the title after all! Personally, I’m much more happy to see a new character rather than see Max go through the same problems for a third or fourth time. My only gripe about Furiosa is that her reaction to her group of young friends did not hit me quite as hard as lesser events in the film, such as Max’s annoyance at seeing others driving his car, or even Immortan Joe quickly turning his car to avoid crashing into one of his wives. Not that all important scenes with her lack an emotional tug, but each one should hit hard, especially for a character so prominent.

The final, major issue I have with the film is not one I’ve read in any early reviews; it involves how the film was shot. The original films have a rough and raw feel that actual film gives to a movie. We can tell there is a lot of digital tinkering going on in this picture with the hot orange scenes within the desert and the dark blues of the day-for-night shots, which reminded me more of the tinted scenes from Murnau’s Nosferatu than anything resembling a scene shot at night. Not sure what was on Miller’s mind with this stuff.

Fury Road should sucker-punch audiences who regularly devour the Disney-Marvel flicks or the Fast and the Furious franchise, and definitely feel more than satisfying for people who’ve waited for this film for over a decade. All I desired was a film that felt like it was made by the maniacs who made the first two films, and I received my healthy dose of the bizarre, perverse, and generously entertaining Mad Max world. Not unlike The Littlest Hobo, Max is shown leaving his accomplices after coming to their aid at the end. I look forward to see where he travels and who he meets next. (Mad Max that is, not the Littlest Hobo).