Movie Review: Cold War (2012)

December 4, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I am cynical when it comes to Hong Kong and Taiwanese films because they rarely live up to expectations, but word of mouth got me interested in Cold War, a big-budget effort that has been promoted as “the best Hong Kong movie in the last 10 years.”

I was warned before watching Cold War that while I cannot compare it to first class Hollywood productions, it’s pretty good “for a Hong Kong movie.” That’s pretty much my assessment of the movie too.

The title of the movie refers to the code name given to a police operation after a busy shopping district explodes and a van carrying five officers and weapons suddenly goes missing. One of the officers happens to be the son of the deputy commissioner of police (Tony Leung), currently filling in as acting commissioner.

The incident escalates tensions in an already tense Hong Kong police department, which has been eager to promote the region as the “safest city in Asia.” There are internal power plays between Leung’s character, who is in charge of the “operations” side of things, and the character played by Aaron Kwok, the deputy commissioner on the “management” side of the department. Both men apparently want to solve the case, but at the same time they are jostling for the head job as the commissioner is set to retire.

There’s more to the story than that, which makes the film sound more complicated than it really is. I have a feeling it’s intentional. The truth is, Cold War has a rather standard plot that takes a few pages out of another crafty and highly successful Hong Kong film franchise, Infernal Affairs (remade into the Oscar-winning The Departed).

The strengths of the film lie in the interesting power play between the two leads and the twists and turns in the evolving plot, although I can’t say they weren’t predictable. The action sequences are well-done and realistic, although some of the special effects could have been a lot more polished.

Directors/co-writers Sunny Luk and Longman Leung have a certain visual style that borrows from Hollywood but retains a Hong Kong flavor, which is nice, but they do have a tendency to over-sensationalize things. We are regularly made to feel or expect that a certain scene, incident or character is supposed to have a particular significance, only to find out later that it meant nothing, or that the character was only minor and would never be seen again for the rest of the movie.

One of the introductory scenes exemplifies this perfectly. We see a half-naked girl in her underwear walking to a fridge to get a drink (with a particular focus on her swinging backside) when armed police bust in and forces what looks like a cup of faeces into her sleeping boyfriend’s mouth. It’s a provocative scene that raises a lot of questions, but it turns out that the guy was actually just a police IT expert who forgot to answer his phone (making what just happened seem extremely over the top). We don’t get to see the girl again, and the guy disappears after a couple of scenes later, making me wonder what the point of the whole thing was other than to make a big deal out of nothing.

This happens a lot, albeit mostly at the beginning. A lot of characters are given solid introductions (I presume because they are all considered “stars” in the industry), but apart from the two leads, we don’t get any development or insight into any of them. They come and go, in what are essentially cameo roles, but it feel as though they had their roles cut substantially in the editing room. I’d like to think the directors were trying to throw audiences off intentionally but I think that would be giving them too much credit.

The performances of Kwok and Leung are very strong, and carry the film a long way. The most important supporting character, an anti-corruption officer played by Cantopop singer Aarif Rahman, is passable, though his voice is really irritating, while the lead female role given to Charlie Yeung was botched because Yeung can’t act (and you don’t have to understand Cantonese to see that).

So I highly doubt Cold War is the best Hong Kong movie of the last decade as it boldly proclaims, but despite the flaws and rough edges it does have some commendable qualities, with occasional moments of tension, excitement and intrigue. The ending suggests that there will be at least one sequel to come, and while I might eventually watch it I think it will most probably be on DVD.

3 stars out of 5

The Beijing Diaries, Day 11: Farewell

December 4, 2012 in China, Travel by pacejmiller

November 16

Can’t believe it. My 11-day visit to Beijing has come to an end.

My final day in the Chinese capital was a short one. I didn’t even bother grabbing some crap buffet breakfast in the basement of the hotel before checking out and hopping into a car headed for the airport. Out of fear of missing my flight, I gave myself an-hour-and-a-half from my hotel to the airport, but smooth traffic got me there in barely over 30 minutes.

My driver (from the same car company that took me to the Great Wall a couple of days earlier) wasn’t much of a talker, but he continually expressed shock over the fact that China allowed Japanese reporters to enter the country to cover the 18th National Congress.

“How dare they?!” he would say over and over, reminding me that every piece of land in the world claimed by China is, in fact, owned by China. “China’s just too big. We don’t have time to look after everything so people steal our land.”

Gotta love the locals.

I checked in at Terminal 3, which, I mentioned before, is supposed to be the largest airport terminal in the world. Again, I didn’t get that feeling at all, but I was impressed with the security. Not only did they get me to take out my laptop, they also asked me to take out my iPad, keys and coins from my bag and patted me down for good measure. My bag went through the machines three times and I twice. It can be annoying but at least you know you’re safe.

I started reflecting on my rare trip to China while seated at a Costa Coffee, sipping on an awesome lemonade (but passed on the exorbitantly priced Evian mineral waters which cost something ridiculous like 19 yuan (AU$2.92) – not crazy compared to the $5 mineral waters in Sydney but a lot considering local mineral water bottles cost around 1-4 yuan, as water should).

It has been a rare experience indeed the last week and a half. It’s rare to have the opportunity to see China’s leaders all together in a room and up close (once every five years, in fact) and even rarer to witness a Chinese leadership transition in person (once every 10 years).

It was challenging to work long, unusual hours and travelling on the crowded metro, and even more challenging being away from my young family, but I also got to meet a lot of interesting reporters from all over the world, sampled some delicious Peking duck, stayed in possibly the cheapest hotel I have ever stayed in and visited a couple of iconic tourist sites. And not even a single bout of food poisoning.

At that moment, all I wanted to do was to go home, kiss my wife and son and rest, but I’m sure in a few weeks, months or years from now I’ll look back and realize what a once-in-a-lifetime privilege this was.

Movie Review: Sinister (2012)

December 4, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

It’s rare to see an original horror movie these days and even more unusual to see one starring Ethan Hawke (I think Daybreakers is his only other one), so I made sure I caught Sinister, a movie about a writer who becomes entangled in a bizarre murder-mystery with a possible occult slant.

Without giving away too much, Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer whose last hit was more than a decade old and is desperately trying to land a homerun to revive his career. He becomes attracted to a chilling case about a missing girl and the hanging of her family from a tree that was caught on film, and relocates to the town where the tragedy occurred — with his wife (English stage actress Juliet Rylance) and two young children — so he can begin work on his ultimate masterpiece.

Despite its unimaginative title, Sinister is actually quite a creative horror film that worked really well for its first half. And unlike most horror films that dissolve into silliness towards the end, Sinister fails in its second half not because of the story but because of stylistic choices by director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), who also co-wrote the script.

The film excelled in the beginning because it relied almost solely on its creepy, unsettling atmosphere. The audience is drawn in by this eerie unsolved mystery and what are essentially ghoulish snuff films that are undeniably alarming yet captivating. The scenes with Hawke sitting alone in a dark room watching chilling 8mm home videos can make me shrivel up every time (interpret that as you wish).

So for the first hour or so of the film I was kept at the edge of my seat and I had no idea where the story was heading and whether it even had anything to do with the supernatural. For all I knew it was just a really strange case where lots of unexplained stuff was happening.

At some point, however, the film takes a wrong turn down an alley we’ve all seen too many times with modern horror films. Instead of watching the horror unfold through Ellison’s eyes we begin to watch it unfold around him – in that we get to see things he doesn’t – and this actually removes us from the closeness and proximity to the fear and confusion he’s feeling.

The scares also become more predictable and clichéd. Atmosphere takes a back seat to “boo” moments with grotesque images jumping out in front of the camera purely for cheap thrills. Granted, some of them are effective, especially with the blaring sound effects and music, but it brings Sinister closer to your average horror flick than distinguishes it, which is a real shame.

Fortunately, the film doesn’t fall apart completely. There are still enough twists and turns to keep audiences interested, and Hawke’s solid performance as Ellison, as well as Ryance’s as his very reasonable wife, keep the film afloat through some of its rockier moments. As always with such movies, there are some plot issues that are best ignored (such as how everyone in the house apart from Ellison can sleep through all that noise), but all things considered Sinister is still one of the better horror flicks of 2012.

3.75 stars out of 5!

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