The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016)

  • Reviewer: Aaron Yap
  • Date Added: 17 Feb 2017
  • Aaron's Rating:2.5

Alexandre Aja’s frustratingly uneven track record continues with The 9th Life of Louis Drax, a film so tonally unstable in makes his previous oddball work Horns seem straightforward in comparison. At worst, it’s much duller than it looks – but on the odd occasion that it clicks, the film is just unusual enough recommend a viewing for anyone curious. Aja never really settles on a discernible rhythm or shape for this adaptation of Liz Jensen’s novel, which comes across as a muddle of bad marriages, mind control, dream sequences, sea monsters and mysterious letters. The 9th Life of Louis Drax fluctuates between Jean-Pierre Jeunet-style magic realism and Hitchcock-tinged psychological mystery, and both fail to create effective drama. Jamie Dornan is laughably miscast, out of his depth as a coma doctor, but there’s unintentional comedy to be had watching him attempt to voice a 9-year-old kid.

Under the Shadow (2016)

  • Reviewer: Aaron Yap
  • Date Added: 17 Feb 2017
  • Aaron's Rating:4.0

Under the Shadow is a terrific, compact, richly layered metaphorical horror with an uncommon setting for western genre fans: war-torn 1980s Tehran. With this highly charged political backdrop, first-time director Babak Anvari shows tremendous skill augmenting familiar maternally-themed terrors with more specific social ones, such as women living under the strict, oppressive grips of sharia law. Narges Rashidi’s stellar, fiercely resolute performance as an increasingly perturbed mother caring for her daughter while her husband is drafted, drives the film, which effortlessly morphs from domestic ordinariness into a claustrophobic, reality-bending apartment chiller worthy of early Polanski. Filled with truly unnerving sound design and deftly calibrated scares, Under the Shadow is a gripping, frequently creepy experience to behold.

A Perfect Day (2015)

  • Reviewer: Aaron Yap
  • Date Added: 10 Feb 2017
  • Aaron's Rating:3.5

The last time humanitarian aid workers received some substantial screen time was in Larysa Kondracki’s ultra-grim sex-ring exposé The Whistleblower. Fernando León de Aranoa’s A Perfect Day tackles a similar period and milieu – “Somewhere in the Balkans, 1995” – but instead of focusing on bleak war crimes, unearths pockets of unexpected levity among the devastation. Perhaps too minor-key to operate effectively as satire, the film is at its best finding a subtle middle-ground, observing the sobering, frustrating realities of aid work in a slightly cock-eyed, wryly humorous fashion. The loose, meandering mood contributes to a false sense of security – the lingering air of unease that suggests, even during the dying, peace-negotiating days of the conflict, the “war” isn’t completely over. Aranoa could’ve dialled down his use of thunderous rock tunes at certain points (one key moment that should’ve been quietly powerful was overwhelmed by Marilyn Manson). But the cast is consistently engaging, selling the plucky dedication of the team in the face of some pretty absurd obstacles.

Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

  • Reviewer: Aaron Yap
  • Date Added: 10 Feb 2017
  • Aaron's Rating:5.0

Embrace of the Serpent is an absolutely stunning masterwork. Ciro Guerra's film, Colombia’s entry into the 2016 Oscars for Best Foreign Film, completely immerses the viewer into the depths of the Amazon, spinning a tale of western colonization uniquely seen from the perspective of a native. Based on the travel diaries of real-life explorers Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans, the film traverses two parallel timelines, with an Amazonian shaman, the last of his tribe, connecting both. Little plot per se – the journey mostly involves the search for a sacred plant with healing capabilities – but expect dream-like, visually arresting, occasionally funny passages that meditate on progress and tradition, science and superstition, reason and madness. A probing, transfixing, utterly captivating ethnographic study of an indigenous society ravaged by imperialism.

The Clan (2015)

  • Reviewer: Aaron Yap
  • Date Added: 3 Feb 2017
  • Aaron's Rating:3.5

A box office sensation in its home country, Pablo Trapero’s The Clan offers an irresistible ripped-from-the-headlines hook that should make it requisite viewing for any true crime enthusiast. Set in the early eighties of post-dictatorship Argentina, the film chronicles the grisly, notorious exploits of Arquímedes Puccio (a perfectly chilling Guillermo Francella), a former state intelligence officer who led a double life of kidnapping, extortion and murder right under his family’s noses. Storytelling could be a little tighter, and some of the supporting characters, particularly members of the Puccio clan who aren’t Arquímedes and his rising rugby star son Alejandro (Peter Lanzani), are underdeveloped. However, the material is compelling enough to withstand those flaws, and Trapero’s slick, confident direction gives the film a fluid, Scorsese-sque swagger, complete with violent set-pieces scored to upbeat pop songs. The finale is jaw-dropping. Warning: the white-on-white subtitling on this DVD is a bit of an eye-sore.

Rise of the Legend (2014)

  • Reviewer: Aaron Yap
  • Date Added: 3 Feb 2017
  • Aaron's Rating:3.5

Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung remains one of the most oft-revisited characters in all of martial arts cinema. Most notably popularised by Jet Li (Once Upon a Time in China) and Jackie Chan (Drunken Master), Wong is given a darker, broodier reimagining in Roy Chow’s Rise of the Legend. It’s an origin story, a piece of unabashed mythmaking that follows a younger Wong as the newest recruit in a portside gang during 19th century Guangzhou. The busy, familiar plot, involving turf wars, a love triangle, revenge, family tragedy, and a rebellious uprising, play out against a decadent backdrop of opium dens, courtesan boats and gambling parlours, all recreated with no expense spared. As far as gangland-flavoured kung fu melodramas go, Rise of the Legend is an entertaining, if not especially distinguished, couple of hours. Eddie Peng isn’t as instantly likeable as Jet nor Jackie, but he shows ample moxie in delivering Corey Yuen’s brisk, brutal fight choreography, though the overreliance on CG can be a drag. Sammo Hung fans will enjoy seeing him slugging it out, in his mid-’60s, like the best of them.

The Confirmation (2016)

  • Reviewer: Aaron Yap
  • Date Added: 27 Jan 2017
  • Aaron's Rating:3.0

Bob Nelson’s directorial debut The Confirmation teeters in between being charmingly low-key and just a little too flat to hit those notes it’s clearly attempting to. Like his 2013 Oscar-nominated screenplay for the Alexander Payne-directed Nebraska, the film revolves around a father-son bond. Don’t expect a lot of story here -- it’s essentially a blue collar Americana version of De Sica’s neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thief, with Clive Owen playing a down-on-his-luck divorced father who loses his toolbox and spends a weekend with his eight-year-old son looking for it. Owen and Jaeden Lieberher have a likeable, easy-going rapport, and the reliable supporting cast, including Tim Blake Nelson, Patton Oswalt (as a meth head!) and Robert Forster, add some much-needed colour to the pic. But The Confirmation could do with a bit more of Payne’s acerbic touch to enliven the material. As it stands, it’s pleasant viewing, difficult to hate but thoroughly middling.

The Hallow (2015)

  • Reviewer: Aaron Yap
  • Date Added: 27 Jan 2017
  • Aaron's Rating:3.0

Seasoned horror fans will probably not find much by way of original ideas in Corin Hardy’s first feature, which echoes everything from The Thing to The Descent. Rooted in Irish folklore, The Hallow’s none-too-coherent plot features black goopy liquid, parasitic fungal infestations, hostile small-town locals, light-sensitive, baby-snatching creatures, and a newly relocated couple in the middle of it all. There’s also an environmentalist subtext underpinning the action that never amounts to much. But the film’s shortcomings in characterisation and narrative are offset by Hardy’s assured skill behind the camera. The tension is unrelenting and visceral, the emphasis on practical effects is admirable (excluding some bad last-minute CGI), and stylish lighting schemes give the horror a mildly otherworldly, almost Lovecraftian feel in places. For a quick, scary, atmospheric fix, The Hallow should do the trick. Warning: you may feel like getting a tetanus shot right after.

Mechanic: Resurrection (2016)

  • Reviewer: Aaron Yap
  • Date Added: 20 Jan 2017
  • Aaron's Rating:1.5

If Jason Statham continues starring in dire vehicles Mechanic: Resurrection, he's on track to become a mainstay on the DTV scene with the washed-up likes of Van Damme, Seagal et al. This wholly unnecessary, comically bad sequel to his remake of the '72 Charles Bronson thriller is a total cartoon, concocting a laughably implausible reason for elusive hitman extraordinaire Arthur Bishop to start knocking people off again. The script finds an emotional bargaining chip in Jessica Alba, who plays a good-hearted shelter worker whom Statham is supposed to fall for and save, except they display absolutely zero on-screen chemistry. Following an interminable, awkward meet-cute in the tropics, the plot proper surfaces with some semblance of a pulse, taking Statham across the globe to complete sub-Mission: Impossible-style missions. The best of these involves a swimming pool hanging off the side of a skyscraper, but alas the sequence is over much too quickly. Crummy effects, choppily edited action and a disappointing waste of Tommy Lee Jones add up to a turkey that'll have ol' Stoneface rolling in his grave.

Pete's Dragon (2016)

  • Reviewer: Aaron Yap
  • Date Added: 20 Jan 2017
  • Aaron's Rating:4.0

David Lowery’s remake of ‘70s family favourite Pete’s Dragon is Disney at its most wholesome and delightfully old-fashioned. Trading in the noisy blockbuster bombast of late for something more low-key and sincere, the film is infused with a wistful, nostalgic sense of place, much of it gorgeously shot around NZ. Where the original blended live-action and hand-drawn animation, this version opts for full live-action. Elliot, its cuddly, green-furred star, is a head-to-toe Weta Digital creation that shows we’ve come a long, long way from the likes of Dragonheart. Narrative beats maybe overly familiar: the feral child reconnecting with civilisation, the foolhardy lumberjacks who don’t know any better, the misunderstood, benevolent creature who’s really just a big, dopey dog (strong shades of E.T. here). But the film works, weaving lightly comic moments, stirring bouts of adventure and soulful family drama into a dreamy, heartwarming tale of companionship between boy and beast.