Escape Plan

Genre: Action

Director: Mikael Hafstrom

Writers: Miles Chapman and Arnell Jesko

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Sam Neill, Amy Ryan

Running Length: 116 minutes

Synopsis: One of the world’s foremost authorities on structural security agrees to take on one last job: breaking out of an ultra-secret, high-tech facility called “The Tomb.” Deceived and wrongly imprisoned, Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) must recruit fellow inmate Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to help devise a daring, nearly impossible plan to escape from the most protected and fortified prison ever built.

Review: This is the first real lead pairing of 80s action stalwarts Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and while it’s not entirely a case of too little too late, Escape Plan will likely appeal more to moviegoers who are familiar with the duo’s bodies of work (pun unintended) in the 80s and early 90s. Despite featuring two lead actors that are over 65 years old and a ridiculous, hole-ridden storyline, Escape Plan still manages to entertain, although some serious editing should have been made to the almost 2-hour running time.

There’s almost no real plot and character development in Escape Plan, so essentially all one needs to know is that both Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s characters have been wrongly imprisoned and need to stage a prison break. The only twist in this tale is that Breslin is an expert in breaking out of prisons, and even this “escape-proof” prison will fall to his machinations. Yet, it takes almost a full half hour to lay the groundwork for Breslin, before the audience is introduced to Rottmayer, and the film rambles aimlessly along for almost another half hour before things truly kick into gear. For throwaway entertainment like this, that’s one hour too long to wait. 

Escape Plan does not have a strong storyline at all, and its contrivances can almost be too ridiculous to overlook. However, the lead actors are very likeable, and display enough chemistry to make this pseudo buddy movie work. The only thing that gets in the way is that both Stallone and Schwarzenegger are obviously geriatric (I say this with a lot of love and respect for both actors), and it seems that director Mikael Hafstrom is actively trying to let the audience think that they are still in their 40s. It doesn’t work, and frankly, tests the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief to near-breaking point. Implausibility aside, this is definitely a movie that will be found in the “Guilty Pleasures” category, and is entertaining enough (just barely) to make it worth the price of admission.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)



Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Writers: Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron

Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Running Length: 91 minutes

Synopsis: Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) in command. But on a seemingly routine mission, disaster strikes. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalski completely alone—tethered to nothing but each other and spiralling out into the blackness. The deafening silence tells them they have lost any link to Earth…and any chance for rescue. As fear turns to panic, every gulp of air eats away at what little oxygen is left. But the only way home may be to go further out into the terrifying expanse of space.

Review: Gravity is a master-class in how 3D can be used to a film’s advantage and to deepen the audience’s immersion. Despite running a mere 91 minutes, this is an intense and visually stunning movie that works best in IMAX 3D (completely worth the price of admission), with a stellar performance from Sandra Bullock that guarantees an Oscar nomination, if not a win. Although it’s not entirely without flaws, Gravity is easily one of the best movies released this year so far, and should be seen on the big screen as home video is unlikely to be able to successfully replicate the transcendent viewing experience.

The film opens with a single 20-minute take, and almost all of the exposition and scene-setting occurs in this sequence. It is a great technical achievement, and the scene is one that sets the tone of the whole movie. A caveat to those prone to motion sickness:  the latter minutes of this sequence could be taxing on your sensibilities, since it’s set in the first-person POV of Ryan Stone.

What ensues after the stage is set is an extremely intense hour of cinema – although the structure is very straightforward, the fact that Ryan Stone is essentially on her own (George Clooney’s character functions more like a cameo appearance despite him getting equal top billing to Sandra Bullock) in the vast confines of space means the challenge of performing even the simplest acts seems near insurmountable. Combined with what seems like an unrelenting wave of bad luck, it’s almost physically exhausting, in a good way, to witness Stone’s struggles to survive.

This is definitely Sandra Bullock’s strongest performance in her career, far outshining her somewhat overrated (Oscar-winning) performance in The Blind Side. Bullock has to carry nearly the entire movie on her own, and has no other characters to play off of for the majority of the movie (even Tom Hanks at least had Mr Wilson in Cast Away). It does veer a little towards schmaltz in the final minutes of the film, but she is definitely the one to beat in 2014’s Oscar race.

Because of the setting in space, viewing Gravity in 3D in the largest format possible will definitely aid in the sense of immersion one gets from the film. Alfonso Cuaron has succeeded in harnessing technology to deepen the viewing experience – it’s rare that one reacts instinctively to “duck” from a flying piece of debris without feeling a sense of cheesiness, but that’s exactly what I did on multiple occasions in Gravity. The 3D amplifies the vastness of space, yet paradoxically it also makes the viewer feel even more intimately linked to and focused on Bullock’s performance. It’s hard to tell how much of the experience will be lost on smaller screens at home, but to not at least view this once in a darkened theatre would be missing out on one of the movie events of the year.    

 * * * ½ (out of four stars)


Zone Pro Site: A Movable Feast

Genre: Comedy

Director: Chen Yu Hsun

Writer: Chen Yu Hsun

Cast: Lin Mei Hsiu, Tony Yang, Kimi Hsia, Wu Nien Chen, Ko Yi Cheng, His Hsiang, To Hsien, Bamboo Chen, Chan Wan Hao

Running Length: 144 minutes

Synopsis: More than twenty years ago, there were three Ban-doh (outdoor banquet) master chefs who dominated the catering business in Taiwan. They were known as Master Silly Mortal, Master Ghost Head and Master Fly Spirit. However, the outdoor banquet business has been in decline since Taiwan’s economic take-off, and even the master chefs feel helpless to turn the tide. Master Fly Spirit wants to pass the family recipes and culinary skills on to his only child, Hsiao Wan, but she desperately wants to run away from the family business and to become a fashion model. Nevertheless, fate proves that Wan is destined to take up the challenge and mission she once shunned…

Review: Curious, meaningless English title aside, Zone Pro Site is an entertaining romp through the world of “ban dou”, the Taiwanese catering business, through the eyes of a younger generation. Continuing a trend of Taiwanese movies seeing success when dealing with specific aspects of Taiwanese culture, Zone Pro Site tells an engaging story that doesn’t bore, despite a running time clocking well over 2 hours.

Although director Chen Yu Hsun has been away from the big screen for sixteen years, he seems to have stayed remarkably up-to-date, amply evidenced by his choice to use an almost manga style to his direction of Zone Pro Site. There are many scenes which invoke the use of magical realism, and the larger-than-life characters also allude to the manga influence, not least of which are a trio of “otakus” who are ready to offer their assistance to the central protagonist Hsiao Wan at all times. The finale cooking competition is also one of the weirdest I have seen for a live-action movie, incorporating effects and sequences that seem to have been plucked directly out of similarly themed Japanese cartoons. This stylistic choice makes for a lively viewing experience, and helps to minimize dead air in the movie (but requires a high tolerance level to whimsy). 

It also helps that most of the main and supporting cast members put in good performances, none more so than Lim Mei Hsiu as the boisterous mother of Hsiao Wan. She displays both a great comic timing and good thespian prowess, easily outshining any other cast member sharing the screen with her. Kimi Hsia does the best she could with what is essentially quite a one-note lead character, but fortunately she is ably bolstered by a good supporting cast. The weakest link is clearly Tony Yang, who seems to function as a pretty face but is undeniably bland in his portrayal of the “gourmet doctor” and requisite love interest.

With a relatively large cast and multiple plot threads, it was perhaps inevitable that certain elements would have fallen by the wayside. One unfortunate and surprising casualty of this is the actual food itself – for a movie that revolves around feasts and chefs, I had expected there to be much greater focus on the dishes being created. However, the director seems to prefer showcasing the journey and not the destination, and although there are more than enough scenes on the preparation of the dishes, the final presentation of the finished products seem more like an afterthought. Still, this isn’t a show to watch on an empty stomach, and is best followed by a big, satisfying meal after exiting the cinema.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

Genre: Action

Director: Tsui Hark

Writers: Tsui Hark and Chang Chia-Lu

Cast: Mark Zhao, Angelababy, Carina Lau, Feng Shaofeng, Lin Gengxin, Ian Kim, Chen Kun

Running Length: 133 minutes

Synopsis: The young Dee (Mark Zhao) arrives in the Imperial Capital, intent to become an officer of the law. He becomes embroiled in solving the mystery of a “sea dragon” that had attacked the Imperial Navy, and also the mystery of another sea monster that seems bent on attacking a courtesan (Angelababy) and anyone around her.

Review: Tsui Hark’s second 3D outing after 2011’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (which I felt that was an unmitigated disaster of a movie), Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragons is the prequel of the successful 2010 movie Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame, but devoid of any returning actors other than Carina Lau, reprising her role as Empress Wu Ze Tian.

The fresh faced cast is sure to appeal to a younger audience, but the bloat of the movie very nearly obliterates everything positive in the film. It is, after all, supposed to be a fun movie, but Tsui and Chang assemble a plot with so many different plot threads, many unsatisfactorily resolved, that the movie very nearly implodes under the weight of the narrative. The fact that a pretty straightforward tale takes over two hours to resolve is a sure sign that more prudent editing would have made Young Detective Dee a more palatable film.

That doesn’t mean the film is without its merits. The action choreography is top notch, and Tsui Hark does give these moments more than adequate screen time. The use of stereoscopic cameras in the filming of the movie should also mean better 3D effects, but Singaporean audiences will not know better as the only version airing in the cinemas seems to be the non-3D digital release. There’s great attention to detail in the film’s lush set design and opulent art direction, and while the computer generated imagery is still quite visible and occasionally jarring, it never detracts entirely from the rest of the movie.

Already facing the challenge of being much less charismatic than Andy Lau, Mark Zhao is simply unable to muster up enough screen presence to even make his Detective Dee stand out from the rest of the cast. The rest of the cast is similarly unremarkable, and even Carina Lau seems to be present to only up the star power of the film. Young Detective Dee also gets a bit too cute at times, imbuing Dee with what apparently seems to be X-ray vision and some very farfetched equipment (most notably, a horse that can travel faster underwater than on land). While suspension of disbelief is a must in such films, the level to which it must be done for this film makes it an almost impossible task except the truly forgiving, 

Perhaps the biggest problem with Young Detective Dee is that, despite being a movie about an intriguing mystery, telegraphs the answer from a mile away. There is no real mystery about the sea dragon nor the investigation of the case, and even the reveal is so long drawn out that the actual solution brings little joy. It always spells trouble when the b-roll spliced into the end credits feel more interesting than what ensued in the two hours prior.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)