Seoul Station (2016) [Fantasia International Film Festival 2016]

seoul“If I had a place to go… I wouldn’t have stayed at Seoul Station.”

Yeon Sang-ho’s animated prequel to the excellent zombie action film “Train to Busan” is every bit as terrifying as its successor, and occasionally much more intelligent and biting in its social commentary. While “Train to Busan” is a very emotional look at class warfare and how the society divides in the time of crisis, “Seoul Station” is a very evocative commentary on the poverty crisis in the world. This horrific zombie virus is able to thrive thanks to the massive homeless population in South Korea, and it’s confronted more than once in how the government views its homeless as animals and sub-human even before the flesh eating ghouls appear.

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Sharknado: The 4th Awakens (2016)

Sharknado4At this point you kind of have to accept the “Sharknado” movies will never be as good as the novels, so going in to “The 4th Awakens” means embracing it as a movie, and a media experience. It has a slew of appearances and cameos from notable internet personalities like Andre “The Black Nerd” Benjamin, to character actors like Gilbert Gottfried. Yes, even the Chippendales dancers appear to thrust against some sharks. “Sharknado” is a virtual side show of a genre offering that holds its tongue firmly in cheek, even when turning hero Fin in to a basic rip off of Ashley Williams from “Evil Dead.”

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Sing Street (2016) [Blu-Ray/Digital]

SingStreetVery few films can manage to understand how music is a very important aspect of life and can sometimes drive us and move us in to aspirations, inspiration, and love. The other great music film released in 2016 was “Everybody Wants Some!!” While Linklater explored how music is the soundtrack of our lives, John Carney’s masterpiece “Sing Street” is about how music can launch us in to realms we never knew were there. Music can open up doors and allow us to see things about ourselves that are incredible, and sometimes very ugly. A beautiful amalgam of “Almost Famous,” and “Say Anything,” with a hint of “Once,” John Carney is again at his top conveying a musical drama centered on more impoverished characters.

Carney sets his film in the middle of 1985 in Dublin where our trio of protagonists is obsessed with music. For them music seems to be the only salvation in the drudgery that is their everyday lives. Conor is a teen approaching high school who manages to ignore his parents’ dying marriage and the failure of role models like his big brother and father with music. When we first see him he’s playing his guitar in his room attempting to tune out his mother and father arguing with one another, and then uses their rage to fuel his creativity. He reaches an epiphany when his older brother Conor helps him realize that music is what’s keeping the world in motion, as music videos cover the general stratosphere of local television.

Conor decides to form a band of his own as a means of coping with going to a public school run by his local church. The seams almost come together at once for Conor who begins to come of age through musical expression, all the while falling head over heels for unique beauty and aspiring model Raphina. “Sing Street” brings us through the journey of Conor and his band, as they try to create their own style of music all the while steering through a school that openly promotes conformity and is run by a very abusive head priest. Carney taps in to the magic of the eighties beautifully, revealing how they influence Conor and his friends to concoct their own unique style of music, while doling out the hits from bands like Duran Duran and The Clash.

Everything from the performances, to the narrative, right down to the music is incredible, while Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is pitch perfect as the awkward Conor who begins to blossom the more he embraces his individuality. Despite blunt violent rebuttals from the school bully, and the school’s staff, Conor inspires others to flash their individuality proudly. This helps him cope with the startling realization that failure and lack of fulfillment surround him, and he has to find a way to escape before he’s eventually dragged down in to the slums. Along with Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton is excellent as enigmatic Raphina who becomes Conor’s virtual muse, and Jack Reynor the older brother and mentor to Conor who represents everything he could be, for better and for worse.

John Carney just continues impressing with brilliant, beautiful tributes to the magic of music and how much is represents the language of life. “Sing Street” is an absolute masterpiece. Featured in the release from Anchor Bay is the Digital Copy for consumers. There’s “Making Sing Street” a five minute exploration of the film’s story, how John Carney used his own experiences in the film, and how the film conveys his own wish fulfillment. Writer/Director John Carney & Adam Levine Talk Sing Street is a three minute discussion about the movie mixing music and film together and the realistic depictions of the 80’s. Finally, there is the Cast Auditions, which feature a slew of audition reels from the cast. There’s an introduction from John Carney, and footage featuring Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Mark McKenna, Ben Carolan, and more.


The Sound of a Flower (2015) [New York Asian Film Festival 2016]

soundofaflowerDuring the Joseon Dynasty in South Korea, Pansori opera was only sung by men as women were forbidden by law to sing.  It was believed that a woman’s body was too weak to sing.  Against those odds, Chae-Sun decides she wants to become a Pansori singer, going as far as dressing as a man to be allowed to sing.  With much reticence, Pansori Master Shin Jae-hyo takes her under his tutelage and makes a great singer of her.  When it’s found that the young man is in fact a woman, the master is imprisoned and the student makes a deal with the ruling Father-King Heung Seon Daewongun to save him.

The Sound of a Flower was written by almost a half a dozen people and still feels cohesive which means this is a great team and the director brought all of their work together with talent.  Director Jong-pil Lee co-wrote the film with Ah-Young Kim, Jae-eun Jeong, Hye-rim Park, and Mi-na Chung.  This team created a beautiful period piece and historical fiction where the history of Pansori opera and its first female singer is explored in a way that flows well and includes classic songs that most people outside of its country of origin have probably never heard. As the singing is very important in this film, the casting of a singer for the lead is not stunt casting as it often is but necessary.

In the part of Chae-Sun, the first female Pansori singer, is Bae Su-zy a member of the KPop group Miss A.  Here she takes the part of Chae-Sun and disappears into it, becoming this other person, this sweet and timid, yet determined woman who takes on incredible odds to achieve a dream even the law forbade.  From the get go, she gets the viewers to root for her and just keeps impressing them throughout the film, her subdued moments are contrasted by moment of pure courage and boldness and her performance shows great nuances and that she knows how to bring the right levels of emotions to each scene which makes her performance absolutely shine.

Playing opposite Bae Su-zy are Seung-ryong Ryu as the Pansori Master Shin Jae-hyo and Nam-gil Kim as Prince Daewon the King’s father.  Shin Jae-hyo shows a calm determination for most of the film as well as a lot of care for Chae-Sun.  His performance is subtle and strong, with emotions clearly held back most of the time, showing so much even in silent scenes.  The man’s expressions talk for him many times, his eyes say so much.  His emotions at times come through so well, they will break viewers’ hearts.  Nam-gil Kim plays devilish with a passion, abandon even at times.  His performance is less subtle and more extravagant with is entirely called for here with his more flamboyant character.

The attention to details in The Sound of a Flower is incredible.  The costumes by Yoo-jin Kwon and Seung-hee Rim are beautiful and so well made.  The production design by Jong-gun Lee looks stunning.  These are showcased by cinematography by Hyun Seok Kim in scenes and sequences that linger on just the right things for just the right time.  The balance in colors, brights, and darks is well thought out and gives room for the other visual aspects to shine.  Of course, in a film about opera, the music is of high importance.  Here the music by Tae Song Kim is subtle and adds perfectly to the classic Pansori songs and numbers.

The Sound of a Flower is a beautiful movie, well cast, well acted in stunning settings, with high quality costumes.  Fans of historical dramas will love this musical and most viewers should learn a few things about Pansori opera.  In all of this, it’s also a tragic love story based on historical facts that tugs at the heart.


The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

SecretLifeofPetsThe best way to describe “The Secret Life of Pets” is “Toy Story” meets “Looney Tunes.” In fact the “Toy Story” comparisons are never far off, as the film’s formula is most derived from Pixar’s film where we view the secret lives of everyday household elements when their owners aren’t looking. This time we set down on a random apartment complex in the middle of Manhattan where a slew of household pets commune and indulge in their own hobbies when their owners are out for the day. Louis CK does a wonderful job voicing Max, the hero of the film who is a terrier and loyal friend to his owner Katie. While Katie is gone for the day, Max gets together with the pets of the building to talk over the day and discuss what they think happens when their masters are gone.

Eliie Kemper as Katie is a single working woman with a heart for dogs who bonds with Max, and then suddenly brings home a new dog one day. Max is horrified and angry when Katie brings home big fluffy dog Duke, a well meaning adopted pet who tries to make friends with Max and then forms a rivalry when he realizes Max is trying to get him kicked out of the house. While being walked one day, Duke tricks Max in to going on to a construction site, prompting the pair to get lost in the city. With dog hunters and vicious cat on their tail, the two have to work together with the help of anti-owner revolutionary leader, the bunny Snowball. Meanwhile puffy dog and neighbor Gidget goes looking for Max and Duke, hell bent on bringing them back home.

“The Secret Life of Pets” is a subtle celebration of New York City, where our animal characters travel all throughout New York in an attempt to get hack home. The movie doesn’t attempt too much emotional complexity or adult themes, but instead revels in its silliness, ace animation, and often laugh out loud comedy. One particular scene involving an old woman’s reaction to a baby in its carriage is quite hysterical. The animation opts for a very unique and fun style in the vein of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. Despite the movie injecting a lot of heart at the core of its narrative about animals and their devotion to their humans, the animation is decidedly exaggerated with a lot of the characters presented in over the top animated forms.

Even tough heroine Gidget is presented as something of a barking and talking puff ball throughout the film. At a little over seventy minutes, “The Secret Life of Pets” has no room for filler or flab to its story, providing a brisk and hilarious adventure with a genuine sense of emotion to it. It’s a fun, funny, and simple animated film, and one of the better animated entries to come to theaters. While yes it can be accused of taking from “Toy Story,” Max and Duke are genuinely entertaining heroes I hope we can see more of soon.


Sentinel (2015)

sentinelNOW SEEKING FUNDING ON KICKSTARTER – Jason Turner’s “Sentinel” reminds me a lot of the Harry Canyon segment from “Heavy Metal” except so much more of a neo-noir cyberpunk love letter than the former. Presented as a motion comic, Jason Turner plays Ex-Cop Alex Calibourne, a man with enhanced body augmentations that lives in a crime ridden albeit futuristic city named Iron City. Calibourne lives and breathes by his robotic enhancements, and uses his artificial intelligence J.E.S.S., a sassy female AI, to guide him through his adventures in the underworld.

This involves his run ins with bar patrons, battling random thugs, and dealing with a potential femme fatale. The animation for the motion comic is pretty excellent, prompting a very dime novel aesthetic that channels the likes of “Blade Runner.” The character of Alex Calibourne aka “Iron Joe” is a fascinating anti-hero prone to falling for dames, and lurking in dark bars, despite being technologically advanced. I enjoyed the interplay between Irons and J.E.S.S., a very outspoken AI in the form of the classic noir secretary, who is most definitely feeling something for Calibourne.

This becomes evident as he begins sinking deeper and deeper in to a new assignment involving being a bodyguard for a very beautiful night club singer. Jason Turner has a unique vision and his format of a motion comic works in favor of his intended anthology movie in the vein of “Heavy Metal.” In the aforementioned film no two segments were alike, and it breaks the monotony to present the adventures of the Sentinel in various mediums. “Sentinel” is a neat and mesmerizing beginning to a unique crime hero, and Turner realizes him well enough to where you definitely root for him, and want to see where he goes next.


Saving Mr. Wu (2015) [New York Asian Film Festival 2016]

SavingMrWuIn 2004, actor Ruofu Wu was kidnapped and held for ransom in China.  With his blessing (he has a prominent part in the film), director Ding Sheng adapted his story into film for Saving Mr. Wu. The cinematic version of the events follows Mr. Wu as he is kidnapped by Zhang Hua and three accomplices as he comes out of a karaoke bar.  The kidnappers pretend to be cops to get him to cooperate but it becomes clear very quickly that they are taking him to pocket a ransom.

The actual police catch Zhang Hua while he’s gone to retrieve the ransom.  As the police interrogate him, Mr. Wu attempts to use his skills to survive and help the other kidnapping victim survive as long as possible and not lose hope. Director Ding Sheng co-wrote the film with Alex Jia.  Their script is an adaptation and fictionalization of the real kidnapping case most likely to make it more entertaining.

As with most adaptations if this kind, not all parties involved have the more exciting or exciting at all side of the story or even want to share it, so they add to fill in some gaps and spruce up some parts to make it more captivating.  The characters are based on real people but also have been tweaked to make them all interesting.

The cast of Saving Mr. Wu is composed of the original Mr. Wu, Ruofu Wu, who here has the part of one of the men charged with saving Mr. Wu, cop Cao Gang.  Wu does great work here and shows much interest in saving the movie version of himself.  As the character of Mr. Wu, Andy Lau gives a layered performance of a man who is scared, worried, wants to fight, tries to help is co-kidnapped.  His performance is one of the center pieces of the film, having the whole story revolve around him.  Lau’s acting is superb here.  The other very important performance is that of lead kidnapper Zhang Hua who spends a good part of the film gleefully being interrogated.

Qianyuan Wang plays this part to the fullest, not holding back and just going for it with the madness of the criminal he is representing.  His presence on screen is captivating.  His main interrogators are played by the aforementioned Ruofu Wu and Ye Liu as Xing Feng, an overworked father with a sick son he needs to get to.  The film rests on the strength of its cast mainly as the majority of the scenes are a lot of dialogue including the scenes between Mr. Wu and his kidnappers, Mr. Wu and the other kidnapping victim, the interrogation of Zhang Hua, et al.

There are a few actions scenes but they are not the main focus of the film, however they are very well done nonetheless.  The filmmakers gave these scenes plenty of attention, even hiring a car stunt coordinator, Bruce Law, who has close to 200 credits.  The car sequences here are great and slightly reminiscent of the low-shot car scenes in Luc Besson written films.  The other stunts are coordinated by Jun He and very well done as well.  The camera does not shy away from the action and shows the cars, the hits, the whole thing without constantly cutting away or over-editing.

Saving Mr. Wu is a tense crime thriller with a true story background that keeps the viewer interested and connected to the story with good characters and great performances.  The film is not build in a straight-forward manner, having its story skip forward and backwards in the timeline of the kidnapping which may require more attention but is absolutely worth it in the end.


Sinister Squad (2016)

sinistersquadOnce again The Asylum tip toes all the way to the finish line to avoid copyright infringement, offering up their own third hand version of “Suicide Squad.” Relying heavily on public domain characters and concepts, “Sinister Squad” isn’t your usual terrible Asylum fare. It’s more lackluster and tedious with a lot of the cast seemingly pushed in to mirroring the personalities they saw in trailers for “Suicide Squad.”

So star Johnny Rey Diaz is so not the Joker as a green haired maniac with odd teeth named Rumplestiltskin, while Talia A. Davis is so not Harley Quinn, as the mad red queen who is hopelessly in love with Rumplestiltskin. These stock fairy tale villains are assembled by Alice (a very fetching Christina Licciardi) who is left with no choice to call upon these baddies when their own Carabosse, who is so not Enchantress, breaks out to enact her own evil scheme. She plans to unleash the evil Death (can’t copyright Death), who with his cult, wants to either dominate the world, or garner a final form on Earth to rule over the realm.

It’s never clear what Death intends to do with Carabosse working with him, nor is there a whole lot of explanation as to where a piece of Alice’s looking glass factors in. Either way, like most Asylum productions, “Sinister Squad” is set in one place, primarily Asylum’s studios, where the entirety of the movie unfolds. Every action scene, dramatic confrontation, fight sequence, shoot out, and magic battle ensues within the corridors of the warehouses owned by Asylum, adding to the bargain basement aesthetic the film tries to side step so eagerly.

Aside from Licciardi, the only cast member who really rises above the tedium is Nick Principe who has a good time adding some variety to such a broadly sketched character, and tries to turn the generally boring villain in to a memorable nemesis. “Sinister Squad” is yet another knock off from The Asylum hoping to make some quick cash from easily confused foreigners, and relatives looking for a cheap present on the way to a third cousin’s birthday party. Only the morbidly curious need apply.

Now available on VOD.