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Entries in Superhero (2)

Sunday
Jul012018

ANIMAL WORLD

Stars: Li Yifeng, Michael Douglas, Zhou Dongyu, Cao Bingkun and Wang Ge.
Writer: Han Yan, based on the comic by Nobuyuki Fukumoto.
Director: Han Yan

Rating: 2/5

It is inconceivable that anyone might be pining for a film set in the bowels of a floating warehouse where dozens of desperate sweaty lowlifes take on a maths nerd in a high-stakes game of paper-rock-scissors, but here we are. Here, also, is Hollywood royalty Michael Douglas, who will most likely stay hidden behind the pile of cash he earned to play broad villainy when Animal World pops up in any career re-appraisal.

A Chinese-backed adaptation of Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s manga classic Ultimate Survivor Kaiji, writer/director Han Yan’s latest is a garish, cumbersome, piecemeal film. At different moments, it is a revved-up fantasy actioner, a grimy dystopian-world survival story, a lecture in statistical odds, and a big-screen spin on poker-machine graphics; it strives yet strains to be a convincing mash-up of Snowpiercer, Rainman and The Hunger Games. It fails on all fronts save some technical prowess, resulting in an aggressively pointless 140 minutes of misdirection and incoherence.

A likable Li Yifeng plays down-on-his-luck arcade-clown Zheng Kaisi, a morose figure falling worryingly behind on hospital payments that keep his comatose mother in care. During those moments when life deals him a bum hand, Kaisi disappears into a complex fantasy realm, the ‘Animal World’, where his clown character is a ninja-style assassin who can lay waste an entire train carriage of CGI-generated monsters. His psychic bond to the clown visage dates back to a childhood moment when his family home was raided and his father removed…all while a cartoon clown dispatched evildoers on the television.

With no means to cover hospital costs and having been swindled out of his family’s property assets by backstabbing childhood friend Li Jun (Cao Bingkun), Kaisi is left with no options when Douglas’ silver-haired, cold-blooded boss-man comes calling. He is soon aboard a sort of steam-punk freighter/industrialized cruise ship called ‘Destiny’, one of dozens of men who must collect brass stars and offload cards in a game-show-meets-Vegas version of paper-rock-scissors.

Conceptually, there exists the potential for a twisty, heist-like narrative energy as Kaisi’s beautiful mind starts working the different angles that will win him the ultimate goal – freedom from Destiny and a debt-free existence. But director Yan employs low-rent graphics to explain Kaisi’s in-depth analysis of how to beat the house; the 80-minute mid-section of Animal World is a series of interminable and utterly confounding sequences in which the cards that symbolize the three game options dance about cinematographer Max Da-Yung Wang’s otherwise handsomely filled widescreen.  

The heavily circulated trailer for the film promised a pulsating action-fantasy epic, with lashings of Deadpool-type irreverence, that never materialises. The train-carriage monster slaughter (which recalls better moments from the Men in Black films) and an admittedly terrific car chase all take place in the head of the protagonist; they represent nothing more than showy CGI bluster. Not for the first time but perhaps never quite so egregiously, a trailer has ‘buried the lead’ – Animal World is the Paper-Rock-and-Scissors wannabe-blockbuster that absolutely no one ever asked for. That unofficial fourth option the desperate PRS player calls upon– dynamite – would have come in handy.

Wednesday
Apr252018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Josh Brolin, Chadwick Boseman, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dave Bautista, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Karen Gillan, Peter Dinklage, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow and Vin Diesel.
Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME PLOT SPOILERS

Rating: 3/5

The intergalactic threat to end all intergalactic threats (we’ll see…) is the catalyst to bring together Marvel’s divided superhero collective for the fight of their lives in Avengers: Infinity War. At least, that is what the pre-publicity marketing spin would have the slavering MCU fanbase believe; in fact, it is not really that at all.

What it is, alternatively, is one of the loudest, longest first acts in cinema history; 150 minutes of story set-up. The ‘bridging episode’ arc is a tough narrative one to pull off; a strong, self-contained story must exist, ensuring audience investment in the moment, but the storyteller must always be mindful of the open-ended ‘cliffhanger’ finale. When done well, it plays like The Empire Strikes Back or The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers, whereas Infinity War exhibits just how hard it can be to serve two masters.

Surprisingly, the key protagonist emerges in the form of ‘villain’ Thanos, played with mo-cap mastery by Josh Brolin; in addition to a nice line in malevolent menace, the actor gets to sink his purple teeth into a handful of dramatic moments that link him to that chestnut theme of the MCU, patriarchal legacy. Driven by the belief that overpopulation is destroying the star systems, Thanos is myopically driven in his search for the ‘Infinity Stones’, pretty jewels that represent the galactic essentials of Mind, Soul, Time, Power, Space, and Reality. To possess the full set of six will grant Thanos the power to perform horrendous acts of genocide in the name of saving the galaxy from its inhabitants. Environmental advocates who argue that humans are a virus on this planet, that our thoughtless use of natural resources will lead to the death of Earth and all who live here, may side with Thanos ideologically, although his methods are unforgivably mass-murdery.

So the Avengers have to reconnect to see off Thanos and his flavoursome henchmen (led by an enjoyably campy Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as the psychotic sycophant, Ebony Maw). Expectedly, fans will cheer when they are re-introduced to Steve Rogers/Captain America (a sullen, oddly detached Chris Evans) as he emerges from the shadows; as Bruce Banner (a twitchy Mark Rufalo) struggles with his green-hued alter-ego; and, as the pompous Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and smart-arse Tony Stark/Iron Man (a visibly aged Robert Downey Jr) wage a quip war. Meshing with the traditional Avengers line-up are the Guardians of the Galaxy crew, the good people of Wakanda, led by T’Challa/Blank Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and teen hero Spiderman (Tom Holland).

However, the tantalizing mass melding of franchise heroes occurs in the cast list only; the key Avengers are divided, even more so the Guardians (the decision to turn Vin Diesel's Groot into a surly teen sapling proves a dire miscalculation); several favourites are relegated to bit parts (notably ScarJo’s Black Widow), while some don’t make an appearance at all. The promise of a mass Marvel army onscreen never comes near to fruition.

Working from Christopher Markus’ and Stephen McFeely’s workmanlike script, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo direct with a suitably vast eye for spectacle and melodrama, colouring in landscapes against which massive effects-laden conflicts can take place. Once the film gets past an opening salvo of meet-cute reconnections, the smash ‘em/bash ‘em mayhem unfolds, both on Earth and in the far corners of the galaxy. The next two hours represent the gamble with fan expectation which is the strong suit of Avengers: Infinity War - our heroes essentially have the s**t kicked out of them for 2½ hours, ahead of a downbeat denouement.

It is a bold undertaking, to readjust what is expected of the MCU/Avengers formula, and there are moments when the sheer scale and momentum match the narrative ambition needed to pull off a 'Part 1'. Given the fate of the universe is at stake, however, those otherwise unexpected moments of murder most foul, self sacrifice and bitter betrayal amount to very little. A lot goes unanswered in Avengers: Infinity War and no amount of blockbuster grandeur can fill the void left.