At The Movies: Too many spies in Zhang Yimou's Cliff Walkers

A movie still from Cliff Walkers, starring Zhang Yi. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Cliff Walkers (NC16, 120 minutes, now showing)

2 stars

When legendary Chinese film-maker Zhang Yimou is on form, his power to move the spirit is unmatched. As examples, see the period dramas Raise The Red Lantern (1991) and To Live (1994), both regarded as cinematic masterpieces today.

This excessively twisty spy thriller sits among his middling works, however. It is not as flawed as, say, the China-Hollywood action piece The Great Wall (2016), but a film for the ages this is not.

The setting is 1930s Manchukuo, a region under the thumb of Japan, on the eve of the full-scale Japanese invasion of China.

A handful of men and women are parachuted into a forest in the puppet state. The group of secret agents from China are immediately ambushed by security forces. There is a traitor in their midst.

Surviving team members head to the city of Harbin, desperately staying one step ahead of the authorities.

In contrast to other films set in this region during this period, such as Japanese film-maker Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Wife Of A Spy (2020), this story makes a passing reference to the notorious biological research unit active there, but is strangely squeamish about giving it the attention it deserves.

Instead, there is an obsessive focus on spy-versus-spy strategy, at the expense of everything else. Mind you, outsmarting the audience is not the worst thing to do as a film-maker, but past a certain point, numbness sets in.

A movie should not feel like a turn-based strategy game. It is not only exhausting, it detaches the story from the setting, so Harbin might as well be East Berlin during the Cold War, Geneva in 1941 or any hub of espionage.

Zhang's key characters, the Chinese agents (or double, or even triple agents) played by actors Li Nai Wen and actresses Liu Hao Cun and Qin Hai Lu, are part of an oversized ensemble who exist to deliver exposition, such as who is passing messages to whom, using which fiendishly convoluted spycraft technique.

Harbin is gloriously snowy and a fleet of authentic-looking 1930s cars complement the beautiful clothes, but Zhang's film wastes the lavish set design and wardrobe on a story long on cat-and-mouse mechanics and short on historical and human specificity.

The Mitchells Vs The Machines (PG13, 114 minutes, now on Netflix)

4 stars

A still from the animated film The Mitchells Vs The Machines. PHOTO: NETFLIX

For six happy years, the Emmy-winning Disney series Gravity Falls (2012-2016) did the near-impossible: It centred its humour on a bunch of oddball characters but never used them as Simpsons-style punching bags.

The absence of abusive drunk dads, psychopathic kids or ethnic stereotypes never hurt the show; Gravity Falls was funnier because of it, not despite it.

That series might be gone, but two of its writers make their feature-film directing debut in this animated movie.

Co-directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe, who also penned the screenplay, bring the same gently anarchic sense of humour to this story about a flawed family using its weaknesses as strengths during a robot uprising.

Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is an artsy teen eager to leave the cultural desert that is Michigan for film school in Los Angeles, where her tribe awaits.

Her nature-loving, luddite dad Rick (Danny McBride) decides to embark on one more family road trip, mainly to see if he can reconnect with a daughter who used to adore him but now finds his presence suffocating.

This is not a lengthened episode of Gravity Falls, however. Rianda and Rowe give the satirical skits more room, especially when it comes to phone fixations and lust for new Silicon Valley tech. Low-hanging fruit, in other words, so the bits do not always work, but the movie makes up for it.

There are no jabbering animal sidekicks voiced by standup comics, for example, nor does Katie discover magical powers.

Instead, there are good jokes grounded in modern family life, frames packed with visual Easter eggs, a propulsive adventure story and strong line readings from A-listers such as Maya Rudolph, Fred Armisen and, believe it or not, Oscar-winning British actress Olivia Colman, playing a version of Siri or Alexa who finds a purpose beyond creating shopping lists.

Way Down (PG13, 118 minutes, opens May 6)

Not reviewed

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In this heist thriller, Walter (Liam Cunningham) is a salvage expert seeking to right the wrongs done to him by the government of Spain. He enlists the aid of genius engineer Thom (Freddie Highmore) to break into the Bank of Spain's central vault, reputed to be among the most secure sites in the world.

Those Who Wish Me Dead (NC16, 100 minutes, opens May 6)

Not reviewed

A still from Those Who Wish Me Dead, starring Angelina Jolie. PHOTO: WARNER BROTHERS

No preview was made available to reviewers for this thriller starring Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult, Finn Little and Aiden Quinn. Hannah (Jolie) is an emotionally closed-off firefighter who has to lower her defences when a child, Connor (Little), the target of assassins, is thrust into her care.

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