ASIANatomy Pure Asian Entertainment: Film, TV, Anime & Manga <![CDATA[ Smart Talk On Skin: Sex As A Means of Apology]]>  
What you have with FEMALE TEACHER: DIRTY AFTERNOON is a pair of young women trying to put the pieces of their lives into an order that makes sense to them: one seeks to repair a life she believes she destroyed by wrongly accusing a man of rape, while another seeks to bring little more than happiness to the partners she couples with however briefly.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: A teacher, Sakiko Kurata, receives a phone call regarding one of her former students.  Young Sueko is accused of being a prostitute, and has requested Sakiko’s help.  This minx seduces random strangers for sex, but does not ask for payment.  Sakiko has moved to another town and barely remembers Sueko, but there’s something about her that awakens painful memories of her own secretive past …”
What’s more than a bit befuddling is that one might expect a film from the FEMALE TEACHER series to actually (A) involve a teacher, (B) involve some school setting, and (C) involve many more than a single student.  Sadly, DIRTY AFTERNOON really only flirts with the traditions that Nikkatsu explores throughout their FEMALE TEACHER series: Sakiko Kurata (played by Yuki Kazamatsuri) was a student teacher, and a telephone call from her incarcerated student asking basically for bail is the impetus that sets this plot into motion.  In fact, Sakiko barely remembers Sueko (Ayako Ota): this is not because she wasn’t a good teacher but rather because she suffered a particularly traumatic sexual assault in the remote mining town where she served her time as a student teacher.  Otherwise, DIRTY AFTERNOON is curiously absent any school, any school setting, or the usual libidinous student bodies.
That said, I found DIRTY AFTERNOON to be a bit bizarre when compared to more traditional pinky films I’ve watched.  The plot feels a bit cookie-cutter – little here unfolds organically, and even the sex scenes feel far more like they’ve been inserted into some macabre ‘After School Special’ quality tale where the moral to the story is make sure you know the one you’re accusing actually did the deed before you level the accusation … otherwise you’re destined to deliver make-up sex for the rest of your days.  Every one of these characters uses sex as a form of cultural compensation – the rapist seeks gratification; Sakiko seeks emotional fulfillment; Sueko wishes to make men happy; and Sueko’s mother (in a rather weird comic subplot) wants to keep her job at the corner grocer.  There’s clearly more substance at work in this product as director by Kichitaro Negishi, and that’s probably because Negishi did work outside the pink industry and perhaps had other aspirations at a time when all he really needed to do was shoot the sex.
Still, I wouldn’t call DIRTY AFTERNOON a misfire.  It’s interesting, that’s for sure.  I just wasn’t expecting so make narrative symbolism from a TEACHER title.
FEMALE TEACHER: DIRTY AFTERNOON (1981) is produced by Nikkatsu.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by Impulse Pictures.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Japanese spoken language release with English subtitles available.  (There is no English-dubbed track.)  As for the technical specifications, again I’m surprised at how well the film has held up given its age and subject matter; even the mono track is quite good.  Lastly – if it’s special features you want – then you have the theatrical trailer to look forward to as well as a nice little essay in the liner notes provided by Japanese Film Scholar Jasper Sharp.
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED.  FEMALE TEACHER: DIRTY AFTERNOON isn’t the most interesting pinky/pinku film I’ve ever seen, but that’s largely because it kinda/sorta dabbles in too much unnecessary baggage (i.e. story, feelings, plot, motivation) given its fairly predictable yet theatrically contrived finish.  I’m not sure that any audience really wants to watch a victim come to such happy-happy terms with fate she suffered or accidentally forced on others, especially when the solution she reaches on her own is one quite this bizarre.  Or personal.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Impulse Pictures provided me with a DVD copy of FEMALE TEACHER: DIRTY AFTERNOON by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]> Fri, 27 Jun 2014 17:32:15 +0000
<![CDATA[ Seven Warriors: It Takes A Village]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “The Warlord Era: where desperate soldiers have become thieves and bandits, leaving towns – and lives – in ruins.  The villagers of Guangxi rise up, hiring seven warriors to take up arms against the marauders and save their home.”
If you’ve seen Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI, then you’re already familiar with this story.  Also, if you’ve seen THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, then you’re equally familiar with it.  That isn’t to say that yet one more remake of that legendary first take of this tale by Kurosawa is unnecessary; instead I’d point out that the story of villagers who eventually have to learn to fight for themselves has a theme many storytellers find universal.  Great stories adapt very well across different cultures, and Terry Tong (aka Sammo Hung, who appears briefly in the film’s opening sequence) has done a terrific job bringing this version to cinematic life.
And because it was part and parcel of the Hong Kong New Wave in Film perhaps SEVEN WARRIORS is definitely worth a look.  I think it rather exceptionally combines a healthy amount of traditional film elements that Chinese filmmakers had already explored but it did so with a new, hyperkinetic, fully realized look that heralded how much times were changin’ for that great nation.
SEVEN WARRIORS (1989) is produced by Maverick Films.  DVD distribution is being handled by the ever-reliable Well Go USA Entertainment.  (Seriously, their import catalogue is to die for.)  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Cantonese spoken language release with English subtitles available.  (There is no English-dubbed track.)  As for the technical specifications?  The sights and sounds come fast and furious in the latter half of the flick, along with some impressive cinematography that signaled a whole new era in Hong Kong filmmaking.  Lastly – if it’s special features you want – then prepare for the disappointment as there isn’t a single one there: a big miss, but what are you gonna do?
RECOMMENDED.  Sure, it’s a bit dated as today’s standards go, but so very much of Terry Tong’s SEVEN WARRIORS follows every thematic beat of Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI that it remains a remake worth a view.  Some of the humor may seem more than a bit out-of-place, but culturally much of it harkens back to a time when going to the movies was all about having a great time; on that score, the flick delivers.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of SEVEN WARRIORS by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]> Tue, 3 Jun 2014 23:21:07 +0000
<![CDATA[ Excellent Period Piece Delivers Big Visuals With Little Investment In Character]]>  
That being said, I’ll freely admit that I didn’t enjoy SAVING GENERAL YANG as much as others; however, I still give it an enthusiastic endorsement for you to discover if wartime epics are in your wheelhouse.  It has everything you could possibly want – epic themes, heroic characters, all backed with a hint of romance.
What didn’t I like?  I’ll try to convey that better below.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “Seven sons must take on an army of thousands, brave treacherous mountain terrain, and find a way home alive – all to rescue their beloved father.”
The explosion of CGI has helped fuel a renaissance with the epic war story, and that’s a tremendous plus for today’s audiences: no longer does a director have to corral a billion extras on camera in order to effectively portray what a vast and brutal landscape ground war looked like centuries ago.  Special effects have given studios a chance to do it on a cinematically grand scale while leaving the creative folk – storyteller, director, and actors – free to concentrate their work in other areas.  SAVING GENERAL YANG is a picture that, decades ago, would’ve been a daunting undertaking, one involving huge casts of extras, travel around a great nation in order to capture the various castles and locations, and as many artisans working behind-the-scenes to bring it to life as were working in front of the camera.  This is one of the benefits to this modern era of filmmaking: it just makes the unimaginable possible.
Narratively, there’s a downside directors much keep in check, and – to his credit – director Ronny Yu has performed miracles with SAVING in that despite the prevalence of effects work there’s a very human story very close to the core of the picture: it’s a tale that involves country, family, and honor.
However, I found SAVING to be a bit too clinical in its approach to the other elements.  The canvas is suitable large, and there are always new colors and new shades added compliments of Yu’s handiwork that I found myself watching too many of those storytelling tricks.  In the process, I cared just a wee bit less and less about the characters.  As this story is based on a Chinese tale of legend, it isn’t as if Yu could’ve effectively eliminated, say, three brothers in order to offer more screen time to just four heroes.  While each of them is gifted with his own unique skills on the field of battle, I just didn’t care as much about them as individuals to honestly find much honor in their respective deaths.  Yes, they were tragic … but, for some reason, I kept wondering how the next one was going to fall, and I suspect that wasn’t the director’s intent.
There’s nothing decreasing the film’s visual accomplishments.  Yu has delivered a terrific war-time fairy tale that offers up some outstanding detail, some of which kinda/sorta appears as if it were rendered in post-production instead of in-camera.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with it!)  The picture is certainly a site to behold; I’m simply nitpicking the fact that I would’ve liked to have cared more for these individuals than the film had time for in its usually trim 107 minutes.
SAVING GENERAL YANG (2013) is produced by Pegasus Motion Pictures Production and Pegasus Motion Pictures.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by one of my personal favorite distributors: Well Go USA Entertainment.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Chinese spoken language production with English subtitles available; or – should you prefer – there is an English-dubbed track.  (I rarely watch those as I prefer to hear the original language.)  As for the technical specifications?  BOOM!  This is one immaculately engineered piece of entertainment, and no expense was spared in delivering it with the highest quality sights and sounds.  Lastly – if it’s special features you want – then there are some rather obligatory making-of interviews with the cast and crew, along with the theatrical trailer.  It’s a nice collection.
RECOMMENDED.  SAVING GENERAL YANG is kinda/sorta done in the same thematic vein as, say, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN because, like the Spielberg film, the story is fundamentally more about surviving than it really is ‘saving.’  Still, the exquisite cinematography and effective fight sequences – no doubt all put together by director Ronny Yu – wound up feeling a bit too clinical for me to love this as much as the next critical bloke.  Perhaps I’ve seen so many far more interesting stories from that part of the world that this one didn’t strike me as exceptional as it did others.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of SAVING GENERAL YANG by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution in no way, shape, or form influenced by opinion of it.]]> Mon, 21 Apr 2014 00:33:03 +0000
<![CDATA[ CONFESSION OF MURDER Becomes "Confusion Over Directorial Choices"]]>  
However, CONFESSION OF MURDER tries to blend those two worlds – create a summer tent-pole-style flick that’ll bring in the masses while preserving that which makes Korean cinema its own animal.  It succeeds more than it fails, but where it fails it almost veers into cartoon silliness, most of which is limited to the film’s big action sequences.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
After the statute of limitations expires on a particular grisly series of serial murders, a picture perfect young man named Lee (played by Won-yeong Choi) comes forward claiming to have committed all of them except a last one long attributed to the same killer.  As his penance, he’s chosen to release his memoirs – detailing the highs and lows of these events – as well as make a public apology to the families.  Still, Detective Choi (Jae-yeong Jeong) isn’t convinced of the man’s sincerely, and he’ll find himself caught up in a dangerous game to unmask the real culprit despite the fact that, legally, there may be nothing that can be done about it.
As is often the case when I critique foreign films, I have some quibbles with some of the artistic choices, but rarely have I see a motion picture try as hard as CONFESSION OF MURDER.  In fact, on first blush I’m almost willing to give director Jung Byung-gil a pass on a few of them.  Despite what some others have written and perhaps a high score here and elsewhere, MURDER isn’t perfect; it nearly spirals out of control with some increasingly bizarre action set pieces that strive for overkill when modesty would’ve definitely been the better choice.
At the core of the experience is a nonetheless stellar whodunit.  Precisely because there’s seemingly very little that can be done if Lee’s guilt is established is the driving force around so very much of this story, and, on most levels, that’s pretty thrilling.  Throwing in the chief detective who has lived a life largely in personal frustration and professional disgrace for letting this one get away (it happens to involve the death of his fiancé) truly propels the pulse to a frenetic rate.  Won-yeong Choi and Jae-yeong Jeong are particularly effective playing against one another – one is young and virile, while the elder appears ragged and scarred (internally and externally).  Their chemistry as adversaries struggling to regain what they’ve lost makes MURDER definitely worth the effort.  I won’t spoil the big finish, but I will say that the flick definitely will keep you guessing with some solid, effective developments.
What grinds the film to a halt are two action pieces that start small but build to almost the point of absurdity.  Again, I’ll avoid spoiling it, though I’m willing to say that they’re obviously highly accomplished stunt work – mostly practical stuff, very little CGI (thankfully); it’s just that, on the narrative level, these sequences rise to the level of an Indiana Jones motion picture, and that felt largely out-of-sync with the honest, guttural, and emotional narrative established by the story.  This isn’t to say that they’re bad choices; rather, it’s just that they’re bad choices as constructed, feeling like their antics belong in some other picture centered on action heroes instead of players caught up in a brainy cat-and-mouse potboiler.
Definitely worth the time, MURDER goes on a bit long.  I would’ve trimmed some of the lunacy of a few car chases, and this one could’ve been one for the ages.
CONFESSION OF MURDER (2012) is produced by Dasepo Club in association with Showbox / Mediaplex.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through the stellar and reliable Well Go USA Entertainment.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Korean spoken language release with English subtitles available.  (There is no English-dubbed track.)  As for the technical specifications, these days you can take almost any of Well Go USA’s Korean releases to the bank; they’re only serving up the highest quality sights and sounds imaginable.  Lastly, if it’s special features you’re most interested in, well, you’ll likely be disappointing: there’s a brief behind-the-scenes short along with equally short interviews with a few key players, but that’s all you get.
RECOMMENDED.  Look, I’ll probably not be the first to point out that CONFESSION OF MURDER isn’t perfect; I suspect I won’t be the last either.  As hard as the story tries to serve up one twist after another, you’d think someone was giving out awards for plot surprises.  Sadly, that’s not the way award ceremonies work, and I tend to think a healthy dialing back on the last few big reveals might’ve helped make this whodunit a tad more believable.  However, its action sequence are all solid, if not a bit overreaching as well.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of CONFESSION OF MURDER by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Tue, 8 Apr 2014 00:19:36 +0000
<![CDATA[ Vietnamese Fantasy Explores Faith, Commitment, and Understanding Through Epic Showdowns]]>  
What more could one want?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
As a young child, Nguyen Vu (played by Hyunh Dong) washes ashore on a lake adjoining a temple guarded over by a lone monk.  Raised in this solitude, all the youngster has to occupy his time is the perfecting of his martial arts – it would seem that Vu has been gifted with some great abilities, yet he’s been unable to bring them under his control.  Twelve years later, the monk reveals to the young man the true past, that he’s the last survivor of a family sentenced to death by royal decree; and, if he is to finally find peace in this world, he will have to confront this evil and allow his ancestors some comfort in the afterlife.  In order to make this happen, Vu will have to join forces with a displaced prince harboring a secret and a fierce young woman who’s deadly with a sword.  Together, they might manage to change the world, provided they can survive long enough to see it happen.
SWORD OF THE ASSASSIN is a movie lover’s delight.  It has a bit of everything wrapped up into its story – palace intrigue, terrific action sequences, and both heroes and villains struggling to some degree with their own respective moral quandaries.  As often happens in tales of this nature, Vu’s relatives were wrongly accused in part of a scheme to cause a change within the royal line; and he’s not the only one with his eyes set on storming the castle to clear his family name.  As he’s quick to learn, kings and queens are very skilled at making enemies.
I’ve read elsewhere (on the web) that SWORD is one of the first Vietnamese films to truly experiment with epic storytelling of this nature, and, if that’s true, director Victor Vu (who also served in part on the team that adapted the screenplay from a beloved novel) certainly was in the right place at the right time.  I’d imagine that much of the narrative success of the picture is due to his firm grasp of the material as well as knowing how to bring it all together in such a winning concoction.  He certainly manages to get some great marks out of his performers, fashioning them into characters who clearly understand their motivations and how all of their stories intertwine.
Naturally, this isn’t to say that the film isn’t without a few blemishes.  Some of the wire-fu sequences are perhaps a bit more elaborate than should’ve been staged in a first go-round, but kudos for keeping it ambitious.  Also, the period detail is quite good, but it fails in my opinion to rise to the level of being award-winning; for example, much of the period-wear of the main players is constantly too clean to legitimately belong to peasants of the era.  Lastly, there’s a necessary reliance on CGI in (thankfully) only a handful of sequences; while the arrangements are also quite good, they’re really only rendered at the level of what some Western and/or European film studios are producing for television, not in big budget motion pictures.
So far as the story is concerned, SWORD rises admirably to the occasion.  It might feel a bit overwrought at times, but such is the nature of how these epic tales get told.  There are plenty of plot points stuffed in there – honor, humility, compassion, betrayal – and, at times, characters tell audiences how they feel when it would’ve been more organic to show it.  In the end, much of what’s explored has to deal with coming to terms with whatever hand life has dealt you.  One can accept a cruel fate, but then has to reconcile that acceptance with the corresponding anger.  Sadly – as Vu learns – sometimes the only way to achieve a measure of peace is to force oneself to live with it.
SWORD OF THE ASSASSIN (aka BLOOD LETTER) [2012] is produced by Saiga Films.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by Epic Pictures.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Vietnamese-spoken-language release with English subtitles available.  (To my knowledge, there is no English-dubbed track.)  As for the technical specifications, the film is smartly assembled along with some wonderful high-quality sights and sounds; some of the effects sequences aren’t exactly up-to-par by Western standards, but I didn’t find that it diminished my enjoyment of the film in the slightest.  Sadly – as is often the case when these smaller foreign pictures find release on American shores – there are no special features to speak of save the theatrical trailer.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  SWORD OF THE ASSASSIN (aka BLOOD LETTER) may lack some of the finer spit polish of similar Eastern films in the subject matter of epic tales, but its heart is clearly in the right place.  Part-fantasy, part-romance, and part-period piece, director Victor Vu maintains a firm grasp on the material, marshaling the creative forces of all involved from its gritty beginning, through its surreal encounters, and up until its big finish.  He knows when to let it ruminate and when to let it flourish, and, under his command, his cast delivers a winner.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Epic Pictures provided me with a DVD copy of SWORD OF THE ASSASSIN by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review, and their decision to do so has influenced my estimation in no way, shape, or form.]]> Tue, 25 Feb 2014 06:07:30 +0000
<![CDATA[ Johnnie To's DRUG WAR Is A Masterpiece]]>  
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: “if you don’t know To, then you don’t know nothing.”  His films often explore that world of good guys versus bad guys.  Sometimes, he’s allowed for the lines to be grayed just a bit, but more often than not he’s presented charismatic characters from either side to great effect.  DRUG WAR may not go into the history books as his finest, but, so far as this reviewer is concerned, it’s definitely on par with about everything else of his I’ve watched, and it’s head-and-shoulders above of what his American counterparts even attempt.
Put it this way: Johnnie To has forgotten more about right and wrong than most directors ever learn.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Police Captain Zhang (played with incredible restraint by Sun Honglei) has finally caught up with Timmy Choi (a charismatic Louis Koo), the baddie who’s been a major source of supplying crystal meth throughout Chinese neighborhoods.  Over there, the manufacture of so much as 50 grams of the substance carries with it the death penalty, and Choi has two entire factories turning out his stockpile.  In a move of desperation, the captured dealer strikes a deal with Zhang – in exchange for a reduced sentence, he’ll cooperate with the police to disrupt the drug ring and help them take down the criminal organization responsible for trafficking.  Over the next 72 hours, the two men work together to wage a modern day drug war!
There’s so much to love about DRUG WAR.  It’s filled with arresting performances (no pun intended), excellent cinematography, blistering gunplay, and thrilling action pieces.  Necessarily, it starts slow, but, like the building buzz of a drug high, the picture builds solidly on the promises laid down by the two leads.  There’s an intensity to the entire piece that remains unmatched in crime pictures from other corners of the world – trust me, I’ve seen plenty from the U.S. and abroad – and To’s films are nothing short of genius.  Each and every character in here is given something greater than the sum of his or her parts, and the smart script by Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau, and Xi Yu never fails to disappoint.
Also, there’s a quiet desperation to everyone trapped in this plot.  Choi clearly wants to live, and he’s willing to cross and double-cross and triple-cross anyone he can to make it happen.  The men and woman behind him?  They’re struggling to seal ‘the big deal,’ but, above all things, they want to maintain their anonymity, even if that means creating a fictitious organization they can hide behind.  And the officers?  They’re willing to run into the line of fire in order to save one another.  As has often been said, “war is Hell,” and, true to form, everyone is put their some hellish paces here.
DRUG WAR (2012) is produced by Beijing Hairun Pictures Company, Huaxia Film Distribution Company, CCTV Movie Channel, Milky Way Image Company, and Hairun Movies & TV Group.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through Well Go USA.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Chinese spoken-language release with English subtitles available (there is no English dubbing track).  As for the technical specifications?  Well, if you gotta ask, then you don’t know To – director Johnnie To, that is – and it’s clear no expense was spared in bringing this brilliant crime drama to life.  As is (sadly) often the case when these foreign releases find distribution on American shores, there are no special features to speak of, and that’s a big miss so far as this film fanatic is concerned.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. Speaking as someone who has seen an awful lot of what To has done cinematically, WAR’s story is far more conventional (think ‘mainstream’) compared to some of the master director’s other fare.  With over 50 movies to his name, it stands to reason that he might inevitably either repeat himself stylistically or approach more traditional characters; however, it’s clear he gravitates toward heroes and villains of some inescapable moral code, even when those convictions spell their certain doom … as is the case on both sides of the law in this picture.  To dismiss it a run-of-the-mill procedural is to be ignorant of the film’s technical prowess: just because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck doesn’t mean that it isn’t really a clever panther in a very convincing disguise.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with a DVD copy of DRUG WAR by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Fri, 1 Nov 2013 23:02:11 +0000
<![CDATA[ High Risk High Returns: "French Connection" Meets "The Wire"]]>

In Hong Kong and China, manufacturing just 50 grams of meth will earn you a death sentence. Not life in prison, but a death sentence. Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) just got caught making tons of it after an accident at one of his ‘plants’. Now desperate, Timmy tries to bargain his way out of it, and being under the custody of Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), he may just get a chance to redeem himself. He offers to give up his drug network in exchange for a lighter penalty. He works with Zhang to set up Haha (Hao Ping) as he tries to work his way to the top of the drug empire led by Bill (Li Zhen-qi). Timmy is determined to get out of this death sentence, even if it means double-crossing everyone in his network and the police. So really, who has the advantage in this game of cat and mouse?

Those who are familiar with the way Milky Way image works its plotting and themes may have an idea just how this movie would play out. There is a light set up here and as soon as it establishes its footing, the screenplay by To and co-writer Wai Ka-Fai takes care of those expectations and goes into a different route. Nope, To does not explore the world of his characters here, nor does he even try to develop their motives or just how they got into this situation. What To and Wai does is resort into something that can be called as step by step procedural and the commitment of cops to their mission. It is not about the characters and how Milky Way Image themes become injected into its storyline, but rather just how cops work and just how brilliantly methodical the art of ‘bad-guy’ catching can be. It entertains as Zhang goes into multiple personalities to stay ahead of his prey, there is little exposition to be had through its dialogue and interactions, but it becomes a compelling experience since the viewer is taken as an observer. As the cop-characters discover and uncover, the feeling becomes the same as for the viewer, an this makes the screenplay quite immersive and intense in its own way.


The key characters here are Zhang and Timmy. One is supposedly on a lease while the other is on constant control. It is just hard sometimes to tell who is in control. Sun Hong-Lei is just engrossing and strong as Captain Zhang, but while Louis Koo is a strong actor and was as good as ever, there were times that Sun may have taken the spotlight, because he was just brilliant with the way he switched his personalities. The excitement in the film comes from how they work together and just how they try to see a step ahead of each other. The supporting cast was made up of Johnnie To regulars Lam Suet, Gordon Lam, Michelle Ye, Eddie Cheung, Crystal Huang Yi and Li Guangjie provides some fan service, as some play serious cops while most play the bad guys. For some reason, the bad guys do come out as more interesting and human as the cops themselves, and frankly more entertainment comes from the quirky and dopey mute bad ass brothers played by Li Jing and Guo Tao. I suppose To wanted to elaborate just how one can be attached to the bad guy since they are working against a system that some may disagree with while the cops follow a set of rules, and this makes them ‘mechanical’ in a way.

Johnnie To has his way of shooting his gun battles and “Drug War” is no different. Carrying his usual signature of close-range, high intensity encounters the gunplay comes somewhere in the middle and at the finale. It did not feel hyper-stylized as “Exiled” and “The Mission”, but rather felt more in the vein of “Breaking News”. As usual, there is irony in the details but comes a little more subtle than his usual work, as the action appears seemingly realistic with high-intensity short bursts of violence that becomes slowly and surely, much more visceral in the finale. To is careful not to create heroes out of his bad guys as he pushes them to the obvious extreme, as the twists and double-crosses come into the final play. To allows the story to carry the action and not the other way around. The gun battles are cool, but To knew how to push the limits of violence. To and Wai wisely explores all the angles of their core plot.


“Drug War” is a demonstration just how well Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai can use their skills in side-stepping the strict China-friendly movie guidelines. They leave some stuff for cinema fans to think about and offer some fan service to their HK film fans. There is something more to the film rather than just your usual good guy-bad guy routine. The bad guys appear to be more human than the cops and it seems like the brand of justice served up in the film is ephemeral as it comes at a terrible cost. There is some social and political meaning to the film, as the creators try to pretend that it isn’t there. It is almost as if one is ready to throw away integrity and humanity just so they could display their power, as there stands a cynical relationship between the good guy and the bad guy. “Drug War” comes as an enthralling and exhilarating crime thriller, and the creators are able to create quality in a crime film even in the face of censorship. Johnnie To is one cunning and clever storyteller that this gets a High Recommendation from me. [4 Out of 5 Stars]



 ]]> Mon, 28 Oct 2013 05:29:36 +0000
<![CDATA[ Indonesia's Gore-tacular Entry into Horror Slasher Films and Torture Porn]]> aka. Rumah Dara, Dara) is Indonesia’s interpretation of the slasher-horror genre. It has earned a MA-18 rating in Singapore because of its violent blood and gore and has become the first Indonesian film banned in Malaysia for its excessive violence. Oh, yeah, horror fans may have a reason to rejoice, but the plot really offers very little that we haven’t seen before.

A group of friends have been traveling around the countryside before Astrid and Adjie (Sigi Wiwala and Ario Bayu) leave for Australia. The group also hooks up with Adjie’s sister Ladya (Julie Estelle) for one last night to say goodbye. On the way back to Jakarta, they come across a young woman named Maya (Imelda Therinne) who had been robbed and with the persistence of Eko (Dendy Subangil), they come to a decision to help her get back home. Little do they know, that this action has taken them to a place where they will have to fight to survive this evening against a murderous family who wants their flesh.

The screenplay’s set up captures certain key elements that we’ve all seen in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and the French horror film “Frontier(s)”. There is nothing special here and nothing original. “Macabre” is one of the most clichéd motion pictures I have seen, but really, what slasher film isn’t? It begins with some light characterization with the introduction of its main characters, and from the get-go, you could just feel which of them would die first, and which ones may have the chance to make it to the end of the film. There is the married couple, the sister, the wannabe tough guy, the one with the job and the one who is a skirt chaser; once you do the math, you know exactly where the film is going and it is just not going to end well.


Thankfully the villainous family does have personality if rather also clichéd. Their cannibalistic goals for the protagonists are twisted and unsettling; granted, it isn’t something we haven’t seen before, but as soon as the film begins to get to the violence, it goes into gore-tacular overdrive. Shareefa Daanish plays Lady Dara and she is one creepy lady; with the blackish, emotionless eyes, she comes forth as someone quite intimidating and scary. There is something about her that just speaks pure evil; Daanish was pretty convincing as the leader of this murderous family. There is a certain form of ‘organization’ here, as Dara leads the family with a ‘seducer’, a muscle-man and what you may call a ‘worker’. Imelda Therinne as Maya and Arifin Putra as Adam may play genre characters, but they assisted with the smooth flow of the script. Julie Estelle is the strong female character type and from the beginning you knew exactly who or what she would play. “Macabre” follows the rules and structure of past slasher films and it does not hide this fact. I did find the presence of the goofy police officers to be a distraction, and their role played no significant part but just to increase the body count.

For a genre film, I was very happy to see that the film did not relent in its display of brutal violence. The killings may not be very creative, but they sure were pretty grisly. I applaud the filmmakers for using practical effects for its display of blood and gore. I also enjoyed the make up effects and the use of prosthetics to display the dismembered limbs and sliced off heads. They looked pretty realistic for the most part, as the slices, the dices and the sawing of limbs drive the film’s fun fare. The gore effects and blood would make Eli Roth, Takashi Miike and Sion Sono proud. The direction did come dangerously close to wallowing in blood and gore, but thankfully the emotions were worked into the script by the 57 minute mark. Despite its abundance of clichés, it manages to salvage a heart in all the mayhem.

“Macabre” is your usual horror-slasher film at its core, but maybe that is a good thing. The Mo Brothers knew exactly what they were working with this film, and they did not try to be more. Their film is a celebration of blood and gore as they do come by the bucket loads. Practical effects and gorgeous grisly make up effects is part of this film’s charm, and really, it is rare that they make a movie like this anymore. It is a no holds barred battle to survive against a super-strong murderous family that it gets my recommendation for horror fans. Indonesia has a winner in torture porn and slasher films. [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]

]]> Wed, 9 Oct 2013 06:28:12 +0000
<![CDATA[ A Superb Vision of Human Empathy]]> Secret Sunshine” won numerous including film awards including best actress and became the first Korean film selected to be released by Criterion. “Oasis” and “Peppermint Candy” also received numerous accolades. Lee’s films are the kind that sticks to you even after the end credits. 2010’s “Poetry” is no different that it carries Lee’s usual style of lyrical storytelling that had been inspired by a real incident in Korea when a young girl had been repeatedly raped by 6 young boys. Lee’s intentions with this film is not to bring forth the details of that real tragic incident, but rather to present something about the beauty of life and the harsh realities in the hearts of men.

The film tells the story of a suburban woman in her mid-60’s, Yang Mija (Yoon Jeong-Hee) who collects social security and works part-time as a maid while helping to raise her grandchild, Jang-Wook (Lee David). Having been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, she thinks that taking a poetry class may help sharpen her memory. Mija begins to appreciate the wonders of the world, and as she sees the simplistic beauty behind nature. But one day, a girl’s suicide initiates a turn of events that will change her life forever as she also begins to realize the harsh realities hidden within the hearts of men.


Lee’s film were among the ones that really inspired me to follow the recent Korean “new wave” of films in America along with films by Kim Ki-Duk, Kim Ji-Woon and Park Chan-Wook. He may be one of those director-writers that I have grown to anticipate their next film. Why? His films always have a lot to say, it deals with certain social commentaries and his films feel quite authentic. In “Poetry”, Lee brings his viewers into the life of one aging woman; someone who can be said to deserve no such heart-breaking challenges, and yet life seems to deal an individual a card for seemingly no reason at all.

“Poetry” is about looking at the good things in life; just how something so simple can have a story and things are not always what they seem to be at first look. To express such a concept, Lee’s screenplay brings forth a character that has the ability to see and perhaps deal with such things. Mija is a woman who appears to be at peace, and yet her surroundings threaten to her state of mind. Having Alzheimer’s disease is no walk in the park, the direction goes in several different ways to create empathy as one is privy to the emotions and the denial of such emotions. Mija tries to look for some beauty in life, but due to what she is going through, the words elude her. Lee Chang-dong’s writing was quick to emphasize such things, the injustices and the tragedy that lay around such a beautiful yet cruel world.


I suppose Lee wanted to create a metaphor or a state of symbolism as Maji wanders she sees the beauty of nature as if it hides the harsh cruelties made by man. I am not sure, there is an almost strong message about fundamentalism around here, but Lee does not dawdle a little too much on it. The film is a little slow in pace, but the images seen in the film represents something that is about life. The hoola-hoop, the badminton, the elderly guy, the apricot, music, disease and the red flowers, all serve to say something about its story. Man is responsible for what he had wrought, though given the beauty of such creation, man creates his world, and man must attempt to make the best of what he lives. Almost as if Lee is trying to communicate just how our own choices create our world and how it affects those around us. I don’t want to ramble on about the film’s themes, but once the viewer learns to absorb the visuals and its simplistic interactions, Lee’s narrative strikes home with a lot of power.

Lee always seems to know how to select his performers and he had chosen really well with Yoon Jeong-Hee. She has been voted as the top actress in the history of Korean cinema, and in this film, you could just feel and see why this was so. Even when her Mija character says nothing, you feel the silent confusion, denial and pain as she goes about her daily routine. This actress was incredible in shaping the emotional turmoil within her character, that it became so easy to empathize with what she was feeling. The film also has quite a good collection of a supporting cast, and among them, Kim Hye-jung stood apart as the sickly elderly man.


Lee’s camerawork was simple as with his other films, and yet it all feels to express a form of poetry by itself. The dialogue also demands a lot of things to read into, rather than just watch. From the cinematography, to its subtle symbolism, “Poetry” is the kind of film whose title says a lot. As with most things about life, everything and everyone has a story or even a song. The film has won the award for best screenplay in the 2010 Cannes film festival and watching it once again, I can truly say that it deserved such accolade. It also feels shorter than 139 minutes despite its slow-moving screenplay.

There is a lack of sentimentality here that proved delightful. It wisely sidesteps the easy way to gain dramatic power by devolving into a terminally-ill drama about a woman trying to bond with generational differences. “Poetry” is absorbing, powerful and tragic, as the power of art can indeed be used to bear witness to the sublime beauty that is life and the violent realities that lie hidden in the hearts of men. It feels very authentic and heart-breaking without resorting to a sappy screenplay that it deserves my highest recommendation. [5 Out of 5 Stars]

]]> Mon, 7 Oct 2013 04:03:29 +0000
<![CDATA[ A Werewolf is a Girl's Best Friend]]> Twilight Saga” movie franchise; I thought it was a story made to channel ‘teen’ fantasies rather than to really develop a compelling storyline. But like it or not, I would be hard-pressed to deny its influence in movie pop culture. Several other genres have tried to follow its footsteps as in ‘teen love fantasy’; movies such as “I am Number Four”, “Warm Bodies”, "Beastly" and others have popped up in movie theaters. These are commercial movies created to make its viewers ‘feel good’ and pitch what is called ‘teen angst’.

Seems like South Korea is not resistant to such things. Director Jo-Sung Hee’s (fresh from his writing chores in “I am an Animal“) “A Werewolf Boy”, follows the footsteps left behind by the “Twilight” movies. Nope, he isn’t reinventing the wheel here, but rather, he keeps his ambitions tempered. “A Werewolf Boy” (Hangul: 늑대소년; RR: Neukdae Sonyeon; lit. "Wolf Boy") is one predictable movie that focuses on the relationship between a young girl and a feral young man with a little bit of thematic developments thrown in. But the thing is, Jo Sung-Hee’s writing proves to be more competent than the first two films in the "Twilight" series (I only saw two of them,  I quit after the horrible first sequel).


Kim Suni (Lee Young-lan) is an elderly woman who lives in the U.S. with her family. One day she gets called back to Korea because of a nice piece of property that she had inherited from her mother. Coming back with the intentions of selling it to a company who wants to make a resort, Suni is suddenly faced with memories of her time in this place. As a young girl (played by Park Bo-Young), she remembers her time with her mother (Jang Yang-Nam), her sisters and how a mysterious young man named Chul-soo (Song Jung-Ki) had affected their lives. Chul-soo’s influence was often in a good way, but it also made them doubt what they believe as to what is man or monster.

It is hard for me to express just how I felt about this film since I am not exactly fond of movies built on clichéd romantic developments. I do have to say that while there were things that stood as cliché for me in “A Werewolf Boy”, I just could not bring myself to say that I disliked it. Writer/director Jo Sung-Hee comes forth with a rather predictable storyline, and honestly, while I thought that the film had general audiences in mind when they made this, it just did not go into things that could’ve made it great. It wasn’t that the film was bad, but it had intentions that went in a different way than I would’ve liked. There is a strong theme just what makes a man or a monster, but it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. The film runs on formula and I know formula films can be fun; that is what the film really is, a light-hearted tragic love story that presents familiar things as told in “Beauty and the Beast”.


There is a young girl with a medical condition that sends her to this part of Korea, a caring mother, a rich douche bag and a misunderstood young man. Even the part of the government agents can be seen as ‘villagers’ in such tales. Jo Sung-Hee does present these things in a somewhat careful manner; he never tries to preach or even try to hammer in the romantic overtones into his viewers’ heads. He starts things off easily enough, by going into the first 55 minutes defining the relationship between Suni and Chul-soo, how he becomes part of her family and how an envious douche bag threatens the harmony within their house. I liked the way Jo developed the otherwise familiar trappings in its plot. He channels light, delightful humor to capture that hearts of his viewers as Chul-soo becomes part of Suni’s family almost as easy as a pet dog would. While I have problems with it, since Chul-soo is a human being, the writing sells this idea remarkably well. Despite the fact that it does have a misstep in the script, I was able to be sold on the idea that Suni may indeed just wish to ignore what she knew. This was due to the fact that the two main performers were able to connect and pitch the emotions behind each scene. There is something cute with the interactions; yes, it may feel a little far-fetched, but Jo wanted to communicate that there are accepting people in this world and who are willing to take a chance. The writing does not try to hide that there is something different with Chul-soo, but he does manage to spark interest as to how everything would turn out.

Once the film hits the 60 minute mark, it manages to finally catch its stride. While I wasn’t too impressed with how the screenplay explained Chul-soo’s origins, I guess it could’ve better or a lot worst. The origin element should've been developed further rather than resorting to the cutesy-fartsy first half that went a little too long, that the movie almost felt like it should've been two movies instead of one. The military man and the scientist were all staples of movies of this kind, but thankfully, Jo was able to tie everything together thanks in part with the use of devices that aided is flow. It also helped that Park Bo-Young (without her, this movie would have really sucked) and Song Jung-Ki were quite capable performers that I was able to ignore the uninspired elements in its story. The supporting cast were also quite good, and Yoo Yeon-Seok sold his bad guy Ji-Tae character quite well.


The direction was quite competent despite the weaknesses in the writing. As with most Korean films, the cinematography was excellent. The way the shots were framed were created to inspire a sense of reality and the unknown. Jo does not get overboard though as he keeps things simple. I do have mixed feelings with the werewolf effects, since they appeared to be well behind current special effects standards. They looked a little too tacky to be scary or even believable, they appeared to be something from the 70’s or the 80’s, and these days where CGI had been greatly improved, either this is a mere homage to the classic “Wolfman” movies or this Korean movie just ran cheap.

“A Werewolf Boy” is not a special film that needs to be seen. It isn’t reinventing the wheel, but rather a re-presentation of what we have seen. Despite its many flaws, I found it an entertaining watch thanks mostly in part to the solid performances and the flow of storytelling. The film also has quite a strong final act, as it showed a side about love and loyalty as only a pet dog would but exercised by a human being. A beast can have more goodness in its heart than a normal human being with common sense. It had enough good things going for it that it earns a mild recommendation for fans of Korean cinema and a Rental for everybody else. It just did not reach its fullest potential even though its commercial intentions were right on target. Did I enjoy it? Yes in a way. So think of it as having sex without having an orgasm. Sex is always good. [3 Out of 5 Stars]

 ]]> Sun, 6 Oct 2013 06:24:32 +0000
<![CDATA[ A Powerful Indictment of Blind Loyalty and Nationalism]]> Black Rain” have portrayed the aftermath of the Atomic bombings upon the Japanese people. Director Koji Wakamatsu’s award-winning film “Caterpillar” stands as a critique of the right-wing nationalism that guided Japan’s conduct in Asia during the 2nd Sino-Japanese war and World War II. War is hell. And sometimes, the hidden truths about what happens during the war and the consequences that follow for a country’s citizens can be even more hellish.

Set in the late 1930’s during the second Sino-Japanese war and at the beginning of World War II, Lt. Kyuzo Kurokawa (Keigo Kazuya) has come home to his wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima) with a terribly mutilated body, mute and deaf with burns to his face but has returned as a war hero. He is alive but is reduced to a torso, with no arms or legs, and Shigeko, proud for her husband’s service in the military is committed to taking care of him. But the days and nights take their toll, and amazingly, Kyuzo is still eager for sex, and Shigeko although repelled, feels a duty to attend to his desires. Is Kyuzo truly a war hero and deserving of the honor given him by the government?


The film is a difficult watch and being drawn from a banned short story by Edogawa Rampo, it is to be expected. While at its core it is a criticism of Japanese militarism in the past, it satirically deploys propaganda as it seeks to demystify the glorification of war, which is used to hide war’s very ugly reality. The screenplay also depicts the unfair demands of the Japanese women, during war and peacetime. The film deals with many different issues and all of them are harsh hidden realities of war. War crimes, handicapped veterans and spousal abuse all come into mind when one watches “Caterpillar”. The script also seeks to bring into the fold the twisted reality of sexual perversion, and just how the male appetite can often lead to the abuse of women.

There is much to be said for the film. At first, the viewer would find it easy to root for Shigeko, as she is an example of commitment. It was easy to feel her pain, her confusion and her hardship as she tends to her invalid husband. Once the film has grabbed you with what is being seen, and just how she submits to his sexual desires, you would immediately feel sorry for her. The direction made it a point to keep many details from Shigeko’s eyes but brings exposition in the viewer’s to replicate the many emotions that come from being misled. After all, Kyuzo is not a true hero, but rather someone who is more of a war criminal, who has committed rape and other horrible acts during his stint as a soldier. The direction wanted to point out the many lies presented to the public just so it could promote a deception and have the country stand behind its empire.


Besides the lies and propaganda, the director and the writer wanted to truly voice out the unfairness that has been dealt to Japanese women. True, they seem to have this blind sense of duty, and despite all that has happened in the past, Shigeko was committed to tend to a war hero. Wakamatsu pulled no punches, as he came through with a very strong criticism as to just women were seen in Japan during this period. Shigeko is such a tragic figure, that even when she tries to appear content and happy, there is a strong sense of melancholy around her. It is almost as if they blindly cling to a lie, even when they feel the truth, they choose to ignore such harsh reality. The film criticizes what is commonly called blind nationalism, and how such things could definitely lead to ruin.

Shinobu Terajima won the best actress award in the 2010 Berlin International film festival and she deserves such accolade. She was incredible. Her portrayal of a wife whose sense of duty supersedes her own feelings was just so heart-breaking that rooting for her came with very little effort. Terajima has the personality of a simple woman that fit her character and she truly does come through for her role with such flying colors. Kazuya was just as able as Terajima. The man was able to communicate the needed emotions despite the limitations of movement and speech in his character. Remorse, anger and perhaps even guilt came across the screen to envelope its viewer, and what makes it even more powerful is the fact that such things are very real during wartime.

“Caterpillar” is a film that is not meant to be merely watched, since it presents a lot more things that lie beyond its surface. It is heart-wrenching and tragic, and yet some stories need to be told just so future generations can learn from its country’s past. It is a horrifying indictment of Japan’s blind nationalism that needs to be seen even once. Recommended. [4 Out of 5 Stars]

]]> Wed, 2 Oct 2013 05:56:19 +0000
<![CDATA[All Monsters Attack Quick Tip by RabidChihuahua]]>
This is another one of those movies that's great for one of those nights to invite your friends over to your place, get drunk, and laugh at a bad movie.]]> Tue, 24 Sep 2013 01:40:04 +0000
<![CDATA[ This Anime Sex Comedy is "Golden"! (Boing...Boing...Boing)]]>
The anime series follows a young man named Kintaro Oe (Mitsuo Iwata), who had dropped out of college because he had mastered all of the curriculum and wants to learn from the school of hard knocks. As a result, he becomes a sort of a ‘freeter’ and would take on any job from being a janitor, a servant, a swim instructor or even a noodle cook just so he could gain knowledge. He repulses women at first, because of his awkward behavior and appearance, and yet, somehow, he succeeds in winning their hearts. And yet, due to his own sense of honor, he never really manages to take advantage of this situation.

The anime series takes focus on Kintaro; just how he interacts and how he gets into several different situations. In a nutshell, “Golden Boy” is a story about life and how one journeys through it. Despite its goofy and awkward nature, and its focus on humor, the series does have several moral themes that it promotes. The episodes may all begin with Kintaro developing an infatuation with a woman or a girl, and it may be easy to dismiss this as another harem anime. The disdain or the interest of the females become the basis of the plot, as Kintaro becomes easily dismissed as clumsy, idiotic, or even a pervert. The females around him often disapprove of his demeanor, and often try to prove their superiority to Kintaro who is a male. I guess the writing by Egawa wanted to communicate the mistake of judging someone because of outward appearances, since Kintaro is incredibly clever and resourceful. I could also say that the series may carry some commentary as to how stereotypes play a part in Japanese culture, just how some men are seen by women and how women are seen by men within stereotypes. Life can be deceitful, filled with lies, and a need to stand superior; but only those who stand firm on their principle and remain humble can ever truly change his world.

I do have to admit, that it would be easy to dismiss “Golden Boy” as another one of those anime series that serves up ’fan service’ since it does have quite a good number of sexy scenes and even nudity. But these things were proven to be integral parts of the plot, as most of the humor is derived from situational elements. It is when Kintaro comes across women in a very awkward moment, the interactions become silly, goofy and quite funny as jokes around Kintaro’s libido, snot jokes and imagination take its central focus. The gags almost always revolves around his fetish for toilets (after the women had used them), exaggerated expressions and thoughts, and several comical entries in his notebook. He understands “C” as a message for sex, he draws several explicit details of the women he encounters and that his head cannot turn 360 degrees. It may be easy to dismiss such things as being sexist, but really that is the whole point of the series. Females can be sexist at times, and maybe men are just perceived to be perverts even when they really aren’t. Noriko’s (Yuki Shiratori) story was a fine representation just how women can be taken by flowery words (the words "I Love you"), fancy cars and clothes, as is the same with Kintaro as he is one over-sexed young man who just loves the female figure. Men are around to impress and this makes them easy to manipulate. Agree or not, the writing does get all the messages into one’s head.

The animation was pretty good for an anime series more than a decade old. The character designs fit each personality and character and the voice cast did a superb job. The set pieces and layouts may appear simple, but they were rich in detail as one pays attention to the 6th episode, I became very impressed. With all the sexual references, the series has the familiar bouncing boobs, there is a lot of crotch shots (my, the animated swimming sequence was so cool), panty shots, cleavage shots and even some silly…well, ‘accidents’; all were made to generate laughter. I do have to admit that I found the animated designs of Reiko, Ms. President, Naoko and Ayuko pretty voluptuous. It all went to the limit and came real close to hentai anime with a nude woman who gets off on a motorcycle.

“Golden Boy” is an anime series made for fun and to generate laughs. I found myself laughing because of the silliness, and unlike anime such as “High School of the Dead” and “Dusk Maiden”, the fan service and sexy scenes were part of its narrative that I felt like I was watching an animated “Sex is Zero”, “American Pie” or “Van Wilder” that it just encourages laughter. I also have to commend the creators that they were able to practice a sense of restraint, as they did not allow the series to grow longer than it should. It did its job in the expression of its idea of a wanderer who touches other people’s lives without even knowing or waiting for its reward. “Golden Boy” is no doubt a classic, and one should see it even once just to see the rewards of mature anime filmmaking. Highly Recommended. [4 Out of 5 Stars]

 ]]> Mon, 23 Sep 2013 04:56:29 +0000
<![CDATA[ Disquieting, Unnerving, Realistic Filipino Thriller]]>
Family man Marlon Villar (Arnold Ramos) is a driver for congressman Manuel Changho (Menggie Cabarrubias) who spends his days driving him around and doing errands for him…whether it tests his own moral stance or not. One fateful day comes forth, and as he was about to pick up his boss’s daughter Sophia (Patricia Gayod) along with his own daughter, Elvie (Ella Guesvara), Marlon’s life is changed forever when a kidnpapping goes horribly wrong and his own daughter is kidnapped by a couple of men, one of them is Visel (Leon Miguel) who later proceeds to give Marlon some instructions. Marlon is caught and he has to obey if he wants to see his daughter alive again. The Changho family enlist the services of a police detective, named Ramos (Dido Dela Paz) who has his own suspicions about what had really happened. Can Marlon save his daughter?


“Graceland” somehow reminded me of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low”, but here, the writing just barely scratches its more original concept. Most of what goes on in its screenplay is seen from Marlon’s viewpoint, as the direction generates tension and even some foreshadowing, it defines the stakes by making his viewers ask a few questions. What would you do in such a situation? How would you react? Do you think Marlon is correct with his decisions? The screenplay jumps right to what mattered in the screenplay. After it gives us a glimpse to Marlon’s relationship to the Changhos, and how deep of a friendship has been shared between Elvie and Sophia, the building scandal about the congressman, the viewer sees everything from the driver’s point of view as the protagonist is caught in a web of lies that make him question just who he really is and the more he tries to dig himself out, the more he becomes buried. It is easy for the viewer to root for Marlon, as he tries to rescue and bargain for his daughter.

After the small groundwork is set and the core premise established, the film goes into several subplots. Manuel Changho’s nature will no doubt make many viewers uncomfortable. There are several scenes of full frontal nudity that made me want to pull away, as they were portrayed in the manner that made me uncomfortable. I know it is a harsh truth, but it tested what I could take from cinema. There were scenes which were just disgusting. There is also a subplot regarding the kidnappers, as their motivations weren’t as simple as ransom money. The central characters in the film were all people who go around a gray area, and none of them were really good or evil (save for Changho who leans towards his vanity and twisted desires). They seem to do a certain thing right, only to have a hidden dirty secret behind them. My only complaint was that, as far as Ron Morales wanted to push the envelope, he didn’t push too far. Hints of the sequences only serve to leave the viewers a sour taste and will make them want to see more. I do have to say that the script wasn’t as smooth as it should’ve been, and it would benefited if it was longer. There were some noticeable plot holes that sort of bothered me (nope not the cell phones), but they weren’t enough to hurt my enjoyment of the movie. For one who understands this language, I found that the English subtitles also proved to be better than the actual Filipino dialogue, as the subs proved much stronger in delivering tension when it counted.


The screenplay puts in a lot of time for the viewer to start ‘liking’ Marlon. It was a good way for the viewer to be invested, just so the direction could hit them on the head with more pieces of the tragic story. I am not sure, I figured it out as soon as I saw Ramos started to question Marlon, but still, the film was able to generate a good amount of tension to keep me interested. There is a lot of emotion in the sequences, and the screenplay isn’t too shy about showing this very real nature of life in the Philippines. This is just something that can make someone ponder what he has seen. Corruption and immoral behavior rarely gets punished in this country. It is all about who you know, and how much money you have. This is a country whose past president had admitted to cheating, and yet, she was able to hold power after all. The film does have some strong messages about ‘karma’ and sometimes, that sense of justice may be enough for its people?

The performances were strong in the film. Arnold Ramos gives a heartbreaking performance that made the film more powerful that it should have been. His character was a tragic figure which made the film closer to reality and it was so easy to root for him. Menggie Cabarrubias was solid as the corrupt congressman. He was very believable, and he set the pace for its more ‘karmic’ undertones. The way Dido De la Paz portrayed his aggressive nature as Detective Ramos should’ve been a lot more rougher, while I liked the way he was portrayed, Ron Morales just kept it a little safe. Ella Guevara did an incredible job as Elivie Villar. Despite her limited screen time, she was able to deliver the correct emotions in each scene. Hers was an innocence that has been tainted, and yet she manages to stay true to what she grasps as ‘moral’.


Being a low-budget film, Morales did not do anything too snazzy with the camerawork and there really is very little gunfire to be seen in the movie. He keeps the film simple and does not use any bright colors. Even the colors in the red light district stayed muted to communicate its gloomy and hopeless themes. Things mostly stay within Marlon’s point of view, and this was how Morales generated intensity and suspense.

In a world as we have seen in “Graceland”, just what should one do with faced with such a situation? A corrupt world in a corrupt society, Ron Morales brings a world full of corrupt characters, and people just do what they need to do to survive. Who can one turn to? The main premise does remind one of “High and Low” but this is not a copy by any means. The subplots in the film made for a very heartbreaking experience, but unfortunately, the writing did not go that far to bring them into full exposition. There was something missing, and this keeps “Graceland” from becoming a masterpiece. Still, it is a very good film worth a look, but due to its disturbing nature, I wouldn’t be too keen about watching it again and again. Recommended. [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]


 ]]> Mon, 16 Sep 2013 00:26:16 +0000
<![CDATA[ Can't Live at All....Without Paying the Full Price]]> Serial Experiments Lain”, director Hiroshi Hamasaki’s cyberpunk anime series “Texhnolyze” is a surreal, alienating anime series that seeks to push its limits and can prove to be taxing to the casual anime viewer.

Many years ago, humankind had fled underground and has created a new society. The descendants of those who founded this world is now ruled by the Yakuza alliance called the Organo and kept alive for the purpose of mining Raffia, a miraculous moss that grows beneath the city of Lux. This city is a barely controlled society with the Racan, the Salvation Union and the Organo seeking supremacy. Life in Lux is harsh, but for those who are able to afford it, it isn’t so bad. People can replace lost body parts with the use of a mystic science called “Texhnolozation”.


The focus of the series of the series is an orphan turned pit fighter named Ichise (Satoshi Haga) loses his right arm and left leg, who through the stroke of fate is saved by a woman (Shizumi Miki) through the use of a new form of ‘texhnolyze’ science. With his new limbs, Ichise is taken under the wing of the leader of the Organo, Onishi (Takashi Inoue) as he is drawn to a battle for territory in the city. But things get even more scary as a young girl who can see the future, Ran (Shizuka Ito) guides him through the darkest shadows of a future. Now with the emergence of war, Ichise must learn the secret of the city of Lux and the world above.

Chiaki Konaka’s screenplay sets such a strong brooding and moody tone that proved fitting to this premise. The first episode had almost no dialogue, as Ichise and Ran were introduced; the writing creates a powerful sense of mystery as to the world that surrounds them. Episodes 1-6 keeps details to a minimum, as the viewer becomes privy to the characters that would play a huge part in its story. By episode 7, the viewer is left with no solid answers, but rather is presented with more things to ponder. Questions presents more questions, as the direction creates a sleepy yet magnetic tension. Admittedly, the series’ pacing is very slow and only until it reaches episode 8, does the pace pick up a little, as the blood and violence begin to show its ugly face. From episode 12 and on, the story begins to unwrap and what was seen before reaches its climactic finale.


The series can indeed be alienating and the pacing rather testing. It has an abundance of themes that is relevant to how we see our lives. Technology can indeed be humanity’s friend, but it is also a way to lose sight of what truly is, and it can lead to doom. Humanity requires a form of order to try and hide the possibilities of chaos, even the illusion of order and control may be enough or be important for one to live? There were also several subtle symbolisms that could be seen in the visual imagery. This may aid with the series’ comprehension in many ways. “Texhnolyze” is a series that requires attention, since it has a lot of things to read into, rather than simply watch. It is also quite graphic and even has some things that proved disturbing; incest, rape, and mutilations are rich in the series. However, the writing and the direction makes such things necessary parts in its story. They did not feel cheap or set only to provoke a reaction, but rather the brutality and mature themes were essential parts of its characterization.

There is quite a number of characters in the series, and while the focus was on Ichise, Ran, Onishi and “Doc”, secondary players such as Shinji (Shinya Kitade), Yoshii (Takashi Tsuchida), Toyama and Sage (Takahiro Koyama) proved just as essential to the development of its story. The direction and the script made a successful gamble; while some may see it as being unfocused and rather incoherent, I saw the way the plot was developed through characters’ experiences, just how it created a mystery, and how their motivations were masked, the viewer was given a chance to ponder and be involved with what the characters were going through. The characters were small pieces of what was coming into play, as if a universe governed what was being seen. It is a unique gamble that paid off, as I was made to feel the emotions that could be going through each sequence. Hey, I do have to admit that there were times that I became a little frustrated, and really, this is not the type of anime one should watch after a tiresome day.


The animation of the series had a gloomy aura and it aided with the delivery of its more depressing mood. Colors were muted and there were times that some frames were more grainy than the others. The character designs by Yoshitoshi Abe looked rather photo-realistic, and did not have the over-expressive eyes that has become a familiar staple to anime. Narratively and physically, the direction made a flow as if there is no joy in the world; there is a haunting atmosphere to its cinematography, as he maneuvers his camerawork with a form of reluctance. The story is told with an almost mechanical style, as if the direction was trying to communicate with a foreboding feeling of dread and ruin. The set pieces were very good, they are dirty and depressing, and yet, the artfully stylized atrocities speak a lot of a form of celestial inescapability.

“Texhnolyze” can be rather testing to one who is an inexperienced anime watcher, since it is a form of cinema. It feels as if a gloom had come over its viewer and yet, somehow, the series is magnetic. There is something really smart around the corners of its story, and it does communicate the price of human flesh and just how extinction can come in the form of a whimper even when it comes in a bang. The creators were able to communicate a grand intellectual vision of extinction and its disturbing implications. I mean, with the surface dwellers abandoning their need of flesh, to become technological phantoms in an almost perfect world, while the bottom-dwellers cling to their needs of the flesh has a very mean statement of nihilism. It is a vision of a future that is poignant, intelligent and should not be missed. No, the series is not for everyone, and it is more haunting than entertaining, but having minds provoked is a monumental achievement, whether you agree to this vision or not. Highly Recommended. [4 ½ Out of 5 Stars]

 ]]> Thu, 12 Sep 2013 05:36:22 +0000
<![CDATA[Sunday Without God (Anime series) Quick Tip by woopak_the_thrill]]>
I am very interested in this series (currently being aired in Japan) and I hope Sentai filmworks releases the bluray asap.]]> Sat, 7 Sep 2013 05:47:28 +0000
<![CDATA[From Up On Poppy Hill (anime film) Quick Tip by woopak_the_thrill]]> Tales From Earth Sea". Yeah, well...his Pop wrote this film and planned it. But still, the son did a good job.

See Full Review Here.

Illustration by Hayao Miyazaki for promo poster.

One Needs to Look to the Past to Have Hope for the Future]]> Fri, 6 Sep 2013 03:24:32 +0000
<![CDATA[ One Needs to Look to the Past to Have Hope for the Future]]> Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro to name a few) that I know that he will be missed. But if “The Secret World of Arrietty” was any indication, Studio Gibli is sure to be in good hands since Miyazaki had taught his followers well.

So there is a strong possibility that “From Up On Poppy Hill” would be one of the last two of Hayao Miyazaki’s films as writer  (he had just finished “The Wind Rises“). Based on the serialized manga with the same name by Tetsuro Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi, Hayao co-wrote the screenplay while his son Goro Miyazaki is at the director’s chair. I wasn’t too impressed with Goro’s first film “Tales from Earth Sea”; sure, I did not hate it, but it was just a far cry from what was expected of Studio Gibli. Well, Goro seeks to redeem himself in the eyes of his father’s fans, and with Hayao as a co-writer, Goro may indeed be on the way in making a name for himself.

                 A scene from "From Up on Poppy Hill."

The film is set after the last Korean war in 1963. Japan is slowly picking it self up after the last world war and is preparing to host the Olympics. This backdrop of hope and change serves to tell the story of a young student named Umi Matsuzawa (Masami Nagasawa). Umi is a diligent, hard-working student who meets a young man named Shun Kazama (Junichi Okada) in the process of trying to restore an old building called Quartier Latin just so it could avoid demolition. Strong feelings begin to blossom between the two, but a buried secret from their past emerges to cast its shadow. Something from the past may tear apart their future. Can fate show them the truth or are they doomed to be torn apart?

Having been created by the folks at Studio Gibli, it is to be expected that the company’s practice of shirking fancy CGI graphics in favor of the more traditional animation would still hold true. Nothing can ever replace the magic of compelling storytelling, that such stories would never need fancy CGI work to enthrall its audience. “From Up on Poppy Hill” continues this tradition, as the screenplay becomes the film’s main draw. The film carries strong themes about hope, change, the memories of the past and the hope for a future. The story is all about how the people can only embrace its destination by remembering its past; as one needs to learn from its mistakes. There is a strong message in its screenplay, as the dilapidated building becomes renovated, it serves as a remainder of the past’s greatness and its ‘cleansing’ becomes a metaphor as to what can be done with the right people and the right decisions for change.

               A scene from "From Up on Poppy Hill."

Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa may have written the script to evolve in such a way as to mirror progress and design, but this message only serves to give that much power to the story of Umi and Shun. Their story may be set behind the backdrop of progress, but the film actually brings forth a very human message about embracing the shadows of the past, and that when one becomes lost, one needs to retrace his steps to go forward. Shun’s adoptive father (Nao Omuri) and Umi’s mother (Jun Fubuki) serves us a window to the past and a way to uncover the real truth. There is a very human truth to the messages told in the film, and this creates characters that seem to capture a life all their own. The story was developed and evolved with meticulous care; I mean, with Hayao Miyazaki having creative control, one could expect no less.

The Japanese voice cast was superb (I prefer to watch my anime always in the original language with the subtitles) and the scenes do come alive despite the lack of any fancy CGI animation. Masami Nagasawa definitely stole the show as her voice acting was simple, and yet it ‘merged’ well with the film’s visual style. I do have to mention that the sound effects and design were just as clever. It created a very realistic animated world; from the footsteps, the clang of each object (glass and cook ware) and the low bird chirping to the sound of the wind brushing against the bushes this was a world that became very much alive.


The character designs of Umi did remind me of “Kiki’s Delivery Service” but really, this wasn’t a negative observation but rather the use of familiarity gives the film a solid form of uniformity when it comes to films made by this studio. While the character designs were simple, the faces and the rendering of emotion was impeccable. The details in the backgrounds and layout design were very impressive. They were paintings which were animated, that the textures and the grand details (notice the books bundled up and tied) must have taken thousands of hours to render. Studio Gibli may stick to the traditional way of animation, but really, their style is on par with the best work Pixar or Dreamworks have come to offer with their fancy CGI designs.

“From Up on Poppy Hill” is an anime film set in the real town of Yokohama, and one could definitely feel the soul and spirit of this place during this period. The film may have a simple story, but its execution made it such a marvelous cinematic experience. The trick in creating a compelling animated film is the fantastic world being woven before one’s eyes, and on this Studio Gibli may be without equal. Why? Because it creates a story, defines its characters and is not afraid to take risks. Hayao Miyazaki may have retired, but the studio should be in good hands. Goro has redeemed himself after his somewhat misfire “Tales from Earth Sea”. Highly Recommended. [4 Out of 5 Stars]
Poster art for "From Up on Poppy Hill." Poster art for "From Up on Poppy Hill."

             ]]> Thu, 5 Sep 2013 05:39:38 +0000
<![CDATA[ Seven Sons will Leave, Six will Return]]> The Bride with White Hair”, Jet Li’s “Fearless”, and even such American films such as “Freddy vs. Jason” and “Bride of Chucky” returns to Hong Kong cinema in 2013 with “Saving General Yang”. It is a straightforward retelling of the story of the Yang family that has been adapted numerous times in past. The Shaw Bros. classic “The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” and the TV drama “The Yang’s Saga” depicted the decimation of the general and his son which led to an almost female clan led by She Saihua. This story in turn was then told in the Shaw Bros. classic “14 Amazons” which was recently remade as “The Legendary Amazons” which can be seen as a sequel to this film if you want to jazz up your Chinese history.

Details in the plot may differ since it all depends on the writing. But all movies tell of the Song-Dynasty era Yang Family and they all have one common denominator; the men all die. I guess this is some kind of spoiler for newcomers, but really, it wasn’t that these men died but rather how they died that made such a compelling tale of courage, filial piety and loyalty. Ronny Yu co-writes with Liu Shijia and Edmond Wong to bring forth the familiar story with a very straight-forward approach. Having a little knowledge to this part of Chinese history may be essential just so one could relate to the tragic irony in the story of the Yang family and it helps give some emotional attachment to an otherwise battlefield-oriented action drama.


The Yang family has been charged in defending the Song dynasty’s Northern borders. This task has put them at odds when the son of the Pan family ends up being killed in a duel by the 7th Yang son, Quilang (Fu Xinbo) who was fighting on behalf of the 6th son, Yansi (Wu Chun) who were competing for the hand of the princess Chai (Ady An). Yeah, an age-old cliché where fathers arranges marriages and sons fight over daughters. So when the Khitan army invades led by Yelu Yuan (Shao Bing), General Yang (Adam Cheng) is ordered to lead the frontline with Pan Renmei becoming the supreme commander of the Song army. Abandoned to their own resources, Yang and his forces flee to Wolf Mountain and become trapped. The seven sons then mobilize together with what was left of the Yang army to rescue their father. But Pan refuses to send reinforces, and the Yang family is left to fend for themselves. The prophecy “Seven sons will leave, Six will return” may indeed come true, and Saihua’s sons may indeed be destined for a tragic end.

I do have to admit, the screenplay was pretty straightforward, and it loses the many intricacies that led to this story. It does not have a strong set up but it does improve later on in the film. Once the film establishes its stakes, and the Khitan forces lay siege to the mountain, the film does begin to pick up. Most of the action and battle sequences were pretty competent, Ronny Yu was able to communicate a sense of chaos and urgency especially in the siege scenes. Hyper-kinetic fight sequences were made to generate intensity as the sons become defined by their skills in battle. The quality of the action set ups may not be consistent, but Ronny Yu did handle the scenes well. After the siege, the emotional content in the encounters became much stronger, as the sons attempt to escort their father back home. It is all about the son’s determination to meet their mother’s wish that their father be brought back home, and the direction was able to express such powerful emotions with the stages of strategy and sacrifice. The film manages to gain a footing as each sacrifice carries a respectful tone.



Ronny Yu was able to create a sense of urgency and a feeling of dread as the main characters face off with the Khitan forces. I did have some mixed feelings to its lack characterization, as the sons appear to be in a space where they were helpless, and yet a viewer could only see what was at its surface. I guess Yu and company wanted to create a focus on the themes of family, bravery, honor and sacrifice; they did not want to create a pretension on some of its romantic and political elements. I respect this, as such subplots may upset the film’s balance, and it creates a simplicity that worked for what it was intended. However, much as I appreciated the effort, the film does become predictable (okay, anyone who knows this part of history would know the story) and it comes a little too short in becoming exceptional. Yes, “Saving General Yang” tells only a part of the entire story, that it may have benefited if it was longer (but perhaps as with “Fearless”, Ronny Yu may have a longer more dramatic extended cut).

The performances were quite good. Given with what they were given, the actors did quite well with the limited script. I do have to give special recognition to Erik Cheng who plays the eldest son, Vic Chou (the son who is a superb archer), Adam Cheng and to Shao Bing who became quite a good antagonist. The links to the Yelu and Yang families may appear to be a little cliché, but it was able to produce that needed extra power in its narrative. Xu Fan, even with her limited screen time as fantastic as Yang’s wife and mother to the seven sons. She was the embodiment of strength and determination that created the film’s more dramatic elements. It was just so easy to root for the sons’ cause because of this woman. As with most Chinese period epics of this kind, the costumes and cinematography were real good, and one could easily feel that he was at this period in time.

I love martial arts epics and have a strong fondness for historical epics. The film may feel a little light on the storytelling aspects, and it became a little too close in becoming a practice of CGI excesses and bloody action scenes but overall, I thought the film was pretty entertaining. Stephen Tung’s action choreography had power behind such hack or slash, that along with the musical score by Kenji Kawai, the film made sure that the action sequences were abundant and the theme of sacrifice came into its surface. The film did have the action and emotion, but played it a little safe, it lacked cleverness and style for the film to get to new heights. It is still a solid flick and the Yang family should be proud.
Recommended but a Rental first is advisable. [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]


 ]]> Tue, 3 Sep 2013 03:22:50 +0000
<![CDATA[A Company Man (Korean film) Quick Tip by woopak_the_thrill]]> A Bittersweet Life", the hard-boiled action in this film gave me a lot of visceral entertainment.

South Korea is really kicking it in the action-thriller genre. See Full Review Here.

]]> Sat, 31 Aug 2013 17:26:29 +0000
<![CDATA[Wicked City Quick Tip by FM_ALEX]]> Thu, 29 Aug 2013 07:00:01 +0000 <![CDATA[ THIS IS A WICKED CITY]]>


Many things have been said about this film based on a book and directed by "Ninja Scroll" director Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Things like "disgusting", "classic", "dark", "horrible", "great" and so on, many different opinions. Well I am somewhere in between all of that although I think anyone would agree with the dark thing, because it is. This is one of those films that will shock you if you don't know what type of flick you are getting into. You could throw it in there with the hentai type of Anime but that is only half of what the film is.

The people of Erath have been sharing their world with that of the "Black World" which the realm of demons. To help keep things peaceful between the two there is a group called the "Black Guard" and a new treaty needs to be signed. So a member from each realm [Taki {male human} & Mackie{female demon}] must come together to protect a negotiator until he can make the treaty happen. But radicals from the "Dark World" will stop at nothing to make sure that does not happen.

This film is full of atmosphere and style and of course all of it is dark. The horror element here is probably the strongest thing the film has going for it. The occult like story helps maintain your interest in the film even when things seem out of place. Now I am sure that when I say that most people will assume I am speaking of the sex related moments in the film. That is not true and while I think the film would have been fine without them the tone and nature of the film lend to the scenes. I am speaking of the comedic moments, which at times are funny but do not fit. This of course comes mostly from Giuseppi Mayart who is the guy the "Black Guard" must protect. I must say that he would be right at home on "Dragon Ball Z" alongside Master Roshi. Trust me if you have seen both then you will know what I am talking about.

Then of course we get the action which is good as is the animation, I kinda miss these older drawn ones. There is a nice twist towards the end that leads to a good battle but you will see for yourself. Still regardless this film just seems average to me which is good, it is not horrible. The demons are cool and the look of the film is just as good. There is one female demon here that would have been a big fan of the film "Teeth". Of course there are moments when you will be saying to yourself "why does this not make sense" and all I have to say is wait for the end, it becomes clear. Also on a side note Taki and Mackie were voiced in the dud by a mother and son acting team.

This isn't a bad film and for some people might be a great film. For me it is just a cool Anime, a good if average flick. If you don't mind rape and violent scenes in your Anime then this is for you indeed. But if you like the kid friendlier stuff then stay away. This has some cool stuff in it that make me want to recommend it to anyone who has yet to see it. But like I said it may not be for everyone, decide for yourself.

]]> Thu, 29 Aug 2013 06:59:40 +0000
<![CDATA[ Whoever Logs In Will Die....]]> Rasen, Ring 0, Ringu 2) , an American remake (The Ring with Naomi Watts) and even a Korean remake called “The Ring Virus”. I guess there is just something appealing and genuinely creepy about a ghost that comes from a TV screen. Now, with our advancements in technology and how the internet has changed our lives, imagine that concept taken even further. “Sadako 3D” is director Tsutomu Hanabusa’s vision of such a concept.

There has been a video clip that has been said to be ‘cursed’, as whoever watches it would die. This video has been going around the internet, watched with the use of smart phones, computers and the like, and it is said that whoever views this footage would be driven to suicide. When a school teacher named Akane (Satomi Ishihara) hears of the rumor, she tries to dismiss it. But when a few of her students decide to test the authenticity of the urban legend, Akane and her boyfriend, Takanori (Koji Seto) become fatefully drawn into its secret. Now, they must do whatever they can to try to uncover the truth behind the video and the man called Kashiwada (Yusuke Yamamoto), the man who had created it to what purpose?



I know such an idea feels somewhat borrowed from movies such as “One Missed Call” and “Suicide Song” with the use of the Sadako character to wrap everything up to create a story. The screenplay incorporates certain commentaries about society’s addiction to technology, curiosity for the unknown and just how people do react to something or someone different. Sadako is a tragic figure in horror fiction, and there is an almost unlimited potential as to how she could be told in stories. I am not sure, “Sadako” introduces several elements and plot set ups that appear interesting, and yet, for some reason, the film becomes rather ineffective as a supernatural horror thriller because of its clumsy direction and rather uninspired writing.

There were several things that could’ve made the film work as a horror film. I liked the idea of Sadako’s search for something and how an evil man tried to revive her with several sacrifices. I also thought that there was something clever with the origins of Akane. I just wasn’t sure if the film was trying to be a sequel, a spin off or something just totally different. The good elements come poorly developed and the script did not have the ability to generate suspense and a feeling of dread. There were many developments in the script that did not make sense and felt rather cheap. To make matters worst, the direction struggled to define the emotions, and the characters become rather shallow. I would say the characters were cliché, but really with this weak dimensions, I could not even say that they were stereotypes. They were just people playing ‘actors’ and this is the worst thing that could happen in filmmaking.



Okay, so does the film at least have a decent eerie atmosphere and some decent scares? Well, “Sadako” suffers from excesses in trying a little too hard to be scary or creepy. I mean, a lot of the supposed creepy scenes were silly and outrageous. The chase sequence with Ayane being pursued by the spider-like Yureis ran a little too long. I became rather bored with the redundancy of the scenes. The spider-like Yurei’s (as in plural) looked like they had been borrowed from horror anime such as “Wicked City”, but since this was a film made with 3D in mind, I guess I could see why and how the filmmakers would stoop to such excesses.

Now, even with all the tepid acting that plagued the film, I thought Satomi Ishihara was very cute and capable as the lead character. She did have the potential to reach deep down to make her character much more compelling, but sadly, the screenplay just did not have anything behind it. “Sadako 3D” was a film made to capitalize on the popularity of the film “Ringu”. While it should have been able to re-vitalize the horror franchise, it just buries it further down the well. Well, maybe not, since this spawned another sequel.

Skip this one. [1 ½ Out of 5 Stars]

]]> Thu, 29 Aug 2013 05:23:02 +0000
<![CDATA[ Visceral, Hard-Boiled Action Entertainment]]> A Bittersweet Life” was the perfect example how something so simple could create a fine cinematic experience because of its focus and the way it was executed rather than how original a film could be. Director/writer Im Sang-Yoon’s “A Company Man” has a very similar core premise to Kim Ji-Woon’s early film, and it would be easy to compare it to that 2005 film. The difference is, Im Sang-Yoon’s film is probably more straight-forward while “A Bittersweet Life” was probably deeper at its core. Still, despite its rather slow pacing, “A Company Man” is a hard-boiled action at its best, and it reaches an area that certainly defines Korean action films.


Ji Hyeong-Do (So Ji-Seob) is an impeccably dressed company man who seemingly works for metal works company, except that this company is merely a front and this company’s business is murder. The company is made up of an organized group of hitmen, and Ji is one of its best assassins. Ji has nothing in his life save for his friendship with a retired hitman, Ban (Lee Kyeong-Yeong) and his work, and his devotion to his company has earned him a promotion among its ranks. One day, Ji decides to do something different, and this move takes him to a chance meeting with a single mother, Yuk Mi-Yeon (Lee Mi-Yeon) and he instantly feels close to her. Now feeling guilty about his bloody past, Hyeong-Do seeks to begin a new life. But quitting a business of murder is not as easy as quitting a regular job and Ji now finds himself hunted by his former colleagues.

The core premise of the film is pretty standard and quite frankly very unoriginal. One look and I was instantly reminded of “A Bittersweet Life”. Despite its predictability, there was something that was able to grab me because of the workings of the plot. A story about redemption or about wanting to leave a bloody past has been overplayed, and honestly, there are some films that has done it better. “A Company Man”, however, acknowledges that it is not reinventing the wheel and the direction does not hide this fact. What it does is capitalize on its strong points and creates an experience that has a load of style, and it manages to flesh out the main characters to create an attachment to its viewer.



The screenplay was able to give the viewer a look as to how this ‘company’ works and it also keeps certain details hidden up to the final act in order to maintain a feeling of an enigma and mysterious allure. What some may call ‘lack of development’ becomes one of its main strengths, as this company is somehow able to run an organization under the nose of the police and just who or how they get their clients. How they recruit, and how they choose who worked for them was shown, but really the writing kept things at arm’s length to keep it mysterious. To do this, characters such as Gwon (Do Won Kwak) and Ra Hun (Dong-jun Kim) were introduced to create a company that runs much like any other (the exposition of files) and yet so different. The dynamics between the ‘company’ and the police were also touched upon, and this creates a bridge to establish just how careful and meticulous this ‘hitmen’ organization is with their business. The writing is pretty light when it came to details, so that the focus would fall on its main protagonist.

Ji Yeong-Do was rather mysterious and very little becomes known about him. Ji-Seob So was a fine pick to play this enigmatic hitman; as he had the demeanor and the presence to pull it off. The actor looked rather simple, and this was what made things work for the film. It made the changes within the character quite convincing, and the direction sold its story. The writing was also able to create a look into the employees of the ‘company’, as Ji comes to realize things because of his old ‘supervisor’s’ experience of lost(played by Ha-Bok Yu). Mi-Yeon Lee may not have that much screen time, but her character as being the second catalyst for the change in Ji made sense. She was hard-working and simple, with a close link to Yeong-Do because of her own history. I know, this area in the script felt rather obligatory, but the direction handled it well that I was able to feel the emotions as Ji came to some sort of epiphany. The performances were pretty effective that I was able to ignore the clichés in the script.



The film may have been a little slow in its early minutes, as the screenplay establishes a connection and gain a foothold. But once the film picks up, it goes into a very brisk pace as Ji goes on the hunt. I liked how the action choreography was stylish, and yet it stuck to a feeling of authenticity. It was able to communicate with the action scenes because the moves displayed on screen were made to be seen as moves made to maim or kill. The hand to hand fights weren’t overplayed and the choreography matched those that were seen in “Taken”; efficient and simple combat moves made for maximum effect. The film do get quite visceral and bloody. Gunfights come by the bucket loads in the last 35 minutes of the film as Ji is forced to take his last stand, but it was careful not to become exploitive. The editing and the camerawork in the film’s action sequences were made to exhilarate and generate tension, as one could easily feel the power and the emotions of the scenes.

The cinematography was excellent. There was something that felt just right as the director made the smooth transitions from one scene to the next. I liked the way it seemed to focus on close ups, and shots from the side, as if the film was trying to convey the stakes through its characters. The film was ‘hard-boiled’ cool, and it made its visceral elements balance out its more stylish shots. It also carried small doses of symbolism to present the idea of freedom from regret.

“A Company Man” is not original, some workings in its script were cliché, but somehow, the writing and the direction made its more emotional moments carry the burden of selling its visceral punch. The film is more than a tale of redemption, but rather a story of a wish for freedom and to have a new beginning. It did not glorify the workings of a hitman but rather it was able to present its consequences. The final scene spoke a lot for the art in its execution, as the motivations behind Ji Yeong-Do’s change of heart became fully revealed. It was not for love at all, but for something that he had lost back then. That touch, made the film a much more rewarding film that it earns a recommendation from me. [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]




 ]]> Wed, 28 Aug 2013 06:00:20 +0000
<![CDATA[The Berlin File (2013 Korean film) Quick Tip by woopak_the_thrill]]>
See Full Review here.

]]> Sat, 24 Aug 2013 16:22:59 +0000
<![CDATA[ Korean Director Ryoo Seung-Wan Deftly Executes the World of International Espionage]]> Arahan”, “No Blood, No Tears”, “The Unjust” and “City of Violence“, and he appears to be on a roll with his latest 2013 Korean film “The Berlin File”. A spy thriller that otherwise appears to be more of the same, Seung-Wan who also writes and directs, comes out with something familiar and yet different; as he manages to make the stakes much more personal. This may be the best spy thriller to hail from Korea since “Shiri”.

A tense arms deal goes horribly wrong, and North Korean operative Pyo Jong-Seong (Ha Jung-Woo, The Yellow Sea) narrowly escapes when Israeli mossad agents barge into the scene. A little lost and surprised, Pyo comes across conflicting evidence as to how things had gone wrong and just who it was who set him up. Meanwhile, a South Korean operative, Jung Jin-Soo (Han Suk-kyu) goes after Pyo in the hopes of decoding his identity and to determine if he is some kind of double agent. What he finds is something much more complicated, as some things did not fit the North Korean’s part of the deal. What makes things worst is that suspicion had arisen on Pyo’s own wife, Jung-Hee (Gianna Jun, The Thieves) who also serves as a translator for the North Korean ambassador and Pyo has 48 hours to prove otherwise. The North Koreans have dispatched a ruthless fixer named Dong Myung-Soo (Ryoo Seung-Bun, Arahan) to get to the bottom of the leak within. Now, Pyo must do what he can to clear himself, save his loveless marriage and try to get to the bottom of a multi-billion dollar account wanted by the Pyongyang authorities.


The film carries some real world devices and moves its elements around in a game of cat and mouse. Those who are familiar with spy thrillers would know the possible scenarios when it comes to films such as this. Government officials with their own agenda, a nation’s reputation at stake, defections and betrayal, a spy who gets burned and set up; but what the movie adds its more personal stake into the matter. I know, you may say that a spy and his wife can also be seen as familiar device, but what the writing does so well is the way it flows to create suspense and thrills that the viewer would be at the edge of his seat. It does an incredible job in setting things up. The screenplay keeps things close and yet distant, as there were two areas that move around the script to get to its finality. On one side, we have Jong-Seung, who is trying to uncover who has betrayed him and the other side, we have a South Korean who wishes to uncover the truth for his country and protect its interests. The writing does a good job in presenting the case from two different viewpoints. It was also nice to see a loyal North Korean character become the main protagonist.


The direction was amazing in dictating the film’s pace. Ryoo Seung-Wan made all the right decisions to create tension, drama and suspense to drive the film’s momentum. His editing was certainly top notch and he takes the set pieces to his advantage. The film was shot in 4 languages, and it gives the film a feeling of authenticity, and it drives a feeling of unpredictability. The film is also incredibly action-packed; shot with loads of style and careful editing that would make the big-shots of Hollywood jealous. The direction certainly knew how to make the action scenes look cool, his editing was steady in keeping up with the action sequences that this may be Ryoo’s most polished film to date. It was easy to become enthralled in the action set pieces as one could easily feel the pain and impact from the hand to hand combat. Yet, Ryoo always took the time to inject the emotions behind each scene. From each gunfire, to every hand-to-hand combat, Ryoo carefully placed the scenes to complement the next, as each action set piece became much more cooler than the previous one. Unlike some of his earlier films that had more style than emotion, Ryoo was able to create emotional and even cerebral tension as Pyo goes about his way trying to figure out the main players. Since the stakes were carefully defined, what was presented were chase sequences, fight choreograph and gun battles that had a personality.

Of course none of these would be effective if the performers lacked the necessary ‘grit’ to pull off the characters’ dimensions. Ha Jung-Woo delivered the proper layers of complexity even in the smallest expression and delivery of the shortest, simplest line. I do have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised with the range displayed by Ryu Seung-Bun as he skillfully executes his role. The two managed to create the tension necessary for a protagonist and antagonist; and this made the final encounter much more effective in delivering the needed ‘punch’ in the climax. Gianna Jun was also very deft in her performance as was Han Suk-kyu. The main supporting cast also delivered that the action could easily command the attention of its viewer for its entirety. The film did not feel like it was almost 120 minutes, as Ryoo Seung-Wan certainly had me at the palm of his hand with his execution of tense character conflict. Yeah, I know there was a scene outside Pyo's apartment that required a suspension of disbelief since no one seemed to hear what was going on, but Seung-Wan made me almost overlook that minor lack of detail.

                   Korean Director Ryoo Seung-Wan Deftly Executes the World of International Espionage


Despite the fact that this may be the most polished action thriller I have seen this year, I do have to admit that the main core of the plot felt pretty standard. The writing was definitely not trying to reinvent but rather present things in a way that felt fresh and made for maximum showmanship. I do have to commend the turns it took to become a little erratic and unpredictable, but really the final resolution became a little too expected and it did leave room for a sequel. However, “The Berlin File” has smartly placed action sequences, top notched performances, awesomely staged fights and a breathtaking pace that is sure to awe its audience. The film is exhilarating as Ryoo Seung-wan brings a lot of machismo and quicksilver like flair to his film, that I am sure that we’ll see him directing a Hollywood film very soon. Highly Recommended. [4 ½ Out of 5 Stars]





        ]]> Mon, 19 Aug 2013 07:26:15 +0000
<![CDATA[Black Lagoon: Roberta's Blood Trail (Season Three) Quick Tip by woopak_the_thrill]]> Black Lagoon: Roberta's Blood Trail Takes a Darker Turn in this new collection of OVA's

See Full Review Here. 


]]> Sun, 18 Aug 2013 15:59:45 +0000
<![CDATA[ "Roberta's Blood Trail" is Maid To Kill!]]> Black Lagoon” is one of the best action-oriented anime series that I have seen. Those who watched it will always remember its bloody mayhem, foul language, its unique balance of grim undertones and black humor that manages to maintain a strong momentum because of its flamboyant action sequences. Myself, I’d like to remember the series because of its unique blend of characters and powerful existential themes. I hoped for another season of the anime series because “The Second Barrage” left some things hanging.

Well, if you remember the maid called Roberta, who was just so near-invincible in the first season, you could say that she was one of the more powerful characters in the show. Season three of “Black Lagoon” comes in the form of 5 OVA’s (episodes 25-29) that has a 34 minute runtime that is called “Black Lagoon: Roberta’s Blood Trail”. This season takes a more thematic approach, and rather than making the action its focus, the drama and the darkness in its themes becomes the central focus.



Diego Lovelace, the influential figure in South America and Garcia’s (Kazue Ikura) father had been assassinated during a political rally. This drives his faithful maid, Roberta (Michie Tomizawa) to the brink of insanity and murderous rage that her thirst for revenge drives her back to the city of Roanapur. Hunting down the suspects behind the assassination, Roberta goes on a wild killing spree that leaves a lot of bodies in its wake. This brings the heir to the Lovelace family, Garcia and his maid understudy, Fabiola (Satsuki Yukino) to Roanapur to try and stop Roberta’s murderous rampage. Here, Garcia enlists the aid of the triad group led by Chang (Morikawa Toshiyuki) and the Lagoon company to track Roberta down. What they find is that Roberta is on a collision course with a U.S. military commando unit who had planned Diego’s murder.

While the first two seasons of the anime series focused on character build up of the primary characters and just how they went about their jobs, their neutrality between the various criminal element, and the development of the Revy-Rock dynamic, season three takes the focus more on Roberta. After episodes 9-11 in season one, one would be hard-pressed not to have been taken by this killer maid who has been called “the Bloodhound from Florence“. Here, the viewer gets a full view of her transformation into a bloodhound who is just an unstoppable killing machine, and her decent into madness. Revy takes a back seat, while Rock somehow undergoes development as well as returning characters Garcia, Chang and newcomer Fabiola. Even the American soldiers who were written to become the antagonists have noble traits and this makes this season a lot more thought-provoking since Roberta’s first appearance.



Really, Roberta becomes this season’s main draw. It became really easy to sympathize for her suffering, root for her but at the same time, become scared shitless because of her murderous behavior. There is a lot of darkness in its premise, as it almost becomes a cerebral war drama with the characters pieces in a game to save lives. The director was able to generate the necessary suspense, as secrets become revealed, and the viewer will no doubt become glued to the screen as the story unveils. Rock finally becomes someone who has adapted to the ways of Roanapur, as he becomes someone who appears as a main piece in this game of cat and mouse, and one is left to wonder just what is his end game. The series explores its characters, and answers a lot of the questions as with Roberta’s past and Revy’s tragic story. It was masterful the way the direction commanded the tense atmosphere, that when something big does happen, it does come out with a huge impact in its narrative. The execution of the storytelling may have started off a little slow, but once it picked up, it is non-stop in the expression of its themes and the generation of tension.

Being a lot darker than the previous two seasons, “Roberta’s Blood Trail” seemed to have a more gloomy form of animation and layouts. There is also something that feels a lot grimmer and unsettling the way the story was told with its animation. The violence and brutality have also been amped to the max, and with the superb audio design, you could feel each gunfire and explosions that made me feel the intensity that much more. The animation also feels to carry more detail since season one, but it maintains that sense of personality that defines the series. More blood came with its more unnerving scenes and even has more graphic nudity than its predecessors. Much of the action focused on Roberta and her moves against a commando unit, but not to be outdone, Revy (Megumi Toyoguchi) and Shen Hua (Yuko Sasaki) leads an enigmatic gunman and a kid who wields a chainsaw. Another thing that the season does do so well is the way that it created genuine confusion between its characters and the viewer could see them struggle with each other and experience inner turmoil in the more dramatic moments.



I did really enjoy “Roberta’s Blood Trail” but I do have to admit it wasn’t perfect. The pacing could’ve been a little more brisk, not that it was bad but for a seinen title, its abandonment of a fast-paced flow of the story may confuse its fans. I know it was necessary to its build-up, but I just felt that several scenes in the dark building could’ve moved a lot faster. The dialogue is also a lot heavier than its previous seasons, and this may disconnect some viewers. There is a lot more symbolic gestures and content that rose from this story arc, and it could be argued that they could be a little too philosophical. Sure, the last few episodes of “The Second Barrage” also had a more philosophical theme to them than season one, and “Blood Trail” just goes even further. Episode 29 came dangerously close to becoming a little heavy-handed, but the director managed to keep things together. I saw them as something definitely meant for those who could handle esoteric themes and this makes the Japanese language track with subtitles a much-needed necessity to appreciate its messages. Fans of the previous seasons may feel a little disconnected to its shift in tempo.

“Black Lagoon: Roberta’s Blood Trail” is definitely one vicious ride that goes up and down. It goes for heavy character build up and takes its time to build tension. It is as if a huge boulder gets carried on one’s shoulders to take to a hilltop and then drops it with such unstoppable force that it just careens towards everything and runs them over. It can be called a cerebral thriller than an action-packed affair. It is bloody, a little sadistic and even disturbing, and yet it does not wallow in all those things alone. Sexy shots and nudity did not feel like fan service, and the director handled such things with finesse and gave more depth to its story. “Blood Trail” almost feels like a re-invention of the series, as it was a sincere attempt to make a great series into something resembling brilliance (they even re-mixed the soundtrack). Now, if “Black Lagoon” goes about another season, I hope it will continue to push its limits and become one of the more stimulating anime titles. Highly Recommended. [4 ½ Out of 5 Stars]






 ]]> Sun, 18 Aug 2013 02:20:09 +0000
<![CDATA[ "I Have a Big Gun....I Took it from My Lord..."]]>

When it comes to action-oriented anime, I could probably say that the anime series “Black Lagoon” is among the best I have seen. Based on the manga by Rei Hiroe and directed by Sunao Katabuchi, season one of the anime the series pitches existential themes, incredibly sexy femme fatales, subtle black humor, non-stop action and an ass-kicking musical score performed by Mell. This is one anime series that watching it in its original Japanese language track made for a different experience than the English dubbing. The original language captured the proper mood, tempo and balance in the flow of the story. The English dub track may have a more upbeat tone with its focus to course language, but it also loses a lot of the emotions pitched into each scenes.

I know I reviewed its second season called “The Second Barrage” almost 5 years ago during its initial release, and I thought it was best for me to re-watch the entire series (to refresh my memory) before I take on its next season of 5 OVAs called “Black Lagoon: Roberta’s Blood Trail” in a few days. I do have to approach this review as if I did not see season two as of yet, and so, to make things short, the series follows the adventures or misadventures of the crew of the Lagoon shipping company. Headed by Dutch (Tsutomu Isobe), Benny (Hiroaki Hirata), Rebecca “Revy Two-Hands” (Megumi Toyoguchi) and a new recruit nicknamed “Rock” (Daisuke Namikawa) whom they take in after a melee about a disc, the quartet do very different jobs of transporting, some legal, but often illegal as they tangle with pirates, mercenaries, modern day Nazis and other shady characters.



I suppose the first thing that attracted me to the series when it first came out was the way it rendered each episode with loads of action set pieces. Being incredibly action-packed as the Lagoon company go about their jobs and business is sure to attract any anime fan, but having a competent core story in its screenplay certainly aids in the experience. Episodes 1-4 showcase the characters and how Revy and the gang make contact with Okajima (later to be known as Rock), as the screenplay makes the gun-slinging psycho-bitch named “Revy” its central focus in many ways. You get to see just how the Lagoon company work as a team and just how skilled Revy is skilled with almost any kind of firearm. By episodes 5-10, the series takes a more intricate turn as it begins to flesh out its characters and generate what many may call as the ‘bread and butter’ of the entire season. Every season has what it can call ‘best moments’ and these were found episodes 8-10 in this season. Nonetheless, the direction did a good job in fleshing out its characters, finding a balance in its themes, humor and drama.

Dutch and his companions, Revy and Benny may come light in characterization, and they are all what we can call anti-heroes. They aren’t bad guys, but rather they deal with bad guys to put food on the table, and they try to remain neutral between the mafia, triads and yakuza. I suppose this season brings more light to the Revy-Rock relationship and just how they are so different, and yet they appear to have this sort of tension between them. This first season had several exchanges between the two of them that spoke a lot of its existential themes, and just how everyone seemed to carry baggage, and they just differ in the what, the why and the how one chooses to deal with them. It also gives some subtle hints as to how the woman called “Revy Two-hands” became such a cold-calculating gun-slinger whose scent reeks of blood. Revy is indeed the most interesting of the bunch, as there was something about her which was an enigma; the short glimpses of her past life gave subtle hints, but her actions speak volumes as the viewer is privy as to how she appears to revel in killing. In one of the episodes where she takes a darker turn, she takes down a ship full of Nazis and really, the scene is not for the squeamish once you take in the message between the lines. Rock does represent the series’ moral stances, he is somewhat of a pacifist and yet, somehow he appeared to be stuck and attracted to this new way of life with the Lagoon company. Shady characters indeed who deal under a shade of gray; the Lagoon company is a group of individuals whose goal is to make a living and their side is the side where the company of the underworld does lurk.




Yes, the series is action-packed, but what made it more effective was the way the series introduced supporting characters that dictated its pace and made the action even more exciting. The head of the Russian Mafia, Balalaika (Mami Koyama) is a woman who has suffered burns and she enough power to control a group of ex-Russian military. The series takes its time to introduce her before her character becomes truly fleshed out in “The Second Barrage”. I also enjoyed the “Rip-off” church ran by nuns who are also arms-dealers. There is also a character called Chang (Tomoyuki Morikawa) who appeared to have been inspired by Chow Yun Fat’s character in “A Better Tomorrow” The gun-toting nun Eda (Jun Kurasawa) and a dagger wielding-knife throwing sex-object called Shen Hua (Yuko Sasaki) could definitely make Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez green with envy and sad that they did not think of these characters first. But really the grand-daddy of all the characters introduced in this season is Roberta (Michi Tomizawa), the blood-hound from Florencia. Hers was a tragic story that stood out in this first season, as she was someone who looked so harmless, a maid who could not clean and yet, she may be the only woman who could match Revy in skill and fighting spirit. I found it quite refreshing that the series had females as the more ruthless, stronger, and more dangerous characters than their male counterparts.


The animation may look simple and conventional but the movements were indeed very fluid. The camera angles were made to showcase the ala-"John Woo" action sequences as blood and some scenes of mild gore were present to express the intensity of the scenes. The visuals and sound were indeed impeccable and yet it showed a sense of restraint that it was careful to not allow its superficial qualities to take over the series. “Black Lagoon” may be animated, but it is definitely not for children. The series has mild nudity, drug use and mature themes that every parent may want to withhold from their kids. Gun battles, fist-fights and even wholesale murder occurs in the film, some scenes emulated Mexican stand offs as Revy may indeed be “death and hell followed with her”. Megumi Toyoguchi was amazing in the Japanese voice track, as she exemplified the enigma, the mystery and the sensuality of the anime character. The voice cast was fantastic as they had given the characters a lot of personality that I could buy into their cynical nature.

There is just nothing sexier than a femme fatale, but really “Black Lagoon” has a lot to offer than just sexy bad ass females. Themes of existentialism and injections of subtle philosophy carried its tempo that it made this season quite efficient in making its viewers drool for more. Of course, there is also something to be said for the dimensions of each character as this first season serves to tease and prepare its viewers for more excitement in season two. “Black Lagoon” is one of the more entertaining anime series as the graphic violence, visuals and musical score makes our sexy gun-slinging heroine a huge hit! Highly Recommended! [4 ½ Out of 5 Stars]

Please see review of Black Lagoon: the Second Barrage here.

Please see review of Black Lagoon: Roberta’s Blood Trail here.

              Black Lagoon- Season One (Boxed Set)



]]> Thu, 15 Aug 2013 04:32:58 +0000
<![CDATA[ Keanu Reeves' First Directorial Outing is a Chinese-Produced Martial Arts Film]]>
The Difference Between a Fighter and a Warrior is that one fights for a Reason while the other fights for a Purpose. (that does sound cool)

First-time director Keanu Reeves (yes, the one who played Neo in “The Matrix”) along with his stuntman friend, Tiger Chen attempts to bring a story about darkness and light, and how one who only seeks light can sometimes be tempted to go about a path of darkness even for the correct reasons. “Man of Tai Chi” had finally been released in Asia and has been picked for the 2013 Toronto film festival (maybe set for a U.S. release soon), Cannes and has received acclaim from action maestro John Woo.


Honestly, the plot set up of “Man of Tai Chi” is standard and is pretty contrived at first look, but it did have the necessary tools to bring about the spirit of Tai Chi. It concerns a young practitioner of Tai Chi named Linhu “Tiger” Chen (Tiger Chen) who seeks enlightenment in competition as well as displaying the spirit of his art. Chen likes the simple life, but when he attracts the attention of the head of an underground fight club, Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves), Chen is asked to fight with loads of money as the reward. Chen had the correct instinct to refuse, but when his master’s (Yu Hai) 600 year-old temple becomes threatened by re-development, Chen chooses to compete to get the resources to protect his beloved temple. When Chen becomes the fight club’s number one draw, he must learn once again how to choose the right path.

“Man of Tai Chi” has your usual stereotypical characters, and honestly I am a little too weary of the fighter who fights for a reason, sucked into a corrupt world and then he finds his true path. There are many other movies that expressed the Yin and the Yang, the darkness and the light; most notably is the Japanese film “Black Belt” but its approach was much more subtle and offered more layered characters than Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut. You have the crooked greedy martial artist represented by Reeves, the master who wishes his student to reach inner peace, the student who wants the honorable path and yet drawn into the corrupt path, and the cop who seeks out the bad guy as brought forth by the Jing Shi (Karen Mok). The characters here are the usual clichés, and the plot development offers little surprises and inspiration and was merely present to showcase the fight choreography.



But, there is something good to be said for its themes. Much of the film revolved around the workings of the Chen character, and the film does a good job in defining the spirit of the Tai Chi Art. I know most of us are familiar with it being practiced as a form of exercise, but really Tai Chi is all about the re-direction of force, the control of one’s chi, and the rising and advancing of the spirit. Tai Chi is an art, that can be used for self-defense, and the film does marvelous work in defining its philosophies and inner core. Chen is a man who is learning, while his skills are great, his mind is not as strong as his body. It was a study of a martial artist, and just what it means when one says “practice martial arts so you will know when or when not to fight”. The screenplay does get all the necessary messages across; Light is always threatened by the shadow of darkness, and yet only light can dispel darkness. It may be a little cliché, but the themes did manage to work itself quite well to enhance the film’s otherwise pedestrian plot set up.

This is not a film that would showcase an actor’s ability to act, but it is indeed a film made to showcase and highlight the beauty in movement of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is matched with different styles such as MMA, other forms of Kung Fu, wrestling and even street fighting. The fight choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping was nearly excellent, it also seemed to get better the more the viewer sees Chen fight, and it hardly utilizes the use of wire work (or what we call wire-fu). Being a stunt man, Tiger Chen is on familiar ground with the martial arts choreography. The hits and the moves did feel authentic that I had very little to complain about. I really enjoyed the fight between the master and the student and exactly how it ended. The battle between Chen and two other fighters spoke well for his own descent into darkness. The camera work was pretty decent for a first-time director such as Reeves, as the viewer is privy to most of the action. I was a little disappointed with the final climactic fight; Keanu Reeves went one-on-one with Chen, and yet I could not buy into Reeves’ ‘wire-fu’ giving Chen’s more genuine looking moves a run for its money. It did have one nice ingredient, however, that I was able to forgive its weaknesses despite how stiff and clumsy Reeves looked in the moves.



Tiger Chen does have the presence of a highly skilled fighter and he made his role very believable. He is a man who seeks peace and yet, he experiences turmoil in his spirit. I had no issues buying into his character despite the weaknesses of its plot. Keanu Reeves seeks to channel his inner “Neo” and tries to be a mean baddie, but really he wasn’t convincing enough, and there were times that I thought he wanted to be some kind of "sith lord'. He should’ve skipped doing that final fight scene, since as a first-time director, he was still experiencing some ‘growing pains’. Hong Kong cinema veterans Karen Mok and Simon Yam played characters that were stereotypes, but I did not mind Mok’s presence at all. Yu Hai played a very likable Master Yang, and he was the reason why the Chen character became a little more sympathetic than what could’ve been if he was not around. Iko Iwais (The Raid: Redemption) has a cameo appearance, but it was too bad that he did not get to show his stuff.

“Man of Tai Chi” is a good-intentioned film that seeks to define the art and philosophies of Tai Chi. No, it wasn’t anything to write home about, about the expression of its themes and the action sequences provided good enough entertainment. Yes, the film does have a lot of cliché, and really it wasn’t anything original, but it was good for a first-time director with a lot of growing pains in leading a motion picture (it was also multi-lingual which made it feel more authentic). No, it is not a must-see but I would mildly recommend it for martial arts fans and a RENTAL for everybody else. [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]

 ]]> Sun, 11 Aug 2013 05:48:53 +0000
<![CDATA[Another - Complete Collection (Anime Series) Quick Tip by woopak_the_thrill]]> See full Review here.

]]> Sat, 10 Aug 2013 01:24:28 +0000
<![CDATA[ "Return The Dead to Death....."]]>

Sickly Kouichi (Atsushi Abe) is young man in the 9th grade who had just arrived in a small town to attend school. He had just been discharged from a hospital when he came across a girl with an eye patch named Mei Misaki (Natsumi Takamori) who then proceeds to the sub-basement. Although Kouichi was freaked out, he thought nothing of it. But once he arrives to attend classes in school and to meet his new classmates, things take a turn for the bizarre. Mei Misaki turns out to be one of his classmates and mysteriously, no one seems to see her. Kouichi becomes concerned if this is some form of bullying, but then, he begins to wonder if he is the only one who can see Misaki…is she a ghost or something worst such as a harbinger of death? Kouichi is about to learn the secret of Class 3.…

I did not read the original manga by Yukito Ayatsuji but I am sure changes have been made for cinematic purposes. There is something to be said for the screenplay by Ryo Higaki. It was obvious that there was misdirection at work here, and the script does pull out all the stops to make the viewer wonder just what is the mystery behind Mei Misaki. Is she a ghost or something else? Does she really exist or not? To achieve this, episodes 1-5 pay more attention to the cryptic ways of its characters; it brings forth the confusion and the fear of the major characters and just how everything seemed to fit, and yet many questions do arise. The direction also does a good job in its editing, as the dialogue itself were made to encourage questions. The firs t 5 episodes of the series may perhaps be the series’ strongest points; as the story was able to grab the viewer into an experience that promote puzzlement. I had no issues becoming intrigued in its plot and I wanted to see how everything would play out.



See, “Another” does an excellent job in making one think that it is one thing when it is a point of fact that it is something else. Once episode 6 hits, things begin to make more sense, and yet there lies another mystery about a curse. It was quite wise for the direction and the screenplay to play on its stronger qualities to enthrall its viewers. Characters such as Izumi Akazawa (Madoka Yonezawa), Mr. Chibiki (Hiroaki Hirata) and other supporting characters become more developed to drive the flow of its script. It was a good way to develop the plot and the characters in a sort of a symbiotic manner, that one area really wouldn’t work quite as well without the other. There was a certain way that I enjoyed about the way it molded and ended one mystery just to introduce another; episodes 6-9 made certain that while certain became connected, it also introduces new twists and possibilities as our main protagonists appear to be caught in web of deaths and tragedy, while maintaining the mystery of just who or what is the ‘extra’. I really don’t want to spoil the series, since the mystery around another mystery is something that requires its viewer to know as little as possible about its script for it to become effective. While I did enjoy this series, some machinations in the script did feel a little cheap at times, since the script would have ‘interruptions’ within the exchanges between characters to tease its viewer.

Episodes 10-12 is when the series really begins to wrap itself up. It becomes some sort of morality play as the characters in the series begin to really become fearful of their situation. I did not like the way it appeared to stoop to certain ‘slasher’ devices, and parts of it became a little too melodramatic to promote the usual histrionics. However, despite its weaknesses, the last three episodes still managed to come off strong. Strong, but it wasn’t as impressive an execution as with the first 4 episodes. While the final three episodes did come dangerously close to stereotypical elements, episode 12 proved to be much more rewarding than expected in terms of dramatic and heart-breaking impact as the 'secret' became revealed.

“Another” is a mystery-horror series about curses and human nature. It is not exactly the fear of death that drives the story, but rather the reaction to one’s fear of death. The death scenes can be quite grisly in their own way, but the direction practiced a sense of restraint to not allow the series to be driven by blood and gore. Some death scenes felt like it carried references to “The Omen” (it is even stated by one of the characters) while some fatal accidents seemed to have been inspired by the “Final Destination” horror franchise. The set designs were real good and I appreciated its attention to detail in character designs. Change of clothes and how the outfits can reflect the moment and the seasons were impeccably done. Some anime stick to one or two outward appearances by the characters, but not so with “Another”; the characters often have a change in appearance depending on the situation.



The voice acting was also superb as Natsumi Takamori doubtlessly stole the show. The way she voiced Misaki had a flair that exuded mystery and provoked an unsettling feel. I know I said that some exchanges in dialogue felt cheap, but really, one would be hard-pressed to notice because of the excellent Japanese voice cast. Misaki was doubtless the strongest character, while Atsushi Abe provided the necessary support to the Misaki persona. The Chibiki and Akazawa characters provided links between the present and the past; and this made the 'phenomena' feel more credible in its narrative. It was a little too bad that some characters did become minor casualties (as with most stories of this nature) to further the feeling of dread within its storyline.

While I loved the way the mystery was developed in “Another“, I just wished certain other things such as rules were introduced to make the story even more compelling. I really don’t have much to complain about the series’ plot development, and I really liked the way the how’s, the why’s and the what’s were defined, but it sure felt like something was missing as some devices were left unexplored. I guess while this story was done, it sure left behind a lingering question, that everything will start all over again. If so, how would Misaki and Kouichi fit in all of it? I guess the creators wanted to leave everything open for another season since this is a series about death itself. Yes, this anime series and the manga were successful enough that a live-action movie was released in Japan last August 2012. “Another” is a fine exercise in horror anime. It paid a lot of attention to its details and it may be worth more than one watch that it gets a high recommendation from me. [4 Out of 5 Stars]




]]> Fri, 9 Aug 2013 06:49:01 +0000
<![CDATA[Ghost in the Shell: Arise (Japanese Anime) Quick Tip by woopak_the_thrill]]>
Hopefully an English-subtitled version comes out sooner than later]]> Thu, 8 Aug 2013 18:10:08 +0000
<![CDATA[ Savage, Cruel Mayhem....A Thematic Yakuza Film That is Not for the Squeamish]]> Sonatine” to “Brother“ and on to “Battle Royale” and “Blood and Bones”, the man truly knows how to deliver a gritty, violent and artistic motion picture. I realize that I am a little late here with my review for “Outrage“ (aka. Outrage: Way of the Yakuza), but since its sequel “Outrage Beyond” is looming in the horizon for an American release, I thought perhaps that a long overdue review would prepare me for my review of its sequel.

                    Takeshi Kitano and Kippei Shiina in "Outrage."

Kitano had created a no-nonsense, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it kind of deal” with his yakuza tale “Outrage”. Kitano stars, edits, writes and directs what feels like a collection of gangster clichés, and yet somehow, he makes it compelling, disturbing and quite frankly realistic. Kitano plays Otomo, who is a gunman for a mid-level boss named Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura) who is aligned with another mid-level boss named Murase (Renji Ishibashi) who is really not part of the larger yakuza family but who wants to vie for a position in the greater yakuza community. Murase runs the risk of losing it all as he deals with drugs and this is a no-no to the head of the larger yakuza family. Ikemoto begins to turn things to his advantage, as he begins to stir up trouble in the yakuza community. But everyone appears to have an agenda of their own, from the head yakuza to the lowly enforcer, everyone wants to outlive or get more control over a turf. What follows is a game of murder and betrayal as what is set into play is something that may leave only one man left standing.

                 Beat Takeshi as Otomo in ``Outrage.''

                Takashi Tsukamoto as Iizuka and Hideo Nakano as Kimura in ``Outrage.''

Beat Kitano is not reinventing the wheel here when it comes to yakuza films. He exploit’s the usual yakuza tropes and the story does fit into a mold that fits its premise. The film is all about double-crosses and plotting for one to get over the other. Insanely artistic in the portrayal of its violent themes, it does not feel exploitive at all, but rather the flow of the film becomes natural and authentic that the grisly images of violence becomes something that is the expression of a harsh reality. The plot is pretty standard and yet the themes it presents pretty much speak a lot for its violent screenplay. There are three themes that make the plot of “Outrage” much more layered than at first look. With the three acts of the film, the viewer is brought into the world of the yakuza and just how the rules are played within.

The first theme is the way the yakuza and the police force have formed a relationship. There is an ambiguous message as to how a corrupt detective can survive the turmoil that takes place within the yakuza simply by keeping a low-key profile and how he could work with them. The first themes is the study of how nature takes its course in the shifting of loyalties and the absence of such codes within the yakuza. It presents a lesson that can be applied in life, that one needs to be loyal to himself, otherwise the danger of being caught in the turmoil may become too risky. It is an expression as to how power can only can gained when one is willing to take it, after one secures his own order of loyalties. The third theme is just how the crime syndicates can have a huge political and cultural influence in Japan. It sends an ambiguous message that a crime syndicate will always remain intact for generations even after the bloodshed, betrayal and murder. It is almost as if it is saying that groups such as Sanno-Kai go through stages of calm order and disorder, as if to restructure itself with a new figurehead from time to time. The themes aren’t very nice but it does speak a very honest truth that applies in real life.

                     Beat Takeshi as Otomo and Soichiro Kitamura as Kan'nai in ``Outrage.''

                    Takeshi Kitano and Kippei Shiina in "Outrage."

With a cast that just grabs attention in its screenplay, “Outrage” may feel unoriginal on the outside, and yet the editing and the direction makes it quite a cinematic experience that makes one ponder the themes that lie within. The film is pretty visceral and brutal; as it shows several grisly smack downs such a chopstick in the ear, a dental drill assault, a creative way to try to decapitate someone and so forth. The film does have a lot of bloody images to express the ruthlessness of the yakuza, and while the effects have that B-movie appeal, the way the kills were executed did not appear cheap at all. Kitano does keep his storytelling pretty simple just so it could feel natural. The actor-director also does not hog all the spotlight as performers such as Kippei Shiina, Ryo Kase, Tetta Sugimoto had more screen time than Kitano himself. It was an expression as to how the world revolved around Kitano’s Otomo character was beyond his control, and that he could only try to ride out the waters set before him.

                 Beat Takeshi as Otomo in ``Outrage.''

“Outrage” is an extremely well-made motion picture. Kitano is deathly mysterious, the supporting characters actually took the lead in the film’s storytelling and the camera work by Katsumi Yangijima had that contemporary pizzazz that made Kitano’s editing and handling of the film’s more savage sequences have a lot of punch. I suppose, the film’s one flaw is the fact that the characters did not leave the viewer any choice as to who and what to root for, Otomo isn‘t that cruel or evil, and that is exactly what the film is trying to communicate. It is a deglamorized gangster tale that just makes a stand that crime really does not pay in the long run. It is a noble artistic approach that carries a very honest message with its endless string of attacks and retaliations. The film's meaning lies in what is not being told and such a life in a yakuza may hold nothing but meaningless violence. Recommended! [4 Out of 5 Stars]

                  Takeshi Kitano in "Outrage."

Poster art for "Outrage."  Poster art for "Outrage."

                                            File:Outrage-2010-poster.png]]> Mon, 5 Aug 2013 06:05:36 +0000
<![CDATA[ GLOVE Catches The Healing Power of Sports]]>
When they’re done right, sports movies are entirely infectious.  What’s not to love?  Audiences get to vicariously experience not only the thrill of the game but also the many inspiring montages of training and coaching and learning.  Unfortunately, sports films also get fairly easily dismissed as being overly formulaic and/or predictable to a fault as they tend to fall back on a narrative involving a player stumbling to find greatness again who almost magically achieves it again by the film’s conclusion; other characters end up serving as little more than set dressing to the big league player – the die-hard champion who can’t bring himself to quit the sport because he’s personally lost, over-the-hill, or just plain bad for it.
To its credit, GLOVE kinda/sorta takes the routine – yes, there’s a ragtag team needing help; yes, there’s a major league pitcher slowly making his way back down the ladder; and, yes, there’s a comely young lass who watches it all through the shimmer of true love in her eyes – and turns it on its head by exploring a brand-new high school team whose players just happen to be hearing impaired.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)

Kim Sang-nam (played to grumbling perfection by Jung Jae-young) was once a national hero as he stood on the pitcher’s mound, but his off-the-field antics have finally turned everyone but his luckless manager, Cheol-su ‘Charles’ Jeong (Jin-woong Jo), against him.  Fearing that he’s facing serious sanctions that might even include expulsion, Kim allows himself to be talked into ‘disappearing’ for a time; and Charles has just the thing – he works out an arrangement for the star player to coach the brand new high school baseball team at Chungju Sacred Hearts School.
Upon his arrival, Kim is shocked to learn that not only does he only have enough players to field a team, but the young men are all in various stages of deafness.  If they can’t hear the crack of the ball hitting the bat, they don’t know how to position themselves for the catch.  If they can’t clearly communicate with one another, they can’t function efficiently as a team.  If they can’t do all of these things that regular players of the game can do, then how can he expect them to compete?
It’s been said that greatness comes from humble beginnings, and that’s exactly the sentiments explored in GLOVE.  Kim Ki-Beom’s script could’ve easily veered off the track and dabbled in the forced pathos of the team’s situation, but instead the story pounds that drum loudly as part of the overall conflict: these boys’ parents don’t want them risking their safety much less their embarrassment on the field, and the school’s ‘mother superior’ is in complete agreement.  Instead of wringing every ounce of emotion to easily tug at the audience’s heartstrings, Kim seizes on those sentiments and shows just how these players rise above it all only after receiving some very harsh, real-world advice from their new coach, a man who risked it all to get where he was only to now sit back and watch as it drifts away from them.  As others would shield these young athletes from the stark reality of their situation, Kim Sang-nam throws all of them headfirst into the fray, helping them out as only a coach can by explaining that they have to fight for what they want.  Additionally, Sang-nam is given the chance to work out the questions that have plagued him as of late, and, with the help of the team and those around him, he comes to grips with his very own self-destructive behavior.
And to GLOVE’s immeasurable credit, it doesn’t flirt with happy endings.  Just as nothing has come easy for these characters, nothing comes easy in the final act.  But the message of the film – much like the message of Kim’s coaching – is that from such adversity it is that we, individually, find greatness.  It’s that healing power that only comes from playing sports to win, not to just compete, but to go out and achieve prominence.  This isn’t to say that the ending is a downer or it’s depressing or anything of the sort; rather, it’s the kind of ending you’d hope for.

GLOVE (2011) is produced by CJ Entertainment, Cinema Service, KnJ Entertainment, and KSure.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through Bayview Entertainment, LLC.  As for the technical specifications, the film looks and sounds terrific throughout.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Korean spoken language film with English subtitles available, and therein lies my only problem with the release: several characters communicate almost exclusively in sign language, and unfortunately the English subtitle appears superimposed over the top of that.  Although the rendering incorporates some modest shadowing in order to make the English subtitles more legible, it’s still a bit hard to read at times.  Lastly, this is a two-disc set, and all of the special features are included on the 2nd disc; they include a short on the film’s many characters, a making-of documentary, footage of the film’s premiere, a concert, cast and crew biographies, and even a few things more.  It’s a wonderful collection to celebrate such a special story.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  Outside of a single distracting element that’s the end result of being a subtitled work of a partially subtitled work, GLOVE is pure delight.  The bases are loaded with winning performances all around, and while some folks may disagree with a small element here or there in the story I think it possible that most will embrace this feel-good story that’s inspired by true events.  There’s a romantic coda tacked on the end that didn’t quite need to be there, but, like so much of what precedes it, it’s all done in good spirits.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Bayview Entertainment, LLC provided me with a DVD copy of GLOVE by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Tue, 30 Jul 2013 00:58:06 +0000
<![CDATA[ THE GUILLOTINES Cuts Its Own Head Off Right Out Of The Gate]]>
Period actioners can be a very tough vehicle to sell, especially when they’re loaded with characters.  Typically, the bigger the cast the longer the film has to be in order to have enough time for (a) establishing everyone’s identity, (b) giving each notable the necessary screen time to establish presence, and (c) allowing each of the principles to allow their respective thematic functions to be fulfilled.  One fine example of this is THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (an American retread of the Japanese 1954 original SEVEN SAMURAI): each character gets an introduction respective of the role he’ll play in the entire affair, and each character is given ample opportunity to develop a personality and some impactful ‘conclusion’ to his participation in it.
To the contrary, THE GUILLOTINES kinda/sorta tinkers in similar territory, but director Andrew Lau (whose career proves he knows better) traffics in all the wrong directorial choices.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
At the height of the Qing Dynasty, THE GUILLOTINES were a secret brotherhood of royal assassins empowered by the Emperor to do his dark deeds: crush whatever rebellion may start in its tracks.  They’re outfitted with swords of the same name – flexible blades of steel that launch deadly rings with the power to decapitate their victims by the pull of a trigger – and, in using them, this medieval ‘Injustice League’ become an unstoppable force leaving only fear in their wake.  However, a villager known as Wolf (played by Xiaoming Huang) will prove their greatest challenge, forcing the team to take to the countryside in pursuit alongside an evil general who seeks only to see THE GUILLOTINES vanquished to history once and for all.
Usually, this kind of cinematic magic is the stuff I find myself curiously drawn to.  You’ve got a team of warriors once committed to a brand of justice only now beginning to question the choices they’ve made throughout the years.  You’ve got an idyllic period of history wherein mankind is starting to deal with larger issues of nobility and restraint.  Plus, you’ve got some fisticuffs and chases and swordplay to help propel the story forward.  Sadly, I hate to report that THE GUILLOTINES – with a script by no less than six contributors – feeling like a mash-up of one undeserved action piece after another.
Seriously, the film felt uneven from the get go with director Lau stringing along a big opening action showdown with edits coming so fast and so furious that it was nearly impossible to see much less figure out what was happening.  When a film only looks pretty in its opening scenes and no single character is given suitable opportunity to become something other than flickers of light and shadow on the screen, it becomes clear just how good looks can be deceiving.
And the rest of the film really gets no better.  There is some wonderfully John Ford style cinematography to the vast countryside that looks marvelous, but it’s all laid out with no reason to care about it and (worse) no prompting to care about the folks who live in it.  The plot is plagued by a weird “I have a dream” speech that ends in death (hello, Mr. Foreshadowing), and the story ends up relying so heavily on flashbacks to establish purpose that I began to wonder if it all shouldn’t have begun in a prequel of some sort.  In good period pieces, the action sequences evolve from the plot, but THE GUILLOTINES clearly have reversed those roles, with the storytellers believing that their paper thin idea is actually thick enough to justify the action.  Truth is: it isn’t.
The audience never cares about the men, or at least they’re not encouraged to until the 1:23:00 mark when the story is finally granted some modest emotional resonance.  Too little too late for this critic.
THE GUILLOTINES (aka “Xue di zi”) (2012) is produced by Media Asia Arts, Polyface Entertainment, Stellar Mega Films, and We Pictures.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by Well Go USA.  As for the technical specifications, the picture looks and sounds mostly solid, though it’s replete with some curiously way-too-fast editing choices that makes me believe a vastly longer cut probably exists somewhere (a director’s cut?).  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Mandarin-spoken-language release, and there’s either an English-dubbing track available or English subtitles.  Lastly, there’s a brief ‘making of’ feature and some cast and crew interviews – along with the theatrical trailer – for those inclined; I wasn’t.
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED.  There’s a fair amount of flash and sizzle incorporated into THE GUILLOTINES’ visual tapestry, but there isn’t enough narrative thread to pull it all together, and, yes, that’s a h-u-g-e disappointment.  One of the chief considerations in telling any story is that there be some relatable character at the center of it – someone to root for, someone to care about – but this splashy CGI-heavy period actioner has little heart except for the last reel.  The problem, then, becomes caring too little too late for all of it to do little more than end.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with a DVD copy of THE GUILLOTINES by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Mon, 29 Jul 2013 06:07:42 +0000
<![CDATA[ The Birth of Tai Chi According to Director Stephen Fung]]> Tai Chi Zero” and so I was very reluctant to continue on with this trilogy with his “Tai Chi Hero”. Honestly, I barely even remember the details of “Zero” going into “Hero”. The first two films were released within weeks of each other in China and the final chapter won’t be released until 2014. It does not end with a cliffhanger as with the first movie, but rather it does manage to give some closure to the devices and elements established in the first film. I suppose these first two films were meant to be the set up for the climactic final chapter, but given what I have seen in them, I am not even sure if I want to push through with it.

This film picks up where “Tai Chi Zero” had left off, as young Lu Chan (Jayden Yuan) is set to marry the grandmaster’s daughter, Yu-Niang (Angelbaby); a union pressed on them so that Lu Chan can learn their family’s signature kung-fu. Lu Chan needs to learn kung fu to restore his inner self, which had slowly been burned out because of the “Three Blossoms of the crown”, his horn-shaped birthmark that makes him an ala-Hulk Kung Fu master. Of course, there is tension between the two, as their marriage is birthed out of necessity rather than love. Despite this, Lu Chan begins to learn under the tutelage of Yu-Niang and her father (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) but things becomes a little complicated with the arrival of the Chen family’s eldest son, Zai Yang (William Feng) had returned and Yu-Niang’s childhood sweetheart, Ji-Zing (Eddie Peng) comes forth to bring chaos to the Chen family.



Not really sure how I feel about this film, since it is better than “Zero” and it did show restraint from the things that made the first flick a little too silly and annoying. Yes, the devices that made the first film feel like “Scott Pilgrim” and somewhat kind of Looney Tunes tempo were all still here, but the direction does keep them under control as it focuses on the development of its story. It takes on a more serious tone and the delivery is a little more stable this time around. The film goes forward with its story as it develops the roots of its characters and just how things were set to become. Themes of family, of tradition and progress, of skill vs. technology were brought forth to a common message of acceptance and understanding.

The Chen family secret and superstitions come into exposition, as the viewer learns the reasons why only family members may learn such skill. I did like the way the father-estranged son relationship came through to give the film some needed dramatic flow. The subplot was pretty decent to add some intricacies to its screenplay. William Feng and the always excellent Tony Leung Ka-Fai manages to break ground in developing their relationship, and it also helped to make things a little uneasy that Zai Yang may or may not be in cahoots with the bad guys. Feng performed well as a character with layers, and his mute, martial artist wife (played by Nikki Hsieh) gave his character much needed depth in the script. I know Hsieh was a little too underused, given her splendid screen charisma. I guess I felt that the film would’ve benefited more if it took its focus more on its stronger characters than the ones that should’ve been left in the sidelines.



Not to say that Jayden Yuan was horrible as the lead character, but the problem was, Yuan just could not hit that high note with Angel baby (seriously that’s her screen name). The two struggled to form that chemistry as rivals turned lovers, and they bickered more like brother and sister. I also have some issues with the way the villain was portrayed. Parts of the script did not help Eddie Peng, as he became a little too cartoonish of a bad guy. He comes off rather pathetic as a snot-nosed villain. Yeah, the film pitches a hint for his eventual return for revenge, but I did not care any more.

Now as for the action sequences and set pieces, the film does have its merit. Lu Chan’s training to his encounters with other adept masters come in the form of almost like a montage, but they were a way to quickly express his improvement as a novice to a full-fledged master. I did have an issue with the way that the assault on the village was staged, it felt a little too much on the stylized wirework to really generate any kind of intensity. It was a little sad that the major action set piece ended too early to really make a difference. The action here feels like a video game but I do think that the camera work kind of compensates for what it lacked (but just barely). Once Lu Chan and Yu-Niang goes into the final act, Jayden Yuan faces off with no other than martial arts legend Yuen Biao who plays the prince‘s butler Master Li. Their encounter was more built on more wirework and philosophy as they fight above a kitchen. Sammo Hung’s choreography does pay off but it just did not define what was at stake very well so it wasn’t a rousing encounter that it felt more like an exercise.

Stephen Fung’s “Tai Chi Hero” wasn’t a total loss I suppose; it actually made “Tai Chi Zero” much more tolerable now that I’ve seen where it was headed. It biggest flaw was the way it did not express emotion and it lacked a certain sense of urgency in its narrative. The film felt really built for the superficial audience as it tried so many things that did not work in the first movie. The moves should have that moment that would make my jaw drop, but they all felt rather inferior to its inspiration, “Kung Fu Hustle”. Not sure, for a “zero to hero” story to work, the character has to win over his audience so that they could cheer for him. Lu Chan just did not do that as he did not hit the bottom of the barrel to raise himself back up. The stakes felt a little too mild and there wasn’t anything too personal to make it all work. Given the technology and resources, this movie should’ve been a lot better. The filmmakers did not make a failure, but certainly not a success either.
Rent it. [3- Out of 5 Stars]

   ]]> Mon, 29 Jul 2013 04:14:47 +0000
<![CDATA[ A More Authentic, More Human Portrayal on the Life of Bruce Lee's Teacher]]> Ip Man" collaboration brought superficial, crowd-pleasing, entertaining action but fails to bring forth the man behind its story. It was more of Donnie being Donnie than Master Ip. Wong Kar-Wai’s “The Grandmaster” was an artful presentation that depicted how the principles of martial arts could be applied to life applications. It was a good film, but it didn’t hit the right stuff to form a biopic about Master Ip. The Wing Chun master also inspired a TV series, a prequel “The Legend is Born” and even a stage drama in Singapore. I suppose these are all attempts to create another folk hero for Chinese audiences that brings people to theater seats.

Well, despite its somewhat cheesy title, Herman Yau’s “Ip Man: The Final Fight” may be the best movie in this film of fictional biographies. This time, Master Ip is not an romanticized ass kicker or an action hero, but rather, Yau instead focuses on the humanity that is within Master Ip. It feels rather more authentic, natural that it even gets the look of Hong Kong right during this period from the late 40’s onto the 60’s.


Ip Man (Anthony Wong) is a struggling kung fu teacher in Hong Kong after he lost his fortune in Foshan. Here, the man meets the students who would make an impact in his life (played by Gillian Chung, Jiang Luxia, Timmy Hung, and Marvel Chow). Issues of poverty surround them, but they all manage to come together as some kind of family. One student is a cop named Tang Sing (Jordan Chan) and despite his instinct to be true to the principles taught him, hardship often lead him to take bribes. Yau seems to lean towards the portrayal of real-life Hong Kong during this time, than making Master Ip some kind of Huo Yuan Jia. He humanizes the narrative by illuminating his viewers with Ip Man’s values and principles, and how his story could paint a picture of the issues of British-colonized Hong Kong.

It was an approach that certainly felt more authentic with its simplicity. It carried themes as to how the teacher teaches his students, but a good teacher also learns from them. Master Ip’s principles come in the form of his response to the world around him. He is shown as a man of peace, that he would only engage in combat when truly needed. I know it may seem a little cliché, but the way it was executed was well-conceived, as his responses often come from the form of a loved one, his wife, Wing Shing (Anita Yuen) and later on, an illiterate singer that he befriends (Zhou Chuchu). His influence in the lives of his students also come into bear. They seek to stay true to his teachings, and yet, there would be times that would test their own principles. Students may stray and some may stay true, not for the lack of trying but merely their needs. These things were brought more into the light with the characters of Tang Sing and Wong Tung (played by Jordan Chan and Marvel Chow) as they took more of the spotlight in the story’s exposition. Yes, the screenplay may feel a little fragmented and some details were lacking, but with the inclusion of the voice over supposedly narrated by Master Ip’s son, it does strike a note as a biopic.



Anthony Wong carries most of the film’s burden as Master Ip. He plays a more humble, older, low-key portrayal that makes him feel more real. Those who’ve seen photos of the renowned master know that he does not look like Donnie Yen the action star or the heartthrob, Tony Leung, and Wong makes his appearance much closer to the man he is set to portray. Wong also does quite well in the action sequences, and they were used to express the values that he made his foundation. His duel with another Master (Eric Tsang who plays Master Ng) expressed a lot of the principles and the movements of the Wing Chun. The moves also felt more realistic, and spoke more to the spirit of Wing Chun, unlike Donnie Yen’s more flamboyant approach with the Sammo Hung rendered fight choreography. As expected, the film has a fair amount of students vs. students and students against masters encounters to keep the film from becoming too dramatic.

Not to say that the film did not do its part for showmanship, since the climactic final duel between Ip Man and the man called “Dragon” (Xiong Xin-Xin) may feel a little more stylized than most of the action scenes, but it proved its worth for an exclamation point. It was a nice approach to also include the ravaging of 1960’s Typhoon Wanda into the encounter. Yes, the martial arts skills come in full display, as a lion dance becomes a free-for-all with a villainous Master Ngai (Ken Lo) shows his stuff amid all the wooden poles. The fight sequences were well balanced and placed, as the more the movie went, the more exciting the encounters became. It was also a nice approach at humor when a journalist exaggerated the reaches of Ip Man’s skills, as if to make fun of what the public sees as superficial entertainment.


Before the film’s close, there is a reference to Bruce Lee, without the curious mention of his name. I am not sure, but it seemed to say that Lee was a self-promoter and would do anything to promote himself with the use of Wing Chun and Ip Man for personal gain. I may be mistaken, but the portrayal of Lee is telling; he embraces fame while Master Ip, the superior master is content with just standing amid a crowd. His more humble nature against Lee’s more advantageous approach. Herman Yau’s Ip Man does not idealize him nor makes him into an action hero, but instead, he focuses on his humility, discipline and the ability to be true to his values. I am not sure, the title “the Final Fight” may be catchy but it feels a little out of place for a movie that sought to bring forth the humble Master Ip. Highly Recommended! [4 Out of 5 Stars]

 ]]> Sun, 28 Jul 2013 04:23:38 +0000
<![CDATA[ Nostalgia only gets you so far]]> Blockbuster and picking out one of his many films on VHS. I saw just about all of them that were out at the time, from my favorites Godzilla VS King Ghidora and Godzilla VS Gigan to the not so great Godzilla VS The Sea Monster and Godzilla VS Mecha Godzilla. I think, up to Godzilla 2000, there were only one or two of his films that I hadn't seen. Needless to say the big G man holds a special place in my heart and he always will. I actually got to see Godzilla 2000 in the theaters way back in the day and my little brain could hardly handle the level of awesome I thought I was seeing. So how does this nostalgic classic I first saw when I was 11 live up now that I'm 24?

Not well, as a matter of fact. I mean yes, I get it, this is a Godzilla movie, I didn't pop this in expecting Shakspere or even Pacific Rim. All I really wanted was to see the hero of my childhood beat up on giant rubber monsters and destroy Tokyo for the fiftieth time. As cheesy and insane as these movies are the Godzilla fights were, for the most part, at least entertaining. It must take a lot of stamina to wear that big rubber suit effectively and actually make some cool fight scenes, but whoever is wearing it in this film didn't seem to have any. Godzilla just sort of waddles around like a toddler occasionally flailing his arms around and opening his mouth a little bit. He has no movement, no energy, nothing to make him exciting. My wife said it best when she said the monster battles reminded her of two old people awkwardly trying to fight one another and just falling over themselves in the process. Yeah, that's kind of what this movie is like. A giant old person waddling around for an entire movie until a second old person waddles in and awkwardly fights the first old person. Weird, never thought I'd describe a Godzilla movie like that, but there it is. At least the G man looks cool and his fire breath is pretty neat, otherwise the fights were be the biggest bore fests I've ever seen.

I'm not even going to judge the plot and characters all that much. I mean, let's be real. The story is ridiculous, the acting is atrocious, the writing had me busting out laughing at many points at how bad it was, but we expect that from this kind of movie. I mean, they didn't help, but there comes a time where even with that excuse its just way too silly to ignore. Like the end of the film when the main characters are explaining that Godzilla keeps protecting them because there's a little piece of him inside everyone while he's simultaneously destroying everything in sight right before their eyes. Protecting? He's freaking setting Tokyo on fire! On what planet is that considered protection?

In the movies defense at the time this was far and away the best of all the G films in terms of special effects. Take that with a grain of salt, mind you, as none of the G movies had anything special in terms of effects, but this one did look pretty decent. Though that may sound like backhanded praise, it's really not meant to be. The cities look great, the battles semi epic, and Godzilla is pretty damn cool. That Godzilla costume warrants the extra star all in itself. He looks great.

Well so much for that diversion into the films of my childhood. Though it did put a giant grin on my face to hear the Godzilla theme music as he smashes through Tokyo adult me just couldn't get into the spirit of things like eleven year old me could. Let's hope the Godzilla: King of the Monsters holds up better. Until then, cheers.]]> Fri, 19 Jul 2013 00:00:47 +0000
<![CDATA[ Operation NEW WORLD, That Is]]>
I have a long love affair with gangster pictures that stretches back a few decades.  American cinema enthusiasts may think differently, but, for me, there’s no better traditional gangster-style pictures produced anywhere in the world these days than the ones coming out of Korea.  Perhaps it’s the fact that there are so many triads from competing nations over there that I find the stories more interesting.  Perhaps it’s just that being removed from the shackles of the American studio system these foreign releases tend to feel more legitimate, more authentic, and more thrilling.  Perhaps it’s that these releases tend to be more auteur-inspired character pieces than anything being done anywhere else.  Whatever the reason, I went into NEW WORLD really looking forward to the experience.  I came out, however, not as enamored with it as I hoped I would’ve been.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Ja-sung Lee (played by the impressive Lee Jung-jae) is a deep cover police operative who’s spent the past ten years of his life climbing the corporate ladder within the Triad establishment.  His boss – police chief Kang (Min-sik Choi) – has promised him over and over again that he’s working on a method of extracting Lee from his life with the mob, that he needs him to just complete ‘one more mission’ for the team, and that his life will change.  But as the power structure within the criminal organization starts to shift dramatically, Kang realizes that he and his man has never been this close before; and if they play their cards right, they can make moves of their own that might just rip the gangland apart.
As is often the case in crime stories of this nature, nothing is quite what it seems, and solutions are always hard to come by.  Still, Ja-sung stays committed, even though he knows that his wife and the future of his unborn child rest in his chief’s experienced hands.

Perhaps that’s my issue here: writer/director Park Hoon-Jung went to great pains to paint NEW WORLD as his epic exploration of crime and a life of crime, but somewhere along the way he ended up essentially delivering something that audiences have seen before (and often before, especially from Korea).  As much as I wanted to find something fresh, something vibrant, and something new in there, I just didn’t, and methinks that weighed heavily on my mind, much the same way Ja-sung can’t shake the pressure holding him down.  It’s plenty stylish.  It’s well staged and wonderfully shot.  But it’s also bloated (way too long at 135 minutes) and more than a bit sluggish.
Certainly, Min-sik and Lee are in top form as the officers constantly waging a battle against the kingpins that they’re destined to lose.  The two are given some terrific material (Park’s script certainly hits all of the right buttons, if not a bit too predictably), and there’s even two other equally impressive performances from Seong-Woong Park as menacing criminal overlord Joong-ju and Jeong-min Hwang as the slightly demented boss, Jung.  Still, the film can’t quite escape it’s heavy “been there, done that” vibe.
At the end of the picture, one comes to realize that the story is all about allegiance – how we build them, how we maintain them, and how far we’re willing to go to preserve them.  All of that is handled crisply when the opportunities are presented; had they not been so far spaced out in between the moments of clarity, I think I would’ve definitely enjoyed this one much more than I did.  As it stands, NEW WORLD didn’t come off all that ‘new’ to this reviewer.

NEW WORLD (2013) is produced by Next Entertainment World, Inc. and Sanai Pictures Co., Ltd.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through Well Go USA.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Korean spoken language release with English subtitles available.  As for the technical specifications, Park Hoon-Jung continues to set the bar immeasurably with impressive sights and sounds; I’m even recommend that the film is worth further study by film school nuts and nerds.  As is often the case when these foreign releases find distribution on American shores, this disc boasts no significant special features save for a five-minute ‘making of’ short, and brief photo gallery, and the theatrical trailer.
RECOMMENDED.  As much as I wanted to love NEW WORLD, I only ended up liking it, and, even then, I only liked it modestly.  It’s far too long, staged as an epic with unnecessarily drawn out cinematography over its massive set pieces, and there’s very little (if any) emotional attachment to its characters.  In fact, one could make the case that it’s mostly a clinical, academic exercise on Park Hoon-Jung’s part when it should’ve been more about these men.  There’s even an all-too-brief few minute coda tacked on after what audiences are led to believe is the closing scene that, narratively, should’ve been on the front end; but, for the sake of art, the director pasted it on the end … like a figurative band-aid or something.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with a DVD copy of NEW WORLD by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Thu, 18 Jul 2013 22:51:55 +0000
<![CDATA[ Alive or Dead...Haunted or Not...One is the Product of Their Past]]>

The set up is pretty standard and brings to light just how so many schools have their own share of unique ghost stories and some of them may actually be true. A freshman named Teiichi Niiya (Tsubasa Yonaga) stumbles into the school’s unused wing and he encounters Yuuko Kanoe (Yumi Hara), a sexy teenager who may or may be the source of all the school’s creepy stories. Yuuko is playful and kind, and quite pleasant to be with. It is also odd the Teiichi is able to see and touch her. Yuuko cannot remember the circumstances of her death or details of her past life, and so Teiichi forms the “Paranormal Investigation Club” with Yuuko as the unseen president. Soon, the club draws in two other students, an eager young girl who has a fondness for ghost stories named Okonogi Momoe (Misato Fukuen) and the granddaughter of Yuuko’s younger sister, Kirie Kanoe (Eri Kitamura). The three come together to solve the school’s many myths and lore. But then, things begin to take a turn for the worst, as a shadowy ghost appears to torment Yuuko herself.



This bluray collection includes the 13 episodes of the series, even though the 13th OVA episode “Maiden of Exorcism” had been re-titled “Ghost Girl” for the American release. The series have strong themes of tragic love, sacrifice and does have the capability to mix in horror and comedy successfully. The film does pick up rather quickly as episode one (actually occurs after episode three) comes forth with a very playful and humorous overtone as Yuuko plays around with an unsuspecting Okonogi, as an almost embarrassed Teiichi tries to work around the pranks. It was a nice touch, two scenes were combined creatively to make the episode much more effective in setting its tempo. After the conclusion of episode three, the series goes forth with the development of its characters as well as setting the groundwork for its core plot. The series establishes the mystery behind Yuuko’s ghost and the possibilities as to why she seemed stuck to this world.

I did enjoy how the series defined ‘a ghost’. Ghosts are energy and a left-over cycle of emotions, and the way people see ghosts are actually expressions of their personal fears. The relationship between Teiichi and Yuuko do take the center stage, and much of the series’ devices do revolve around them. I did enjoy the way the humor was timed (when they weren’t fan service) and how the story was developed. It did make several credible moves to make the viewer develop an attachment to the main characters. After episode 6, the series does take a relatively darker turn. As the clues and the groundwork set in the first 5 episodes begin to make sense. By episode 8, I felt as if the series was really going to go somewhere, as the mystery behind Yuuko’s ghost and her lack of memory begin to unfold. There is a very human theme that I liked in the series, as to how experiences define a person and how something tragic can indeed traumatize an individual. Its themes of acceptance and love were strong in its script, and they all served to make the final episodes much more effective. All the themes that I cared about began to drive the series’ momentum by episode 9.



The series does have amazing visuals. The layouts and set pieces were done in a way that truly felt like an old school. The camera shots were used to maximize the use of colors, as outdoor scenes feel much brighter than the indoor scenes, and the cinematography exuded an atmosphere that feels familiar and yet unique to this “Seikyou Academy”. The character designs were cleverly rendered, as Yuuko had the awesome figure (magnificently voiced by Yumi Hara), Kirie had the slender body but her legs are magnificent, and Okonogi appeared to be going through puberty a little too early. Teiichi does appear to be a little dorky, but he had his charm as he appeared to be a lot shorter than Yuuko. The animation work was done in a way that displayed artistic flair, it is curious that anime appears to take focus on visuals these days, rather than the development of a strong narrative.

There were creative touches that salvaged the series for me, given that I did not care much for the silly antics that had been called ‘fan service’, I thought the series could’ve done well enough without such things. I know, this is a romantic series at its core, and the display of boobs and such were a way to express the curiosity of the hot-blooded Japanese teenagers, but really, they did little to advance its plot. I did feel that the series could’ve done better if it focused on its horror elements and the mystery at its core. Much as the comedy felt pleasant, they did feel as if they set up the ‘fan service’. The series could’ve done just as well without the recurring cleavage shots and hinted sexuality. Don't get me wrong, I know they were there to make a point, but there were times that the boob shots were overplayed. The series also had some ‘fillers’ and it could’ve done without the inclusion of certain scenes.

Yes, the screenplay wasn’t as smooth as I could’ve wished, but “Dusk Maiden of Amnesia” had several strong points that almost outweighed the weak areas. I really enjoyed the way the emotions were brought into exposition in episodes 10-12. The way the series connected Yuuko’s suffering to everything else that were introduced in the series saved the series for me. It all made sense, and it does become a series not birthed for ‘fan service’ but rather a thoughtful one with ‘fan service’ as its major flaw. I also did not like the ending in episode 12 as it ruined the power of its tragic love story. Still, I believe that “Dusk Maiden of Amnesia” could find an audience, and it is worthy enough of a RENTAL. [3 Out of 5 Stars]

 ]]> Thu, 18 Jul 2013 05:40:05 +0000
<![CDATA[Akira (2001) Quick Tip by RabidChihuahua]]>
Akira was a favorite of mine for many years in the past 11 years of my anime fandom, though after giving it some deeper thought, I'll say it's good, but not the masterpiece everyone says it is.

Akira's weaker points are its character and theme development, since these felt a tad rushed in some areas.  However, it saves itself with its gripping action, heart-racing soundtrack, and amazing animation and artwork that's nearly unmatched.

Akira is a good sci-fi/action anime, but I suggest you read the manga instead, as that has much better character and theme development.]]> Tue, 16 Jul 2013 23:02:58 +0000
<![CDATA[Trigun Quick Tip by RabidChihuahua]]> It's been ten years since I saw Trigun, and even after all this time, I still can't fathom why so many people vehemently call this a classic in the anime genre, when it really has about as much artistic integrity as the Pokémon anime titles.

While the tones, forms of mature content, and art styles don't clash quite as hard with titles like Elfen Lied and High School of the Dead, it's still a salad bowl of elements that simply don't go together.  This anime tries to be serious and silly in great quantities throughout the whole series, and this was a huge annoyance to me.

Vash the Stampede is among the most annoying anime characters of all time.  He's a bunch of different personalities rolled into one, and his transitions from one personality to another at the drop of a hat are totally obnoxious.

It's like the creators of this anime couldn't decide to pick a certain tone and style to Trigun, so they just mashed everything together, which is among the absolute worst decisions you can make when creating anything in the artistic medium.

Quite frankly, I should get to work either drawing Batman beating the shit out of Vash or of The Punisher mowing Vash down with an M4 carbine loaded with armor-piercing bullets.

]]> Mon, 15 Jul 2013 03:20:24 +0000
<![CDATA[ Smart Talk on Skin: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun]]> th Century Fox released its hit comedy, NINE TO FIVE, which explored the personal and professional exploits of women in the workplace … as well as the men who exploited them.  Two years later, the premise of the film was turned into a hit TV show.  And the adult film industry has always loved to honor a successful mainstream film with a porn-fueled alternative, so what’s not to love about a film titled HORNY WORKING GIRL: FROM 5 TO 9?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Chieko Kuwano (played by the lovely Junko Asahina) is an up-and-coming office assistant manager to a corporate office in Japan.  She allows herself to be seduced by her new corporate boss in order to get ahead.  However, once she’s on-the-job for him, he loses interest in favor of his young, nubile administrative assistant Mari, which only brings the man more ire from his already unsatisfied wife, Mayumi.  What are three women to do?  Why, they’ll band together and turn the tables on the man if that means they can finally achieve their sexual revenge!
Without a doubt, HORNY WORKING GIRL: FROM 5 TO 9 intended to cash in on the whole NINE TO FIVE fad established by 20th Century Fox, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  The script by Shigeko Sato shamelessly borrows ideas and characters from the established film, and then he upends them into a comedy of manners for the workplace.  One could make a solid argument that most of the comedic elements still work even today as the trend for having powerful women in charge has only continued to grow since the early ‘80’s.
5 TO 9 opens with an infectious disco theme that serves to successful ‘date’ the film.  It practically informs today’s audience that they’re being magically transported to another time and another place for the purposes of this workday fable.  And not even five minutes in, the viewers are treated to their first sexual encounter … or so they’re led to believe!  Life, after all, is all about experimentation, and that’s what takes place throughout the film: everyone experiments with everyone else (or even the machines) for the purposes of sexual gratification or the fulfillment of fantasy.
There are plenty of ideas explored here.  Kuwano experiments with an ‘electric cream’ that’s supposed to enhance her libido, and it goes into high gear in the most inopportune moment.  There’s a brief schoolgirl fetish sequence (about the 16 min. mark) with a foreigner who needs to be watched in order to achieve intimacy.  There’s an obligatory shower scene (25 min. mark), and even a prescient “put ‘em on the glass” moment (32 min. mark) and much, much more crammed into the film’s lean, mean 66 minutes.
It’s worth mentioning that there’s an event in there that could serve to produce some controversy because of the way it’s handled creatively: Mari gets cornered in the corporate bathroom after hours by three surly men on the cleaning crew, and – as you might guess – they take turns having their way with the young woman.  However (and, no, I’m not justifying this, I’m only seeking to clarify it) the audience is soon to learn that she enjoyed it much more than she let on during that sequence, which is broken up by a similar escapade taking place in the boss’s office.  It’s all about fulfillment – not necessarily trying to make a social statement – as this is all intended to be ‘humorous.’
Much like what happens to set the final events in motion in NINE TO FIVE, the same goes down in 5 TO 9.  The women – seeking a kind of contemporary solidarity – band together first for solace, then for eroticism, and finally for all out retaliation against the man who’s inflicted so much personal pain (and pleasure) in their lives.  Don’t fret too much along the way, and you’ll find everyone gets a happy ending … and I guess that was a pun intended.
HORNY WORKING GIRL: FROM 5 TO 9 is produced by Miyo Akiyama and directed by Katsuhiko Fujii.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through Impulse Pictures under their Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Japanese spoken language release with English subtitles (no English dubbing available).  As for the technical specifications, the picture looks and sounds very solid, especially given the fact that this is over thirty years old and has probably been sitting in a vault since then.  As is often the case, this release is slim on extras: there’s only the original theatrical trailer and some liner notes (a brief essay) from Japanese film scholar Jasper Sharp.
RECOMMENDED.  Broad comedy works in sex and/or sex-related storytelling whereas undiluted farce tends to discourage audience members, and HORNY WORKING GIRL: FROM 5 TO 9’s winning formula of parodying the ideas of the Hollywood comedy 9 TO 5 (starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) proves a success here.  There are some moments played a bit too zany for my tastes, but, all-in-all, this one was clearly intended for good clean fun mostly (even a three-time bathroom sexual assault gets brushed over by the victim’s childish smile of delight once she’s discovered).
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Impulse Pictures provided me with a DVD copy of HORNY WORKING GIRL: FROM 5 TO 9 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Fri, 12 Jul 2013 20:12:37 +0000
<![CDATA[ A WICKED Little Sex Farce Whose Laughs Are About Thirty Years Too Old To Be Funny Today]]>  
Then there are ones like NURSE DIARY: WICKED FINGER.  Despite whatever bells and whistles it tries to sound, it sadly ends up being little more than comedy – bad comedy at that – perhaps better left to the vaults of history as they don’t offer up anything significant worth a second look.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Ryoko (played by a mousey Etsuko Hara) is a big city nurse who’s finally saved up enough to abandon the nurses’ dormitory in favor of her own little place.  This only serves as a source of conflict between her and her fellow nurses, as well as putting a crimp in her love life with the philandering Dr. Edagawa.  But, lo and behold, fate throws her a bone as she’s delighted to find she has a Peeping Tom admirer across the way who’s more than willing to give her the attention she so craves!
Impulse Pictures’ supplied advertising materials state that WICKED FINGER is only the first in a three-picture anthology under the NURSE DIARY heading, and I can only hope that the next two films have more to offer than some zany sex antics.  It isn’t that it’s an unsatisfying experience; rather, WICKED might be worth a few benign laughs.  But trust me when I say that’s about all it’s worth.  The picture tries to be entirely playful with every aspect of sexuality explored here – clearly it pokes fun at the nurse fetish and the whole ‘playing doctor’ fetish, but there’s moments of obvious voyeurism and even exhibitionism tied up amply in subplots too hammy to be anything but farcical.  There’s even a series of moments wherein the nurse has to instruct her new lover in the art of making love, and I’ve no doubt that’s a turn-on to many viewers.
What does work is the narrative device of the diary: Ryoko follows the calendar precisely as she recounts the events of a particular day and even her hopes and dreams for the future.  It’s clear that she’s intended to be the narrator to these adventures in amorousness; sadly, she doesn’t take part in all of them.  And because so much of what’s captured in here is clearly played so over-the-top, I don’t question whether or not it was all intended to be funny: the issue is that it isn’t – or, at least, it wasn’t to me – or that really puts the story on a narrow path to success or lack thereof.
As a one-off film, WICKED might be to your tastes.  It didn’t do much for me – as I’ve often maintained, I like to “talk” about, think about, and/or even analyze the message(s) hidden in there.  I didn’t see that this one had all that much worth exploring.
NURSE DIARY: WICKED FINGER is produced Yoshiyuki Umino and directed by Shinichi Shiratori.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through Impulse Pictures under their Nakkatsu Erotic Films Collection.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Japanese spoken language film with English subtitles.  As for the technical specifications, it actually all looks and sounds quite well for a 1979 kinda/sorta skin flick obviously shot on film; the Japanese 2.0 mono track is fairly solid, though there was an odd instance of ‘muddled’ dialogue at one point (not that I could’ve understood the native language anyway).  These releases are traditionally slim on special features, and WICKED is no exception: there’s only the original theatrical trailer and some liner notes (a brief essay) from Japanese film scholar Jasper Sharp (these are a very nice touch).
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED.  NURSE DIARY: WICKED FINGER is far from the most impressive Pinku films I’ve seen; but, in many ways, it kinda/sorta might end up being one of the strangest (which is why I’d give it more than a single star).  Parts of it play out as convention comedy while other parts clearly are reaching into the territory of all-out sexual farce but the slapstick presentation of sexual assault is handled so lampoon-ish it’s honestly hard to figure what to make of all of it.  Plus – as Pinku films go – this one is inordinately tame: there’s very, very little action, and what there is is so weirdly photographed and/or choreographed it’s almost as if director Shinichi Shiratori wanted his audience to feel as if they were reduced to voyeurs for his grand exhibitionists up on the silver screen.  That’s a bit too ‘thematic’ for my tastes.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Impulse Pictures provided me with a DVD copy of NURSE DIARY: WICKED FINGER by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Fri, 12 Jul 2013 19:17:57 +0000
<![CDATA[ Smart Talk On Skin: Not Too Many SECRETS Revealed Herein]]>  
I’ll dabble with the occasional Pink/Pinku film here and there, and this one – SECRETS OF A DESPERATE HOUSEWIFE – popped onto my radar by way of another online critic who suggested it.  For all of its 72 minutes, it’s mostly very tame by comparison to other films exploring similar themes and/or dalliances of this sort, but, to its credit, it does try to say something about the world these characters occupy.  Too bad it wasn’t all that interesting and/or relevant, but, at the very least, I give it credit for trying.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
SECRETS OF A DESPERATE HOUSEWIFE opens with an image of a man and a woman sitting on what would appear to be a sheltered park bench with the man holding the reins of the rope being used to keep the woman in bondage.  The image sparks several ideas – ownership, domination, transition, openness – but it’s gone about as quick as it’s revealed.  Then the film cuts to the lone woman – Sonoe (played with curious restraint – no pun intended – by Anri Suzuki) – lying alone in a rather plush-looking bed.  Accompanied by some haunting piano music that hints of her loneliness or isolation, she walks downstairs where she finds her husband, Seiji Nakahara (Zenkichi Yoneyama), sulking awake.  He can’t sleep – he’s worried about his business – and then the two part and go on their way.
Their relationship appears to be at some impasse.  With an almost glassy expression of happiness, Sonoe goes through the motions of fulfilling her role in their house … but it’s after hours – when the two are wrapped up in the expression of sexual release – that she finally appears alive, stimulated, and interested in her affairs.  Otherwise, her existence is little more than routine; in bed, however, Seiji binds her wrists, arms, and shoulders with rope, and (playfully) ravages her body to her apparent delight (she smiles ever-so-briefly near the end of their act).
In the world of finance, Seiji is not so lucky, it would seem, as one bad fiscal decision after another has position his company for a devastating takeover by Mr. Tsuyama.  Seiji’s friend and business partner – Yoshida – appeals to Sonoe to go and speak with Tsuyama, believing she may be able to use her feminine wiles to stave off the worst … but, as fate would have it, Tsuyama’s penchant for an aggressive takeover also happens to describe how he treats women.  Still, the gruff businessman introduces Sonoe to a stark reality – that how she lives her life sexually in private there are others engaged in performance art.  She’s seduced by this actuality – not entirely willingly – but enough so that it serves as her undoing.
If this all sounds a bit pedantic (if not dull), that’s probably because much of it is.  As hard as SECRETS tries to be about aggressive sexuality and/or one woman’s personal disillusionment, it really isn’t; there’s far too much subtext here to please fans expecting Pinku action, and there’s far too much Pinku action to legitimately interest fans of plain old adult drama.  SECRETS kinda/sorta feels like a film that never quite figured out what it wanted to be, and, as a result, ends up flailing with a script loosely based on the works of Oniroku Dan, “Japan’s master of eroticism.”  Ms. Suzuki tries hard (pun intended), but her performance outside of the bedroom is so plain one might stop to ask if she even realizes she’s being filmed.  Add to all of this the fact that the screenplay by Masashi Shimizu and (director) Yutaka Ohgi is so light on explanation and methinks more folks will feel lost in translation.
Still, all of the players manage to deliver up some nice sentiments in the last act (though part of it ends up unnecessarily bloody).  They almost serve up a respectable “true love conquers all,” and that’s a curious message indeed for a film about light S&M domination.
SECRETS OF A DESPERATE HOUSEWIFE is produced by Cinema Epoch, Groundbreaker, and The Klock Worx.  DVD distribution is being handled through Cinema Epoch.  As for the technical specifications, the picture looks and sounds mostly solid, though this is a story that has minimal dialogue.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Japanese spoken language release with English subtitles.  As is often the case when these smaller foreign films find distribution in the States, there are no real special features to speak of save a gallery of still from the production that, essentially, involve Ms. Suzuki in some of her more compromising positions.
RECOMMENDED.  Despite the kinda/sorta laconic pacing, there’s still plenty in SECRETS OF A DESPERATE HOUSEWIFE to get excited about; the downside is that it isn’t due to the traditional excess of sex and/or skin one would come to expect of a Pink/Pinku-style film.  What there is here is a curious drama about how a husband and a wife manage to endure despite events that would normally pull them apart – that they find one another again, as crazy as that may seem in this big, ol’ universe – and beat the odds.  Skin aficionados will likely find this one much too tame, while mainstream audiences will likely avoid it do to the packaging (which leads one to believe it’s heavy into more palatable S&M, though it isn’t).  An interesting misfire … but aren’t they all?]]> Mon, 8 Jul 2013 23:08:13 +0000
<![CDATA[ THE TOWER Is A Disaster Of Epic Proportions!]]>
In some corners, I can’t offer enough praise for the films coming out of South Korea.  It used to be – back when I just started exploring their flicks – they had the market on quality, pulpy actioners featuring slickly dressed guys who were quick with a gun and quicker with a steely glance.  Not long after that, their studios amped up their comedy exports, but, as is often the case with humor, those works didn’t translate as easily as one would’ve hoped for.  Then, Korean directors charged to the forefront with quality dramas – social commentaries confronting the loss of a national identity brought on by a new generation of young ones – and even some cutting edge adult-themed semi-erotic masterpieces.
Well, throughout the 1970’s, American films blazed a trail with the great disaster picture, and, thankfully, it’s finally found purchase in South Korea in the form of THE TOWER, a stunning tour-de-force that quite frankly is about as close to perfection as I think you can get.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then this may not be for you!  Instead, I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
It’s Christmas Eve – the heart of the silly season – and everyone’s wearing a smile inside Seoul’s ultra-chic, ultra-glamorous twin-tower high-rise, Tower Sky: it’s a pair of skyscrapers – joined by a glass sky-bridge – that houses elite tenants, restaurants, and shops.  However, something goes unthinkably wrong, putting scores of people in great danger as one of the buildings is struck by an out-of-control helicopter, igniting a blaze that traps residents and guests alike!
Like those American films of the 70’s I referenced above, THE TOWER has a bit of everything in the people department.  There are easily a dozen stories involving the wealthy residents and/or the middle class workers and/or the firefighting heroes who respond to the call to danger.  Every single character here is presented in the midst of some minor crisis, the brunt of which will all be forced to a head during a magical Christmas Eve celebration.  Of course – as is often the case – it’s the reveling in the excess that inevitably causes the disaster that fuels the greater action/drama about to unfold, and it’s all handled with tremendous grace under pressure by the accomplished film veterans (behind the camera and before it) of South Korea.
In fact, THE TOWER is exactly the kind of human drama America’s Hollywood used to make before bloated special effects and CGI-enhanced heroics became the norm.  It’s a shame that studios on this side of the ocean appear so disinterested in human characters – a little girl wishing his daddy to have a wife, a veteran firefighter who’ll sacrifice any measure of personal happiness in order to save others, an elderly widower trying to find love again, a pregnant woman being the only one who’ll stop and help others in distress – because there’s far more heart, love, and soul in this TOWER than I’ve seen in anything American-made this year (or last, for that matter).  This is exactly the kind of Herculean effort I’d pay twice to see up on the big screen where it belonged with its authentic people in crisis doing what’s necessary to survive as their very high-tech civilization begins falling apart all around them.
Granted, disaster films have always had a reputation with some as being ‘easy entertainment’ – the premise is practically founded on investment with characters and then requiring audiences to care about them.  But when it’s all done and delivered as perfectly as is THE TOWER, then that’s a cause for celebration, indeed.
THE TOWER is produced by CJ Entertainment, and DVD distribution is being handled by the same.  As for the technical specifications … wow!  The film delivers sights and sounds of the highest order with some increasingly spectacular cinematography and some frenetic special effects work.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Korean spoken language release with English subtitles OR there’s an English-dubbing track available.  Lastly, there’s a handful of special features, including some deleted scenes (storywise, nothing much is missing) and two production featurettes (each about ten minutes) that deal with bringing this wonderful disaster flick to life.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  Yes, some might dismiss it as entirely formulaic, but it’s a formula of the highest order.  Once it gets to the disaster, THE TOWER is a non-stop adrenaline rush of epic proportions.  It presses all of the right buttons – personal stories of poignancy, professional stories of heroism against all odds – in just the right places.  And it doesn’t hurt that it’s overflowing with impressive stunt work and eye-popping special effects to keep every viewer on the edge of his or her seat!  This is exactly the kind of opus expects from South Korea, folks, so sit up and take notice.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at CJ Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of THE TOWER by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Mon, 8 Jul 2013 22:23:26 +0000
<![CDATA[ The Impostor Who Became King and the King Who Became Inspired by The Impostor]]> aka. Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King) is a film based on a real king during the Joseon era. The film is currently the 4th highest grossing Korean film of all time and has earned numerous awards in Asia. It is a fictionalized account of the missing 15 days in the annals of Joseon Dynasty during his reign; designated by his 1616 entry in his journal: “One must not record that which he wishes to hide.”

The film has some similarities to the story of “The Prince and the Pauper” as it brings into its narrative the story of Gwanghae. The film begins as King Gwanghae (Lee Byung-Hun, from A Bittersweet Life and will star in the upcoming American film RED 2) who orders his councilor Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-Ryong) to find him a double for him to avoid constant attempts at his life. Heo Gyun finds a performer-comedian named Ha-Sun, who has a remarkable resemblance to the king. As they feared the king is drugged, close to death. They propose that Ha-Sun take over the reins of the king while he recovers. Heo Gyun grooms the lowly comedian to act and speak like the king. But once Ha-Sun takes over the role of the king, he begins to ponder the arguments within the king’s court and soon, his more humanist views encourage him to make changes of his own. His demeanor also changes the morale of the courtesans and the servants within the court, as he makes changes due to different insights and political views. Even Heo Gyun and the queen (Han Hyo-joo) herself begins to think that he may be a more conscientious ruler than Gwanghae himself. But such drastic moves also inspires a lot of questions, and Gwanghae’s opposition led by Park Chung-Seo (Kim Myung-Gon) is determined to act on his own suspicions.

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I do have to admit, the core of its plot can get pretty predictable. Only one of three possible of outcomes can turn up from such a premise. Despite this weakness, the film does never lose a step. The screenplay was immaculately written, and it knew exactly how to bring the film’s intentions into exposition. The direction by Cho Chang-Min was also very careful and makes an effort to develop certain areas in the script. It takes its time to introduce the main characters, and it makes them quite easily to be attached to. The film is remarkably balanced, despite having some familiar Shakespearean themes wrapped around its script, and admittedly there is a sense of darkness around it, the balance of melodrama, grim elements and even light humor were all executed well into the flow of the script. All the emotions were flawlessly played into its script, and this served to make the characters much more interesting than they really were. Korean costume epics always had a way with developing its narrative and characters, and despite some cliché around some of its devices, the film never loses a step and becomes a very effective drama-costume epic.

The film has certain themes that feel familiar and yet, its delivery felt natural and very enthralling. The way it manages to develop certain factors such as Ha-sun’s development from a simple ‘nobody’ into someone inherently noble was very meticulous. You see the change around the character as he interacts with servants, officials and the script even takes care to make those around him feel like a significant part of its story. Kim In-kwon (The Tower) who plays the king’s bodyguard and Shim Eun-Kyung who plays the food taster became essential parts of the plot’s development and the roots of the Ha-Sun character. The cinematography and the set designs were impressive and followed what had been established before in Korean costume dramas to give it a feeling of authenticity and familiarity; this is after all based on a real person, so the production designs stayed close to reality as possible.

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I know much of the film falls upon Lee Byung-Hun’s performance, and as always the actor delivers. Playing the part of dual roles is no easy task, but the actor was able to define the differences between the king and Ha-sun that it was believable that they were indeed two different people. Even the way he works his expressions and gestures felt like a piece of two different personalities, and I wonder why Hollywood would waste such talent with movies like G.I. Joe when the man could easily hold the attention of his viewer.

The supporting characters were also excellent. Han Hyo-Joo was terrific as the queen who develops conflicted feelings between the real king and the impostor. She also brings a sense of elegance to the screenplay, and she was so alluring that it would be hard to keep one’s eyes off of her. Ryu Seung-Ryung and Jang Gwang were also fantastic as the king’s top aides. They bring an important sense of empathy in their performances, and they made the dimensions of the Ha-Sun character feel convincing. Some characters did carry that stigma of cliché, such as the corrupt officials who are more into personal interests than serving the kingdom itself and admittedly, this was an area that was a little ignored, but the main characters carried the film’s burden marvelously.

“Masquerade” is a film that has weaknesses. It is a little predictable and yet, the film has no problems enthralling the viewer. The screenplay was steady and confident, the direction was meticulous in bringing things into exposition. The superb performances easily made me a believer that this may have indeed possibly taken place. Lee Byung-Hun deserved every accolade he had received, as he mesmerizes and dazzles his viewers. Combine that with a capable supporting cast, “Masquerade” supplants its small weaknesses and becomes a great film. Highly Recommended [4+ Out of 5 Stars]

 ]]> Mon, 8 Jul 2013 04:06:15 +0000
<![CDATA[ Korean "Towering Inferno" Has Heat Despite Some Cold Areas in its Screenplay]]> Sector 7”, but I guess I was curious how director Kim Ji-Hoon would fare in a disaster movie. “The Tower” is a film that has been inspired by the classic “The Towering Inferno” or at least it appears to be as such. As with most disaster movies such as “Tidal Wave”, “2012”, “Volcano” and “The Day After Tomorrow”, this film takes a simple premise such as a tale of heroism and sacrifice into a display of special effects.

The set up of the movie is pretty pedestrian. A high-rise building that houses the rich and new lottery winners. Despite the money put in its construction, it was made for superficial reasons and was hardly made with ‘practicality’ in mind. During a Christmas party, an accident causes the huge towering skyscraper to turn into an inferno as the heroic firefighters mobilize to save the lives of those within.


At the film's first act, the viewer is taken for a ride to establish who the main characters would be and just who they are and how they move around their lives. As such the film does fall under the areas of cliché, the screenplay doesn’t exactly go for something more imaginative seeing as how there would be a lot of characters in the film. However, the film does take the central focus on certain characters, while allowing the rest of the characters to be caricatures. You know exactly who would be fodder and who would play a bigger part in the script. I know this wasn’t exactly a bad thing, but it does somehow already call its shots early. It does become predictable, despite the fact that one wouldn’t exactly know how the central characters would play into its screenplay.

Elements of brotherhood and family were introduced in the way the firemen and the building employees interacted. The film also injects a social commentary about the wealthy, political power, human error and arrogance and persons of authority. It touches upon but the film does not really go that far into the areas that would’ve made it much more compelling. I thought it was a weakness of the script to introduce such things and yet play it safe. I know the movie probably wanted to easily relate to the viewer in establishing a look to the characters’ personal lives, but really, the characters weren’t all that different from the ones we’ve seen in other films. The film does serve up a lot of emotional scenes, and certain things connected, but the direction was a little too unpolished with its bouts with tonal shifts. The film puts in some touches of humor and they felt misplaced at certain areas in the plot. The comedy did become a little annoying, and I thought it hurt the pacing.



Once the film goes into the actual disaster, it does take off. It then takes its focus on the firemen and the central characters. “Ladder 49” and even “Armageddon” comes to mind with some scenes that felt like a homage to “Towering Inferno” and “Backdraft”. If one wants to talk special effects, the film does do a great job. It was easy to feel the urgency and the perils of the situation, as the shots truly did make one feel that it was an inferno. The set designs were done in a way to exude the lifestyle of the rich until the towering structure became something very close to hell. I thought that the movie did a good job in animating the damage to the structure and how certain laws of physics were made to make the disaster feel more realistic. It was a film about the race against time, with elements that feel like a chase movie with the fire close behind.

There were key scenes that made the movie work, while some became overly predictable (the remote and so forth). Despite the flaws in the script, the performances were decent and some were even good. Sol Kyung-Gu (Silmido) did a credible job in his portrayal as the captain of the firemen. Kim Sang Kyung played the single father who has un-proclaimed feelings for Son Ye-Jin’s (Open City) character, and despite the clichés of their relationship, it made some plot set ups much more effective. Ahn Sung-Ki (Arahan) was a little underused in the script as his dealings with the “commissioner” (Kwon Tae-Won) only made moderate narrative impact in the film’s first half. In-Kwon Kim played one supporting character that easily won me over with his antics both in its dramatic and funny moments. Cha In-Pyo plays the owner of the structure and who stands to lose everything. Unfortunately, his character made a small impact in the film’s overall script. 


Lately, I have noticed that the majority of recent Korean and Chinese films often try to emulate Hollywood,  and “The Tower” is such a film that could’ve been much more if the filmmakers wanted to go a little bit further. While I thought it could’ve been better, the script was able to get certain points across, such as the definition of sacrifice and just how ‘smaller’ people tend to lose more in the face of such tragedy. It wasn’t afraid to show an ugly reality about the rich and the poor, the ones with political power and the ones who can considered as the ‘grunts’ of public servitude. It also manages to express a thought about pets and that they should not be more important than actual people. “The Tower” was an entertaining film that served up moderate suspense and impressed with special effects. The screenplay just needed a lot of smoothing over, as certain tonal shifts proved to be bothersome. There were some scenes which were unintentionally hilarious, and it hampered its flow. No, “The Tower” isn’t a bad movie, but rather an entertaining one among the ranks of commercial disaster movies. I do think it was better than “The Towering Inferno” and as an intended remake(?), it succeeds. Mild Recommendation, Rent it First [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]

 ]]> Fri, 5 Jul 2013 14:08:21 +0000
<![CDATA[ HERO Is As Hero Does!]]>
Unlike many other critics I know and correspond with, I tend to struggle with traditional martial arts movies.  It isn’t that I don’t like or I don’t find them particularly entertaining because that’s far from the truth.  Rather, I tend to think that my ‘disassociation’ from them thematically is that I just don’t identify with the ‘struggle’ to learn or master a particular fighting style.  Maybe that’s because, growing up, I didn’t much partake in sports regularly, so I don’t always see the fascination with mastering one’s physique in the same way.  However, when a martial arts film comes along that has a winning story and actors with some impressive command of their fisticuffs AND the ability to muster a solid screen presence, then I’m usually hooked.
If you’re here reading this modest review for TAI CHI HERO and you’re a bit lost, maybe you haven’t seen the first chapter, TAI CHI ZERO (or TAI CHI 0 as some sites have it listed)?  You might want to watch that one before you adventure into this installment, otherwise you’re not going to legitimately appreciate these crazy, zany characters and what they add uniquely to this crazy, zany world.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then this may not be for you!  Instead, I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
This sequel to TAI CHI ZERO – actually, it’s part two of a planned trilogy – continues to depict the adventures and misadventures involving the people of Chen Village, masters of Chen-style kung fu – benefits from a stronger thematic story focusing on brotherhood, family, and redemption … and it also benefits from some sharper editing that slowed down small portions of the first film.  Working from a story by Kuo-fu Chen, director Sammo Hung serves up another helping for fans of traditional martial arts films as well as their friends and family who get dragged along to the flick not knowing what to expect.
When we last visited Chen Village, the residents nearly fell under the attack orchestrated by Fang Zi Jing (played with suitable menace by Eddie Peng) and a huge, steam-powered tank.  Lu Chan (our hero, played by Jayden Yuan) and his budding love interest Yu Niang (Angela Yeung Wing, aka ‘Angelbaby’) were only on the verge of something special, but this time out – in order for the village elders to bless Lu Chan with proper training in their martial arts – Master Chen Chang Xing (the legendary Tony Leung Ka Fei) orders his daughter to properly wed the young misfit in order to eliminate his ‘outsider’ status.  While she begrudgingly agrees to the marriage, she also insists that Lu Chan behave as her student (she will be conducting his training) as well as call her ‘master.’  It’s a comedy of manners as the two slowly succumbs to their true affections for one another and discover love, all the while trying to save their small mountain city from Fang’s approaching army!
Like the first film, HERO is bursting at the seams with some amazing fight choreography (most of it is entirely bloodless and fairly family-friendly … so long as you’re okay with little Timmy or Susie watching the kung fu).  Also, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t point out that there’s some stunningly wonderful cinematography captured in here; both the big moments (some stunning vistas) and the smaller (some more intimate close-ups of the players) are handled with great depth and care.  If anything, one could make an argument that these TAI CHI films are beautifully packaged by all involved; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was director Hung’s intent – to deliver a big epic – because it all feels quite deliberate.
Still, I found this one a bit smaller, a bit more intimate than the first visit to this universe, and I think that strongly aided the story.  There’s more emphasis on character – the script tinkers almost as elaborately with themes of family and tradition as much as it does machines and gadgets – and, as such, there’s more here for these talented players to work with.  Much in the same way that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK added to the mysticism and the mythology of the original STAR WARS, TAI CHI HERO serves up a middle chapter that, no doubt, should have fans clamoring for more.
I know I will be.
TAI CHI HERO is produced by Huayi Brothers & Taihe Film Investment and Diversion Pictures.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through the always reliable Well Go USA.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Chinese language picture with English subtitles; packaging indicates there is an English-dubbing track available, but I didn’t use it.  As for the technical specifications, I can’t shout a WOW big enough; this picture looks and sounds incredible from start to finish with increasingly impressive cinematography.  (There’s a healthy amount of slow-motion photography, but, given the circumstances of the story and choreography, I didn’t find any of it over-used as can be the case with some films.)  Lastly, the disc rounds out the special features with the theatrical trailer and a 60-minute making-of documentary that takes viewers behind-the-scenes with production snippets and short interviews.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  Fun, frenetic, and even sometimes frivolous, there’s still much to love about TAI CHI HERO, the second installment in a proposed trilogy dealing when Chen-style kung fu (which gets royally renamed as simply ‘Tai Chi’ this time out).  It boasts some terrifically heroic characters for an action comedy; it delivers a visually exciting world that continues to combine elements of traditional Chinese films along with steampunk and anime inspirations; and it puts eye-popping martial arts action up on the silver (or small) screen in a reverential manner befitting the masters and grandmasters who study it.  Plus, did I mention it was just good clean fun?  (Yeah, I did.  Right up front.  My bad.)
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with a DVD copy of TAI CHI HERO by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Mon, 1 Jul 2013 17:39:00 +0000