Thursday, September 21, 2017

mother! (2017)

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Notable Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, Stephen McHattie

The artistic and atmospheric slant of horror films has seen a burst of activity in the last handful of years and it has garnered quite a bit of attention from critics AND the more casual film goer. This has seen a handful of films that normally would be pushed down to straight to home video status or limited release get a full theatrical drop. Some of these even have full backing support from studios. It’s this success, even on a small scale, that allowed mother! to get a much larger release than expected. It helps immensely when one considers the stacked casting and the appeal of artistic director Darren Aronofsky, but mother! is the kind of film that was definitely going to rub mainstream audiences the wrong way and it’s now well publicized ‘F’ Cinemascore from viewers solidifies that notion. Yet, mother! is not nearly as terrible as some critics and most audiences would have one believe. In fact, it’s an ambitious, provocative, and fully realized piece of cinematic art that pushes the boundaries. In a way, whether one agrees with the choices made in narrative or style of the film, it should be respected as a film that opens up an entire audience to an artistic version of horror film making that they may not have seen before. For that, mother! deserves some serious credit.

Ken and Kazu (2015)

Director: Shoji Hiroshi

Notable Cast: Shinsuke Kato, Katsuya Maiguma, Shuna Iijima, Kisetsu Fujiwara, Haruki Takano, Daisuke Ehara, Takuya Sugiwama

Every once in a great while, a film with real potential to become a great classic comes along, but it fails to be seen by enough people, thus rendering it into the obscurities of a sleeper hit. Ken and Kazu is that film in a nutshell. It's micro budget approach never hinders its big picture vision or execution. This is essentially a Best Picture nominee, without all of the fluff. In an ideal world, Japan would've chosen this film as its submission for the Academy Awards, and it would've been shortlisted, but it's always the gems like this that only get so far, but I digress. Ken and Kazu is a gripping tale of brotherhood, drugs, and redemption. Director Shoji Hiroshi crafts one of the strongest debuts in years, and sets him in a position to become one of contemporary Japan's cinema giants.

The titular characters of this drama work together at an auto repair shop, using it as a basis to stem off of and cover up their slowly flourishing drug trafficking job on the side, or rather front and center in a quick and sudden increasing manner. Ken's girlfriend is pregnant with his child and he needs to raise enough money to ensure his soon to be offspring has the ideal lifestyle that it needs to be provided with. His perfect envisionment of his family to be drives his motivation to peddle these drugs, as much as he really doesn't want to. Juxtapose his loving and giving attitude with that of his partner in crime, Kazu, fueled by hatred and an obligation to take his Alzheimer's stricken mother off of his back and put her into a facility, where according to him, she belongs. Despite their opposite characteristics and life philosophies, the two have an inexplicable bond of brotherhood that draws them together, and their common struggles keep that threatening occupation of theirs okay with them in their minds, to varying degrees. Despite Ken clearly wanting to leave the chaos behind him in wake of a new upbringing with his child and significant other, money keeps bringing him in closer to Kazu, and the two find themselves falling deeper into this dark rabbit hole, incapable of escaping their destructive partnership.

Brothers, for all the wrong reasons.
Ken and Kazu absolutely devastated and blew me away. All I knew going in is that it was based on a short film of the same name that Hiroshi had done a few years prior, and that it was shot on a shoestring budget, though the figure is unknown to me, and that it had all the workings of a proper thriller done with much more funding typically. All of these things are true, and more. The film features some of the finest acting I've seen in some time. Shinsuke Kato as Ken kept the film from falling into complete nihilism. It's dark sure, but his humanity and heart shines through, giving this dark ride and sense of hope, and it adds a layer of weight to all of the drama that incurs throughout. Kazu on the other hand, though excellent in portrayal as well by Katsuya Maiguma, is a beast of a different nature. His acting is fierce and he is intense throughout, even when little fragments of his inner most being shine through, he never loses that real tough guy demeanor that he so casually displays. The two leads have the perfect chemistry together that keeps the drama raw and the ride along the way breathtaking.

The technical finesse is on point here as well, with once again, director Hiroshi really knowing what to do at the helm. It's clear he has a true passion, or at least fascination by the subject matter, and a lot of research had went into this before shooting and even writing the screenplay. In a sense, it reminded me of the gritty portrayal of a man heading toward the bottom fringes of society, whose heart and budding love life ultimately factors into his wanting to leave his corrupt ways behind, as similarly seen back in 1983's Ryuji, although the two are quite different in certain regards. Without trying to lean too heavily on comparisons, as this most certainly stands strong on its own to feet, I also couldn't help but be reminded of another similar low budget feature that punched me in the gut some years back, Yang Ik-june's 2009 underrated masterclass in, once again, another human drama on people of that certain side of society, driven to the edge, Breathless.

Shinsuke Kato's performance as Ken is
one of my favorites in recent years.
Comparisons aside, and they are more so reminders of equally great work more than anything, Ken and Kazu confidently delivers one of the finest drug based dramas in a very long time. I'm not quite sure where to rank it in accordance to the year it came out (2015 for world premiere, '16 for Japan general release, or '18 with TWF's forthcoming release), but pick any of the three, and it easily sits in a top 10 of the year list. Frankly it's the best drama I've seen since the aforementioned Breathless, nearly a decade ago now. I cannot stress how excellent of a film this is. It belongs in a plethora of some of Japan's finest modern outings. If you do yourself one cinema favor in 2018, make sure you seek this one out. It's indie enough to appeal to the more arthouse crowd but has the weight and intensity of a well crafted thriller to appeal to a broader, more mainstream audience. The more that see it the merrier frankly. I could go into an infinite loop for the next several years, but I'll shout it only once more, see this film!

Written by Josh Parmer

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Shaolin Iron Finger (1977) / The Legendary Strike (1978)

SHAOLIN IRON FINGER (1977)

Director: Wang Hung-Chang
Notable Cast: Carter Wong, Kam Kong, James Tin Chuen, Ricky Cheng, Woo Gam, Wai Wang, Yam Ho, Wan Chung-Shan, Yen Chung, Chin Lung

Outside of being a fan of Carter Wong, it was fairly easy to go into Shaolin Iron Finger with relatively no expectations. Yet, even with nothing to get my hopes up for expectations, the film tends to be underwhelming overall and finds itself the victim of a plethora of missed opportunities. It’s a shame too because the core story about a revolution imploding on itself is interesting and the fight work is decently done to be entertaining and fun, but the combination proves to be a mismatch. It’s awkward for most of its run time and not even some clever use of settings and a strong third act of martial arts action can save it.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Big Heat (1988)

Directors: Andrew Kam, Johnnie To
Notable Cast: Waise Lee, Matthew Wong, Phillip Kwok, Lionel Lo, Paul Chu, Betty Mak, Peter Lai, Stuart Ong, Robin Shou

There’s always a sense of shock and accomplishment when one discovers an overlooked diamond of a film out there in the black holes of the cinematic void. This is the feeling that overcame me when I sat down to watch the Hong Kong action flick The Big Heat with my brother the other day. As a fan of the cops n’ criminals genre of Hong Kong action flicks from the 80s and early 90s, I was also a tad shocked that this one has flown under the radar. Not only is this film good, but it’s packed with a phenomenal cast and co-directed by one of Hong Kong’s greatest directors, Johnnie To. The film itself is ripe with wonderful artistic direction, massively entertaining and vicious action sequences, and a darkness to its police team narrative that gives it an impressive depth. The Big Heat, despite its generic title, deserves to be listed among some of the best of the style and belongs up there in the ranks of classics from John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Iron Protector (2017)

Director: Yue Song
Notable Cast: Yue Song, Michael Chan, Collin Chou, Xing Yu, Li YuFei
Also known as: The Bodyguard, Super Bodyguard

It took a while and a couple of full watches, but Iron Protector finally clicks for me. The reason it takes a little bit is that, due to the hype machine when it was initially released in China and the various trailers released for the film that had me hooked, expectations for the film are in line with it being an old school Hong Kong action flick with stunts galore and an overly serious approach to its plotting and narrative. This is not entirely the case with Iron Protector. For all of the hoopla made over Yue Song being ‘the next Bruce Lee,’ Iron Protector makes a better case for Yue Song at being the next Stephen Chow – just with more stunts and action. As it turns out, this film is a full-blown action comedy at times and our star, who also serves as the director, is admirably good at pulling off the slapstick and often overzealous comedic routines with the seriousness of an 80s Hong Kong action star. The result is much better (and much different) than expected.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Fires on the Plain (2014)

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto

Notable Cast: Shinya Tsukamoto, Lily Franky, Tatsuya Nakamura, Yusaku Mori, Yuko Nakamura

Being completely upfront before we move on with this review: 1) I have not seen the original film, which this film only loosely takes notes from I hear, and 2) I have not read the original novel. That out of the way, I have seen every single Shinya Tsukamoto film to date (save Hiruko the Goblin, which is changing very soon). Going into this film as a huge Tsukamoto admirer, to the point that he is in a three-way tie for my favorite director, I had quite the expectations. Needless to say, I wasn't let down by his newest outing whatsoever, and it was great to see Tsukamoto finally make that film on the horrors of war that he has wanted to for years. Fires on the Plain is a very gory, and harrowing look at men who aren't on the front lines, but rather haunted by their unfamiliar surroundings that quickly consume them and morph these soldiers into very different beings, capable of the unspeakable.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Slayer (1982)

Director: J.S. Cardone
Notable Cast: Sarah Kendall, Frederick J. Flynn, Carol Kottenbrook, Alan McRae, Michael Holmes, Carl Kraines

It’s hard to have expectations when heading into a film when the film has been notoriously missing from general conscious for years. This is the case of The Slayer. While there was certainly some hype for the film, enough so that it was easily one of the most requested titles I saw in comments and threads for Arrow Video to release, it’s hard to know if the hype is simply there for it to get a release let alone if it deserves a pristine release. Yet, as the credits rolled on The Slayer, it was easy to see why it had accumulated such an aura as a ‘missing classic’ from the 80s horror brand. Not only is it a slasher at its core, but it’s an odd one that down plays the tropes in an effort to create a much more suffocating atmosphere that’s more akin to a giallo or Lovecraftian exercise of existential dread than it is about kills and thrills. It’s an approach that, even with its flaws, is highly respectable and deserves to be seen by a larger audience.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Director: David F. Sandberg
Notable Cast: Talitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Lulu Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto, Grace Fulton, Philippa Coulthard, Samara Lee, Tayler Buck, Lou Lou Safran

After the original Annabelle did substantial box office numbers a couple of years ago, it didn’t require some other worldly demonic signs to see that it was going to get a continuation. Not to mention it was a spinoff of the already super popular Conjuring franchise. So, like it or not, the spin off was getting a franchise. The result was Annabelle: Creation. While the first entry was something of a forgettable and mediocre effort at trying to recreate the Conjuring elements without being a knock off instead of a spin off, there is an ace in the sleeve for this prequel (to a prequel, might I add.) An ace named David F. Sandberg. Granted, this prequel certainly has its flaws in the script, but Annabelle: Creation is remarkably fun and is lifted above the mediocre aspects by a very talented young director. It’s not necessarily the runaway critical and fan friendly hit that the main Conjuring films are, but it’s easily better than its predecessor and retains faith in the strength of this Conjuring-verse.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Legend of the Naga Pearls (2017)

Director: Yang Lei
Notable Cast: Darren Wang, Zhang Tianai, Sheng Guansen, Simon Yam, Wang Xun, Zhao Jian, Xing Yu, Hu Bing, Sui He

From the outside, it seems that Chinese film audiences love big, special effects packed spectacle films. Even when a film is more personal and less fantasy driven, like the record breaking Wolf Warrior II, it follows the pattern that audiences love to be entertained by the outrageous more than anything. Which is why Legend of the Naga Pearls seems so fitting. Even for those more in tune with the robust style of Hollywood, this film can seem a bit overwhelming as it takes the popular fantasy adventure film and slathers it with stylish elements of the popular tomb raiding design and classic wuxia aspects. As a film, obviously meant to be more of a family friendly affair, Legend of the Naga Pearls is not groundbreaking and it follows a lot of tropes that make it predictable and easy to consume as a narrative. Yet, it also carries with it a rambunctious energy and spirit that makes the more ridiculous nature of its style and the bland plotting something much better than it should be. Legend of the Naga Pearls is big, spectacular fantasy action with enough charm to quench the blockbuster popcorn tone that it’s aiming for even if the foundation its built on is thin.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Villainess (2017)

Director: Jung Byung-gil
Notable Cast: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Song Joon, Kim Seo-hyung, Jo Eun-ji, Lee Seung-joo, Son Min-ji, Min Ye-ji, Kim Yeon-woo, Jung Hae-kyun, Kim Hye-na

The hype machine can be a film’s dream come true for the box office numbers and sales, but it can certainly wreak havoc on someone’s expectations going into the film too. This was one of the reasons that I attempted to keep my hopes down for The Villainess. The trailers sure did look slick and fun, but the tidal wave of positive and gushing reviews almost seemed too good to be true for a film that looked like John Wick collided with Hardcore Henry with Korean cinematic flair of The Suspect. Yet, as the credits rolled on The Villainess there was an aura that the film wholly accomplished what it intended and did it admirably well considering some of the potential pitfalls of its story and stylistic choices.  It’s not a film for everyone. It’s not a film that intends to be an arthouse experience with action like so many Korean films attempt (and/or accomplish) at being. It’s a film that intends to be an action film of high caliber and one that writes a love letter to the genre with all kinds of variety and style.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Birth of the Dragon (2017)

Director: George Nolfi
Notable Cast: Phillip Ng, Xia Yu, Billy Magnussen, Jin Xing, Jingjing Qu, Simon Yin

When the word started spreading around online that the latest Bruce Lee focused film, one surrounding the events of his fight with Wong Jack Man and entitled Birth of the Dragon, it was not good. Fans were upset that the film seemed to treat the entire thing like an excuse to exploit Bruce’s fame and fortune and worst yet, neither Bruce Lee nor Wong Jack Man were the protagonists. It was actually a young white guy that was driving the story forward. Fast forward to a month prior to its release in theaters and producers stated that the film shown at festivals was just an early cut of the film and that this one, which was getting a wide release thanks to WWE and Blumhouse, would take fans’ concerns into account for a better movie. If that was the case, then I have no need to see the first cut of the film because Birth of the Dragon suffers from the exact same problems that fans were concerned with originally. The entire concept is flawed and no amount of Phillip Ng charisma, Xia Yu deadpan seriousness, or Corey Yuen fight work can save the film from simply being awkward. There are certainly moments when one can see some appeal to Birth of the Dragon, but it’s hard to get around the glaring flaws of the film on its foundational levels.

Monday, August 28, 2017

New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Last Days of the Boss (1976)

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Notable Cast: Bunta Sugawara, Jun Tatara, Sanae Nakahara, Sakae Umezu, Isao Bito, Takuya Fujioka, Koji Wada, Chieko Matsubara, Masayuki Sone, Eitaro Ozawa, Mikio Narita, Rinichi Yamamoto, Masataka Iwao, Michiro Minami, Kenichi Sakuragi, Takuzo Kawatani
Also Known As: New Battles Without Honor and Humanity 3: Last Days of the Boss, New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Boss's Last Days

With Last Days of the Boss, Kinji Fukasaku seals off the second series of Battles Without Honor and Humanity films on a very entertaining sprint. Like its director predecessor, The Boss’s Head, this entry is less about recreating the density and complexity of the original series and it tries to be more in tune with the action packed exploitative efforts of 70s Japanese action films instead. This leaves New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Last Days of the Boss as a rip-roaring ride of morally gray characters, blissfully chaotic action set pieces, and a wake of bodies that starts stacking up immediately. It’s perhaps the furthest that the series has moved away from its roots as dramatic gangster realism, but it’s hard not to still see the gleaming entertainment and depth of character work that Fukasaku brings to the table with all of his films from this era. Perhaps one of the weaker films when it comes to tight writing and expertly crafted tension, but it’s also a film that replaces those things with a wild and chaotic ambition that doesn’t betray the tone of the series either.