Tag Archives: martial arts

Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no jûnin)

[3 stars]

Violence? Check. Dark comedy? Check? Crazy choreography? Check? Bizarre story? Check.

Blade is a manga adaptation (not to mention anime), and the dark humor and violent sensibility of that form are very present; right in director Takashi Miike’s (The Happiness of the Katakuris) wheelhouse. Blade adds another notch in his fluid and prolific opus.

This movie is never going to be a classic, nor is it something I need to see again, but if you enjoy the genre it is a pretty good romp. In some ways it feels like a riff on Kurosawa’s classic re-conceived as The Seven Anti-Samurai.

For a variety of reasons, I had to watch the dubbed version, which was unfortunate. The voices are off and mixed poorly (not unusual). But it is also a workable option once you settle into the story if you don’t want to get whiplash reading the rapid subtitles.

And there is a story, if a somewhat unexplained and unresolved one; it is essentially 2.5 hours of carnage and fighting. Despite the thin veneer, Miike does manage to take all his main characters and explain their actions; at least a little. Morality isn’t nearly as black and white as you think when it starts. But neither is there any really deep musing on the choices or philosophical meaning explored. But did you really expect there to be?

Blade of the Immortal

Altered Carbon

[4 stars]

Altered Carbon is solid science fiction. This also means it has struggled to find an audience. If you want real science fiction set in worlds that have been thought through and, sure, with plenty of violence and skin, you need to see and support it, or we’ll lose another opportunity.

This series was ably adapted for Netflix by Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator: Genisys), based on Morgan’s award winning book. The world has some holes and gaps, but it is a believable society based on how the tech affected it. The show also has some incredibly complex plotlines going through it. In fact, probably a bit too complicated at times…the last couple of episodes have to rush to the end with a lot of rapid exposition to fill in the answers that are being revealed.

Driving the action, Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad) puts in one of his better performances. Alongside him is a kickass detective played by Martha Higareda (Royal Pains). A slew of great minor characters are around them, but it is their show through and through. Worth calling out, though, are Chris Conner’s delightfully weird and fun Poe and Dichen Lachman’s (Dollhouse) powerful and complex Reileen.

Adult science fiction is rare off the big screen (and not particularly prevalent on the big screen either). Typically, what is offered is something between Star Trek and Game of Thrones. In other words, something that may tackle tough issues, but usually in watered down or palatable ways without actually working through the true implications of the world that was created or the consequences of actions. Flash and action often substitute for actual logic and plot.

There are some exceptions. Humans is a current show that tries to tackle and deal with the implications of AI. Sense8, as well, took on a world altered by the possibility of gestalt entities. Farscape tackled an empire structured society with significant biotech. But, more often than not, you end up with something more like Stargate, Orphan Black, or The Walking Dead, all highly entertaining, but not good science fiction.

So, if you want the real stuff (with a bit of HBOness to it, without the HBO) jump on Altered Carbon so we can get another season. Even if we don’t, this 10 ep run is self-contained enough to not leave you hanging, but there is so much more to explore if they’re given the time to do so.

Altered Carbon

Atomic Blonde

[3 stars]

From the outset, you know this is going to be a brutal spy film that doesn’t take it easy on any of its characters. The fights are harsh and the consequences mostly real…OK, kinda real. Charlize Theron (The Fate of the Furious) doesn’t just walk away from fights unscathed, she spends most of the film bruised and battered. It is reminiscent of Casino Royale, but the pain lasts a lot longer for her than it ever did for Bond and she wears those marks proudly. Theron will also make you believe that 4″ heels can be sensible footwear as a pugilist.

Opposite her, James McAvoy (Split) is entertaining, though we don’t get to see much new from him in this role. But he makes a nice counterpoint to Theron and fits well into the late 80s Berlin vibe. Having the fall of the wall as background for the story is interesting, and the soundtrack for this film is a huge nostalgia rush of tunes across the spectrum, used to varying degrees of effect.

There are also a number of important and interesting smaller roles. Primarily Eddie Marsan (Their Finest), Toby Jones (Sherlock), and John Goodman (Matinee) fill in integral aspects of the mystery and interplay. Marsan stood out best in this grouping, managing to be utterly unpresupposing and yet completely necessary.

It should be no surprise that this movie was directed by a stunt man. David Leitch has had his hands in John Wick and the upcoming Deadpool sequel. The creativity of the fights are part of what makes this movie sing; and there are a lot of them. That action augments a very spare, but intriguing, script by Kurt Johnstad (300 and its sequel). The result gives solid nods to its graphic novel roots, but manages to forge its own sensibility as well.

Given the setting for this initial film, and the resolution, it is hard to see where they might go with it as a franchise. It came a little late in a crowded field, and it is a lot more violent than a broad audience will tend to support. At the same time, it was clever and felt fresh. Perhaps that was just because it was Theron kicking butt and taking names, but in the year of Wonder Woman, it worked. So strap in for this one, when you make time for it.

Atomic Blonde


[3 stars]

Imagine Alien Nation reconceived with orcs and fairies instead of extraterrestrials. More importantly, imagine that world as if it had been the status quo for thousands of years instead of only a decade or so. It is an intriguing concept, especially with the rise of fantasy into the mainstream.

This is the world that writer Max Landis attempts to lay out for us. Frustratingly, he is an unpredictable writer. He can hit the mark with movies like American Ultra as well as miss the target widely with fare like Victor Frankenstein.  Bright is a script that lands in the middle of those two. Unlike Alien Nation, he loses the family dynamic for buddy cops Will Smith (Collateral Beauty) and Joel Edgerton (It Comes at Night), which is essential to bridging their understanding of one another. Truthfully, neither of their characters is fleshed out in any real, believable way. There are odd gaps in understanding and culture as well a demonstrated well of intelligence and capability in a world they have supposedly grown up in.

It comes down to a matter of genre. Landis didn’t quite know how to show us this new world so we could understand it. He  also really didn’t understand how to tweak history, which would have radically changed where we are today, not just a few little things, to create a fleshed out, new LA. And the ending is so telegraphed it is actually almost a disappointment when it finally arrives.

I do wonder if some of the lack of depth is due to director David Ayer’s (Suicide Squad) choices or decisions. Ayer has played on both sides of the camera in the cop milieu. He wrote Training Day and directed End of Watch, both critical darlings. Both were also quite dark and violent, which is where this movie shines in fight (after fight after fight) with different players all trying to wrest the prize from Smith and Edgerton. The fights get quite inventive and fun, but they’d have meant more if we had more invested in the world and characters.

One of the sets of anti-players is led by a very spooky Noomi Rapace (Unlocked). She doesn’t get to act much in this movie, but she gets some great tableaus and costumes. She is helped along by two credible fighters in Veronica Ngo and Alex Meraz. Another incomplete pairing, from the law enforcement (dark)side, is Ike Barinholtz (Mindy Project) and Happy Anderson (The Knick) who serve for exposition and additional tension, though not a lot of believability.

So, how much confidence does Netflix have in this movie: They’ve ordered a sequel on the day of release. There is a LOT of potential here, but they need to get someone with more genre experience, like Rockne S. O’Bannon or one of the Whedon clan to come in and fill out the world and characters to make them more compelling.  It feels more like a prologue than a complete story due to the lack of world and character depth. We want and expect more, but will apparently have to wait for it.

This is still a fun ride, and worth a couple hours on the couch with some popcorn, but given the depth of talent in the main roles, you’d like to see it used rather than just as names on a marquis.

Marvel’s The Defenders

[3 stars]

One of the biggest challenges coming into this collective mash-up was that each of the prequel/origin series had very distinctive styles. Daredevil was a sort of stylized, dark police/action series. Jessica Jones was a gritty, street detective show. Luke Cage was borderline black exploitation, but with a positive flare. Iron Fist was much closer to pure martial arts comic book than anything else, and with a weak lead to drive it.

This is is also the first time I’m aware of multiple shows feeding into a single new entity (and done so with intent, not a temporary cross-over or spin-off). Aspects and mysteries from each of the shows come up and are woven back into a single tapestry for a sixth season climax (Daredevil has had two seasons already). You just have to appreciate the audacity of it, if not always the execution.

The melding of the styles actually worked rather well; the first half of the season spent time mixing them together into a blend of something that absorbed aspects of each. They also didn’t immediately form the team, for which I was grateful. The Defenders are an uncomfortable alliance of, often, reluctant heroes. Fate and The Hand insist on throwing them together, but sometimes they’d rather be throwing each other. It makes for some nice moments of tension and humor, as well as the iconic Marvel “moments in the restaurant.”

In addition to our main heroes (and enemies), adding Sigourney Weaver (A Monster Calls) to this cast was a a coup. She plays one of the most quietly competent and confident leaders of the opposition I think I’ve seen. She never loses her cool or focus, though she  does manage to show some levels.

But as a series unto itself, as clever and fun as it is, the entire plot rests on the shoulders of the Iron Fist. Frankly, Finn Jones is just not up to the job. He comes across as immature and petulant rather than as broken and troubled while trying to find his way. It weakens the result and keeps you from emotionally committing to the effort. You just want to slap sense into the man-boy. It particularly makes the events leading to the climactic reveal feel silly. The ongoing reluctance of Daredevil’s sidekicks was a drag on the story as well, though it is handled significantly better.

Ultimately, the series goes where you’d expect, which is fine. This is a super-hero trope and the journey is as important as the results. The fact that clues to it are throughout the previous five series is really fun. I do want to see what comes next, but I’m hopeful/hoping that the focus will be on a different character, and that Danny Rand will finally grow into his long pants and be a bit more Tony Stark than Pee Wee Herman (and aren’t there golden fists jokes to be made there?). But you do have to see this if you’ve committed to any of the previous lead-ups just to see the other characters grow. It certainly isn’t wasted time, but I had hoped for something better given the strength of the other three leads.

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Di Renjie: Shen du long wang)

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame was visually entertaining and intriguing enough that this follow-up prequel by the same writers and director caught my attention. Director and co-writer Hark Tsui has a boundless imagination and nearly overwhelms you with creative scenery and fights. Actually, if you are stuck with subtitles, it can be exhausting as the dialogue can be fast and furious, even during some of the action sequences.

But the story is full of action and humor and crazy, wild plot choices. Though there is a huge cast of characters, the film is really propped up by three actors: Mark Chao, Shaofeng Feng (Monkey King 2), and Angelababy (Independence Day: Resurgence). The fights are replete with wire work, which isn’t my favorite for martial arts, but this is a fantasy and that is part and parcel of the genre. The fights are still entertaining and inventive…even if they defy all known physics. 

I’m not sure why Tsui decided to loop back on Dee’s timeline to slip in this prequel even while he was planning the next main timeline movie, but perhaps that will become clear when Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings releases. In the meantime, you have this confection to chew on, if you are into this kind of thing.

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Objectively, this film had a lot going for it in its conception. It had global scale and an established global cast. Unfortunately it also had a pedestrian script and a weak director.

Admittedly, I was never a huge fan of the first xXx (and no one liked the second). This was definitely the best of the three, with a more complex plot, but sadly also with about as much depth. It is neither James Bond serious, Suicide Squad bizarre, nor Kingsman comic-bookish but has aspects of all those approaches. It can’t quite focus on whether its humor is ridiculously arch, as Toni Collette (Miss You Already) does it, or whether it is deadly serious. Director Caruso’s (I Am Number Four) pacing is all over the place keeping the various aspects from coming together seamlessly.

More frustratingly, while the action is wonderfully conceived, the filming, by design, never really caught a lot of the action (literally, they wanted it to feel like the camera just couldn’t keep up with it). And isn’t that the reason we go to films like these?

The cast is an extraordinary collection of talent. In fact, outside of the Expendables series, probably the densest collection of stars put together for an action film. Vin Diesel (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) of course heads the gang of adrenaline junkies, but he has added two of the top martial artists in the world, Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa (The Protector 2).

Into that mix he sprinkles in Ruby Rose (John Wick: Chapter 2), Deepika Padukone, Nina Dobrev (The Final Girls), Game of Thrones’ Hound, Rory McCann, and Chinese sensation Kris Wu, not to mention UFC’s Michael Bisping and real-life footballer Neymar. And (yes, more “and’s”) let’s not forget Samuel L. Jackson (Kong: Skull Island). Seriously, there is someone for everyone in this punch, drive, shoot, explosion, free-fall fest.

In watching the extras, you get a real sense of what it was they thought and hoped they were creating. In many ways Vin was trying to evolve the xXx series as the Fast & Furious had, but with a bit more actual story. But it lost its way despite some excellent schematics to get it there. International audiences were kinder to the film (on the order of 7x the domestic box take), probably due to recognizable faces for them in the cast and a general emphasis on action over dialogue. Vin may be able to pull this out yet…he had the right idea, he just needs a better director and script.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Sense8 (series 2)

The first series of Sense8 was a mind-blowing experience. Its scope and inventiveness blazed new ground for the small screen. It challenged its viewers on many levels and managed to set up a world and set of conflicts that had you begging for more. Even if it wasn’t new material for readers of folks like Theodore Sturgeon, it was the best depiction of those ideas I’d ever seen in visual media.

Then came the holiday special, which was an important story bridge, but which also indicated a potential shift in quality. So it was with no little trepidation that I dove into the long awaited second series.

One of the first things that is immediately obvious is that one of the rich aspects of the show, the 8 languages, has been shifted to all English. It is a subtle change at first, but as the show goes on it definitely feels diminished and less credible. One of the fascinating and wonderful aspects to Sense8 was the multi-cultural breadth of the characters. It is part of its core message that people of all countries and creeds can work closely together, can love one another. Now, not only does it all sound the same, but some of the actors are struggling with the language, and subtleties, such as using English as a way to make others feel dumb or less, have been lost.

The scale of the show has also been pulled back. In some ways this was anticipated. Sense8 is not one of Netflix’s most successful shows in terms of sheer force. It will work for them for years, I’ve no doubt, but budgets aren’t typically planned on that hope. So I can forgive this, especially if it means we get more. However, there was at least one great addition to the cast (which I can’t discuss without blowing surprises), but I will say that Doctor Who fans will be pleased.

While Straczynski (Babylon 5), and Lana and Lilly Wachowski (Jupiter Ascending) are all still very involved, I was sad to see Tom Tykwer (Drei/3)disappear from the creative staff. There was a magic with all of them that seems just a little less without him there. And the rules of this world are somewhat fungible at this time… this could be because our main characters really are still learning about what they are or it could be that the writers are not staying consistent. Time will tell on that, but it does need to clarify how Sensoriums can reach out to one another and when/how someone can take over someone else.

OK, all of that said, this is still a fascinating and brave show. It is doing things and dealing with themes that no one else really is, and certainly not in this way. The end of this series, of course, sets up the next and it has definitely raised the stakes again.  So, yes, I am anticipating the the next series already. I hope it gets renewed and I hope it comes with a bit more of the original series feeling back into it.

[Updated 1 June, 2017: And this is why fans have such trouble committing to great shows: Sense8 is officially cancelled]


Samurai Jack (series 5)

After a 13 year hiatus, there was definite trepidation around how this magnificent series would revive; the dead so often don’t return with their souls intact. I needn’t have worried. Despite the gap in time (appropriate in some ways) and the move to computer graphics, Samurai lost little, if any, of its original sense and sensibility. Its minimal graphics were very much in its favor, and the return of Genndy Tartakovsky to oversee and run the result kept it on track. Even the loss of Mako as the voice of the great evil Aku didn’t slow it down.

In some ways, this is the best of the series. Before it was very episodic without much of a trajectory other than the increasingly scaling fights with Aku. The universe always expanded with new characters and ongoing interactions, but seasons never felt like they had a shape. This final series has a very definite shape and a eye to its ultimate ending.

If you like Samurai Jack, you have to see the end of the saga. If you somehow missed it before, discover it now and not have to wait over a decade to have your hunger sated for an ending. Samurai remains as good as ever and as beautiful and as poetic as it began.

Samurai Jack

Marvel’s Iron Fist

This is by far the most disappointing of the Marvel Universe series that Netflix has produced, which is why it has taken me so long to complete the run. It is the weakest writing and the least stylistic. It is, however, steeped in the mythos of the other tales: Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage. These aspects make it more interesting than it has earned, frankly.

Iron Fist, as a character, has somewhat nebulous powers and rules, and his backstory is only marginally interesting for most of the series. Finn Jones (Game of Thrones) manages a sweet demeanor, and the somewhat lost vibe of a young child in the world, but he is also just plain dumb as a character, making foolish choices. If this is the absolute best that Kunlun has to offer, they need a bigger population. And how did this simpering, whiny, tantrum throwing kid make it to Iron Fist anyway?

More generally, motivations for all the characters are hard to believe and understand. Tom Pelphrey (Banshee) and David Wenham (Lion) are all over the map on their choices and drives. Sure all of the men, including Jones, have some intense backstories, but I’d expect a clarity of purpose to be driving them so I can understand when things change.

The women fair a bit better for most of the series. Jessica Henwick (Star Wars: Force Awakens) has nice levels and some obvious secrets. Jessica Stroup (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) is a tough character but hard to pin down because she is unevenly written and used. By the end of the sequence, they have squandered her completely and weakened her unforgivably.

It is really the two returning characters are best served because they have actual history to draw on: Wai Ching Ho (Daredevil) and Rosario Dawson (Gimme Shelter). Both are easy to understand and, in the case of Ho, we finally get to learn a lot more about this enigmatic kingpin.

There really is only one reason to watch Iron Fist, but you’ll need to see the whole series to understand why and, even then, you’ll have to make a logical leap beyond their unearned finale. Marvel was due a weak delivery after all its high powered hits. And, to be clear, this isn’t awful, it just isn’t in the same class as its colleagues. Better writers and directors would definitely help. Some more time in the writers’ room to break out the episodes and season more interestingly wouldn’t be amiss either; creator/producer/writer Buck (Dexter) just didn’t hit his mark. I am hoping that as the story carries forward, the Iron Fist will find more solid story-telling.

Image result for iron fist