Tag Archives: martial arts

S.M.A.R.T. Chase

[2 stars]

I would have hoped that the director of the clever and intense Marcella, Charles Martin, could have produced a more watchable action/suspense story. The script certainly didn’t help the problem. Even with Orlando Bloom (Unlocked) in the lead, the story is barely watchable and completely and utterly unbelievable. Even the chases and fights are less than totally engaging in the way they’re filmed.

Hannah Quinlivan (Skyscraper), Simon Yam (Man of Tai Chi), Lynn Hung (Ip Man), and relative newcomers Jing Liang and Lei Wu all do their best. However, the struggle with language is obvious, which likely caused changes in the script for ease. Also, the halfway split between Western and Shanghai styled films leaves the movie with little solid ground. It is neither with enough plot for one nor broad enough for the other. Ultimately, this flick is just a set of relatively boring chase and action scenes despite some real potential in the plot. Best to avoid this one unless you absolutely must see Bloom in everything he does.

S.M.A.R.T. Chase

Bleach (2018)

[3 stars]

Live action adaptations of anime and/or manga via anime often fail miserably. (Consider the recent Attack on Titan attempt.) Usually it is due to assumptions the audience will know the story or an insulting approach as to what they’ll accept. I have to admit Bleach surprised me. I wasn’t very familiar with the story, but there was enough in the movie to help me understand and to invest in the characters.

This isn’t a great movie, as movies go, but it was entertaining if you like the genre; I do. Director Shinsuke Sato gave me characters with motivations. He also provided fun fight scenes, a bit of humor, and probably a bit too much high school romance forced in (it simply goes no where in this short-ish film). It didn’t hurt that there was some very competent actors driving the piece like Hana Sugisaki and Sôta Fukushi, both from Blade of the Immortal. Even the side characters have some cred, such as Miyavi (Kong: Skull Island).

It succeeded enough that I’m now curious to explore the anime series and its various movies to see what else goes on…there are several sequences to Bleach and this covered just one of them. And while I’m sure it was in a highly compressed way, the movie didn’t feel overly cheated.

Escape Plan 2: Hades

[2.5 stars]

The first Escape Plan was silly at best, but it boasted the buddying up of Stallone (Creed) and Schwarzenegger. This sequel dropped Arnold and added Dave Bautista (Blade Runner 2049), sort of. The two headliners are really more in the side action than the main plot.

The real focus of the story is Xiaoming Huang. He certainly has the martial arts chops for the role, but he isn’t the most emotive. Established as Stallone’s protege, he spends portions of the film “hearing” Stallone in his head. Let’s just say that Stallone’s voice isn’t the most mellifluous nor the most understandable inner voice to listen to as Huang’s companion.

Wes Chatham (The Expanse), along with Jesse Metcalfe (Dallas) are the primary players fighters alongside Huang. And Chenying Tang is there to add some level of story to it all…admittedly not much of one. The biggest, and oddest, surprise was Titus Welliver (Bosch) in a small but pivotal role. I’m guessing he took it for the action opportunity because, despite trying to add some depth to his character, there just isn’t much there to work with. Basically, a waste of his talents.

Stallone clearly sets this up for a third installment (Escape Plan 3: Devil’s Station now in post-production), in some kind of a weird trilogy. If they can get some better writing and not wait too long between releases, they might pull this story back on track. However, I suspect it will continue to diminish over time given that this went straight to video and it is the same writer again.

If you just want some clever ideas and occasional moments of nicely choreographed fights, it isn’t an intolerable 90 minutes, but you could do much better.

Escape Plan 2: Hades

American Assassin

[3 stars]

There is a lot that this movie gets right. A lot that it gets close. And a few things it just gets very wrong. But, overall, it is a very surprising and intense spy thriller.

From the beginning of the movie, you know you are in for something a bit more raw than what the genre usually delivers. This isn’t the slick of Mission Impossible or Bond, this is a brutal attempt to put you in the position of experiencing terrorism first-hand. And Dylan O’Brien (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) really comes into his own and out of his teen years with this part. Helping the young O’Brien cross-over into an adult role is where director, Michael Cuesta (Homeland), did some of his best work with his actors.

Michael Keaton (Spider-Man: Homecoming) also delivers some nice moments and, generally, a good performance. But there aren’t a lot of women in good roles here. Sanaa Lathan (Now You See Me 2) is strong, but never really feels in control. Her effect on the action is minimal since no one is really listening to her orders a good part of the time. And when they do, you don’t often get the feeling it was because she held control so much as they were going to do it anyway.

On the other hand, some of the men are equally underwhelming. Taylor Kitsch (Battleship) is a bit forced in his psychosis. The script didn’t help Cuesta or Kitsch on that point. And a small bit by David Suchet (Agatha Christie: Poirot) is simply a throw-away and waste of his talent.

Cuesta, in an attempt to keep things visually clear, also makes his covert ops folks some of the worst and obvious surveillors in history. They all stick out in a crowd like pustules on an infant rather than blending in, which rather weakens the credibility of their capability. And then there is the finale, which is both brave and impressive, but also with a couple things quite wrong. I won’t spoil it here, nor ruin your enjoyment of it should it not be obvious, but it did bug the heck out of me even while I was enjoying it.

This is a good ride of a movie. More violent than many American spy films, but within reasonable boundaries. I’m not sure what I expected going in, but it gave me a layered story and enough surprising moments to keep it flowing along. As O’Brien’s transition film, he really was the big winner here.

American Assassin

Jessica, Luke, and Iron Fist

Jessica Jones [3.5 stars]

The second series of this dark, intense drama delves into Jessica’s origins and the continued fallout from the first season. It is also dominated by female writers and directors. There is a dark beauty to this series…even when it is formulaic it delivers with a punch and enough emotion to let you go with it. By the end of the series all the characters are somewhere new, setting us up for an intriguing set of confrontations to come. That said, some of the writing was more forced than the first series. And Rachael Taylor, in particular, seems to dissolve in weird ways. On the other hand, Eka Darville and Carrie-Anne Moss really come into their own this season. Darville with a cleaned-up act and growing maturity (if also sleight stupidity) and Moss with some actual human stuff to tackle. And, of course, Janet McTeer bashes her way through as the overcharged Frankenstein’s monster she has become wonderfully. Amidst all this, Krysten Ritter’s Jessica gets positioned for a whole new life that makes a series three intriguing.

Luke Cage [3 stars]

One of the intriguing aspects of the Marvel series has been their different sensibilities and how they are melded together. Last series for Luke was distinct in its 70’s feel with an empowering take-back of black exploitation.  It was full of jazz and funk and plenty of action and politics. This second go-round seems to be off-rhythm. The pacing  drags and it is less smooth in the integration of music and feel. The entire first half to two-thirds of the series are set-up, but you spend a good part of that time frustrated with the characters and their choices. After that the payoff feels a bit blunted.

But it isn’t just the rhythm, it was the diminishing of the powerful women in the show that was so disturbing. Alfre Woodward was turned into a whining coward. Even Rosario Dawson comes across as an almost fawning second-fiddle to Luke while Simone Missick is, at best, erratic in her loyalties and choices. Michael Colton did manage to move Luke into a new phase of his hero’s journey…dripping with hubris, hell-bent for leather, and doomed for a fall…but it simply becomes painful at times watching obvious mistakes. The last chunk of the season found its feet a little better, but, even with the clever reversals, the characters are less than credible. The one subtle-ish theme I will give them props for is the game of thrones idea they are playing (and mirroring) right up till the finale.

Iron Fist [3.5 stars]

Like many, I was not impressed with the first season of this show.  It had possibilities, but a weak lead in Finn Jones and weak writing generally. There were good things too, particularly Jessica Henwick and some of the cross-overs. But it wasn’t enough to make me happy. The series was only necessary as a bridge to The Defenders, so I took it like bitter medicine.

With series 2, Danny Rand’s testicles seem to have finally descended. In fact, I had to redo my title for this post which was originally Jessica, Luke, and Iron Weenie…he just didn’t deserve that slam. The whining is gone and there is a hero there who seems capable and able to succeed thanks to who he is, not despite it. Alice Eve was a great addition and had some serious fun with her character and challenges. And the continuation of Sacha Dhawan’s story to drive the series was necessary and, ultimately, interesting even if a bit forced.

And, while there is some nearly unforgivable comic book logic writing particularly around police work, they manage to pull off a great series and shift in the show, redeeming it from its freshman season. After this round, I’m actually looking forward to seeing these characters and their travails again, be it here or in the next series of The Defenders. They’ve really got some stuff to work with.

Sense8 (Finale)

[4.5 stars]

I originally wasn’t  going to bother writing up this late add-on to Sense8. In fact, I had avoided it fearing a huge let-down. The show was cancelled and this was a nod by Netflix to not totally tick off the fans. Who knew what it would manage to do in a single episode wrap-up?

BUT, I needn’t have worried. This was a fabulous and breathless finale that ran 2.5 hours without a moment’s hesitation or break, and ends with a complete wrap up and sense of release (literally). While I still preferred the first series’ approach to the multi-cultural and multi-language issues, this finale managed to find a balance in language and culture that the second series missed in moving to all English.

If you waited like me, I do recommend rewatching the final episode (You Want a War) in the regular series to retrench you on where things were. The finale picks up directly and carries on from there. Yes, it is a bit rushed and, yes, the final image could be debated, but overall it was an amazing effort. The result compacts a huge vision into a small space in order to explain and complete the story that was intended to stretch over seasons. Honestly, it is the best we could have hoped for given the circumstances, even as we mourn what might have been for the series had it continued.

Sense8 is one of the most audacious and amazing bits of television, let alone science fiction, to ever grace the screen. The Wachowski’s, Straczynski, and Netflix (not to mention Tykwer) all need to be thanked for their bravery and talent in creating it. Someday it will be recognized for the seminal event it is, but for now, for those of us who discovered and can enjoy it, we should celebrate it and its message of hope and love.

Pacific Rim: Uprising

[3.5 stars]

Kaiju and giant robots just never go completely out of style. They’re great, silly fun with lots of action. It is the the same genre that brought you Godzilla and Kong and even offbeat riffs like Colossal. These kinds of films bring to life childhood fantasies that used to fill the hours with our toys.

That said, Pac Rim 2 is probably more than you think, even if it is of a genre. Writer/director Steven S. DeKnight (Daredevil) builds on the roots of the original tale, picking it up 10 years later, but does it in some clever ways and with some good humor. In doing so, he gets to show off his Joss Whedon writing-room roots as well as his own darker sensibilities.

Knight uses John Boyega (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) to continue the thread Idris Elba’s character left behind. But, as he says in the opening, he is not his father. Along with newcomer Cailee Spaeny, who has a heck of a career ahead of her, the two dominate the film. They bring more of a street feel to the over-militarized sensibility of the first film.

To bridge the new and old films more directly, Rinko Kikuchi (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter) along with Burn Gorman (Crimson Peak) and Charlie Day (The Hollars), get to continue their stories. They are welcome faces and they are all much more integral in this script than they were in the first. For Gorman and Day, even though some of their broader, comedic flare still remains, it also felt more natural in this plot.

There are a host of other characters, of course, but Tian Jing (The Great Wall) and Scott Eastwood (The Fate of the Furious) add the most to the story. Jing, in particular, does well.

This isn’t the great movie of the year, especially after Black Panther against which all else is being compared so far. Even Avengers: Infinity War may struggle against that one, though I have my hopes there. Uprising is exactly what it purports to be: escapist fun. It also has enough great effects and with a good enough script and cast to bring it into the majors.

Knight unsurprisingly sets up a third film with the ending (though in an acceptable way). Based on the results of this one, yep, I’ll be there to see if they can pull it off. Del Toro always planned several films in the universe and the shape of that is now coming apparent. As long as overseas boxoffice remains strong, we’ll get to see what comes next. But, in the meantime, this one was great fun and it delivered more than I expected (though I didn’t have a very high bar, I admit). The bigger the screen the better for your viewing, but it did just well in standard too, so it doesn’t have to be an expensive afternoon or evening. Go, have fun, be a kid again listening to the rain on your window as you set up your cars, Legos, and dolls, knocking over buildings in your mind.

Pacific Rim Uprising

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