Tag Archives: martial arts

RoboGeisha

[2.5 stars]

Every bit as silly and bloody as you expect from the title…and, yes, it is bat-shit crazy. It is, in fact, so bizarre that it was even more fun to watch with the badly dubbed English 5.1 track (rather than the original Japanese stereo with subtitles).

Truthfully, I can’t defend this movie on any level. It isn’t quite “so bad it’s good” like the old Ed Wood films. But it isn’t so full of itself that isn’t also punching itself in the face consciously. Writer/director Noboru Iguchi is clearly a prolific, gonzo creator. He has no boundaries and an evil sense of humor.

So, I admit: I laughed a lot. I hope it was in places Iguchi intended. But I can’t say I’d seek out any more of his work. One was enough. You may find him more to your liking.

RoboGeisha Poster

First Love (Hatsukoi)

[3 stars]

Ah, the bloom of young love. Takashi Miike (Blade of the Immortal) is one of the few directors who could take a sweet romance as the spine of a black comedy drenched in blood and make it work. And he took Masa Nakamura’s (The Bird People in China) script and did it in style, giving us real characters and drive amid the battles between Yakuza, Triad, and various other elements.

Masataka Kubota is caught up in the center of the storm that Shôta Sometani starts in motion, and which kicks Becky into overdrive. The plot goes somewhat as you expect, if you expect a farce resolved in sword and gunplay rather than the slamming of doors and marriages. But Miike takes his time with the quieter moments as well, which makes this a bit more than you might expect, even if it is solidly between the lines of its genre.

If you like Miike, you’ll enjoy this romp. If you’re not familiar with his work, this isn’t a bad place to start. This is one of his modern settings, and less fantastical, but it definitely retains the dark heart that beats in everything he puts to screen. And if you are new to his work, just know it’s OK to laugh. In fact, it’s intended.

First Love

6 Underground

[2.5 stars]

Has there ever been an  explosion, car chase, quick-cut, battle, or inappropriately stupid joke Michael Bay (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) didn’t like? The answer is “no” to all these (again) in this hyper-charged action/adventure that went straight to Netflix.

Now the truth is that you’ve likely already seen this one…I know I’m way behind the curve. As much as I was looking forward to Ryan Reynolds (Pokémon Detective Pikachu), having Michael Bay in the driver’s seat was not encouraging me. And, as I expected, the result was uneven and beggared credibility at just about every turn. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining, particularly if you just wanted to turn off your brain and watch some very long and spectacular car chases and fights, but it wasn’t a great movie or one that required more than a single viewing.

The sign of a good action/adventure is that you want to see it over and over again, not just for the visuals, but for the personalities (if not also the story). Compare this to the even more recent Extraction on the same streamer. Sure it was action-heavy, but even with a less complicated plot, it has more complete characters; people we want to see again. And, in fact, that movie has a sequel in the works.

Adding to 6 Underground’s challenges, forgetting how it was handled by Bay, the script was surprisingly weak given that it was from the same team that brought us Zombieland: Double Tap and two Deadpools, Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese. Then again, they also brought us Life. Bay’s primary weakness is that he doesn’t recognize issues in the scripts he’s using because he’s just focused on the next big visual. He creates a pastiche rather than a story, from which he hopes we’ll knit together a narrative in our own minds while he worries about the pretty pictures.

Reynolds, though the binding thread of the story, is really part of a ensemble. Mélanie Laurent (Now You See Me), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Bless Me Ultima, Widows), Ben Hardy (Bohemian Rhapsody), Adria Arjona (Good Omens), Corey Hawkins (Kong: Skull Island), and Dave Franco (The Little Hours) complete their gang. While each, generally, has an amusing and entertaining character, there is little connection between them, even when they are being physically intimate. They’re just “types” and sounding boards for the plot and action.

Against them are a pair of brothers. Lior Raz plays a suitably horrid dictator, with his moderate brother Peyman Maadi (A Separation) as the semi-willing pawn being pushed into place.  These two probably have the richest characters in the entire movie. They have levels, conflict, and history. Heck, they even get actual endings and evolution, which is more than I can say for the good-guys team.

For a night of empty entertainment with some very expensive action gags to carry it along, this could be your go-to. If you want an actual movie, you probably want to look somewhere else.

6 Underground

Shadow (Ying)

[3 stars]

Director and co-writer Yimou Zhang (The Great Wall) brings his sense of production and action to this court intrigue with umbrellas. That isn’t, “he does it with umbrellas,” but rather that it is a “court intrigue with umbrellas.” Really, that will make more sense when you see it.

Chao Deng (Detective Dee: The Mystery of the Phantom Flame) does an amazing job of playing the two roles of a man and his double. The distinction between the two is complete, though admittedly helped by the forced nature of one of them. Li Sun and Xiaotong Guan provide Deng a nice backdrop along with the slightly extreme Ryan Zheng (The Great Wall). But the story is more subtle than you expect, especially by the end. While the characters are in some ways fairly stock, each has layers and moments that break those boundaries.

Shadow isn’t brilliant, but it is gorgeous and intriguing. It keeps your interest and continually surprises both in plot and visually. If you enjoy Chinese cinema, and Yimou’s work in particular, it is a nice addition to his opus.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

[4 stars]

Watching the animus between Dwayne Johnson’s (Fighting With My Family) Hobbs and Jason Statham’s (The Meg) Shaw through the Fast & Furious franchise has always been entertaining, but it also got a bit tiring. It was just so forced and so over-the-top. This latest installment to the franchise gives the characters space to breathe. Sure the one-liners and fights barely stop between the two, but the story actually builds a relationship between them that allows the jokes and slams to continue, but now in a more believable way. “Believable” is, of course, a relative term in the world they’ve created, but compared to other stories in the franchise, this one felt more complete amidst the insane fights and stunts.

Part of the reason is that it is hyperfocused on only two of the characters we follow. And, added to that mix for tension, they found a great female lead to join them in Vanessa Kirby (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) and a great villain in Idris Elba (Luther). There are also several surprise cameos to help tether the story to the main franchise.

Honestly, this was exactly what I needed at this point in my summer. It is a great popcorn film with just enough story and character to allow me to enjoy it without having to forgive it. I wish more of the F&F films had as much meat on them, but they’ve become thin excuses for huge stunts, bad jokes, and little else. Whether this latest becomes a bridge for the plot there, which appears a possibility, or perhaps elevates the stories a bit more remains to be seen. For that matter, whether these characters return to the franchise proper or not is still not known, but it was great to see them on their own adventure.

As you can imagine, yes, you should see this on the big screen if you have any interest at all. David Leitch (Deadpool 2) continues to improve his directing skills without losing his stunt edge. And Chris Morgan (The Fate of the Furious) who has helped turn the F&F franchise from pure car show to something more with his scripts is exploring his characters more. We’re still talking just serious summer fun, but that’s fine. And, should you go, watch through to the end of the credits. There are several front-loaded scenes and one at the end of the roll.

 

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.