Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Lead Them to Paradise: Dune: Part Two (2024) Review

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Notable Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Florence Pugh, Dave Bautista, Christopher Walken, Lea Seydoux, Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling


Simply ending Dune: Part One on an emotional beat but with no actual resolution to most of its threading or characters is perhaps the one thing I struggled with in the first part of this two-part space opera epic. Denis Villeneuve is a master craftsman, but it's a bold choice when the second half of his film was never green-lit at the time. So, it’s with a relative sense of relief that Dune: Part Two DID get green-lit. Whew. Now I can watch the whole movie. Thanks, box office numbers and strong cult development on home video.  


However, the hype is very real going into Dune: Part Two - enough so that I struggled to find tickets for an IMAX screen on opening weekend to see the film on the biggest and loudest screen possible. The first part of this adaption of the Frank Herbert science fiction classic is damn near universally hailed as a masterpiece already, and now that Villeneuve and the team get to finish the story, I was on the hype train. Could the Dune duology be the iconic auteur director’s pinnacle?

Considering the immense critical praise and stunning box office numbers for Dune: Part Two, it might be safe to say that, yes, people are saying as much. Although I found Dune: Part Two to not be as strong as its predecessor in finding its balance, it is a high water mark for cinema thus far in 2024 and another slab of deliriously engaging and fantastical cinema. Gorgeously crafted, meticulously paced, and powered on the continuing themes of its predecessor, Dune: Part Two is Villeneuve making a statement. A statement about his career, the world we live in, and that the space opera crown no longer sits on the brow of Star Wars. 


Sunday, April 7, 2024

First Battle Is Last Battle: Born to Fly (2023) Review

Director: Liu Xiaoshi

Notable Cast: Wang Yibo, Hu Jun, Zhou Dongyu, Xu Kaicheng, Bu Yu, Yosh Yu, ZHai Yujia, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Pan Binlong


In the wake of the subsequent hole left by China “banning” the release of Top Gun: Maverick, it’s no real shock that they would race to release their version of the jingoistic military meets school film that Tom Cruise’s jet-soaring sequel provided the world. While these kinds of propaganda-laden films are already a stock commodity for the Chinese market, I’d be lying that Born to Fly didn't perk up my interest. 


However, a limited theatrical release in the US and a Blu-ray release from our friends at Well Go USA definitely made me curious. While the film does have some merits in its dramatic choices and features an intriguing angle regarding the school and its test pilots, it always stays on the ground, burdened by hollow emotional stakes and a by-the-numbers narrative.


Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Not So Itsy: Sting (2024) Review

Director: Kiah Roache-Turner

Notable Cast: Ryan Corr, Alyla Browne, Penelope Mitchell, Robyn Nevin, Noni Hazlehurst, Jermaine Fowler, Silvia Colloca, Danny Kim

As long as I can remember, I've always really loved horror. Both films and books, or even games, for that matter. It's just a genre that is ever expansive and there are so many ways to enjoy it, and just as many possibilities on sub-genres and the themes spread throughout the many mediums that have represented all things spooky. I like my horror in a multitude of different ways and gravitate towards extremely serious stuff, but I also like lower-budgeted outings and schlock from the many decades that the genre has existed within cinema (since the beginning, really). So, when I heard there was a big spider creature feature launching in 2024 in cinemas, I knew I had to seek it out. My expectations were actually non-existent, as I really knew nothing apart from the fantastic and effective poster (the one displayed above this opening), and I am so glad it was that way. You essentially get an apartment building in New York that is snowed in due to a really bad winter storm. Our tenants are not many, but more on that later. We have a core family of four, and the daughter has taken in a mysterious pet spider, and let's just say, this spider isn't your average arachnid. He grows by eating, and the bigger he eats, the bigger he gets. Let the creepy crawly chaos commence!

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | Please Teach Me English (2003)

Director: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Lee Na-young, Jang Hyuk, Angela Kelly, Jeong Seok-yong, Na Moon-hee

From my understanding, Kim had gotten really deep into teaching film at University during this point in his career, and he made this film at that time. Why bring that up? I'm not sure. I think part of me is looking for a way to preface this write-up, knowing that the finished film is just not very good. Is Please Teach Me English a complete abomination to cinema? No, but it is certainly a stain on director Kim's otherwise pretty phenomenal filmography. People say even the greatest filmmakers can stumble, which is certainly the case here. While the film is fun and certainly doesn't take itself seriously whatsoever, it's this broad and over-the-top abrasive approach to the comedy that somehow both works in the film's favor and also as its very own downfall. This film certainly has garnered a fan base over the years and, in fact, was recently remastered and released on physical media once again in South Korea, so there is that. I will try my best to speak on the positive and negative aspects of this film, but I admit that I sometimes struggle to do so adequately, so bear with me.

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | Musa: The Warrior (2001)

 Director: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Jung Woo-sung, Zhang Ziyi, Ahn Sung-ki, Ju Jin-mo, Park Yong-woo, Park Jeong-hak, Jeong Seok-yong, Lee Du-il, Han Yeong-mok, Er Cha Huo, Yoo Hai-jin, Yu Rongguang, Song Jae-ho

Only those on journeys will see the dim roads that lead the way home.

After having crafted two of the most successful films in the '90s about the hot-blooded youth of Korean men, Kim took a surprise turn in the entering the 00s with something quite a bit different: A sprawling period of epic co-production between South Korea and China. In doing so, he created one of the most iconic sword-centric films of the era with the massively successful Musa: The Warrior (2001). He brought his muse Jung Woo-sung back on board to play Yeo-sol, the hero of the picture but also added Korean talents such as Ahn Sung-ki, Ju Jin-mo, and Yoo Hai-jin in one of his first iconic roles. In addition to the local talent, he casts Chinese screen giants Zhang Ziyi and even Yu Rongguang (of Iron Monkey fame). Needless to say, this film had a lot of attention on it from the moment it came out and it ended up gaining the hearts of many fans the world over. I remember seeing this in video stores when it came out when I was heavily into martial arts and wu xia films. Still, my passion for Korean cinema hadn't begun yet, and in fact, I don't believe I even realized its country of origin at that age, but I digress. The point is that this film was rising among hits such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , and the two Zhang Yimou films that would follow this: Hero and House of Flying Daggers. I know these films are all Chinese productions and follow more traditional wu xia sensibilities. Musa was more grounded and would inspire local productions, such as Sword of the Moon , and set a trend with more realistic war-centered period pieces.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Grave Calling: Exhuma (2024) Review

 Director: Jang Jae-hyun

Notable Cast: Choi Min-sik, Kim Go-eun, Yoo Hai-jin, Lee Do-hyun, Kim Jae-chul, Kim Min-jun, Kim Byung-oh

"And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken" - Ecclesiastes 4:12

Horror films that deal with religious aspects have been around for decades, and I know titles are flooding to mind as you read this, so no need to name-drop anything. Faith and spirituality are truly remarkable and beautiful ways of life for many humans. Regardless of what you may or may not believe in, what awaits beyond death's door, with our understanding of this life, good or bad, can be exciting or terrifying. Since this is a spooky piece of cinema, as you can imagine, the supernatural forces that be aren't the friendliest lot around, and that is the very basis for Exhuma, the newest outing by acclaimed horror director Jang Jae-hyun, who previously won audiences over with his works Priests (2015) and Svaha: The Sixth Finger (2019). He continues his religion-themed horror here, this time delving into shamanism, among many other things, and what awaits the viewer embarking on this chilly and bloody adventure is a lot of thrills and a whole lot of pissed-off evil spirits.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Keep It Closed: Skeletons in the Closet (2024) Review

Director: Asif Akbar

Notable Cast: Terrence Howard, Valery M. Ortiz, Cuba Gooding Jr, Udo Kier, Appy Pratt, Louis Mandylor, Michelle Jubilee Gonzalez, Clifton Powell, Ariana Deppe, Michelle Wang, Sally Kirkland


Niche entertainment services will always have content that wouldn’t make it anywhere else. Hallmark often weaves a tale of the city girl who finds herself (and a new love interest) in a small town, usually with a dog and hot chocolate, and she will inevitably fall into every predictable trap on her way to rediscovering her traditional values. Crunchyroll has some anime that might make even the most seasoned anime lover roll their eyes, and the NBA has the modern slam dunk contest. All these specialty services offer audiences the opportunity to find hidden gems, a pursuit that sometimes pans out and sometimes not.

Shudder is no different, except that the horror community is particularly divisive, potentially even more than diehard NBA fans, which makes finding gold a subjective and challenging task. I wish I could say that I was writing today about a story of finding gold, but alas, I am not. Skeletons in the Closet has every signature failing of a Hallmark movie but as a horror feature. Let me say that I REALLY wanted to like this. I tried very hard to give it time, if only for its star-laden cast, but it never materialized into anything worth watching.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

A Reality to Experience: Dune: Part One (2021) Review

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Notable Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, David Dastmalchian


Although Denis Villeneuve states that Dune was always a dream project for him, it’s fascinating to see how his career has been building up to this film. Whether it's the political and cultural conflicts at the heart of Sicario or the stylistic leap into Sci-Fi IP with Blade Runner 2049, his filmography reads like a road map building up skills to create the world of a successful cinematic Dune adaption.

And quite frankly, it led him to thrive in the film he will be remembered for as an auteur blockbuster director, Dune: Part One


Well, he might be remembered for the two films and not just this one part, as Dune: Part Two finally sees the light of day some three years later, but as the first half of his massive science fiction opera epic, Dune: Part One is an impressive feat of tone, storytelling, visuals, and finding balance. It’s the kind of totemic film that defines a career in a positive way, judging by the success of this film both commercially and in awards circles. Justifiably so. Dune: Part One is CINEMA in most of the best ways, and its blend of commercial appeal and auteur-driven style is impeccable, to say the least. 


Saturday, March 2, 2024

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | City of the Rising Sun (1998)

Director: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Jung Woo-sung, Lee Jung-jae, Lee Beom-soo, Han Go-eun, Park Ji-hoon, Lee Ki-yeol, Park Sung-woong

In the late 90s, with the great success of Beat, Kim would follow up quickly, just a year later, with another Jung Woo-sung starring vehicle, titled City of the Rising Sun. What makes this title unique, among many other things, is that Jung co-starred alongside Lee Jung-jae, which would be a bromance that would blossom beyond the screen and hold up well over the years, as Jung and Lee have been friends ever since, and the two would end up directing their own films just in the past few years. Needless to say, they have a chemistry like no other, which is one of this work's very best elements. The two are simply electrifying together and light up the screen from start to finish. The style that Kim had been building up over the previous two directorial efforts would reach maximum impact here. This concoction of machismo, a bumping soundtrack, and visuals to the max make up a film that is certainly style over substance, but the style is oh so magical, and I cannot help but be enraptured by it all.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | Beat (1997)

 Director: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Jung Woo-sung, Ko So-young, Yu Oh-seong, Kim Bu-seon, Im Chang-jung, Sa Hyeon-jin, Song Keum-sik

Just two short years after bursting on to the scene with Runaway, Kim found his real runaway hit with the 1995 tale of Korean delinquencies, a film that has become synonymous with both 90s youth and that of a very prolific career boom for one Jung Woo-sung, and that is the undeniable classic... Beat. It has become a piece of pop culture. I've seen it mentioned time and time again within various outlets of Korean television, so there's no denying its place within the streamline of cinema that was beginning to bubble up at the end of the decade, just on the cusp of the explosion of international success that would come the country's way shortly after. A re-release of both this film and City of the Rising Sun are happening in March of this year, so hoping to see both of these works be back in the spotlight again.