Monday, September 11, 2023

Howling into the Void: Wolf Pack (2023) Review

Director: Michael Chiang

Notable Cast: Max Zhang, Aarif Rahman, Jiang Luxia, Mark Luu, Zhang Yi, Xue Jianing, Ye Liu


Honestly, I’ll watch any film with Max Zhang in it. His rise to leading A-list stardom in China has been a blast to follow and he quickly becomes a highlight of any film he’s in. When it was announced he would be in a new military action flick, Wolf Pack, along with Aarif Rahman and Jiang Luxia - two very underrated stars in their own right - I was doubly in. A military group led by Zhang kicking ass, taking names, and setting their sites on out-America-ing Hollywood in military actioners with weirdly patriotic themes? Hell yeah, I’m in. 


For all of its bullet blasting, secret character heroics, and a handful of exciting action set pieces, Wolf Pack is a movie that throws many punches and only lands a few of them. A charm is inherent in many of its ideas and a few of its executions. Still, its narrative could be more straightforward, and its characters - despite some fantastic casting - are bland blends of various tropes and unfinished arcs. Wolf Pack does a lot of loud howling, but it's howling its loudest into a void that swallows any sound and kills any lingering echo after the credits roll. 


Sunday, September 3, 2023

Find Your Peace-eria: The Equalizer 3 (2023)

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Notable Cast: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Gaia Scodellaro, David Denman, Eugenio Mastrandrea, Remo Girone, Daniele Perrone, Andrea Scarduzio, Andrea Dodero, Giovanni Scotti, Melissa Leo, Sonia Ammar


Over the last 30 years, the relative variety of films that Antoine Fuqua has made that exist within the realm of action/thriller/crime has been fairly impressive. Does anyone remember that he made a historical flick with Will Smith called Emancipation last year? Probably not, since it went to Apple and subsequently died a forgotten death, but he did. Yes, he made one of those too. Yet, the only real “franchise” he has repeatedly returned to is The Equalizer, the modern update of the 1980s television show featuring his frequent collaborator Denzel Washington. 


Finding relative success with the first two entries, it’s no shock that The Equalizer 3 was on the docket for some time in the future even if Denzel is starting to show his age at 68. Trilogies are not easy to pull off, but the first two entries have only grown on me since their releases as they are kind of Charles Bronson meets John Woo melodramatic slices of action cinema. Thus, my expectations - even mediated - were elevated for this threequel. 


The Equalizer 3 is a perplexing puzzle, though. Despite being the shortest film in the series (by at least 15 minutes) and featuring the least complicated story and plot, it’s trying to do a lot and rarely managing to find its identity in doing so. It’s making many bold choices compared to its predecessors, changing up the film's tone a smidge, fully taking Denzel’s Robert McCall character out of Boston, and it doesn’t necessarily land where it needs to thematically or what it's setting up for the character. Despite some highly entertaining moments elevated by the Oscar-winning actor, The Equalizer 3 rarely feels equalized in its balance, and it leaves the trilogy feeling a tad underwhelming. 


Friday, August 18, 2023

Space Feels Like Hell: The Moon (2023) Review

Director: Kim Yong-hwa
Notable Cast: Sul Kyung-gu, Doh Kyung-soo, Kim Hee-ae

When you think of big, entertaining blockbusters from South Korea, the types of works that draw in the masses, there are a few names that leap to mind. But even among the ones that you just thought of, there is no doubt that Kim Yong-hwa came up. 

He's one of the most successful filmmakers, alongside other blockbuster giants such as Ryoo Seung-wan (Veteran) or Choi Dong-hoon (The Thieves). His previous works, like the two part Among the Gods films or even the Chinese co-production Mr. Go, have this formula and local flavor that works both in their region and abroad. Universality is one of the things that makes Kim's films works. They are big, grandiose, and a bit emotional, but I have always found myself to be counted as perhaps one of his biggest champions. So needless to say, I was absolutely ready to take a trip to The Moon. How does this summer blockbuster fair, and is this effects driven extravaganza worth the journey? Let's get into it.

It's the year 2029 and South Korea has embarked on a mission to the moon with a small team and their prized lunar probe, Woori. This captures a lot of eyes globally and just when all is seeming to go well for the team, a sudden solar windstorm wreaks havoc on the crew leaving astronaut Hwang Sun-woo stranded alone, fighting for survival. The team sent this time around had hoped to avoid the disasters that an earlier attempt met with disastrous results. The drama that unfolds around one man's fate brings the tensions of many nations to the forefront and a question that comes to all of our minds is presented to the world, what are our nationalities at the end of the day and what ideologies are we really putting aside to save a life? 

It's a very patriotic question that The Moon explores, and it is this exact sense of nationalism that clashes with its own sense of trying to push a one human race mindset. While I think the sentiment is great and the heart is definitely in the right spot with the film, it's the huge explosion of melodrama that really pushes the film away from a pure entertainment spectacle and it loses itself along the way.

Friday, August 11, 2023

From Shaw to Shining Shaw: The Shaw Brothers Classics, Vol. 1 Boxset - Ranked List (Shout Factory)

Although I’ve spent a solid amount of my time as a writer digging into the massive Shaw Brothers martial arts catalog of films, the current onslaught of Blu-Ray releases from boutique labels like Arrow Video or 88 Films has seen a lot of renewed interest in the classic Hong Kong studio and their output. Yeah, that’s fuckin’ great cause it’s only one more reason for me to revisit them and write about some of the classics that far too many cinephiles overlook. 


Just recently, Shout Factory revealed their own box sets, bringing together large swaths of the filmography of the Shaw Brothers studio. After announcing a Brave Archer set that contains the original three Brave Archer films and the two unofficial sequels, they dropped this gorgeous set on fans. Titled The Shaw Brothers Classics, Vol. 1, this set brought together 11 classic wuxia flicks from the golden age of the studio and it’s one of the year's best releases. 


With a handful of films new to me and a ton of classics that were available previously (either in digital form or from previous DVD releases), here is my official ranking of each film included - with a few additional comments of why each film deserves to be seen. 


11. The Thundering Sword (1967) [dir. Hsu Tseng-Hung]


The Thundering Sword suffers mostly from just being very bland. Despite an intriguing romantic throughline for its lead characters, one of which is played by Cheng Pei Pei - an incredible actress that will be referenced quite a bit throughout this article, this film stumbles into mediocrity at most turns. Lo Lieh pops up early as a bright point to be sidelined for most of the film, and its plot gets widely convoluted by its third act despite its strong set of Shaw stars. For fans, it’s more of a curiosity than a gem from the earth. 


Tuesday, August 8, 2023

An Outsider Bewitched: Poison for the Fairies (1986) Review

Director: Carlos Enrique Taboada

Notable Cast: Ana Patricia Rojo, Elsa Maria Gutierrez, Leonor Llausas, Carmela Stein, Maria Santander


Although I was privy to the work of director Carlos Enrique Taboada before the unveiling of the Mexican Gothic from Vinegar Syndrome, the recent release schedule from the boutique labels perked my interest. The Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched documentary released last year pushed me to dig further to find more Mexican cinema, and this set was as good of a place to start as any. 


Despite its 1986 release year, Poison for the Fairies, the first of three films included in this set, this little gothic Mexican film is a dark, often unnerving horror drama about childhood friends, lost innocence, and the consequences of the small choices made that begin to spiral out of control. Poison for the Fairies is a shockingly relevant and poignant slice of cinema, more akin to the tones and seething realism of 1970s horror than mid-80s, and it’s one hell of a witch’s brew once it's cooking. 


Friday, August 4, 2023

The Thin Line Between Evil and Just: Bad City (2023) Review

Director: Kensuke Sonomura

Notable Cast: Hitoshi Ozawa, Mitsu Dan, Akane Sakanoue, Katsuya, Masanori Mimoto, Taro Suwa, Kentaro Shimazu, Koji Kiryu, Akira Hamada, Arisa Matsunaga, Huh Soo-cheol, Akihiko Kuwata, Hideo Nakano, Kenji Fukuda, Kazuyoshi Ozawa, Daisuke Nagakura, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi, Kazuki Namioka, Tak Sakaguchi, Tomokazu, Lily Franky, Rino Katase


With the recent boom of boutique labels releasing forgotten classics and foreign films, it is fantastic that auteur directors like Kinji Fukasaku are being discovered or rediscovered by legions of new fans. Although his style and influence could be felt throughout the decades in Japanese cinema, particularly around his work in the yakuza genre, it feels as though there is growing stronger—or, at least, Westerners like myself are more aware of seeing it in modern films. 


Yet, watching Bad City, it becomes fairly obvious that director Kensuke Sonomura has also been to the school of Fukasaku. In its tale of political and police corruption, poisoned by a brewing war between a yakuza outfit and a South Korean one, Sonomura delivers on the seething socio-political ideas that powered classic films like Cops Vs Thugs or Yakuza Graveyard. He then gives it the empowered V-Cinema DIY nature version of that while still polishing it with some impressive action combat reminiscent of The Roundup (The Outlaws) films. 


To say that Bad City is thoroughly enjoyable is an understatement. Bad City is one of the best action flicks of the year, energized by its screen-eating cast and brutal street-level beatdowns. Bad City is a good time. 


Thursday, July 20, 2023

Incarnation of Chaos: Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One (2023)

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Notable Cast: Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby, Esai Morales, Pom Klementieff, Henry Czerny, Shea Whigham, Greg Tarzan Davis, Cary Elwes


Just before the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) team heads off on a train to ride towards their destiny in the final act of the seventh (and not final) Mission: Impossible film, Hailey Atwell’s new character Grace asks Tom Cruise’s now iconic Ethan Hunt if he will be on the train. He looks at her, and thus to an entire packed IMAX audience in my theater, and says that he will. He will be there. You can count on it. 


It’s Tom Cruise’s modus operandi at this point. After a billion-dollar grossing Top Gun: Maverick and a marketing campaign for this latest Mission: Impossible film that saw him and director Christopher McQuarrie taking pictures with their tickets to see every new film in theaters, he’s going to be there. You can count on it. 


It’s seemingly the warcry of Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One, a film that so adamantly sticks to its franchise guns and formulas that it’s no wonder it was opened two days earlier than originally planned. It’s going to be there for the fans. You can count on it. 


Friday, June 30, 2023

Back to Extract: Extraction 2 (2023) Review

Director: Sam Hargrave

Notable Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Golshifteh Farahani, Adam Bessa, Tornike Gogrichiani, Tornike Bziava, Tinatin Dalakishvili, Andro Japaridze, Justin Howell, Idris Elba, Olga Kurylenko, Daniel Bernhardt


Netflix is making some entertaining films, but I feel like there is a problem. 


Extraction 2 recently dropped on Netflix instead of theaters, green-lit after whatever imaginary numbers that Netflix made up for the viewership of the first film. Like many sequels, Extraction 2 suffers from a bit of sequel-itis as it attempts to go bigger, badder, and broader with what fans loved in the first one and, like many sequels, it tends to lose some of its grip on the ground in doing so. Those who loved that its predecessor was a gritty old-school action hero thrust into exponentially rising action with exponential chances of failure will appreciate the larger scope of this one and Hemsworth’s stone-cold performance. Those fans who loved the militaristic and earthy realism of the original may find themselves lost in the sillier action formulas that Extraction 2 starts to dabble in. 


To say it simply, Extraction 2 is more of a mixed bag, but it is the kind of throwback action flick that’s meant to be seen on the most giant screen possible. It's loud and proud of itself, but seeing it at home takes away some of the fun of it. And it feels as though its hero and his plight in Georgia (the country, thanks) deserve more than just decaying in the Netflix Graveyard where streaming films go to die. 


Monday, June 12, 2023

The Ultimate Sakra-fice: Sakra (2023) Review

Directors: Donnie Yen, Kam Ka-Wai

Notable Cast: Donnie Yen, Yukee Chen, Liu Yase, Kara Hui, Wu Yue, Eddie Cheung, Grace Wong, Do Yuming, Ray Lui, Tsui Siu-Ming, Cai Xiangyu, Michelle Hu, Zhao Huawei, Yu Kang, Xu Xiangdong, Yuen Cheung-Yan, Cheung Siu Fai, Cya Liu, Kara Wai, Kenji Tanigaki, Hua Yan


Donnie Yen has solidified himself as one of the biggest action stars in the work in the last 15 years. For those who follow Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, we’ve known that for much, much longer than that - but the international success of the Ip Man films along with stints in Hollywood blockbusters like John Wick: Chapter 4 have made sure that his name was synonymous with action godhood for the entire world. 


How does he decide to cash his blank check of this fame for his first directorial effort in almost 20 years? He decided to do an adaption of the wuxia novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. It’s not the most obvious choice, mainly since his brand of action has been reasonably modern, gritty, and grounded even when doing classic kung fu flicks like the Ip Man series. Yet, as a star and director, Yen tackles big-scale wire-fu, chi powers, and classic heroic tropes for Sakra


Sunday, June 4, 2023

Hopper Boy Reborn: Shin Kamen Rider (2023) Review

Director: Hideaki Anno

Notable Cast: Sosuke Ikematsu, Minami Hamabe, Tasuku Emoto, Shinya Tsukamoto, Toru Tezuka, Suzuki Matsuo, Nanase Nishino, Mirai Moriyama, Masami Nagasawa, Nao Omori, Takumi Saitoh, Kanata Hongo, Tori Matsuzaka


Hideaki Anno’s “shin universe” continues to be one of the most fascinating series in cinema. Shin Godzilla was a distinctively Japanese recreation of the iconic kaiju that works as a perfect counterweight to the American Monsterverse series and Shin Ultraman (released in the US earlier this year) was a love letter to the monster-fighting hero that weirdly managed to pack in some thematic heft while balancing silly monster fights with existential questions.


For his third film in this universe, Anno tackles another tokusatsu legend by bringing a “new” version of Kamen Rider to the silver screen. Naturally titled Shin Kamen Rider, this film serves - like the other two Shin films - as both a reboot and a love letter to the character's previous incarnations. Although both Shin Godzilla and Shin Ultraman managed to find a better balance in their respective reinventions, it’s hard not to love what this is pulling off here too. 


Shin Kamen Rider is outlandishly silly and takes each level of craziness with a stone face while leaning into the aesthetic of the original series with a modern CGI element. It is the best kind of insane, even when it leaves its audience feeling like they have to sprint to keep up.