I don't think anyone will ever forget the "The Matrix," which was, by far, the most ground-breaking and most revolutionary film released in 1999. By now, we all know that "The Matrix," the landmark science fiction film co-written and co-directed by The Wachowski Brothers, Andy and Larry (as they were known at the time, and are now known as "The Wachowskis") - with its ground-breaking CGI special effects (including the reality-bending "bullet time"); gravity-defying, Hong Kong-inspired action sequences and stunt-work; and heady arm-chair philosophical ideas - became an instant classic and a sci-fi & pop culture milestone. It also helped to mainstream the underground science fiction cyberpunk subculture - made most famous, of course, by distinguished cyberpunk author William Gibson (of "Neuromancer" fame).
I saw "The Matrix" in the theater that year; I was 13 when it came out in March of 1999, and it still remains one of the most thrilling cinematic experiences of my life. I will never forget it. (I also had the opportunity to re-live that experience three years ago when I saw a special theatrical re-release of the film with a good friend of mine from high school who hadn't seen it when it was originally playing in the theaters - God Bless Alamo Drafthouse.)
But not long afterward, The Wachowskis announced that two sequels were underway - "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions," both of which were released in 2003 and received a mixed reception (both films were average, over-done and way too repetitive, in my honest estimation) - along with a nine-part animated anthology film that would expand upon the background and give us some of the much-needed information alluded to in "The Matrix" while also going deeper into some of its key themes, and also act as a bridge between the first film and its sequels (and the 2003 video game "Enter the Matrix"), which they called "The Animatrix."
"The Animatrix" is, of course, what we're really here to talk about.
I saw "The Animatrix" not long after its debut on home video back in 2003 and was quite enthralled by it. I only saw it once, but in recent years have developed an urge to watch it again, which I accomplished earlier today.
It is well-known that The Wachowskis are huge fans of Japanese animation - Anime' - and that it played a substantial influence on the overall visual style of "The Matrix"; it is no wonder, then, that "The Matrix," with its gravity-defying action scenes, would at times resemble a live-action cartoon. (A lot of Western-produced action films since then have taken to combining live-action stunt-work with the Anime'-style visuals - but ironically, 1998's "Blade," which came out one year earlier, did sort of beat The Wachowskis to the punch.) Of course, it is also well-known that early on, The Wachowskis had showed producer Joel Silver a copy of Mamoru Oshii's highly influential sci-fi cyberpunk Anime' classic "Ghost in the Shell" (1995) as an example of the type of film that they were trying to make. When trying to sell him on the idea of "The Matrix," they reportedly exclaimed, "We wanna do that for real!" And they did.
Coming back to "The Animatrix," The Wachowskis produced this nine-part anthology series - co-writing four of the nine short films - that includes a wide variety of animation styles from a wide variety of renowned Japanese Anime' studios and directorial talents, including a personal favorite of mine, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who directed "Wicked City" (1987), "Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust" (2000) and my personal favorite of the man, "Ninja Scroll" (1993). It also features a short by American animator Peter Chung, the creator of MTV's ground-breaking "Aeon Flux" series from the early '90s. So, "The Animatrix" is, essentially, a head-on collision between Japanese animation and American live-action cinema.
Each short film is remarkable for the high quality of the animation and the ideas that they present, which expand upon the general themes and back-story of the first film while also providing a narrative link to the two sequels and video game. In a product such as this, you always run the risk of producing some material that can sometimes be better, and way more interesting, than some of the other things being presented. "The Animatrix" is no different in that regard; try to think of "Heavy Metal" (1981) as another early example of this sort of thing. The film runs 89 minutes in length, with each segment running anywhere between 16 minutes and 24 minutes in length.
I'll now give very brief break-downs of each segment and my thoughts on each.
"Final Flight of the Osiris" is the first of the four stories co-authored by The Wachowskis, and details the tragic events that lead up directly to "The Matrix Reloaded." This is probably the most visually interesting of all the segments, as the CGI - by Square USA, Inc. ("Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within") - is utterly beautiful to look at and you'll probably watch this just to take in the amazing quality of the animation. And I definitely got a visceral thrill out of its opening action sequence set in a virtual reality dojo, which was set to the song "Conga Fury" (Animatrix Edit) by Juno Reactor.
The next segment, or segments, actually, is the two-part "The Second Renaissance," which The Wachowskis also co-wrote, and uses some material taken from the original comic book story "Bits and Pieces of Information," which features art by Geoff Darrow ("Hard Boiled") and was released online before the release of the first "Matrix" film in 1999 (but didn't see print publication until 2003). Now these two segments are what I really wanted to see here, and in my opinion were the best of the whole series. Here, you finally learn about how the Matrix first came to be, the war between humans and the machines, and how the machines ultimately came to enslave the human race in a computer-generated dream world. (And, in a not-so-subtle fashion that reminds us of not-too-distant historical events, this story will cause the viewer to wonder if perhaps humankind deserves this hellish nightmare.) But a warning to young viewers: "The Second Renaissance" is quite graphic and at times horrifying to watch; some of the imagery here has lingered with me from when I first saw it when I was a teenager, and it all came flooding back to me seeing it again this morning. Young viewers should be well advised here...
"Kid's Story" is the fourth and final entry co-authored by The Wachowskis, and introduces Michael Karl Popper, a.k.a., "The Kid" (voiced by Clayton Watson), a teenage computer hacker who was rescued from the Matrix by Neo (voiced by Keanu Reeves, from the live-action "Matrix" movies) and who first appeared in "The Matrix Reloaded"; along with "Final Flight of the Osiris," these are the only two segments with a direct connection to the live-action film series. This was also quite interesting - even though I don't really care for the "Matrix" sequels, I was actually kind of fascinated to see where the character of "The Kid" came from and what exactly his connection to Neo was.
"Program" was one of two segments directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri - with animation by acclaimed Anime' studio MADHOUSE - and expands upon some of the deeper themes first introduced in the first "Matrix" film.
"World Record," also directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri and again features animation by MADHOUSE, is the weakest of the bunch, and details an Olympic-level athlete who aspires to break his own record but is also being monitored by the Agents for reasons that I'm not sure were ever really made clear.
"Beyond" shows a young Japanese woman searching for her lost cat, and how she, and three young children, locate an area of the city Where Anything Is Possible, but is actually a glitch in the Matrix, which the program immediately seeks to correct and cover up all evidence of. This segment was a bit of a mixed bag for me that presented some great background and insight into the "Matrix" universe and how the system truly operates to keep humans subservient and ignorant of the true nature of their reality, and had some wonderful animation effects but was not really connected in any way to the films.
"A Detective Story" is one of the most fascinating entries because of how it mixes detective-noir with science fiction, as it shows a hard-boiled '40s-style gumshoe in the modern-day who is hired by a mysterious benefactor to track down an equally mysterious computer hacker named Trinity (voiced by Carrie-Anne Moss, also on loan from the live-action movies) - but ends up finding more than he bargained for. I loved the animation style of this segment - which reportedly was meant to mimic old newspapers - as well as its rather bleak moral outlook for the central character.
The last segment, "Matriculated," was also a bit of a mixed bag and is the longest short film here at 24 minutes. This was also the segment done by Peter Chung and seems to contain many of his trademarks from those familiar with "Aeon Flux," including a strong female protagonist, vicious adversaries, and a bleak outlook for its principal characters. While I enjoyed Chung's work here, I had a hard time connecting to the story and some of the characters, but the central idea it presented - that machines can be shown that they have a choice to be free of the Matrix, too, just as humans can be - is a brilliant philosophical concept to try to wrap your head around.
"The Animatrix" is a real trip for anyone who is a die-hard fan of "The Matrix" and wants to learn more about its universe without having to bother with the lackluster sequels. While it isn't totally perfect, the more fascinating short films far outweigh the disappointing ones.
2019's "Terminator: Dark Fate" aims to be what its three predecessors weren't: a sequel that is a worthy follow-up to James Cameron's landmark sci-fi picture "The Terminator" (1984) - my favorite science fiction film of all time, by the way, and my #3 favorite movie of all time - and its equally ground-breaking sequel, 1991 "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." To that end, "Terminator: Dark Fate" is not so much a sequel to the three sequels that preceded it - "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" (2003), "Terminator Salvation" (2009), and "Terminator Genisys" (2015) - as it is a direct follow-up to "Terminator: Judgment Day."
To make that connection clearer, Cameron was brought in as a producer and story consultant on "Dark Fate" - a role he also played in "Genisys" - and was not involved at all in the productions of "Rise of the Machines" or "Salvation." In the "Terminator" universe, those three previous films - and the highly regarded "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" TV series that was created by Josh Friendman and ran for two seasons between 2007 and 2009 - have been completely disregarded (or only exists in "alternate timelines," which is par for the course in a series that revolves around the machinations of time travel and lazy filmmakers who just want to pretend they never even took place).
(On a personal note, I liked the three sequels, with "Terminator Salvation" being my personal favorite of the three.)
And Cameron aligned himself with a capable, younger fan-boy director, Tim Miller ("Deadpool"). To their credit, they've created a sequel that doesn't always quite hit the mark, but does return the series to some familiar territory, since it also brings back two key players from "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" 28 years after the fact. And with their return, you get a sense of the race against impending apocalyptic doom, shootouts, poignant human drama, big action set-pieces, and old-school comic relief.
"Terminator: Dark Fate" begins with an extended epilogue from "Terminator 2," and then segues into darker waters with an opening action sequence that has already ignited fierce controversy in the online "Terminator" fan community and will certainly jolt unwary viewers (the film opened in overseas markets in Europe and Asia before opening in the United States last November).
We then move into the thick of the story, which centers around 18-year-old Daniella "Dani" Ramos (Natalia Reyes), an auto plant assembly line worker in Mexico City. A new, highly advanced version of the shape-changing liquid-metal android assassin from "Terminator 2," called a REV-9 (Gabriel Luna), arrives from the future to kill her. This new Terminator is an astonishing special effects creation, since it can split itself into two fully functional autonomous forms - one is a flesh-covered human robot, and the other is a heavily armored metallic endoskeleton.
Protecting Dani, is a bionically augmented super-soldier from the future named Grace (Mackenzie Davis, "Tully"). And the pair is also later joined by Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who is even more bad-ass here than when she was in "Terminator 2," though she is more aged, cynical, and world-weary. (If you need to get caught up, she is the mother of John Connor - Edward Furlong in "Terminator 2" and who lent his voice and facial likeness here - who in the future will lead a human resistance against rogue killer machines controlled by an out-of-control super-computer called Skynet.) Additional help comes from a domesticated CSM-101 cyborg Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who has taken a human name ("Carl") and has even adopted a human family.
There are special effects and then there are special effects. The film's pace is pretty much established with its first action sequence, which occurs a scant few minutes after Grace and the REV-9 arrive in the present to duel to the death for the future. The film is quite competently acted by the players and skillfully directed by Tim Miller. Of the players, Natalia Reyes fulfills her role commendably, being that over the course of the film she goes from a scared little girl to a brave and capable warrior (will her Hollywood career be jump-started by this movie?) - in much the same way Linda Hamilton had done just 35 years prior. The other really noteworthy character was the murderous REV-9, played by Gabriel Luna, who takes on numerous guises in its relentless pursuit of its target, and, as part of its search, is able to better interact with other humans than any Terminator seen thus far. I hope he appears in more movies in the future.
As much as the movie tries to disregard the three previous movies (and the TV series), it does adopt one of its central caveats, that Judgment Day appears to be inevitable: each time one version of it is averted, a new version pops up. But the key underlying emotional component of this movie (and "Terminator 2") was the human determination to fight for the future. Despite the apparent cynicism and nihilism - "Carl" casually states the likelihood of social anarchy even without a Judgment Day doomsday scenario - the movie ultimately ends on a message of hope for humanity.
Sometimes that's all we need. Because hope may also bring about more "Terminator" sequels.
The late John Singleton's sixth directorial effort, 2001's "Baby Boy," opens with a factoid that may come as alarmingly accurate to its core audience: young black men in America, who according to a completely plausible theory put forth by a prominent psychiatrist, because of racism, have been reduced to thinking of themselves as children ("baby boys"). To support the claim, the film notes that young black men call their women "mama," their closest friends "boys," and their place of residence as "the crib."
(Does anyone else reading this think that sounds familiar?)
This sets up the central theme of "Baby Boy," which is about immature young black men being forced to grow up into manhood. Similar territory was covered in Singleton's ground-breaking debut feature, "Boyz N the Hood" (1991), and Singleton returns to the same 'hood - South Central Los Angeles - older, wiser, more mature. Like "Boyz N the Hood," Singleton brings life to his story and doesn't paint his characters in broad strokes; there is a wonderful life in the dangerous inner-city, people with hopes and dreams of wanting more out of life than just drugs, money, women, and swagger.
"Baby Boy" can be thought of as a companion piece of sorts to "Boyz N the Hood," since it returns to its central theme of young black men in the inner-city and growing up into manhood. His protagonist is 20-year-old Jody (r & b/soul singing sensation Tyrese Gibson, in his film debut), who still lives at home with his mother Juanita (A.J. Johnson), is unemployed and doesn't even bother looking for work, and spends his days mooching money off her and hanging out on the streets with his best friend Sweetpea (Omar Gooding), who is now hanging out with dangerous gang types.
Jody is also a young father himself, since he has children by two different women - Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) and Peanut (Tamara LaSeon Bass). It's Yvette that Jody obviously loves, but he still sees Peanut on a regular basis. Yvette loves Jody and he loves her, but she is also growing increasingly fed up with his lies and messing around with other women, and taking her car - which she is making payments on. (There is some bold logic to his rational for his actions: he lies to her because he loves her.) But he picks her up from work everyday, fixes her car when it needs fixing, pays her phone bill, and cares lovingly for their young son. So, she sticks around with him.
Conflict arises on two fronts for Jody, that will force him to stop being a Baby Boy and hopefully become a man. On one front, his mother, who is also growing fed up with taking care of Jody and wants a life of her own, takes up with Melvin (Ving Rhames), a former convict who now owns a landscaping business and wants desperately to go straight and have a second chance at love & happiness (which he hopes he'll get with Juanita). He has insight and wisdom that Jody would do good to try to learn from, because he's been there and "done it all to the full." He was once like Jody at point - "young, dumb, and out of control" - but 10 years in prison changed all that. But still, he's a no-nonsense character and has little patience for Jody's immaturity. Likewise, Jody fears with absolute certainty that his mother will ultimately choose Melvin over him.
On the other front, Yvette's ex-con ex-boyfriend Rodney (Snoop Dogg) is back in the picture. He mocks Jody's immaturity and for taking Yvette from him and having a baby with her. But Jody is quick to shoot back that he's been in prison, broke, has no place to live, and thus has nothing of value to say about how Jody is living his life. It won't take a rocket scientist to figure out where their rivalry is headed...
"Baby Boy" is a film that works so well because it plays to John Singleton's strengths of breathing life into the 'hood and making it seem like a real place where real people live, and not just some urban hell on earth - mainly because its key piece of authenticity is the fact that Singleton came from these streets himself and knows what it's like out there. And the characters he paints for his films contain aspects of himself and people he knows. And there is also a certain amount of truth into one of the film's underlying assertions that Singleton is openly condemning the selfish, immature behavior of its central character, while still showing him as a complex individual who still has a lot of growing up to do and is ultimately a good person deep down inside. In fact, Jody can be seen as a placeholder for any young man in the audience watching.
The Los Angeles 'hood was a different place at the time of "Baby Boy's" release in 2001, 10 years after "Boyz N the Hood." John Singleton decided to revisit South Central once more, with similar ideas in mind about manhood but with a decidedly narrowed focus, and he succeeded. He presented "Baby Boy," which is another one of the best and most truthful depictions about the lives of young black men in America.
A mixed bag, but overall, a fitting end to the "Skywalker Saga"...
To my tired eyes, I think "Star Wars" is showing its age (for a film series that began all the way back in 1977), even though "Star Wars" is essentially timeless and aside from superficial trappings (like the quality of the special effects, which still hold up in the face of today's overblown CGI), there is nothing that truly dates these films. But it does seem that all the best and most original and compelling storytelling for the "Star Wars" series went out with the original trilogy from 1977-1983. That's why the long-awaited sequel series seems like kind of a rehash, and a fan-boy tribute, to the grand legacy of films past. J.J. Abrams's 2019 "Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker" is not immune to this dreaded weakness that has hounded the sequel series since it began in 2015 with "The Force Awakens." But the first hour or so, I was quite involved in the story here, despite a few hiccups and missed opportunities to make the story even more deeper and make it stand out from the past two entries, which to my tired eyes, were somewhat lackluster and didn't reach the high expectations that accompanied their releases. But overall, I felt that the film ended on a fitting note, right where it began. "The Rise of Skywalker," was the one film in the sequel trilogy that I was most impressed with, and that's why I felt it brought the series to a decent closure.
It seems that every Hollywood action heavyweight has to have their "Die Hard" moment, and 1995's "Sudden Death" was Belgian martial arts sensation Jean-Claude Van Damme's contribution. Basically "Die Hard on Ice," "Sudden Death" is slickly polished and photographed nicely & directed by Van Damme's "Timecop" (1994) director Peter Hyams, but that's about it - despite a few well-executed action sequences and special effects.
During Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, fire marshal Darren McCord (Van Damme), a former Pittsburgh firefighter traumatized by his inability to save a young girl from a deadly house fire two years earlier, takes his two children to watch the hockey game. Also in attendance, is the vice president of the United States (Raymond J. Barry); and a crack team of terrorists led by Joshua Foss (the late Powers Boothe), a disgruntled former Secret Service operative who has taken the VP and 10 others hostage in the owner's box and wants two billion dollars in frozen funds from enemy nations to be wired to 13 bank accounts of his choice.
The gist of it is, is that the government has until the end of each inning to transfer one-third of the money, or else Foss will execute a hostage. If at the end of the game his demands still are not met, he will blow up the Civic Arena with strategically placed explosives and kill everyone inside it. Only a one-man army, Darren McCord, can stop them.
"Sudden Death" has the usual shoot-outs, explosions, martial arts showdowns (including Van Damme's hilarious fight with Foss's henchwoman, disguised as the Pittsburgh Penguins' mascot, in the Arena's kitchen) and thrilling foot-chases, but that's about it. It's pretty typical and by-the-numbers stuff that doesn't offer anything new to a tired and worn-out premise.
On the plus side, Powers Boothe makes for a truly memorable bad guy with a cold and efficient manner and a no-nonsense approach, as well as a black-hearted sense of humor. Boothe provides some of the film's best lines and gets some of the most memorable moments, too. He is really what keeps the movie going.
All in all, "Sudden Death" is a good way to kill 111 minutes of your Saturday afternoon.
"Code of Silence," a.k.a., the greatest Chuck Norris movie ever made
This is my first time commenting on a Chuck Norris movie, but this is not the first Chuck Norris film I have ever seen. But there does seem to be something worth mentioning in the fact that my first review of a Chuck Norris movie happens to be what many fans and critics consider to be the man's best and greatest work to date.
(And of course, when all is said & done, Chuck Norris does remain the toughest martial arts superstar to ever go toe-to-toe with the greatest martial artist the movies have ever seen, or will ever see - Bruce Lee, in the climatic Roman Coliseum battle in Lee's 1972 directorial debut "Way of the Dragon"/"Return of the Dragon.")
It is true that in Chuck Norris's long and storied career as a martial arts action star, which is quickly approaching five decades, he has never made a perfect picture. With his tough-guy brawn, no-non-sense attitude and high-kicking Karate (actually Tang Soo Do) moves, he made a number of hit-and-miss martial arts action vehicles during his heyday back in the 1970s and 1980s, but seemed to hit his biggest success, both critically and commercially, with this taut, gritty, and slyly humorous martial arts action-crime film from 1985.
Of course, "Code of Silence" began its production life as the third sequel to Clint Eastwood's long-running "Dirty Harry" film series, but it was rejected before director Andrew Davis picked it up in 1984, and signed on Chuck Norris to be the film's star. Unlike many of Norris's previous films, there's a great deal of story here (perhaps more than is really necessary for a film such as this), with great human characters and some well-executed action sequences (which is really Davis's greatest strength as an action director). And somewhere in there, too, we get a commanding, star-making lead performance from Chuck Norris himself.
Set in Chicago, Norris is Sergeant Eddie Cusack, a straight-arrow street-wise narcotics detective who as the film opens, is leading a carefully orchestrated drug bust on the notorious Columbian Comacho drug gang. Things get dicey when gunmen working for the rival Italian Luna cartel open fire on the gangsters, and make off with the drugs and cash, leaving a room full of dead bodies in their wake. This sets off a bloody gang war between the cartels' rival chieftains - Luis Comacho (Davis regular Henry Silva) and Tony Luna (Mike Genovese), with the Chicago cops caught in the middle and innocent Chicago bystanders in the crossfire.
In a major sub-plot, during the confusion of the botched drug raid, a veteran police detective, Cragie (Ralph Foody), accidentally shoots and kills a teenager and plants his back-up service weapon on the body in order to claim self-defense. His young, inexperienced partner Nick Kopalas (Joseph Guzaldo), witnesses the shooting and Cragie planting his weapon on the dead kid, but sticks by his partner, anyway, in adhering to the so-called "blue wall of silence" that exists amongst police officers for them to not speak out against a fellow officer's wrong-doing (and is also the meaning of the film's title).
Meanwhile, as the body count rises as the Comacho and Luna gangs continue their bloody turf war, Eddie Cusack, who doesn't always follow the rules but is nonetheless a good honest cop (and is sometimes referred to as a "one-man army" by his colleagues), attempts to track down and protect Tony Luna's 17-year-old daughter Diana Luna (Molly Hagan, in her film debut), an artist who wants nothing to do with her father's business and is being specifically targeted by the Comachos.
As you can see, "Code of Silence" has a hefty plot, more plot than it needs. The script, co-authored by Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack & Mike Gray (from a story by Butler and Shryack), is developed nicely from the get-go and involves the viewer in the on-screen events almost immediately. While "Code of Silence" does borrow a lot from the violent police-thrillers of the '60s and '70s, its real appeal is the story and lively characters where everything, from the dialogue to the action sequences (including a spectacular foot-chase and brawl on the rooftop of a speeding "L" train, as well as Eddie's brutal bar-room confrontation with a bunch of Comacho cartel thugs, and the much-talked-about climax involving the "PROWLER" robotic police tank), counts for something and helps to move the plot along at a nice pace and builds up to the next scene and keeps the audience interested throughout. This sort of deft direction and staging of well-executed action scenes would be Andrew Davis's forte on his future martial arts action films "Above the Law" (1988) and "Under Siege" (1992), which would feature Norris's contemporary Steven Seagal.
At center stage is Chuck Norris. As Eddie Cusack, "Code of Silence" features Norris at his rough-&-tumble, tough-guy best. It contains his usual brawniness and high-kicking Karate fights (perhaps fewer than one might expect), but we get the sense that Norris was really breaking away from his earlier image and becoming a true star. Like the film itself, it's his greatest performance - even though he seems to be "acting" very little here. Perhaps another reason is because despite his limited range, he manages to anchor the film - both in his dramatic scenes and its action scenes. Another reason is because he's surrounded himself with excellent players, including Henry Silva, the late Dennis Farina (who at the time was working as a real-life Chicago police detective moonlighting as an actor), Ron Dean, Bert Remsen, Nathan Davis, and young Molly Hagan - all of whom turn in fine supporting work.
At the end of the day, "Code of Silence" truly is the best Chuck Norris movie ever made. It comes highly recommended from this viewer.
P.S.: Chuck Norris also delivers my favorite line in the film, right before his brawl against the Comacho gang in the bar: "If I want your opinion, I'll beat it out of you!" Classic.
I'll be quick and to-the-point. "The Incredibles" (2004) was simply the best and greatest animated film to come out in 2004. It was a love-labor to superhero lore, as well as a bold-faced SATIRE of superhero lore - done in animated form, by the one American animation studio to top them all off, Pixar. "The Incredibles" was a box office success and critical hit. So the question was, how could writer-director Brad Bird and his team of animators at Pixar follow it up?
We got that answer with 2018's "Incredibles 2." While not as groundbreaking as its predecessor, it grips you from its opening moments and holds your attention for the entire duration of its 118-minute running time. This sequel is bigger, bolder, and more family-centered than the first one; but don't let that fool you, there are still plenty of thunderous action sequences and moments of laugh-out-loud comedy and genuinely heartfelt family times to keep you interested.
Do yourself a favor, and watch one of the most "Incredible" sequels ever made.
I was nine-years-old when "Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla" was released to Japanese theaters in December of 1994. I even vaguely remember seeing a special on my local TV news station about this film's impending release - and thus me being me, a life-long devoted fan of Godzilla, I knew right away that I wanted to see it. Unfortunately, this would not happen for another five years, not until "Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla" was finally released stateside on VHS (remember those?), along with several other Heisei-Era "Godzilla" films finally seeing their debut in the United States.
But I have to admit, I was let down by this film upon first seeing it in 1999. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Watching "Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla" today for the first time since then, I now think I know why.
The first Heisei-Era "Godzilla" film was "Godzilla 1985"/"The Return of Godzilla" (1984), which saw the return of mutant fire-breathing dinosaur Godzilla after a nine-year hiatus following his last appearance in the Showa-Era classic "Terror of Mechagodzilla" (1975). In that last film and throughout the later half of the Showa Era, Godzilla was a superhero. "Godzilla 1985"/"The Return of Godzilla" saw Godzilla returned to his roots as a rampaging menace and later on in the Heisei Era, something more closely resembling an anti-hero. "Godzilla 1985"/"The Return of "Godzilla" got the Heisei Era off on the right foot, and it was followed up five years later by the vastly superior - and Heisei-Era high point, and my personal favorite "Godzilla" film after "Gojira" (1954) - "Godzilla vs. Biollante" (1989).
But despite earning largely good reviews and having received a special cult status with most hardcore Godzilla fans, "Godzilla vs. Biollante" was a box office disappoint for Toho - which has produced every single "Godzilla" film made in Japan from 1954 until now, in 2019 - who blamed its poor box office performance on a darker, more adult tone and a lack of familiar monsters. They thought they would remedy that with the horrendous "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" (1991), by re-introducing one of Godzilla's oldest foes (the three-headed fire-breathing dragon King Ghidorah), and having a lighter tone. After "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah," this trend would continue for the next four films in the Heisei Era - seemingly reaching its "family-friendly" high point with "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II" (1993), and this film.
But "Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla" does have some things working in its favor to distinguish it from its predecessors, though not by much. It does have a very strong emphasis on character development and humor, its female characters play significant parts in the film's events and there's even some chaste romance in there, too.
But it does not make a picture that is really all that compelling in the end - especially since one would expect that the injection of fresh new talent both behind and in front of the camera would make the proceedings here a markedly different experience from past Heisei-Era entries that were causing the series to falter tremendously after such promising beginnings.
To begin things, Godzilla and his adorable - ADORABLE! - adopted son Little Godzilla (first seen in the previous "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II") have retreated to their peaceful home on Birth Island. But the Japanese government, the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and the United Nations are already implementing plans to defeat Godzilla once and for all, but the two plans are fundamentally at odds with one another.
The first plan, the "T" (Telepathy) Plan, led by Dr. Chinatusu Gondo (Towako Yoshikawa) wants to control Godzilla, by planting a device at the base of his skull that would allow him to receive telepathic commands from the young psychic Miki Saegusa (Heisei series regular Megumi Odaka, finally given her first starring role and is able to effectively carry the film on her own). The other plan, the "M" Plan, has involved the construction of a second gigantic fighting "mech" to kill Godzilla, "M.O.G.U.E.R.A.," a massive, heavily armored, heavily armed successor to Mechagodzilla (and functions in ways that are similar to the Zords from the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" TV series); as an aside, this film marks the first time that Moguera has appeared on-screen since its debut in Toho's "The Mysterians" (1957).
But Miki Saegusa has an alarming vision: she is warned by the Cosmos (Keiko Imamura and Sayaka Osawa), the miniature twin fairies last seen in "Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth" (1992), that a horrific new monster is on its way to Earth, and it's up to her to try to stop it. But it won't be easy because of her dual involvement with the competing "T" and "M" Plans. This new monster is later revealed to be the Spacegodzilla of the title, a hideous beast created by Godzilla's cells being carried off into space by either Biollante or Mothra (both of whom appear here via stock footage from previous films), falling through a black hole, and finally emerging from a white hole as a highly evolved and psychically-charged mutant version of Godzilla that is able to draw energy directly from outer space - giving it almost unlimited supernatural powers and abilities.
So, Chinatsu and Miki are forced to team up with two JSDF officers - Lt. Shinjo (Jun Hashizume) and Lt. Kiyo (Zenkichi Yoneyama) - as well as the disgruntled Major Yuki (Akira Emoto), who has a personal grudge against Godzilla that's become a major obsession for him (think, like Captain Ahab from "Moby Dick"); his best friend, Colonel Gondo (Toru Minegishi, from "Godzilla vs. Biollante"), was killed by Godzilla in 1989 and - SURPRISE! - Chinatsu also happens to be Gondo's sister. Yuki's willingness to endanger his comrades on his personal vendetta makes up the core of much of the film's emotional drama - along with some of the touchy-feeling romantic stuff, too, that develops between Miki and Shinjo.
Like all the films made during the Heisei Era (1984-1995), it does have some astonishing special effects by the late Koichi Kawakita, who first began working on the series with "Godzilla vs. Biollante." But as the series went on, I couldn't help but notice a stark shift in the quality of the special effects; I'm reminded of the dedication and effort put into "Godzilla vs. Biollante," but everything else afterward in the series was something of a mixed bag. For example, I couldn't help but notice the obvious use of wires in some of the scenes where Spacegodzilla is psychically levitating either Godzilla or Little Godzilla - which seems odd given the extensive use of mattes, miniatures, forced-perspective photography and of course, the less-obvious use of wires in "Godzilla 1985"/"The Return of Godzilla" and "Godzilla vs. Biollante." The use of special effects in those films was much more convincing for some reason - so what gives, Toho?
Aside from that, there is also the noticeable shift in tone to a more "family-friendly" enterprise, which was done at the insistence of long-time series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka (who sadly passed away in 1997 and produced every single "Godzilla" film made in Japan from 1954 to 1995), and "Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla" director Kensho Yamashita. While it may have made the films more commercially successful for Toho, it also compromised the integrity of the films, as well - since it is worth noting that Kensho Yamashita had a background in directing music videos for Japanese teen idols and even more alarmingly, long-time Godzilla suit-mation performer Kenpachiro Satsuma went on the record to state that a highly emotional (and heart-breaking) scene involving Godzilla furiously trying to free Little Godzilla from the crystal prison constructed by Spacegodzilla was cut from the final version of the movie because of its "seriousness," much to his and our disappointment.
On the plus side, the performances are pretty good, for the most part. Megumi Odaka really grows in this picture, showing the audience how much her character has matured since her first appearance as a 17-year-old in "Godzilla vs. Biollante." (The cinematography by Masahiro Kishimoto does give way to one beautifully shot sequence of Odaka on the beach watching the sun set over the horizon, and then having a short conversation with co-star Jun Hashizume.) The other really great performance belongs to Akira Emoto as Yuki, whose personal obsession with killing Godzilla is both understandable and lamentable, as it has alienated him from most of his comrades and made him particularly despised by his superiors. But still, one cannot help but like him because he gives one of the strongest performances of any actor in the entire series.
"Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla" was a commercial success in Japan, but received mixed reviews; it isn't hard to see why it got a mixed reception but performed well at the box office. But I'm glad that the Heisei Era really redeemed itself with the next film after this one, which was the final entry in the series, the epic closer "Godzilla vs. Destoroyah" (1995).
Oliver Stone's 1989 Oscar-Winning anti-war drama "Born on the Fourth of July" is the quintessential film about the experiences of Vietnam War veterans returning home from their terms of service overseas in Southeast Asia. It's also about the loss of innocence that war took away from the United States of America, and also the loss of the hope and idealism that had existed in this country in the 1950s and early 1960s, and would be completely evaporated by the latter half of the decade. It's about veterans returning home to a country that was not the same as before they'd left. It's about the opposing sides fighting for control of America's future during times of great social and political unrest and unease.
It's also a deeply personal story about a wounded veteran of that war, who, as a teenager, inspired by the inaugural presidential address given by then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy in January of 1961 ("Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"), eagerly volunteers with the United States Marine Corps immediately upon graduation from high school and embarks on a tour of duty in Vietnam, is injured - becoming a paraplegic paralyzed from the mid-chest down - comes home, recovers in a decrepit veteran's hospital, reconnects with his family and community, and after a lengthy period of disenchantment and despair, becomes an out-spoken anti-war activist.
"Born on the Fourth of July" is based on the real-life story of Ron Kovic, that wounded Vietnam War veteran who became a prominent anti-war demonstrator after his time in the war and a voice for disenchanted war veterans and peace activists everywhere; it's based on his best-selling 1976 autobiographical book of the same name. Kovic famously won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the film's screenplay (co-written with Oliver Stone, also a Vietnam vet himself), the latter of which was received 22 years later to the day that he was wounded in Vietnam. "Born on the Fourth of July" could be considered a follow-up of sorts to Stone's earlier Best Picture Oscar-Winner "Platoon" (1986); in fact, "Born on the Fourth of July" was at one point pitched AS a sequel to "Platoon."
And somewhere in there, too, "Born on the Fourth of July" captures what is very easily the best performance of its young star, a then-27-year-old Tom Cruise, who was best-known at the time for several high-profile leading roles in big-budget Hollywood blockbusters from earlier in the decade, including "Risky Business" (1983), "The Color of Money" (1986), "Cocktail" (1988), "Rain Man" (1988) and of course his most famous movie up to that time, 1986's mega-hit "Top Gun." But these roles - even the previous year's Best Picture Oscar-Winner "Rain Man" - had mainly focused on Cruise's "all-American boy" good looks and inherent screen charm, and people (Stone and Kovic included) were initially very weary of whether or not he could truly carry a film like "Born on the Fourth of July" - a film with some enormous dramatic weight and history attached to it.
And Tom Cruise delivered - he got an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and won a Golden Globe Award for the same category for his performance in the film. Both were richly deserved, and Cruise from then on would be considered a "serious" actor who could move effortlessly between critically acclaimed dramatic ("serious") roles and large-scale big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.
In many ways, Cruise was utterly perfect for the embittered Ron Kovic because it also allowed him to deconstruct his own popular image. (It has also been reported by some sources that one of the reasons Tom Cruise accepted the part was because he was acting on the advice of late film legend Paul Newman - his co-star from "The Color of Money" - who had convinced him to take the part in order to counter the uber-jingoistic image of his performance in "Top Gun.") He starts out as a young, handsome-looking, idealistic, high school athlete superstar and small-town hero (his hometown of Massapequa on Long Island, New York) - but by film's end and now confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life due to injuries sustained on the battlefield, he is a completely different person, angry, cynical, hot-tempered, embittered, and feeling betrayed by the country he loves so much and sacrificed his body and spirit for. That "all-American boy" charm gets lost over the course of "Born on the Fourth of July's" 145-minute running time, and we believe it.
In short, it's the role that Tom Cruise was born to play.
Oliver Stone, who also served in Vietnam, shaped a movie that captured the pain, agony, and overwhelming sense of betrayal that many wounded (psychologically, not just physically) Vietnam War veterans surely felt after coming home to a country that was now so radically different from the country that they had known before - and also seemed to have forgotten them, turned its back on them, or left them behind completely. Stone's opinions on the war are also well-known to both his critics and anyone who's followed his career over the decades - but his film is not propaganda and never goes off in the many wild directions that it very easily could have. It's simply a portrait of a wounded man who is stripped of his youthful idealism and cradle-born values by the trauma of war, and finds a new purpose for his life by speaking and acting out against war in order to prevent the creation of other wounded young men like himself.
"Born on the Fourth of July" is a challenging and angry film. It is unflinching in its scenes of graphic battlefield combat - influenced by Stone's earlier "Platoon," no doubt - as well as an America that is changing, socially, morally and politically, as the hope, dreams, and values of a bygone era give way to the burning anger, cynicism, and uncertainty of a new one as the angry voices on all sides (know-nothing anti-war demonstrators, self-serving politicians, the neglected vets themselves, and everyday Americans) fight for control of America's destiny and soul. "Born on the Fourth of a July" is a film that took 13 years to make - from the time of publication of Kovic's book in 1976 to the film's release in December of 1989 - and its love-labor is apparent every step of the way. The teaming of Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic was an inspired partnership borne of their shared experiences on the battlefields of Vietnam; in some ways, it is as much Stone's story as it Kovic's. We, as Americans, owe them a sincere and heartfelt thanks, and an apology for the hell that they were put through almost 50 years ago.
"Godzilla: King of the Monsters" - A Film Fit For A King!
Ever since the back-to-back successes of South Korea's "The Host" (2006), "Cloverfield" (2008), "Pacific Rim" (2013), "Godzilla" (2014) and "Kong: Skull Island" (2017), Hollywood has seen an increase in the popularity, and legitimacy, of giant monster movies - which began with "King Kong" (1933), but really didn't begin to take off until Japan's "Gojira" (1954) introduced to the world over the mighty "King Of The Monsters" Himself, the giant fire-breathing mutant dinosaur Godzilla.
There's something to be said about Godzilla, who has not always had a warm reception with American audiences. For those of us who grew up watching the original Japanese Toho-backed "kaiju-eiga" (Japanese monster movie) features, Godzilla was the best and most famous of them all. We watched him fight other giant monsters (daikaiju) in increasingly silly plots and laughable special effects and horrible English-language dubbing; of course, this is because for many years, only badly edited versions of the original Japanese movies were all that was available stateside, and poor-quality bootlegs of the original uncut Japanese versions of the movies became highly sought-after collector's items. (However, DVD has made legitimate, high-quality prints of the original Japanese movies available domestically.)
But to the Japanese and die-hards who took the films much more seriously than the average film-goer, Godzilla represented mankind's worst fears about the Atomic Age and nuclear warfare, being that Godzilla was the "son of the atom bomb" and was a living manifestation OF the power of the atomic bomb itself. Of course, this got lost over the years as Godzilla was transformed into a superhero over the course of the first-generation Showa-Era (1954-1975) series, later returning to his roots as a rampaging menace/anti-hero in the second- and third-generation Heisei-Era (1984-1995) and Millennium-Era (1999-2004) film series.
In between those series, Hollywood took a stab at bringing the Big Green Guy stateside with the laughable "Godzilla" (1998); I saw "Godzilla" six times in the theater as an impressionable 12-year-old. "Godzilla" failed to make an impression with audiences and die-hard fans, but has nonetheless become something of a cult film in its own right, however marginalized it may be. But then Britisher Gareth Edwards gave the Big Green Guy a proper American update with his 2014 "Godzilla," which I saw in the theater THREE times in just as many days as an impressionable 29-year-old, and with different friends each time. (The Japanese would also resurrect the King of the Monsters for themselves with 2016's "Shin Gojira"/"Godzilla: Resurgence," which I also saw in the theater during a very limited one-week theatrical engagement here in the United States.)
Of course, "Godzilla" was just the first in a potential franchise, and expanded cinematic universe - like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) - with joint backing by both Legendary Pictures and Japan's Toho. Those theories were confirmed over the next five years when it was revealed that in five years time, a second "Godzilla" feature would appear, and we finally got that with "Krampus" Michael Dougherty's largely superior 2019 sequel, "Godzilla: King of the Monsters."
Now this is the giant monster movie sequel we've been waiting to see in American theaters for the past five years. As a life-long Godzilla fan, I didn't go into the picture with any unrealistically high expectations, but I did come out of it fairly surprised at what I'd seen, and no, the movie is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but you get what you pay for, in my honest opinion. The film is steeped in reverence for the original Japanese film series - and hardcore Godzilla fans should have a ball pointing out some of the eagle-eyed/dog-eared references to said original Japanese film series (and even American "B" movies from the '50s, like "The Giant Claw" from 1957); did anybody catch those references to the Heisei-Era features "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" (1991), "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II" (1993) and "Godzilla vs. Destoroyah" (1995), or the Millennium-Era flick "Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S." (2003)?
(See what I mean? Such references show that the filmmakers geared "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" to hardcore Godzilla fans at the cost of a more generalized audience - which, to me, is probably the film's greatest shortcoming.)
However, beforehand, I did know a few details from Internet gossip over the intervening years. Essentially an Americanized, high-dollar remake of the Showa-Era classic "Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster" (1964) - and throwing in a rather ham-fisted environmentalist subtext - "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" not only brings back Godzilla, but it also introduces to American audiences for the first time not one, not two, but THREE other classic monsters from the original Japanese "Godzilla" film series.
Unlike "Godzilla," this sequel wastes no time in introducing us to the monsters (now referred to here as "titans"), who, following the events of "Godzilla" in 2014, are starting to become a common, everyday fact of life - in much the same way giant monsters were seen in the original Japanese film series. The King of the Monsters finds himself battling Mothra, Rodan and his first arch-nemesis from the original Japanese film series, the three-headed lightning-breathing dragon King Ghidorah (a.k.a., "Monster Zero"). (Also in introducing these monsters for the first time to a Western audience, "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" contains assorted references to Rodan's 1956 first appearance, Mothra's 1961 first appearance, and King Ghidorah's first appearance in 1964.)
In between these epic-sized, city-destroying monster battles, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) of the clandestine monster-detecting agency Monarch return from the first film, along with plenty of newcomers including Drs. Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch), Ilene Chen and her twin sister Ling Chen (both portrayed by Ziyi Zhang) and Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and also a fractured family - Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), who embarks on a globe-spanning odyssey chasing after his estranged ex-wife Emma (Vera Farmiga), after she and their teenage daughter Madison ("Stranger Things" Millie Bobby Brown) are abducted by the English eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Jonah wants to use a device called the "Orca" that Emma constructed to locate and awaken other titans in order to take the world back from humans and return it to the monsters.
(A large ensemble cast such as this harks back to the original Japanese film series, which shows that Legendary is starting to get a firmer understanding of how these films truly worked and why they appealed to so many fans after all these years. Additionally, the film's score - by Bear McCreary - contains many familiar themes originally composed by long-time "Godzilla" series orchestrator Akira Ifukube, who remained Japan's most esteemed music composer up until his death in 2006; the end credits also features a tongue-in-cheek cover of Blue Oyster Cult's tongue-in-cheek classic "Godzilla" by System of a Down front-man Serj Tankian.)
"Godzilla: King of the Monsters" will most likely not disappoint its hardcore audience, but one could say that figuratively and literally, this is the biggest giant monster movie ever made. Michael Dougherty and co-screenwriter Zach Shields (working from their shared screen-story with Max Borenstein) had an enormous task in front of them, and for the most part they succeed - even if some monsters (Mothra) are short-changed for screen-time in the end and there's some unnecessarily awkward, and forced, humor moments that can detract from the seriousness of the proceedings.
But this is a film this Godzilla fan truly enjoyed.
Long Live The King.
P.S.: The film also contains heartfelt tributes to long-time Toho producer Yoshimitsu Banno and original Godzilla suit-mation performer Haruo Nakajima - both of whom sadly passed away in 2017.
Now this movie represents an interesting "marriage" of cultures and martial arts...
Now this movie has an interesting concept behind it: "Heroes of the East" at first begins like a bad romantic comedy centering around an arranged marriage between two opposing cultures, and ends as a back-to-back, non-stop martial arts contest where more than honor is at stake. From the time it was made in 1978 and even up until now in 2019, that's what I call originality!
This overlooked Shaw Brothers classic, directed by the legendary Liu Chia-Liang (a.k.a., Lau Kar-Leung), is an interesting hybrid of romantic comedy and martial arts with underlying themes of honor, respect, and understanding between two clashing cultures. The film has the usual elaborately choreographed fighting sequences (by director Chia-Liang himself, who also appears in a small cameo role, with assistance from Wei-Cheng Tang), but it's also remarkable that there's virtually no bloodshed and nobody dies (in addition to also being quite humorous) - all points that were reportedly stressed quite firmly by Liu Chia-Liang during the making of the film and is something that separates it from many other martial arts movies produced during that era. Also worth mentioning is that the fights themselves are quite realistic (well, about as realistic as this sort of movie is ever likely to get), and the characters, for the most part, never perform stunts that are outside the realm of physical possibility.
In Hong Kong, China, in the early 20th century, Ah To (Gordon Liu, credited here by his birth-name Liu Chia-Hui) is a dedicated student of Chinese martial arts. At the beginning of the movie, he is forced into an arranged marriage with his childhood acquaintance Yumiko Koda (Yuka Mizuno), who is the daughter of his wealthy father's Japanese business partner. Although he is initially reluctant to marry Koda, he quickly changes his mind once he sees how beautiful she is and then they take that Walk Down The Aisle together.
But once the honeymoon phase is over and she's moved into Ah To's mansion in the city, that's when tensions start to mount as cultural differences and egos clash - and the pair come to blows, literally (and albeit quite comically), as he finds that she's every bit as dedicated to Japanese martial arts as he is to Chinese martial arts (though he makes it a point to mention Japanese martial arts' shared heritage with Chinese martial arts). After having their most heated argument yet, that's when Koda ups and leaves, and she then heads back to Japan.
Ah To then writes her a strongly-worded letter challenging Japanese martial arts in the hopes of getting her to come back to Hong Kong, but the letter is instead intercepted by her sensei Takeno (Yasuaki Kurata), a master of Ninjutsu, who is offended by his claim that Chinese martial arts are superior to Japanese martial arts. That is when Takeno, and six other Japanese martial arts masters - each skilled in different fighting styles including Karate, Judo, Nunchaku, Bojutsu (spear), Sai, and Kendo (Japanese sword-fighting) - journey to Hong Kong to accept Ah To's challenge, and this is what virtually dominates the film's second half, as Ah To meets each of his Japanese opponents and fights them using their all-too-similar fighting techniques (while also thinking of new and creative ways to beat them using strategies that they're unfamiliar with and which their training had not prepared them for).
Of the literally hundreds of Shaw Brothers-backed kung-fu craziness produced in the '60s, '70s and '80s, the first film to really strike a chord with me was "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" (1978) - which I first saw when I was in college and also starred Gordon Liu and was directed by Liu Chia-Liang. In my opinion, that's the best Shaw Brothers kung-fu kick-'em-up ever made. (As an aside, my favorite martial arts movie of all time is 1973's "Enter the Dragon," which, of course, starred Bruce Lee, and is the movie that got me into martial arts and martial arts movies in the first place.) But "Heroes of the East" comes pretty close to being the other great kung-fu movie after "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin."
While "Heroes of the East" minces no words of the tensions that exist between Chinese and Japanese cultures and their associated martial arts systems, what is most remarkable is that each fighting style on display here - both Chinese and Japanese alike - is treated with dignity and respect; a lesser movie would have displayed the inferiority and ineffectiveness of Japanese fighting disciplines against Chinese fighting arts from the get-go, and all the Japanese characters would be seen as evil and plainly deserving of their inevitable humiliation or even death (as Bruce Lee's "Fist of Fury/The Chinese Connection" had done just six years before).
Thankfully that doesn't happen here. Each of the Japanese fighting systems (and their respective masters) are based on solid research and careful study of Japanese martial arts systems and their usefulness in battle. That also said, "Heroes of the East" ends on a note of mutual respect and understanding between the two opposing cultures, as well as a message that one's level of skill in a fighting discipline means nothing if it lacks basic morality - which lends the film a rare philosophical subtext not commonly seen in these sorts of movies, and is especially meaningful given the touchy subject matter revolving around the tensions between Chinese and Japanese people.
Of the performances, Gordon Liu is in his usual top form in one of his earliest starring roles; he remains the noble, steadfast hero, but is also surprisingly quite relatable. Also in fine form is the lovely Yuka Mizuno as his bride, whose character is not portrayed in a stereotypical light and who remains as dedicated to the martial arts as her husband, and gets some of the best one-liners in the whole movie. And each of the Japanese martial arts masters accept defeat with grace and humility during each of the film's epic duels - another rarity for this sort of film.
"Heroes of the East" is an overlooked Shaw Brothers gem. Its unique hybrid of romantic comedy, slapstick humor, and epic martial arts fighting sequences makes it stand out amongst many of the martial arts movies made during the 1970s. It should not be missed by anyone who truly enjoys these types of films.
Liu Chia-Liang's 1981 martial arts action-comedy is a rather unusual entry in the Shaw Brothers Studio output of kung-fu kick-'em-ups released in the '70s and '80s. "My Young Auntie" has a very strong emphasis on slapstick comedy - which stretches a lot further than I think the material really allows it to - over elaborately staged fighting sequences, which don't really come into play until the film's last half-hour.
Until then, the audience has to sit through a lot of familial comedy, which does not always work, and can make the film a drag. (It's 124 minutes in length, according to the official runtime on the Dragon Dynasty DVD, but it actually clocks in somewhere around 119 minutes.) Even I found the slapstick comedy to bring the film to a halt in some places, which is sometimes alleviated by a well-choreographed, if slapstick, fight scene, which seems more in the vein of Jackie Chan.
But even in the midst of it all, we get one of the very best performances out of its lead actress, who became one of the more noteworthy female martial arts action stars of her era. In the film, Tai-Nan Cheng (Kara Hui, credited here by her birth name, Hui Ying-Hung) is the dedicated servant of a dying elderly patriarch who marries him to prevent his inheritance from falling into the hands of his greedy brother Yu Yung-Sheng (Wang Lung-Wei). And of course, she butts heads with her new in-laws, even as she continually clashes with Yu Yung-Sheng's band of hired martial arts-trained hoodlums.
"My Young Auntie" primarily suffers from an overly long running time, which causes the slapstick comedy bits to wear themselves out pretty quickly and leaves you waiting for the fighting to begin. Perhaps if "My Young Auntie" was shorter, this could have worked. But what keeps you watching, really, is the dashing lead performance of Kara Hui, who had no prior martial arts background (she was a dancer), but relied on her physicality and grace to aid her in the film's fight scenes. And this also means that she is a great actress, too, and is easy on the eyes. In short, Kara Hui really carries this film.
All in all, if you're in the mood for a kung-fu movie that's slightly different from so many of the others, then give "My Young Auntie" a spin - if for nothing else, to watch Kara Hui in action.
I enjoyed it, even if it's really nothing special.
I enjoyed seeing James Wan's latest, "Aquaman," the 2018 live-action film adaptation of the famed DC Comics character. "Aquaman" tells a story that's actually quite similar to "The Legend of King Arthur," and revolves around half-human/half-Atlantean Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) becoming Aquaman in order to prevent war between the underwater kingdom of Atlantis and the human world. "Aquaman" is much different from James Wan's previous films - of course, "Saw." The film (especially in its underwater sequences) looks fantastic and is beautiful to look at, but that's really all I got out of it. (I'm not a fan of Aquaman and perhaps if I was, I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more.) It's really no different from many other big-budget superhero films of late, especially those produced by rival Marvel. But I went with my father (who really wanted to see it) and he paid for our tickets - since I paid when we went to go see "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" (2018) a few days ago.
Now this is THE "Spider-Man" movie I've been waiting to see...
REVIEWER'S BIAS: I have been a fan of Marvel Comics' Spider-Man character since I was probably in elementary school; Spider-Man is my all-time favorite superhero. I grew up watching the excellent "Spider-Man" animated series from the early 1990s, and I absolutely adored the first big-budget live-action "Spider-Man" series that was released from 2002 to 2007.
Four years ago, I finally got around to reading the much-talked-about Miles Morales line of "Spider-Man" comics and - admittedly - I've come to enjoy his comic book adventures a lot more than I do Peter Parker's. (For you comic book geeks out there, Miles Morales was co-created by "Ultimate Marvel Universe" chief architect Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, and he first appeared in the August 2011 issue of "Ultimate Fallout #4" - having assumed the mantle following the death of the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker, at the hands of the maniacal Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin. Miles Morales is also the first black Spider-Man, and the SECOND Spider-Man to be of Latino descent - after Miguel O'Hara/Spider-Man 2099; Miles is half-black/half-Puerto Rican.)
For this reason, that is why I absolutely refuse to ever watch "Spider-Man: Homecoming" (2017), which I believe should have been about Miles Morales, not Peter Parker, and Miles Morales is the version of Spider-Man who deserves to be incorporated into the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) - especially since TWO previous big-budget, live-action film series have been dedicated to Peter Parker.
But you can imagine my elation when it was announced that Sony (and by extension, Marvel) was producing an ANIMATED "Spider-Man" movie that would finally mark the long-awaited big-screen debut of Miles Morales, and we got that this year with the 2018 Bob Persichetti-/Peter Ramsey-/Rodney Rothman-directed "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse." And its screen-story by Phil Lord, and final screenplay by both Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman is all over the place (in a good way), and is also quite inspired.
Now THIS is THE "Spider-Man" movie I've been waiting to see, and I didn't even realize it. Now I love Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 2" (2004), which is my favorite superhero movie, my #2 favorite movie of all time and is, in my opinion, the best live-action cinematic treatment that the famed Marvel Comics "Wall-crawler" is ever likely to see. Like "Spider-Man 2," "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" appears to be a labor of love for its team of filmmakers and legion of animators - as well as a celebration of everything people know and love about Spider-Man as a character; it contains many nods to the comics, TV shows, and films of past & present. The film, by Sony Pictures Animation, is pure eye candy; it's beautifully and breathtakingly rendered and realized amazingly well - essentially a colorful, animated kaleidoscope of an animated comic book superhero picture - and the characterizations are spot-on and brought to life by a lively voice cast that includes lesser-known performers and firmly established film veterans.
In discussing the story, I've read the majority of Miles Morales's original comic book adventures, so I'm quite familiar with him as the new Spider-Man. I knew going in that some things were changed (how can they ever be just like the comics?), but most of these changes are minor and insignificant and don't detract from the picture, as a whole - though Miles's nerdy best friend from the comics, Ganke Lee, is noticeably absent. Miles Morales (wonderfully voiced by Shameik Moore) IS the central character here - the film's opening moments work well to establish him and his life; his family, his parents Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez), and shady uncle Aaron Davis/The Prowler (Mahershala Ali); and his first days as an aspiring art student at the expensive charter school Brooklyn Visions Academy - and the film largely centers around him and how he becomes the new Spider-Man. But he's not the only Spider-person in town...
The vile gangster Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has had his chief mad scientist Olivia Octavius/Dr. Octopus/"Doc Ock" (Kathryn Hahn) design a machine that will open up a gateway to alternate dimensions. After Miles Morales gains spider-like powers from a genetically-modified spider that was similar to the one that bit Peter Parker - and following the death of the original Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Chris Pine) at the hands of Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone) - he soon finds himself encountering other Spider-people from other dimensions, most famously an alternate, albeit aged and disheveled version of the original Spider-Man himself, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), who shows Miles the ropes of how to be Spider-Man in his world. And additional help comes from Gwen Stacy/Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), the anthropomorphic "funny animal" Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (comedian John Mulaney), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), and Peter Parker's beloved Aunt May Parker (Lily Tomlin).
"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" is a blast, from beginning to end. I have not enjoyed a superhero movie this much in a very, very long time. While so many superhero movies (and TV shows) these days concern themselves with such uber-seriousness and pretentiousness or silly one-liner-laden dialogue every five minutes, I found "Into the Spider-Verse" to be a much-welcomed change-of-pace from everything we've become so accustomed to. The movie is light and fun, but is not weighed down by the forced corniness and fake levity of most live-action MCU movies of late, or the humorlessness and cynicism of so many DC Comics vehicles. "Into the Spider-Verse" is self-knowing and hip and witty, and wears its heart on its sleeve, but it hits all the right emotive notes and the high-flying humor of the picture arises naturally from the material and doesn't come off as forced (again, like so many big-budget MCU and DC properties in recent years).
"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" was the "Spider-Man" movie event I've been waiting for, and I didn't even know it. For anyone that's a true fan of Spider-Man, it's definitely worth the price of the admission. I know it was for me.
P.S.: The film also contains heartfelt tributes to both of Spider-Man's late creators, Stan Lee (who passed away just last month and whom I had the pleasure of meeting six years ago at a comic book convention in Baltimore) and Steve Ditko (who passed away in June).
I believe that I was 20 and in college when I first came across the Black Panther, the first black superhero of any historical significance and was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for Marvel Comics in 1966 (and whose creation pre-dates the October 1966 founding of the Black Panther Party), and in the adventure I read about he was searching the world for his future bride - and eventually found her in the Kenyan Ororo Munroe/Storm (of the X-Men). In his travels, he also came across other noteworthy black superheroes including Brother Voodoo, Luke Cage/Power Man, The Falcon, Monica Rambeau/Pulsar and my personal favorite superhero of color, the vampire hunter Blade.
(As most readers of my reviews know, Spider-Man is my all-time favorite superhero.)
This was 12 years ago, I would say, and the Black Panther has come a long way since then.
Ryan Coogler's ("Fruitvale Station," "Creed") "Black Panther" arrives in a 2018 dominated by racial and social debate (and controversy) - not unlike the time that the Black Panther character first debuted at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s. The Black Panther first appeared in a two-part origin story - "Fantastic Four #52" and "Fantastic Four #53" (July 1966-August 1966) - and there he single-handedly defeated the Fantastic Four in order to test his skills in preparation for his battle with his arch-nemesis Ulysses Klaw. Black Panther later became one of the Fantastic Four's closest allies, as well as a member of the Avengers.
"Black Panther," the film, has many firsts going for it. It would be the first superhero film with a black director (Coogler), the first superhero film with a largely black cast including strong portrayals of black femininity (and featuring white actors in roles usually reserved for minorities), the first superhero film to display an entirely fictional African culture and civilization in a positive non-stereotypical light, and of course it's a superhero film about the first black superhero ever created (and the first black comic book character that was ALSO not a racist stereotype). It achieves many of its objectives, even if every now and then it slips into some of the corniness and silly comedy that I believe has come to define many modern superhero movies since Disney acquired Marvel nearly a decade ago.
"Black Panther" is in some respects quite different from most big-budgeted superhero epics of late. The film has a decidedly political slant to it, which I see that some viewers have already commented negatively about. This doesn't give me some of the pause that it should have, and, after viewing the film for myself, I saw that these politics aim to address a key issue that I've often wondered myself about the Black Panther, and his home country - the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is the most technologically advanced civilization on Earth.
The Black Panther is, of course, the King of Wakanda, and his real name is T'Challa (played here by the mesmerizing Chadwick Boseman). In "Captain America: Civil War" (2016), that was where the Black Panther was first introduced into the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and in his first outing his father, the previous Black Panther and king of Wakanda, was killed in a terrorist bombing. Now as the new king of Wakanda, T'Challa finds himself tasked with the enormous burden of being leader to his country and his people, who have remained socially isolated from the rest of the world and become the most technologically advanced country not just on the African continent, but possibly the whole world.
Wakanda has managed to thrive, and survive, hundreds of years without having to face the horrors of colonization and exploitation by outside forces, by those who want what has led to Wakanda's vast wealth and technological prowess - the alien metal vibranium. But all this is about to change with the arrival of arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). But Klaue is merely a puppet in the scheme of Erik Stevens (Coogler regular Michael B. Jordan), a former U.S. military black ops mercenary and hired assassin who now goes by the name "Killmonger," to lay claim to the Wakandan throne. It turns out that Killmonger also has a tragic connection to the Black Panther's past.
I have to say that I was quite well impressed by "Black Panther." Some of the early comments I had heard about the film were proven true. The one that stuck out to me the most was the villain Killmonger. Going back to what I said earlier about this film's politics, the character of Killmonger presents an argument about his motivations for villainy that are hard to counter: he forces Wakanda to face up to its greatest moral contradiction, which is its isolationism. His goals are just as much personal as they are political, and this gives him some much-needed dramatic and emotional dimensions to not make him seem like so many bland and poorly defined super-villains of recent memory. That is what I appreciated most in Michael B. Jordan's ruthless, yet ultimately sympathetic, portrayal of such a dangerous and fascinating character.
The film has the usual sensational special effects-driven action scenes that are cool-looking but tend to distract from a film outing that had a lot of firsts going for it, and could have been very different from most other superhero films of the last decade. (Coogler, as the film's co-screenwriter, was at least wise enough to not serve up every other piece of dialogue as a punchline.) The Black Panther, to me, would have worked a lot better if it was a stand-alone picture and not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but what can I do?
Ultimately, "Black Panther" did not disappoint. Ryan Coogler had a huge task ahead of him when he made this film and despite a few faults, he delivered. "Black Panther" will undoubtedly win the weekend, if not an entirely new generation of young Marvel Comics readers.
I really felt that Rian Johnson's latest "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" only slightly better than "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (2015). This film is a little bit more original, in the sense that it isn't steeped in nostalgia for the original "Star Wars" series that was released between 1977-1983, which I know grated some people who saw "The Force Awakens." It still pays a lot of homage and reference to the original trilogy, and tries to do its best to distance itself from George Lucas's prequel trilogy that was released between 1999-2005.
You should see it to satisfy your curiosity and enjoy yourself.
"Timecop" - Backward and Forward through time-traveling butt-kicking
"Timecop," directed in 1994 by American "2010" director Peter Hyams and adapted from the Dark Horse comic book series co-created by Mike Richardson and Mark Verheiden (the pair share a credit on the screen-story, while Verheiden receives sole credit on the screenplay), is a bit of an anomaly in the long-running career of its star, Belgian martial arts sensation Jean-Claude Van Damme.
"Timecop" was, by far, the most interesting, in terms of its overall story concept, visuals and special effects, of the films that Van Damme made during his heyday in the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s. "Timecop" was also Van Damme's most critically acclaimed and most commercially successful film made during that time (it became Van Damme's first and to date, only film to surpass $100 million at the box office).
Looking back at the film, it's not hard to see why.
This big-budget martial arts sci-fi action-thriller is by no means perfect and from a historical standpoint does represent a critical and box office high point in the career of its star - but, boy, does it deliver the goods. Looking back, I remember that "Timecop" was one film that had a lot going for it - in spite of its glaring imperfections and monstrous gaps in logic, like its numerous leaps back and forth through time and the various time travel machinations associated with it (i.e., returning to the same present that you left from, and the such).
But let's not focus on that too much. Let's just concentrate on the story and Van Damme.
In the year 1994, the United States government establishes the "Time Enforcement Commission" (T.E.C.) to police time travel, which has only recently become a scientific reality. Government bureaucrats are worried that time travel needs to be policed, because if the wrong parties were able to travel back in time to change history - it could send ripples through time that could threaten the whole of our existence. (The film conveniently explains that leaps into the future are not possible simply because it hasn't happened yet.)
Enter into the picture: clean-cut D.C. patrolman Max Walker (Van Damme) is about to accept a job as an agent working for the newly established T.E.C. when one night he and his wife Melissa (Mia Sara, from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") are attacked by thugs from the future. The thugs happen to be working for Senator Aaron McComb (the late Ron Silver), an ambitious, power-hungry politician who was recently appointed to chair the T.E.C. and who in the year 2004 will enter a bid to run in that year's presidential election.
In the ensuing fray, Melissa is killed, and Walker is left a widower. 10 years later, Max is indeed now a dedicated, high-ranking officer with the T.E.C., busting time-traveling criminals left & right. In the course of collaring his former partner who has traveled back to the 1930s at the height of the Great Depression to play on the Stock Market in order to make himself rich in the present, Walker uncovers a conspiracy that threatens the future: Senator McComb is manipulating time travel in order to buy his way into the White House, and wants the T.E.C. decommissioned in order to remove the greatest threat to his plans.
Predictably, in the course of Walker's time-traveling investigation into McComb's plot, he also stumbles onto his own tragic past and comes across a moral conundrum over whether or not to manipulate time to prevent his own personal tragedy from ever occurring - thus lending the film an emotional depth rare for Van Damme pictures made during his heyday.
"Timecop" is indeed a bit of a head-trip, though it isn't something that is too heady that you can't wrap your head around it. Although the film feels like a typical Van Damme outing, the time-bending plot and cool-looking time-bending (though dated) CGI effects make the film a visual and special effects marvel. Personally, this isn't my favorite Van Damme movie from that period - that honor goes to "Lionheart" (1990), followed by "Universal Soldier" (1992) and the John Woo-directed actioner "Hard Target" (1993).
Jean-Claude Van Damme is great, as usual, doing his usual high-kicking (and acrobatic trademark splits) heroics in a not-too-complicated time travel sci-fi story. Mia Sara, who hasn't appeared in too many movies since then, brings the film a warmth and beauty that's tragically missed in today's time. The real stand-out is Ron Silver as corrupt Senator McComb; Silver's natural charm gives McComb an arrogance and sliminess that makes him a more than worthy adversary to Van Damme's Max Walker (even if he doesn't match him physically). He's one of those guys you love to hate.
I can't end this review without putting in a plug for what I truly believe is Van Damme's greatest film ever, "JCVD" (2008), which is where you'll see a different side of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and that is a performance from the Belgian martial artist that is worthy of an Oscar. Really.
"Jessica Jones," a.k.a., Hard-boiled detective-noir with superheroes
Yup, my one-line summary pretty much sums up everything there is to know, and like, about Marvel's Netflix original TV series, "Jessica Jones."
Jessica Jones is a fascinating character in the study of Marvel Comics' ever-growing legion of super-powered characters. As created by Ultimate Marvel Universe chief architect Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, Jessica Jones first appeared in "Alias #1" in November 2001. She debuted in Marvel Comics' now-defunct Marvel MAX imprint, which was reserved for Marvel's mature-themed line of comic book titles.
It was there that Jones, a former super-heroine-turned-private investigator, was introduced to the world at large. She had tried and failed to be a costumed super-heroine named Jewel (and later took up a second costumed identity called Knightress) and had even been linked to the Avengers at one point, but her career as a super-heroine didn't work out too well and she hit rock bottom - eventually earning a meager living as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking private detective, a career which she is only marginally better at, and many times allows her to cross paths with other famed Marvel Comics superheroes including Captain America, Daredevil, the Carol Danvers version of Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man, the Scott Lang version of Ant-Man (whom she dates for a brief time) and her future husband and one of my all-time favorite superheroes ever, Luke Cage, with whom she later had a daughter with and became one of the most culturally significant marriages in modern comics.
I read the original "Jessica Jones" comics practically cover to cover over the course of one week, and I was just completely absorbed into the dark, seedy underbelly of the Marvel Universe that Bendis, Gaydos, and co. had breathed life into - and successfully picking up from where Frank Miller had left off when he worked on his critically acclaimed and highly influential run on "Daredevil" back in the late '70s/early '80s. What struck me as most unique about Jessica Jones, as a character, was that her creators went to great lengths not to sexualize her, nor do they try to make her appear glamorous in any way (as is so typical of female characters in comics); she was down, she was out, she was (very) dirty, and she was a complete mess - and she knew it. Yet she soldiered on in her cases - because it paid the bills - where we also learned of her tragic, near-fatal battles with her arch-nemesis Zebediah Killgrave, a.k.a., "The Purple Man," who had the ability to control people's minds with his verbal commands and who seemed to have an obsessive infatuation with her.
Her comic book adventures also read like hard-boiled '40s-style detective-noir fiction, as opposed to your typical run-of-the-mill superhero stories, and the art looked it, too. It was dark, it was raw, it was edgy, and it was also blackly humorous - the last part courtesy of Bendis's mastery of writing dialogue for his characters that's exactly like how people talk in the real world.
So this brings me back to "Jessica Jones" the TV series.
I had eagerly awaited this show's release on DVD, as I don't have Netflix, and I have to say I was not disappointed in it. The brain-child of series creator Melissa Rosenberg and also having Brian Michael Bendis and comics extraordinaire Jeph Loeb on-board serving as producers, "Jessica Jones" definitely takes its cues from the Marvel Comics source material and doesn't look back. (And like many comic book superhero properties of late, it certainly bears the mark of its creators - in this case, once again, having Brian Michael Bendis as a producer.) While not as raw or as edgy as the source material, the series is still hard-boiled detective-noir with superheroes, or, more like "detective-noir with superpowers" - since no costumed characters show up here, at least, during the first season.
("Jessica Jones" also has the distinction of being the first female-fronted superhero property to debut as an on-going series, in any format.)
Years ago, the titular Jessica Jones (doe-eyed Krysten Ritter) flopped out of being a costumed super-heroine, and is now the owner and sole employee of her own New York City-based private-eye firm, Alias Investigations. Hard-edged, hard-drinking but strikingly vulnerable and with a morally gray outlook on her life, she is aided in her cases by her sister, radio show personality and former child star Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor, her character possibly filling in for the Carol Danvers Ms. Marvel, from the original comics); her lesbian lawyer friend Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss); her neighbor and recovering drug addict Malcolm (Eka Darville); and early on in the series she encounters bartender Luke Cage (Mike Colter), who has a few super-powered secrets of his own and the two continue on with something close to a romantic relationship.
The bulk of the series centers around Jessica Jones's dogged pursuit of Kilgrave (David Tennant), a mind-controlling sociopath who has the ability to make people do what he wants at his verbal commands and has left a trail of victims wherever he goes - including Jones herself. (I must say that Kilgrave - and Tennant's suave, smooth-talking portrayal of him - is one of the most terrifying super-villains in the history of superhero comics.)
Like the comics that inspired it, "Jessica Jones" earns its mature "TV-MA" rating. It's dark, it's violent, it's profane, and it's blackly humorous. But it also tackles a number of sensitive subjects including rape, abortion, and drug addiction (and not to mention that Our Heroine is suffering from a terrible case of PTSD) - just a few of the things that the mainstream Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity would probably prefer to shy away from.
But despite a few missteps including questionable line-readings from some of the cast members during some of the more heated moments on the show, "Jessica Jones" is compelling superhero television entertainment.
This viewer is definitely looking forward to season-two.
As someone else had previously pointed out, the 1993 action-horror film "Full Eclipse" plays out a lot like a mad combination of "The Howling" (1981) and "Dirty Harry" (1971), mixed in with the feeling of a gore-filled superhero/horror comic book. The plot to "Full Eclipse" is probably one of those stories that comes up out of a 10-second brainstorming session and the filmmakers just run with it; these end up being some of the best films ever released, so that's not a jab at Hollywood brainstorming. I wouldn't be surprised if more than half the films that came out of Hollywood in the '80s and early '90s probably started out in such a fashion.
"Full Eclipse" is a movie that begins like an ultra-violent cops & robbers action flick, and ends as a gore-filled, special effects-laden comic book-styled horror film - although it's an admittedly high concept for a low-budget, made-for-TV film directed by Anthony Hickox ("Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth").
In Los Angeles, violent crime is out of control and the streets aren't safe. Detective Max Dire (Mario Van Peebles) and his partner Jim Sheldon (Anthony John Denison) are out patrolling one night when they get a call about a hostage situation out at a downtown night club. To make long stories short, Max and Jim go in without a S.W.A.T. team back-up and Jim is critically wounded during the ensuing gun battle.
You would think that at this point the movie would be about Max going out to get revenge or being partnered up with a young inexperienced rookie - a la, "Lethal Weapon" - but the movie is only just beginning. Jim mysteriously makes a miraculous, full recovery and he and his old partner Max are back out on the streets fighting crime. Except that Max suspects that something is different about Jim and he's right, especially since bullets don't faze him and he's able to perform seemingly superhuman feats like being able to run like the wind through the streets and surviving a motorcycle crash head-on and without a scratch.
But unexpectedly, Jim takes his own life. Max, who is already going through a crumbling marriage, is then placed in a support group for troubled police officers. The group is run by a highly decorated veteran detective named Adam Garou (all-purpose villain Bruce Payne). It turns out that Garou secretly runs a rogue squad of vigilante police officers who go out at night and exact their own form of justice on the streets.
This is where the horror elements kick in. Garou has developed a serum that gives subjects superhuman strength, speed, and reflexes, and damn-near invincibility - in order to put them on an even playing field against violent, drug-addled criminals. In other words, Garou is actually a werewolf, and he has his right-hand woman Casey Spencer (Patsy Kensit, Mel Gibson's ill-fated love interest in "Lethal Weapon 2") seduce Max into joining their pack as its newest member.
"Full Eclipse" has an interesting story concept behind it, and for a low-budget made-for-TV (HBO) movie from the early '90s, it's carried out quite competently - given its financial limitations and lack of real star power, aside from Mario Van Peebles. Admittedly, the "Lethal Weapon"-/"Dirty Harry"-inspired opening moments really do fool you into thinking it's going to be another cheap action film, and then the horror elements unexpectedly kick in and the film takes on a new dimension while still retaining a running cops & robbers theme.
The performances aren't bad (Bruce Payne seems to be having the most fun here, even if he seems to be hamming it up a bit), and the special effects, make-up, and gore are quite impressive - the latter of which was reportedly toned down somewhat so the film could get an "R" rating (this review is based on the restored unrated version of the film). The werewolf transformation sequences are nowhere near the strength of "The Howling" or that other big werewolf movie from 1981, the landmark horror-comedy "An American Werewolf in London," but the make-up employed to realize them seems like something straight out of an "X-Men" comic book. (In fact, the whole story feels like it could be a gore-filled horror comic book series.)
"Full Eclipse" is an impressively realized horror film, even if it falters in several aspects of its story and performances, but its high-concept - albeit comic book - premise, and special effects give it an edge for being a low-budget made-for-TV film.
I wish more low-budget movies like this came out in the early 1990s.
1994's "Shopping" (stylized as "$hopping") is a movie that I first came across during the late-night cable hours as an impressionable 10- or 11-year-old growing up in the mid-1990s. Of course, due to the fact that I was such an impressionable young child growing up at that time, my parents were keen to keep me away from "Shopping," a film with a futuristic, industrial-heavy aesthetic that appeared to glamorize auto theft, ram-raiding and unsavory, Adrenalin-addicted thrill-seeking young car thieves. (And not so surprisingly, this helped the film to generate a controversy in the United Kingdom for supposedly glamorizing criminal, anti-social behavior.)
"Shopping" is mostly remembered for being a noteworthy early film credit for its two leads, as well as being the directorial debut of a then-29-year-old Brit named Paul Anderson (who now goes by "Paul W.S. Anderson" to avoid confusion with American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson). Paul Anderson would later gain worldwide recognition just one year later for his American film debut, "Mortal Kombat" (1995), which is a film I love to death and to this day I still consider it to be the greatest film adaptation of a video game.
"Shopping" is a stylish, yet promising debut for Anderson, whose career has since been a wildly mixed bag of occasional high points ("Mortal Kombat," "Event Horizon," "Resident Evil") and several missteps ("Soldier," "AVP: Alien vs. Predator" and virtually every "Resident Evil" sequel he's directed, pretty much).
"Shopping," nonetheless, showcases what would later become Anderson trademarks: excellent set design and cinematography, fast-paced direction, and a wall-to-wall soundtrack with an industrial/techno vibe to it (Orbital's "Halycon + On + On," which is featured in the film several times, appears to be a personal favorite of Anderson's, since the song was also played near the end of his later "Mortal Kombat"). "Shopping" is set sometime in the not-too-distant future in London, and centers around the so-called "sport" of "shopping" - stealing high-priced cars and then ramming them through department store windows, looting them, and then evading the police.
Billy (Jude Law) is probably the most notorious of these young, early 20-something ram-raiding punks. He, along with his casual love interest, the video game-loving Jo (Sadie Frost, Law's future real-life wife), hit the streets (and stores) after he gets released from prison at the beginning of the film after doing three months for auto theft. Although it doesn't take long for Billy to fall back into old habits once released, his "shopping sprees" are becoming more and more ambitious, and reckless, as his targets become bigger and bigger. As the stakes rise and his notoriety grows, it catches the attention of his old rival Tommy (Sean Pertwee, an Anderson regular), for whom the sport of "shopping" is a business, since Tommy makes money selling off the goods he steals. For Billy, it's nothing more than an Adrenalin rush that he claims is better than any drug and is to a degree (for him, at least), an art-form. So it inevitably sets the two of them down a path toward a head-on collision.
"Shopping" is a stylish and ambitious debut feature from Paul Anderson that established many of his trademarks - most notably his love for industrial music, and this film revels in its striking industrial-futuristic ambiance - but also shows his weaknesses, namely weak characterization, spotty writing and story. His non-written directorial works ("Mortal Kombat," "Event Horizon," and even the hokey "Soldier") were better showcases for Anderon's strengths as a director because he didn't have screen-writing credits attached to these pictures, but instead worked because of his stylish, fast-paced direction. Here, Jude Law and Sadie Frost give stellar and enthusiastic performances in roles for which they were young and relatively unknown to American audiences (at the time), and have since become more widely known.
Watching "Shopping" for the first time since I was a child, it's an impressive debut from Paul W.S. Anderson, in spite of his flaws (of which there are many), and is something that can happen with any early effort from any director.
The animated animal-themed superhero TV series "Street Sharks" (which aired from 1994-1997) was one of several animated animal-themed superhero TV shows to air during the 1990s - probably to cash in on the craze for such properties created by the wildly successful "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Like more than a few of such series, "Street Sharks" was co-created by Ron Askin and Phil Harnage to cash in on an already-existing toy line (by Mattel).
I eagerly collected the Street Sharks action figures as a nine-or-ten-year-old growing up during the mid '90s. I still have those Street Sharks toys, too. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to watch the TV series that the toys later inspired. Fast-forward two decades and lo and behold, the wonders of TV-on-DVD: "Street Sharks" is released on DVD and I'm able to finally watch the series I remembered so fondly growing up - even if I never actually got the chance to watch it.
"Street Sharks" was very obviously influenced by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and so were so many other such animated children's TV shows produced during that time. So, try to imagine this series as "Jaws" meets the Fantastic Four. "Street Sharks" concerns the Bolton Brothers - John, Clint, Bobby, and Coop - who are transformed by the insane, megalomaniacal and power-hungry university geneticist Dr. Luther Paradigm, who kidnaps the four siblings and injects them with an experimental serum that transforms them into massive half-man/half-shark mutants:
John becomes Ripster, a Great White Shark and their "de facto" leader of the four and is the most brilliant Street Shark; Clint becomes Jab, a Hammerhead Shark and is the tough-talking fighter of the group who often charges, quite literally, head-first, into battle; Bobby becomes Streex, a Tiger Shark and is the most fun-loving of the bunch and is always seen wearing a pair of trademark roller blades; and Clint becomes Big Slammu, a Whale Shark who is the resident jock and proves to be the physically strongest of them all.
Together, the four of them team up as one, as the "Street Sharks," to fight crime and all manner of evil in their native Fission City. Of course, Dr. Paradigm becomes their primary nemesis, who has an insane scheme to "gene-slam" the entire human population into nefarious "Seaviates," hideous genetic mutants based on marine animals that will exist only to serve him. Paradigm himself becomes a victim of his own sick and twisted experiments when he is accidentally injected with his own "gene-slamming" serum and is transformed into "Dr. Piranoid," whose face assumed an inhuman piranha-like form during moments of extreme emotion. The Street Sharks are aided in their battles against Dr. Piranoid by Bends, their genius human friend, and other "gene-slammed" human/animal mutants like Moby Lick (a Killer Whale) and Rox (a Mako Shark) and later, the Dino Vengers.
"Street Sharks" is not a particularly deep or involving show. The animation is pretty simple and straight-forward, with no other underlying theme other than the theme of brotherly camaraderie amongst Our Four marine Heroes. Seeing the show in my adult years, it's not as mind-blowing as I thought it was going to be - but perhaps that's just the 31-year-old adult in me. But remembering back to my nine-/10-year-old self, it's easy to get lost in a show that promises nothing more than just great fun and "Jawsome" one-liners.
No, this isn't "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), though this story also involves beasts - in animated form. This is "The Boy and the Beast," the most recent Japanese animation (Anime') offering from director/writer/producer Mamoru Hosoda, who is very quickly becoming one of the greats in Anime' - after such revered Japanese Anime' directors like Mamoru Oshii ("Ghost in the Shell," the "Patlabor" series), Yoshiaki Kawajiri ("Ninja Scroll," "Wicked City," "Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust"), Katsuhiro Otomo ("Akira," "Steamboy") and of course, the now-retired Anime' legend Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away," "Princess Mononoke," "Ponyo," etc.)
Hosoda has come a long way from his debut "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" (2006) and my personal favorite of his, 2009's "Summer Wars." It was the latter film of his that convinced me of Hosoda's true worth as an inspired director.
Hosoda's films are not easily categorized, in that they often combine genres ranging from comedy, to science fiction, to fantasy, to heartfelt character-driven dramas. It is this skillful blending of different genres that set his "Summer Wars" apart from a lot of Anime' features produced nowadays (most films, period), and why I considered it one of the best animated films so far this millennium.
And now we're at his most recent, 2015's "The Boy and the Beast." While not as strong as his previous entries, it is by no means a wasted effort. True to his form, "The Boy and the Beast" combines different storytelling genres to tell an inspired fantasy tale that while not completely original, does seem fresh and unique given the interesting scenario that the film's events take place in.
In Japan's Shibuya district, Ren is a nine-year-old orphan struggling to get by on the streets by any means necessary. One night, he accidentally stumbles upon the so-called "Beast Realm," a world inhabited by, well, beasts, who take on many characteristics shared by those living in the human world. He is taken in by the gruff, unkempt bear-like warrior-beast Kumatetsu (who appears to be based on late Japanese film legend Toshiro Mifune's "Kikuchiyo" character from "Seven Samurai"), who needs an apprentice, as he is competing to become the new lord of the Beast Realm.
The two bicker constantly, but over time an unconventional teacher-student/father-son relationship develops between the two, and Ren, who Kumatetsu unceremoniously renamed "Kyuta," becomes a master student who eventually earns the begrudging love and respect of his teacher.
"The Boy and the Beast" delivers much of what it promises: stunning animation (complemented by helpful CGI in more than a few places), a sincere and heartfelt story, well-timed humor, and stunning action sequences. "The Boy and the Beast" is not "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" or even "Summer Wars," but this is nonetheless a strong and entertaining entry in a distinguished director's catalog who can only keep going up.
Time travel machinations and "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah"
Today, I viewed 1991's "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" for the first time since I was in middle school. I've always considered "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah," the third entry in the second-generation Heisei-Era "Godzilla" series, to be this series' low point.
I've always been quite disappointed with this film, and my feelings haven't changed.
"Godzilla 1985"/"The Return of Godzilla" (1984), the first film in the Heisei series, got things off on the right foot, by reintroducing Godzilla to a new generation of film-goers, since his last appearance in the first-generation Showa-Era film, "Terror of Mechagodzilla" (1975). In that last Showa-Era film, Godzilla was a hero. With "Godzilla 1985"/"The Return of Godzilla," Godzilla was returned to his roots as a rampaging menace. The next film in the Heisei series, "Godzilla vs. Biollante" (1989), was the series high point, in my opinion, and is my favorite film from this series; it's also my favorite "Godzilla" film after "Gojira" (1954).
The Heisei-Era could only keep going higher, or it could stumble immensely, and "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" ended up being the first misfire the Heisei Era would see. Perhaps one reason for my disappointment was because Kazuki Omori, who wrote and directed "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah," had done such a phenomenal job writing and directing "Godzilla vs. Biollante" just two years earlier. I don't know what happened, but it's generally widely known that despite being well-received by critics and audiences in Japan, "Godzilla vs. Biollante" was ultimately a financial disappointment for Toho - who blamed the lack of familiar monsters and a much darker, adult tone for its poor box office performance. They sought to remedy that by reintroducing one of Godzilla's most famous foes for their next film - in addition to a generally lighter tone.
For "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah," the film opens up like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), before moving into a confusing time travel plot that's like a combination of the "Terminator" series and the "Back to the Future" trilogy. In 1992, a UFO is spotted flying over the skies of Japan. It ultimately settles in the area around Mt. Fuji. The ship's occupants reveal themselves to not be aliens, but human time travelers from the 23rd century (2204). They introduce themselves as their leader, the American Wilson (Chuck Wilson), the Russian Grenchiko (Richard Berger), and the Japanese Emmy Kano (the late Anna Nakagawa). They reveal that in the future, Godzilla will completely destroy Japan, and they've come to the present-day to eliminate him.
To do this, they must travel back in time - accompanied by writer Kenichiro Terasawa (Kosuke Toyohara) and psychic Miki Saegusa (Heisei series regular, the beautiful Megumi Odaka) - to 1944 at the height of World War II, to transport the so-called "Godzillasaurus," the previously undiscovered dinosaur species that 10 years later, would be exposed to radioactive fallout from the American hydrogen bomb testing that took place in the Marshall Islands, and would eventually become Godzilla. However, this same Godzillasaurus had inadvertently saved a garrison of the Japanese Imperial Army that was under attack from Pacific U.S. Naval forces in the area. Yasuaki Shindo (Yoshio Tsuchiya), now a successful Japanese businessman, was the man leading the garrison and who has kept this secret for 48 years.
However, in a plot twist, it's eventually revealed that the time travelers have an ulterior motive for removing Godzilla from history. It turns out that while they are indeed from the future, they are not the saviors that they claim to be, and are actually terrorists bent on destroying Japan because in the future, Japan will become a major world superpower that will remain unchallenged by the United States, the (former) Soviet Union, and even China. To do this, they've created a giant monster of their own, the three-headed dragon King Ghidorah, who took Godzilla's place in history and is now the greatest threat to the country and the rest of the world. The Japanese are left with a horrible predicament, but feel they have no other option: re-create Godzilla, by bombarding the Godzillasaurus with nuclear missiles in the hope that it will once again become Godzilla and stop King Ghidorah.
"Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" has some bright spots. Its special effects, by the late Koichi Kawakita, are top-notch - but are down-right laughable in some spots. I'm not sure how or why some things turned out so cheaply - especially in some of the sequences with the android M-11 (Robert Scott Field). Considering the state-of-the-art effects work that Kawakita supervised for "Godzilla vs. Biollante," I'm amazed at the sharp decline in their quality for this film.
Another plus for this movie, is that it marked the return of long-time series composer Akira Ifukube (who tragically passed away in 2006), who had been absent from the series in the 16 years since "Terror of Mechagodzilla." While it's nice to hear his music in the series again and some of the themes he creates here are indeed quite rousing and familiar, it's clearly not his best work.
There are some inconsistencies with this film's plot, especially with the traveling backward and forward through time. It's a headache to try to describe here, but ultimately the confusion stems from the traveling back in time, changing history, and returning to the exact same present that you originally departed from. And while I have a deep affection for Japan, its culture and people, I WAS a little uncomfortable with its (perceived) anti-American AND anti-Communist subtexts, and was also troubled by its somewhat positive portrayal of the Japanese Imperial Army. Some viewers might find that a little disturbing...
So, today confirmed my long-standing suspicions about "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" being a low point for the Heisei-Era "Godzilla" films. I'm glad that the series rebounded, however, for 1992's "Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth," which included more impressive special effects and a lush, beautiful score by Akira Ifukube.
And so goes the chorus for rapper Ice-T's hit gang warfare anthem "Colors," which also happened to be the name of the 1988 gang warfare action film "Colors," which was directed by the late actor/director Dennis Hopper, who does not appear at all in the film.
"Colors" was one of the earliest films to deal with the bloody gang violence that by 1988 when the film was released, close to 400 gang-related murders had occurred in the greater Los Angeles area. The police were overworked and unable to effectively deal with the increasing gang violence, communities were forced to live in fear, and the L.A. streets were a virtual war zone.
"Colors" was also different from previous films dealing with gangs in the fact that although it was told largely from the point-of-view of the dedicated police officers out there on the streets trying to curb the rising gang violence and ease community fears, it also showed us some of the inner-workings of gangs and why some people, mostly teenagers and young adults, join them and find such a dangerous lifestyle so rewarding. For once, gang members are given a human face so that we understand why they may do what they do as gangs.
The film focuses on the L.A. Police Department's anti-gang C.R.A.S.H. (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit. At the beginning of the film, and using a set-up familiar to the many buddy-cop action films produced during the time, veteran C.R.A.S.H. officer Bob Hodges (Robert Duvall) is partnered up with the brash, young Danny McGavin (Sean Penn). Hodges knows the streets and has an informal rapport with many of the local L.A. gangs, and many of them know him; there's a sense of mutual respect between Hodges and the gang members. Danny also knows the streets, but knows nothing of how to fight the gangs terrorizing them and he just wants to bust heads and make arrests.
"Colors" is almost episodic as Hodges and Danny go from one anti-gang operation to another, but a plot of sorts forms at the scene of the latest gang homicide. A young "Blood" gang member is gunned down in his backyard by a rival "Crips" crew, led by Rocket (Don Cheadle, in an early role playing a character with much restrained malevolence). Hodges and McGavin are put on the case, and as their investigation goes on, it brings them into contact with many of the other local L.A. gangs fighting for "turf" in the streets - eventually culminating in a bloody turf war with the cops and surrounding communities caught in the middle.
"Colors" does have its weaknesses in an occasionally spotty script and weak dialogue. But the film keeps you watching and engaged to what's going on on the screen. Fault can be found, of course, with the buddy-cop formula of pairing a veteran like Robert Duvall with an unseasoned rookie in Sean Penn. But their pairing works, as the two constantly clash with one another over their differing approaches to the job - but gradually build a grudging respect for the other man and his perspective on how to best handle their situation.
"Colors" was also remarkable, as I mentioned earlier, in that the gang members themselves are not nameless, faceless entities occupying your typical us-vs.-them war flick. No. Hopper actually took the opportunity to go inside the gangs so that we get to know some of them as characters. We don't condone anything they do, but we get to know them and understand why gang-banging is so appealing - family, belonging, lack of ambition and/or opportunity, power/status, the overall lifestyle, etc. It was a brave and revealing, and unflinching, insight, and a departure, since not having this could have made "Colors" seem like your run-of-the-mill late-'80s cop movie.
A great action-crime film that comes highly recommended from this viewer.
"Backdraft" is a movie that's on fire - literally!
Ron Howard's 1991 action-drama "Backdraft" is one of the actor-turned-director's earliest and most magnificent of action-drama epics, in that it shows Howard's conceptual grasp of the story, the characters and more characteristic of much of his later work, his technical mastery of visually impressive (if not necessarily groundbreaking) special effects work - as well as an incredible technical accuracy of his subject matter (well, about as accurate as a movie such as this can possibly be).
Human performances often tend to get lost in a spectacle such as "Backdraft," but the ensemble cast (some of whom surely do get more screen-time than others) and their respective personal dramas and complex relationships are able to match the spectacular pyrotechnic special effects sequences, which still hold up incredibly well 26 years later and have yet to be topped by today's overblown CGI special effects-laden blockbuster vehicles.
"Backdraft" is a big-budget action story about firefighters - and also written by a former firefighter, "Highlander" Gregory Widen - specifically those in the Chicago Fire Department, Station 17, the toughest "smoke-eaters" in the city. The film's title, as you may not know, refers to the real-life phenomenon of when a fire breaks out in a confined area, deprives itself of oxygen (but does not die out, it gets "snuffed"), and explodes with a violent fury when suddenly exposed to a massive rush of air.
A mysterious serial arsonist is loose in the city, setting deadly "backdraft" fires that are so powerful, they blow themselves out long before the first fire engine shows up to try to extinguish the raging blaze. This arsonist goes to elaborate lengths to ensure the fires burn themselves out, while also making them look like terrible accidents. These same "backdraft" fires ultimately claim the lives of three men, but no one can establish a connection between them and why they were killed in the first place.
But this murder mystery aspect of the story is just one of many stories being told here. The real meat of "Backdraft" concerns quarreling brothers Stephen McCaffrey (Kurt Russell) and his younger brother Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin). As a child in 1971, Brian witnessed the death of their father on what was a routine firefighting job, and he even made the Pulitzer Prize-winning cover of a famous issue of "Life" magazine a year afterward. 20 years later, Stephen is a lieutenant at Station 17, and Brian has just graduated from the fire academy after failing out of several other professions; firefighting appears to be his one true calling, but he remains in the shadow of his older brother. Stephen manages to pull some strings in order to get Brian assigned to Station 17 with him and veteran firefighter John Adcox (Scott Glenn), who also knew and served with their late father and was like an uncle to the two boys.
The two men have a strained relationship dating back to the death of their father and the way that their lives took wildly divergent directions as the years went by. Stephen shows a blatant disregard for well-established safety procedures, charging head-first, and mask-less, into fires where obviously any number of things can go wrong. This worries his teammates and has even caused Stephen to separate from his wife Helen (Rebecca De Mornay), who fears his reckless and dangerous ways and the effect it could have on their young son. Eventually, tensions come to a head between Stephen and Brian, and Brian quits Station 17 and, through his former flame Jennifer Vaitkus (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he goes to work with arson investigator Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro), who is currently investigating the string of serial arsons. They turn to an incarcerated pyromaniac, Ronald Bartel (ever-creepy Donald Sutherland), whose M.O. provides them some valuable clues as to the killer's identity (a la, Dr. Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs," which came out earlier that same year).
As I stated earlier, "Backdraft" is a masterpiece of technical pyrotechnic special effects wizardry. The film portrays fire as a living entity, one that "lives, breathes, and kills and the only way to truly kill it, is to love it a little." I've yet to see another film in the years since "Backdraft's" release in 1991 to bring fire to life on the screen the way that this movie does. This goes to show that Ron Howard was by no means working with an inexperienced special effects crew - Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), of all places. If anyone could get the job done and done right, it was ILM. One of the most eerie, yet spectacular sequences involves a flame being moved by air rushing from an open vent, like a snake reaching for the ceiling.
Having seen the film today for the first time in several years, I'm still gosh-wowed at how "Backdraft" was made, the firefighting training that the performers surely had to endure, and the way that the pyrotechnics were achieved as to look realistic enough to film. The picture still looks great - Mikael Solomon's crystal-clear cinematography still holds up well today - and the picture looks even better on Blu-ray DVD, which is what I watched the film on.
"Backdraft" is an excellent action-drama that also doubles as a thrilling whodunit. If there was ever a better movie about firefighters, then it hasn't been made by Hollywood.