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Nagai iiwake

Fantastic Performance By Motoki
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This movie is about a novelist who makes life difficult for everyone around him. He's a gloomy fellow who seems to be in a perpetually bad mood. Even worse, he cheats on his faithful wife with an editor acquaintance. Very early in this film, things take a serious turn when his wife dies in a bus accident. Now confronted with this abrupt event, our protagonist is faced with the task of finding closure and moving on with his life.

One of the most interesting things about "The Long Excuse" is that this protagonist is the epitome of multi-dimensionality. He cheats on his wife and has an attitude problem, so you immediately dislike him. But then, he shows a softer side when he volunteers to help care for two little kids, whose father is also a widower from the same bus accident. That sense of responsibility helps to make him more likable. However, half the time I was thinking to myself: "Did this guy still have feelings for his wife, does he feel guilty for cheating on her, or is he just completely confused with how to feel about it?" And it does not end there. I'm not going to tell you all of the other nuances to this man's character because you should experience that for yourself when you watch the film. But what I will say is that there are a lot of different angles that are covered with this character. And if that weren't impressive enough, this movie properly develops the other widower that our protagonist befriends.

In fact, this movie reminded me of Hirokazu Koreeda's film "Like Father, Like Son." One of the reason's why Koreeda's film was so compelling was because it explored so many different angles of one scenario so intricately. After that movie was over, it felt like a complete examination of that particular dilemma. "The Long Excuse" has a similar impact. There are so many different ways that this film explores the themes of mourning and redemption. It's really impressive in its intricacy and scriptwriting.

And that includes the dialogue. The characters in this movie have no qualms about stepping up and telling someone their thoughts on situations that are difficult to talk about. There are a few intense exchanges of dialogue where the characters criticize one another in how they're handling this very touchy situation. It's pretty riveting stuff.

The lead actor is Masahiro Motoki, who you may recognize from films such as "Departures" from 2008, "Gemini" from 1999, "The Bird People In China" from 1998, and "Gonin" from 1995. He is phenomenal in "The Long Excuse." It could be the best performance of his career. It's certainly a very difficult role to tackle, with a wide range of emotion to portray. The fact that Masahiro was able to make this protagonist relatable is a huge accomplishment. I love this guy.

The director is a woman by the name of Miwa Nishikawa, who has directed a handful of impressive films in prior years. My favorite of which is a film called "Sway" from 2006. All of her films are worth watching, and I'm looking forward to seeing what she does next.


Not your typical South Korean serial killer flick
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"Bluebeard" is about a doctor who moves into town for business, but suspects that the local butchers are actually murderers.

The first thing to understand about "Bluebeard" is that this is not your typical South Korean thriller that showcases a serial killer. The violence is tempered, with only a small amount of bloody imagery, none of which is particularly graphic. There are no highlight suspense sequences or exhilarating moments of intensity. Instead, this movie builds uncertainly with no therapeutic release for the viewer at all. This is not a crowd-pleasing feat of fun entertainment. It's more like a technical exercise in creating a traditional murder mystery with a lot of misdirection on the part of the filmmakers. This is a glacially paced movie that focuses heavily on psychology. And in that sense, I thought it did a good job.

If you decide to watch this movie, make sure that you're in a thinking mood. "Bluebeard" requires a bit of effort on the viewer's part because you must pay attention to the little details in order to appreciate the misdirections. In classic murder mystery style, I was constantly trying to figure out how to make sense of all the clues and pinpoint the identity of the murderer. And that theory changed as more evidence was presented to me.

I do think that some viewers will find this movie to be too slow for their liking. Again, there's not much "excitement" to this one, and it moves as slow as molasses in January. Even the answer to the murder mystery itself is revealed in a very matter-of-fact way. Some people may not be a fan of that either, especially if they're expecting a more intense conclusion.

But I do think that the positives of "Bluebeard" outweigh any negatives. I previously mentioned the proficiency of the murder mystery elements, but this film has very good direction as well. The director here is Soo-youn Lee, who previously gave us "The Uninvited" from 2003 – a very impressive psychological horror film that I strongly recommend. If you've seen that one, you'll know what to expect from "Bluebeard." Performances are also very good, across the board.

If you're in the mood for a slow burn, check it out.


Bong's least impressive film to date, this is still moderately enjoyable
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Meet Mija, a young girl who risks everything to prevent a powerful, multi-national company from kidnapping her best friend - a massive animal named Okja.

The lead actress here is Seo-hyun Ahn, who has had a small handful of supporting roles in prior films and series but never really stuck out to me personally. She's very good here; I liked her quite a bit because she portrays a determined, responsible girl who is also likable. Performances by Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, are extremely over-the-top. Swinton comes off well during the opening scene, but after that I got sick of her. She's not good in this. In a similar fashion, Gyllenhaal was almost bearable early on, but gets progressively unwatchable as the film rolls along. It's truly an atrocious performance with no nuance whatsoever. Not a big surprise given his acting history. I've never been a fan of this guy, and probably never will be.

Thankfully, "Okja" exhibits some of the usual positives you get with Bong's films. You have a genre-bending experience, with lots of quirky, partially awkward humor that this director seems to be drawn to. This film also showcases some very nice natural environments early on, which is an added bonus. The score is mostly light and hard to explain. It's almost like something you'd hear at a circus, or maybe a polka dance. In any case, I enjoyed the music here. Special effects are also quite impressive for the big pig. One highlight is the lengthy chase/escape sequence that occurs during the first hour. Probably the most purely entertaining part of the film.

So, what are some things that I did not like? Well, I already mentioned Swinton and Gyllenhaal's lackluster performance, but I also think that there are some pacing issues. "Okja" does begin with a 30-minute setup, which is actually quite interesting, then it throws us into that highlight thriller sequence – meaning that the opening hour of this movie is truly entertaining. However, the pacing definitely drags during the second half, or whenever Gyllenhaal is on screen. The excitement drops off a cliff, and that consequently exposes the shallow "message" of the film. And that brings me to my next point.

One trend I've noticed in director Joon-ho Bong's last few films is that his messages are getting less nuanced but more heavy-handed. For example, I enjoyed "Snowpiercer" quite a bit, but one of the problems I had with it was that it was absurdly heavy-handed and cartoonish at times when hammering home its message. "Okja" suffers even more-so from the same problem because the antagonists are pure caricatures, and there's not as much pure entertainment value surrounding the message itself. You know, I really hope that this does not become a trend with this director.

I would be a shame if Bong ends up like James Cameron – a man who is well on his way to wasting 25 years of his directing career making "Avatar" movies. Or he could end up like Michael Mann, another legendary director who fell off a cliff because he became obsessed with making digital film look great instead of creating interesting characters and stories.

This kind of thing happens more often than you might think. Some directors get so obsessed with certain things that they develop a kind of tunnel vision that ignores all of the other important aspects of making a good film. You may think that this is an overreaction, especially considering how Bong still has yet to make a bad film, but I can see it coming if he doesn't right the ship. His next film is going to be important because if he keeps beating people over the head with increasingly blunt "message" films, it's gonna bite 'em in the rear-end because the "message" will end up superceding the filmmaking quality. And I can already see it beginning to happen with "Okja."

With all of that said, "Okja" is a moderately entertaining affair, but there's no question in my mind that it Bong's least impressive film to date. If you have not seen a Joon-ho Bong film prior to Snowpiercer, I implore you to watch everything this man had made. His filmography is small too, so there's no excuse.


A fascinating character study
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This movie is about a young woman who lives with her downbeat brother and alcoholic sister, but she's a compulsive liar who constantly gives the impression that she has more money than she actually has. For example, she'll visit a high-end car dealership and peruse the cars, or she'll visit a high-end apartment complex and take a tour of the facilities. But she'll never actually buy anything. Then she'll go and tell her work colleagues that she's engaged to marry and looking to purchase a new house. So she lives this facade while in the presence of others, as well as when she's by herself. So there's a deep-rooted mentality behind all of this. And that's what this film is about.

I recently reviewed a Korean film by the name of "Madonna" recently. That movie was more concerned with story and plotting. "The Liar" is not that concerned with those things. This is a character interaction movie that gives you insight into our protagonist by showing her interactions with other people. Some of the more interesting moments occur when her co-workers or other people begin to see the cracks in her lies and gain the impression that there's something fishy about her constant gloating. Her relationship with her "boyfriend" is also rather fascinating, for reasons that I won't get into.

But I will say that our protagonist frequently exhibits a very cold, artificial personality that thrives on materialism. However, she also has a genuine concern for her siblings. Throughout the film, she tries to help them and push them to be better, when she can. There's also a deep sense of frustration that bubbles to the surface, which is driven primarily by the difficulties of life. These aspects help to create a multi-dimensional character who has just enough relatability. As a viewer, I was almost rooting for her to succeed in her lies because I did not want to see her get confronted and placed in uncomfortable situations.

One reason for this is Kkob-bi Kim's juggernaut performance. I became a fan of this actress about a decade ago when I saw "Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater", and I gotta say that she's been good in practically everything she's been in – from "Breathless" to "Pluto" to "Greatful Dead." She's fantastic in "The Liar" and carries this film completely on her shoulders. I kid you not, she is in every single scene in this movie. That's some serious heavy lifting, and she great in this and definitely helps to keep the viewer engaged. I found her character to be fascinating.

The director here is Dong-myung Kim, and this appears to be her first feature length film. I definitely look forward to her future projects. You know, I've recently covered – unintentionally – three really talented female directors from South Korea. We had Ga-eun Yoon (from "The World of Us"), Su-won Shin (from "Madonna"), and now Dong-myung Kim (from "The Liar"). Well, this is an impressive list of films and I really hope that these ladies continue making films with the same high standards.

A few more points to make here. The major theme here is commercialism, as you might expect – and that makes this movie very relevant for practically everyone. It doesn't go over the top either in terms of throwing in characters who are billionaires or K-pop stars to make its point. Every character in this movie is grounded, realistic, and probably similar to someone we know in real life. I loved the ending too, because it is sharply ironic and drives home the whole point of the film.


A very good quality, downbeat drama
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A nurse's aide named Hae-rim is in charge of an important patient who is completely paralyzed and awaits a heart transplant. The man's son attempts to extend the man's life expectancy for the purpose of receiving his fortune. And considering the status of the patient, most of the hospital staff follow along very willingly. Then, after an accident, a pregnant young woman named Mi-na is carried into the hospital in a vegetative state, and the cold-blooded son (of the old man) sees this as an opportunity for his father, so he offers the nurse's aide a deal. The deal is for her to get an organ donation consent form from the Mi-na's family. Since our protagonist, Hae-rim, is in a poor financial state, she accepts the deal for money. So she sets out to find Mi-na's family with the clue that her nickname was "Madonna," but along the way she discovers the girl's unfortunate past.

The interesting thing about the storytelling structure here is that we basically have two main protagonists: the nurse's aide and the pregnant girl. Fairly early on, however, the flashback sequences become longer and even though these scenes are technically told by Mi-na's acquaintenances (as part of Hae-rim's investigation), it feels like the story is being told from Mi-na's perspective. So we get to spend a lot of time with her, which would not have been the case had the filmmakers simply held the mystery element and told the story solely from Hae-rim's perspective.

You see what happens to her in the present first, and then they shift to an old flashback to her highschool years. After that, they gradually bridge the gap in chronological order and show you how she got from Point A to Point B. This is portrayed in a convincingly realistic manner and I can definitely see this kind of thing happening in real life – and I'm certain that it has happened many times over. Her character is a bit awkward and she has difficulty connecting with other people, which often leads to her getting bullied and taken advantage of, and that's the basis for much of the film. So yes, our titular character is properly developed.

With regard to Hae-rim, she's caught between a rock and a hard place due to the politics at the hospital. There are definitely some shady shenanigans going on there, and she's pressured to acquire that organ donation consent regardless of whether or not the means are immoral. So she grapples with that throughout the film. There are also a handful of social commentary subtexts in this as well, which I will let you discover for yourself.

In terms of negatives, there really were not many that jumped out at me while watching "Madonna." This is 2 full hours long and moves slowly, so I can see some viewers having a bit of a problem with its pacing. But it does unfold efficiently and takes its time to tell a well developed story. The drama and conflict also ramp up during the second half for sure.

Mugen no jûnin

An entertainingly violent, action packed film from Miike.
Viewed on opening night at Namba Parks Cinema in Osaka, Japan.

"Blade of the Immortal" takes place in Japan during the mid-Tokugawa Shogunate period and follows the deeds of Manji, a skilled samurai who has a decisive advantage: no conventional wound can kill him. In the past, his actions of vengeance (for the death of a family member) led to the deaths of 100 other samurai. Near death himself, he then becomes immortal at the hands of an 800-year-old nun named Yaobikuni. Decades later he befriends a young girl who desperately wants to avenge the death of her parents, who were slayed by a master swordsman who is attempting to take over all other dojos. Can Manji fight thru the villain's clan of assassins and secure justice for their deplorable actions? I was a bit surprised when confronted with the opening 10 minutes of this movie – which are legitimately outstanding. I'm not going to tell you exactly what happens, but even Miike's most vocal critics – and there are a lot of them – should admit that that sequence is fantastic. It's basically "critic proof." And it also establishes a darker tone than one might expect from the trailer. This movie gets violent and harrowing very early on, and I liked that.

"Blade of the Immortal" is an action film first and foremost, so it really needs to succeed on that front in order to work overall. Most fortunately, I think that this is a very effective action extravaganza. There is a ton of fighting in this movie, which is an obvious positive, but the placement of the action is very nicely spaced. In my recent review of "Call of Heroes", I mentioned that Benny Chan is very good at spacing out his action and maximizing the pacing of his action films. Miike does the same thing here with "Blade of the Immortal." There are a few huge battles, but also a lot of one-on-one duels (or scuffles with a small handful of characters) that are peppered throughout. "Blade of the Immortal" keeps moving and there always seems to be a fight right around the corner. I really liked that about this movie and consequently, its 140-minute runtime flies by much faster than you may think. The overall quality of action is good too.

In terms of performances, they are also generally good. Takuya Kimura carries the movie quite easily, Sota Fukushi handles the villain role well, and Erika Toda steals the show whenever she shows up. I liked the lead actress (Hana Sugisaki) too, but she does tend to scream her lines a bit too much. I think Miike should have dialed her down a bit.

I did not have subtitles while watching this in the Japanese movie theater, but the story and characters seemed rather basic and simplistic. Not a big problem in my eyes for a full throttled action movie like this, but a few of the side characters seemed to be wasted, like Chiaki Kuriyama's character (who did not do much at all, actually). The filmmakers probably wanted to insert more characters from the manga into the film, so a few of them feel like they were shoe-horned in. One thing I did like is how, at certain times, the villains are placed in the same bad predicaments as the protagonists which means that they occasionally have a common enemy.

This is an entertainingly violent, action packed film from Miike.


A tour de force of schoolgirl politics
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This movie is about a 10 year-old girl named Sun, who we soon realize is an outcast at school. The opening sequence establishes this fact, because the kids are playing a game but do their best to prevent Sun from partaking and enjoying herself. Then comes summer vacation, when Sun meets a girl named Jia, who is new in town. During the summer months, these girls hang out together a lot and become best friends. They organize sleep-overs, play at the park, and all of the good things about childhood friendship. However, when the new semester starts, Jia notices the conflicts between Sun and the other kids, meaning that she needs to find her place within the relationship dynamics at school – and that places significant stress on her friendship with Sun.

The first thing you notice about this movie, is that the performances from all of the kids are outstanding. This is right up there with "A Brand New Life" from 2009 and "When I Turned Nine" from 2004 in terms of all-time great child performances in South Korean cinema. This is especially true regarding the lead actress Soo-in Choi, who is simply phenomenal. She does such a good job reacting to everything that is happening around her. This is actually her debut role, and I really hope that her career takes off and that we get many more films with her in the future.

Overall, "The World of Us" is a tour de force for schoolgirl politics in film. This focuses a lot on realistic interaction between the characters and is successful at showcasing the quiet intensity of these girls' relationships that also ebb and flow depending on the situation and who has the "leverage" over others. Some of the girls are mean-spirited, while others are pressured into becoming someone they are not. It really is a fascinating and complex depiction of childhood conflict and friendship.

"The World of Us" is not yet available on DVD, per my knowledge. I saw this on a plane flight to Japan. But if and when it does become available, make sure you check this out. It's an outstanding film.


Weak character motivation does not stop this from being a true crowd-pleaser!
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After being inflicted with a gunshot wound to the head, a young man's unconscious body washes ashore in a rural town. For the next few months, a concerned doctor looks over him and his recovery. He eventually wakes up from his coma but suffers from temporary memory loss. Unfortunately for him, his enemies (a group of gangsters who specialize in the selling of guns and drugs) soon discover that he is alive and come back to finish the job.

Before we get to the action, I should mention that the biggest flaw of this movie is the character development. Ironically, I thought the Mo Brothers did a very nice job in their last film "Killers" because the multi-dimensional personalities of the serial killers were even more interesting than the violence and thriller elements, in my opinion. "Headshot" is the complete opposite, and that's especially true in terms of character motivation specifically. I just saw this movie and I don't remember why exactly these gangsters shot our protagonist in the head at the beginning. Or why this cute doctor is so enamored with him. So yes, there are a lot of character motivation problems, but to be perfect honest – it almost doesn't matter because this movie offers a lot of action and violence to compensate.

Now if you've seen The Raid movies (directed by Gareth Evans) and you're expecting something similar here due to some of the returning cast members and the production companies, let me give you some advice. This is a Mo Brothers film, not a Gareth Evans film. That's important to understand, because those are two different beasts with different directing styles. But with that said, you do have Iko Uwais handling the fight choreography in Headshot, so there will be some overlap in terms of action design.

And here's the deal with the action design. No spoilers, of course. The final half hour, which consists of a three part finale, does have the precise, complex martial arts choreography that you expect from films like The Raid. In fact, the last fight is legitimately satisfying and somewhat surprising because of two reasons: first, the main villain does not fight much at all until that moment; and second, he uses an unexpected form of martial arts that really adds some variety and excitement. In addition, there are some moments in "Headshot" where nearby objects – that are not typically used as weapons in everyday life – are used to stun or straight-up murder people. That's one of the signature traits in films directed by Gareth Evans. So that's the aforementioned "overlap" that I was talking about.

With that said, however, everything before that three stage finale feels like a Mo Brothers film. Which basically means that the first 2/3rds of "Headshot" primarily showcases scrappy, simplistically choreographed, blunt, visceral death scenes that would be more at home in a thriller or horror film. Characters are just trying to survive in this movie, and many of them don't. The death scenes in this are very memorable, creative, and gory. There's one scene near the end where a dude gets shot and it reminded me of that infamous scene in Robocop when the ED-209 eviscerated that salaryman in the conference room. Yeah, that's how the violence in this movie works. It's excessive . . . even more so than The Raid movies. But that excessiveness is a lot of fun to watch for people who enjoy "hard R" rated action movies and there's actually a bit of black humor that is thrown in at times. So the Mo Brothers really did put their stamp on this.

Another thing that I noticed with regard to the action design, is that there's a surprising absence of one-vs-many fights in this. We're used to seeing at least one or two scenes of Iko taking down hordes of baddies in Merantau and The Raid movies, but that does not happen often in "Headshot" despite the huge quantity of fighting. It's almost like every fight is a one-on-one match of survival, even in those cases where multiple characters are involved. And that creates a very different feel to "Headshot" because some of the "stock henchmen" are incredibly difficult to kill. And you may have a handful of these dudes lurking around a crashed bus site, or a police station, or a forest hideout, and our hero has to slowly explore and make his way thru these surroundings while taking out each of these guys one at a time. That also helps to make every death scene very personal and memorable.

That action format also helps to create a fantastic pacing. I read a few online reviews that criticized the opening half hour for being slow, but I completely disagree with that assessment. After watching this movie twice in the theater, I don't think 10 minutes went by – at any point in this film – without someone getting violently murdered or beaten. That is not an exaggeration. And the locations change quite a bit, so there's plenty of variety in that regard too. Make no mistake about it – this is a crowd-pleaser for fans of visceral action.

Before I leave you tonight, I wanted to point out one more thing – the music and scoring, which are fantastic. There's even some use of heavy, ominous synthesizer music that worked really well. It had a John Carpenter vibe to it, and considering how one of the most memorable sequences occurs in a police station, perhaps the Mo Brothers are fans of Assault on Precinct 13. I would not be surprised.

W - Du gaeui segye

Creative premise with a fast pace
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A romance takes place between a man (played by Jong-suk Lee) who exists within a webtoon known as "W," and a woman (played by Hyo-joo Han) who is in the real world. The woman's father is the webtoon artist who makes the protagonist's life a living hell, creating the murder of his parents by the hands of an unknown killer. But as the comic world comes to life and clashes with the real world, the people of both worlds are confronted with danger.

This is an interesting premise that has been done before. This K-drama has some vague similarities to films like "The Matrix" or "Last Action Hero", but it carves out its own identity and develops in unpredictable ways. In fact, it's virtually impossible to predict what's going to happen from one episode to the next. One reason for this is that it gradually adds layers and develops the "rule system" of this particular comic book world, which offers many intriguing turns of events and some wicked plot twists. The end of episode 1 feels like a climactic event, and there are many such events that throw you for a loop because they are things that would probably happen at the end of a film with a similar premise. This creates a sense of excitement that is sustained for most of the episodes, and that excitement is earned thru characters and scriptwriting instead of overblown or cartoonish action scenes.

Most fortunately, the storyline is presented organically and naturally. This show does make an admirable attempt to sufficiently close as many plot holes that it reasonably can, but it still feels a bit contrived in spots. This is especially true during the final few episodes, which have a slight sense of randomness to them. Prior to that, everything seemed very neat and tidy in terms of following the "rule system" of the worlds, but that seemed to come loose a bit down the stretch. And that would be my primary criticism of this show – it seemed like they didn't really know how to end it. It felt a bit anticlimactic. Personally, I would preferred a more traditional, higher octane finale.

In any case, all of the acting in this K-drama is very good. I've covered Hyo-joo Han a handful of times already in my reviews of "The Beauty Inside" and "Cold Eyes." But she expresses a very wide range of emotion in this, giving a nuanced and energetic performance. I was less familiar with the lead actor, but he did a solid job as well.

A few other random compliments are that I really enjoyed the theme tune, which is quite catchy. There is a splash of comic book imagery that I enjoyed. And there is also one particularly creepy special effect that is used on one character's face during the middle episodes.

Mei Gong he xing dong

A Rip-Roaring Action Thriller
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In October 2011, the 13 crew members of two Chinese cargo ships were shot to death on the Mekong River, which runs through the Golden Triangle, and a large amount of metaamphetamine drugs were recovered from the crime scene. The Chinese government dispatches an anti-narcotics task force to the area to investigate. There they team up with an intelligence officer for a dangerous mission that takes them deep into the lawless jungles of the Golden Triangle and the lair of a ruthless drug-lord.

Now although there are a handful of protagonists here, two of the actors really step to the forefront, get the most screen time, and carry the film from start to finish – Hanyu Zhang and Eddie Peng. Hanyu Zhang previously appeared in films such as "The Taking of Tiger Mountain", "Special ID", "Bodyguards and Assassins", "The Message", "The Equation of Love and Death", and "Assembly." The thing I like most about this actor is his screen presence. He has a very commanding presence that keeps you engaged. With regard to Eddie Peng, I just covered him last week while reviewing "Call of Heroes" – so it's nice to see him in this one as well.

One criticism that I've read regarding this movie is that the story and character development are rather thin. I would agree with that criticism. The structure of the film basically goes like this. The narcotics unit gets "intel" about one of the drug lords, or someone who is associated with one of the drug lords, and they immediately take action. Sometimes, it's an infiltration and undercover sting – other times it's an extraction (or pseudo rescue mission) that takes place in a hostile area. These infiltrations and extractions may last anywhere between 10 minutes to 30 or more minutes of screen time, depending on the complexity of the particular mission. But in-between the missions, our protagonists basically do nothing but get ready for the next one. So there's really not much time for adding complexity or depth to the characters.

But with that said, "Operaton Mekong" more than compensates for this flaw with its blistering pace and action set pieces.

The action design is mostly gritty and diverse, with an emphasis on urban apprehensions and special ops strikes that involve gunplay and hand-to-hand combat that does get quite violent at times (there are a few intense scenes involving children and oppressed villagers). This creates a sense of thrill and suspense even though it does get unrealistic (especially in terms of how much damage our two heroes can take). This is definitely neat stuff, incorporating some creative equipment and technology, as well as one of the coolest dogs in recent memory. The dog in this movie – I think his name is Bingo – is awesome, and his usefulness contributes a certain creativity that you don't see in many action movies. And the sheer quantity of action is significant, meaning that things move at a very fast pace.

A few other positives I'd like to mention: There are some beautiful natural environments, as well as some great overhead shots of various country locales. International conflict and cast are also a nice mix.

This is a no nonsense crowd-pleasing action from Dante Lam, who previously directed "The Beast Stalker", "The Stool Pigeon", "Beast Cops", "Fire of Conscience", "Unbeatable", and "To the Fore."

Ngai sing

Another solid film from Benny Chan
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Set in 1914 following the collapse of the Ching dynasty, the film tells the story of a group of villagers (lead by Lau Ching Wan and Eddie Peng) who stand up to a cruel young warlord's son (played by Louis Koo) who is protected by a Commander (played by Wu Jing) with proficient martial arts skills as well as a small army. Our main protagonist, the whip-wielding militia captain Yang (Lau Ching Wan's character) has guarded his remote hometown for years, and he alone now stands between the village and this ruthless band of troops who are loyal to the warlord who has been wreaking death and destruction in the region. One morning, the warlord's son saunters into the village and kills a few people, but is quickly captured and prepped for execution. But before the execution can commence, Wu Jing's character shows up and gives the village a deadline to either voluntarily release the warlord's son or face slaughter.

I found the premise interesting because the warlord's son is captured by the villagers very early on, forcing them to decide on whether or not they should execute him. This conflict is at the center of the film for basically the entire runtime – and it's not an easy decision when you put yourself in their place. And most fortunately, this film does take the time to establish the dramatic aspects of everything. "Call of Heroes" isn't just a brainless, dumb action movie. It actually has some character depth and builds anticipation for the action scenes.

It's also anchored by a very good cast, all of whom nail their characters and are fun to watch. Lau Ching Wan has been carrying movies in lead roles for ages, so he's just as reliable as he's always been. If you want some recommendations with him, I would point you to "Lost In Time", "Mad Detective", "The Longest Nite", and "A Hero Never Dies." Louis Koo – who I've covered a bunch of times already on this YouTube channel – is good as the slimy, sadistic bad guy, and his over-the-top performance works. Eddie Peng is an actor who I always enjoy seeing, and here he plays a character who really does not care about the villagers at first but eventually comes to their aid when he sees the injustices they must endure. Some other Eddie Peng titles I would recommend are "Unbeatable" and "To the Fore." And finally, Wu Jing is a convincing villain who is not purely evil like Louis Koo's character. On the contrary, Wu Jing's character simply has a warped set of principles and life philosophies. So it's nice to have four lead characters who are distinguishable from one another, and add something different to the story.

With regard to the action, it is of a good quality. It mostly showcases hand-to-hand combat that is impressive and spaced out nicely, with the finale representing the best set piece. I was particularly surprised that Eddie Peng moves very well for an actor without martial arts background. He has a convincing "fighting presence" that helps to sell the action. A lot of the fights have a hard-hitting, impactful feel to them. But I will say that there is some CGI that is used at times. For example, Lau Ching Wan's whip will occasionally be CGI'd. Also, the ending has one bigger CGI shot, which is a little distracting but I thought it was no big deal. Overall, I was definitely satisfied with the quality of action in this film.

So "Call of Heroes" is definite crowd-pleaser by director Benny Chan. And for some odd reason, I've seen Benny Chan's name before, but I never took the time to check out his filmography. Listen to this resume of highlights: Big Bullet (1996), Who Am I? (1998), Heroic Duo (2003), New Police Story (2004), Invisible Target (2007), Connected (2008), and Shaolin (2011). He's made some other stuff too, but he's contributed enough entertaining action movies to be given special consideration by me. Which means that I will be following him and looking forward to whatever he does next. One thing that I really like about Benny Chan's films – outside of the high octane action itself – is that he seems to have a knack for pacing action flicks. His movies flow very well and rarely feel bogged down or tedious. One reason for this is that he spaced out the action scenes throughout the runtime, but he's also good at showing the development of conflicts and characters enough to bridge the fights. As a viewer, you don't feel like you're just sitting around, waiting for the next action scene. And that's a good thing.

Tamjung Hong Gil-dong: Sarajin Ma-eul

This is the kind of film that Hollywood does not like to make nowadays
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Our protagonist (a detective, of course) works day-to-day to track down missing persons. One day, he finally finds the man who murdered his mother (when he was a child), but the murderer gets kidnapped and the detective must track down the criminals responsible. At the same time, however, he is forced to watch over two little girls (the murderer's grandchildren) who are tagging along for the ride. Unfortunately, the kidnappers work for a shadowy organization that has no qualms about eliminating anyone who stands in their way.

This movie has a very noir-ish feel to it, with a lot of investigation that leads our protagonist from place to place as he narrates his thoughts. He even wears the old school detective hat and coat, which gives him a classical look. The lead actor is Je-hoon Lee, who previously starred in "Bleak Night" and appeared in "The Front Line" (both of which are very good movies, by the way). "The Phantom Detective" provides even more evidence that this guy can legitimately carry a movie. He does a good job of portraying a man who is proficient at his job, but is still vulnerable and can get in over his head.

The dynamic between him and the girls is somewhat unorthodox. However, it's also endearing because the kids don't immediately know that he wants to take revenge on their grandfather, but they do figure out fairly early on that he is a habitual liar – and this gives some leeway for the filmmakers to pepper in some humorous exchanges of dialogue between them. In addition, one of the girls breaks out a notepad and takes down information while he questions people, almost as if she were a detective herself. This is entertaining stuff that safely avoids the "annoying little kid" cliché that can really hurt a movie. So basically, there are no weak points when considering the acting in this movie – everyone holds their own.

In terms of action – there are a handful of gun battles and fist fights, none of which are graphically violent, but they do have a hard-hitting feel to them that adds a weight and danger to everything. The action design has a "higher octane" feel to it, without the need for going over the top or chucking in cartoonish set pieces. Everything is grounded here, and that's important in this case due to the tone and type of film we're dealing with. Sure, we have three likable leads, but there are some dangerous people in this movie. One such person is the main bad guy, who makes multiple appearances throughout as he stalks the protagonists. And let me tell you, he's one tough son-of-a-gun too. Now, I won't spoil the ending for you, but what I will say is that it's very satisfying.

There are a few stylistic flourishes that are used for the buildings and environments at times, which utilize some artificial visuals. I know some critics have complained a bit about these particular special effects, but I thought it was a neat idea that gave this film some charm. You know, I have to say, "The Phantom Detective" feels like something that would have come out of U.S. during the 1990s. This is the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn't like to make anymore. And I definitely recommend it.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Better Than Almost Every Superhero Film from the Last Decade
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Just got back from a screening. All I can say is that the current 5.6 rating on IMDb is a damn joke. I really think people do not understand what a good action movie is anymore. We've been inundated with so many bloated, poorly paced comic book movies (that take themselves so seriously that they demand completely unnecessary 150 minute runtimes) that we've lost sight of what pure entertainment actually is. Hell, less than a month ago I saw a Star Wars movie that took 90 minutes to get to a decent action scene.

Return of Xander Cage is easily the best paced, big budget action film since Mad Max: Fury Road. Don't get me wrong, because it is an incredibly stupid film, but it's also damn entertaining from start to finish. For example, Donnie Yen is finally allowed to do what he does best in a Hollywood movie. It's not rocket science - let the guy kick some ass. The only negative that popped out to me was the awkward sexual innuendos near the beginning, which felt very out of place and a bit cringeworthy. Other than that, this is fantastic action trash that everyone should go out to support.

You get 3 action scenes within the opening 30 minutes, then a truckload of action afterward. Just as importantly, every single moment between the action is used to drive things forward. This movie does not waste time, so it safely avoids the "dull filler" that can drag these movies down. I really enjoyed the cast as well. It may have been a corporate suit who decided to cast a different actor from every country for the purposes of box office appeal, but it felt like these people had a blast making this movie and they seemed to have good chemistry together despite the fact that the character development was basic at best. Tony Jaa ditches his serious mug for a loony, dance-crazy role that had me in stitches. Nice to see "The Hound" from Game of Thrones here too.

The action is completely ridiculous, but it's certainly plentiful enough and has good enough quality to be satisfying. There are certain instances that overuse editing, but it's only an issue at certain points and I was not distracted by it for most of the runtime. It's certainly better than most of Paul Greengrass's titles.

I almost never say this about a big budget Hollywood action film, but I want a damn sequel!

Marudukku sukuranburu: Asshuku

Prime example of just how unique Japanese animation can be
The "Mardock Scramble" trilogy consists of 3 Japanese anime films: "The First Compression" (from 2010), "The Second Combustion" (from 2011), and "The Third Exhaust" (from 2012). Each of these films is about an hour long, which sums to a three-hour film in total.

Taking place in a futuristic city called Kamina City, a young prostitute is taken in by a notorious gambler. One night, he abandons and attempts to murder her in an explosion. However, she is rescued and transformed into a cyborg by a man named Dr. Easter. Afterward, an artificial intelligence in the form of a glowing yellow mouse accompanies her to adapt to her new life. She is trained to use the advanced technology fitted on her to defend herself against the gambler's attempts to have her killed in order to stop her from testifying against him.

Mardock Scramble is bursting with so much creativity and awesomeness that it provides a surprisingly unique viewing experience. It combines elements that have no business being in the same movie together. I briefly mentioned the glowing yellow mouse, which by the way has some awesome technological abilities, and this character is introduced soon after the opening sequence which is a gritty, violent, uncomfortable moment where a teenage prostitute gets beaten and almost murdered. And that's not all. You have some other animals that make appearances later on, and I can wholeheartedly assure you that you will never see dolphins and sharks the same way again.

Almost unbelievably, the eccentric mix of gritty revenge violence, nudity, science fiction and technology, and cute fluffy mice is only the tip of the iceberg. I do not want to get into the plot details of the second and third movies – mostly because there are so many surprises to be had – but I will say that if you enjoy lengthy gambling sequences that take place in a glitzy casino and showcase a battle of wits between the player and dealer, then you're in for a real treat.

Based on what little I've told you thus far, you may wondering how a trilogy of films can introduce such wildly disparate elements and actually work. Well, I'm happy to say that they work wonderfully because the scriptwriting really does a good job of transitioning between these different elements in such a way that the storyline feels natural and logical within the world that it creates. I would also say that the overall tone doesn't shift quite as much as you may think. Yes, there are some very dark moments here, but even the lighter scenes (like when the glowing yellow mouse cuddles with the girl) are expressed as more of a melancholy moment. There is not goofy humor or anything like that, and I think that helps to keep everything together.

The writing also creates some very interesting character interaction. The relationship between the girl and her fluffy mouse is actually very endearing and I did care about them as things progressed There's also the battle of wits that I previously mentioned. You get a sense of quality to the Mardock Scramble films because it seems like someone thought this stuff thru.

You're probably thinking to yourself, "Such an odd set of films probably had a limited budget." I did a search the internet myself but could not confirm the budget. But it's obvious that Mardock Scramble had a healthy production behind it because the animation looks very nice. Some of the detail and use of color creates a visual spectacle that's beautiful to look at.

There's not a lot of criticisms I can find for Mardock Scramble. Obviously, if you have a problem with the mix of elements that I previously mentioned, then that's one thing but I think that's one of the things that makes this trilogy so interesting to watch. I would say that the viewer will be forced to piece a few things together. These movies don't explain every little thing, so the viewer is asked to figure some things out for themselves. Nothing mind-blowing, but it can create some confusion. For example, the abilities of the technology that the protagonists use is not well defined, so you just have to roll with it. Also, the pacing is a bit on the slow side at times.

In any case, I really enjoy these films and they represent why Japanese animation is so unique. This trilogy is widely available on DVD, so be sure to check these out.

Yi ngoi

Another underrated film on this website
This film is underrated. Oh well, not every movie can be made by Marvel.

This film is about a professional hit-man and his team of self-styled "accident choreographers", who kill their victims by trapping them in well crafted "accidents" that look like unfortunate mishaps but are in fact perfectly staged acts of murder. He is consistently plagued by guilt, and the memories of his recently lost wife don't make things any easier. Even worse, one of his team members dies in an apparent "accident", which forces him to stay one step ahead of their competition.

One important thing that you need to understand about "Accident" is that it's a non-stop exhibition of paranoia because the scriptwriting is first-class as it straddles the line between chance and intent through a number of events that may signify an orchestrated murder by another party. The way this works is that some events are immediately shown to be acts of human intent – for example, the opening scene is clearly shown to be a murder that is made to look like an accident – but other events are left ambiguous, and you're not sure if it's an act of human intent or a moment of coincidence (or chance). So you're placed in the same situation as the protagonist because he's also not sure. And that's really the foundation of the entire movie, and it's a solid foundation to stand on.

It may be a surprise to you that the story moves slowly, but this could be considered a positive because it allows the paranoia to take center stage and it focuses a lot on developing the main character. The entire film revolves around this guy, making this just as much of a character piece as it is a series of suspense sequences. With that said, the "accidents" themselves are very cool and the direction is top notch. This was actually directed by Pou-Soi Cheang, and "Accident" was his best film in his filmography up to this point – representing an improvement over his previous titles. And I still think this is his best work, despite the fact that he has given us some very entertaining stuff between 2009 and the present day (such as "SPL 2: A Time for Consequences", "The Monkey King 2", and "Motorway").

The lead actor is Louis Koo, who earlier in his career appeared in a bunch of the "Troublesome Night" movies. Most fortunately, his roles subsequent to that franchise were far more reliable and entertaining. He's definitely an actor whose filmography is worth exploring because he's been in a lot of good movies. "Accident" is one of them, and I really liked his performance in this. It's a bit on the eccentric and gloomy side, but that's important for his character.

I definitely recommend "Accident", which is one of the better slow-burn suspense thrillers in recent memory. It is widely available on DVD, so be sure to check this one out.

Gekijô rei

Fairly entertaining film that avoids jump scares and has a realistic mannequin
While rehearsing for a stage play, the cast and crew are troubled by strange events that are connected to a mannequin. Hideo Nakata directs this soft re-imagining of his horror film "Ghost Actress" (1996), but this turned out to be a very different film. This is essentially a mannequin horror film, not a ghost film, which is always welcome in my book because the concept has an old school style. Some may criticize this style as being cheesy, but I enjoyed it and they avoided CGI in favor of practical effects.

The biggest flaw of this film is the storytelling structure, which is very predictable and incorporates plot points you see all the time in this genre. That does weigh the film down a bit and prevents it from being great. Acting is okay and the characters are on the bland side.

Fortunately, the mannequin element makes it worth watching. This is one of the most realistic looking mannequins I've ever seen. Scare tactics range from very good to mediocre, with some freaky scenes near the end. Not sure what some of the other reviewers on this site were watching, because there were only a few jump scares in this one - certainly far less than what you'd see in the "Insidious" franchise.

"Ghost Theater" is a pretty good flick.


Excellent Crime Drama
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A former political henchman seeks out revenge for being dropped by a ruthless politician. Meanwhile, a determined investigator tries to nail the politician himself, and a shady newspaper editor manipulates matters behind the scenes. This has a complex story that shifts back and forth in time, with a lot of maneuvering by a fairly large cast of characters, but the script is so cleanly written and presented that it is easy to follow after a brief period of adjustment by the viewer. It will take a bit of time, early on, to figure out which characters are aligned with whom, and how everyone is related. But that slight sense of confusion eventually dissipates and transforms into a totally immersive, entertaining experience because characters are properly developed, with decisions and motives that are fleshed out nicely.

Most of the players here are quite shady, so it's almost like rooting for the lesser of all evils, but it works really well because a few of these characters become more appealing as the film progresses. And that's one of the big positives that can be found in "Inside Men" – there's some multi-dimensionality to enjoy, which makes it easy to root for the protagonists that emerge from the pool of corrupt characters. On the other hand, you will find some of the others to be very dislikeable. The newspaper editor – in particular – is a real snake, and I was rooting against him the entire time.

This is one of those films that gets more gripping and intense as it moves along. It just gets better and better, with the entire final hour being flat-out awesome. There is a lot of dramatic tension that is earned and I was glued to my television screen to see what would happen next. I have seen a few online movie reviewers criticize the film for being conventional, which is true to a degree. It is a crime drama, after all, and it has some similarities to films that came before it. With that said, however, the nuance and complexity that is presented keeps the viewer off balance. I wasn't entirely sure how things were going to play out during the second half of this movie, which helped to keep things fresh.

There are a few recognizable faces here, but the big-man actor is Byung-hun Lee – who I'm sure you've seen elsewhere. He's been in popular Korean films such as "A Bittersweet Life", "The Good, the Bad, the Weird", "I Saw the Devil", and "Masquerade." His performance in "Inside Men" is one of his better outings, in my opinion. He's successful at portraying his character as intimidating, flawed, and endearing all at the same time. This guy is really good actor, but I wish he would stop wasting his time in American movies. I'm sure it's beneficial for him to try to break into Hollywood, but every single time I've seen him in a Hollywood film, he's been wasted. For example, I was looking forward to seeing him play the Terminator in that stupid Genisys movie, but he only had like 5 minutes of screen time. It's ridiculous.

In any case, I definitely recommend "Inside Men", which is one of the better crime dramas of the past decade. I did watch the 3-hour extended cut, which is 50 minutes longer than the theatrical cut. I'm not exactly sure what scenes are included in one but not the other, but I can say that the 3-hour cut is really good. There is a Region 3 DVD available with English subtitles, and that release includes both the theatrical and extended cut.


The manga business is less desirable than you might think.
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An amateur artist teams up with an amateur scriptwriter (both of which are still in high school) to create manga and break into the business at Weekly Shonen Jump, but the demands and stress of the industry may derail their plans. The stress of working in this particular industry is a major theme here, and it's communicated in multiple ways.

First, there's the competitive aspect. Our protagonists are very quickly roped into the cut-throat nature of business and almost immediately create rivalries with other manga artists. Success at this particular company is dependent on sales of the manga you're drawing, so every week a Top 10 list is posted in the office, which gives everyone a gauge as to how well their manga is doing. That creates rivalry, because you need to perform better than the other manga artists to stay on that list.

Second, there's the survival aspect. If your manga does not sell well, it is discontinued and you will have to go back to the drawing board to produce something else. But you're not a permanent employee of the company, so if your manga fails, you may never get another one of your works published ever again. It all depends on whether or not they like your stuff. It would seem to me that the job security of this profession is not good at all because you're constantly fighting to keep your job.

Third, the weekly deadlines result in very long working hours. It seemed like these guys were working about 80 hours per week, at least. In fact, it's probably more because at times they had difficulty finding enough time to sleep. That's just insane. I previously worked at a Big 4 accounting firm for 5 years, so I know what working long hours is like. But even I was horrified at what our protagonists were going through in this movie. It almost makes the profession of manga drawing seem undesirable. This is not a film that glorifies the industry, and I like that.

Bakuman has a fantastic cast of young acting talent. Start with Takeru Satoh, who recently starred in the awesome Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. Then we have Ryunosuke Kamiki, who starred in Poison Berry In My Brain, The Kirishima Thing and has appeared as a villain in films like As the Gods Will and the second and third Rurouni Kenshin films. Then we have Shota Sometani, who is practically everywhere recently. He was in the Parasyte movies, Tokyo Tribe, Wood Job, As the Gods Will, etc. Finally we have Takayuki Yamada, who had a lead role in the Crows Zero movies, and has appeared in Lesson of the Evil, 13 Assassins, and many others. So we have solid core of young acting talent that helps to establish a foundation for Bakuman to build on.

Another big positive is the rhythm and pacing, which will keep the viewer glued to their screens throughout the entire runtime. The film keeps moving and it maintains interest. The story plays out very naturalistically; even the romantic subplot is nicely portrayed and really like how it concluded. There's a nice dramatic impact to everything and the protagonists have very likable personas. There are also some very funny scenes along the way, which always helps to humanize the characters and make them even more relatable.

Stylistically, there are a few creative sequences that use manga drawing special effects that are blended with the live action shots – and it works really well. It's something a bit different, but I liked it. One final surprise, for me at least, was the scoring and soundtrack, which are really good and were apparently performed by a Japanese band by the name of Sakanaction. I may have to check out some of their stuff.

I definitely recommend Bakuman, and I can't really think of any big flaws to complain about. This is a solid movie.

Mei ren yu

Enjoyably wacky
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So here's the story. An estate project involving reclamation of the sea threatens the livelihood of the mermaids who rely on the sea to survive. So they dispatch one of their own to seduce and kill the project manager. The director here is Stephen Chow, who has also acted in many films. His more popular directorial efforts include Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004), but two of my personal favorites are From Bejing With Love (1993) and Journey To the West: Conquering the Demons (2013). If you're familiar with his work, you will know what to expect with Mermaid. He gives us a charmingly wacky, high energy film that moves at a brisk pace from start to finish. There are tons of jokes that are consistently peppered at the viewer; some work better than others, but it helps to keep the viewer engaged throughout.

The premise itself also allows for some unorthodox character interaction, which is especially entertaining. How many comedy movies concern a nutty mermaid who is attempting to seduce and assassinate someone? I always like it when a movie is a bit different, and this one certainly is. Like some of Chow's other films, there are some rather serious and violent moments that are introduced, but they work well despite resulting in some tonal shifts. The reason I feel this way is because this film makes its lead characters likable and you don't want to see them get physically harmed. So that's a positive.

The lead actress here is Yun Lin, who is a newcomer, but she dominates the proceedings with a very expressionistic performance. When she shows up for the first time, her make-up is all messed up and she's practically screaming her lines. You're saying to yourself, "Is this the lead actress?" Acting like this can get extremely annoying, but I have to say that she nails it very well. To give a performance this energetic and yet still be funny and likable is quite an accomplishment. She was definitely good in this. The lead actor (Chao Deng) is also very good. He plays off of Yun Lin properly and they have good chemistry together. Finally, I have to point out that the supporting actress (Kitty Zhang) could very well be the most beautiful woman on the planet. My goodness! The first time I saw her was in the very romantic comedy "All About Women" (2008) and really liked her performance in that one. She's just as good in Mermaid. At one point during the later half, she gets quite serious and she's entirely convincing. I do not want this woman getting angry with me.

With all of that said, however, I would not elevate Mermaid into quite the same class as the previously mentioned movies from Stephen Chow's filmography. But at the same time, I'm not exactly sure why I feel that way. Maybe it's the environmental theme and characters, which are basic and not particularly nuanced. So in some sense these qualities limit the overall depth of the film.

Also, the special effects are low grade and cartoonish. There's a lot of mermaid and tentacle stuff going on, which is not particularly convincing from a visual standpoint. This flaw is limited to being a minor distraction due to the light overall tone. For some reason, I easily forgive lackluster special effects in comedy films. And to be perfectly honest, I think moviegoers place way too much emphasis on special effects nowadays. If the film itself is immersive, low-grade special effects can be perfectly fine. Clash of the Titans (1981) is a great example of that. I love that movie.

Regardless, I definitely enjoyed Mermaid, and it could very well move up my ratings list after a second viewing. If it plays in a cinema in your area, check it out. It is not yet available on DVD, but there is a good chance at a wide release given the popularity of the director.


Highly entertaining remake of "Eye in the Sky" (2007)
This is a remake of the excellent Hong Kong film "Eye in the Sky" from 2007.

A high-tech police surveillance team attempts to take down a gang of ruthless bank robbers. If you'd like more detail on how exactly the protagonists go about their job, check out my review of "Eye in the Sky." Now in terms of "Cold Eyes", events play out in a very similar fashion. Some sequences are practically shot-for-shot, but there are also a number of differences that make this worth watching – even if you've already seen the original film. In fact, these two films have become one of my "go to" double features. I love watching these back-to-back.

One reason for this is that you get to see the differences between Hong Kong and South Korean filmmaking. The realistic, suspense-driven "tailing" sequences are preserved and proficiently executed, but "Cold Eyes" has a slightly higher octane, with some added punch in terms chases, shootouts, and hand-to-hand fighting. So it "pops" a bit more when the action hits. It's also 30 minutes longer, which should probably result in some pacing issues – but that's not the case. It takes a bit more time developing the characters and drama, but everything continues to movie briskly. There's also a bit more comedy here that works well. However, that does not necessarily mean that "Cold Eyes" is a better film, because I slightly prefer "Eye in the Sky" due mostly to the fact that it really sticks the ending. The ending to "Cold Eyes" is certainly satisfying, but it's more commonplace and less poetic.

So what about the acting in "Cold Eyes"? It's really good. Kyung-gu Sol is the lead actor here. Not a familiar name, but he's been in a bunch of good movies: "Peppermint Candy" from 2000, "Public Enemy" from 2002, "Oasis" from 2002, and "No Mercy" from 2010. Very good actor, and this is probably my favorite role of his. The lead actress is Hyo-joo Han, who is always awesome. I'll watch her in anything. And finally, the villain is played by Woo-sung Jung – who you may have recognized in films such as "The Good the Bad the Weird" from 2008 and "The Divine Move" from 2014. He plays the bad guy with slightly less nuance than Tony Leung Ka-fai did in the original, but Jung is very menacing in this one. A real cold-blood killer.

On a final note, there's a fun cameo at the very end of the film. So keep an eye out for that. Just like "Eye in the Sky", I highly recommend "Cold Eyes." It's widely available on DVD. And I'm telling you that these two films make a fantastic double-feature for a movie night. Watch "Eye in the Sky" first though.

Gun chung

The ultimate surveillance film
This is basically the ultimate surveillance film that revolves around the covert operations of an undercover police unit attempting to gather intelligence on a sophisticated crew of jewel robbers. So the way the film works is that you have this sub-division of the police department that has maybe a dozen or so operatives, in civilian clothes, who attempt to identify and gather information on suspected criminals. So let's say that there's a robbery somewhere and a street camera catches the image of a suspect. Well, this sub-division will search the other street cameras in the area and see how far they can follow this guy, to see where he went after the crime was committed. Eventually you're going to lose him, but if you have an idea of an area that he frequently goes to (whether it's near his home or work, etc.), then you dispatch this surveillance team into the streets to stake out the area in an attempt to find him, follow him, and gather information on him.

So most of the film concerns the protagonist operatives as they do their jobs, which is really interesting to watch. From the very first minute, the cloak-and-dagger shadowing begins and continues right up to the final moments. This contributes a slow-burn suspense that keeps the viewer on edge. Although technically this is a "slow moving" film, the pacing still seems very brisk due to the premise. And there are also some great moments when a protagonist is in a position that may expose the entire operation.

The overall quality of "Eye in the Sky" is impressive on all fronts. The direction is very engaging, with fluid camera-work that keeps things moving while at the same time effectively showing everything that is happening. The viewer is constantly aware of the positions and locations of all of the characters, which is key when you're dealing with the theme of surveillance and "tailing" suspects. Also, the music is excellent and very catchy. It's perfectly suited given the themes of the film.

Now what about the acting. It's exceptional, and all of the actors have great chemistry together. We have another appearance by Simon Yam and this is one of my favorite performances from him. When I first saw this movie – years ago – I had seen a bunch of Yam's more nasty, notorious films where he plays the bad guy, so his turn in "Eye in the Sky" as a reserved, intelligent, extremely likable father-figure totally convinced me of his range as an actor. He's fantastic in this. The lead actress is Kate Tsui, who is also surprisingly excellent in this. I immediately became a fan of hers after watching this film, but the only other memorable role of her career subsequent to this was when she appeared in the Donnie Yen's flick "14 Blades" from 2010, where she played a villain. Now I have heard that many of her best roles are in TV dramas, so I definitely need to check those out if I can find them. And finally, we have Tony Leung Ka-fai, who plays the villain here in impressive fashion. This guy is paranoid and very sharp, with a fantastic memory – which automatically makes him a challenge for our protagonists. As an FYI, there are two Tony Leungs on the Hong Kong acting scene. The more popular actor in the west is Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who you've seen in films such as "Hard Boiled" from 1992, "In the Mood for Love" in 2000, "Infernal Affairs" from 2002, and "Lust Caution" from 2007. I'm a big fan of Tony Leung Chiu-Wai – he has a very suave, slick look to him that is instantly charismatic. But I must say that Tony Leung Ka-fai has significantly grown on me over time, and I think that his role in "Eye in the Sky" represents some of his best work. So that's just another reason to watch this movie.

The one thing that might irritate some viewers is that there are a few improbable coincidences that are used throughout. I think that – in that case – it's a bit easier to swallow because right at the beginning of the movie, the theme of "coincidence" is alluded to by Simon Yam's character. He specifically tells Kate Tsui's character that sometimes you just gotta get lucky to catch these guys – and it happens more often that you might think. So they introduce "coincidence" as an "up front" theme of the film, so it feels less like a contivance and more like an interesting aspect.

In my opinion, "Eye in the Sky" is a contemporary classic. I could watch this movie a thousand times and not get sick of it. Fans of mostly realistic, suspense-driven "tailing" sequences ala "The French Connection" will be drooling all over themselves. And it's fairly easy to find on DVD – so watch it!

Cossette no shôzô

Work of art
Technically, it's a 3-episode OVA ("Original Video Animation"), with each segment lasting around 35 minutes. But since the sum of these 3 parts is basically the length of a feature film, one could be forgiven for treating it as such. And that's what I do. I consider this a feature film. So here's the plot synopsis: A young man uncovers a delicate Venetian glass that holds a startling secret within: a haunted beauty, named Cossette, has been waiting 250 years for someone to set her spirit free. The man soon becomes obsessed and determined to help the girl trapped inside the crystal, but the necessary physical and psychological sacrifices might be too great for him to bear.

The first thing I want to point out: this film is one of the most visually stunning anime I've ever seen. Virtually every single frame is saturated with fantastical Gothic eye candy. The use of color is real treat for the eyes, and there's a wide variety of color schemes that are used. It really has a beautiful mix and keeps changing things up, which means that the viewer will be constantly mesmerized by its presentation. This is supplemented by two creative choices: (First) The protagonist is transported – via the Venetian glass – into a nightmarish world. This allows the filmmakers to go "all out" on the visuals. (Second) The environments and old school architecture designs are very cool to behold. There are a few flashbacks set in the real world that have a European vibe to them. And many of the "nightmare world" sequences showcase otherworldly objects and phenomena. All of these things come together to create a fantastic visual experience.

As if that weren't enough, the scoring is just as phenomenal. Some beautiful music is composed for this film. To describe it, it's very romantic, magical, and mysterious. Piano and violin are used quite a bit. The music of "Petite Cossette" is a true accomplishment that should be mentioned more often when people talk about their favorite anime music. The official soundtrack is widely available and I highly recommend you pick up a copy. I have it and listen to it a lot.

But the positives of "Petite Cossette" are not limited to its visual and audio qualities, because the characters and story are fascinating. Cossette's spirit is basically cursed, because in order to release her from that curse, she needs a human being who is willing to endure the pain and suffering that should have befallen her murderer. So in Christ-like fashion, a man must willingly endure this reckoning in order for Cossette to be redeemed. But, in some sense Cossette herself is emotionally conflicted with this scenario because she doesn't want to see someone she cares for suffer to such a degree. So their relationship is very interesting. Also, there is a dense romantic tone that mirrors the horror. I'm a huge fan when romance and horror are expertly blended together, and this movie is one emphatic example. The themes of love, sacrifice, and haunted imagery are blended together, because painting and artistry are introduced and become very important themes in their own right. As one online reviewer noted (I believe it was EyeforFilm.uk), "The result is a creepy riff on beauty, love, the madness of artists, and the treachery of images." That sums things up nicely.

There's one aspect to this film that could prove frustrating for some viewers. There is some surreal imagery that may confuse you. The script intentionally keeps the viewer off balance with events that may not be easily interpreted during a first viewing. I say this because there are some moviegoers who need everything explained thoroughly, with no ambiguity or open ends. If you're one of those people, this film may frustrate you at times. Nevertheless, the general course of events is very easy to understand. It's just that there are some scenes that will require some effort from the viewer to interpret the details.

In my opinion, Le Portrait de Petite Cossette qualifies as a work of art, and it's one of my favorite anime films of all time. Most fortunately, it is widely available on DVD. So be sure to watch it, if you don't mind some disturbing imagery and ambiguity to steer thru.

Yip Man 3

Arguably the best in this trilogy
When a band of brutal gangsters (led by a crooked property developer played by Mike Tyson) attempt to strong-arm a children's' school into selling its property, Master Ip is forced to take a stand. The bad guy who gobbles up real estate angle has been done quite a bit in the past, but this film is deceptively dramatic because it also focuses a lot on Master Ip's relationship with his wife. And I'm happy to say that it is very successful at adding dramatic weight that you wouldn't necessarily expect going into it. "Ip Man 2" had a weaker script than the first film in this particular trilogy, but it more than compensated with its action. "Ip Man 3" balances the action and drama much better, which is more of a throwback to the first film – and "Ip Man 3" might actually be the best overall film in this franchise.

The acting in this film is good. Trust me, I love watching Donnie Yen even when he over-acts, but he's so perfectly cast for this role that his performances are legitimately impressive. However, one thing I noticed about this movie is that many of the supporting actors were not recognizable to me. The "Ip Man" film from 2008 had Simon Yam, Siu-wong Fan (who previously played the legendary Riki-oh for goodness sakes), and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi (who has shown up in various Japanese films such as Charisma and Space Travelers). "Ip Man 2" from 2010 added Sammo Hung into the mix. We don't get those kinds of recognizable faces in "Ip Man 3" . . . but it doesn't matter because Jin Zhang is awesome in this. If you've seen the Tony Jaa, Wu Jing movie "SPL 2: A Time for Consequences" then you will notice that Jin Zhang also played the final villain in that one. This guy has got the chops – both in terms of martial arts ability and screen presence – to headline action movies in the future. He gets a lot of screen time and I'm glad he did. His character is also the grayest of the bunch in terms of morals, which makes him interesting. And of course, we have Mike Tyson who shows up in four (or so) scenes. I was impressed by some of the phrases that Tyson uses; you'll know it when it happens. He's not a good actor, but he's definitely entertaining in this.

So what about the fighting? We get a lot of it, and it has a great variety, but it is somewhat backloaded towards the latter half of the film. But there are many smaller, shorter fights are peppered in. From what I remember, the first two big fights are "one vs many" extravaganzas. So you'll have one or a few characters fighting against a lot of bad guys. After that, we get three one-on-one matches, one of which is in a very enclosed space. All five of these big fights are really good, and on par with the previous films of this franchise. Two of the one-on-one fights are between characters with very different fighting styles, which makes them interesting to watch – even for hardcore fans of martial arts. Even the Mike Tyson fight is surprisingly good. And you exit this movie with greater respect for Mike Tyson. This good stuff.

I highly recommend this. And if you haven't the seen first two "Ip Man" movies with Donnie Yen, you can still watch "Ip Man 3" and not get lost at all. But, you should definitely watch Ip Man 1 and 2 as well, because they are highly entertaining films. There's also a few more recent Ip Man films without Donnie Yen, the best of which being "The Legend Is Born: Ip Man" from 2010 which is sweet. Make sure you watch that one too. Just have an Ip Man marathon.


One of my favorite romances, this is very unique
Vital is arguably Shiny Tsukamoto's best movie, and one of the most resoundingly beautiful films I have ever seen. This is an all-time favorite for me.

This film follows a young man whose girlfriend was killed in the same car accident that caused his loss of memory. He soon enrolls in medical school and signs up for a dissection class to study the human body. Outside of class he begins to see his dead girlfriend in his dreams, but he is confused as to whether they are dreams, memories, or supernatural visitations. So there are lots of interesting themes at work here, and Tsukamoto plays with all of them while at the same time mirroring the beauty of biology. And how many romance movies can think of that emphasize the beauty of biology? There are not many films like this in existence.

One major positive of this film is the direction, lighting, framing of shots, and cinematography – which are all fantastic. Every frame is mesmerizing in its color scheme and visuals. For example, there's a lot of orange used near the beginning, but it later shifts towards a blue scheme that supplements the rainy environments. It reminded me a lot of Christopher Doyle's cinematography (which can be seen in films such as "In the Mood for Love" and "Hero"). Although Doyle did not do the cinematography for Vital, the visuals have the same craftsmanship and impact. Coupled with a hypnotic score, they really enhance the feel of dreams and memories.

The main actor here is Tadonobu Asano, who is mega popular and you've probably seen him in films such as Ichi the Killer and Survive Style 5. He's perfectly cast here as a rather gloomy fellow who is reserved but also suffering mentally and emotionally under the surface.

From what I've said thus far, this may seem like a somewhat downbeat film, but I feel that this is a heavily romantic experience, and this is most strongly presented during the dream sequences because this couples' relationship was prematurely taken away from them and these brief moments are the only times they get to spend together – if they're actual supernatural visitations. Remember, they could simply be dreams or memories. Regardless, the dream sequences are very memorable, my favorite of which occurs on a beach and incorporates a fairly passionate dance performance.

One fact that was brought to my attention while reading Tom Mes' book "Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto" (a fantastic book, by the way, that I highly recommend), was that Tsukamoto intentionally downplayed the grotesque aspects of dissection in favor of a focus on artistry and beauty. This is an excellent strategy when making a romance film. If you're a viewer who is squeamish about dissection scenes, you really have nothing to worry about. The majority of the dissections are shown via hand-drawn sketches, which are really cool. If you've seen diagrams within biology textbooks, you have an idea of what you're in for, but the sketches they show in Vital are practically artworks. When to see them, you think to yourself "Man, the interworkings of the human body are a very beautiful thing." It's no surprise that Tsukamoto found the work of Leonardo da Vinci as a major source of inspiration. So if you're scared of gore or violence, you can easily watch this. There are a handful of scenes where the exposed body is shown, but it's portrayed like a body is typically prepared for dissection in real life. So the "gore" aspect is practically neutered here.

Like many of Tsukamoto's films, Vital is a bit on the weird side and some scenes may be left to the viewer's interpretation – but that's the way this guy makes movies. You can always tell when you're watching a Tsukamoto film, even though he has made wildly different films throughout his career. Earlier in his career (late 80s and 90s) his films were very violent, but that began to change quite a bit during the late 90s. Vital is certainly one of Tsukamoto's most mellow films, but it has just as much impact as anything he's done before. This is great stuff, and a prime example of why I love this director so much.

Suwingu gâruzu

It's almost impossible to dislike this film
A group of flunkee schoolgirls take up jazz in this hilarious movie by Shinobu Yaguchi. If you're unfamiliar with Yaguchi, he's a very reliable director and I would place him on a pedestal as one of the best – if not the best – contemporary directors of comedy films. One reason I feel this way is that he usually chooses a different topic for each film and explores the topic to point of being informative for the viewer. For example, his film Wood Job (2014) focused on forestry, his film Robo-G (2012) focused on robotics, and his film Happy Flight (2008) focused on air traffic control. So the viewer usually leaves his film with a slightly greater knowledge of the topic at hand. Swing Girls focuses on how teenagers learn to play instruments – a topic that is certainly more familiar to the typical moviegoer than something like forestry, but the informational value of the film is still there.

The second reason I love Yaguchi as a director is that his humor is more of the everyday variety, which is very funny and very charming. Unlike some other directors of comedy, Yaguchi's films never even come close to being annoying or grating on the nerves – which is a huge positive, in my opinion. There are no gross-out jokes or juvenile dialogue to sit thru. I mean, there's nothing worse than being irritated by a comedy, and you have nothing to worry about here.

Lots of hijinks occur in Swing Girls, which include disastrous lunch trips, money-making schemes to buy new instruments, and musical debacles. The set-up of how these girls become involved with music is very entertaining. The laughs just keep coming while incorporated within a distinctive cinematic approach that avoids over-the-top silliness in favor of quaint, well-timed events. One of the more memorable comedic set pieces occurs mid-way thru (in a forest) and is very creative in its style of camera-work. The pacing is fast, the characters are lovable, and the finale has some very catchy tunes. Yes, you have some legitimately good music to look forward to here. The opening half focuses on a few songs that the protagonists consistently fail to learn properly, but once they progress in their skill set we are treated to some great stuff during the finale.

The lead actress here is Juri Ueno, who is very popular in Japan because of her screen presence and charisma. Most of her films have not made the jump to American shores, but Swing Girls is an excellent introduction to this actress. One of the teachers is played by Naoto Takenaka, who is one of those Japanese actors who is seemingly in every film (not unlike Ren Osugi) – IMDb credits Takenaka for 225 acting roles. He's great in this one, and it could be my favorite performance I've seen from him.

Swing Girls is great fun and comes highly recommended.

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